Thinking of Jonathan Harrison—friend and philosophical mentor—on the anniversary of his birth and death
For these and other reasons, Jonathan’s friendship and work was very much in my mind this week and on a number occasions I stopped with a cup of tea in my hand to look at the photo of him on my mantelpiece which I took in his house a couple of years before his death as we ate fish and chips together, polished off a nice bottle of wine (a glass of which you can see in the photo at the top of this post) and talked philosophy and religion on into the afternoon. In the last two years of his life this became a regular bi-weekly event to which I always looked forward and thoroughly enjoyed.
Jonathan was born in 1924 in West Derby, Liverpool and in 1945 he gained his BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Corpus Christi College/University of Oxford (MA, 1952). He was lecturer in philosophy at Durham University between 1947-1959, senior lecturer in philosophy at Edinburgh University between 1959-1964 and, finally, Professor of philosophy at Nottingham University between 1964-1988. During 1968 he was a visiting professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, Chicago. His best known books are, Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong (George Allen and Unwin, 1971), two books on Hume’s moral philosophy published by the Oxford University Press in 1976 and 1980 and, lastly, God, Freedom and Immortality (Ashgate, 1999).
Jonathan was hugely important to me in my role as a minister of religion because he helped me work carefully through the implications of being, like him, what he called “that embarrassing, but not”, he thought, “uncommon thing, an atheist who has what appears to be [an] experience of the deity whom he believes not to exist” (God, Freedom and Immortality, p. 681).
Like Jonathan, I have continued to value hugely many aspects of my inherited liberal Christian tradition even as my belief in the existence of God has completely dissolved. Like him I continue to think that,
“Living a spiritual life may be regarded as paying attention to such intimations of the divine as one has in this world, without our having thought to any other world. Paying such attention might not suit everybody. I suspect doing so is more a matter of prudence than of morality. To love God, if I am right in thinking that it is possible to love a nonexistent God, cannot benefit him, for he does not, strictly speak, exist, but to love him may be of benefit to oneself” (God, Freedom and Immortality, p. 671).
In these difficult and discombobulating times — as I continue to explore the many, what seem to me, still undischarged energies to found in our religious tradition, even after the death of God — my paying attention to such intimations of the divine as I have in this world, without my having thought to any other world, continues to help me negotiate (or at least begin to grapple with) the many significant and challenging “downs” I am currently experiencing as I view the current socio-political-ecological situation both in the UK and the wider world. I realise, of course, as did Jonathan, that “paying such attention” might not suit everybody but it might, just, suit one or two of you. Consequently, on the anniversary of his death and close to his birthday, I’d like to take the opportunity to reintroduce you to some of his thinking which can be found in the address I wrote for the congregation back in 2014 immediately following his death. You can find this at the following link:
Jonathan thought — and I still, more or less, agree with him in this — that many of Christianity’s significant disadvantages might yet be overcome and he was prepared to state clearly that “the Christian ethic,” at least subject to the many criticisms he made of it, remains “a good one, though nothing in this world is perfect. It offers solace, comfort and help and the possibility of spiritual quietness, rest and solace which many sorely need and from which,” Jonathan suspected, “most would benefit” (God, Freedom and Immortality, p. 662).
But, as Jonathan also said, Christianity was not the only religion to provide such benefits and, although he hoped otherwise, he thought it was “unfortunate that these benefits are usually . . . bought, in their Christian form, at the price of accepting superstition and bad metaphysics” (God, Freedom and Immortality, p. 662).
But whatever you think about all of the above, sometime on Tuesday evening, Jonathan’s birthday, why not raise a toast to one of Britain’s unsung philosophers and a much valued member of this unusual congregation.
Requiescat in pace, Jonathan Harrison (1924-2014)