Sunday, 28 September 2008

A lesson from Wall Street - or Liberal Religion and the Static Paddle

Like many people this last couple of weeks I have been watching with great interest the events unfolding in the world's financial markets. Now I do not pretend fully to understand their complexities and vagaries rather what interests me are the various social, ethical, political and philosophical responses that are emerging from the developing situation.

Of all the many reports I heard over the last week one in particular has stayed with me. It included an interview with a young man who had just lost his job with Lehman Brothers in which he was asked something along the lines of whether he had had any inkling of the true state of Lehman Brothers. I can't remember his reply to this question but I was struck by his concluding comment; he asked the interviewer, "But how could this happen?" and then, indicating the towering building behind him say, "Look at the size of the building."

Throughout the centuries it has been a general human failing to accord permanence to that which, if one has taken care to study the history of the species, is clearly impermanent. It is a sad indication of the failure of our education system and modern culture that this young man couldn't believe that what was happening was possible. Lehman Brothers was to him, and I suspect to many others, the epitome of permanence. But, eventually, it becomes impossible to avoid seeing what the philosophically inclined politician Seneca saw two-thousand years ago, namely that:

Nothing is durable, whether for an individual or for a society; the destinies of men and cities alike sweep onwards. Terror strikes amid the most tranquil surroundings, and without any disturbance in the background to give rise to them calamities spring from the least expected quarter. States which stood firm through a civil war as well as wars external collapse without a hand being raised against them. How few nations have made of their prosperity a lasting thing! (Seneca, Letter XCI trans. Robin Campbell).

Now I mention all this because, whether two millennia ago or last week (and especially in times of upset) people have a tendency to turn to religion to provide the certainty they feel they have just lost elsewhere. This tendency is, of course, present at all times and we find that very few people choose to re-explore (or seek out for the first time) a religious community when they are feeling on top of the world. Let's be honest, when we feel everything is fine, a nice lie-in with a good cup of tea and the Sunday papers and with the prospect of a warm sunny afternoon stretching ahead of one is very pleasant indeed; as the Small Faces sang back in 1968 - "Lazy Sunday afternoon, I got no mind to worry, close my eyes and drift away."

But every turn to religion, and particularly when done under stress, is riven with problems. Now you might imagine that, at this point, my criticism is going to be directed at the stressed individuals who do the turning but it isn't. Why? Well, because seeking solace in times of stress seems to me to be a perfectly understandable and reasonable thing to do and seeking religion is for the most part a considerably more creative option than choosing, for example, to drown oneself in a sea of alcohol and drugs. Instead, however, my criticism is directed towards religion itself because in so many of its forms it is as delusional about what can honestly be considered permanent and secure as were many companies and individuals within the financial markets.

I do this because I'm increasingly concerned that, in these unsettled and unsettling times in their fear and confusion many disillusioned people are being taken advantage of by religious organisations of all stripes which, although they claim they offer absolute security and unchanging truth are, in fact, offering some profoundly dodgy and complex religious derivatives that will, in time, prove to be more toxic than anything the financial markets could concoct.

Now, as a someone desirous of articulating a coherent liberal religious philosophy I am concerned that, in our own attempt to provide people with some real security in the present cultural storm, that I (we) do not get tempted to invent our own dodgy derivatives.

But here I have to confess that it remains far from clear - to me and most everyone else - in what any modern coherent liberal religious philosophy might consist. Partly this is because the ongoing scientific project continues profoundly to challenge traditional forms of religious belief. Human knowledge of the natural world has shown that certain central conclusions made in former times by traditional religions about the nature of the world and humanity's place in it were very wrong. Despite the claims of some militant atheistic materialists, the advances made in human knowledge have rarely been enough to dismiss all the claims made by religions but, as the contemporary French particle-physicist Bernard d'Espagnat (On Physics and Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2006) gently notes that is not science's role for, in truth, "the information science yields serves to limit possible options, rather than put forward the allegedly correct one" (p.1). He continues by noting that "while Nature - in the broadest possible sense - refuses to explicitly tell us what she is, she sometimes condescends, when we press her tenaciously enough, to let us know a little about what she is not" (p.2). What she has revealed to us, amongst other things, is that when taken literally the creation stories of religions and the claims about the resurrection of the dead - any dead thing - are false; she has also revealed to us that the idea that humankind is the centre and pinnacle of reality is utterly false. Additionally Nature has begun to touch upon rather more abstract matters and, as d'Espagnat notes, "some elements of present-day scientific knowledge casts serious doubts on such and such Platonic intuitions" (p.1).

