Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Epicurean Friendship - dealing with the economic downturn - part 1

A theme that has come up in different ways during and after the previous two conversations is that what many of us are looking for - at all times and certainly no less than now - is happiness.

But there are many possible meanings of that word and many of those are very shallow indeed. Now I cannot speak for you, you can do that in minute (at the end of the blog), but I can speak for myself and a philosophy of happiness that I have increasingly come to trust over the past twenty odd years namely, that of Epicurus.

NOTE: Lest anyone think this is an eccentric or unusual position for a Unitarian to adopt I point you to a letter written to William Short in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in which he says he considered himself 'an Epicurian' and he considered 'the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.' In the same letter he also said, 'Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others.'

Epicurus' (341-270 BCE) philosophy is centred on happiness. What this means in practice has regularly been misunderstood over the centuries and his philosophy is popularly believed to have approved of a hedonistic love of all things fine and expensive and of encouraging the kinds of excessive lifestyles that have contributed so much to our culture's present woeful spiritual, philosophical and economic situation. But, in truth, Epicurus was famous in his own time for his very modest and restrained lifestyle. In relation to food and drink there is a well-known anecdote told of him by Diogenes Laertius saying that he was content with 'just water and simple bread' and that he asked one of his followers to send him 'a little pot of cheese' so he could 'indulge in extravagance' when he wished (10:10). Indeed, it is reported that he once said if he got his bread and water he would 'gladly rival Zeus in happiness (Aelian, Miscellaneous Histories 4.13).

Epicurus concept of happiness is centred on the Greek word 'ataraxia' which means 'a state freed of pain and anxiety' - or tanquility - and he thought that we could attain this by 'modest means, judicious limitation of one's desires, and conscious resistance to any and all forms of superstition'. D. S. Hutchinson, a modern authority on Epicurus, notes that:

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" (Brad Inwood and Lloyd P. Gerson: The Epicurus Reader, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis 1994, p. vii).

In addition to these four truths Epicurus thought that there were three goods, friendship, self-sufficiency (i.e. freedom) and an analysed life. (Below is Alain de Botton's excellent introductory programme on Epicurus.)



Now I briefly spoke about these things before back in early October after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in an address entitled "As the markets tumble - meet Epicurus" and I refer you back to it. However, I bring us back to the subject today because since October the really serious nature of our economic problems have become much clearer to us and the next year, at the very, very least, is going to be very hard for many of us. As I said in October this need not be a wholly bad thing especially if the situation encourages us in any way to follow Epicurus' advice then we will have taken a vitally important step towards a genuine and deep happiness. A step we might not have realised we really should be taking until very recently.

Over the coming weeks I'll take us in turn through Epicurus' four-fold cure and his three goods but today I'll begin with friendship.

To some extent Epicurus is simply making an obvious point which is that friendships help happiness and we all aware that those who have a good network of friends are much more likely to come through a bad period well than those who find themselves, or who make themselves, alone. But to this basic point Epicurus added the thought that it was of even greater help to be in the *constant* presence of one's friends and, to this end, he set up his famous Garden Academy where his friends lived together in close proximity though in their own private quarters. It is important to note that his group was not proto-communist.

Now I am aware that it is unlikely that any of us is going to do anything quite like Epicurus today - who could afford it and where would we find the space? - but, having said that, it seems to me not inconceivable that this church could consciously provide some of the things that Epicurus' Garden Academy provided. As some of you will know I have been talking about this in various ways for the last six months.

In fact there is more than talking going on - some real action is being taken. So we have the restarting of the Wednesday Evening conversations and also the new series of lunchtime concerts starting this Wednesday. Both of these provide an open opportunity for people to meet, talk, enjoy each other's company and insights and to form new friendships or at least new and close friendly relationships with others. These more conversationally orientated morning services (the evening services have long had such a space) are also an attempt to bring people together in more intimate and supportive ways. Then there is the relatively new blog and the very new Facebook page for the church. Again both of these initiatives are attempts at drawing people together to talk, think and eventually, I hope, to act together.

