Tuesday, 30 September 2014

"The Religion of Autumn" and "Unity" by John Goodwyn Barmby (1820-81) — a nineteenth-century Unitarian Christian Pantheist

Today I spent a long while in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden mostly walking and thinking but also reading a few selected passages of Henry Bugbee's "Inward Morning" and Bashõ's "Knapsack Notebook" in preparation for next Sunday's Harvest address. The Garden was looking spectacular and I include in this post just a few of the photos I took today.

However, while I was walking at one point my mind went back to an address given last Saturday afternoon in at the Norwich Unitarian Chapel (The Octagon) by the Revd Cliff Reed who particularly drew on a passage about autumn written by John Goodwyn Barmby (1820-81).

Barmby was born in Yoxford, Suffolk. In his youth, he was very active in radical politics. In Suffolk, he was a leading Chartist and, while still in his teens, he spoke at political rallies and helped to form the East Suffolk Working Man's Association. He moved to London and initiated several radical projects in politics and publishing. In 1840, on a visit to Paris, he coined the word 'communist', and used it to describe his political philosophy, His communism was, however, based on Christian principles (rather than being derived from Marx and Engels) and, in a letter of about 1846 to the Ipswich Unitarian John Glyde, he stated 'that early Christianity was Communism'. His Christianity was unorthodox, though, and tended towards pantheism.

In the late 1840s Barmby became a Unitarian under the influence of the Rev. William Johnson Fox M.P., a Suffolk man as radical in his religion as he was in his politics. Barmby began to preach in the Unitarian church in Southampton, and entering the ministry served congregations in Devon, Lancaster and Wakefield. He applied unsuccessfully for the Ipswich pulpit in 1854. Although his politics moderated a little with age, he remained both radical and socialist and was very active in the campaign for universal suffrage. Retiring to the family home — 'The Vines'— in Yoxford in 1879, he held services there 'which were notable for their intensely devotional and liberal spirit'. He died on 18th October 1881, his funeral being held in the Framlingham Unitarian Meeting House. He is buried in Framlingham town cemetery, Fore Street, where his gravestone describes him as 'Preacher and Poet and true worker for God and his fellow men'.

Firstly, here is his poem "UNITY". It can be found in his 1864 volume "The Return of the Swallow and Other Poems". It clearly reveals his pantheistic tendencies:

Existence is composed of circles, all 
In one great circle, and the centre — GOD. 
There is one common life for star and clod,— 
The clouds which rise, again in rain must fall. 
All things are one, in progress and in end; 
And as the individual man must be 
Free to form part of free society, 
Before in truth he calls the king his friend, 
So must each nation, crowned with liberty 
As with a glory, dwell in its own light, 
By others hindered not; until, God-led, 
Of its own free will it longeth to be wed. 
And joineth hands with others. Glorious sight! 
One world, one people, and one common Head! 

And here is the chapter entitled "THE RELIGION OF AUTUMN" from which Cliff drew some extracts. It can be found in Barmby's 1865 volume, "Aids to Devotion; or, Religious Readings in the Order of the Natural and the Christian Year":

GOD is deep in nature. God is the God of the seasons. As their poet sings in his sublime hymn: 

“These as they change, Almighty Father! these 
Are but the varied God. The rolling year 
Is full of Thee.
Thy bounty shines in autumn unconfined, 
And spreads a common feast for all that lives.”

The fruits of autumn are like the good works of religion. As the tree is known by its fruits, so is the soul by its deeds. There is a virtue, however, in season and out of season, and still there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to sow and a time to reap. The season for us is the present season, whether it be spring or autumn, seed-time or harvest. One season depends, nevertheless, upon another. If we sow not good seed in the spring-tide of our youth, we shall reap tares, and not wheat, in the autumn of our age. The Author of nature is the God of mercy — His mercy shines throughout all His works. Behold the autumnal crocus! Its delicate lilac flower rises from the ground, frail and naked, with no sheath to keep firm its tender petals, and with no foliage to shelter it from the inclement blast. Yet God preserves that fair and tender blossom; and if we bloom in like circumstances of adversity, how much more will He preserve us? 

Who has not rejoiced in the work of the harvest? How beautiful are the fields when they are ready for the reaper! From the green shoot of spring to the golden stalk of summer, with what changes of colour have they blest the scene ! And the cornfields of autumn — how richly brown or how delicately fair do they bow as if in homage to the passing breeze, as the breath of God; or stand under the stillness of the sky, like meek disciples gathered in quiet adoration, and calmly awaiting the reapers, as these await the celestial husbandmen, to gather them into the ripe sheaves of harvest! 

What religious inspirations are to be derived from the harvest-field! In the fields waving with the golden grain, which is at once food for the body and independence for the mind, how generously good appears the character of the Divine Author of nature! By the benignity of the God-made laws of nature, those corn-fields glow, those ripe harvests wave in amber richness, the uncoined wealth of mankind. In the series of the seasons, the Deity has ordained their growth and perfection. Thus bless we God for the general beneficent laws which He has ordained through-out nature. Yet let us not forget that His kindness is united with His wisdom. Our God, our universal Father, is God the Light as well as God the Love. He has even in His generous gift of harvests acted as a considerate as well as kind Parent. He has granted us the season of harvest, but He has given us motives for preparing for it. Unless we culture our ground, our harvest will be barren. Hence we have a motive for industry, which is ever the enemy of vice and the friend of virtue and true religion. Not the idle hand, listless with ennui, or, if ever active, active for no good purpose; but the working hand — that noble hand! that holy hand! tanned though it may be with sultry suns and horny and hairy with excess of toil — should rightly, according to God's law, reap the harvests of the world and garner the sheaves of a generous autumn! The honest labours of the field are intimately allied with the good works of the spirit. The industrious is rarely a vicious, generally a moral, man. Were physical labours more general, the harvest of spiritual virtues would become greater. 

