"Complete spiritual freedom" or why religious liberals shouldstudiously avoid attempting to create coherent and paradox-free speech

Readings: The effect of Jesus’ teaching: Mark 1:22; Luke 4:32; Luke 11:53–54:

And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were astonished at his teaching: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. But the scribes and the Pharisees began to oppose him violently, and to provoke him to further speech, lying in wait for hi, to catch something out of his mouth whereby they might destroy him.

And a passage from Boris Groys The Linguistification of Society in The Communist Postscript (Verso Books, London 2009 p. 1, 4–6). You may read this text at the very bottom of this post.


Last week on the Radio 4 comedy programme called “Heresy” one of the heresies comically promoted was a challenge to the idea that British customer service should be better than it is. The general thrust of the comics was that, actually, none of us really trusts super-efficient, super-polite, customer services because we all have the nagging feeling that, somehow, a shiny, smiley surface is really just designed to fool us into thinking that everything is OK and that company X really does care about us and our needs. On the other hand the comics pointed out that at least the old rude, inefficient couldn't-care-less approach of “the old days” offered us no illusions at all.

Of course I, like everyone else, would, in truth, really like all our customer services to be better than they are but, nevertheless, I found myself laughing with the comics because I felt that they had identified something both important and true. The question was, what exactly was this? As I thought about it during the week I realised that the nagging feeling the comics pointed at touched upon something very important for our own liberal religious tradition, something connected with the matter of why we are prepared to trust certain people and approaches but not others.

To help us see what this is it is instructive to turn to Socrates, not to his metaphysical beliefs (whatever they actually were) but rather to his basic method of enquiry - a method now named after him, the Socratic Method (also known as the method of “elenchus”). In Plato's early dialogues it is the technique Socrates uses to investigate, for example, the nature or definition of ethical concepts such as justice or virtue. It moves through the following basic steps:

1) Socrates' interlocutor asserts a thesis, for example "Courage is endurance of the soul", which Socrates considers false and wishes to refute (see The Laches - and also the following discussion: http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/faculty/dbrink/courses/100/Handout-3.html)

2) Socrates then gets his interlocutor to agree to further premises, for example "Courage is a fine thing" and "Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing".

3) Socrates then argues, and gets the interlocutor to agree, that these further premises contradict the original thesis, in this case it leads to, for example, "courage is not endurance of the soul".

4) Socrates then claims that he has shown that his interlocutor's thesis is false and that its negation is true.

Each working through of the method leads to some new and, hopefully, more refined examination of the concept under consideration. It is vitally important to see that a full Socratic inquiry requires a repeated use which ends, not in possession of the final truth of the matter but, instead in what is called “aporia”, that is to say doubt or puzzlement.

To pursue philosophy in this fashion is, therefore, to drink deeply of a strange mix of disappointment and wonder. Disappointment that one's initial ideas have turned out to be mistaken but wonder at the process by which (and the person through whom) one has discovered this and been able to learn something new or, at least, something more nuanced about our world. As Groys reminds us, whilst continuing to love and seek wisdom the person following Socrates' method recognises that they neither possess this wisdom "nor in all probability ever will".

In our reading you heard Boris Groys also make it clear that “Socrates, for his part, in no way endeavours to produce [through these dialogues] coherent and paradox-free speech. He is content with discovering and revealing the paradoxes in the speeches of his opponents. And rightly so [says Groys] for simply by exposing the paradoxes hidden beneath the surface of sophistical speech, evidence of such intense effulgence shines forth that listeners and readers of the Platonic dialogues become fascinated, and for lengthy periods are unable to tear themselves away from him. It is entirely sufficient to point out the hidden paradox, to uncover it, to disclose it, for the required evidence to arise. The further step of formulating a contradiction-free discourse is unnecessary."

It seems to me that this last sentence is vital for us to take to heart. To repeat: "The further step of formulating a contradiction-free discourse is unnecessary." I'll return to this thought in a moment.

What worries me (and has worried many other people through the centuries who have noticed what I'm pointing to here - including I think the comics on the radio) is not aporia, i.e. doubt or puzzlement, but that there are always so many people out there who, for one reason or another, are pretending to put an end to doubt and puzzlement and that they can, in fact, produce coherent and paradox-free speech. These are the sophistical people who have some kind of end product to sell you whether it be a Mercedes or a metaphysic. The simple point of sophistical speech is to sell you a product that makes you believe you can buy into a coherent, paradox-free life-style to be enjoyed either in this world and/or the next. Once you've bought into that life-style the aim of the sophists (and many customer services departments) is to close down any further questioning or thought from you for as long as possible so that you will remain loyal to this or that political religious or commercial brand. In some real way, then, it is about power over people's feelings and behaviour.

