Sunday, 28 June 2009

Words and Transgressions 2 - Fallacy of Moliére's physician

As rational dissenters, who take seriously science and the use of reason and who do not see them as being separate from our religious concerns, I think this fallacy, of Moliére's physician - like that which I offered up last week - is particularly important for us to consider now and then. Why will become clear in a moment.

Maurice O'Connor Drury, the psychiatrist whose book the "Danger of Words" I am following here, begins by saying:

"In one of his plays Moliére has a physician asked this question:'How is it that opium is able to put people to sleep?' The physician replies with great profundity that it is because opium has 'dormative properties', and this answer is found entirely satisfactory by his interlocutors" (p. 5).

With such apparently definitive phrases - or at least such phrases delivered in a fashion that makes them appear definitive - Drury points out that we really reveal more about what we don't know, than about what we do. But the problem is that the way we habitually use language (especially in the religious context - and this address, remember is given in a religious context and not a scientific one though we have many scientists amongst us) can obscure this fact, even from ourselves.

As I noted last week in exploring "the fallacy of the Alchemists" I suggested that what was true in Drury's understanding of his own field (namely psychiatry) seems to me also to be true of religion. We can all too easily say things which seem to be explaining matters but which, in fact, simply reveal our lack of knowledge. No one is ever entirely free from this danger which is why we have to keep a gentle eye on it. This is especially important in religion where truth - at least truth with regard to how one might develop a practical doctrine of life and be fulfilled in it - where truth is sought and, however gently, promulgated.

Now, as we are all aware, the usual (and indeed sensible) response to such a lack of knowledge is to engage in some kind of research to fill in the 'gaps' and I will begin by drawing your attention to Drury's point about this which is that research:

". . . does not mean *collecting facts*; there is too much fact collecting going on. Research means new ideas; new concepts, new ways of looking at old and familiar facts. The important part of research is the thinking done *before* the experimental verification gets under way" (p. 7).

Now, I want to make it absolutely clear that I'm not against collecting facts - far from it - all I am doing is alerting us to the fact that the task we have to perform as liberal religious people seeking to reshape a liberal religion in a way appropriate for the twenty-first century, is about developing new ideas, new concepts and new ways of looking at old and familiar facts. New facts may make significant impacts upon the way we do things but it is important to remember that it has *always* been possible to live a fulfilled life even in days of yore when human knowledge was not what it is today.

Considering this problem is particularly important at the moment because, over the last century the social sciences and, even more recently, the behavioural and brain sciences have begun to turn their attention to religion and we have been presented with many interesting new facts and statistics that seem to offer scientific support and validation of some key religious practices - primarily I am thinking of meditation and prayer (a subject, and praxis!, which many of us have begun to explore here in this church). I'm not speaking so much about the effect of prayer on those prayed for but for effect upon the prayee. It appears that the scientifically measurably helpful effects of meditation are even better attested to.

Although the results of these researches and studies are very impressive and in their own way very helpful, it can be terribly tempting to think that they answer the central *why* of religion when, in fact, they are simply saying something akin to the answer given by Moliére's physician concerning the question of why opium makes people sleep.

It is worth considering why this is might be the case and what one is to do with the fact (remember *inside* a religious community - I'm not trying to be a pseudo-scientist here I am a minister of religion who is trying to take science seriously). Well, Drury points us to some words by Claude Bernard (July 12, 1813 – February 10, 1878) who was a French physiologist, an historian of science and also one of the first people to encourage using blind experiments to ensure the objectivity of scientific observations.

In his major discourse on scientific method, "An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine" (1865) he said:

"In every science we must recognise two classes of phenomena, those whose cause is already defined; next those whose cause is still undefined. With phenomena whose cause is defined statistics have nothing to do; they would even be absurd. As soon as the circumstances of an experiment are well known we stop gathering statistics . . . Only when a phenomenon includes conditions as yet undefined, can we compile statistics; we must learn therefore that we compile statistics *only when we cannot possibly help it*; for in my opinion statistics can never yield scientific truth and therefore cannot establish any final scientific method.
Statistics can bring to birth only conjectural sciences; they can never produce active experimental sciences, i.e. sciences which regulate phenomena according to definite laws. By statistics we get a conjecture of greater or less probability about a given case, but never any certainty, never any absolute determinism. Of course statistics may guide a physician's prognosis; to the extent that they may be useful. I do not therefore reject the use of statistics in medicine, but I condemn *not trying to get beyond them* and believing in statistics as the foundation of medical science" (quoted in Drury p. 9).

