Garden Academies

I realise that a few people who read this blog don't go on to read any comments that are posted but my last post has opened up a conversation with someone by the name of Jonathan that is proving quite helpful to me and, if what I have to say is in anyway helpful or interesting to you, then you might enjoy this fruitful exchange.

It has at its heart the idea of a liberal religious/philosophical project which is striving both for a sane global constitution and also the recreation of the Academy, in the garden-school atmosphere of Epicurus, with the compassion and active ministry of Jesus.

It has often seemed to me that the recreation of garden-schools as the liberal alternative to church-type structures is the way we should - in fact probably must - go.

If you are so minded I'd be very interested in the comments of other people on this idea.

Lastly, the two pictures in this blog are of les Dentelles-de-Montmirail which Susanna and I visted last week and to which I have now cycled a couple of times. Stunningly beautiful.

Comments

Jonathan said…
Rest assured the benefit has been mutual, Andrew!

I have more to say about your most recent comment on your last post (you handled my Wienpahl critique superbly), but I am in the process of getting my own blog up and won't get back to it until later this week or the weekend.

As for this post, you have done a great job summing up the most actionable and I would think thought most exciting part of our conversation. Still, this is a long-term inquiry and I am sure that a larger discussion will be created if we continue to lay the groundwork between ourselves until others come along.

I have recently learned that our concept fits squarely within the scope of an emerging movement that has been called the "New Monasticism." My minister and mentor encouraged me to look into it. Here are some links I am exploring:

Wikipedia on New Monasticism
New Monasticism (the Book) at Amazon.com
Why is New Monasticism Controversial?

There are important differences between the New Monasticism depicted in these links and the idea we have thus far been conceptualizing. Still, I think it might provide some additional intellectual scaffolding for our discussion.

I'm organizing my blog around four concepts, one of which is New Monasticism. That means I am planning to think and post about this theme on a regular basis...hopefully a good mix of practical and theoretical ruminations. I wonder if there is a way to synergistically coordinate our research and reflections in this area?

Perhaps - and this is the most tentative of suggestions - we could each aim to post some thoughts on the idea of a "call to community." If we enjoy in our lives a real sense of connection to a unifying intelligence in nature, isn't it the most natural thing in the world that we would reach the same general conclusions in response to the world problem? Like the long-distance navigational systems of birds and butterflies, doesn't it make sense that those human beings who trust their internal navigation systems (a process of faith and reason) will be drawn inexorably not only to a common pattern of life at the local level, but also to fellowship at a global level?

I'm trying to make sense of the two-fold aspect of this calling as I experience it: the local, analog community-building and the global, virtual community-building. Does it seem to you that the fates of these two streams are somehow interlocked?
Good luck with your blog. I look forward to reading it.

I didn't know about the 'New Monasticism' movement and so followed up your links with interest. I see your point about the similarities and dissimilarities. I particularly took a look at the Misso Dei Breviary and was interested to see that, to some extent, it resembles the Unitarian Christian prayer-book I recently co-wrote with a recently retired American Universalist minister John Morgan. It, too, took its cue from the Anabaptist tradition but as it came through the sixteenth-century Polish Socinians where it was conjoined with Italian Renaissance Humanism (courtesy of Faustus Socinus). The result being a kind of rational mysticism.

It is at the rationalist and humanist level that I think the differences between what we are kicking about and what the 'New Monasticism' seems to be proposing are revealed. The Renaissance Humanist bit of the tradition we inherit (in part born out of a rediscovery of Greek philosophy) seems to be missing from the stuff I read following up your links. Have I got that right? The trick I want to try and pull off is to keep our tradition committed to the western philosophical tradition but, at the same time, not to forget or loose the direct experiential element that the mystics (of all varieties) constantly speak of.

Having spoken of the prayer-book I wrote you might be led to believe that I'm satisfied with it. Well, as a modern restatement classic theistic Unitarian Christianity, I think it is not too bad. However, since I finished it (quite some time ago - it was only published last year but it was done and dusted nearly three years ago now) I have really been following up the implications of a naturalistic conception of Deus sive Natura (God or Nature) that was proposed by Spinoza. That led me to a personal rediscovery of Epictetus (and the Stoics in general) and thence on to Epicurus and Lucretius, and still further to some of the thinking of the ecosopher Arne Naess and the panpsychist philosopher Freya Matthews.

