What is one to do in so-called dark times?

Pond in a garden, Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes 
Readings: I wanted to read the following short passage from the Song of Songs for a number of reasons. The first is simply because it is set in a beautiful garden in the Near East — the region from which so many of the refugees entering Europe at the moment hail. I cannot but help wonder how many such beautiful and peaceful Near Eastern gardens have been utterly destroyed by war in recent decades? I chose it, secondly, because it speaks of love and that causes me to wonder how many lovers have been killed or forced to flee this region and, of course, how much love has been lost or completely destroyed? Lastly, I chose this passage because, for the third-century BCE Greek philosopher Epicurus, a garden was the place where one could most fruitfully spend time with friends in goodly conversation learning how to live and die well. It was this Epicurean garden that lies behind Boccaccio's poem "The Decameron", a line from which which we shall turn in a moment. 

Song of Songs 4:16-5:2 (NRSV)

Awake, O north wind,
   and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden
   that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
   and eat its choicest fruits. 
I come to my garden, my sister, my bride;
   I gather my myrrh with my spice,
   I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
   I drink my wine with my milk. 
Eat, friends, drink,
   and be drunk with love.
I slept, but my heart was awake.
Listen! my beloved is knocking.
‘Open to me, my sister, my love,
   my dove, my perfect one;
for my head is wet with dew,
   my locks with the drops of the night.’


From The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)

To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others.

From Robert Pogue Harrison: Gardens—An Essay on the Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 71, and pp. 94-95

What is one to do in so-called dark times, when the world that “comes between men” no longer gives them a meaningful stage for their speech and actions, when reasoned discourse loses its suasion, when powerlessness rather than empowerment defines the citizen’s role in the public sphere? There are times when the thinker, patriot, or individual has no choice but to withdraw to the sidelines, as Plato did when he gave up the idea of becoming a statesman and founded a school on the outskirts of Athens. In her book “Men in Dark TimesHannah Arendt writes: “Flight from the world in dark times  of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped.” The same could be said of the sanctuary that gardens have traditionally offered people when their human condition is under siege. A garden sanctuary can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on the degree of reality it preserves within its haven. Some gardens become places of escape that try to shut out reality . . .. Other gardens, by contrast, become places of humanization in the midst of, or in spite of, the 
forces of darkness. 
[. . .]
Illustration from an edition of the Decameron (c.1492)
Boccaccio was no moralist. He was not a reformer or would-be prophet. He was not especially preoccupied by human depravity or humanity’s prospects for salvation. He did not harangue his reader from any self-erected pulpit of moral, political, or religious conviction. If the ethical claims for the Decameron which he lays out in his preface are finally extremely modest (the author hopes through his stories to offer diversion and consolation to those in need of them), it is because the human condition itself is a modest one. The plague demonstrates as much. To be human means to be vulnerable to misfortune and disaster. It means periodically to find oneself in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification. Our condition is for the most part an affair of the everyday, not of the heroic, and our minimal ethical responsibility to our neighbour, according to Boccaccio’s humanism, consists not in showing him or her the way to redemption but in helping him or her to get through the day. This help takes many modest forms, not least of which is rendering the sphere of social interaction more pleasurable through wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability. To add to the pleasure rather than the misery of life: that is the arché or first principle of Boccaccio’s humanism, which is not the  triumphalist humanism of later eras (which saw self-reliant humankind as the glory of all creation) but the civil humanism of neighbourly love. (It is not by chance that Boccaccio begins his preface with the word umana, or human: Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti [It is human to have compassion for those in distress]).


—o0o—

ADDRESS

In addition to the brief address you are about to hear, this week I ended up completing two other, very different addresses.

The first was a gentle, but I hope still meaningful, autumnal piece reflecting on something we might learn from the walnut tree in the church’s back yard. However, the continuing refugee crisis and the associated the religio-political inspired wars and conflicts in and around the middle and near-east, the continuing problems in the financial systems of Europe and China, and the astonishing series of political events surrounding the election of a new Labour leader, made me feel my first address was in danger of being heard merely as a case of fiddling while Rome burns (I don't thinks it is that but I'll return to this thought in a moment).

Abandoning it, I realised that there was something about the general situation that could usefully be foregrounded since it might help us better to understand something of the exceptionally challenging problem a liberal, free-religious church such as our own is facing in the current situation. So I wrote a second address exploring something that has become increasingly clear to me, namely, that the very useful and highly effective fiction that was the post-war British and European consensus concerning our civic, religio-political and economic life together has begun, if not yet completely to unravel, then at least to show signs of potential, serious structural failure.

The way we are dealing, or failing to deal with the refugee crisis, the global crises in finance and banking and also those more locally in the eurozone, the crisis with how to deal with religious extremism at home and abroad, the crises in mainstream social democratic political parties, the crises connected with national identities across Europe, and many more besides, reveals this worrying trend in spades.

It seemed appropriate to raise this matter because in our modern form a church such as this has, at least in my reading of the matter, been significantly shaped and sustained by this post-war consensus. In my abandoned second address I argued that the slowly building crisis in the consensus has brought about a parallel, slowly building crisis in our own identity and role. In part this is because today we don’t like extremes (or extremists) and feel it is important always to be nuanced and balanced as possible (avoiding simplistic either/or situations or paradigms)and  preferring to move forward slowly, carefully weighing and reflecting on all things over an extended and, we hope, stable period of time.

This approach, naturally, works reasonably well when it is embedded in a wider stable culture of consensus but it quickly becomes highly ineffective when we discover ourselves in a wider world that is throwing up all kinds of unstable, “in-your-face” events that need dealing with right now, and are the kind of events which very quickly produce highly polarised, non-consensual answers. The refugee crisis is one very powerful international example of this.