It is a reminder that, aside from all the statistics that are and have been collected about religion and religious practices - such as meditation and prayer - beyond them there will always remain a doing - a real praxis. Along with Claude Bernard I think statistics can be incredibly useful to us as guides and can even encourage us to try certain religious and spiritual practices but, with Bernard, I condemn *not trying to get beyond them* and I certainly do not think that these statistical analyses of religion can ever become our foundation.

Yesterday I was playing at the T. S. Eliot Festival held at Little Gidding (with Riprap and the poets Grevel Lindop and Malcolm Guite) and, inevitably, I was minded of the fourth of his Four Quartets entitled "Little Gidding". The end of the first section of this poem speaks perfectly to the thought I have just put before you:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Prayer and meditation are important to our tradition - after all Jesus constantly modelled this practise. My favourite passage illustrating this is to be found in Mark (1:35) "And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, [Jesus] went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed."

But, in the same way that I am alert to the fact that much Christian language can be problematic to us I am aware that certain key Christian practices can also be deeply problematic. Recently, in terms of language I have been trying to find ways to help us properly reconnect with it and last week's address was directly concerned with this by making it clear that religious language is not a technical system of naming but a wholly different way of talking about, and ultimately relating with, the world. Today by pointing generally to some emerging scientific statistical evidence of the effectiveness of prayer and meditation is also a way to help us recommence certain kinds of religious practice.

It is not that, as rational human beings, we shouldn't be spending some of our time in verification. Our view of the world would be hugely diminished if we were to give that up; but I am saying that there are certain times and places when we should follow Jesus' example and Eliot's advice and stop verifying, stop instructing ourselves, informing our curiosity or carrying report. But simply to kneel - or its equivalent - in places where prayer has been valid. This church, young though it is built only in 1927 - is one such place and in it I recommend such a stopping - to kneel, pray and meditate. There's nothing illiberal and irrational in this following of the example of Jesus.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Words and Transgressions 1 - Fallacy of the Alchemists

In 1976 a former pupil of Wittgenstein's called Maurice O'Connor Drury wrote a book called the Danger of Words in which he made some very interesting Wittgensteinian observations on his own profession, namely, psychiatry. Ray Monk, Wittgenstein's biographer, thinks that, "though much neglected, it is perhaps, in its tone and concerns, the most truly Wittgensteinian work published by any of Wittgenstein's students" (Monk p. 264).

In Drury's opening chapter, called Words and Transgressions he offers the reader five fallacies about language that I think are of great practical interest to us as a liberal religious congregation and I hope they may prove to be very helpful in our individual and collective reflections (all quotations in this post are found between pp. 1-5). I have four weeks before my vacation starts and I intend, though don't promise, to look at four of them - and maybe squeeze the fifth one in too.

Drury opens by noting that in Proverbs 10:19 it is written: "With a multitude of words transgressions are increased". He does this because he is aware that in psychiatry - as I am aware in religion - "words can lead us into confusion, misunderstandings, error. Confusion when talking to patients, misunderstandings when we discuss mutual problems with our colleagues, error when in solitude we try to clarify our own thinking".

Together we are an admixture of patients and colleagues - in the sense that we come here looking for something helpful and healing in our lives (which I, as minister, supposed to provide, or at least point to, in some way) but also colleagues because we must work together to make this an effective liberal religious institution - which, as yet, it is not. In so far as we actively think about the things I speak about and about which we later converse, we, too, will spend time in solitude trying to clarify our own thinking. So, Drury's work seems to me to be highly relevant to us and, although the reason for this won't immediately be obvious, don't worry, I will lead you to my religious point before I conclude.

Drury's first fallacy - which we'll consider today - is what he calls the "fallacy of the Alchemists." He gives it this name because of something noted by the eighteenth-century chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794). You will recall that it was Lavoisier who, rather than continuing to use the old system of inherited names which often went back to the Alchemists, introduced the modern system of naming into chemistry in which different substances were named in terms of the elements from which they were formed. So, for example, what we now call 'sodium sulfate' (the sodium salt of sulfuric acid) was once known as 'Glauber's salt' or 'sal mirabilis'. Another wonderful old name he cites is 'Fuming liquor of Libavius' (spiritus fumans libavii) which today we call 'stannic chloride' or 'tin tetrachloride'.

Lavoisier made it clear (in his Mémoire sur la nécessité 1787, 14, 16-17 and Rapport sur les nouveaux caractéres chimiques 1787 in Oeuvres 5:378]) he thought he was introducing 'a method of naming' as distinct from a 'nomenclature' (See Jessica Riskin's book Science in the age of sensibility from Chicago University Press).

