Tuesday, 14 October 2008

As the markets tumble - meet Epicurus

"Do you want to be happy? Of course you do! Then what’s standing in your way? Your happiness is entirely up to you. This has been revealed to us by a man of divine serenity and wisdom who spent his life among us, and showed us, by his personal example and by his teaching, the path to redemption from unhappiness. His name was . . ."

Well, what was this chap's name? I’ll get to that in a moment but Western European societies have certainly heard this kind of thing before from countless street preachers over two thousand years and the man's name on their lips was Jesus Christ.

Now, importantly, I need to distinguish at this point between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Personally, I still think of myself as an apprentice in Jesus' school as long as it is understood that I mean by this that I try to follow the spirit of the man Jesus, the very human first-century rabbi, insightful in so many ways but never, no never, a perfect and infallible God-man. His life and character as a whole is what continues to capture my imagination and loyalty rather than any specific set of metaphysical beliefs he may, personally, have held - beliefs which, it is almost certain, I do not share. I take very seriously the covenant of the church to whom I minister when it says we meet in the same "spirit of Jesus" rather than in the same "beliefs of, or about, Jesus." This is an absolutely vital distinction to grasp.

It seems to me that, so understood, the "spirit of Jesus" speaks consistently of the need to find meaning in this world - through all the things we commonly call good and bad up to, and including, the violent loss of his own life. The moments when he fails to live up to this high ideal - his moments of imperfection and his subsequent attempts to change form are, for me at least, essential elements in the basic teaching of this school - we learn by observing his mistakes and the way he improves and deepens his own insights and behaviour. But, key to my point today, is this spirit knows there is no future pay-off to be had and that the true value and leaning of life is always present: "The Kingdom of God comes not at some future time - you cannot point out the sign of its coming. The Kingdom of God comes not at some special site - you cannot point out the place of its coming. The Kingdom of God is already here, among you, now" (John Dominic Crossan: The Essential Jesus, Castle Books, New Jersey 1994, Saying 12).

Yet many forms of Christianity continue to trade in what I called a few weeks earlier 'dodgy religious derivatives' which they have sold at great profit to themselves and very little profit - if any - to the buyers. One of the most pernicious dodgy derivatives has been the promise that the Christ of faith - that is the perfect God-man - will return in a blaze of glory (which includes, don't forget, conflict and a particularly problematic form of moral judgement) which, in turn, will signal the beginning of God's perfect kingdom. However, one can see faith in the likelihood that this was true was being lost even during St Paul's own lifetime - and we see him begin radically to adjust his claims over the course of his extant letters. After two-thousand years of failure to mature the true value of this investment must by now surely be nil. In short - if we seek happiness it has to be found here and now amid the complexities and contingencies of life - no matter how happy or grim.

Now the trouble with the records we have of Jesus is that, although we are left with a powerful general impression of a man who successfully lived such a life - an enduringly inspirational and good model (the 'spirit of Jesus') - alas, we were not left what we might call a clear practical method of how we might achieve this life ourselves.

Consequently, it has always be essential to look around at the many various practical methods for achieving happiness - eudaimonia - that exist in our world. Many of them, it should be added, in no way run against the "spirit of Jesus" and may, in fact, help us reveal that same spirit more powerfully and relevantly in our own lives and culture. In passing, but importantly, I point to the many forms of meditation that exist such as Zen sitting and the common use of mantras within Hinduism and Buddhism as well as some forms of Orthodox Christianity.

All this brings me back to our opening statement:

"Do you want to be happy? Of course you do! Then what’s standing in your way? Your happiness is entirely up to you. This has been revealed to us by a man of divine serenity and wisdom who spent his life among us, and showed us, by his personal example and by his teaching, the path to redemption from unhappiness. His name was . . ." (Brad Inwood and Lloyd P. Gerson: The Epicurus Reader, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis 1994 p. vii).

