Sunday, 23 November 2008

Sit down and shut up - or the need for liberals to confess they don't know everything

Where do I begin when writing an address? Well, I generally start with where I find myself that week - on just that day - even though it is nearly always unclear to me exactly how or why I got to this point and not another. So I always begin again and again with a blank page. I take the current thought and follow it with another until I am able to discern some kind of identifiable path stretching before me. After a while I am under way and when the going is good it sometimes feels like I know what it is that I am writing - I know the end to which I am heading. But experience has taught me never really to believe this. Why? Well, because it is never entirely true. At its best it is as much a journey of discovery for me as it is for you. I may give you the impression that I know what I am doing when I present this blog and I suppose that in some rather trivial technical and formal ways I do know what I am doing. But at a very profound level - especially during the composition of this blog - I really have to admit that I haven't got a clue what's going on and this is worth remembering. Also worth remembering is the fact that I am primarily a jazz musician and, therefore, a professional performer. Although what I try to offer each week does contain something substantive and is not all show, never forget that this address is a performance. In fact this opening paragraph is a perfect example of what I mean for it was not at all the beginning of what I wrote but something that became necessary to compose about a third of the way through the process. These words are simply a rhetorical conceit that has been introduced to smooth out (though here I fear I've been rather unsuccesful) what was a far from smooth process in which I came to understand something I had, hitherto, failed to understand. This 'opening' confession of not knowing is not a mere by-the-by but absolutely central to what I discovered I needed to say in and show through this address.

At this point I can continue with something close to my true beginning which was to note that one of my perennial concerns as the chief public representative of my local liberal church is the basic question of around what, precisely do we - or might we - gather? What is our corporate public view of religion or spirituality? What is it that, together, we are saying?

In recent years in two basic 'answers' to this question have been on the table. One 'answer' is found in the attempt to gather around what are called shared principles and purposes. Our American brothers and sisters have done this and you can find them here. One might put this under a general heading of a universalist approach.

The second 'answer' is to attempt to gather around our own historical particularity - to use Richard Holloway's phrase 'our bend on the river' - as Unitarian Christians. Broadly speaking this consists in a fairly straightforward affirmation of One God and of the importance and practical value of following the teachings of that first century rabbi, the human Jesus. A solution that it is clearly continuous with but not identical to that of our sixteenth century Socinian forbears.

In various ways I try to combine elements of both these tendencies but it remains the case that these two 'solutions' to some extent remain in conflict - indeed the history of our movement in from the mid to late nineteenth-century onwards has been marked by this tension. Although there is a great deal of overlap between these positions it is not entirely untrue to say that the committed particularists amongst our number tend to see the universalist solution as being too vague, woolly and ungrounded whilst the committed universalists tend to see the particularist solution as being too narrowly grounded, dogmatic and exclusivist.

I then continued by pointing out that the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel made a difficult to refute point about there being no such thing as the view from nowhere. Even the most ardent universalist eventually has to acknowledge that they are also expressing a certain kind of point of view that is in many respects as limited as any other. To be a universalist - even of the most ardent absolutist type - is to be one thing and not another - it is to have a point of view not to have all points of view.

I went on to note that, although this insight has many ramifications for both universalist and particularist viewpoints, in our own modern Unitarian context which contains both tendencies, the most serious rethinking that needs to happen relates to what we mean when we start to speak about a 'universalist' view. I concluded this section of the address by saying that when we do in fact rethink this carefully we are surprised by seeing how we might healthily reintegrating these two apparently conflicting tendencies.

Here my address ran seriously aground because, although I wanted to resolve these conflicting tendencies and intuitively felt (and still feel) that they can be satisfactorily be resolved I couldn't actually do it - at least not in a fashion that seemed at all convincing. Four hours later and I was still nowhere and by now I was running out of energy and time. Now this often happens to me - and I end up having to admit defeat. Yet so often it is precisely at the point one admits defeats, admits that one simply doesn't know that something happens - a new insight comes. Sometimes there comes a solution to the problem, sometimes a more fruitful take on the general theme arises and I begin to write another address. As you will see in a moment everything hinges on the words 'there comes'.