I have found that such a naturalistic conception of divinity is one that I actually DO, unequivocally believe in. That rather puts an end to possibility of prayer - at least as prayer is understood within any traditional theistic context. This is why I recently put up on-line the "Pattern of Daily Meditation" that you can find in the links section of this blog (to the left and down a bit). I wanted to see if it were at all possible to create a religious service that didn't include prayer to an external, personal God but made the 'object' of one's meditation (in truth 'it' can't be an object to which you can point at all) Deus sive Nature - being or reality itself in all its modes. Such a unifying conception of 'God' (or Nature), if more widely adopted, would naturally lead to humanity as a whole eventually reaching, as you said: "the same general conclusions in response to the world problem." I like your suggestion (and agree with the hope it expresses) that "Like the long-distance navigational systems of birds and butterflies, doesn't it make sense that those human beings who trust their internal navigation systems (a process of faith and reason) will be drawn inexorably not only to a common pattern of life at the local level, but also to fellowship at a global level."

My hope is that such a conception of divinity will help us begin to articulate a sort of bottom-up, grass-roots 'universalism' that is constantly revealed through an infinite number of minute particulars (Nature in all her extraordinary diversity). Importantly this would not be the top-down-colonialist-universalism that has so often been proposed by old-style liberals. That seems to fit with your hope that one will be able to make a "call to community" that is both local and global, virtual and analogue. (I've recently had a chapter published in a book on the "Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity" which makes a claim that this is precisely what the Czech Unitarian's have tried to do in their attempt to follow through the thinking of their leader, Norbert Capek.)

http://www.amazon.com/Religious-Roots-Contemporary-European-Identity/dp/082649482X

I'm fond of quoting Layman P'ang at such moments:

My daily affairs are quite ordinary;
but I’m in total harmony with them.
I don’t hold onto anything, don’t reject anything;
Nowhere an obstacle or conflict.
Who cares about wealth and honour?
Even the poorest thing shines.
My miraculous power and spiritual activity:
Drawing water and carrying wood.

Yes, I'm sure that there is a way to be a bit more synogistically co-ordinated. I guess that will be helped along when you get your blog up.

I look forward to your next set of comments.
Jonathan said…
This is difficult - I am working on my blog, I want to go back and add some comments to your last post, and I want to keep the momentum of this thread going, too! On the grounds that my comments are most useful when most immediate (shaky ground for philosophy?), I'll take a moment away from blog design for a quick reply here.

You said, "The Renaissance Humanist bit of the tradition we inherit (in part born out of a rediscovery of Greek philosophy) seems to be missing from the stuff I read following up your links. Have I got that right? The trick I want to try and pull off is to keep our tradition committed to the western philosophical tradition but, at the same time, not to forget or loose the direct experiential element that the mystics (of all varieties) constantly speak of."

Yes, I think that is it exactly. However, before proceeding to a discussion of how to remedy what to us is an obvious deficit, I think we must agree that in addition to its potential as a platform for contemplative living and contemplative experience, the new monasticism may have three more things to offer us. First, we cannot ignore the pivotal role of monasticism in the formation of our own culture. To extract the essential wisdom of the form for the current age is to reclaim a critical part of our heritage and to strike a buried chord in our hearts and minds. Second, it represents a significant step toward the amelioration of pressing environmental, social, and political problems. And third, it appears conducive, if properly managed, to a life of greater philosophic, altruistic, contemplative, artistic, and athletic excellence than would otherwise be possible. Indeed, if we can identify a practical mode of life that will better advance our excellence, we must give our attention to that instead.

With respect to the relationship between God and nature, my own feeling - and I am still very much in a process of discernment - is that nature in its totality, which we can summarize as the fundamental object or ground of human consciousness - is essentially a medium of communication through metaphor.

I further imagine this medium to be organized or structured like a puzzle, or perhaps I would call it an "enlightenment machine." As we start assembling the pieces in their proper order, a picture comes into view. That picture is the "writing on the wall," as it were: the best we can do in human form at a meeting with the maker of the machine?

At one level the machine is clearly our language, our worldview, and our total system of ideas, such that a meeting with our maker seems to involve a kind of face-to-face communication, in the mirror of our thoughts, with the lineage of masters that comprise our canon (and from whom we have inherited the responsibility of managing this complex world system). Or perhaps it is more useful to think of a lineage of masters in which each thinker reflects some new aspect of the one Genius at the center of the grand design.

But I digress into this question of whether nature is itself God or is instead primarily an educational tool that a God or genius uses to advance our understanding. Either way, we are converging on a highly advanced appreciation of the divine in nature, and this is all we need to agree upon in order to effect the necessary changes (inevitable, really, at this point in the design) in our personal lives and in our global culture.

I share and celebrate your hope "that such a conception of divinity will help us begin to articulate a sort of bottom-up, grass-roots 'universalism' that is constantly revealed through an infinite number of minute particulars (Nature in all her extraordinary diversity)."