The religion of autumn is often sad. It preaches of the falling leaf, of the dying year, of the departing soul. There is a dirge-like note in its anthem to God, a toll as of a passing bell upon the autumn winds. The funeral service of the year is chanted by its hollow echoes. As the corn falls beneath the sickle, so do men die under the scythe of the reaper Death. The dirge of the falling, leaf mingles mournfully with the autumnal breeze as it sobs amid the fading woods; and we remember the lines of Ebenezer Elliott— 

“Drop, drop into thy grave, old leaf! 
Drop, drop into thy grave. 
Thy acorns sown, thy acorns grown — 
Drop, drop into thy grave ; 
Autumnal tempests rave, old leaf ! 
Above thy forest grave, old leaf ! 
Drop, drop into thy grave.”

Yet even the woods of autumn may afford a glorious and consoling prospect. They fade from the vernal green of their youth, but in the autumn of their age they are brightly clothed in leaves of red and yellow, and look smiling in their decay, like virtuous patriarchs whose old age is beautiful with the glowing deeds of a well-spent life; while the very fall of the leaf of such trees has a music in it, which sings of an enriched ground, whence shall arise heirs as glorious in bole and foliage as their forest ancestors. May Autumn thus console us ; may she heal the wounds she gives; and may we ever find in external nature a blessed revelation of God's love for us! And may Leigh Hunt’s beautiful words be realized, and our earth go on — 

“Growing harvests of all good 
Day by day, as planets should, 
Till it clap its hands and cry, 
Hail, redeemed Humanity! 
Earth has outgrown want and war! 
Earth is now no childish star!” 

Monday, 29 September 2014

"I put a capital N on Nature and go there" — walking the sylvan nave at Wandlebury Country Park

The sylvan nave on this morning's walk 
This morning I decide to go a-walking at one of my favourite spots, Wandlebury Country Park. One of the many splendid sights to see there is the magnificent avenue of beech trees that runs out of the park to the north-east to join the Roman Road and I never fail to walk into this sylvan nave, stop, and recognise that, for me, it is only in Nature that I feel I have truly returned to my "mother church".

As we move into autumn and the leaves begin to fall the "architectural" quality of the avenue becomes ever clearer and this put me in mind of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright's interview with Mike Wallace in 1957. Wallace asked Wright: "Do you go to any specific church?" Wright replied:

"Yes, I go occasionally to this one, and then sometimes to that one, but my church I put a capital N on Nature and go there. "

Amen to that.

Below are a few more photos from today's walk.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Cosmopolitan society, the creative uncertainty of freedom — a meditation on the need for peace as we go to war again

Plaque in the church garden
Readings: A saying of Jesus: "Love your enemy. Ask God to prosper those who hurt you. Only then will you be a true child of the father. Loving those who love you needs no reward; even the unrighteous love. What merit is there in being kind to those who are kind to you? Your father is compassionate to all, as you should be" (in "The Sayings of Jesus" translated by Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia, Counterpoint, Washington 1996, p. 27).

"Cosmopolitanism" — from an entry in “A Dictionary of Continental Philosophy”, ed. John Protevi (Yale University Press 2006)

The notion that one’s identity is not determined solely or primarily by any racial, national or ethnic background. Diogenes and the ancient Cynics began the cosmopolitan tradition by forming the notion than an individual could have a primary identity apart from the one he or she inherited from the polis. In de-emphasising the value of class, status, national origin and gender, the Cynics simultaneously placed great emphasis on the value of reason and moral purpose. Here is the revolutionary idea that the Cynics achieved which is a given in the Western concept of personality and its concomitant dependence on dignity: regardless of how much one is deprived of the concrete goods that are constitutive of social identity, one possesses a larger universal identity grounded in reason, moral purpose and, above all, human dignity. Today, when contemporary cosmopolitans speak in terms of a universal human identity that they share with others, they are invoking concepts bequeathed to them by the ancient Cynics.

[. . .]

Cosmopolitans . . . in keeping with the pro-individual stance first evinced by Diogenes, are of the view that human socialisation takes place in a world where human intercourse takes place; in the multiple spaces that we inhabit and among the myriad of human beings with whom we interact and exchange stories, experiences, values and norms.  Strong cosmopolitanism repudiates the tendencies of cultural nationalism and racial ideologies to impute moral value to morally neutral features—accidents of birth such as skin pigmentation, national origin and ethnic background. Strong cosmopolitanism argues there is no one fundamental culture to which any one individual is biologically constituted and leaves the question of identity entirely to the individual. That is, individuals ought to be able to cull their own identities based on the extent to which their experiences and their life roles have allowed them to experience themselves as the persons they take themselves to be, rather than the passive wearers of tribal labels assigned to them by their culture or by the society at large.

From "The Meaning and Lessons of Unitarian History” (Earl Morse Wilbur, Starr King School of the Ministry, Oakland, CA, Berry Street Essay, 1920)

This whole consideration of the meaning of our history also casts some illumination on the frequently raised question whether our work is not now done and whether it is not now at length time for Unitarianism to retire from the field. Well, if the history of Unitarianism taught us that the principal meaning of the movement has been a purely doctrinal one and that the goal we have aimed at has been nothing more remote than that of winning the world to acceptance of one form of doctrine rather than another; then, if it were true that Protestant theology is now predominantly Unitarian, it would naturally follow that the purpose of our existence had been fulfilled. But if, as I have tried to make clear, the doctrinal aspect is but a temporary phase, and if Unitarian doctrines are only a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom, then our work is not yet finished; in fact, we have thus far done hardly more, as we have removed the obstacles which dogma had put in our way, than clear the decks for the great action to follow.

Address: Cosmopolitan society, the creative uncertainty of freedom — a meditation on the need for peace as we go to war again

As all of you will be aware by now, once again, we find ourselves citizens of a country at war in the Middle East, for the moment, Iraq. Going to war greatly disturbed me back in 2003 and it greatly disturbs me now. Once upon a time I could easily have said a great deal that is conventionally political about all this but I’m not going to do that here because, a) I think conventional left- and right-wing nation-state based arguments about this seem increasingly to miss something primordial and b) because here I want to concentrate on making visible that something more primordial that, wherever you stood, or stand, on this matter (and whether on the left or right), might help bring a tiny bit of clarity to the whole situation and, perhaps, might help us together (left and right) better to decide what might be a better, long-term approach to tackling organisations like ISIS.