I could go on adding examples of the challenge to many traditional religious ideas from the world of the natural sciences, politics and philosophy but this would be pointless. But what I will note here is that, taken together, these complex factors have forced us into some very untidy and rough white water rapids. Today it simply isn't clear (if it ever was) whether we are going to get through these rapids in one piece and, if we do, we are not at all sure where we are going to get spat out.

Before I arrive at my one - very important positive statement today - I need to introduce to you a concept that will, initially perhaps, seem bizarrely tangential. But hang on in there and you'll see what I mean. It concerns the 'static paddle' - an idea introduced to me by Richard Proctor whilst I was contributing to a project on threshold concepts run by CARET (Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technology) in Cambridge. (For those interested in my presentation on a completely different subject, Biblical Texts as Literary Texts, can be found here.)

When a paddler makes a forward stroke they put the paddle in the water in front of them and appear to be pulling the paddle towards them. However, what is actually happening is that the paddler is pulling themselves, and the boat, towards the paddle and thus moving the boat through the water. The reason beginners think that they are pulling the paddle towards them is because, from their position within the boat, that is what they seem to be doing. Now place this idea into the context of white water rapids. It looks like nothing is stable, trustworthy and fixed in this incredibly dynamic environment. The canoeist feels they are utterly out of control and that nothing they do has any real influence on the situation. But one thing is stable (relatively speaking) - the static paddle - and a skilled canoeist can make real practical use of this one "stationary" point to help steer themselves through some very dangerous waters. It doesn't mean that they will get through unharmed but, amidst the chaos and confusion, there is control and direction.

My question to you today is what is for liberals the 'static paddle' in the present unsettled situation? I think it is Nature. As my friend, teacher and mentor the philosopher Victor Nuovo succinctly put it, Nature "is the only thing we can honestly claim to know about."

The static paddle we seek is a continued scientific and spiritual engagement in the natural sciences and a commitment to listen to what Nature does tell us.

The scientific engagement consists in continuing to do science and, for those of us who are not scientists, keeping up to speed with current developments and ideas. The spiritual engagement with Nature can be gathered together under the heading of mindfulness. This includes meditation and prayer in our churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, in our homes, in gardens, in open spaces and, then, letting the results of these formal mindfulness practices spread into our daily lives so we begin to live mindfully. Here I point you back to my last long piece and the theme of encountering the world as she presents herself to us and learning to become metaphysical hitchhikers.

Either way liberal religion needs significantly to hold back in its promulgation of metaphysics and turn much more positively and consistently to the world - to Nature. To conclude as I began, with a financial theme, the mindful encounter with Nature is not a dodgy derivative but a much more reliable gold standard. To practice mindfulness and to encourage others to do likewise is to offer our culture a static paddle that can be trusted in these worrying and turbulent times.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Falling in love again, love again . . .

A comment was left on my last blog that caused me to articulate a few things that I'd like to pull up and out into an individual post. Thanks to Gerrit (and indeed everyone who drops by and starts a conversation) for the questions.

Gerrit began by noting that he didn't t understand how I got from "show, don't say" to "we should eat organic fruit." I can see how some folk might think I was making that point - my weak skills of presentation are to blame I think - but I wasn't. It is possible that as a consequence of following the course that I (and Freya Mathews) suggests that a person will end up eating organic fruit but that is not necessarily the case. My basic point is simply that humanity seems pathologically unable to be satisfied with the given and endless seek to modify it according to a process that treats Nature as an object rather than a subject. In other words the encounter with Nature is monological not dialogical - we rarely let her 'speak' to us. (On the matter of nature 'speaking' to us I touch upon this in my most recent address which I'll post later this week.