Now, in my head at least, these initiatives are not just shallow, surface attempts to attract more members and raise our profile - though I certainly won't be discouraging this if it occurs! - but a conscious attempt to create a modern Epicurean Garden Academy which believes that a individual's life is more likely to be fulfilled and happy if they have access to a dialogical community that is dedicated to the creation of, at the very least, friendly supportive relationships between people and, at times capable of enabling even deeper, intimate and lasting friendships to develop. I'm not pretending that we'll all be friends with each other in quite the same way we are with our truly close friends - this simply cannot be done -, but, if we can get the balance right and organise ourselves properly, we can begin to offer each other a measure of friendship and support that is vital at all times but particularly so in times of depression and what may prove to be a time real economic and social hardship.

Friday, 23 January 2009

The Prophethood of All Believers

Jesus said: What did you go to the desert to find? A reed that bends with the winds that blow? What did you go to the desert to find? A man who wears the clothes of a king? What did you go to the desert to find? A prophet? For sure, but also more, far more than just a prophet (J. D. Crossan's 'trans.' No. 1, cf. Matthew 11:7-10)

The teaching Jesus gives here seems to me to outline a basic process followed by most human beings - and I include here those who do not see themselves in any way as religious (at least not in any conventional way). It is the process by which, when faced with the awesome, wonderful, and sometimes frightening mystery of the world and existence, we are inspired to seek out answers to our questions about this mystery.

What did you go to the desert to find? A reed that bends with the winds that blow?

In the first instance we go out in the world simply to assess the lay of the land and the way what we, today, call natural phenomena, such as weather, tide, season etc., effect our being and place of abode. We seek to discern patterns in these phenomena that will help us negotiate appropriately and sensitively the complexity of our world. Throughout history many of these phenomena were perceived to be rooted in a God of some description; many of us today, however, see those same phenomena as springing from wholly natural laws (but don’t forget here Spinoza’s idea of Deus-sive-Natura - that is to say God-or-Nature). But, in whatever we think these phenomena subsist, we go out into the world to learn about them and their ways as Jesus suggested when he asked us to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air (Matt 6:26-28 & Luke 12:24-27).

What did you go to the desert to find? A man who wears the clothes of a king?

In that same process of seeking we, inevitably, come across people who seem to know more about the phenomena of the world than we do - sometimes they not only seem to know more than us, they do know more! The process by which we ascertain whether or not this is the case I won't address here but it forms another kind of seeking. However, in general, we may observe that since the world is so incredibly complex one person simply cannot know everything so we are wise also to seek out successful, good and trustworthy authorities and guides in the various fields of human endeavour and knowledge. Jesus' chooses the image of a man clothed in expensive garments fit for a king or his household to illustrate this but we can, in my opinion, legitimately replace it with that of a teacher, priest or minister, philosopher, scientist or even with a unifying idea or philosophy. All of these people and ideas can clearly be bad and/or dodgy but, when chosen well, they are often good and indispensable guides who can help us to live better, more fulfilled and compassionate lives.

What did you go to the desert to find? A prophet? For sure, but also more, far more than just a prophet.

But even in the presence of masses of external empirical evidence garnered from careful observations of the natural world, and even when that same evidence is digested and represented to us through what we have decided is a trustworthy authoritative figure or institution most of us intuit that this isn't really all there is to life - our own or the world as a whole. The prophet is any person who can convincingly point us to enlarged and deeper meanings because they have experienced it themselves. But the danger with many prophetic figures is that we remain content to let them tell us what lies just beyond our present views and powers without seeking to verify or disprove them ourselves.