Why is this important? Well here is what he says in the introduction to his treatise (Traité Élémentaire de Chimie of 1789):

If languages really are instruments fashioned by men to make thinking easier, they should be the best possible kind, and to strive to perfect them is indeed to work for the advancement of science. For those who are beginning the study of science the perfecting of its language is of high importance.

A little later he continues, musing on the problem of using the old names, to say that:

It is not therefore surprising that in the early childhood of chemistry, suppositions instead of conclusions were drawn; that these suppositions transmitted from age to age were changed into presumptions, and that these presumptions were then regarded as fundamental truths by even the ablest minds.

Drury realised that if he was honest with himself he had to admit that the vocabulary of psychiatry in his age was "only too comparable" with what Lavoisier has to say about the way chemistry in its childhood went about naming things. Likewise, if we are honest with ourselves we can see that the vocabulary of religion of our age is also comparable with what Lavoisier has to say about chemistry. In our religion, as (according to Drury) in psychiatry, we need to be highly alert to the fact that we use a *nomenclature* we do not, I repeat, we do NOT have a *system of naming*.

(Excursus: I realise the word 'nomenclature' refers to a kind of naming but I'm using the word to distinguish between the slow, unsystematic, unscientific, way names are appended to things or sets - or apparent 'things' and apparent 'sets' - by a culture, and the consciously systematic and scientific application of words in a scientific context - i.e. a system of naming. That doesn't mean the latter is perfect for all time but it does mean that when further evidence presents itself or is discovered, a meaningful clarification can be made in the system of naming that can take the new knowledge into account. Religious nomenclature, however, cannot be used, developed and further clarified this way. That doesn't mean it is useless, it is simplyto recognise that its use is to be found precisely in its inexactness and its ability to evoke or gesture 'towards' certain important aspects of human experience.)

Now, the issue is that even in our own modern age (which we like to see as 'advanced' though what that might mean is not always clear) we really have no better religious terminology to hand and, as Drury said in his own field, "we must for the present do the best with what we have." But, Drury warns, "let us beware lest from this unsystematic nomenclature suppositions are drawn, which then become presumptions and only too easily pass over into established truths."
It should be apparent to most of you that many religious people (liberals and conservatives) make the mistake of regarding religious nomenclature as "mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive" and many of them also wrongly believe that traditional religious language is a system of naming.

Here's what I mean. I can still delight in and explore the sound, poetry and history of a piece of nomenclature such as 'fuming liquor of Libavius'. However, when it comes to doing modern chemistry, I can (thanks to Lavoisier) turn to a system of naming which gives me 'tin tetrachloride' and this system, through its words, gives me and the community of chemists a certain objective purchase on the world that is not available to me if I continue to try to work with the complex tangled web of nomenclature which includes 'fuming liquor of Libavius'.

Here's a religious example - though, as you will see, a vitally important asymmetry appears. I can still delight in, play with and explore the sound, poetry and history of that piece of nomenclature 'God'. But, unlike in chemistry, I cannot also turn to a system of naming that tells me what God is in a way that through the word gives me and a community of religious people anything like an objective purchase on the world. Here we see clearly that the word 'God' is part of a nomenclature - it is *not* part of a system of naming.

Let's return to the issue I just noted which is that there are some people who believe that religious nomenclature is, really, a system of naming. Consequently the word ‘God’ can easily become fixed in metaphysical systems of naming, be they Trintarian, Unitarian, Spinozean, Hegalian or 'whateverean', and that, instead of arriving at genuine empirical conclusions supposition are drawn from them; then these suppositions, which have been transmitted from age to age, get changed into presumptions; then these presumptions have been regarded, and still are regarded by many - even the most able minded liberals and conservatives - as fundamental truths.

Some of you have been very puzzled (disturbed even) at why I have recently self-declared as an atheist whilst at the same time continued to be happy to use the word ‘God’ in my own private devotions, in public worship, and in our shared conversations. Well, here you have it. God, as part of a system of naming, is something in which I strongly disbelieve and I think it does more harm than good. I think one of the duties an intelligent, liberal self-aware congregation has is to make it clear that in such a ‘God’ we disbelieve - we are (technically speaking) atheists. After all it is belief in this ‘God’ that is so effective at setting one person against another, one religion against another, is fuelling the depressing and unedifying fight between religious conservatives and the new-atheists and helping to widen the wholly unnecessary gap that still exists between religion and science.