His name was Epicurus of Sámos (341-270 BCE). D. S. Hutchinson, an authority on Epicurus, notes that:

This is the sort of thing you might have heard an Epicurean preaching in the market square of an ancient city. If it sounds like a religious message, that is no coincidence; Epicurus was revered by his followers as though divine, a sage who had answers to all the important questions of life. What attracted converts was the prospect of personal happiness, for which Epicurus offered clear philosophical advice (ibid p. vii).

Hutchinson continues:

The fundamental obstacle to happiness, says Epicurus, is anxiety. No matter how rich or famous you are, you won't be happy if you're anxious to be richer or more famous. No matter how good your health is, you won't be happy if you're anxious about getting sick. You can't be happy in this life if you're worried about the next life. You can't be happy as a human being if you're worried about being punished or victimized by powerful divine beings. But you can be happy if you believe in the four basic truths of Epicureanism: there are no divine beings which threaten us; there is no next life; what we actually need is easy to get; what makes us suffer is easy to put up with. This is the so-called 'four-part cure', the Epicurean remedy for the epidemic sickness of human anxiety; as a later Epicurean puts it, "Don't fear god, don't worry about death; what's good is easy to get, and what's terrible is easy to endure" (ibid, p. vii).

In addition to these four truths Epicurus - which I'll look at another time he thought that there were three goods, friendship, self-sufficiency (i.e. freedom) and an analysed life.

With regards to friendship Epicurus picked up on an obvious point which is that friendships help happiness. But to this basic point he added the need for the constant presence of one's friends and, to achieve this he set up his Garden Academy where his friends lived together in close proximity though in their own private quarters. My suggestion to that we become a Garden Community is a version of this.

With regards to freedom, or self-sufficiency, in founding his Academy he desired that its members should be financially independent, economically self-sufficient and not answerable to dreadful bosses for one's income. What precisely this means in today's context is, naturally, going to be different from what it was in 3rd century BCE Greek culture but it is surely going to be wrapped up in freedom and independence from the oppressive and obsessive materialist fantasies of our culture. If achieved it give us a certain freedom which can help us better to achieve the third of Epicurus' goods - the analysed life.

Alain de Botton sums up the analysed life as: "A life in which we take time off to reflect on our worries, to analyse what is troubling us. Our anxieties quickly diminish if we give ourselves time to think things through and to do that we need to take a step back from the noisy distractions of the commercial world and find time and space for quiet thinking about our lives."

I'm pretty much convinced of the truth of Epicurus' basic position concerning human happiness and I think it sits perfectly with the kind of naturalised spirituality I'm suggesting that we, as rational liberal religious people coming out of the liberal Christian tradition, should be exploring at this difficult time. I'll be dipping in and out of Epicurus' thought in the coming months and years but today, given the current universal upsurge of fear over the state of the financial markets and the global economy, I want to conclude by offering you just one of Epicurus' teachings concerning wealth and money.

What Epicurus showed - and here I am paraphrasing Alain de Botton's excellent summary in his TV programme on Epicurus - was that, if you are denied money, for whatever reason, but you still have those three goods, namely, friends, freedom and an analysed life, then you will never be denied happiness. Conversely, if you have loads of money, but you're lacking those three goods then you will never be happy.

Botton draws a simple diagram to illustrate this (at the top of this blog). The vertical axis shows levels of happiness and the horizontal axis shows levels of income. The top line drawn on the graph - the one the goes steeply up and then levels off - illustrates that, as long as you have the three goods you can begin to be happy with very little money and, and this is really important, you won't get any happier the more money you accumulate (in fact in some circumstances you may get unhappier). If, however, you have loads of money but don't have the three goods then your level of happiness is going to stay very flat indeed. (This is illustrated by the bottom curve drawn on the graph.)

Botton concludes, and I agree with him, that this "is a lovely consoling idea for anyone whose either worried about the fact that they may lose their money or is denied the chance to make any."