As the Guardian commentator Simon Jenkins put it a couple of days ago, there is a “moment in any war when peace goes dumb. The cause is just. The enemy is in our sights, and the provocation is extreme. Blood races through tabloid veins. It is white feathers for dissenters.”

I am deeply disturbed that our current government is making peace go dumb by using the kind of rhetoric which makes a false division between ISIS and ourselves and between the “human and inhuman”. They are doing this, of course, because once you have demonised “the other”, it makes it easier to hold oneself up as being more human than “the other” and, let’s not forget, it makes killing “the other” much, much easier.  (Here we really should at least pause to recall Jesus' teaching.)

This process of demonisation always occurs in war but is particularly powerfully at work in the present situation because ISIS are quite deliberately giving everyone the necessary tools to ramp the rhetoric up. As far as we in the west are concerned we find this ramping up is possible because of the dreadful beheading videos ISIS have so far released; as far as those who find themselves face to face with ISIS, they find this is possible because of the almost unimaginably brutal massacres that are currently being metered out to any group that doesn’t subscribe to ISIS's take on Islam.

It is this kind of conscious action by ISIS that is allowing our government to engage so easily in classic “us and them” rhetoric and say the kinds of thing our own Prime Minister, David Cameron, said just a couple of days ago:

“The conflict in Iraq and Syria is shocking the world with its barbarity . . . The cruelty being meted out – beheadings, eyes being gouged out, rape – is horrific. It is literally medieval in character.”

So, to our list of “us and them” demonisations we can now add “medieval” in contrast to our “modern”. Now I don’t want to minimise in any way the extreme violence and cruelty being metered out by ISIS. Nor, actually, do I want to say that there is never going to be an occasion upon which we may have to fight them directly because, sometimes, as a last resort and no matter how much one may regret this, there do come moments when fighting is required. But what I do want to do is minimise — to the point of making it disappear — the idea that ISIS are "medieval" l and that they are, therefore, absolutely and fundamentally different to we "moderns".

Cameron’s claim that ISIS is medieval is false and we need to see through this to a deep structural commonality we share with them. It is worth saying at this point that what is revealed is not, at first, a particularly pretty sight to see. However, as the eighteenth-century French writer, Nicholas Chamfort (1741-1794) saw:

“If one wants to become a philosopher, one should not be discouraged by the first few unpleasant discoveries one makes when trying to understand men. It is necessary, if one is to know them, to overcome the repugnance they cause, just as an anatomist must overcome nature, its organs and his own distaste, in order to become a master in his art.”

What we can see is that we and ISIS share a general background culture of nihilism. The word comes, of course, from the Latin “nihil”, meaning “nothing”, and it refers to the deep sense that life is (or is threatening to become) without any objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. As Charles Taylor says in his important book "A Secular Age" (Harvard University Press 2007):

"We live in a condition where [now] we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and anxiety" (p. 11).

Thanks to modern communications technology this condition, of being able to see there are always other alternatives to our own ways of viewing the world, obtains today in nearly every corner of the globe.

Another author, James C. Edwards, succinctly sums up an initial consequence of this, namely, that:

". . . we have left ourselves no intellectually respectable way to dismiss the disconcerting thought that other, and radically different, forms of life have just the same claim on some sacred ground as does ours; namely no such claim at all. Our 'highest values' compete with the 'highest values' of others on what is looked at philosophically, a perfectly level field of battle" (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 47).

This nihilistic mood is, in our increasingly globalised world, a primary mood. Many people (especially those in religious circles) regret this mood and see it as highly negative. However, I'm one of those who does not so view it. I see nihilism as a real opportunity for humankind to bring about a much healthier and radically more democratic and cosmopolitan way of being in the world. Indeed, this positive way of being is where I am going to end up. But, firstly, let's remind ourselves about the two major responses of those who see the nihilistic mood as negative and regrettable: passive nihilism and active nihilism.

I've explored something of passive nihilism with you a number of times before because it has been the primary response in the liberal circles in which we mostly move. I appreciate that facing up to this tendency is not always comfortable for us, however, we must do it because whenever this passive nihilistic approach is adopted there develops what has, following Nietzsche, been dubbed a European or American “Buddhism” (not, of course, to be confused with other kinds of deeply located European and American socially engaged Buddhisms). To cite Simon Critchley, what this means is that “In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces, the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island” ("Infinitely Demanding", Verso Books, London 2007 p.5). The result is a “contemplative withdrawal, where one faces the meaningless chaos of the world with eyes wide shut” (ibid. p. 39). By the means of certain kinds of dislocated “pure” meditation and/or excessive consumerism the actual state of the world and its general nihilistic mood can, for the most part, simply be put to one side and forgotten.

Let's turn now to active nihilism. Simon Critchley notes that “the active nihilist also finds everything meaningless, but instead of sitting back and contemplating, he tries to destroy this world and bring another into being.” He feels that in our age the paradigmatic example of this is Al-Qaeda [and today we may add ISIS] and he goes on to say,

“The legitimating logic of Al-Qaeda is that the modern world, the world of capitalism, liberal democracy and secular humanism, is meaningless and that the only way to remake meaning is through acts of spectacular destruction, acts which it is no exaggeration to say have redefined the contemporary political situation and made the pre-9/11 world seem remote and oddly quaint. We are living through a chronic re-theologisation of politics” (ibid. p.5).

The brutal actions and words of ISIS clearly fit into this category of active nihilism. (And please note that people can, and do, move between passive to active nihilism).

Although all this needs a much fuller exploration than I can offer here, I hope that this is enough to help you see that there exists a deep structural relationship between passive and active nihilists, between a contemporary western secular approach and the approach of ISIS.

You see ISIS is not a medieval organisation at all but is thoroughly modern as we are — we are two sides of the same coin — and it seems to me that they are as disconcerted and/or scared as we are to discover there is no longer any “intellectually respectable way to dismiss the disconcerting thought that other, and radically different, forms of life have just the same claim on some sacred ground as does ours; namely no such claim at all.”