However, whenever I can see that the word God is being used as part of religious nomenclature, and the person or community using it (and the guests among them) are *aware* of this, then we can see the word begin to do again what it should - namely help us experience and converse together about that 'something' which is beyond all words and which can only be shown; shown in the incarnated love, compassion, justice and beautiful action of people motivated by a sense of commingling and belonging to ever larger networks of being. For this church - and me as your minister - the paradigmatic showing of this is, of course, Jesus. Now in that God I most surely do believe.

Systems of naming help us share a certain kind of knowledge but God is not an object of human knowledge; I do not believe such a God exists and so I am compelled to express my atheism when I see systems of naming being improperly applied to religion. But nomenclature, when properly and knowingly used, can help us share wisdom and understanding and, wherever wisdom and understanding is found, then the word God comes alive again and God is 'known' - but NOT in an empirical scientific way. In such an understanding of God, even the profoundest atheist like me, can have real faith and say with Jesus, "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee . . . not what I will, but what thou wilt" (Mark 14:36).

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Actively challenging resonant claptrap - so liberalism doesn't go to hell in a hand cart

Last week I suggested that the Flower Communion service, when, that is, it remains clearly rooted in its Czech particularities and the struggle against the intolerances left behind from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then the Nazi and Communist regimes which followed, is for us a profound tangible expression of our desire to do the same in our own age. As an example I used it as a way of encouraging us to show our commitment to challenging the increasing influence of right wing political views in Europe. And last week, as we now all know, this need became more pressing because the British people elected two fascists to the European Parliament in the form of the BNP's Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons.

I've been keeping an eye on them for a while now - and have always found them abhorrent - but it remains important to know and even (in very limited ways) to respect your enemy and never, NEVER, to underestimate him. Now, even when you are appalled at what the BNP desires for this country, one should acknowledge one 'admirable' quality about them, namely, the fact that when they talk to the media you know they are not talking in the usual political tongues where the meaning of words skate away before your very eyes and where nothing seems to mean what it appears to say. Of course, like all politicians, the full ramifications of what they are saying are kept from view but at the level of basic rhetoric the BNP are astute operators. Here is a recent example and, although which ever way interpret it I don't like the message, when Gordon Brown used the phrase "British jobs for British workers" everybody knew he didn't mean it in all kinds of ways – you knew it would be so qualified as to make it meaningless. However, when Nick Griffin and the BNP uses it you know they do meant it - just like it says. Of course what Griffin is offering is dangerous claptrap but, as Michael Roberts, the poet and critic who died in 1948, said of similar stuff in the 1930s, we need to be alert to the fact that for many people it is "resonant claptrap".

Now I have quoted Roberts before on this matter but I make no apologies for, citing him again. I'm doing this for two related reasons. On the one hand, to shake us awake from the dangerous liberal slumber we are in and, on the other, to try to explain something about why I'm doing what I'm doing in this pulpit.

Liberal culture has to wise up and get its message and rhetoric sorted out because the costs of not doing are very frightening to contemplate indeed. In 1935 Robert's wrote a critical review of the leading left-wing intellectual Leonard Woolf's book called "Quack, Quack!" (I append the full review to the end of this blog) in which Woolf poured scorn upon the right-wing politicians of his own day. Roberts observes:

"[Woolf] mocks at intuitions and absolute beliefs, they are all quackery, but he does not see the limitations of reason. Reason can show us how a thing can best be done, but it cannot modify or co-ordinate our basic inclinations, as religion and poetry attempt to do, and as the politician needs to do. We need some criteria of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, as well as of truth and falsity, and we need to persuade others to accept those criteria. The problem is not to destroy all rhetoric but to teach people to distinguish between good rhetoric and bad, good poetry and bad. The liberal-rationalist assumes that he can get on without rhetoric or poetic use of language at all, and that every relation of power between individuals is bad: consequently he speaks only to people like himself, and the field is left to the quacks with their false rhetoric, their sentimental poetry and their bullying use of the power of personality" (Bloomsbury Views? by Michael Roberts Review of Quack, Quack! by Leonard Woolf, from The Listener 1935).

Right - here, in this church, the only simple message I and this liberal Christian tradition has on offer to modify and co-ordinate our basic inclinations is that one can trust God (whether you gloss it as the Absolute, Nature, Father or Mother) and that a properly fulfilled human life - and therefore, what gets called salvation (which can be a present reality of course) - can be had by any one who, in a disciplined fashion, models their life on the example of Jesus of Nazareth. It can be considered a simple form of Christianity because it removes from the centre of the community almost all of the metaphysical doctrines of Christianity. This is done because we feel they distract us from getting on with the basic human task of putting into practice Jesus' moral and ethical teachings.