Now, up until now I had not stopped to notice just this thing - the importance of giving up - because I have been so interested in chasing and articulating the new insight that has come. Lo, once caught (albeit always temporarily and incompletely - as the Tao Te Ching has it "the way that can be named is not the eternal way") one has a complete sermon that makes it look to you, and even to me, that I know what I am doing - that I am in control of my thoughts, intellect and insights.

Anyway what caused me to look at the process on this occasion rather than on what had come was that when I gave up last week I didn't get an insight, not immediately anyway, into how to resolve the problem. I gave up and still had no insight. What a bummer, eh? The only solution being to trash and burn this address and to dig out an old one and offer that up.

However, at that point I recalled the incredibly insightful discussion in Michael McGhee's recent book Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice (CUP 2000) in which he reflects, in part, upon the work of the Japanese philosopher Tanabe Hajime. Hajime wrote a book in 1946 called Philosophy as Metanoetics in which he stated, as McGhee says, quite startlingly, that if you want to be a philosopher you must confess your sins and repent. The title of his book refers to the Greek word 'metanoia' which means to change one's mind or to repent. McGhee cites the following passage of Hajime in which he describes his own giving up when he decided that 'he was not fit to engage in the sublime task of philosophy':

'At that moment something astonishing happened. In the midst of my distress I let go and surrendered myself humbly to my own inability. I was suddenly brought to new insight! My penitent confession - metanoiesis (zange) - unexpectedly threw me back on my own interiority and away from things external. There was no longer any question of my teaching and correcting others under the circumstances - I who could not deliver myself to do the correct thing' (ibid. p.11).

McGhee notes that it was not so much that Hajime 'decided that he should do one thing or the other: the point is that he no longer had to make a decision'. McGhee cites Hajime again:

'It is no longer I who pursue philosophy, but rather zange (metanoiesis) that thinks through me. In my practice of metanoesis, it is metanoesis itself that is seeking its own revelation' (ibid. p. 11).

The crucial point to grasp here is that insight comes about, not because of one's 'self-power' (jiriki) but because of an 'other-power' (tariki). Again Hajime notes:

'This Other-power brings about a conversion in me that heads along a path hitherto unknown to me . . . This is what I am calling metanoetics', the philosophy of Other-power' (ibid. p. 11).

It was at this point I did get some kind of insight into how one might hold together the particular and the universal - the theme with which I began this address.

The particularist view seems so strong and grounded because it speaks from within the boundaries of what can be seen - or at least what has been seen and described. It can point to historical traditions that have tried to address the problems of life, sometimes with success, sometimes not. It is a practical visible expression of religion where the material of religion is available to be shaped and reworked through our self-power - the power of the conscious rational intellect. But this is also to admit a certain kind of entrapment for one simply cannot see beyond the horizon of one's present culture and language.

But Hajime and McGhee help us to see that the human mind - that thing that can never escape being situated in the world with one point of view and not another - has an extraordinary capacity to let something enter the field of vision that is, to all intents and purposes, utterly beyond the self-powered range of its particular limited view point. The wider view, so beloved of the universalist, does come into view - it is a kind of no-view-view. This wider view is gracefully gifted to us and, importantly, it does not have the quality of self-power but of other-power and this other-power seems to live through us shaping and changing our particularities in unexpected and radical ways. But, and this is vital, this larger view, the view that utterly transcends our own particularities, horizons and self-power, only truly comes under the right conditions which is that of repentance and the frank admission of inability followed by a silent, mindful waiting. True philosophy (and liberal religion) begins in just this place.

