Thursday, 29 April 2010

Religion is not a delusion but a quest for 'home'. Let's locate this here on earth, says Peter Thompson

I keep meaning to post a link to this Face to faith column from 2007 by Peter Thompson in which he introduces Ernst Bloch and now have finally got round to doing it. Here it is:

Religion is not a delusion but a quest for 'home'. Let's locate this here on earth, says Peter Thompson

Peter Thompson has recently written an excellent introduction to a reprint of Bloch's Atheism in Christianity.

The picture  is of a sculpture called Endlose Treppe by Max Bill, and is dedicated to the Principle of Hope by Bloch.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Astonishment or surprise? - or riding the crest of the world's continued birth

Last week I addressed head on a feeling that I know is prevalent amongst many of us, namely, that a belief that there exists either a theistic God or a transcendental realm "out there" which roots our earthly life and gives it meaning no longer strikes us with the force of inevitable knowledge. I noted that it is the case that increasing numbers of people are forced to agree with Hölderlin's thought with which he begins his poem "Germania":

. . . the blessed, who once appeared,
Those images of gods in the ancient land,
Them, it is true, I may not invoke . . .


I was concerned that such a feeling disenchants our world because the meaning, weight and importance - which used to be vouchsafed by God - no longer seems to have a "root" or "source". However, I did not think all was lost and went on to suggest that although we *may* not invoke God (because we don't think God is there) we *can* - indeed do - still invoke God but we find that what comes to us is not, of course, God, but only the space God used to inhabit. I noted that this imaginative space could still be called and felt as sacred - for after all it was the place God used to inhabit - and I cited the philosopher, Timothy Clarke, who suggested that it was "an empty space that might one day be filled but which for the present can only be kept open, safeguarded from obliteration" (Timothy Clarke, "Martin Heidegger", Routledge 2002, p. 110).

I concluded by suggesting that perhaps our task as a contemporary religious community was to do just this and not to succumb to the temptation to fill the sacred imaginative space opened up by the passing of God merely by replacing God with new and equally untrustworthy idols.

All well and good - and from your various positive reactions last week I take it that it is, broadly speaking, all well and good - but that still leaves many unanswered questions about how we might go about achieving this.

In the coming weeks I'll try to offer a few practical suggestions - it won't quite be a full scheme of works but it is as close to that as I can get at present. But a useful first step is to be aware of the appropriate attitude to our situation and task. The philosopher Mark A. Wrathall observes that:
 
"The search for a new source of divinity . . . becomes a question of finding a mood, a mode of attunement, which will allow things to show up as having weight or importance. By the same token, the inquiry into the death of God needs to be understood in affective terms - that is, as orientated around the question of the mood appropriate to the death of God"
(Mark A. Wrathall in Religion after Metaphysics, CUP 2003, p. 73).

So what might that mood or mode of attunement be? Well, a couple of weeks ago I re-introduced you to the work of the anthropologist Tim Ingold via some observations he made in an essay entitled "Rethinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought" (Ethnos, Vol. 71:1, March 2006 pp. 9-20). In that same essay he says something which points towards an answer by distinguishing surprise from astonishment. Here is how he presents surprise:

"Surprise . . . exists only for those who have forgotten how to be astonished at the birth of the world, who have grown so accustomed to control and predictability that they depend on the unexpected to assure them that events are taking place and that history is being made."

It is not that surprise has no place in our life, of course, but it is vitally important to note Ingold's point that we are only ever surprised when we allow ourselves to be seduced into thinking that we have got everything nailed. Consequently, surprise seems appropriate only as part of the overall learning process and so functions as a healthy reminder to remain open to the fact the world will go its own way regardless of the theories we develop when we try to hold the world solely to *OUR* account. Surprise does, therefore, have a real use at certain points in the ongoing human endeavour to understand the world and our place in it.

I think it seems reasonable to suggest that, on the whole, Western European culture has been surprised rather than astonished by the death of God - by which I mean the God of theology. But of course that should come as no surprise to us - pun intended - because the God of theology was very much geared towards control and predictability. If we could find ways to know this God (often in ways we thought, falsely, were analogous to the developing natural sciences) then the world - including the moral world - would for us become increasingly predictable and, therefore, increasingly controllable.

But, as we know, the world has gone on regardless and, to cite Charles Taylor, for us "conditions have arisen in the modern world in which it is no longer possible, honestly, rationally, without confusions, fudging, or mental reservation, to believe in God" (Charles Taylor in Religion after Metaphysics, CUP 2003, p. 53).