Those of you who know me personally will know that my own prefered expression of this kind of simple Christianity is found in Tolstoy's writings - particularly his "Gospel in Brief."

In saying all the above this does not mean that we are saying there are no other religious (and non-religious) possibilities to follow - to claim that is clearly wrong - but it is to be clear that this is the solution to the problem of life on offer here. So that's the basic, simple, non-equivocal religious message I think we should be proclaiming.

But - once that is clear - we need to go on to consider our audience - after all, if you are going to get your rhetoric sorted out you need to know who is going to be your audience!

We may start by observing one thing. It is clear the intellectual liberal centre-left (whether political or religious) is today only talking to, and concerned about itself and that is why disaffected working and lower middle-class Labour voters either didn't vote at all or actually turned to the BNP. The tricky-dicky, super-nuanced, always equivocal and relativist language of modern liberalism just isn’t attractive to any person faced with hard-in-you-face difficulties such as the loss of jobs, high levels of debt, poor housing, and a rapidly diminishing sense of personal worth and identity. In fact it could be said, with real justification, that this local church is an archetypal church of the intellectual liberal centre-left that is not good at talking to these people but just navel gazes while the rest of the country goes to hell in a hand cart (see blog picture - In Fairford church, Gloucestershire, there can be seen in the great West window installed sometime before 1517 AD - a depiction of the Day of Judgement in which the innocent are going to heaven and the guilty are going to hell. Among the latter can be seen an old woman in a wheelbarrow, being pushed to her doom by a blue devil.)

This is, in part, why I am making the case to get back to particularities and away from metaphysical abstractions (once a great passion of mine). However, given this realisation you might be tempted to think that what I and this church should then be doing is getting out of this febrile and pointless intellectually chattering class and into other, more down to earth and working class arenas and eschewing complexities and nuances.

Yes, this is clearly one possible solution and some of my liberal Christian colleagues are doing just that if they are in the right geographical areas. But we have limited resources and our own particulars and consequently we need to be a bit canny about this and see what is *really* the best thing we can do. The chief particularity it seems to me is that we are in Cambridge, a major global centre of education for precisely that chattering class of liberal centre-left people (of which I am one – mea-culpa, mea maxima culpa). It seems to me, therefore, that our mission field - if I may use such a phrase - is precisely this group of people. My job - and then yours if you agree with me - is to persuade what two centuries ago the liberal theologian Schleiermacher called the many "cultural despisers of religion" (Found in his 1799 On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers - here is a link to a German Edition of 1880) to readopt a simple form of Christianity that will be effective in inspiring them in their professional lives to stop equivocating and to face their public with a renewed clarity and honesty and a confident liberal rhetoric that isn't slippery as hell.

But if you have grown up, as I have grown up, with the powerful influence of science and the rational traditions of the Enlightenment, then it is hard beyond imagining to be a committed public Christian of any sort - even the very liberal non-metaphysical kind I espouse. It's just feels embarrassing (see my recent sermon on the subject of Good Friday) to admit this and it’s something I have often felt like I must hide from my friends, neighbours and wife even (though I've long got over this last one!).

My often less than simple addresses (I know that), which draw particularly heavily upon Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza and Wittgenstein, are deliberate strategies (though honestly used) by which I hope I might persuade sceptics (cultured despisers of religion) to make, like me, what for them is (as it was for me), the frightening leap of faith into becoming committed apprentices in the school of Jesus of Nazareth.

My whole ministry is centred on this because, like Michael Roberts, I’m convinced we desperately "need some criteria of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, as well as of truth and falsity, and we need to persuade others to accept those criteria. The problem is not to destroy all rhetoric but to teach people to distinguish between good rhetoric and bad, good poetry and bad."

To conclude here is something that Tolstoy reminds us Jesus said:

"Jesus once saw a tax-gatherer receiving taxes. The tax-gatherer was called Matthew. Jesus began to speak with him, and Matthew understood him, liked his teaching, and invited him to his house, and showed him hospitality. When Jesus came to Matthew, there came also Matthew's friends, tax-gatherers and unbelievers, and Jesus did not disdain them, and sat down, he and his disciples. And the orthodox saw this, and said to Jesus' disciples: 'How is it that your teacher eats with tax-gatherers and unbelievers?' According to the teaching of the orthodox, God forbade communion with unbelievers. Jesus heard and said: 'He who is satisfied with his health does not need a doctor, but he who is ill, does. Understand what is the meaning of God's words: 'I desire love and not sacrifice.' I cannot teach a change of faith to those who consider themselves orthodox, but I teach those who consider themselves unbelievers" (Gospel in Brief p. 47).

