A lesson from Wall Street - or Liberal Religion and the Static Paddle

Like many people this last couple of weeks I have been watching with great interest the events unfolding in the world's financial markets. Now I do not pretend fully to understand their complexities and vagaries rather what interests me are the various social, ethical, political and philosophical responses that are emerging from the developing situation.

Of all the many reports I heard over the last week one in particular has stayed with me. It included an interview with a young man who had just lost his job with Lehman Brothers in which he was asked something along the lines of whether he had had any inkling of the true state of Lehman Brothers. I can't remember his reply to this question but I was struck by his concluding comment; he asked the interviewer, "But how could this happen?" and then, indicating the towering building behind him say, "Look at the size of the building."

Throughout the centuries it has been a general human failing to accord permanence to that which, if one has taken care to study the history of the species, is clearly impermanent. It is a sad indication of the failure of our education system and modern culture that this young man couldn't believe that what was happening was possible. Lehman Brothers was to him, and I suspect to many others, the epitome of permanence. But, eventually, it becomes impossible to avoid seeing what the philosophically inclined politician Seneca saw two-thousand years ago, namely that:

Nothing is durable, whether for an individual or for a society; the destinies of men and cities alike sweep onwards. Terror strikes amid the most tranquil surroundings, and without any disturbance in the background to give rise to them calamities spring from the least expected quarter. States which stood firm through a civil war as well as wars external collapse without a hand being raised against them. How few nations have made of their prosperity a lasting thing! (Seneca, Letter XCI trans. Robin Campbell).

Now I mention all this because, whether two millennia ago or last week (and especially in times of upset) people have a tendency to turn to religion to provide the certainty they feel they have just lost elsewhere. This tendency is, of course, present at all times and we find that very few people choose to re-explore (or seek out for the first time) a religious community when they are feeling on top of the world. Let's be honest, when we feel everything is fine, a nice lie-in with a good cup of tea and the Sunday papers and with the prospect of a warm sunny afternoon stretching ahead of one is very pleasant indeed; as the Small Faces sang back in 1968 - "Lazy Sunday afternoon, I got no mind to worry, close my eyes and drift away."

But every turn to religion, and particularly when done under stress, is riven with problems. Now you might imagine that, at this point, my criticism is going to be directed at the stressed individuals who do the turning but it isn't. Why? Well, because seeking solace in times of stress seems to me to be a perfectly understandable and reasonable thing to do and seeking religion is for the most part a considerably more creative option than choosing, for example, to drown oneself in a sea of alcohol and drugs. Instead, however, my criticism is directed towards religion itself because in so many of its forms it is as delusional about what can honestly be considered permanent and secure as were many companies and individuals within the financial markets.

I do this because I'm increasingly concerned that, in these unsettled and unsettling times in their fear and confusion many disillusioned people are being taken advantage of by religious organisations of all stripes which, although they claim they offer absolute security and unchanging truth are, in fact, offering some profoundly dodgy and complex religious derivatives that will, in time, prove to be more toxic than anything the financial markets could concoct.

Now, as a someone desirous of articulating a coherent liberal religious philosophy I am concerned that, in our own attempt to provide people with some real security in the present cultural storm, that I (we) do not get tempted to invent our own dodgy derivatives.

But here I have to confess that it remains far from clear - to me and most everyone else - in what any modern coherent liberal religious philosophy might consist. Partly this is because the ongoing scientific project continues profoundly to challenge traditional forms of religious belief. Human knowledge of the natural world has shown that certain central conclusions made in former times by traditional religions about the nature of the world and humanity's place in it were very wrong. Despite the claims of some militant atheistic materialists, the advances made in human knowledge have rarely been enough to dismiss all the claims made by religions but, as the contemporary French particle-physicist Bernard d'Espagnat (On Physics and Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2006) gently notes that is not science's role for, in truth, "the information science yields serves to limit possible options, rather than put forward the allegedly correct one" (p.1). He continues by noting that "while Nature - in the broadest possible sense - refuses to explicitly tell us what she is, she sometimes condescends, when we press her tenaciously enough, to let us know a little about what she is not" (p.2). What she has revealed to us, amongst other things, is that when taken literally the creation stories of religions and the claims about the resurrection of the dead - any dead thing - are false; she has also revealed to us that the idea that humankind is the centre and pinnacle of reality is utterly false. Additionally Nature has begun to touch upon rather more abstract matters and, as d'Espagnat notes, "some elements of present-day scientific knowledge casts serious doubts on such and such Platonic intuitions" (p.1).

I could go on adding examples of the challenge to many traditional religious ideas from the world of the natural sciences, politics and philosophy but this would be pointless. But what I will note here is that, taken together, these complex factors have forced us into some very untidy and rough white water rapids. Today it simply isn't clear (if it ever was) whether we are going to get through these rapids in one piece and, if we do, we are not at all sure where we are going to get spat out.

Before I arrive at my one - very important positive statement today - I need to introduce to you a concept that will, initially perhaps, seem bizarrely tangential. But hang on in there and you'll see what I mean. It concerns the 'static paddle' - an idea introduced to me by Richard Proctor whilst I was contributing to a project on threshold concepts run by CARET (Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technology) in Cambridge. (For those interested in my presentation on a completely different subject, Biblical Texts as Literary Texts, can be found here.)

When a paddler makes a forward stroke they put the paddle in the water in front of them and appear to be pulling the paddle towards them. However, what is actually happening is that the paddler is pulling themselves, and the boat, towards the paddle and thus moving the boat through the water. The reason beginners think that they are pulling the paddle towards them is because, from their position within the boat, that is what they seem to be doing. Now place this idea into the context of white water rapids. It looks like nothing is stable, trustworthy and fixed in this incredibly dynamic environment. The canoeist feels they are utterly out of control and that nothing they do has any real influence on the situation. But one thing is stable (relatively speaking) - the static paddle - and a skilled canoeist can make real practical use of this one "stationary" point to help steer themselves through some very dangerous waters. It doesn't mean that they will get through unharmed but, amidst the chaos and confusion, there is control and direction.

My question to you today is what is for liberals the 'static paddle' in the present unsettled situation? I think it is Nature. As my friend, teacher and mentor the philosopher Victor Nuovo succinctly put it, Nature "is the only thing we can honestly claim to know about."

The static paddle we seek is a continued scientific and spiritual engagement in the natural sciences and a commitment to listen to what Nature does tell us.

The scientific engagement consists in continuing to do science and, for those of us who are not scientists, keeping up to speed with current developments and ideas. The spiritual engagement with Nature can be gathered together under the heading of mindfulness. This includes meditation and prayer in our churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, in our homes, in gardens, in open spaces and, then, letting the results of these formal mindfulness practices spread into our daily lives so we begin to live mindfully. Here I point you back to my last long piece and the theme of encountering the world as she presents herself to us and learning to become metaphysical hitchhikers.

Either way liberal religion needs significantly to hold back in its promulgation of metaphysics and turn much more positively and consistently to the world - to Nature. To conclude as I began, with a financial theme, the mindful encounter with Nature is not a dodgy derivative but a much more reliable gold standard. To practice mindfulness and to encourage others to do likewise is to offer our culture a static paddle that can be trusted in these worrying and turbulent times.