The practice of the true universalist - which, as I have noted is to be a special kind of particularist - must then include regular confession, admitting defeat and frankly acknowledging that one simply doesn't know and then to shut up and sit down; to wait mindfully and see what comes from over the horizons of our own thinking and particularities. What comes is always a challenge to our set ways (horizons) but then that is what keeps us alive and fresh, alert to the reality of a world infinitely bigger and more amazing than the one we see daily.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Stay together, learn the flowers, go light - an address for the dedication and blessing of Mark Reay

Today we meet to celebrate the dedication and naming of baby Mark and to welcome him into the world (a pdf copy of this service available here). In one sense this is a very simple thing - and the words used in our brief ceremony try to capture something of this simplicity. Yet, as we all know, simplicity begets unimaginable complexity and knowledge of this should serve to remind us constantly to be alert to the need not to get too wrapped up only in what the service says. After all, as beautiful as it may be (and I think it is beautiful) it can, at best, in the end only be a kind of theory about how the world might be and how we might best live and flourish in it. Theories or beliefs are not facts - as science knows well - and so the only way we can have any hope to verify this service is by constantly looking to the use we make of it; as the philosopher Raymond Geuss wisely notes, the 'best way to see what the theory about is to study the systematic long-term effects of applying it' (Geuss, 'Outside Ethics', Princeton UP 2005, p. 36). In other words the questions we need to be asking about this service are not really those about the literal truth or otherwise of what it says but rather what it helps us to show to ourselves and the wider world, about what it helps us do, about how we use it (following Wittgenstein and also R. B. Braithwaite as in his An Empiricist's View of the Nature of Religious Belief).

One thing this service seeks to do is, as the Unitarian minister Mark Morrison-Reed, wrote:

. . . to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. [To reveal that t]here is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice. It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed (580 SLT).

At heart this service is simply an aid to unveiling just some of the many bonds that bind each of us to each other and so show us that we do indeed have a vital relationships with something that transcends the necessary particularities of our own lives. The lens through which we see that today is, of course, Mark.

So, although we are an extraordinarily diverse group of people today containing christians, humanists, deists, atheists, agnostics, and perhaps also members of other faith traditions, we can all gather to share our love and concern for Mark that he may be enabled to flourish appropriately. But experience tells us that this doesn’t happen by simply letting a child go unaided, untutored and unshaped into the world but only when we acknowledge some particularities and show him by example, some of our core values and attitudes. Each of us, in our own ways, will try to do this by providing models of behaviour and thinking for him to emulate. However, the ultimate aim, at least of true liberal education and a liberal church community such as this, is not to become a mere carbon copy of the models we provide but to enable him to become most fully himself. There is a well known story about Rabbi Zusya that illustrates my point well and I recount often at these moments. The Rabbi was addressing his congregation just before his own death and he decided to give them a final teaching: 'Remember that in the world to come I will be asked not, 'Why were you not more like Moses?’ rather I will be asked 'Why were you not more like Zusya?'

If, within this very contingent temporary community of parents, god-parents, friends and church, we succed in enabling Mark to develop his own distinctive vision of the world then we can be assured that we will all gain because Mark will offer us all a unique persepctive on the world - a window that none of us could have opened. What vista that window reveals is not for the guessing either for we have no way of knowing.

But all this is rather general and non-specific. What is it that I, as a representative of this particular religious community, try to teach about how we might use, not only the naming and dedication service we have taken part in today but all the services that are enacted here? For many years I have found that much of great use can be summed up around a poem by Gary Snyder called 'For the Children' from his collection 'Turtle Island':

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us,

the steep climb

of everything going up,
up, as we all go down.
In the next century

or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,

we can meet in peace
if we make it. To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
stay together

learn the flowers
go light.

'Staying together’ suggests that, although we must always be teaching and learning what it is fully to be an individual, we always need to be doing this in community - alone together. Not just our immediate local communities of family, church and town etc. but ever expanding ones. Although we must acknowledge that we are inexorably shaped by our immediate contingent customs, climate and state of knowledge we also need to understand that our own cultural and physical contexts commingle seemlessly with all about it - we belong to an infinitely complex interdependent commingling of networks and systems. Reflecting long and hard upon this over many years it seems clear to me that this ultimately draws us into recognising the only true universal community that human beings can reasonably and consistently posit as being real - namely Nature herself. One can, and I do (following Spinoza), suggest that it is not unreasonable to think of Nature as God and God as Nature. But what ever you think about that utlimately Snyder's call to 'stay together' is to claim that all of us are sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters of one another something Jesus' teaching clearly implies. Showing something of this truly universal community is one thing I would like Mark to see here, however imperfectly we express it.