And there, today, I rest my case because liberalism is sick unto death and needs a doctor and, as a disciple (apprentice) of Jesus, I have a duty to help cure this sickness. Sometimes the medicine I need to dispense is unpleasant tasting and difficult to digest (I know because I have had to take it myself) – but the consequences of not taking it (or something similar) are too great to contemplate.


Bloomsbury Views? by Michael Roberts
Review of Quack, Quack! by Leonard Woolf, from The Listener 1935
(reprinted in: Michael Roberts - selected poems and prose edited by Frederick Grubb, Carcanet Press, Manchester 1980, p. 109)

MR WOOLF is a passionate champion of reason - too passionate and too bitter to be the perfect exponent of the quiet methods of discussion which he advocates. Civilisation, he says, is a precarious thing, imposed upon the community by a few people, mostly belonging to the comparatively wealthy class. But, he argues, most people remain savages at heart, and a time comes when, if continuity is to be preserved, the advantages of civilisation - the wealth as well as the orderly civilised habits - must be shared by all. At that time, many of the ruling group prefer to destroy their civilisation rather than to share it. Reason is then attacked as a degenerate weakness, and all that is primitive and savage in man is revived. The primitive fear of the stranger is encouraged, 'national' sentiment is fostered, the truth about political events is stifled, the individual is subjugated to the tribe, and each man, instead of thinking earnestly about the problems of his age, salutes a tribal leader whose oracular pronouncements are regarded with superstitious awe. Against all this, and against similar but less developed tendencies in England, Mr Woolf believes in the civilised patriotism of a Pericles, in reason, in government by free discussion, and in the gradual abolition of all class distinctions. These are chill ideas for most people, especially when treated unrhetorically: they call to the future, not the deeply rooted past, there is a greater appeal in the resonant claptrap of the new dictators. Mr Woolf is acute, bitter, and amusing: he quotes some fine nonsense from his enemies, and his exposure of the dangers which they offer to what most of us consider a civilised and decent life deserves to be widely read, but there is a deep pessimism about his writing, a sense of weariness and futility, spurred for a moment into protest. He knows that it is useless to demonstrate that Mussolini's speeches are empty of constructive thought, yet he can think of no other approach to the problem. He gibes at the mummification of Lenin's body, yet he ignores the practical achievements of Bolshevism and Fascismo. A fascist would call him the typical 'anaemic', 'futile', `degenerate' pacifist intellectual whose liberalism has broken down before the overpowering confidence of Fascism and Communism. There is some truth in this, but Mr Woolf does not look for the flaw in himself and his own doctrines. He attacks Carlyle, Spengler, Bergson and Keyserling, for their varying betrayals of the intellectual-liberal position. He mocks at intuitions and absolute beliefs, they are all quackery, but he does not see the limitations of reason. Reason can show us how a thing can best be done, but it cannot modify or co-ordinate our basic inclinations, as religion and poetry attempt to do, and as the politician needs to do. We need some criteria of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, as well as of truth and falsity, and we need to persuade others to accept those criteria. The problem is not to destroy all rhetoric but to teach people to distinguish between good rhetoric and bad, good poetry and bad. The liberal-rationalist assumes that he can get on without rhetoric or poetic use of language at all, and that every relation of power between individuals is bad: consequently he speaks only to people like himself, and the field is left to the quacks with their false rhetoric, their sentimental poetry and their bullying use of the power of personality.

Mr Woolf prints some amusing comparative photographs of Mussolini, Hitler, and the Hawaiian War God, Kukailimoku. The similarities of expression are very striking, and there is certainly a case for arguing that the psychological effects of the faces are, and are intended to be, the same, but heaven help us all if this method of argument is to become general.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Step Inside Love - release of a new album with Saskia Bruin

After the fervid activity caused by my last post (which I thought would be left silently alone without comment - hey, but then what do I know . . .) here is something else less contentious - news of a new CD release. I'm the bass player in the singer Sakia Bruin's band and she has a new recording out called Step Inside Love. With the summer coming up this is the perfect album for those long, romantic evenings, a glass of Pimms, and the leaving behind of all your worries. Go on, treat yourself . . .

Monday, 8 June 2009

Religious Society of Czech Unitarians (RSCU)

At the end of my last post I noted that I had contributed to a book called The Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity: Faltin, Lucia and Wright, Melanie J. (eds), Continuum Press, London 2007, writing a chapter entitled The Religious Society of Czech Unitarians (RSCU) and the construction of Czech National identity. I have long had an interest in the work of their founder Norbert Fabián Čapek (1870-1942) and, for various reasons, was asked to present a paper to a conference at Cambridge in 2006 on the subject. I had the privilege of many conversations with two key figures in the Prague church and found myself very impressed at what I found.

