Sit down and shut up - or the need for liberals to confess they don't know everything

Where do I begin when writing an address? Well, I generally start with where I find myself that week - on just that day - even though it is nearly always unclear to me exactly how or why I got to this point and not another. So I always begin again and again with a blank page. I take the current thought and follow it with another until I am able to discern some kind of identifiable path stretching before me. After a while I am under way and when the going is good it sometimes feels like I know what it is that I am writing - I know the end to which I am heading. But experience has taught me never really to believe this. Why? Well, because it is never entirely true. At its best it is as much a journey of discovery for me as it is for you. I may give you the impression that I know what I am doing when I present this blog and I suppose that in some rather trivial technical and formal ways I do know what I am doing. But at a very profound level - especially during the composition of this blog - I really have to admit that I haven't got a clue what's going on and this is worth remembering. Also worth remembering is the fact that I am primarily a jazz musician and, therefore, a professional performer. Although what I try to offer each week does contain something substantive and is not all show, never forget that this address is a performance. In fact this opening paragraph is a perfect example of what I mean for it was not at all the beginning of what I wrote but something that became necessary to compose about a third of the way through the process. These words are simply a rhetorical conceit that has been introduced to smooth out (though here I fear I've been rather unsuccesful) what was a far from smooth process in which I came to understand something I had, hitherto, failed to understand. This 'opening' confession of not knowing is not a mere by-the-by but absolutely central to what I discovered I needed to say in and show through this address.

At this point I can continue with something close to my true beginning which was to note that one of my perennial concerns as the chief public representative of my local liberal church is the basic question of around what, precisely do we - or might we - gather? What is our corporate public view of religion or spirituality? What is it that, together, we are saying?

In recent years in two basic 'answers' to this question have been on the table. One 'answer' is found in the attempt to gather around what are called shared principles and purposes. Our American brothers and sisters have done this and you can find them here. One might put this under a general heading of a universalist approach.

The second 'answer' is to attempt to gather around our own historical particularity - to use Richard Holloway's phrase 'our bend on the river' - as Unitarian Christians. Broadly speaking this consists in a fairly straightforward affirmation of One God and of the importance and practical value of following the teachings of that first century rabbi, the human Jesus. A solution that it is clearly continuous with but not identical to that of our sixteenth century Socinian forbears.

In various ways I try to combine elements of both these tendencies but it remains the case that these two 'solutions' to some extent remain in conflict - indeed the history of our movement in from the mid to late nineteenth-century onwards has been marked by this tension. Although there is a great deal of overlap between these positions it is not entirely untrue to say that the committed particularists amongst our number tend to see the universalist solution as being too vague, woolly and ungrounded whilst the committed universalists tend to see the particularist solution as being too narrowly grounded, dogmatic and exclusivist.

I then continued by pointing out that the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel made a difficult to refute point about there being no such thing as the view from nowhere. Even the most ardent universalist eventually has to acknowledge that they are also expressing a certain kind of point of view that is in many respects as limited as any other. To be a universalist - even of the most ardent absolutist type - is to be one thing and not another - it is to have a point of view not to have all points of view.

I went on to note that, although this insight has many ramifications for both universalist and particularist viewpoints, in our own modern Unitarian context which contains both tendencies, the most serious rethinking that needs to happen relates to what we mean when we start to speak about a 'universalist' view. I concluded this section of the address by saying that when we do in fact rethink this carefully we are surprised by seeing how we might healthily reintegrating these two apparently conflicting tendencies.

Here my address ran seriously aground because, although I wanted to resolve these conflicting tendencies and intuitively felt (and still feel) that they can be satisfactorily be resolved I couldn't actually do it - at least not in a fashion that seemed at all convincing. Four hours later and I was still nowhere and by now I was running out of energy and time. Now this often happens to me - and I end up having to admit defeat. Yet so often it is precisely at the point one admits defeats, admits that one simply doesn't know that something happens - a new insight comes. Sometimes there comes a solution to the problem, sometimes a more fruitful take on the general theme arises and I begin to write another address. As you will see in a moment everything hinges on the words 'there comes'.