This is very well put.

And I celebrate your quotation of Layman P'ang. The philosophical approach is ultimately a political approach aimed at a peaceful and sustainable global culture, but it is very much centered in the simplicity of an individual life in harmony with nature.

It's obvious you have thought and written much along these lines, or along lines leading up to this point. I will explore the Pattern of Daily Meditation in the near future.

The scenery is indeed stunning, by the way. Great photos.
Your points about the importance to us of the monastic tradition are well-made. It reminded me of Alasdair MacIntyre's striking point at the conclusion of his very influential book "After Virtue" when he compares the task we are at present facing (that of keeping alive a tradition of ethical living and an associated culture which can talk meaningfully and coherently about what this entails) with the monasteries' role in keeping alive a certain kind of ethically coherent culture during a period that still gets called "the dark ages" (though I don't like this popular phrase - as it presumes too much about in what precisely might consist in a "bright age" - but we'll let that pass for now). Now, although I don't buy into everything he has to say, his basic point here, namely that small groups of people committed to a virtuous way of living can keep an intellectual and spiritual procession going through periods of great upset and destabilisation, seems to me to be well made. We are in such a period of upset and destabilisation and the kind of ideal community we are talking about could function in a similar way at the present time.

I have to say I'm citing MacIntyre from memory as I am eight-hundred miles from my bookshelves so let this point (which I agree with) stand as an expression of my own views rather than his!

If you haven't read "After Virtue" it is worth a look - just make sure you get the recent third edition as it contains a short introductory piece by him reflecting on the changes that have occurred since he wrote it in 1981.

Excellent point, too, about only needing to agree that we are "converging on a highly advanced appreciation of the divine in nature." It reminds me of some of Arne Naess' work on how common platforms (in his case he is often specifically talking about Deep Ecology) can be supported by a variety of (apparently) contradictory metaphysical positions. And here we are back to minute particulars.

Do you know the online journal called "The Trumpeter"? It is an open access journal which contains some excellent articles by Naess and many others on the subject of ecosophy. If you have time and the inclination it is well worth dropping by their site:

http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/index
Jonathan said…
Well, it turns out that I won't be launching my blog anytime soon. I was tapped to redesign my church's website and now I'm thinking seriously about podcasting as an alternative medium. Whichever way I go, I will definitely be exploring the "garden academy" theme.

I am not familiar with MacIntyre but the reviewers on Amazon.com agree with you that it is a worthwhile read of moral philosophy and so I have added it to my wishlist.

I had a chance to read your pattern of daily meditation (it seems an excellent centering device) and I now feel a little overdrawn in my response to the Spinozan argument. If we understand "Nature Become" to represent pure being, and "Nature Becoming" to represent the process of becoming, than it makes perfect sense to speak of God as identical with Nature. This seems to me essentially the Aristotelian response to the Platonic worldview. Is it fair to characterize Spinoza as an Aristotelian?

You are very wise, I think, to frame your view of nature with an eye toward the distinction between deep and surface ecology, as the most recent issue of the Trumpeter summarizes Naess' intellectual contribution. This distinction intriguingly parallels the distinctions we have already drawn between a deep and surface academy.

I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on this. Have you identified any linkages between surface versus deep modes of ecological thinking and surface versus deep modes of human behavior in Spinoza's ethical system or the moral systems of the ancient philosophers? I've never tried to synthesize it quite this way but it is an exciting direction and it seems like precisely the direction you are headed.
5/7/2008
Thanks again for your comments. I'm sorry to hear you won't be having a blog but I'm sure your church's web page will benefit. May I ask which church? You don't have to answer - just idle curiosity.

To your points. You ask is it fair to characterise Spinoza as an Aristotelian?

But, before answering this I'd like to make an important point because I realise that it is easy to hide behind the bold and confident language of a blog post and look like an expert in the matter at hand. I'm not - I'm simply someone who is very interested in philosophy and who takes its study very seriously and who has, after a great deal of thinking on the matter, decided to fall in with Spinoza. Anyway, my point to you is that I had to remind myself of Aristotle's basic position before answering you and I claim absolutely no professional philosophical academic expertise here (a professional position about which both of us seem to be rather wary anyway). I'm just a moderately intelligent guy trying to figure out (like every generation before him) in what the world might consist and how to live virtuously and compassionately in it. Needless to say, I continue to fail in this task but I do so with the reasonable hope that I might get better at this task as I grow older. I have come to Spinoza simply because he helps me to see that there are good rational arguments which support the intuitive insight I had long ago that I (and you and all 'things' of course!) am not so much 'in' a world of independent discrete things as just one more 'thing' but instead a mode of the whole (God-or-Nature). As I have said elsewhere this seems to me what the writer of the Gospel of John (and I think Jesus too) was struggling to articulate at the end of Chapter 17 - a passage that is still as wondrous to me as it was when I first knowingly heard it sitting in my choir stall in St Michael's in Kirby-le-Soken one Sunday morning aged about 11.