As regular readers of this blog will know I'm not at all hopeful (actually I'm very pessimistic) that Unitarianism (if it makes any sense to call it today an 'ism' since it is no longer as a whole anything identifiably coherent) will survive the difficult illiberal years ahead of us. However, the one hope I have is that Čapek's thought might generally be built upon to offer the world (and ourselves!) something strong and coherently liberal. Naturally, his thought as a whole is not without problems but, for contemporary Unitarians who realise that (in the UK at least) we are close to disappearing, I think it remains a good place to start the process of rebuilding a coherent, strong identity and practical world view.

Anyway for those interested in saving this fine liberal religious tradition I do recommend taking a look at the RSCU's Resources Page which has a lot of interesting stuff that gives a good flavour of their history and thought. Who knows, the religious revival Capek successfully brought about in the late 1920's in Czechoslovakia, might happen here too. God knows we need it.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Flower Communion - Hard particularities with profound love and trust

Liberals religionists have had a long love affair with the idea that it was possible to express religious faith through certain 'essential and universal principles' hoping that, in so doing they could articulate a kind of pure, ‘neutral’ religion that would suit all and offend none. It is a project which, though admirable in many ways, has failed and the continued decline of liberal religion as a vital force in our contemporary culture is extremely worrying, especially at a time when religion as a major political and social influence is back with a vengeance and when right-wing political forces across Europe are once again gaining ground.

Without particularly headlining this worry this is the single most important reason why recently I have been exploring the importance of developing a liberal theology/philosophy of radical particularity.

If you have missed any of these recent addresses, I do encourage you to read them because they provide some of the thinking that supports what I am saying today.

The reason I begin this address with these remarks is because without a real understanding and sense of the service’s hard particularities today’s 'Flower Communion' service, primarily because of its apparently simple and universally accessible symbolism and obvious beauty, quickly becomes a dreadfully trite and sentimental affair which expresses little more than a vague and desperately ungrounded and unstable desire simply to get along with others coupled to a vacuous affirmation of the beauty of nature.

But this was a service which was consciously created by the Czechoslovak Unitarian pastor Norbert Fabián Čapek (1870-1942) in 1923 to help his congregation in Prague root themselves in the particularities of his region’s history in order tangibly to deepen their understanding of what it was to be a committed religious liberal in the real, rather than an ideal, world.

The problem was that, although in his sermons and prayers, Čapek felt had begun to articulated well his liberal theology he realised that the Prague community needed a service that allowed these ideas to be more tangible - particular and concrete. Because, for a variety reasons, traditional forms of Christian communion had problematic resonances for many Czechoslovakians, Čapek realised he could not simply do a light revision of a Christian communion service but he also realised he needed to develop a service of communion with a physical element to it. So he began in 1923 to develop the Flower Communion.

Čapek asked members to bring a flower of their choice and, when they arrived at church – just as you have been asked today – they were directed to take it inside and place it in a large vase. This simple act was understood to be symbolic of each individual’s free desire to join with others in religious community. The vase that contained the flowers was itself symbolic of the church community. Speaking of the vase in which the flowers were gathered Čapek said:

For us in our Unitarian brotherhood the vase is our church organization. We need it to help us share the beauties but also the responsibilities of communal life. In the proper community by giving the best that is in us for the common good, we grow up and are able to do what no single person is able to do. Each of us needs to receive in order to grow up, but each of us needs to give something away for the same reason" (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 145).

There followed hymns, a reading of I Corinthians 13, a prayer of consecration, one of blessing and a sermon. At the close of the service each member was to leave with a different flower from the one they brought taking it, as Čapek said, ‘just as it comes without making any distinction where it came from and whom it represents’ as a public confession that they accepted ‘each other as brothers and sisters without regard to class, race, or other distinction, acknowledging everybody as our friend who is a human and wants to be good.’ (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 144).

(Excursus - although Čapek seems here to be suggesting that he desires the 'one-size fits all religion' I criticised at the outset what he is really saying is that by being this kind of Unitarian congregation - and see next Čapek quote below - this is to be one thing and not another. By being something, not nothing we can extend radical hospitality to other ways of being - we are inviting people into our circle as respected guests not potential converts to our way of thinking. Though, if any guest finds amongst us a way of being religious liberally that they wish to follow then we will not, naturally!, turn them away.)