In passing - but very importantly - I want to say that when I am talking about the world here I am not just using the word "world" to mean the universe "conceived as a totality of objects of a certain kind" but also the world (or worlds) in which we live - i.e. the worlds of our practices, what Heidegger (in Being and Time) calls "the 'public' we-world, or one's 'own' closest (domestic) environment" (93)[65]. This is actually very important and there are some other distinctions to make on this matter but I'm just going to have to let them go for the moment.

However, as Ingold goes on to say:

"By contrast, those who are truly open to the world, though perpetually astonished, are never surprised. If this attitude of unsurprised astonishment leaves then vulnerable, it is also a source of strength, resilience and wisdom. For rather than waiting for the unexpected to occur, and being caught out in consequence, it allows them at every moment to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity."


It seems to me that "astonishment" is a "mood, a mode of attunement" that is entirely appropriate to our present situation after the death of God. But the question is how might we cultivate it?

Well we may make an effective start - in fact we have already made a start - by taking as our guides any person whose work clearly encourages this openness to the world - whose work doesn't hubristically seek to close down possibilities, whose work is not merely an attempt to describe and, therefore, control the world and predict its various outplayings. In the words of Ingold these are people who "ride the crest of the world's continued birth" (Ingold p. 19). Importantly we must realise that these surfers include both scientists and artists. I'll return to scientists in a moment if only because Ingold is not as positive about science as he might be.

One of the reasons I am taking a good long look at Mary Oliver at the moment is because she is one such person who clearly rides the crest of this wave - that is the world's continued birth. Recall her poem "At Blackwater Pond" that we looked at last week (you can here here read it here):

At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?


I'm sure, now it has been pointed out by Ingold, that you can see Oliver's response to the cool water is astonishment not surprise. Surprise knocks you back because something has gone "wrong" with the way you thought the world worked - in its positive use this will help you to reassess things and go back to the world more respectfully. Astonishment, however, is an instantaneous heeding of a call from the depths of being (yours and the world together) to look deeper, or to remain with the surfing image, in the moment of astonishment - such as in the drinking of a glass of cool water - you can't help but help ride the crest of its wave deeper into the world.

Jesus, too, provides an example of someone who seemed constantly able to ride the crest of the wave that is the "world's continued birth". If you look at the way he responds to the world - in all its guises - he constantly responds with astonishment rather than surprise. It's his disciples who, for the most part, show surprise at the things that happen. But, if we able to connect with his spirit we cannot, alas, now connect with what he thought was the source of divinity - for us that God (the idea of that God) is dead. That is why I am pleased to belong to a church that meets in the "spirit of Jesus" not in the "beliefs (or imputed beliefs) of Jesus"

In the realm of science I particularly want to point to Erwin Schrödinger's wonderful 1944 book "What is Life?" a book that is full of astonishment - you get the real sense of a man riding the crest of a wave deeper into the world. (I'm sure many of you will be able to cite other such scientific texts - please do note them in the comments if you do - it i just that this is the only one I know reasonably well.)

As I said above, in the coming weeks I will try to offer you a few practical tools which can help us inhabit the world without God as we seek "a new source of divinity". However, in the meantime, I strongly suggest that you see if you can begin to be alert to the possibility of responding to things with astonishment rather than surprise. You'll undoubtedly fall off your surfboard more than a few times and will certainly get very wet and not a little dispirited. But do keep going, read authors like Mary Oliver and Erwin Schrödinger, be alert to their astonishment as well as Jesus'. If you do, and stick to it, then slowly but surely you will find you can ride the wave of the world's continued birth further each day.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Those images of gods in the ancient land, them, it is true, I may not invoke . . .

As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? (Psalm 42:1-2)

As this verse from the Psalms reveals the experience of having one's thirst quenched by cool water has long been closely connected with a belief that the experience of an encounter with God is, in some meaningful way, a similar experience.  Within Christianity this connection is most memorably gestured towards in the Gospel of John (Chapter 7) where, you will recall, Jesus describes his own teaching as being like water. 

It seems reasonable to suggest that for the authors of the psalm and the gospel this connection between water and God was obvious - in the phrase I am using at the moment "it had for them the status of inevitable knowledge"; it was for them a thought that didn't need to be thought since it was simply part of the unquestioned background out of which they acted. In cultures which felt and still feel the existence of God to be self-evident - and especially cultures which are centred in hotter climates - the extraordinarily wonderful experience of drinking cool water on a hot day *must* be like, in someway, the refreshment that comes with an encounter with God.

