Tuesday, 21 July 2009

En vacance until September 13 . . .

Just a quick note to all those who follow this blog to let you know that Susanna and I are on leave now until Sunday 13th September and I have every intention of taking a proper break this year. This means I'm unlikely to be posting much, if anything, until then. Thanks for all your input over the last year and I'll 'see' you all again in September. Have a wild time out there.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Words and Transgressions 4 - The Fallacy of the Missing Hippopotamus

This is the last of four addresses following some examples given by the psychiatrist Maurice O'Connor Drury in his book the "Danger of Words".

We begin with a discussion that took place between Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein in which the latter illustrated something of what he was trying to say by using the following example:

"Suppose I state 'there is an hippopotamus in this room at this minute, but no one can see it, no one can hear it, no one can smell it, no one can touch it; have I now with all these added provisos said anything meaningful at all?'"

Although the sentence structure here makes grammatical sense most of us would answer, "Surely not!" and Drury points out that within scientific circles a statement such as this that can neither be verified nor refuted has no place. That much we would probably all agree with. After giving a couple of direct examples of missing hippopotami in his own field of psychology and psychiatry he concludes:

"I think we must all be on the watch that in psychology and psychiatry we take care to formulate hypotheses which are capable of being refuted. No more missing hippopotami please."

At this point we should turn to religion - our reason for being here today - and I draw your attention to an aphorism that has been much quoted in liberal circles which I have brought before you at other times, namely, "Unquestioned answers are more dangerous than unanswered questions."

I first came upon this aphorism when, as a student pastor, I was asked to put up a poster with it on in front of one of our churches. As I was pinning it up a senior member of the congregation walked by and commented that this was something that Christianity needed to take seriously and contrasted 'their' approach (a huge and inaccurate generalisation for there is no single thing called Christianity) to the attitude of his own Unitarian church. I pointed out that his church had many of its own unquestioned answers. For example, that God is best thought of as being indivisibly one. I suggested that some relational conceptions of God and unity - of which the Trinity is but one - actually offer some useful and helpful ways of thinking about the complexity of our world and that perhaps we should question, now and then, in what consists our Unitarian position. That wasn't – and isn’t - to say it should be abandoned, just that we should keep questioning our answers on the matter.

I learnt a great lesson that day - not to stop challenging fixed ideas (those of you who know me know I continue to irritate many people by doing that) - no, I learnt that, despite its rhetoric, liberal religion is just as capable of keeping pet missing hippopotami as is any supposedly 'illiberal' religion.

It seems to me that, however we frame it, in our own liberal religious circles we must take great "care to formulate hypotheses which are capable of being refuted". However, what we cannot do is pretend that language we use in religious circles is like that used in science and so the verifications and refutations we must make are also going to be different from those that can be made in scientific circles.

To help articulate what that might look like I have spent some time in the recent past encouraging us look to the *use* made of religious concepts rather than to their apparent surface meanings and so, therefore, to always be asking Lenin's famous question "Who, whom?" - i.e. to ascertain who is doing what to whom and who suffers and/or benefits as a result of an idea or practice’s use.

But to be able to do this in a way that matches our desire to be as inclusive as possible in matters of belief and practice we need to find a practical way of deriving a genuinely liberal perspective rather than drifting into the damaging indecisive and, ultimately indifferent, relativism of recent years.

As far as I am concerned one of the ways we might achieve this that deserves our thought is offered up by Nietzsche under the title "perspectivism." He thought it vitally important to explore different perspectives on the same matter which, although they could seemingly contradict each other, were really best thought of as contributing to an individual’s development of a way of being in and understanding the world that could be, for them, as comprehensive (i.e. ‘objective’) as possible – even as it could never be definitive and objective (in the old fashioned sense of the word) for all people and all times. In his On the Genealogy of Morals, he memorably wrote:

But precisely because we seek knowledge, let us not be ungrateful to such resolute reversals of accustomed perspectives and valuations with which the spirit has, with apparent mischievousness and futility, raged against itself for so long: to see differently in this way for once, to want to see differently, is no small discipline and preparation of the intellect for its future “objectivity” – the latter being understood not as “contemplation without interest” (which is a nonsensical absurdity), but as ability to control one’s Pro and Con and to dispose of them, so that one knows how to employ a variety of perspectives end effective interpretations in the service of knowledge (III: 12).