Gerrit then askes "isn't the hitchhiker in the car like a person born into a system where pears are grown on massive farms?" Yes, I think this is quite right. That pears are grown this way is a given. We have to be hitching rides with this fact (and dialoging with it) as much as any other and then see where we end up. The end result may not be organic pears at all. To reiterate - I'm concerned that we simply start treating Nature as an 'other.' I have taken to rephrasing Jesus' call to love God and love neighbour to a call to love God and Nature as ourselves.

Gerrit's next point about separating "our preconceived notions from what is apparently actually there" and that "we can't really draw conclusions like we usually do" is, I think, pretty much spot on. That doesn't mean that we cannot continue to draw those "conclusions" but we have to see then as far from concluding anything (and so shouldn't really be called conclusions) but as a snapshot of a sentence made by one party during a much longer and wide ranging conversation. As the well known aphorism puts it: unquestioned answers are far more dangerous than unanswered questions.

Gerrit's last point, that maybe, the fly gets out of the bottle and says, "now what?" and the answer very well might be, "You know, whatever" is, I think, very important indeed. If folk who read this do end up thinking "Whatever" then I will have failed absolutely. What I am hoping is that when people get out of the fly bottle and start to encounter Nature as she presents herself to them (on the dance-floor of existence - i.e. this world) their response will be utter wonder at how extraordinary and beautiful she is and that this wonder will cause that person (and slowly our culture) to fall back in love with her. As a vital concluding note remember I follow Spinoza in thinking God is Nature and Nature is God (Deus sive Natura) so to love Nature is to love God. To the subject of my love I can never say "whatever" but only "will you dance" and, later in the evening, to whisper quietly in her ear "thank-you" and "I love you."

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Study of two pears - or how to be a metaphysical hitchhiker

Dedicated to Carol-Leigh and Robert Salles (hitchhikers who fell in love) and their two daughters, Claire-Louise and Chloe.

When I last met with you I was exploring some aspects of Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy; in particular his conclusion that "What can be shown, cannot be said" (TLP 4.1212).

Many people found this a very puzzling statement because Wittgenstein seemed to spend a lifetime doing precisely the opposite, namely, saying rather than showing. But a closer inspection of his philosophy reveals that this was not the case. What makes his work almost unique in the Western philosophical canon is that it tries to get itself out of the way and to let the world speak to us in the particular local situation and context we find it. In short, Wittgenstein desired that showing should take precedence over saying.

Wittgenstein's specific desire in doing this was to free humanity from the many distorting philosophical and religious systems that have held it in thrall from time immemorial and he summed his work up by saying that he wished to "To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle."

The primary method Wittgenstein adopted to achieve this aim was to assemble what he called "reminders" (PI 127) of the world as we encounter it (this includes our use of language) and he felt it was in this task that the philosopher's true work consists.

A perfect illustration of what such an assembling of reminders is like can be found in Wallace Stevens' poem Study of Two Pears published in his 1942 collection Parts of a World. The opening two Latin words mean "a little work that teaches."

I
Opusculum paedagogum.
The pears are not viols,
Nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

II
They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

III
They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

IV
In the way they are modelled
There are bits of blue.
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

V
The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

VI
The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

(Wallace Stevens, Study of Two Pears from The Collected Poems, London 2000, Faber and Faber)


In this poem Stevens succeeds in assembling for us a powerful reminder of the world as it presents itself to us and, although he appears to conclude by saying that "pears are not seen as the observer wills", in truth the preceding twenty-two lines have already done the work of showing this to be the case. The power and truth of the final lines are born out of the preceding showing and have nothing to do with the final apparent saying. Nothing is argued for and no metaphysical position is put forward; all that is shown are pears on a green cloth.

The reason for looking at this poem, one which shows rather than says, is because it helps us, firstly, to identify a fundamental problem that lies at the heart of most modern thinking about the world and, secondly, to propose a practical, alternative way of thinking.

