Jubilant Utilitarianism—Elective Ethics and the Republic of Heaven

Readings: Two readings concerned with "the peaceable kingdom" from Isaiah 2:4 and 11:6-9

From “A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist” by Michel Onfray (Columbia University Press, 2015, pp. 48-49):

Against godly morality, inasmuch as it is inaccessible for humans, I propose an aristocratic and elective ethics. Do not aim for sainthood, but wisdom. Instead of the false bijection of the triangular Christian relationship, I argue for a geometry of ethical circles, all of which share a central focal point: the Self. Each one is the centre of its own system and organizes others around it, concentrically, according to whether or not there are reasons to keep others near. There is no definitive place, every position in this space is decided by what is said, done, shown, proven, and given as signs of the relationship’s quality. There is no such thing as Friendship, but only proofs of friendship: no Love, but only proofs of love; no Hate, but only proofs of hate; and so on. Deeds and gestures compose an arithmetic that allows us to deduce the nature of a relationship: friendship, love tenderness, and camaraderie or the inverse . . . 

There are two simple movements: election and eviction; centripetal force and centrifugal force; drawing something closer to oneself or casting something off to the margins. An ethics based on these movements is dynamic, unceasing, ever moving, always in relation to the actions of others. Therefore, the other is accountable for his engagements and responsible for his place in my ethical schema. From a hedonist perspective, desiring the other’s pleasure is what activates their movement toward you; wanting their unhappiness activates the opposite movement.

Thus, ethics is less a matter of theory than of practice. The cardinal rule of the game could be called jubilant utilitarianism. Action — including thoughts, promises, and deeds— animates the dynamic. Platonic friendship does not exist, only its incarnations. Proofs of friendship bring people together, and expressions of enmity push people apart. The same goes for what we call the salt of existence: love, affection, tenderness, sweetness, thoughtfulness, delicateness, forbearance, magnanimity, politeness, amenity, kindness, civility, attentiveness, attention, courtesy, clemency, devotedness, and all the words carrying a connotation of goodness. These virtues forge connections; their failure loosens those bonds; and their total breach leads to severed relations. 

—o0o—

From time to time some of you may wonder what practical reason I have that makes me so keen to encourage folk to leave behind belief in a traditional monotheistic God and to adopt other ways of speaking of the divine and sacred and of using that, oh so tricky work, “God”. Well, today, I hope that, in a small way, I may help you to see why.

I realise that my concern with this matter can look a bit odd in a tradition such as our own which has slowly come to realise that having, so-called, “true beliefs” about God is not the most important thing in religion, rather what truly counts is right behaviour and action. As I often say, we are here more concerned with orthopraxy (right practice) rather than orthodoxy (right belief). After all, this is why we have on our order of service each week and on our major noticeboard the words "We need not think alike to love alike".

So, once again, why my concern with theology and beliefs about God? Well it is not so much driven by the desire to gain assuredly true beliefs about him/her/it, rather it is to try and ensure that I, you, we, avoid what seem to be ideas about God that continue to strike many of us cutting against the possibility that the words "We need not think (or believe) alike to love alike" might be actually enacted.

In my opinion — which, as always, I realise may not be yours — one of the most problematic and dangerous problems with monotheism is that “how things are” and “what things matter” are indissolubly tied together from the beginning. The monotheistic God creates the world AND AT THE SAME TIME decides for all time what is to be the good, the true and the beautiful. In other words, to quote Michel Onfray, “As long as God is in charge, morality is a subsection of theology” (Hedonist Manifesto p. 37). We need to separate these things.

And if we truly desire to develop a true morality, i.e. one which genuinely helps us freely to work through the moral issues ourselves and take real responsibility for our actions, then we really cannot continue to allow God dominate and force morality upon us from the beginning to the very end via some eternal, irresistible force or diktat. That’s not freedom, that’s not true moral living, it’s little better than a absolute, divine, kingly dictatorship.

We need, again in my opinion, definitively to break the connection between God and morality and between how things are and what things matter.

This is the very practical reason why I’m so concerned about using theological thinking, to be quite frank about, affect a palace revolution and remove God from the throne of heaven and put in place something akin to what the author Philip Pullman in his wonderful “His Dark Materials” trilogy called, “the republic of heaven.” (You can read one of Pullman's pieces on "The Republic of Heaven" at this link.)

As the humanist, Quaker and former head of current affairs, arts and religion at Granada Television, David Boulton, wrote in the Guardian back in 2003, there is a strong connection here between Pullman’s vision and that held by one of my own great heroes, the seventeenth-century Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, whom I cited a couple of weeks ago in my open letter to David Cameron which you heard from this lectern. Boulton says:

“What the visions of Winstanley and Pullman have in common is the realisation that kingship is dead. Whether we chop off their heads or relegate our monarchs to figurehead status, in the modern democratic world we consider ourselves not subjects but free citizens. And where does that leave the king of kings and lord of lords? Having discarded the divine right of kings, what do we do with the kingship of the divinity?
          “Get rid of that too, said Winstanley, aiming to dispatch not only temporal kingly power but also the throne of God himself. “In the beginning . . . the great creator, Reason, made the earth to be a common treasury.” If earthly kingship was obsolete, how much more so was its divine original? What could it mean to persist in imagining God in the feudal terms of kingship, lordship, as He Who Must Be Obeyed?
          “No king, no kingdom. So the kingdom of heaven becomes a republic, where the public is king — where we have to take responsibility for creating a better world, “as it is in heaven”, instead of leaving it all to the Authority” (Source: The Guardian).

