Re-thinking “We need not think alike to love alike”

The plaque in our Memorial Garden
READING: From “The Basics of the Deep Ecology Movement” by Arne Naess (Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess, ed. by Alan Drengson and Bill Devall, Counterpoint Press, Berkeley CA, 2008, pp. 105-106 [Here is a link to a preview of the the new Penguin edition])

Supporters of the deep ecology movement refer approvingly to a diversity of philosophers, cultural traditions, and religious trends. Some authors ask for clarification: Where is the essence or core? Is there a definite general philosophy of deep ecology, or at least a kind of philosophy? Or is it essentially a movement with exasperatingly vague outlines? I do not think it is desirable to do more than tentatively suggest what might be the essential ingredients of a deep ecology theoretical point of view. In what follows, I formulate some remarks that might be considered dogmatic. They are, however, only meant as proposals for people with a background similar to my own.

In order to facilitate discussion about the deep ecology movement among philosophers, it may be helpful to distinguish a common platform of deep ecology from the fundamental features of philosophies and religions from which that platform is derived, provided it is tentatively formulated as a set of norms and hypotheses (factual assumptions). The term platform is preferred to principle, because the latter may be misunderstood to refer to ultimate premises. Furthermore, the formulations of a platform should be short and concise (as a synopsis), whereas the fundamental premises are Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, or of other religious kinds, or they are philosophical with affinities to the basic views of Spinoza, Whitehead, Heidegger, or others. Different sets of fundamentals are normally more or less incompatible, or at least difficult to compare in terms of cognitive contents. Supporters of deep ecology may have great difficulties in understanding each other's ultimate view, but not sets of penultimate views as formulated as a kind of platform they have largely in common.

[. . .]

One must avoid looking for one definite philosophy or religious view among the supporters of the deep ecology movement. There is a rich manifold of fundamental views compatible with the deep ecology platform. And without this, the movement would lose its transcultural character. The trans-cultural character of the movement makes it natural that the wording of a version of the platform cannot be the same everywhere. A term like our planet, for instance, is unsuitable where people have no clear notion corresponding to the Western concept of a planet. The discussion has four levels: (1) verbalized fundamental philosophical and religious views, (2) the deep ecology platform, (3) the more or less general consequences derived from the platform—guidelines for lifestyles and for policies of every kind, and (4) prescriptions related to concrete situations and dateable decisions made in them. The term dateable refers to the trivial circumstance that a decision is made at a definite time, even if it has taken a year to arrive at.


Re-thinking “We need not think alike to love alike”

The plaque in our Memorial Garden
On every morning order of service, and on a plaque in our Memorial Garden, there appear words attributed to one of the principal founders of our own liberal religious movement, the Hungarian Unitarian bishop, Francis David (1510-1579), namely “We need not think alike to love alike”. I say attributed because this exact phrase can be found nowhere in the written records even though in places he does, most assuredly, echo its sentiment. The closest match to this phrase was in fact uttered by Charles Wesley (1707-1788) the founder of the Methodist Church. But one should not be partisan about such things as it’s a sentiment that should, surely, be spread abroad more widely in our fractious world.

But, whoever first uttered this saying there is a significant problem about how to interpret it today . So, as I have in my last two addresses (HERE and HERE) I’ll begin with a little history to frame the matter.

In the Hungarian Unitarian Church (HUC) during the latter part of the 16th century this sentiment could only be interpreted one way. Having asserted an ultimate premise concerning the Unity of God and the humanity of Jesus the HUC necessarily found itself in conflict with the majority of Christians who asserted the tri-unity of God and the concomitant belief that Christ was the third person of this Trinity. This was an age when such conflicts about ultimate premises were exceptionally severe often resulting in imprisonment, exile and even execution for the minority group. Faced with this possibility (which all too often became a reality) the HUC simultaneously began to preach a doctrine of religious toleration. The sixteenth-century French protestant Sebastian Castellio (1515–1563) summed up this latter issue better than perhaps anyone else when, in 1562, he stated in his Contra libellum Calvini (Against the libel by Calvin) that “To kill a man does not mean to protect a doctrine, it means to kill a man”.