By 'learning the flowers’ I think Snyder is refering to the need constantly to be engaged in a careful and sustained meditation upon Nature or God - a meditation that should encompass all our human endeavours whether we label them spiritual or scientific. Jesus' call to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field is an expression of this mindfulness. So I would like this community to introduce to Mark the importance of quiet, non-doctrinaire observation and meditation as well as the importance of sustained and rigourous scientific equiry - to try to see things as they are. As Spinoza wisely said: 'the more we understand singular things, the more we understand God’ (E5p24). Of course Mark, like us, will fail in many ways but the task of cleansing our lenses of perception remains a central task for every human being.

By 'going light’ I think Snyder means living in such a way that when we die we leave only the faintest and temporary physical traces on the world as is possible. In other words if we succeed in going light our most valuable bequest to the world will be to leave no traces in the universe except love, knowledge, wisdom and compassion. It has to be said that this runs somewhat counter to the kind of advice adults usually give to youngsters which often encourages them to 'make their mark upon the world.' But, in this more ecologically aware time I think we need to be alert to the need to change our advice and let our mark upon the world be only as gentle as loving kiss upon the forehead of a new born child.

Today we have welcomed Mark to the world and I hope that all we do for and around him in the coming years will help him understand that this world, God-or-Nature, is as Snyder also observed, 'not a place to visit, it is home’ (Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild in the Gary Snyder Reader, Counterpoint Washington D.C. 1999, p. 169). And, whatever this service has said may it only show that we consider this beautiful earth to be home and all it inhabitants - animate and inanimate - are in some way our brothers and sisters.

So, brother Mark, may you consider well the flower we have given you and may you go with friends and lightly.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Loyalty to Loyalty - a Remembrancetide Meditation

Like most kids in the late seventies and eighties I watched dozens of films about World War Two in which the glorious and good allied soldiers, sailors and airmen vanquished their evil counterparts from the Nazi regime in Germany. Life was easily divided for us into the good and the bad and I belonged, unquestioningly, on the side of the good guys. In our games - whether in the playground or in the local woods and playing-fields you never wanted to play the Germans.

Then, when I was about fifteen, I read a book which was significantly to shape my whole life and philosophy. It was entitled I Flew For The Fuhrer by Heinz Knoke who joined the Luftwaffe at the outbreak of the war, rose to the rank of commanding officer, and who was eventually awarded the Knight’s (Iron) Cross.

Although a later reading of it - now many years ago - revealed to my, by then more sophisticated understanding, some deeply problematic aspects, what I took from the book on my first naive reading still came over to me. Namely, that Knoke, as an individual human being, was not a million miles away from the individual human beings who sat in Allied cockpits at the same time. In his book I found not a clichéd enemy but person whose feelings and concerns were familar to me: fear, love, courage, duty and loyalty a deep concern for the well-being of his family. This simple fact alone profoundly disturbed me because it challenged my naive and socially reinforced belief that there were easy distinctions to be made between the 'enemy' and me. As a Sea Cadet the parade I took part in each Remembrance Sunday at the local Walton-on-Naze War Memorial became for me, overnight, a deeply ambiguous event. For many years 'What about our enemy's dead?' was almost the only question I could ask. I trust you realise that this was never to dismiss my own country's dead as unimportant but it was radically to question how and why we were doing our remembering in this very one dimensional way. Perhaps such one-dimensional remembering is all that could and even still can be done in such big national public events but, here, in this more intimate and sophisticated environment, I think we can do better.

On a prima facie basis (that is, a prima facie case for a modern western liberal) I can see that one is simply not going to be inclined to remember well those who supported and fought for - as Knoke did at the time - the unimaginably brutal Nazi regime (and I really cannot stress enough how this is in no way a hidden apology for their way of being). Anyway, surely I can say with justification "Let them all go to hell" - my disbelief in both heaven and hell not withstanding. So what was I and am I worrying about? Well I was, and am, concerned about all the things I discovered I shared in common with Knoke (and, therefore, the rest of humanity) but, today, it is with loyalty that I shall remain. All that follows is drawn from the work of the American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1916) - (In the following I have broadly followed the good precis of his philosophy of loyalty found at this link - however he is worth reading rather more fully and HERE you can find a scanned copy of his book The Philosophy of Loyalty.)