One aspect of this world-view that is important to note is that it offered its speakers a language in which one could express the feeling that the physical water we drink is, somehow, something more than it is - as the Roman Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain memorably put it "things always give more than they have." Another phrase that resonates in some way with this feeling is Wittgenstein's comment in the Tractatus that "The sense of the world must lie outside the world" (6.41). The point I want to get across is, of course, that the *feeling* I get when I drink cool water seems to involve something more than what I am tempted to call 'the simple facts' of the matter.

The Gospel writer and Jacques Maritain (and, I think in an odd way, even the early Wittgenstein) were all bewitched by the aforementioned unthought thought that this "something more" is "out there", is "in God"or at least some "transcendental realm".

But, as we know,  for many complicated reasons the thought of there being such a transcendental realm "out there" no longer strikes many of us today with the force of inevitable knowledge and ncreasing numbers of people are forced to agree with Hölderlin's thought with which he begins his poem "Germania":

. . . the blessed, who once appeared,
Those images of gods in the ancient land,
Them, it is true, I may not invoke . . .


(Note the important use of *may* - for it is clear we *can* still invoke the gods the question is whether we *may*. . .)

But this overwhelming feeling that I may not invoke the gods (or God) of old doesn't in any way mean the end of my very real human feeling that a drink of cool water really feels like it speaks meaningfully to me of "something more". But, in the absence of the gods or God is not this merely delusional? Should it not be abandoned as a mere childish dream?

But I'm not sure it this is and I want to show why via the human *phenomenon* - namely, the feeling that we label "something more". It relates, of course, not just to water, but countless other experiences in our lives that we feel enriches us. It concerns me because it is clear to me, both personally and because I hear it from others in the course of my ministry, that a collapse in the belief in the gods of old removes from many people, or at least significantly diminishes in them, the *meaning* of the many amazing, wonderful moments that we all experience and which I epitomize today in the experience of drinking cool water on a hot day.

I'm sure you know what I mean. I'm referring to the kind of thing that happens to your spirit whenever you hear an ardent modern reductionist materialist tell you that the feeling you get when you quench your thirst is simply the result of this or that physical-mental-chemical-electrical process and who then goes on to state categorically "that that's that." Now I - you - might not wholly believe this but, in a culture such as our own that has come to feel the results of the natural sciences as being inevitable knowledge, then I am, at the very least, a little upset and disorientated by these claims - after all they do feel real to me. I take the scientific world-view very seriously indeed. Consequently, my confidence in the reality of this "something more" *is* slowly chipped away and my world becomes a little more disenchanted whether I like it or not.

Although emotionally I'm tempted to challenge this disenchantment by a simple reference to God or the gods I can't because, as I have just noted, the culture in which I have been ineluctably shaped is such that "them . . . I may not invoke." (I have to say that I really cannot believe they exist.) In the face of this the chief temptation is, naturally, to stop bothering and throw in the towel and become a card-carrying atheist and I have come very, very close to that decision many, many times. However, chiefly because I hold the office of a "minister of religion" I have had to continue to invoke those gods, or as our Judaeo-Christian heritage puts it - God, and I have justified this because in my book you don't quit an important task just because you are going through a little local difficulty yourself. You really do have to ascertain, to the best of your ability, that your local difficulty is serious enough to say, "Enough, is enough."

Now the reason I'm being so open about this today is that it is only in the last 18 months or so, after years of thinking this through, or better *feeling this through*, that I have noticed something does actually "come" whenever I invoke the gods or God. It took me so long to notice this other "something" because the absence of God, or the gods, loomed so large I simply couldn't see anything else. I began to realise that when I invoked the gods what came was not the gods but, as Timothy Clarke put it , "an empty space that might one day be filled but which for the present can only be kept open, safeguarded from obliteration" (Timothy Clarke, "Martin Heidegger", Routledge 2002, p. 110). (I highly recommend this book).

Now I realise that on at first sight this thought will hardly strike many people as either cheery or uplifting but I think that this space - if inhabited wisely - may prove to be my salvation and, if what I am saying in anyway resonates with you, then perhaps it may prove to be your's too.

The first thing to realise is that the space which comes at the invocation is still "sacred" - after all it is the 'place' that the gods of old used to inhabit. So this is not just any a bleak empty abandoned space - like some empty cosmic car-park with rubbish blowing around it - but something that I want to describe as an expansive imaginative landscape that surrounds an ancient, though now clearly disused, temple. In other words, once the immediate shock that the gods have gone has passed,  it reveals itself as a space worth discovering and still clearly full of sacred possibility.