As we know Harold Macmillan was once supposedly asked by a journalist, “what is most likely to blow governments off course” to which he reputedly answered, “Events, my dear boy, events”. Well, few people can doubt that after a long period about which Francis Fukuyama (b. 1952) could proclaim “the end of history”, we are now fully back in a world of highly unpredictable and serious, status quo challenging events that are contributing to a wind which is seriously threatening to blow away so much of the old post-war consensus.

As a consensual and diverse community (diverse in religious, theological, political, social and temperamental terms) in these increasingly polarised times it becomes very hard to know what on earth it is we should collectively be doing and it seems to me that, whether we like it or not we, too, are being forced into something that feels like our own either/or moment.

On the one hand, we could attempt to plump for one of the many polarised positions that are whooshing up around us all over the place and, in so doing, leap fully and explicitly into the current fray on the political, religious or economic left or right (or whatever terms you wish to use). Hypothetically speaking, I think that, under certain conditions, this option should be followed and could be strongly justified. However, in our immediate time and context, it’s not at all my preferred option because I don’t think this approach would be able successfully to keep alive the kind of liberal religious and ethical thought I both want to see, and I think needs, to survive beyond these dark (and seemingly darkening) days.

My preferred option is consciously to plump for an approach with both ancient Greek and Renaissance roots that I first explicitly explored with you just over a year ago with the help of the fourteenth-century Italian writer, poet and humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375).

To remind you, one day the July before last, as I began to fall asleep, his poem “The Decameron” (1353) came quietly into my dreams. The year is 1348 and there is a terrible plague running unchecked in Florence. As Robert Pogue Harrison says:

In the city, civic order has degenerated into anarchy; love of one’s neighbour has turned into dread of one’s neighbour (who now represents the threat of contagion); the law of kinship has given way to every person for himself (many family members flee from their infected loved ones, leaving them to face their death agonies alone and without succour); and where there was once courtesy and decorum there is now only crime and delirium (Gardens, p. 84).

To escape this horror a group of seven young women and three young men decide to leave the city for two-weeks, go to a secluded villa with a beautiful walled-garden and there “to engage in conversation, leisurely walks, dancing, storytelling, and merry-making taking care not to transgress the codes of proper conduct” (Gardens, p. 84).

What could be more different from the horrors of plague-ridden Florence than this garden idyll? It is seemingly so different that, at first sight, it might seem as if that their retreat was merely an escape from reality. But, as Harrison points out:

While their escapade is indeed a ‘flight from reality’, their self-conscious efforts to follow an almost ideal code of sociability during their stay in the hills of Fiesole are a direct response to the collapse of social order they leave behind. In that respect their sojourn is wholly “justified” by Hannah Arendt’s standards [when she says]: “flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped (Gardens, p. 84).

As it was a year ago this seems to me to be a vital insight to hold on to in our day to day life as a diverse, consensual voluntary church community because I’m sure we can all see that, in order just to keep going, we are all going to need a place of appropriate retreat and are likely to be increasingly “in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification.” But, and this is a hugely important element in the overall picture, this escape must always be undertaken by us according to Hannah Arendt’s high standard I've just mentioned.

In consequence, I strongly feel this community should primarily be concerned to understand itself as offering something analogous to the garden into which Boccaccio’s ten youngsters retreated six-hundred and sixty-seven years ago where all kinds of different people may continue “to engage in conversation, leisurely walks, dancing, storytelling, and merry-making, [and are able to take] care not to transgress the codes of proper conduct” whilst always keeping well aware of what it is we are trying to escape. This address is directed at the latter; my address about the walnut tree would have been an example of the former. 

The real (if extremely modest) hope I have is that those who seek us out on a Sunday will, when they return to reality on Monday morning, find they are just slightly better able to get through the next day and the next week. At the very least a place like this might be able to provide just a little meaningful support for the preferred activism each of us as individuals feels called upon and able to undertake in our own, personal lives so as to "show compassion for those who suffer" — whether that activism is religious, social and/or political in orientation.

It important to remember that in the Decameron, after two weeks retreat, the ten storytellers then make a return to reality. Although for them, as for us, the time spent together in fellowship, sharing story, song and conversation about all kinds of things (including walnut trees) may seem to have little or no immediate, direct effect on the “outside”, “real” world, it is not true that nothing changes in our time together. This is because what the ten friends, and we, do together here is something we may call “recasting reality.” As Harrison notes,

By recasting reality in narrative modes, [the ten youngsters] allow what is otherwise hidden by reality’s amorphous flow of moments to appear in formal relief” . . . [and the magic of stories, like gardens, is that] they transfigure the real even as they leave it apparently untouched.

As I have put it many other times, whilst it is true that in one sense there is no other world than this one, there is another world, namely, this world seen or interpreted differently. To paraphrase what I often say about prayer, though we may doubt our interpretations change anything, let it never be forgotten that interpretations change people and people change things.

In other words, in the present, darkening, extremely unsettling historical, political, religious and social situation we find ourselves in, one with less and less consensus, it seems to me that the best and most effective way a small liberal, free-religious community like our own can play a meaningful role in the world is to continue to gather together with “wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability” in order to offer ourselves and the world more creative, compassionate and civilising interpretations of the world than those we are currently being offered by reality.

This is clearly not the only thing that needs to be done, but it is the only thing I think that together, in this very small, and highly specific community, we can and should be trying to do right now.

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