Now it is important to realise that the situation in Czechoslovakia in Čapek’s day was not easy and if you put your flower in that vase you were saying something very risky indeed as you were openly committing to a movement that was prepared to face up to the significant challenges that faced this new country (Czechoslovakia only having some into existence as a political and social entity in 1918).

So you have a clearer idea of to what people were committing when they participated in the Flower Communion here is how, in 1924, Čapek defined what he understood Unitarianism to be:

"What kind of religion is this Unitarianism? It is humanity lightened by divinity. It is humanism and theism combined. It is not the kind of humanism without God and without a soul, but the humanism of those great men who from time to time called our nation to a new life. When John Hus appealed to reason and conscience against the authority of the pope, it was work for humanity. When Comenius conceived school as a workshop of humanity, it was the continuation. I specially quote his words: “man finds himself best in his own innermost, nowhere else, for then in himself he easily finds God and all.” What else is it but to begin with man when seeking God? The opinion that religion is outgrown can be held only about the religion that was not human enough, that remained under the level of humanity or remained, so to say, hanging in the sky, and could not answer the needs of men in their daily life. . . . While worshipping the liturgical Christ people could not hear the human Jesus who asked for love to men. Unitarianism is the religion of humanity in the best sense of the word. It has rejected the inhuman and barbaric conception of God and by this brought God nearer to human understanding; it has established a more intimate relation of Jesus [by emphasizing] the value and sovereignty of man. Today it looks as if mankind was on the crossroad not knowing in what direction to move. . . . Our age calls for watchmen who would stand on the crossroad and warn people not to go back to barbarism and bestiality, but to go from views only terrestrial and selfish to cosmic views, from Humanity to Divinity" (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 195-196).

So, we make a terrible mistake if we think that just putting a flower in a vase, saying some nice liberal sounding words about community and inclusivity, and then taking one out later will help transform our lives in the way it did for Čapek and his church members. For the service only has bite and traction if there is some negotiation between the original hard particularities of the service, the hard particularities of its celebration since 1923 and the hard particularities of its celebration amongst us now.

You have heard something about the original particularities but in the years which followed its introduction there came first the Nazis (who arrested and killed Čapek in one of their so-called 'medical experiments') and then, when that nightmare seemed over, the imposition of a Communist regime. Now as separate Czech and Slovak Republics they face, of course, new and still challenging particularities.

But what of today's twenty-first century British particularities to which we must carefully relate this service if it is to be anything real and substantive?

Well, as I said at the beginning of this address we are nationally facing the prospect of the collapse of our liberal religious tradition at the same time as we are seeing an increase in the number of extremely illiberal religious voices in our culture. Coupled to that is the re-emergence of active and extremely effective extreme right-wing parties across Europe. There are more examples I could add at this point but these two will suffice for me to make the claim that, just as taking a flower from Čapek’s vase in 1924 entailed risk and courage, taking it today, if you really understand what it means, still entails risk and courage. Taking a flower from this vase is not to engage in some pointless piece of nice liberal fluffy-bunny stuff and nonsense but to witness to your real intention to stand up to and face down the fascists, racists, religious and political bigots and extremists that are increasingly finding a place in our European societies.

This is the hard, present particular reality of this service but, as you take a flower I ask you to remember that we also touch something strong and gentle, that is nothing less than the hope and vision that lay at the heart of Čapek's faith, those of the Czechoslovak (and now Czech) Unitarians and, I hope, the faith I try to encourage in myself and all of you. I can do no better than conclude with Čapek's own words on what this vision was and remains:

"My conviction is that my life has meaning and purpose if I live in God and for God . . . Anytime I want something only for myself, and anytime I hesitate to forgive, tolerate, suffer for truth, or sacrifice for goodness — it is me in separation from God. But anytime I want only truth and goodness and enjoy goodness and truth wherever it appears, and anytime I roll up my sleeves to start work that will serve the human whole and the world to progress so that everybody will live and breath in a better way — it is God in me, who is in all other people in the same way. Then God’s spark glimmers in me which is connected with all others in the whole universe as the source and substance and manifestation of the eternal fire, the fire of God" (Doláck, P., The Theology of Norbert Fabián Čapek, Faith and Freedom 54, part 2, no. 153, London 2001, p. 129-130).


For those interested in following up something of the contemporary relevance I see in the Czech Unitarian experience see my chapter The Religious Society of Czech Unitarians (RSCU) and the construction of Czech National identity in The Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity: Faltin, Lucia and Wright, Melanie J. (eds), Continuum Press, London 2007.