Right, caveat over. I'm going to presume that you are referring to Aristotle's belief that one found the universal in particulars rather than in ideal forms as well as his associated notion of substance as something that is both independent of anything else but which can also change (i.e. it can have different predicates attached to it) but all the while maintaining its identity?

Well, Spinoza certainly took over something of this basic idea from Aristotle (via Descartes) but took it to the very different conclusion that there could only be ONE substance which was the cause in and through itself (causa sui). Human beings can only know this one substance through two attributes, namely thought and extension (note that they are attributes and not themselves substances). But, if these two were substance's only attributes then substance would be limited and not, therefore, independent (an essential criterion of substance) - so substance must have infinite attributes. Importantly, in relation to your question (if I have understood it correctly), particular things for Spinoza are not independent substances as Aristotle would have them but simply finite modes of the one substance - natura naturans rather than natura naturata. But Nature (-or God) as natura naturans is the only place we - as finite modes of God-or-Nature - can begin, hence Spinoza's point - "The more we understand singular things, the more we understand God" (Ethics V prop. XXIV).

You ask about surface versus deep modes of ecological thinking and surface versus deep modes of human behaviour in Spinoza's ethical system or the moral systems of the ancient philosophers?

Well, Spinoza seemed resigned to the fact that the truly deep ecological thinking he was proposing (though he didn't call it that but if God and Nature are equivalent then we have to be talking deep ecology!) was not possible for everyone. In consequence he valued certain kinds of religious and political organisation - he articulated some of his thinking in this area in the "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus." Indeed he had hopes that one could articulate an agreed public religion that all specific positive religions could agree to support. One might say that the passage in italics from Chapter 14 which follows is the very deepest end of a shallowly ecological approach. For Spinoza the truly deeply ecological person would be the man or woman who has achieved what which he outlines sublimely (but not easily) in the Ethics (V prop. XXXVI - trans. Wienpahl - his italics):

"A Mind's understanding Love toward God is God's Love itself, (by) which God loves himself, not in so far as he is infinitely, but in so far as he can be explicated by means of the being of a human Mind, considered under a species of eternity, that is, a Mind's understanding Love toward God is part of the infinite Love (with) which God loves himself."

One simply doesn't need any kind of religion at this point, but how many of us actually achieve this intellectual love of God?

Anyway, this reply is now far to long but here is the promised extract from the end of chapter 14 of his "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus":

(14:45) To the universal religion, then, belong only such dogmas as are absolutely required in order to attain obedience to God, and without which such obedience would be impossible; as for the rest, each man - seeing that he is the best judge of his own character should adopt whatever he thinks best adapted to strengthen his love of justice. (46) If this were so, I think there would be no further occasion for controversies in the Church.

(14:47) I have now no further fear in enumerating the dogmas of universal faith or the fundamental dogmas of the whole of Scripture, inasmuch as they all tend (as may be seen from what has been said) to this one doctrine, namely, that there exists a God, that is, a Supreme Being, Who loves justice and charity, and Who must be obeyed by whosoever would be saved; that the worship of this Being consists in the practice of justice and love towards one's neighbour, and that they contain nothing beyond the following doctrines :-

I. (14:48) That God or a Supreme Being exists, sovereignly just and merciful, the Exemplar of the true life; that whosoever is ignorant of or disbelieves in His existence cannot obey Him or know Him as a Judge.

II. (14:49) That He is One. (50) Nobody will dispute that this doctrine is absolutely necessary for entire devotion, admiration, and love towards God. (51) For devotion, admiration, and spring from the superiority of one over all else.

III. (14:52) That He is omnipresent, or that all things are open to Him, for if anything could be supposed to be concealed from Him, or to be unnoticed by Him, we might doubt or be ignorant of the equity of His judgement as directing all things.

IV. (14:53) That He has supreme right and dominion over all things, and that He does nothing under compulsion, but by His absolute fiat and grace. (54) All things are bound to obey Him, He is not bound to obey any.

V. (14:55) That the worship of God consists only in justice and charity, or love towards one's neighbour.

VI. (14:56) That all those, and those only, who obey God by their manner of life are saved; the rest of mankind, who live under the sway of their pleasures, are lost. (57) If we did not believe this, there would be no reason for obeying God rather than pleasure.