It seems clear that we are sliding into a major global recession and some are reading this as a very bad thing. If, however, this causes us in any way to restore Epicurus' three goods of friends, freedom, and an analysed life to the forefront of our culture and encourages us to live ever more in accordance with the spirit of Jesus then, you know, the next few weeks may see humankind take a very shaky first step towards a more reasonable and achievable kind of happiness. But whether or not the world takes that step you can . . .

Monday, 6 October 2008

Celebrating age - affecting a radical revolution

Over the past few weeks I have been exploring in various ways the pressing need to 'let-things-be' (as one, hyphenated, word) and, since this particular service forms part of 'Cambridgeshire Celebrates Age' in a moment I will go on to explore how I think such a philosophy might help to bring about a profoundly revolutionary change in our culture.

However, at first sight, it might seem that when it comes to the way we are treating our elderly the time for letting things be is definitively over. I think all of us are aware that the way older members of society are being treated today is utterly appalling and that things must change.

But, as I talk about 'letting-things-be' today, it is vitally important to realise that I am using it in a particular way that is not a call to a passive quietism but rather to a very active and revolutionary way of being in the world. The philosophy I am proposing, rooted in Spinoza and the work of the modern philosopher Freya Mathews, is one of encounter in which we understand the world, not as an agglomeration of individuated, and often inanimate inanimate things, but as subjective expressions of a Thou, an 'other'; as Spinoza put it Nature is God, God is Nature - and so every apparently individual thing (and whether obviously animate or not) is really to be understood as a mode of God-or-Nature. As such this address forms part of an ongoing challenge to all modern western philosophies which have followed Descartes into positing a dualism of mind and matter.

I mention this fact so that the basic a priori philosophical assumption of this address - all my addresses in fact - is not hidden from you but made explicit and available for criticism. If anyone wants to explore this aspect of the address in depth I'd be delighted to explore this here on my blog. Here, however, I will do no more than simply point you to the idea's important informing presence.

I'll begin with some words of the philosopher Freya Mathews. She reminds us that a philosophy of 'letting-things-be' is to 'embrace the things at hand' rather than 'seeking to replace them with new ones' (For the Love of Matter, State University of New York Press, 2005, p. 34). Although this idea sounds very simple, adopting such an attitude in fact radically challenges modern CONSUMERISM with its insatiable desire for the new in all areas of life. It does this because, as Mathews observes,

From the viewpoint of letting things be, we would be most pleased, not with our brightest and newest things, but with those that had endured the longest and were accordingly our oldest and most well worn. Such things, having long figured in our lives and mingled their identity and destiny with ours, would be the most precious (ibid p. 34).

This instantly bears upon the question of our culture's relationship to age and, therefore, the elderly. It should be clear if our general attitude were changed (individually and as a culture) and we truly took seriously the idea and consequences of 'letting-things-be' then older people, who have long figured in our lives and mingled their identity and destiny with ours, would become, not less, but increasingly precious to us. Surely this is a good place to start our cultural and social revolution.

This basic thought naturally leads on to another radical challenge, this time to our tendency to COMMODIFY things. Why? Well, because when one actually begins to value the old things that have intermingled in our lives one begins to realise that they are not merely things that can be traded in the market place to help us afford new versions of the same thing or, rather more abstractly, for cash so we can turn them into wholly different products. Instead their utter uniqueness, irreplacability and intrinsic value begins to emerge before us.