Our going to war, yet again, does not address this structural fear either in the members of groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda or in ourselves. All that going to war can achieve, falsely and highly destructively, is to inject a temporary sense of meaning into our lives, and the lives of the members of ISIS, through some claimed “justness of our cause in destroying the evil other”. Marx talked about religion being the opium of the people but, for our nihilistic age, engaging in our current conflicts to avoid dealing with the deeper fear I have just pointed to, seems to me to be more like the crack-cocaine of the people. (Crack, for those of you who don’t know, releases a large amount of dopamine into the brain which instantly induces feelings of euphoria, supreme confidence, alertness and increased energy. The trouble is that one's high only lasts a few minutes after which time dopamine levels in the brain plummet, leaving a person — or culture — feeling depressed and low. This is not a good strategy in the search for global meaning, wholeness and peace, it really isn’t.)

I can now move to the hope I alluded to in the middle of this address, namely to suggesting a way of proceeding that doesn't ignore our nihilist mood but which, instead, uses it to locate and firmly ground a more active, loving, just, democratic and cosmopolitan way of proceeding.

Nihilism’s greatest achievement has been the removal of absolute hierarchical certainties and, in doing this it simultaneously left us the gift, to borrow a phrase from the sociologist and great advocate of cosmopolitanism, Ulrich Beck, of “the creative uncertainty of freedom.”

The pressing question before us all — whether ourselves or members of ISIS — is how do accept both the loss of old absolutes and the giving of this new gift — the creative uncertainty of freedom?

This question is not answered, in fact cannot be answered, by war but only in times of peace, and this is why peace must not be allowed to be made dumb.

Our contribution to a long-term answer is two fold — firstly, it is continually to remind our society and its politicians that peace not war is required and, secondly, it is to be found in what we have discovered in our own communities’ history, namely, that doctrinal aspects (such as those currently promulgated by religious fundamentalists of all stripes) are but temporary phases in human life, by-products of a larger movement, namely the human quest for spiritual freedom.

Having experienced this ourselves we have a strong sense that Earl Morse Wilbur was right, “our work is not yet finished; in fact, we have thus far done hardly more, as we have removed the obstacles which dogma had put in our way, than clear the decks for the great action to follow” — the great action of building a cosmopolitan future in which there is a corporate embracing of the gift that is the creative uncertainty of freedom.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after death — Intimations of mortality and the joys of life on Great Wilbraham Common

Cows and bullocks on Gt Wilbraham Common
I was pretty much wiped-out by last week and, on Monday and Tuesday (my "week-end"), I didn't have a great deal of energy to spare. Still, there was enough to go out on Monday for a short cycle ride out to Fen Ditton with Susanna (my wife) to have a pub lunch by the river and, today, to cycle and walk the footpaths running from Cambridge over to Great Wilbraham Common.

I stopped for a very pleasant lunch on a footbridge over the Little Wilbraham River and again, for a flask of tea, on the Common itself.

As I have said, I was pretty tired and, as I drunk my tea, I felt the overwhelming desire to lie down in the warm autumn sun and have a quick doze. When I woke up, above me in the sky, at a height of perhaps only about fifty feet, was a Red Kite, and I watched him circle directly over me two or three times. Perhaps he had spotted some of his more usual fare nearby where I lay, a rabbit or mouse, but that was not how it felt — it seemed to me that this bird had come to take a good look at me to see if I might be a free lunch. It was only when I moved that he finally flew off to seek out a more promising spot on the Common.

Now this is a highly unusual experience in the generally safe English countryside and the only other time I have ever felt "eyed-up" as a target by an animal has been on those few occasions when I have found myself in a field with only a very large bull for company.

I was instantly minded of a poem I have long admired by the American poet Robinson Jeffers — but this time it had a substantially more visceral effect upon me:

Vulture by Robinson Jeffers

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside 
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up 
     in heaven, 
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit 
     I understood then 
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers 
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer. I could see the 
     naked red head between the great wings 
Bear downward staring. I said, 'My dear bird, we are wasting time here. 
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.' But how beautiful 
     he'd looked, gliding down 
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light 
     over the precipice. I tell you solemnly 
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and 
     become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes — 
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after 

(Robinson Jeffers: The Wild God of the World)

I was thrilled, both by the encounter with the Red Kite and by the fact that I, too, had felt something of the sorrow Jeffers felt — although I have to be careful here to make it clear, as Jeffers does, that my old bones still work and in my own life there seems still much work to be done (and which, usefully and joyously, can be done); but still, to be eaten by such a beautiful bird would surely be a sublime end — and, yes, what an enskyment, what a life after death.

I realise, of course, that this thrill is perhaps only going to be felt those of us who think "life after death" is not at all going to be about personal survival and everything about understanding, in the here and now (or under what Spinoza called "sub specie aeternitatis"), that it is all about being taken back into the hurley burley cycles of nature (natura naturans).

This thought about the "cycles of nature" sent me back to a poem by Gary Snyder called "For/From Lew" (in my memory, of course, because I had none of these texts with me on the Common). When we recorded the first Riprap CD we recorded a setting this poem and that experience sent me off to find out all about Lew Welch who quickly became a poet to whom I have constantly returned. You can read something of his life at this link but what is relevant here is that, after years of struggling with his own low sense of self-worth and a debilitating dependency on alcohol, he took himself off into the woods with a hunting rifle and was never seen again. People, like Gary Snyder, looked for him but no one found his body. There's no real mystery here for Lew's body was almost certainly eaten by wild animals or birds. Later, Gary Snyder, wrote the following poem, a kind of revelatory ghost story:

For/From Lew by Gary Snyder

Lew Welch just turned up one day,
live as you and me. "Damn, Lew" I said,
"you didn't shoot yourself after all."
"Yes I did" he said,
and even then I felt the tingling down my back.
"Yes you did, too" I said—"I can feel it now."
"Yeah" he said,
"There's a basic fear between your world and
mine. I don't know why.
What I came to say was,
teach the children about the cycles.
The life cycles. All other cycles.
That's what it's all about, and it's all forgot."