This thought naturally raises the question of what kind of thing should be on offer here in a contemporary, liberal church such as this? Historically, it is absolutely clear that for most of our history we have ourselves tried to sell people a brand of coherent and paradox-free metaphysics. The Reformation and the Classically inspired eighteenth-century Enlightenment project, both of which were highly influential upon our thinking, were deeply committed to the idea that through the use of human reason it would be possible slowly to develop a coherent and paradox-free world-view. Not only that but our preachers and teachers were expected be able to produce a matching coherent and paradox-free form of speech to describe this world to others so as rationally to persuade them to buy into the Unitarian brand. Unitarianism (and they thought then that it was an -ism) was destined to develop into a universally relevant, coherent and paradox-free rational religion. Indeed figures as influential as Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and James Martineau (1805-1900) said as much in their letters and publications (I've put two relevant quotations at the end of this post).

This latter belief has clearly proven to be deluded (it is important to realise that in the UK today there are only 3468 members of Unitarian churches). However, the idea that we might still be able to produce some kind of coherent and paradox-free speech retains a powerful hold over us. The thought is that if only we could produce this kind of speech in order to define the Unitarian brand then people would flock back into our churches.

But times have radically changed and with changing times (we are now in a post-modern and post-Christendom age) we have no choice but critically to examine the general thrust of our liberal religious movement and see if, rather than promoting a particular unique brand,  there is another way of proceeding consistent with the tradition. The great Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur (1886-1956) was already beginning to do this in 1920 in his essay "The Meaning and Lessons of Unitarian History” which I have recently put up on my blog. He felt that the history of Unitarianism did at first sight appear to teach 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." In other words we were all about the successful (or unsuccessful) selling of our coherent, paradox-free brand of rational religion. But Wilbur also presciently recognised that if this were all we were about as a religious movement then we were finished. But, on balance, Wilbur felt sure that the "doctrinal aspect" of our churches was in truth only "a temporary phase" and that Unitarian doctrines were only "a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom". Indeed, his essay begins with a clear statement that "that the keyword to our whole history . . . is the word complete spiritual freedom." The conclusion he delivered to his own day was that thus far we had hardly done anything more than remove certain "obstacles which dogma had put in our way" and had only just begun to "clear the decks for the great action to follow."

So here we are ninety-three years later and we must ask, then, what is the great action to follow?

It seems to me that our present ethical and religious duty is not to add just one more "distinctive" brand to the religious market place but, instead, to continue to challenge any and every form of speech that, by pretending to be completely coherent and paradox-free, is really seeking to stop people from exercising complete spiritual freedom. To do this we ourselves are not required to abandon our own particular form of speech - which for us remains one rooted in a complex mix of Judaeo-Christian and Greek philosophy (see John F. Hayward's defense of this point in his excellent Existentialism and Religious Liberalism, especially Chapter 10: The Liberal Transmission of Tradition) - and, after all, one has to speak some kind of language in the first place! No, rather it means being alert to the fact that what makes any kind of speech credible and persuasive (including our own) is its ability to show up incoherence and paradox and to move forward together in freedom by continually engaging in some kind of Socratic conversation.

This is why we need not fear continuing to talk, as Socrates did, "in myths, examples and suggestive analogies" drawn from our own primary religious and philosophical texts. These texts are astonishingly well-suited to keeping alive a way of speaking that will not in the end allow "language to represent, legitimate and defend private and partial interests" and which continually tries to find ways of addressing the whole of society with all its complexities and plurality.

Our Bible and great philosophical texts are marvellously incoherent and paradox ridden and we need to acknowledge and use that fact confidently and creatively. Our primary religious exemplar, Jesus of Nazareth, was also continually playing with paradox and incoherence in order to help people to live a genuinely free spiritual life. That's why people felt he "taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Mark 1:22)." We also need to acknowledge and use this fact confidently and creatively.

My advice is not to trust anyone who claims to be able to produce coherent and paradox-free speech - not even when it is made by one of our own.