Let me begin with what will, perhaps, be seen as a trivial example but I think it is usefully clear example. I have had my plastic yellow bath duck for years; it was originally a shampoo bottle. Because of the extra weight of the screw top poking out in an ugly way from its bottom it has always floated in the bath with a disastrous and ungainly list. Now, last year I went into a shop in Wells-next-the-Sea where I found a wonderful, pristine yellow rubber duck that floated oh, so beautifully (just like the one in my photo). I very nearly bought this duck and, had I done so, I almost certainly would have thrown the old-guy out in the bin. Yet, when I thought about it I realised the old-guy was with me as a kid, he has stayed with me as an adult, he even survived a major house fire and, more importantly, he has floated around me as I have read many volumes of philosophy and theology in a warm bath. The truth of the matter is, that if I am to have a yellow bath duck at all the only one to have is the one I already possessed who has shared so much with me. As Mathews observes, such things 'cannot be replaced by other things, even things of the same type, since the substitutes will not share our history nor hence be imbued with the same meaning for us' (ibid p. 35).

It should be abundantly clear that what is true in this trivially important way of my bath duck it is doubly true of the individual people who have figured in my lives and mingled their meaning, identity and destiny with my own. Through their own circles of commingling we are quiety knitted into ever wider networks of loyalty, belonging and appropriate responsibility. To 'let-things-be' is to begin to see that none of the things in our lives (from the apparently trivial to the obviously important) are commodities to be bought and sold in open markets. They truly are unique and utterly priceless.

I'll make one further explicit connection here before concluding and it concerns our culture's fetishisation of a certain kind of understanding of EFFICIENCY. We can all cite examples of how our culture (and we as individuals?) has sometimes valued things, 'not so much for what they do as for their efficiency, and they are retained only so long as their efficiency is perceived as maximal' (p. 35). However, and again I cite Mathews:

'When the attitude of letting-be is assumed . . . tools [where this includes all kinds of techniques and procedures as well as implements and technology] are valued not merely for their efficiency, but for their givenness. I may continue to use an old plough, or leaky fountain pen, or a certain laborious method for making dough, simply because this is the plough, pen, or method, that my teacher or my friend's mother used; it is for me embedded in the fabric of the given. Efficiency may still be a consideration, but it will be only one factor determining the means I choose to achieve my ends' (ibid p. 35).

But we have been living in an age and culture where people, too, often become commodities of a society - i.e. merely workers and generators of money, service or products - and when those same people have got too old to be maximally efficient in their culturally defined tasks what happens to them? Well, we know what happens to them. They get abandoned - financially, emotionally, societally. Some, luckily, have the wherewithal (financial and psychologically) to keep going but some, and in increasingly huge numbers, are put into places that are little better than glorified prison camps. If not that, we have invented a new underclass to deal with the 'problem' - the unpaid carer. These people, too, become commodified and sucked into the whole dehumanising process; ignored when they are efficient and discriminated against in all kinds of ways when they have to cease caring - either because of their own age or sheer physical and/or mental exhaustion.

It is about time we got angry and politically active about this. It is truly a disgrace that whilst our culture is prepared to spend billions of pounds and trillions of dollars bailing out a financial system based upon the fantasy and greed of our culture yet we have not had the courage to spend even the minimal amount required that would ensure the well-being and security of the older people who have long figured in our lives and mingled their identity and destiny with ours. Those who should be the most precious to us are the ones who we marginalise and throw out.

I hope you can see that what I mean by 'letting-things-be' is not to leave untackled the dreadful situation so many of our older people find themselves in today - nor indeed to leave untackled the myriad number of other things so obviously wrong with our culture. Instead it, is to be driven to effective, appropriate and radical action by valuing what we already have and by being prepared to let things grow old; it is to see things and people as ends in themselves with an intrinsic value that is not based upon distorted ideas of commodity and efficiency. It is to understand the whole world as being alive and divine.

But whether or not you buy into this Spinozistic understanding of God-or-Nature as being one of the most effective (and I think one of the truest) motivating forces for sustained radical action that a contemporary, rational religious liberal can adopt, one thing is for sure, none of us - whatever we beleive - can continue to allow our older people to be treated as they are. It is wrong now and it will be wrong in the future. For God-or-Nature's sake leave here and join hands in whatever way you can with those who are already deeply committed to the well-being of our world's older people. It is a first necessary step to us becoming ever more deeply committed to the well-being, not just of our older people, but of the whole world.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Becoming a Garden Community

Those of you who follow this blog will be aware that whilst in France I was exploring one particular way liberals might begin to reform their religious institutions.