But I, and the church of which I am a minister, belong to a religious tradition which has articulated a different view. One of our great twentieth-century thinkers was James Luther Adams who reminded us that "We have long held to the idea of the priesthood of all believers, the idea that [we] have direct access to the ultimate resources of the religious life and that every believer has the responsibility of achieving an explicit faith..." Given this he went on to suggest to us that we also needed a "firm belief in the prophethood of all believers." You see, in a liberal church such as this the prophetic role is not merely for one or two people but for all its members. Adams said:

A church that does not concern itself with the struggle in history for human decency and justice, a church that does not show concern for the shape of things to come, a church that does not attempt to interpret the signs of the times is not a prophetic church. . . . The prophetic liberal church is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behaviour with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it. Only through the [prophethood] of all believers can we together foresee doom and mend our common ways. (The Prophethood of all Believers in The Essential James Luther Adams, Skinner House Books, Boston 1998, p. 112)

If I may be so bold as to ask what did you go to the desert - or rather today to this blog/church - to find? A prophet? For sure, but also more, far more than just a prophet. Maybe you have heard good things about my addresses and this liberal church tradition in general. I hope so because I think I/we have got something prophetic to say in today's world. But, in truth, I’m really interested in that thing which we are seeking which is more, far more than a prophet.

I think that one aspect of the 'more' we all seek in our various ways is a community that understands the truest and deepest meaning of life is only found when we share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behaviour with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it. And, not only that, but a community which, in its ongoing collective attempting to foresee the consequences of our behaviour, is also capable of changing us and helping us to mend our common ways. We seek nothing less than a genuine spiritual home that gives our lives purpose and meaning (and with it a kind of joy and happiness - ataraxia or equanimity) so we can become increasingly free to act well. But we also seek at the same time a community that is strong enough to critique our actions and beliefs and to be made accountable to each other and, in consequence, to changed, renewed and called back into an ever deeper, freer and more meaningful life of love and service.

Can this kind of church be a place where this happens? Well that depends on us all . . .

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Procession Consciousness

This morning I'd like to reintroduce to you a theme that, until now, hasn't had a name but which, on the prompting of a contributor to my blog, I have started to call 'procession consciousness.' The story I use to introduce and illustrate this idea and why it is so important is told by the poet and philosopher Wendell Berry:

My grandson, who is four years old, is now following his father and me over some of the same countryside that I followed my father and grandfather over. When his time comes, my grandson will choose as he must, but so far all of us have been farmers. I know from my grandfather that when he was a child he too followed his father in this way, hearing and seeing, not knowing yet that the most essential part of his education had begun. And so in this familiar spectacle of a small boy tagging along behind his father across the fields, we are part of a long procession, five generations of which I have seen, issuing out of generations lost to memory, going back, for all I now, across previous landscapes and the whole history of farming. Who knows the meaning, the cultural significance, and the practical value of this rural family’s generational procession across its native landscape? The answer is not so simple as the question: No one person ever will know all the answer. My grandson certainly does not know it. And my son does not, though he has positioned himself to learn some of it, should he be so blessed. I am the one who (to some extent) knows, though I know also that I cannot tell it to anyone living. I am in the middle now between my grandfather and my father, who are alive in my memory, and my son and my grandson, who are alive in my sight. If my son, after thirty more years have passed, has the good pleasure of seeing his own child and grandchild in that procession, then he will know something like what I now know. This living procession through time and place is the record by which such knowledge survives and is conveyed. When the procession ends, so does the knowledge (From Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry (2000, Washington DC, Counterpoint Press pp. 151-152)

It is easy to imagine in an Information Technology lead world that human knowledge can be reducible a fixable set of 'things' capable of being recorded in various data storage methods, such as books or video, and of being completely retrievable (with all their subtleties and nuances) by later individuals and groups.

But Berry's story suggests (and I think it can be shown to be true) that in what consists true human knowledge - which contains what we call meaning - can only be accessed by living fully in the social and cultural contexts of that knowledge. In other words human knowledge is an attribute of a living, unfolding culture.

Now, this living, processional quality of knowledge and meaning is very interesting because at the same time as it allows for change - and, as we will see, very radical change - it simultaneously allows for the possibility of a real, and psychologically vital, sense of human belonging and stability.

In a world of rapid change and radical uncertainty such as our own discovering a sense of belonging has become more important than ever before. We know that many of those who can't find it experience an increase in anomie. Anomie is the French sociologist Durkheim's (1858-1917) word for a state in which social norms have become significantly eroded. The effect of this erosion is alienation, isolation, and desocialisation and with them comes the consequent loss of a meaningful and sense of right and wrong. At the end of last year the BBC commissioned a report on this phenomenon from the Social And Spatial Inequalities (SASI) group, Department of Geography, University of Sheffield. The survey charts some of the social and political problems this is now causing us.