Now, up until now I had not stopped to notice just this thing - the importance of giving up - because I have been so interested in chasing and articulating the new insight that has come. Lo, once caught (albeit always temporarily and incompletely - as the Tao Te Ching has it "the way that can be named is not the eternal way") one has a complete sermon that makes it look to you, and even to me, that I know what I am doing - that I am in control of my thoughts, intellect and insights.

Anyway what caused me to look at the process on this occasion rather than on what had come was that when I gave up last week I didn't get an insight, not immediately anyway, into how to resolve the problem. I gave up and still had no insight. What a bummer, eh? The only solution being to trash and burn this address and to dig out an old one and offer that up.

However, at that point I recalled the incredibly insightful discussion in Michael McGhee's recent book Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice (CUP 2000) in which he reflects, in part, upon the work of the Japanese philosopher Tanabe Hajime. Hajime wrote a book in 1946 called Philosophy as Metanoetics in which he stated, as McGhee says, quite startlingly, that if you want to be a philosopher you must confess your sins and repent. The title of his book refers to the Greek word 'metanoia' which means to change one's mind or to repent. McGhee cites the following passage of Hajime in which he describes his own giving up when he decided that 'he was not fit to engage in the sublime task of philosophy':

'At that moment something astonishing happened. In the midst of my distress I let go and surrendered myself humbly to my own inability. I was suddenly brought to new insight! My penitent confession - metanoiesis (zange) - unexpectedly threw me back on my own interiority and away from things external. There was no longer any question of my teaching and correcting others under the circumstances - I who could not deliver myself to do the correct thing' (ibid. p.11).

McGhee notes that it was not so much that Hajime 'decided that he should do one thing or the other: the point is that he no longer had to make a decision'. McGhee cites Hajime again:

'It is no longer I who pursue philosophy, but rather zange (metanoiesis) that thinks through me. In my practice of metanoesis, it is metanoesis itself that is seeking its own revelation' (ibid. p. 11).

The crucial point to grasp here is that insight comes about, not because of one's 'self-power' (jiriki) but because of an 'other-power' (tariki). Again Hajime notes:

'This Other-power brings about a conversion in me that heads along a path hitherto unknown to me . . . This is what I am calling metanoetics', the philosophy of Other-power' (ibid. p. 11).

It was at this point I did get some kind of insight into how one might hold together the particular and the universal - the theme with which I began this address.

The particularist view seems so strong and grounded because it speaks from within the boundaries of what can be seen - or at least what has been seen and described. It can point to historical traditions that have tried to address the problems of life, sometimes with success, sometimes not. It is a practical visible expression of religion where the material of religion is available to be shaped and reworked through our self-power - the power of the conscious rational intellect. But this is also to admit a certain kind of entrapment for one simply cannot see beyond the horizon of one's present culture and language.

But Hajime and McGhee help us to see that the human mind - that thing that can never escape being situated in the world with one point of view and not another - has an extraordinary capacity to let something enter the field of vision that is, to all intents and purposes, utterly beyond the self-powered range of its particular limited view point. The wider view, so beloved of the universalist, does come into view - it is a kind of no-view-view. This wider view is gracefully gifted to us and, importantly, it does not have the quality of self-power but of other-power and this other-power seems to live through us shaping and changing our particularities in unexpected and radical ways. But, and this is vital, this larger view, the view that utterly transcends our own particularities, horizons and self-power, only truly comes under the right conditions which is that of repentance and the frank admission of inability followed by a silent, mindful waiting. True philosophy (and liberal religion) begins in just this place.

The practice of the true universalist - which, as I have noted is to be a special kind of particularist - must then include regular confession, admitting defeat and frankly acknowledging that one simply doesn't know and then to shut up and sit down; to wait mindfully and see what comes from over the horizons of our own thinking and particularities. What comes is always a challenge to our set ways (horizons) but then that is what keeps us alive and fresh, alert to the reality of a world infinitely bigger and more amazing than the one we see daily.

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