I'll begin by picking up on the theme of my address two weeks ago. There I suggested that one of the key problems within western culture is its tendency to privilege the ideal over the actual. Its basic modus operandi is to be dissatisfied with Nature and it encourages its members to believe that, independent of any real ongoing encounter and dialogue with her, they can better see how Nature could - in fact should - be.

Here's another, less abstract, way of putting it. Imagine meeting Mr or Ms X (though remember this is merely a literary conceit - there are only real people never ideal X or Y people . . .) and, after only a cursory initial meeting, deciding that you know they should loose or gain weight, change their clothes and glasses, cut their hair differently, use a different aftershave or perfume, adopt a different philosophy etc., etc.. Yet, without a proper encounter with Mr or Ms X, you would not really know whether they should do any of those things. You would always be in danger of merely imposing utterly inappropriately on the other. Their reasons for being or doing one thing rather than another are always going to be an exceedingly complicated mix of genetics, culture, psychology and much more that can never be reduced to your, let alone anyone else's, ideal. To force them to conform to your ideal type is always going to cause problems. But in truth the only way to find out what the true flourishing of anything - including oneself and others - is through a conversational and creative encounter with the things/people in the world as they are. The only way to ameliorate anything or person is by first meeting them as they present themselves and then to inviting them into a process of change through an ongoing encounter. What you will then find is that the encounter will change, not only the thing or person but also you. You may find out, to your surprise, that you should loose or gain weight, change your clothes and glasses, cut your hair differently, use a different aftershave or perfume, or adopt a different philosophy etc., etc.. (Some readers will be alert to the fact that the attitude outlined above, taken in a certain way, can actually cause more problems than it solves - but hang on a couple of paragraphs . . .)

Now my problem with much 'church' thinking is that it is often predicated upon the idea that it does in fact know what the world and human beings should be like to be saved - or, putting it in a way more congenial to me at least - what it is for anything fully to flourish.

In many liberal churches - and I find myself guilty of having done this at times - this approach has often been transformed into a rather bizarre mirror image. The message you can get from some liberal churches is a call to an ideological commitment to no commitment and you will then be encouraged to act that ideal non-commitment out in the world. Liberal adherents cannot really believe that people really believe all 'that' stuff (whatever 'that' stuff is) and they reveal that they believe this as strongly as anyone else engaged in the belief business.

But, without a commitment to some governing idea that can generate sufficient energy to sustain a meaningful active life we find that inertia, indifference and even depression can set in. Many individuals and liberal churches have sunk into this state. In fact, I would go so far as to say our wider secular culture in its liberal democratic forms is revealing that it is in such a depressed and sick state. Indeed, it is worth noting at this point that our modern so-called multiculturalism is really a symptom of this passive depression and not an positive and active dialogical engagement with difference. We simply don't know how to express ourselves positively and actively without being liberal bullies so we have backed-off and become passive-aggressive depressives. This is not a good space to be in and it is having all kinds of dangerous consequences.

So, today, to what positive idea can one as a liberal really commit? What energised and active way of being in the world doesn't turn us into imperialist bullies imposing inappropriately on the given things of the world? What energised and active way of being in the world will tend towards the appropriate flourishing of both the self and the other, the Many and the One? What can help us back into the public space with a similar passion we had in earlier centuries?

I really cannot see how we can begin to answer this without firstly engaging in a full blown re-commitment to real, and utterly unsentimental encounter. But, before I go to unfold what this might mean, I need to make absolutely clear that I am not promulgating here trippy-dippy-new-agey-everything-is-lovely forms of encounter. I know - I really do - that to encounter the world as she is is damnably dangerous and, as much as it can be exhilarating, it can also be very frightening. Truly to meet the world is at every step knowingly to risk death and all kinds of other dissolution but it is also the only way we can have true abundant life - to experience, even in potential, what our true flourishing within the context of the whole might be.