On this basis — i.e. thinking alike in terms of their own Unitarian ultimate premises — the HUC turned outwards to their more doctrinally orthodox neighbour churches and proclaimed: “We (i.e. the HUC that internally thinks alike) do not need to think like you Trinitarians in order that we may all, together, love alike.” The issue we must see clearly here is that the members of the HUC did think (more or less) alike and it was precisely the corporate strength they gained from holding these shared ultimate premises which allowed them strongly to assert the truth of, and struggle for, the toleration of religious differences concerning ultimate premises in the wider, public sphere.

Now fast forward into the civic, highly plural, multicultural setting of the mid-twenty-first century where this same motto, “We need not think alike to love alike”, has, in our own church tradition — and mostly unconsciously —, been turned thoroughly inside out. For we now not only take it for granted that the wider world around us is highly diverse in terms of ultimate premises, but we also take it for granted that, internally, we mirror this plurality of belief — even if it is to a somewhat lesser degree. In our local context in this church we know only too well that, when it comes to ultimate premises, we do not think alike; this person believes in a theistic or pantheistic God, that person is an atheist; this person thinks a Buddhist ontology is correct, that person thinks a Christian ontology is correct; this person is a religious naturalist and materialist, this person is . . . well we could go on and on, ad infinitum.

Without doubt this complex internal plurality of ultimate premises has had powerful knock on effects upon the general ability of our communities effectively to gather together their resources together so as to be able to put a collective shoulder strongly against this wheel or that wheel in order to affect this or that social, political and religious change in the public sphere. These effects will be, indeed are, felt to be both good and bad and there should be no surprise that amongst us views will differ about what effects are good and what bad.

One clearly bad effect — or perhaps it’s better simply to call it a “problematic and noteworthy” effect — is that we are now very, very much slower than we once were about coming to genuinely shared positions about what kind of actions we should be doing in the wider public sphere. Public, corporate action can be put off for long periods of time while we attempt to arrive at some meaningful shared concensus. I simply note that, unlike us, right-wing, hyper-conservative, illiberal groups seem to be much more able to act very quickly and decisively through the formation of their own common platforms (such as the promotion of racist and nationalist policies) which, in turn, can often put liberal and progressive groups like us firmly on our back foot. However, today I don’t want to dwell on this aspect but perhaps we should return to it at another time.

Despite this, one of the good effects — in my opinion anyway — is that our internal plurality of beliefs means it’s now very difficult to imagine us ever again becoming a religious community which could ever become completely committed to promulgating this or that single, totalizing, religious doctrine. As a free-religious tradition we — I think — all now feel strongly that all such totalizing doctrines are, in the long-run, a curse upon humanity and not a blessing. We have come to hold the view that, for the foreseeable future anyway, there will remain in play an enormous variety of different human perspectives on the nature of things and, therefore, we need to find ways to deal with this.

The pressing question that emerges here, is whether there exists a way — a method or process — by which such differences, tensions and potential conflicts in ultimate premises can, in fact, be used to generate meaningful ways by which people holding different ultimate premises can still “love alike”?

The answer is, I think “yes” and in passing last week during the conversation after my address, I brought into play the model I borrowed from Arne Naess (1912-2009) which I have used for the last decade in my own teaching, both within this church and in my public role teaching Jewish/Christian/Muslim relations. However, after I mentioned it I realised that many of you in the current congregation won’t know anything about it because the last time I explored it properly in an address was back in 2013. So let me briefly run through it again.

We’ll start at the bottom with level 1. Here you can see just a few of the perhaps almost countless ultimate premises that exist in the world, some of which will be found here. Although many of them will overlap and interpenetrate with each other it is vital to see that none of them can be absolutely reduced to or completely comprehended by any other. Christianity is not the same Judaism nor Islam nor the other way round. Neither is atheism the same as theism or vice versa. At this level it is clear that there is always going to be a great deal of disagreement and structural difference and we need to acknowledge this and not sweep it under the carpet.