Royce notes that to be a human being is to be born into complex processes (biological, social etc.) that are already long, long under way and that these are precisely what allows us to develop certain ideas about the universe and the way one can live in response to it. This complex historical process inevitably provides us with innumerable causes to support and many programs for their accomplishment and, although it is true that we all become unconsciously involved in causes simply because our particular culture values them, they only become truly moral positions in so far as an individual begins to self-consciously to judge, accept and/or reject them as good or bad. Note here that although Royce is clearly stressing the central importance of moral freedom he is also stressing that this freedom only exists within wider contexts that limit our freedom significantly. So, to pick an obvious example, we couldn't choose to follow the teachings of Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha before they were born and had themselves lived, learnt, taught and died.

Whenever an individual self-consciously decides that a particular cause is worth supporting at least three things occur. The first is that, through this cause, our individual wills become sharpened and better defined. Secondly, we find ourselves amongst a wider community which shares the same causes as us. Thirdly, there develops a increasingly morally significant commitment to the cause and the community that espouses it. It is this latter effect that Royce calls "loyalty" without which there can be no meaningful moral life for any individual.

But, if left here, a massive problem remains because it is clear that, although there have been many millions of people loyal to what we call the 'good' there are also many millions of people who have been loyal to brutal and evil causes. Royce knew this only too well and for him perhaps the most direct example was the Confederate States' defence of slavery during the U. S. Civil War. (Obama's victory this week bringing some of that story to a point of closure).

Against this Royce notes that the highest moral achievements have always been those in which an individual's loyalty to their own particular cause has promoted "the formation and expansion of communities of loyalty." So, although the most dreadful deeds have also been committed by very loyal individuals it was only ever a narrow loyalty to their own group and one which, eventually, not only destroyed other human beings but also the conditions for other individual's loyal actions. Royce summed up the difference between these two types of loyalty as follows:

". . . a cause is good, not only for me, but for mankind, in so far as it is essentially a loyalty to loyalty, that is, an aid and a furtherance of loyalty in my fellows. It is an evil cause in so far as, despite the loyalty that it arouses in me, it is destructive of loyalty in the world of my fellows" (Royce 1908 pp. 118-119).

To some degree, of course, all of our human communities and causes fail to live up to this high ideal and so are all, in this sense, lost causes - a point Royce particularly highlights. I realise that some people might read this as a philosophy of despair but in truth it is one of genuine hope in which we can humbly engage in genuine moral action. Why? Well, because in the moment we recognise all human causes are lost we are simultaneously alerted to the constant need to re-examine our aims and actions and to set about reforming their disloyal aspects. In short our very failures are what keep us loyal to true loyalty. Lost causes are, therefore, for Royce indispensable as the source of all the norms and values of any human community - including even what we might consider the best.

In sum, loyalty to loyalty demands from us that we continue to find ways to draw ever more inclusive circles whilst always acknowledging that we will ourselves never achieve the perfect loyal community which is nothing less than, to use Royce's own terminology, the Beloved Community - which was a modification of his earlier conception of the Absolute (i.e. his philosophical idealist conception of God).

We can see that Knoke, and millions like him, have been loyal to a cause and, in so doing, they expressed something without which no human being can lead a true moral life. Time, and millions of deaths, revealed to us that the cause to which Knoke was loyal was brutal beyond imagining. However, the failure and defeat of the Nazi cause was only possible because allied servicemen and women heeded the same call to loyalty that Knoke did. History has shown that the allied cause, although terribly flawed in its own way, was more loyal to true loyalty than the Nazi regime and for its overthrow we should be eternally grateful - especially to those who served on both the front-line and the home front.