The fundamental problem revealed is how much modern human cultures privilege the ideal over the given. They encourage their constituencies, not to look at the world and to encounter her living diverse modes as they actually present themselves, but to imagine, and then to try to actualise, alternative realities. To remain with pears for a moment, modern cultures have become interested, not in harvesting them as they flourish naturally (with all their delightful varietal idiosyncrasies - including their seasonal nature) but with the creation and distribution of ideal pears; pears available all the year round which have been aggressively and industrially modified for properties such as cold resistance, ripening time, skin colouration, and grafting compatibility. To achieve this end the earth is regularly poisoned with chemicals designed to kill all varieties of insects and fungi that cause pears to be less than ideal, invasive genetic modification is carried out and then millions of gallons of fossil fuel are expended in refrigerating and distributing them around the world with all the carbon emissions that follow from such an endeavour.

This obsession with the ideal over the given - of seeing the pear as the observer wills - is precisely what has led to the current ecological, economic, political and religious crises we are currently facing. It is a view of the world that must, therefore, be challenged.

However, anyone wishing effectively to challenge this view needs to adopt an unusual approach - an approach offered up in part by Wittgenstein and Stevens. For the current modern human view of Nature can only truly be challenged by the first place by accepting that it, too, is a given. To seek, in one grand revolutionary gesture, to replace wholesale the old world-view with a new would simply perpetuate the already deeply problematic human tendency to privilege the ideal over the given. Instead, what is required is to find an effective way of always working collaboratively with what is actually in front of us. Of working with pears and human-beings as we actually encounter them in the world.

The only place to begin is by consciously and unsentimentaly assembling reminders of the world as she is. Although this list will include many things that bring us great pleasure such as good and kind people, pears, apples, lilies of the field, birds of the air, fine wine and excellent bitters it must also include all that we might in an ideal world wish to see excluded such as death, famine, drought, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, bugs and viruses that cause illness and sometimes death and also the fact that humanity remains capable of almost unimaginable violence and brutality. Humanity's sentimental and ultimately destructive desire for the ideal needs gently to be replace with a deep, passionate, erotic desire for the world as she is with both her light and dark sides. So ideas of God, heaven, perfect religions, philosophies and societies of any stripe have to be let go in favour of the world that is in front of us here and now. This is what poetry like Stevens' can help humanity achieve.

But accepting the world as she is is not where it stops - it is but a first difficult step along the way. For once we have begun to give up the dangerous obsession with abstract ideals it becomes possible to engage in real dialogue with the world. We begin to converse with it, work with its inner rhythms and limitations in our own local environments. So this is not a version of quietism but a subtly different way of being proactive.

The philosopher Freya Mathews offers the following illustration:

The modes of proactivity in question are those that work with, rather than against, the grain of the given. By this I mean there are forms of energetic flow and communicative influence already at play in the world. An agent [potentially you and me] in this mode is a kind of metaphysical hitchhiker, catching a ride in a vehicle that is already bound for her destination. Or, more usually, via the hitchhiker's communicative engagement with the driver of the vehicle, both the hitchhiker's own plans and those of those of the driver are changed. The vehicle heads for a destination that neither the hitchhiker nor the driver had previously entertained, but which now seems more in accordance with their true will than either of their previous destinations (Freya Mathews: Reinhabiting Reality - Towards a Recovery of Culture, 2005, SUNY Press, NY, p. 39).

In short, the metaphysical hitchhiker allows the world to be as it is, she lets things be, by not seeking to turn back processes and the inner unfolding dynamics already under way. However, as she does this, she is proactive in seeking her own fulfilment through engagement with already existing unfoldings (ibid. p. 39).