Another well-known response to rapid change and radical uncertainty is artificially to create belonging by re-imagining old certainties and then re-presenting them to people in the modern world. The rise in fundamentalist and/or conservative religions is one example of this approach. They are, of course, very modern responses to the matter and not at all real returns to some earlier certain age despite what these groups may claim.

But neither a listless and hopeless drift into anomie nor the adoption of fundamentalist and/or conservative ideologies (religious or scientific) seems to me to be particularly healthy or helpful responses to this key - perhaps the key - issue of our day. But these two responses are not the only options on the table. Our own liberal tradition - our own procession - has a rather well hidden one. At first sight, however, things don't actually look too promising because on the surface it appears we have often developed our own versions of the two responses I have just mentioned. Here’s what I mean.

Following one of our key eighteenth century ministers and thinkers Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) vast swathes of our procession came to see Christianity - and, by extension, any kind of dogmatic religion, rather like a scientific theory, i.e. only as 'a kind of possible object, or system of claims about the world whose truth can be determined by a preceding phase of uncommitted debate.' As Priestley himself said:

But should free inquiry lead to the destruction of Christianity itself, it ought not, on that account, to be discontinued; for we can only wish for the prevalence of Christianity on the supposition of its being true; and if it fall before the influence of free inquiry, it can only do so in consequence of its not being true (Joseph Priestley, The Importance and Extent of Free Inquiry in Matters of Religion: A Sermon, in P.Miller (ed.), Joseph Priestley: Political Writings, Cambridge: CUP, 1993, xxiv).

Many who followed this process of free-inquiry felt it showed that Christianity (even Unitarian Christianity) was not true in the way Priestley thought it was and so the search for truth went on. What’s wrong with that you may ask? Well, on the ground this often resulted in the development of a new dogma in which uncommitted debate slowly came to 'imperialise the faith' and for many faith become equivalent simply to 'free inquiry’ itself. I don't want to dismiss this approach entirely out of hand but it is clear that when taken to extremes it inevitably leads some people to a profound sense of anomie.

However, others have responded to the results of free inquiry in a different way, namely, by settling dogmatically upon another solution that has come out of the open debate. Such a decision, inevitably, puts an end to the process 'free inquiry'. We were open but, now we've found an answer through rational inquiry, we're digging our heels in. If you take a look at the Christadelphians who claim the same history as we do - well, up until the mid-nineteenth century that is - you will see one startling example - startling to those of us who have chosen a different version of the former solution - of this kind of Unitarianism.

But, when you take time to consider our whole family of faith's four-and-a-half century long procession across the landscape of human history one begins to see that the truth of our own procession has never been manifest in 'a closed system of propositions' but, as my friend and historian Joe Bord noted, through 'an historically extended way of thinking and acting.'

A simple way of summing this up - as I have done in the last blog post is to say that, when we are at our best, we uphold and sustain a coherent culture of free religious inquiry and function, in part, as an academy of liberal religious praxis and thought. This historically extended way of thinking and acting results in the rhetoric which appears on all our orders of service i.e. that we meet together simply in the spirit of Jesus (nothing more, nothing less), for the worship of God and the service of humankind (and we deliberately don’t try to define what should be understood by the word 'God’ even as we may explore the many things it might, or might not, mean); that we hold that 'conversation as the natural organ communicating, mind with mind, . . . is the method of human culture’ and by it we 'come nearer to those whom we shall address than by any other means’; and that any address given here is simply 'offered to the congregation as encouragement to further reflection and thought and most certainly not a definitive statement with which you must agree.’