The second thing to realise is that, having invoked and identified this sacred and radically open imaginative space, we don't want to allow it to be misused or to destroy the possibilities its very openness and absence of the gods gifts us. Whenever such open places are identified it is often only a matter of time before the real estate agents and developers move in, ranging from the fundamentalists of traditional world religions to the countless variety of new-age faddists, because they see here an unrivaled opportunity to ship in their own religious/spiritual ephemera (tat?!) and practices as quickly as possible.  But this common option does not  strike me as at all an appropriate response to the opportunity before us and so I want to ask a question; a question which seems to me entirely appropriate for a day on which we hold our community's AGM and look both at what we have done in the past and also try to imagine what we might do in the future. I wonder if it might not be our sacred task simply to hold open this sacred imaginative space to give us and our culture time properly to mourn the death of the gods (God) of old and, slowly, but surely to allow us the time and space gently to find an equilibrium and *sacred natural response* to the world that is appropriate to our present knowledge and experience?

I ask this because I'm more than a little concerned that in the present desperate attempts to find the new religious paradigm that will save our churches from irrelevance and/or closure (and I'm particularly thinking about churches at what we have called the liberal end of the spectrum) we will succumb to the temptation to fill the sacred imaginative space opened up by the passing of the old gods merely by replacing the old idols with new and equally untrustworthy ones. I'm not sure that we are ready to fill the space nor am I at all convinced that we should fill it

If we have the confidence to bide our time and quietly inhabit this sacred space I think it can help slowly to bring our imaginations back into this world. Once the deafening echoes of the voices of the gods have truly died away we may be enabled to hear the still small (earthly) voice which reminds us the spiritual refreshment we seek is always heard in our own simple, perfectly *natural* responses to the wondrous gifts of nature. Here we may return to the thought of water as refreshment - of it being more than the simple "facts" of the matter - but to be able to do this from a quiet, mindful and attentive imaginative space that is no longer inhabited by the noisy gods (or God). The contemporary poet who seems to be able to do this - to articulate a sacred natural response - more gracefully than any other is Mary Oliver. Here, in her poem "At Blackwater Pond", she offers a truly wonderful illustration of this (you can hear her read it at this link).

At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?


Surely simply noticing this beautiful natural thing that happens to us is enough?

I think it is but this natural refreshment is only the beginning of a true and full life back in the world because as Oliver elsewhere notes, "properly attended to delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion". In the light of that she goes on to ask "Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit to no labour in its cause?"

Her answer, like mine, is NO! and her final empassioned, embodied and natural call is the one I leave you with today:

"All summations have a beginning, all effect has a story, all kindness begins with a sown seed. Thought buds towards radiance. The gospel of light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone."


(from "What I Have Learned So Far" in "New and Selected Poems. Vol. 2 p. 57).

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Doubting Thomas - trouble with surfaces

As Andrew Bethune noted in his Easter Sunday address last week, if you are attend (or minded to attend) this church you are highly likely - though there will be exceptions from time to time - you are highly likely to disbelieve in any literal reading of the Easter story. The most you will be able to do with it, and especially the various post-resurrection stories, is to interpret them metaphorically or symbolically and, perhaps, this is enough.

But I'm not so sure and, today, I'm minded to stick with the uncomfortable physicality of the story for another week. Primarily I do this because I really don't think that there is another world than this one. Or, better - and as I put it earlier this year - I do think there is another world but that it is this world seen differently.

One area of modern human endeavour that has helped us see the world differently - I think more clearly - is anthropology and one anthropologist whose work has contributed to my own thinking about the world is Tim Ingold from the University of Aberdeen. In a moment I'll introduce you to some of his thinking but firstly here is a very puzzling story from the Gospel of John (John 20:24-29 NRSV) that I want us to consider today:

. . . Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with [the other disciples] when Jesus came. So [they] told him, We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
    A week later [Jesus’] disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." 


These days the chief thing that strikes me about this piece of story-telling is that whilst it is affirmatory of what we might call the 'reality' and value of physical surfaces it simultaneously affirms what we might call their 'illusory' nature.