But we must never rest content with this response - this little bit of remembering - for Royce's philosophy reminds us that not only was Nazism a lost cause but so was the Allied cause and so are all our current causes - no matter how good and worthy we may feel them to be at this moment of time. Only an acknowledgement of this continuous failure can properly call us onwards to an infinitely deepening loyalty to loyalty which, to repeat, we only express in our societies by constantly being alert to the need to re-examine our aims and actions and always to be reforming our own community's disloyal aspects. Royce believed that loyalty to loyalty revealed something genuinely firm upon which all people stand and when we remember only our own heroes this is obscured and it is why I think we need to bring people we once considered as our enemies into our circle of remembering.

Royce concludes his own book on loyalty with Jesus' words found at the end of the Gospel of Matthew (28:20 AV). Today, I can do no better than to leave you with Royce's final words:

" . . . from the whole circle of the heaven of that entire self-conscious life which is the truth (the Absolute), there comes always, and to all the loyal, the word: "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world" (p. 398).

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Be afraid, be very afraid - a liberal mediates on Halloween

Last week saw the celebration of Halloween. (According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica):

In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic festival of Samhain eve was observed on October 31, at the end of summer. This date was also the eve of the new year in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times and was the occasion for one of the ancient fire festivals when huge bonfires were set on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits. The date was connected with the return of herds from pasture, and laws and land tenures were renewed. The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day, and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favourable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes. These pagan observances influenced the Christian festival of All Hallow's (that is to say All Saints) Eve.

Now there are many useful reasons why, in the modern context, one might explore aspects of Halloween but today I'm going to use it to bring out one of the significant weak points of liberalism and to suggest one possible response to this - naturally it is one that, in general terms, I favour.

In his most recent work A Secular Age the philosopher Charles Taylor notes that pre-modern societies included in their make up a complementary "play of structure and anti-structure, code and anti-code" and that this "either takes the form of the code's being momentarily suspended or transgressed; or else . . . the code itself allows for a counter principle to the dominant source of power; it opens the space for a complimentary 'power of the weak'" (Charles Taylor: A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts 2007 (pp. 48-49). He goes on to note that it is "as though there were a felt need to complement the structure of power with its opposite." (ibid. p. 49).

Taylor points first of all to the simple fact that the pressure of the code needs to be relaxed from time to time and that we need to let off steam now and then. I'm sure all of us would understand the straightforward psychological need for this. But he quickly points to another aspect which is that were the code "relentlessly applied" it would drain us of all energy and that "the code needs to recapture some of the untamed force of the contrary principle." In other words valued structures and codes were interdependently related to their inverse forms.

So, to turn again for a moment to Halloween, it's celebration (if that is the word) in pre-modern times certainly fits into this idea of the existence of code, structure, anti-code and anti-structure; God's good world really does suddenly become filled with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds. Satan is a real leader of a real anti-structure to heaven - namely, hell and his minions were going to have their day, or rather their night. And, strange though it might seem to us today, the temporary yet subjectively real presence of a dark anti-code and anti-structure in people's lives served not to over turn or truly to threaten God's reign, but instead to reinvigorate it. All Hallow's Eve and its reign of darkness clearly showed to people why it was so important that code and the structure should be upheld by their society.

But, you may say, what has this got to do with the contemporary 'celebration' of Halloween? Surely, nowadays it is simply to do with having a bit of fun - the letting off of steam - with only the merest fictitious frisson of the dark side? After all as a culture we don't any more really believe in ghosts, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, let alone the idea that Prince of Darkness and his minions would carousing through our communities on a certain night of the year.

As Taylor observes, the modern secular context - which has ineluctably shaped us all - "anti-structure is no longer recognised at the level of the whole society, and in relation to its official, political-jural structure" (ibid. p. 50).

The chief reason this is so is because, from the seventeenth century onwards, western philosophies became increasingly concerned to arrive at (invent?) universal perspectives and from then to derive perfect ideal codes by which the greatest number of people might live. Importantly, it was believed these codes would be unlimited - complete. In other words as a culture we began to seek world views that contained everything - there was to be nothing outside then and so no real possibility (nor need) for an anti-code and anti-structure to keep things in balance.