The significant problem I see is that we are not making the best of this historically extended way of thinking and acting that we might - indeed sometimes we really end up only pay lip service to it. Our approach, our culture of free religious inquiry, is something that we know is very appealing to many kinds of people. I would also argue that it is an enlivening and creative contribution to the wider civic, secular and democratic society to which we belong. The trick is to get folk to engage in this process directly and over a long (hopefully a lifetime long) period - to join the procession in some way. One simple way that we can begin address this matter is by repositioning the Sunday morning address so that this free inquiry, this conversation actually takes place in our community as part of our regular weekly meeting for worship - putting our money where our mouth is so to speak.

So, as an offering to the future health and well-being of this liberal religious community, I'm putting my money firmly where my mouth is - in conversation with you as, together, we try to negotiate the landscape of life in a goodly procession of faith - a procession that is always open to future possibilities but simultaneously giving a real sense of deep belonging.

I look forward to your conversational contributions . . .

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Putting conversation back at the heart of our community and Gandhian nonviolent verbal communication

Happy New Year to you all.

This year is clearly going to be a tough one in many ways - I don't need to alert you to the general economic and political worries that beset us. As liberals we are going to have to find ways to rise to the social, political and religious challenges that will thrown up as a consequence of recent events. This blog is just a brief note to alert you to a new initiative that will, I hope, help us to respond creatively and effectively. Please feel free to copy and adapt it for your own communities if it makes some sense to you.

I've been concerned for some time that our liberal religious rhetoric, though good in itself, is not really sufficiently being acted upon to be taken seriously or to do much good.

But firstly, what is our (that is the local church I serve - though I hope it resonates more widely) basic liberal rhetoric and, secondly, why does it look like it does? I'll answer these two in reverse order. Well, it looks like it does because when one takes a close look at the whole of the four-and-a-half century old liberal Christian tradition I belong to it is possible to see that its truth as a community was never made manifest in 'a closed system of propositions’ but, as my friend and historian Joe Bord noted, through 'an historically extended way of thinking and acting.’

A simple way of summing this up is to say that, when we are at our best, we uphold and sustain a coherent culture of free religious inquiry and function, in part, as an academy of liberal religious praxis and thought. This historically extended way of thinking and acting results in the rhetoric which appears on all our orders of service i.e. that we meet together simply in the spirit of Jesus, for the worship of God and the service of humankind; that we hold that 'conversation as the natural organ communicating, mind with mind, . . . is the method of human culture’ and by it we 'come nearer to those whom we shall address than by any other means’; and that any address given here is simply ‘offered to the congregation as encouragement to further reflection and thought and most certainly not a definitive statement with which you must agree.’

The significant problem I see is that we are not making the best of this historically extended way of thinking and acting that we might - sometimes we really end up only pay lip service to it. Our approach, our culture of free religious inquiry, is something that we know is very appealing to many kinds of people. The trick is to get folk to engage in that process directly and over a long (hopefully a lifetime long) period.

One simple way that we can begin address this matter is by repositioning the Sunday morning address so that this free inquiry, this conversation actually takes place in our community as part of our regular weekly meeting for worship - putting our money where our mouth is so to speak.

To this end in the coming months the Sunday service will (from time to time and, perhaps, permanently) pause about two-thirds of the way through so that we may immediately reconvene in the Church Hall. Then, as usual, the address will be offered but, in this more informal context, there will be an immediate opportunity for people to respond to clarify/critique/support some of its themes and ideas. Each Sunday I’ll be distribute some notes and a set of ground rules drawn from Arne Naess’ study of Gandhian Non-violent verbal communication to help this process. The service will then conclude, as usual, with the prayer for peace, a closing reflection and our usual benediction. We can then carry on with tea, coffee and conversation as usual but I hope that what has preceded will encourage and enable us to converse in a much more engaged and informed way than before.

This is not as radical a development as some of you might imagine. Something similar was regularly occurring amongst the Dutch Collegiant community (with whom British Unitarian and Free Christians have direct historical connections) in the seventeenth century and, today, many other churches (of all varieties) are also seeking better to engage with their members and wider society by using this approach.

I can’t guarantee that this initiative will work and result in making our liberal ideas more accessible, more finely honed, useful and supportive of both ourselves and wider civil society. All I know is it seems worth trying . . .