Anyone gently adopting this way of being commingled in the world (and notice it is not an abstract belief about the world but a way of being in the world) begins to find that meaning and value in life is derived from an ongoing encounter with the world as she is and that there is no longer a requirement for any ideal, universal transcendent realities at all. The practical business of a fulfilled spiritual, political, and economic life becomes, in the twinkling of an eye, not religion, politics or economics but simply a daily ongoing encounter with the world. Finally, one understands what Layman P’ang (740-808) was going on about back in eighth-century China when he assembles his own reminder - his own opusculum paedagogum:

My daily affairs are quite ordinary;
but I’m in total harmony with them.
I don’t hold onto anything, don’t reject anything;
Nowhere an obstacle or conflict.
Who cares about wealth and honour?
Even the poorest thing shines.
My miraculous power and spiritual activity:
Drawing water and carrying wood.

(Quoted in Stephen Mitchell’s The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, New York: Harper Perennial, 1989)

So next time you really notice the world as she is and not as you want it to be why not try to hitch a ride and see where you end up? In so doing you, too, will begin to encounter Life's miraculous power and spiritual activity.

Friday, 12 September 2008

"The effete vocabulary of summer / No longer says anything." (Wallace Stevens - 'The Green Plant')

Returning to the rain and wind in England from my summer sabbatical in sunny Provence these lines of Stevens's ring very true for me as I have always been suspicious of remaining in moods, times and places that are no longer present to one. That does not mean I am wilfully forgetting or ignoring the many memories of the last four months but it does mean that one has to weave them into the vocabulary of the present season.

Most of our time away was a sheer delight and it has to be said that the family Salles, Carol-Leigh and Robert, their children Claire-Louise and Chloe, their dog Chippie and their two cats Caramel and Hartie) were hosts welcoming beyond all our expectations. They truly opened up their home to us and leaving them was more than a tad emotional. Thank you, O delightful Salles!

But, as some of the readers of this blog will know, my wife Susanna's sister in New York suffered a serious cerebral haemorrhage in July and remains seriously ill in a nursing home just outside the city. For Susanna this meant many hours of distressing telephone calls and then a two-and-a-half week visit to the USA. When you realise Susanna's sister has no health insurance you can begin to imagine the whole extra layer of nightmare that attended her visit. The health care professionals involved have been excellent - many thanks to them for that - but, to my American readers, please do continue to campaign for universal health care.

As I often mention William Blake wrote that joy and woe are woven fine and his observation reminds us we are being foolish if we imagine there can be any period of time (such as a sabbatical) that is pure un-alloyed joy. Life just isn't like that. It is worth observing that Stevens concludes his poem cited above by noting that the green plant he speaks about "Glares, outside the legend, with the barbarous green / Of the harsh reality of which it is part."

Outside humanity's many false dreams of salvation (its legends) reality is harsh. This fact must be acknowledged and faced up to and certainly not swept under the carpet of false philosophizing or theologizing. The odd (and perhaps frightening) thing is that, if we really want to live in this world with genuine unsentimental access to meaning and beauty, then we have to learn to fall deeply in love with harsh reality. Stevens beautifully expressed this thought in a late poem called The Rock: "It is not enough to cover the rock with leaves. / We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground . . .". In an excellent book about the philosophical aspects of Stevens's verse called Things merely are (Routledge 2005) the philosopher Simon Critchley writes:

"What seems to be at stake in 'The Rock' . . . is the desire to be cured of the desire for poetry - which returns to the theme of therapy and gives it an unexpected twist. This is what Stevens means by 'a cure of the ground'. That is poetry can endlessly make 'meanings of the rock', but if these meanings are nothing when set against the rock, then they are worthless, they are gaudy baubles. The cure, then, is the rock itself, 'the main of things'" (pp. 83-84).

So, as I prepare my first church service since mid-May, I sit here meditating on how one might weave the rock, the harsh reality, into the vocabulary of this present season so that the green leaves I try to set growing do not turn out to be mere gaudy baubles. It has to be said that religion hasn't got a good record in achieving this . . .

But, just before the vocabulary of summer is truly lost, here is a little video of me (on bass) and Toto (on banjo) sitting in with a trad jazz band in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue playing Do you know what it means to Miss New Orleans on a hot summer's night.

video