In part, my address two weeks ago about becoming metaphysical hitchhikers began to explore what this way of being in the world might be like for an individual - so I refer folk back to that. Today, however, I want to offer one suggestion of what a community of metaphysical hitchhikers might look like. For the reasons outlined above I don't think the best model is, any longer, that of a church. The best model is, I think, the garden or, even better and to borrow and slightly alter an idea from the Greek fourth-century BCE philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE), a Garden Community (he called them Garden Academies). Again, I must stress that am not presenting you with some trippy-dippy-new-agey-everything-is-lovely-in the garden approach but a much more realistic position. It is worth remembering some words of the Czech writer Karel Capek (1890-1938) at this point:

'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)' (quoted in Harrison, Robert Pogue, Gardens - An essay on the Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008, p. 28).

Firstly, we may note that the genuine member of a Garden Community - a gardener - can never be loyal only to their own particular garden come what may (as one needs to to be if one is a genuine member of this or that institutional church) but only loyal to God-or-Nature which allows their own particular local garden and, indeed all gardens, to exist and flourish in the first place.

This means, secondly, that although the most successful gardeners clearly seek to create a local ordering of God-or-Nature in their own gardens (i.e. they are not passive quietists) they do not, at the same time, attempt seek to impose this order on Her but seek only to allow an ordered garden to unfold though an ongoing dialogical encounter with God-or-Nature. In other words, although no two gardens are alike, and consequently reveal much about the personal likes and dislikes (that includes what we call prejudices) of the gardeners involved, no truly successful garden/er can ever pretend fully to be in control of the basic "material" of their project. They know they cannot choose the wider contexts or their garden, the soil, the overall climate, the weather, as well as a myriad other factors. In short the gardener knows that they cannot choose without restrictions what and how something might or might not grow in the plot of land that is temporarily theirs to nurture and cherish. The successful gardener accepts the given and only works in collaboration with it to create an infinite number of local orderings.

If you move this image into the sphere of religious community then to be a successful individual gardener helping to create a thriving local Garden Community you must, firstly, develop a profound understanding and acceptance of the fact that one's own local (Congregational) ordering of God-or-Nature is, of necessity, only possible because because of a complex commingling within ever wider contexts (ranging from one's local neighbourhood and continuing up to the whole - God-or-Nature). Secondly, you must develop an acceptance that you will always have to work with all the local givens and limitations. The shape of the local Garden Community you end up contributing to is never going to be precisely what you or anyone else might have imagined it was going to be but it will have an integrity about it that is conducive to appropriate flourishing and thus brings into our world those things we call, meaning, goodness, truth and beauty.

I think that in his parable of the sower found in Matthew 13 (and parr.) Jesus was desperately trying to teach his disciples this really, very obvious, truth, namely, that not everything can or should flourish everywhere:

'Seed from the sower's hand falls sometimes too close to the path and the birds swarm down and eat it; falls sometimes where rocks lie hidden and its shallow roots die in the sun; falls sometimes on thorns ploughed under and the thorns grow back to choke it. But seed from the sower's hand falls also on soil that is good and yields: thirty grains on a stalk, sixty grains on a stalk, one hundred grains on a stalk' (John Dominic Crossan's presentation of the parable (Saying 5) in 'The Essential Jesus' 1998, Castle Books, New Jersey).

In saying all the above I'm not calling for any obvious institutional upsets and revolutions. I'm simply encouraging us to see our relationship to this liberal community (any liberal community in fact), not as a church goer and a church, but a gardener and a garden. I'm fairly convinced that if we succeeded in becoming a Garden Community and not a church we would quietly begin to effect an extraordinary revolution that liberal religion, and liberal culture in general, desperately needs at this time.