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader)

Well, still lying there in the sun, I remembered and the memory of it lifted my spirits. I got up to begin my ride home with real gratitude for "it all".

When I got home and opened up the volumes in which these poems appear by chance I opened up the Snyder book at the following poem:

For Lew Welch in a Snowfall by Gary Snyder

Snowfall in March:
I sit in the white glow reading a thesis
About you. Your poems, your life.

The author's my student,
He even quotes me.

Forty years since we joked in a kitchen in Portland
Twenty since you disappeared.

All those years and their moments—
Crackling bacon, slamming car doors,
Poems tried out on friends,
Will be one more archive,
One more shaky text.

But life continues in the kitchen
Where we still laugh and cook,
Watching snow.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader)

Well,  I'm writing this post in the kitchen where Susanna and I are laughing and cooking (Toad in the Hole). True, there is no snow falling, but there is a now an autumn chill in the air and we both know winter is not all that far away. But, yes, yes, yes, life continues in kitchen, here and all around the world and that is surely cause to celebrate and to lift a glass "To Life!", "To Lew Welch" and "To the Red Kite" who eyed me up for lunch.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Interweaving forms of decent dependency

The hurley burley of a French market at Velleron this summer
Friday saw, of course, Jonathan Harrison’s funeral. For those of you who don’t know, Professor Harrison was a regular attender of this congregation over the last ten years who became for me both a philosophical companion and friend on the way as I tried to see how I might, with intellectual integrity, be a religious naturalist — that is to say to live wholly without the God of theism — and yet still have a lively, religious sensibility and life.  (Here is a link to Jonathan's own website and here is a link to last Sunday's address about Jonathan's personal philosophy.)

As an atheist, albeit one with profound religious intimations, Jonathan was a man, like me and many of us here today, who could not — as you heard in last week’s address about his philosophy — bottom out our world upon the absolute ground of God.

In terms of Jonathan’s funeral as I, a non-theist, stood at this lectern conducting a religious service for my atheist friend, amongst a group of people with the most diverse range of philosophies and theistic and atheistic beliefs imaginable, I became powerfully aware that, from my own point of view, there was no absolute ground upon which I thought this service could be said to rest.

The lack of absolute grounds that I saw so clearly on Friday came as no surprise to me; it’s long seemed like this. But what made the matter of there being no absolute grounds to stand upon so striking was seeing this in the context of loss and grief. Dealing with loss and grief without any absolute grounds to stand upon, forced me to try to articulate to myself — and now to you — what it is in which I do trust; what it is in which I ground my life and which helps me move forward well (enough). I feel I need to do this because you so kindly continue to call me as your settled minister.

Here we may turn to our reading today in which we heard Stanley Cavell suggests that our going forward is

. . . a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation — all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life.’ Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying (Stanley Cavell, “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy” in Must We Mean What We Say?, Updated Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 52).

Cavell’s use of the word terrifying here is, I think, key. One may, intellectually speaking, be able to agree with Cavell’s view of what it is we are doing but there are always going to be moments when the lack of something absolute, permanent and God-like to ground it all will seem utterly terrifying — most pressingly, of course, at moments of loss.

It is at these, heart-stopping moments, that there often arises a powerful temptation, explicitly or implicitly, to reintroduce into play an absolute ground — a conventional God — upon which a person believes they can surely depend. My continued use of God-language meant that, at times, Jonathan certainly thought I was trying to do just this and, every now and then he would accuse me of backsliding in my atheism! It was somewhat amusing to me — and I’m sure to Jonathan — that a conversation such as this would occur between a minister and congregant immediately after Sunday service at the Clarendon Arms over lunch and beer.

Let’s stay with the understandable human desire for some kind of absolute dependence in the face of the terror invoked by a lack of absolute grounds. On what kind of God might we depend — that is to say, reasonably ground our life — that isn’t, to borrow a phrase from Edward F. Mooney, “A Strong Force, An Office of Cosmic Management, nor An Inscrutable Interventionist”?

Well, Mooney, in his own work on Søren Kierkegaard, “aimed [to offer his readers] a kind of coverlet or quilt whose patterns evoke a God on whom a self could depend” that was not this kind of strong force. Mooney tried to lead “toward this patterned design by interweaving forms of decent dependency that we can recognize apart from any larger figure of divinity or commitment to a divinity on whom we depend.”

Left like that, this could all sound somewhat vague and insubstantial but here’s Mooney’s own, wonderfully grounded, analogy — one which shows clearly what he means by “interweaving forms of decent dependency”:

My son the scientist does fieldwork, counting bugs on flowers at 10,000 feet in Colorado. He teaches students how to use statistical methods to chart the results of that work. He does grunt work, running a lab, and joins ceremonies of celebration as papers get published and tenure gets awarded. His scientific sensibility is honed and expressed locally in many imbricated practices — fieldwork, lab work, looking at flowers and statistical distributions, running evidentiary checks, proposing explanatory models.  
These locally overlapping activities, loosely ceremonial practices, hang together as a sensibility. They can be pictured as having a nodal point or center of narrative gravity that hovers some distance above this dispersed variety of local sites – and we can call that point or center, ‘Science,’ or ‘the Spirit of Science.’ But to get the feel of this sensibility we don’t obsess on this hovering point or center but immerse ourselves in the local and quotidian, and we certainly don’t start with a detachable and prior commitment to — or belief in — a royal abstraction called “Science” or “The Scientific Method.” Initiates are thrown into the hurley burley collecting plants and learning names. Focusing on local assemblages of meaning and practice – lab work, model building, and so forth — frees them from the need to establish as a condition of local practice the necessary existence of a reified — “Science” or “Scientific Method.” There might be occasions to invoke such an entity commanding the devotion of masters and apprentices, perhaps in the service of rewarding the good or punishing the cheaters. But such occasions would be the exception (from the typescript of Chapter 2 of Excursions with Kierkegaard by Edward F. Mooney  all the quotations in this address by Mooney come from this text).