VII. (14:58) Lastly, that God forgives the sins of those who repent. (59) No one is free from sin, so that without this belief all would despair of salvation, and there would be no reason for believing in the mercy of God.(60) He who firmly believes that God, out of the mercy and grace with which He directs all things, forgives the sins of men, and who feels his love of God kindled thereby, he, I say, does really know Christ according to the Spirit, and Christ is in him.

(14:61) No one can deny that all these doctrines are before all things necessary to be believed, in order that every man, without exception, may be able to obey God according to the bidding of the Law above explained, for if one of these precepts be disregarded obedience is destroyed. (62) But as to what God, or the Exemplar of the true life, may be, whether fire, or spirit, or light, or thought, or what not, this, I say, has nothing to do with faith any more than has the question how He comes to be the Exemplar of the true life, whether it be because He has a just and merciful mind, or because all things exist and act through Him, and consequently that we understand through Him, and through Him see what is truly just and good. (63) Everyone may think on such questions as he likes. (14:64)

Furthermore, faith is not affected, whether we hold that God is omnipresent essentially or potentially; that He directs all things by absolute fiat, or by the necessity of His nature; that He dictates laws like a prince, or that He sets them forth as eternal truths; that man obeys Him by virtue of free will, or by virtue of the necessity of the Divine decree; lastly, that the reward of the good and the punishment of the wicked is natural or supernatural: these and such like questions have no bearing on faith, except in so far as they are used as means to give us license to sin more, or to obey God less. (14:65) I will go further, and maintain that every man is bound to adapt these dogmas to his own way of thinking, and to interpret them according as he feels that he can give them his fullest and most unhesitating assent, so that he may the more easily obey God with his whole heart. (14:66) Such was the manner, as we have already pointed out, in which the faith was in old time revealed and written, in accordance with the understanding and opinions of the prophets and people of the period; so, in like fashion, every man is bound to adapt it to his own opinions, so that he may accept it without any hesitation or mental repugnance. (67) We have shown that faith does not so much re quire truth as piety, and that it is only quickening and pious through obedience, consequently no one is faithful save by obedience alone. (14:68) The best faith is not necessarily possessed by him who displays the best reasons, but by him who displays the best fruits of justice and charity. (69) How salutary and necessary this doctrine is for a state, in order that men may dwell together in peace and concord; and how many and how great causes of disturbance and crime are thereby cut off, I leave everyone to judge for himself!
Jonathan said…
Hi Andrew,

My church is the Unitarian Universalist Church of Caribou in northern Maine, and the existing website can be found at www.caribouuu.org. I've been busy working on an intranet for the church Board this week or would have dropped by again sooner.

I very much like your disclaimer that you are not a professional philosopher. Thank God!! It wouldn't be half as pleasant to talk with you if either one of us was - we'd have reputations to defend and all of that nonsense - and then there is the whole troubling question of whether one can ever be paid to teach or practice real philosophy.

What I like about my own amateurish reading of Plato is that Socrates paints a wonderful picture of the philosopher not as one who HAS wisdom, but as one who WANTS wisdom and is chasing more or less hard on its tail. The challenge for me is holding fast to a liberating consciousness of my own fallibility. It's easy at moments like these, when I can voluntarily announce it to the world and presumably score a point or two for my honesty; it's much harder in the thick of a discussion when SOMEBODY ELSE is demonstrating my fallibility and I am forced to concede that I have overstated my position. My wife has been a wonderful teacher for me in this respect.

Your response to my question about Spinoza and Aristotle was very thoughtful and helpful. Particularly striking was this passage of Spinoza that you shared: "A Mind's understanding Love toward God is God's Love itself, (by) which God loves himself, not in so far as he is infinitely, but in so far as he can be explicated by means of the being of a human Mind, considered under a species of eternity, that is, a Mind's understanding Love toward God is part of the infinite Love (with) which God loves himself."

Spinoza's description is exceptional, but I am still too spellbound by Socrates' rehearsal of the tale of Diotima in Plato's Symposium to consider love in quite the same way. It might be worth a re-read, particularly sections 201-212. I think in the end the qualifiers in the passage by Spinoza suggest a familiarity with and perhaps even synthesis of the conception of eros presented in the Symposium.

"To the universal religion, then, belong only such dogmas as are absolutely required in order to attain obedience to God, and without which such obedience would be impossible..." This entire passage is fascinating and suggests many further lines of reflection! For now I will confine myself to the observation that if we translate "obedience to God" as "obedience to Nature," we do indeed get "the very deepest end of a shallowly ecological approach." I like that way of putting it.