Amen! to that say I.

Anyway, as the contemporary French philosopher Michel Onfray provocatively reminds us, when the monotheistic God remains in charge:

“Ethics can’t pretend to have autonomy. It falls from the sky, descending from the intelligible universe. In this paradigm, morality does not come from a contract with the immanent; it comes from some epiphany, from an apparition. God talks; men listen; then they obey. Just in case his connection to men is hard to understand, since God is not always available, the clergy is there twenty-four hours a day. Ask the priest, the bishop, the cardinal, he’ll tell you. Theology, the pseudoscience of the divine, more accurately the science of rendering people subservient to the fiction of God” (Hedonist Manifesto pp. 37-38).

But once we have removed God (or the fiction of God) from the throne of heaven (which, please note, is not to say that the phenomena we are minded to call the divine and the sacred are also to be removed), we can allow morality freely to develop as a truly human realm, one genuinely emerging from and grounded in the realities of this, our awe-inspiring, natural world.

But if morality is not something permanently given from the start by God but some natural, emergent, developing and dynamic human realm, how can it help us live something we might meaningfully call a good, moral life?

Well, in our reading, you heard three paragraphs from Michel Onfray’s very recent book “A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist” in which he notes, first of all, that getting rid of the monotheistic God allows us, in the first instance, to aim for wisdom rather than sainthood.

My pastoral experience says to me that wisdom is a jolly good and healthy thing to aim for and I cannot tell you how many people I have spoken with over the years who seem bent on destroying themselves by chasing after sainthood rather than wisdom. Time and time again I hear from them stories about how they are turning themselves inside out because of their perceived failure to match up to the insane model of divine sainthood when I, and many others, can often see that they are often quite extraordinarily good friends to many and capable of constantly showing remarkable expressions of love for others. The impossible to achieve platonic, monotheistic model of the perfectly good friend, of perfectly good love, can be let go in the republic of heaven and replaced with the task of creating tangible and achievable human proofs of friendship and of love.

As Onfray is keen to point out this means that “ethics is less a matter of theory than of practice”—here we may properly return to the phrase "We need not think (or believe) alike to love alike" because, to my mind, we can only truly mean and live this out once we have deposed God and abolished the Kingdom of Heaven and put in place a Republic of Heaven. 

We don’t need to be the perfect platonic, saintly friend, we need only incarnate friendship as best we can in this or that situation and it is these proofs of our friendship and love that brings us together; it is their absence that push us apart.

As I hope you can see this is to make human morality a matter of two simple, basic movements: “election and eviction; centripetal force and centrifugal force; drawing something closer to oneself or casting something off to the margins.”

In the republic of heaven it seems to me that a key aspect of our moral duty is constantly to note and respond to these movements and to find ways to encourage as much election and centripetal force as is possible amongst the incredible diversity of human being in order to keep the salt of existence salty. To remind you, the salt of existence includes: love, affection, tenderness, sweetness, thoughtfulness, delicateness, forbearance, magnanimity, politeness, amenity, kindness, civility, attentiveness, attention, courtesy, clemency, devotedness, and all the words carrying a connection of goodness.”

When these virtues are alive in a practice of “jubilant utilitarianism” we know that they “forge connections” and encourage election and centripetal force between people; when they fail eviction and centrifugal force follow; when they are totally breached relations are, of course, severed.

It is important to see that, in the republic of heaven, for such a “jubilant utilitarianism” to get going we must train ourselves and others to be certain kinds of truly free and responsible citizens, to become people who keep their promises, who don’t constantly change their opinions, who don’t have selective and self-interested memory, who don’t engage in tortuous and spurious ways to legitimise their about-faces, who do what they say they will and who don’t continually do the opposite of their pronouncements.

In the republic of heaven we cannot make contracts with the kind of citizen who doesn’t behave in this fashion because their behaviour simply does not encourage genuine election and the creation of centripetal force but the opposite. Once we have detected such citizens, we have, or so it seems to me, a clear right and duty to ensure such people do not come dominate the overall life of our society.

To be sure, in the republic of heaven, we will still have a real and pressing pastoral, moral duty towards such problematic citizens, but we can be confident (enough) strongly to reject their behaviours as bad and destructive and, with kindness, civility, love and clemency, find appropriate ways to evict them from holding central and highly influential roles in the dynamic and ever evolving life of the republic.

In the republic of heaven we can make such moral decisions with greater confidence than before because we will always only going to be looking for concrete proofs of friendship and love. Where they are not present the saltiness of life is gone and, as Jesus said, “it is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Jesus’ words on this matter remind me that David Boulton is of the opinion, and I agree with him in this, that:

“This republic is not, after all, so different from the kingdom. But it is a realm where authority is democratised, so that what were once seen as the king’s [i.e. God’s] responsibilities become our own. The republic imports much from the kingdom; it takes in Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom, Jesus’s world, where all tears are wiped away, and Blake’s Jerusalem.
“What it will not import is unquestioning obedience and uncritical subjection to a divine lord and king, for lordship and kingship belong to the past” (Source: The Guardian).

But, if we want this real morality, this real ethics then, my friends, we have no choice but properly do the revolutionary theology that will finally overthrow the old God of monotheism. If we don’t do this then, be assured, God will always be waiting in the wings with his cohort of religious professionals ready to seize back power for those who do believe that we must believe and think alike to love alike. That is a nasty and brutish world as our dark religious history so eloquently reveals.

So today, I ask you to stand firmly on the side of the Republic of Heaven.

Long live the Republic!
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