Reading this analogy only two days ago I experienced a genuine Eureka! moment — “Yes! (I said) that’s it, that’s exactly how I use the word God”.  (My gratitude to Ed Mooney for his insights on this matter is very deep indeed).

It helps me to say to you that, as your minister, I can see I no longer use the word God (god) as “a royal abstraction” but rather as something evoked by the patterns of our form of life together. I realise that I understand God (god) to be a word that emerges within the almost countless, overlapping human, this worldly practices that form our culture’s general hurley burley. I realise, too that I use the word God (god) as a “nodal point or center of narrative gravity that hovers some distance above . . .” our life together. One that only occasionally — for example on Sunday mornings and in certain other  exceptional situations like funerals — needs to be referred to.

Here’s an example from the day of the funeral of what it is I’m trying to get at.

Immediately after the funeral I, along with many others, was sharing some of my own memories of Jonathan. At one point I began to express my deep gratitude for Jonathan’s presence in my life and I found myself saying, without conscious thought, and quite naturally, that this presence had been for me a “God-send”. The people with whom I was talking — knowing both Jonathan’s and my own philosophy — immediately laughed at this because what I had said was clearly both right and wrong at the same time.

It was clearly wrong if the “God” bit of this word was understood as a “royal abstraction” — an absolute ground of being “out there” that was consciously doing the sending and over whose existence or non-existence we could argue endlessly and, mostly, pointlessly. But “God” was just the right word when it was understood as a nodal point or centre of narrative gravity. Citing (the contemporary British theologian) George Pattison, Mooney points out that “the choice is not: do I have to be a fundamentalist believer or a secularist, but: how can I best articulate this mysterious moment in which I realize my life is given to me, as if from another.”

In this sense, when I quite naturally said Jonathan was a “God-send” it was to help me tell a story which expressed my realisation that my life is given to me “as if” from another. I used it to indicate a recognition that both I and Jonathan were grounded in, and depended upon, the gift that is the complex “form of life” which allowed us both to be who we were and in which we were able to share “routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation.”

Under these circumstances, a religious naturalist like me calling a religious atheist like Jonathan a “God-send” is, I think, not to engage in any kind of backsliding as Jonathan feared but, instead, an entirely appropriate expression of a decent dependency “that we can recognise apart from any larger figure of divinity”.

As I stood here on Friday at this lectern I realised that what I felt grounded us all sufficiently — and in which I sufficiently trusted — was the patchwork quilt or coverlet being made with, before and around me, that is our constantly evolving hurley burley life together and whose patterns sometimes evoke from me a phrase like, “he was to me a God-send”.

This is not, of course, the God in which the fundamentalist believes; nor yet is it the God in which the secularist atheist disbelieves. This kind of God is not “A Strong Force, An Office of Cosmic Management, nor An Inscrutable Interventionist” but it is a name I can sometimes meaningfully invoke and which is for me the nodal point or centre of narrative gravity of my own life as your minister.

The word “God” (god) and its use emerges from a form of life which, with its complex, beautiful ever moving quality, seems always to bear witness to the groundless ground upon which we may all decently depend.

This still makes me, I think, a kind of atheist (although I prefer the term religious naturalist), but it also allows me, with integrity, to have said then, and to say now, not only thank God for Jonathan’s life, but also thank God for all of you and the hurley burley life together we all share.

Monday, 15 September 2014

In Memoriam: Jonathan Harrison (1924-2014) — On the religious benefits of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds and of having one’s cake and eating it

Prof. Jonathan Harrison (1924-2014)
Professor Jonathan Harrison died last Sunday (14 September) just a few days short of his ninetieth birthday.

Jonathan was born in Liverpool in 1924 but was brought up in Wells, Somerset where he went to the local school. From there he went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford as a scholar subsequently becoming senior scholar. He got a first in P.P.E. in 1950. His first job was at what was then called the Durham Colleges in the University of Durham. He was appointed to a lectureship and then a senior lectureship at the University of Edinburgh in 1960. He was appointed to the chair of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham in 1964 and, whilst there, spent a couple of terms at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Jonathan was particularly noted for his work on Moral Philosophy especially his 1971 book, “Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong” (George Allen and Unwin) and his two books on Hume’s moral philosophy published by the Oxford University Press in 1976 and 1980. Jonathan retired in 1988 but continued to write and it was during this time that he published his final, and I think very important book, God, Freedom and Immortality” (henceforth GFI), which, he was delighted to say, one professional peer review thought was as comparable in merit to Hume’s “Dialogues on Natural Religion.”

The reviewer in “The Philosopher” (the journal of the Philosophical Society in England) thought this was a “well written and objective work”, one which:

. . . could well have been entitled ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about God but were afraid to ask’. It was a real pleasure to follow Harrison's reasoning, in a prose style that intimated his familiarity with the written word. Indeed, the text could be read for its salutary use of the English language. 

The same reviewer concluded that one’s own “yea or nay” about this book “does not really come into play; the journey is that pleasant.”

Indeed, my own decade long journey of philosophical friendship with Jonathan, though never less than very challenging, was in the round, just as pleasant as the reviewer had found his book.

Now, before my address looking at certain aspects of Jonathan's philosophy, here are a couple of short extracts from GFI:


From William Shakespeare: King Henry IV, Part II — the quotation Jonathan chose to appear opposite the title page of God, Freedom and Immortality

“Now I, to comfort him, bad him not think of God, I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.”