This may simply be summed up as saying 'better knowledge means having a varied and rich understanding generated from the maximum possible number of perspectives' (Sedgwick p. 114).

Well, as a Christian church of sorts we have inherited just such a practical method from Jesus (though not always necessarily from Christianity). One method he regularly employed was to encourage his listeners to adopt a variety of perspectives in order to draw out the fullest meaning of a given situation and perhaps the most memorable example of such a story is that of the prodigal son.

Although this story is often understood to imply that the reader is to identify with the prodigal son himself. However, as Henri J.M. Nouwen beautifully shows in his book-long meditation on the story and the wonderful painting by Rembrandt found in "The Hermitage" in St. Petersburg, the story's fullness is only begun to found when we understand that we are really also being asked to inhabit the character of son who remained at home and that of the father. Even then the story's richness is not exhausted but, simply entering into the shoes of the three characters does enough to show you what might be achieved by exploring different and conflicting perspectives in the search for understanding and knowledge.

Luke 15:11–32 (NRSV)

Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

Nietzsche, that most vehement critic of Christianity, said of Jesus that:

"This bearer of 'glad tidings' died the way he lived, the way he *taught* - *not* 'to redeem humanity', but instead to demonstrate how people need to live. His bequest to humanity was a *practice*" (Anti-Christ 35).

And at the heart of that practice was his ability to encourage the development of the widest perspective possible so that we, in turn, can encourage the most genuine, though always difficult, inclusivity that we have called the kingdom of Heaven on earth. But the kingdom of Heaven on earth, though it will assuredly contain hippopotami, must never be allowed to contain missing hippopotami – so, always question your answers even as you try to live them as the deepest truths you know. To do anything less is to betray the truly inclusive spirit of Christ.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Words and Transgressions 3 - The Fallacy of Van Helmont's Tree

Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580–1644) was a Flemish chemist, physiologist, and physician and one of his most famous experiments was one which tried to figure out how and from where plants get their mass. He decided to grow a willow tree and he began by measuring the weight and amount of soil, the weight of the sapling and the water he added. After five years the plant had gained 74.47kg (go to the bottom of the page found if you click this web link for the figures) and, since it had received nothing but water and the soil weighed practically the same as at the beginning, he argued that the increased weight of wood, bark and roots had been formed from water alone.

Now, it is vitally important in the telling and hearing of this story to realise that this conclusion, although we know it today to be false, was made on the basis of the most careful experimental methods of the time - methods which were determined to factor out mere human opinion by looking at the ‘facts’ of the matter alone.

Knowing this it should be relatively clear that the fallacy of Van Helmont's tree is that carefully planned and well executed investigations may be completely misleading simply because of a basic ignorance of all the possible factors involved in some phenomenon or set of phenomena.

Faced with this realisation it is clearly necessary in our world, not only to collect scientifically verifiable empirical data but, and it is this matter that I wish to bring before us today, to keep our whole being open to everything that comes our way. If you have been at the last two services you will know that I have been following some examples of this given by the psychiatrist Maurice O'Connor Drury in his book the "Danger of Words" and in the section on Van Helmont's tree he alerts us to the importance of remaining open to anecdotal evidence, saying:

"Not that we should publish these anecdotes; that would merely add to the confusion. But we should have our eyes and ears open, and our pens ready to note down in our case-books, every incident or remark that seems in any way novel or strikes our attention."

Wise advice I think. But with regard to religion the problem has been that it has spent most of its time in anecdotal mode. After all its foundational documents were written at a time and with a mindset that for the most part encountered, and shared their experience of the world with others in this fashion. In the contemporary context - where scientific evidence has become so important and culturally prevalent it should come as no surprise to us that many of us are simply not (in fact cannot be) prepared to give any real, substantial weight to that kind of anecdotal evidence.