Let’s move up to level 2. Despite this we are all aware that these very different ultimate premises are capable of articulating ideas that can can turn into “common platforms” designed to achieve certain things in the world. Notable well known examples of these include, the United Nations, Hans Küng's “Global Ethic”, Karen Armstrong’s “Charter for Compassion”, Médecins Sans Frontières, Greenpeace, treaties like the Kyoto Agreement, our secular democracies, the European Union, the National Health Service and many others. At the local level they might be common platforms to save a local school, building a children’s playground, organizing a better bus service or health care. At this very, very general level — where a common platform is stated in its most simple, concise way — the groups who have generated and supported supported it will, naturally, find a great deal of agreement between them.

Let’s now move to level 3. Here the various groups involved in the common platform that has emerged now have to sit down together to discuss how best to proceed in order to put it into effect. Each group, rooted in and acting out of their own ultimate premises, will have developed, often over centuries, certain deeply held norms and values which help guide them in engaging in what they consider to be appropriate “right” actions. Not surprisingly, at this level, an incredible amount of disagreement can enter into the picture as we try to decide what are the appropriate actions to bring about the shared desired end articulated by the common platform.

Naturally, during the discussions in level 3 some groups will have dropped out, but some will have arrived at a concensus about what action needs to be taken which brings us to level 4, action.

But, once the action has been agreed (whatever it is that is in accordance with the common platform) — via a journey from ultimate premises, through the articulation of a common-platform, through an intense discussion in which our norms and values are in play — the consequences of this action will later on demand a process of philosophical and theological reflection which is achieved by going back down through the levels (see arrow on right of diagram). What ever the final  action was, every group involved has to ascertain whether the action upheld their norms and values, was true to the basic aim of the common-platform and, lastly, whether it was consistent with their ultimate premises? During every journey through this process some change within a group nearly always occurs as it becomes clear that some ideas need to be held more firmly, some more loosely, whilst some may need to be modified or more subtly nuanced, and so on.

It is important to see that this process does not result in the reduction of one set of ultimate premises to another. Rather, firstly, it helps those different groups better to work together at the level of common platforms and, secondly, this better, practical working relationship (i.e. which is a kind of “loving alike”), has the beneficial side-effect of helping these very different groups sit better with their basic differences and disagreements, i.e. it helps a group see, say and mean that we need not think alike to love alike. Another way of putting it is that we learn the important lesson of being able to disagree with each other in better, and ultimately more constructive, ways.

One particular advantage of this approach is that, to use what is I hope an appropriate parallel, it keeps the genetic pool of human thought and action healthily large — different and often helpful perspectives, as well as subtle different nuances of meanings, are kept alive and, therefore, at least potentially accessible to human kind as a whole.

But, and it’s a vital and huge but, any religious or philosophical community goes seriously wrong whenever it seeks — whether consciously or not — to colonise level 2 and pretend that it is, itself, the common platform. There are countless historical examples of such attempts from obviously illiberal positions — for example Nazism, Stalinism, neo-liberalism, various theocracies and many others. But it is often forgotten that liberal religion can also often sin greatly in this regard, especially whenever it starts to believe that it has articulated some genuinely universal ultimate premises and is on the way to creating a pure, universal religion.

It's vital that even a very liberal church such as this one in Cambridge (which consciously emphasizes a certain kind of common platform over personal ultimate premises—see last week’s address) must take care to see that it always stays down at level one with everyone else and, through participating in an ongoing dialogue and general encounter with people who hold different ultimate premises to our own, to let genuinely common platforms emerge.

Naturally, not every common platform that gets put forward by divergent groups holding different ultimate premises is going to one we can support. For example we cannot get behind any kind of racist and nationalist common platform because it runs so counter to our ultimate premises and the norms and values tha come from them. But this truth simply means we are always-already called upon to find ways to work with other groups who hold different ultimate premises to our own in order to generate another kind of common platform that, in this example, is able to resist racism and nationalism and promote a genuine diversity of peoples and a certain kind of cosmopolitanism.

There’s no pancea to be found here, only the straightforward truth that groups who hold different ultimate premises can generate common platforms and so we are able to still say and mean, “We need not think alike to love alike” even though we do not (cannot) mean it in the way we did during the sixteenth-century.


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