From Chapter 30 — “Conclusions” — of God, Freedom and Immortality by Jonathan Harrison (Ashgate Press, 1999, p. 660)

This long and sometimes involved book may regarded as a sustained attempt to investigate the existence of God. If — as seems likely — God does not exist in any straightforward way, it attempts to find some place for religion in a world that shows absolutely no traces of his existing. (There are, of course, for good or ill, numerous traces of people’s believing in God, but God’s existence cannot without circularity be reduced to the effects of people’s believing that he exists, though this ploy is sometimes attempted.)
l regard my attempt to find a place for religion as largely but not wholly unsuccessful. Almost all the traditional attitudes to God — trust, gratitude, reliance upon his help — must turn out to be misplaced if he does not exist. All that remains is a God whom one can contemplate, love, possibly worship and from intercourse with whom one may gain strength and consolation. (The kind of worship I am thinking of is silent and wordless, public worship is heavily laden with belief.) However appropriate these attitudes may be, what solace and help one derives from them is the result of the contemplation and worship themselves, not of divine intervention on our behalf.
This book may also be regarded, perhaps too charitably, as an attempt to reconcile the views on religion of Freud and Jung. Freud regarded religion as harmful because it produced false belief. Jung - to oversimplify - regarded religion as beneficial because it augmented mans powers and made him whole. My somewhat pragmatic attitude to religion involves attempting to recommend it as a way of producing wholeness and augmenting man’s powers, which Jung thought it did, without producing false belief, which Freud though it did.

And from the end of the Introduction (p.4):

It would be a great mistake, however, to suppose that such interest as this book has lies only in its conclusions. In philosophy it is not only conclusions that are important, but also the route one takes to acquiring them. Though it may not be entirely true that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, at least one should observe and if possible enjoy the scenery on the route to one's destination. 


Address: In Memoriam: Jonathan Harrison (1924-2014)
On the religious benefits of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds and of having one’s cake and eating it

Jonathan Harrison’s late philosophy speaks powerfully to an age and culture in which many people have come to feel that conventional religious beliefs and metaphysics are no longer either persuasive or sustainable and his final major work, GFI, was a sustained attempt to see whether it might be possible “to find some place for religion in a world that shows absolutely no traces of [God’s] existing” (p. 660).

As I was writing this piece I was continually tempted to dialogue directly and critically with his philosophy — after all this is what I did every time I met with him — but to have done this would have been to fail to bring you before something of his own provocative thinking and that would have been a loss. So, all I want to do in the remainder of this address — necessarily limited to just fifteen minutes — is give you just a few hints of his own religious thinking and to do this mostly in his own words.

Let’s start with Jonathan’s view of God. Here’s an important passage from GFI:

Once upon a time I thought that God did not exist, but might be the object of favourable attitudes (for example love) in spite of this. I have since revised that view and now hold (very tentatively) that a better way of putting the matter is to say that God neither exists nor does not exist. (This is a view that has been held by some mystics.) By saying God neither exists nor does not exist I hope to do justice to two strands in sensible thought about religion, the fact that there are no traces of God in nature and the fact that at least some men need God, and have experience that presents itself as direct awareness of him (p. 672).

His quasi-mystical “way of putting the matter” here needs to be unfolded properly — Jonathan would never forgive me for leaving you thinking he was somehow, secretly, a religious believer. He wasn’t. Firstly, it is important to stress that he thought God, as some kind of actual entity (being) in the universe, simply did not exist. He never once wavered from this view.

But, secondly, even as he strongly affirmed his atheism, he also wanted to make it clear that he saw that:

. . . the vast number of people have thought there was a God because they have confused the phenomenological object of their religious experience with an externally existing, omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good being (pp. 681-682).

Here we find one of his chief, general criticisms of conventional atheists — and Jonathan was certainly never one of those — was that they “have chosen to ignore the phenomenological object of their experience because they have believed that there was no God” (p. 682). In other words they weren't paying proper attention to something important.

Jonathan was an unusual atheist in that he refused to, in fact in all honesty could not, ignore his own religious experiences. In part this was because he “suspect[ed] that religion, like sex, gets dangerous when swept under the carpet”. But it was not just this somewhat negative (though I think correct) concern that kept him concentrated upon his intimations of God because Jonathan’s religious experiences bore for him, for the most part, many positive fruits. Here is a touching, almost confessional, moment from his book:

. . . I have come to be that embarrassing, but not, I think, uncommon thing, an atheist who has what appears to be [be an] experience of the deity whom he believes not to exist. At intervals I feel myself in contact with a being who seems to watch over me and to care for me. Though it comes in different guises, it sometimes — not always — appears to be a moderately benevolent and not excessively agitated eye which follows me wherever I go and occasionally strengthens my resolve and gives me solace and help when I need it, though only to a limited extent (p. 681).

Although, given what you have just heard, this might initially seem a puzzling statement it is helpful to remember that Jonathan thought his book might be regarded as “an attempt to reconcile the views on religion of Freud and Jung” (p.660). As Jonathan noted, “Freud regarded religion as harmful because it produced false belief. Jung — to oversimplify — regard religion as beneficial because it augmented man’s powers and made him whole” (p. 660). Jonathan went on to describe his own pragmatic approach to religion as involving an attempt “to recommend it as a way of producing wholeness and augmenting man’s powers, which Jung thought it did, without producing false belief, which Freud thought it did” (p. 660).

With this mention of wholeness and augmentation we begin, I think, to touch upon something of the human heart of the matter. Although for Jonathan religion — and the idea of God — was clearly a fallible, entirely human product (cf. p 687), for all that, he thought it could still provide real, if always limited, support and comfort to an individual:

The reason why I think my [religious] experience is valuable to me — and I assume that at least some other people are similar — is that it sometimes makes me calm when I am not calm and more confident when I am not confident at all. Sometimes it enables me to look at things from a more detached and less self-centred point of view than I would otherwise. 
[. . .] 
The experience I am talking about is not only (up to a point) useful, it is also enjoyable. Having it has some of the characteristics of certain kinds of (predominantly visual) art. I imagine that in others more fortunate than me it can occasionally be sublime. Even in myself it can partly resemble a clap of thunder or the view of a distant mountain range (p. 684).

Now, there is much more of Jonathan’s thought about God that I could bring before you but it is I think more helpful today to give you now an indication of what he felt his experience of a “non-existent God” did, and did not, require of him.

In the first place it certainly required of him the need to live some kind of “spiritual life”. Here is what Jonathan said about that:

Living a spiritual life may be regarded as paying attention to such intimations of the divine as one has in this world, without our having thought to any other world. Paying such attention might not suit everybody. I suspect doing so is more a matter of prudence than of morality. To love God, if I am right in thinking that it is possible to love a nonexistent God, cannot benefit him, for he does not, strictly speak, exist, but to love him may be of benefit to oneself (p. 671).