As Taylor notes:

The idea that a code need leave no space for the principal that contradicts it, that there need be no limit to its enforcement, which is the spirit of totalitarianism, is not just one of the consequences of the eclipse of anti-structure in modernity. That is certainly true. But it is also the case that the temptation to put into effect a code which brooks no limit came first. Yielding to this temptation is what helped to bring modern secularity, in all its senses, into being (ibid. p. 51).

Now I don't know if these words have made Taylor's startling charge completely clear so I'll be rather more up-front and blunt about it. Modern secular culture - which often likes to add the adjective 'liberal' to itself - is founded on its yielding to the temptation to brook no limit to its own absolute principles. It may have used and, indeed, continues to use the language of inclusivity and diversity as it did this but, at heart, it is a kind of totalitarianism because it came to believe that outside it's own ideal forms there is nothing.

But, as we know from other historical examples, attempts to suppress absolutely divergent voices lead, eventually, to some kind of revolution, whether violent or otherwise. Such obvious suppression is not the way liberal secular democracies like to perceive themselves as proceeding so one way in which possible tension was headed off was by pushing anti-codes and anti-structures into the private domain. Taylor notes:

The private/public distinction, and the wide area of negative freedom, is the equivalent zone in these societies to the festivals of reversal in their predecessors. It is here, on our own, among friends and family, or in voluntary associations, that we can 'drop out', throw off our coded rules, think and feel with our whole being, and find various intense forms of community. Without this zone, life in modern society would be unlivable (ibid. 52).

For many years (certainly during the lifetime of all of us here) this strategy has worked but, increasingly, the dangers of this private/public distinction are revealing themselves all over the place. Although this modern space for anti-structure offered and still offers undreamed of possibilities for certain kinds of creativity and behaviour it has also brought with it "hitherto unexperienced dangers of isolation and loss of meaning." It is vital to realise that in this very modern private fantasy space (it is the adjective private that is important here) that the new violent religious fundamentalisms are enabled to grow and strengthen and where all kinds of hidden networks are created for the promulgation of all kinds of sex, drugs and slavery. Some of these fantasies, these neo-anti-codes and structures, as they grow are coming to believe that they can themselves replace the prevailing secular culture - western-born violent radical Islam being the most obvious contemproary example. But they are not really anti-codes and structures which are in balance with their opposites because they see themselves as new perfect codes that also need no moral boundaries and so also brook no anti-structure. As Taylor frighteningly sums up, they are "anti-structures to end all anti-structures" and that their dreams, if carried through, will turn into a "nightmare".

So a message entirely appropriate to Halloween that must be delivered to liberals is to be afraid, be very afraid of the classical liberal private/public distinction because its consequences are beginning to prove very dangerous indeed.

The liberal obsession with the development of universally applicable ideas and philosophies simply fails fully to take into account the incredibly incomplete contingent and largely irrational nature of humankind and that, in consequence we all contain elements of structure and anti-structure, code and anti-code. (Here it is worth noting that in mathematics and thence into other areas of science Gödel's 'incompleteness theorems' have, in their own spheres, dealt with the impossibility of covering all aspects of reality in a quite beautiful fashion.)

We have to remind ourselves that the perfectly rational human being simply does not exist and that knowing this, hard though it is for certain kinds of liberal to admit this, we have to start thinking a lot less theologically and ideally and begin to act much more practically and politically - lower case 'p'. Since the days of Socrates, we have been seduced into believing that we begin to create a better world by first appealing to rational supposedly universal ideas, such as those as goodness or justice but I'm increasingly with the Cambridge philosopher Raymond Geuss who is insistent that we must start with the difficult and dark question famously posed by Lenin: "Who, whom?" That is to say, in any actual society, to ask who has power, what do they use it for, and who suffers as a result? (See Philosophy and Real Politics, Cambridge University Press 2008).

If, as self-procalimed liberals, we do not start asking this political question at every opportunity (whilst simultaneously acknowledging once again the profoundly inconsistent and irrational shadow side of humanity) then the scary monsters that are starting to jump out of our societies may prove in the long run to be more frightening and dangerous than even old pre-modern believers in Halloween could have imagined.