But, as the fallacy of Van Helmont's tree clearly reveals, to go solely by current scientific evidence and to draw from it anything like the conclusion that an absolute answer has been obtained, is liable to lead you (perhaps, to some extent, always lead you) to false conclusions - no matter how careful and rigorous you have been in your initial testing and methods. Anecdote, in Drury's account, is best understood as a strategy, method even, of ensuring that we keep our whole being open so we are not led hopelessly and definitively astray. Anecdote is something which can keep us alive to the unexpected and the previously unseen. That means we should take it seriously without, necessarily, believing its accounts to be true.

It seems to me that this is a key way we might begin to offer up to sceptical people one real tangible, understandable practical purpose of a liberal religion. It can be argued that we are offering one way (derived in our case from the Christian tradition) of practising the discipline of keeping our whole being open to the unbelievably complex world in which we live and move and have our being and, at the same time giving us a practical way of living with that openness and not-knowing by following the example of Jesus; a man who did that par excellence. Remember his teaching "Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8). Think, too, of his parables of the kingdom which don't answer the question of what it is but always invite the question "How is that like the kingdom of Heaven?" He said that the kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed (Matt 13:31, Mark 4:31, Luke 13:19); what else can you do but ask "How is that so?" and then think.

Understood this way following Jesus can be understood to be a way of training ourselves to remain alert to the presence of God in the world, or, if you struggle with the word God one can simply say it is to be alert to the things unseen via the world of things seen. In saying this *please* realise that this isn't necessarily to posit a supernatural world (indeed I, personally, do not believe in anything that is beyond Nature even as I admit that there will almost certainly things about nature which will remain inaccessible, unseen, and even unseeable, about it); but, even as I, personally, hold a naturalist view of the world I don't seek to exclude the possibility that I am wrong so I do not rule it out absolutely; the example of Van Helmont's tree reminds me of the foolishness of that! All I am saying - as Van Helmont discovered - is that no matter how careful you are, even in the hard empirical sciences, something of vital importance is always going to be missed by us.

Therefore, contrary to much popular opinion, I would like promote a religious outlook that is not so much concerned to discover and articulate truth but rather one which can ensure that truth may continually be sought - that the revelation or discovery of unfolding truth is not obstructed by the creation of fixed dogmatic positions; that unfolding truth is not obscured by religious or scientific dogma.

In my opinion, liberal religion can be strong guardian of a disciplined, practical openness. This clear practical discipline may be one way of interpreting Jesus' statement about the way to life being through a narrow gate.

"Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matthew 7:13-14).

The narrow gate being understood to refer to a disciplined openness to the world in its fullness. The trouble with much contemporary liberal religion is that it has lost a reason to be disciplined - and here is a damned good reason to get it back.

This isn't, of course, to say that the way we in this liberal Christian church have the only narrow gate going, but only to state that it has (or can develop) a practical method of careful disciplined observing - not only of facts but also of religious or spiritual anecdotal evidence that comes from being an embodied creature with all our impressions, feelings, experiences, stories.

As your minister I'm interested in creating a genuine integrated relationship between the methods and discoveries of the sciences and also the open-ended practical insights into how we might live and move and have our being that are possible via a religious practice. The trick is not to mix them thoughtlessly and inappropriately and to think that they are saying precisely the same thing, but to see them as working together to ensure that humankind continues to enlarge and deepen its conception of both the universe as a physical, material realm and also our place in it as beings that understand ourselves to be both physical and spiritual beings.

(Excursus: To say what I have done in the previous paragraph in such a fashion is to risk being seen as still captivated by an essentially dualist mindset – i.e. dividing the world in some way into mind and body – but remember I’m saying this as a non-dualist who has come to the conclusion – via Spinoza read through the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Paul Wienpahl – that old style metaphysics simply makes no sense.)

Anyway, the final aim of this? Well, it is that to which I constantly return - namely that Jesus felt he came, taught and showed what he did so that we "may have life, and have it abundantly." But it seems to me that we can only have that abundant life if we learn the lesson of Van Helmont's tree (which I think Jesus knew intuitively) and keep ourselves alive to the wondrous and beautiful complexity of our world by never believing we have got all the information to hand and can answer anything for all time and all people and to live a finished, perfected life. As Jesus said, even though we should continue to move towards such perfection in truth that possibility is only obtained ‘in’ God (Matthew 5:8).