The 'real' physical surface foregrounded in the story - real in the way we commonly, and rather loosely, use this word - is, of course, that of Jesus’ body which Thomas believes he must, not only *look* at in order to believe, but also touch. For him only such an examinable 'thing' will stand up as legitimate knowledge. However, at the same time as the 'reality' of physical surfaces is being encountered by Thomas, that this 'real' physical Jesus has come into in the room whilst all its physical entrances are shut suggests we are also being asked in some way to see the world as one without such hard impenetrable absolute surfaces. Assuming that this isn't just an example of bad story-telling what on earth might the author be trying to say to us?

Now, in most churches, the address that follows such an observation would be an attempt to show that this 'proved' something about Jesus' divine status and what our relationship with him should be - as saviour, God incarnate or whatever. But to me, at least, this seems to be the least interesting and useful lesson we could draw from the text and here we can turn to Tim Ingold for help.

As I do this I want to be absolutely clear that I'm not claiming that what follows is the truth of the matter - I have never believed that there is one single truth to be drawn out of stories such as the one about doubting Thomas. Along with Philip Pullman (one of my story-telling heroes) I think it is perfectly legitimate to interpret such stories in all kinds of ways as long as the interpretation offered is done so "fairly and honestly, by reference to the text and not to any pretended secret key or private knowledge." I trust I shall not fail today in these respects.

One of the things Ingold and others have noticed about our Western European world-view is that for many complex, contingent reasons we have slowly come to think that legitimate knowledge of the world is only to be pursued by looking ever more closely at individual things. Consequently - especially in the natural sciences - we began to understand the world primarily in terms of 'objects of concern' - i.e. discreet individual things you were going to research - atoms, stars, starfish, hammers etc..

In a recent paper called "Rethinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought" (Ethnos, Vol. 71:1, March 2006 pp. 9-20) Ingold noted that in order to do this as observers, we had to place ourselves 'above and beyond' the very world we were claiming to understand. Ingold also observed that the 'conditions that enable scientists to know, at least according to official protocols, are such as to make it impossible for scientists to be in the very world of which they seek knowledge' (p.19). In a very real and tragic sense this way of encountering the world has increasingly made us homeless and feeling alienated. It may also be suggested that our profound disconnect with the natural world and our associated global ecological crisis could trace its roots to this view.

Although the new physics is encouraging us to reassess our world-view, by and large we - you and me - still silently and unquestioningly inherit the tendency to think of the world as only being made up of discreet independent 'objects of concern' all of which, and this is important, all of which have surfaces - boundaries which, in some way, definitively separate 'objects' from the 'environment' around them.

When you think about it you realise that the whole of planet earth itself is tacitly understood this way too - i.e. as a globe over whose surface we and all other things move, and upon which all things exist. Even our popular understanding of the sky is coloured by an obsession with surfaces. Ingold observes the following:

"Consider the definition [of the sky] offered by my Chambers dictionary. The sky, the dictionary informs us, is ‘the apparent canopy over our heads’. This is revealing in two respects. First the sky is imagined as a surface, just like the surface of the earth except, of course, a covering overhead rather than a platform underfoot. Secondly, however, unlike the earth’s surface, that of the sky is not real but only apparent. In reality there is no surface at all. Conceived of as such the sky is a phantasm. It is where angels tread. [. . .] the surface of the earth has become an interface between the concrete and the imaginary."

Ingold’s point is, I think, to alert us to the fact that such a world-view strongly encourages us to believe there exists definitive and absolute solid boundaries or surfaces between subjects and objects and so we Western-European moderns are sort of trapped in a bounded region - the self - surrounded by impenetrable surfaces, for ever disconnected from each other, ourselves and creation. This dilemma seems, to me at least, to be a modern version of hell and, I don't know about you, but I'd quite like to escape from this.

Ingold thinks there is such a way out and to begin this process he asks us to consider the world-view of peoples who hold animist viewpoints - that is to say peoples who attribute conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects. His work reveals that animists do not think of the earth or the sky as having surfaces, 'real or imaginary', but thought of them rather as a 'medium' *through* which all things move. Without necessarily becoming animists ourselves Ingold suggests that it might be helpful for us if *we* could find a way to "cease regarding the world as an inert substratum, over which living things propel themselves like counters on a board or actors on a stage, where artifacts and the landscape take the place, respectively, of properties and scenery."

It strikes me that in the light of the new physics this kind of language is beginning to sound to us radically less unlikely than it did when we were wholly under the spell of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment scientific world-views. Not only that but such a way of understanding being and being-in-the-world resonates strongly with those who think people like Heidegger and Wittgenstein were on the right track - which I do.