On a number of occasions in the last few weeks I asked him whether he was doing any philosophy? He laughed and told me categorically, “No!”, and immediately said he was spending all his time “contemplating the Deity”. Although he quickly added to this his obligatory caveat that he knew such a God did not exist, he was absolutely clear that what counted for him in these difficult times, and which brought him a measure of real benefit and comfort, were his “intimations of God”.

Naturally a non-existent God neither allowed for, nor of course required from him, any kind of petitionary prayer; after all you cannot ask a God who doesn’t exist to do anything because the universe will simply continue in its own way regardless — he was always clear about that. So, for example, Jonathan couldn't, and wouldn't, pray for improved health. However, as you can see, a non-existent God did allow for, and seemed to require of Jonathan, a contemplative attitude and, in Jonathan’s own words, “the “proper attitudes” to such a conception of divinity were “awe, devotion, (silent) worship, love, contemplation, and temporary surrender” (p.667).

A second thing his experience of a non-existent God required of him was to be clear that such a God “cannot give one a moral code” (p. 667). This meant that “the moral codes we have cannot be God-given and God-sanctioned” (p. 667). The disadvantage of this, he pointed out, is that “good moral codes will be less stringently enforced.” On the other hand, the advantage is that “some of the moral codes that will be less stringently enforced will be bad ones” (p. 667).

Given this problem (if it is a problem), Jonathan thought that we should, therefore, derive our moral codes by making “a more consistent direct appeal to love as opposed to rigid enforcement of rules based on the authority of a fallible church or an impossible historical revelation” (p. 662) — provided, as he notes, that “the importance of love is not overemphasised and is taken in a wide enough sense to include love of things other than people, including animals other than man” (p.662).

Were this possible Jonathan thought that many of Christianity’s disadvantages could be overcome and he was prepared to state clearly that “the Christian ethic,” at least subject to the criticism he made of it,

. . . is a good one, though nothing in this world is perfect. It offers solace, comfort and help and the possibility of spiritual quietness, rest and solace which many sorely need and from which I suspect most would benefit (p. 662).

But, as he also said, Christianity was not the only religion to provide such benefits and, although he hoped otherwise, he thought it was “unfortunate that these benefits are usually . . . bought, in their Christian form, at the price of accepting superstition and bad metaphysics” (p. 662). In an amusing expression of this thought he admitted to feeling that in his experience “Roman Catholics were more prone to superstition and Protestants to waffle” (p. 661).

And lastly, today, what about “doing religion” and religious community? Well, it will come as no surprise to find that Jonathan was highly suspicious of all forms of institutionalised religion. He could see it had certain benefits but, in general, he felt it brought with it too much “compromise, a hierarchy of power, and careerist churchmen, who perform a necessary function from not the noblest of motives” (p. 686). In the light of this he said:

[I]stitutionalised religion must inevitably be second best to genuine feeling and belief resulting from one’s own experience and thought. Religion requires more than occasional churchgoing and notional assent to a belief, which institutionalised religion tends to perpetuate. It also tends to discourage, or not necessarily to encourage, experiment and unorthodoxy, which are the lifeblood of all artistic and intellectual activity. Though it offers much more than the joys of conformity, there is inevitably a do-it-yourself element in genuine religion, and it should not be relegated to the status of a spectator sport (pp. 686-687).


Jonathan celebrating his 89th birthday with Susanna Brown
I feel confident in saying it was because here we so strongly agree with this, that Jonathan felt he could regularly attend this church.

I think it is also clear that he could do this because of our willingness openly to allow radically differing conceptions of God, the divine and the sacred to be expressed and explored (including atheist ones), this meant he could maintain, with complete integrity, his own very creative balance of atheism and his personal “intimations of the Deity”.

Lastly, I think it was because we consistently offer people a way of continuing meaningfully to engage with the Christian tradition in a fashion that doesn’t require them, in any way, to accept superstition or bad metaphysics, that he also found here a kind of secular Christian practice and religious community that he was happy (enough) to support.

We should, I think, take all of these things as genuine compliments from a very, very fine philosopher.

Jonathan felt that his book and its conclusions — especially the balance it tries to maintain between a clear atheism and meaningful intimations of the Deity — might be taken “as the manifestation of an unfortunate tendency to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds, with the result that it will, like a swallowed filling, fall between two very large stools” (I’ll leave you to unpack this witty school-boy metaphor!) (p. 687). However, he said, that doing this,

. . . is not an unintelligent thing to do. For one thing, it enables one better to understand both animals. And the trouble with wanting to have one’s cake and eat it is not so much that it is wrong as that it looks impossible. If a way could be found of having both, what sensible man would refuse to take it? (p.687).

As a highly unorthodox minister of religion myself, Jonathan helped me feel more confident that the cake and its eating are there to be had and, although there are countless numbers of people in the world who say it is impossible, that we can have a religion without superstition or bad metaphysics.

Jonathan inspired me to continue to try and shape such a secular religion here in Cambridge and in my ongoing attempt to run with hares and hunt with the hounds I will always miss his witty and provocative friendship.

Thank you Jonathan for the journey and your friendship — rest in peace.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Jazz At The Movies — Playing at Saffron Walden, Friday 12 September

Every now and then I do a few gigs with a band called Jazz At The Movies and tomorrow (Friday 12 September) I'm playing with them in Saffron Walden at the Town Hall at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £7.50 - £12.50 which you can book at the following site:

The show features evocative songs and soundtrack themes from classic films, including The Aristocats, the Servant, From Russia with Love, Agatha, Let’s Make Love, The Pink Panther, The Ipcress File and more. The music swings from Bond to Bacharach, Dankworth to Disney, Porter to Pinter.

The singer is Joanna Eden and the band is Chris Ingham's Quartet which includes, for this tour, the wonderful saxophonist Alan Barnes.

A sell out at Ronnie Scott’s in 2012 and 2013, Jazz at the Movies present an enchanting, entertaining show rich in anecdotes, sophistication and swing.