Remember, I don't think that today we should be trying to sell to the world a commodity, a doctrine but, instead, a way of being and talking in the world that ensures the possibility for complete spiritual freedom continues to exist and flourish in our world - a spiritual freedom that allows us all to gather together in the manner George Kimmich Beach so beautifully expressed in the covenant that graces our noticeboard and which began today's service. I wholeheartedly recommend his words to you:

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We freely commit ourselves to high and holy aims, aims that transcend us, aims of the Spirit. Not in freedom from obligations to others, but in freedom to enter into common endeavours for the common good. Not in freedom from the nourishing roots of our faith in ancient ages, but in freedom to give fresh interpretation to ancient symbols and stories. Not in freedom from being called to aims that surpass us, but in the freedom that springs from knowing that “we've caught a moving train” (Johnny Ray Youngblood), and, together, we're on our way. 

We covenant in spiritual freedom. We find at the centre of our faith an energizing mainspring, a drive for meaning and dignity implanted in every soul in every land—the wonder of being alive and awakened to life, the grace of beginning anew. Not in the self-enclosing isolation of the self, but in the quest for a more inclusive covenant. Not in narrow-mindedness or in mean-spirited debunking of things cherished by others, but in listening for the spirit of life and truth wherever it arises. Not in fearfulness that life runs out and nothing can be done, but in the courage to turn every crisis of life into an opportunity for growth and spiritual depth. 

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We seek a better world where all peoples can flourish, sharing in the resources of planet Earth and sustaining her natural ecology, a new humanity within the covenant of being. Not closing our eyes to the awesome tasks that stand before us, but committing ourselves to labour tirelessly for the physical, moral, and spiritual well-being of all. Not despairing of the human prospect, but affirming hope, and the sacredness of the image in which we are made. Not stonyhearted when we are called to make a new beginning, nor giving up when our need is to persevere, but affirming our quest for wholeness and holiness 


Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Benjamin Waterhouse (26 June 1822): "I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian."

James Martineau wrote in an essay on Joseph Priestley: "Unitarianism, we think, must avail itself of more flexibility of appeal, must wield in turn its critical, its philosophical, its social, its poetical, its devotional powers, before it gain its destined ascendency over the mind of Christendom" (Essays, Reviews and Addresses, London, Longman Green and Co., 1890 - emphasis mine).

In the conversation following the address I mentioned a film recently made called The Overview Effect in which a number of astronauts are interviewed about their experience of seeing the earth from space. How this relates to the themes of the foregoing address I'll let readers imagine themselves . . .


Plato defines the philosopher, in contrast to the sophist, as someone who does not use language to represent, legitimate and defend private and partial interests, but instead conceives of society as a whole. [. . .]
     Whenever Socrates diagnoses an internal contradiction in a speaker, he immediately disqualifies that speech as non-evident, exposing the speaker as unfit for the just exercise of state power. Socrates’ questions break through the smooth, glittering surfaces of sophistical speech and uncover its contradictory, paradoxical core. It emerges that such speech only superficially appears to be well-knit and coherent. In its internal logical structure, however, it is obscure and dark because it is paradoxical. Hence such speech cannot serve as a manifestation of clear and evident thinking, but is good only as a commodity in the marketplace of ideas. The principal reproach directed by Socrates against the sophists is that they compose their speeches solely for the sake of payment. This allows an initial definition to be given for the functioning of paradox: a paradox that conceals its paradoxical nature becomes a commodity. [. . .]
     [O]bservant readers of the Platonic dialogues will have noticed that Socrates, for his part, in no way endeavours to produce coherent and paradox-free speech. He is content with discovering and revealing the paradoxes in the speeches of his opponents. And rightly so, for simply by exposing the paradoxes hidden beneath the surface of sophistical speech, evidence of such intense effulgence shines forth that listeners and readers of the Platonic dialogues become fascinated, and for lengthy periods are unable to tear themselves away from him. It is entirely sufficient to point out the hidden paradox, to uncover it, to disclose it, for the required evidence to arise. The further step of formulating a contradiction-free discourse is unnecessary. The reader already trusts Socrates’ words thanks to this evidence radiating solely from the paradoxes that Socrates has exposed. In light of this evidence, Socrates acquires the right to talk in myths, examples and suggestive analogies – and nonetheless achieves credibility. Nor does Socrates ever contend that genuinely paradox-free speech is actually possible, or even desirable . . . To the contrary, Socrates not only uncovers the paradoxes of others, he also makes paradox the basis for his own activity simply by positioning himself as a ‘philosopher’, that is, as someone who, while certainly loving and seeking wisdom in the sense of perfectly contradiction-free and self-evident speech, neither possesses such wisdom now nor in all probability ever will. There can never be a perfect sophist. The ideal of entirely contradiction-free speech remains forever unattainable – and is fundamentally superfluous.