Given these factors it is clear (to me at least) that we need not become animists ourselves to reconnect with the insight that it might be a great deal healthier - and closer to the nature of being if we could think of ourselves as

1) moving *through* the world not *across* it;

2) not 'simply *occupying* the world' but '*inhabiting* it';

and lastly,

3) that it is as 'lines of movement' that we as beings 'are instantiated in the world' (p. 14).

Now, if you are minded to take these thoughts seriously then I hope that you can see why I think the most interesting aspect of our Biblical story doesn’t really concern Jesus’s status at all but rather the way the author uses the character of Jesus, who clearly moves *through* the world, not *across*, to articulate the insight that surfaces are *in* the world and not of it. I must make it clear here that this doesn't mean I now think the story actually occurred as the author presents it! I'm simply suggesting that the gospel writer simply gave us an approximation of his insight by giving it the 'semblance of objective reality' (cf. McGhee p. 119).

Interpreted thus we might be able to reclaim this story "fairly and honestly" for ourselves as, to be frank about it, certain kinds of disbelievers, and to do this without deception or "any pretended secret key or private knowledge." What the story might then open up for us is not some story about the possibility of there being a God/Man in whom we must believe to secure our individual salvation but, instead, a profound call to come home and dwell securely in THIS natural world; to re-inhabit and walk *through* it gently and lovingly, recognising that somehow it contains no absolute surfaces and boundaries that divide us one from another and ourselves from the world, that our world is a stunning, beautiful and complex living unity through which our lives can dance and describe graceful and, I hope, grateful lines of movement.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Madwoman's Reason - The concept of the appropriate in ethical thought by Nancy Holland

I am very fortunate in having a bunch of people in the congregation who can put on excellent service and this Easter they arranged a splendid and thoughtful one - I was simply a member of the congregation for the day. What a treat!  So thanks to all of them. You can find the address given by Andrew Bethune here.

In this post I'm just going to point people to a link to a book I have ordered but which has not yet popped through my letter box. I do this because of the comments that came in connected with my last blog post:

Palm Sunday - "ein wirklicher Ausverkauf", a real clearance sale or there's no such thing as a free smorgasbord . . .

The book is called The Madwoman's Reason - The concept of the appropriate in ethical thought by Nancy Holland and, as you will see in the publisher's blurb pasted below it seems that it might be well worth reading. You can also view chunks of the text at Google Books.


“Nancy Holland has taken Heidegger's central concept of 'appropriation' and shown how it can provide a springboard to a new and promising approach to ethics. Her discussion is at once clear and creative and will appeal to both Continental thinkers and Anglo-American ethicists. Holland has removed Heidegger from the mystics and placed him in conversation with those for whom the questions of right and wrong are most urgent.” —Todd May

“Holland has a fine grasp of the overarching issues in ethics and offers numerous insights into the history of Western ethics. Her intelligent and challenging book attempts to broaden and deepen the framework of contemporary ethical discourse.” —Choice

An effort to find a middle way in ethics between relativism and foundationalism.

Taking Jean Giraudoux's play The Madwoman of Chaillot as its starting point, this book seeks a way out of the dilemma that confronts those who feel that any nonrelativistic moral theory requires some metaphysical foundation but cannot see how a foundational position can be persuasively defended.

Nancy Holland draws on the work of Heidegger and Derrida to formulate a concept of appropriate action that can address both extraordinary ethical problems within a particular cultural tradition and moral conflict between different cultures. Her feminist reappropriation of the concept of the appropriate is then further developed by reference to Aristotle and Kant, whose ethical theories, she argues, are independent of their metaphysics, thus suggesting that moral evaluation can rely on a deep understanding of what it is to be human within a cultural tradition rather than on foundational premises. As an example of the application of her theory, Holland examines the problem of ordaining women in the Roman Catholic Church and then goes on to compare her approach with that of other philosophers working in virtue theory, postmodern ethics, and feminism.

We all want to be able to make valid moral judgments and to respect the ethical values of other cultural groups. By suggesting that a culture's sense of the human, and a correlated sense of appropriate action, might provide a purely formal but still critical perspective on any community's current beliefs and practices without invoking any substantive external criteria, the concept of the appropriate is offered as one way in which we can satisfy both our moral wants and our intellectual needs.

Nancy J. Holland is Professor of Philosophy and Coordinator/Director of Women's Studies at Hamline University. She is the author of Is Women's Philosophy Possible? (Rowman and Littlefield, 1990) and editor of Feminist Interpretations of Jacques Derrida (Penn State, 1997).


Happy Easter to you all.