Not nothing but no-thing - Second Sunday in Advent

I begin with a caveat. This is what one might call an interim report. It is not offered today merely on a whim as I have been thinking about it for a long time now so it is, at the very least, considered. But it is only a considered preliminary statement very much up for discussion.

During the week I was re-reading a 1935 review written by the poet and editor Michael Roberts of "Quack, Quack!" by Leonard Woolf. Woolf, although not mentioned much these days, was an immensely influential liberal left-winger during the first half of the twentieth-century and his work helped to lay the foundations of both the policy of the League of Nations and the United Nations and also of our welfare state. In his review Roberts states:

He [Leonard Woolf] mocks at intuitions and absolute beliefs, they are all quackery, but he does not see the limitations of reason. Reason can show us how a thing can best be done, but it cannot modify or co-ordinate our basic inclinations, as religion and poetry attempt to do, and as the politician needs to do. We need some criteria of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, as well as of truth and falsity, and we need to persuade others to accept those criteria. The problem is not to destroy all rhetoric but to teach people to distinguish between good rhetoric and bad, good poetry and bad. The liberal-rationalist assumes that he can get on without rhetoric or poetic use of language at all, and that every relation of power between individuals is bad: consequently he speaks only to people like himself, and the field is left to the quacks with their false rhetoric, their sentimental poetry and their bullying use of the power of personality.

This passage critiquing the use of reason alone seemed to me rather suggestive, particularly during the season of Advent and Christmas, and particularly in a religious tradition such as ours that values reason very highly and which has been somewhat suspicious of influential emotional rhetoric whether it is found in speeches or poetry. After all the reason we called ourselves during the eighteenth-century Rational Dissenters - a title recently back in circulation as the title of the Great Yarmouth Unitarian & Free Christian Newsletter - was to distinguish ourselves from those known as Enthusiasts, primarily Wesley's rhetorically very effective Methodists. My Old Testament tutor Father John Davies once told me of a gravestone of a rational dissenter which read "The Revd N. died ever unenthusiastic." Marvellous eh?! I hope it is true!

Well in this address I'm going to make an unusual critique of reason but it is one that I make because of my support for the use of reason. We do need to begin by being clear that the careful use of reason has brought us many extraordinary gifts which have helped us achieve significant new perspectives on the world whether in the realm of science, philosophy or theology. But some of the revealed perspectives were not entirely expected and as we have come to have greater knowledge of our complex world world in its various modes, in our wisest moments at least, we have also come to see ever more clearly how little we know and, perhaps, can ever know. Reason has brought us a great gift which we were not only not really expecting but also one many of us have been rather disinclined to accept with delight - namely the gift of radical uncertainty.

For example quantum mechanics seems to be teaching us that reality - in itself - is at best understood as veiled. We went looking for real describable and graspable things and you know what, it seems we can't find them. In fact we can't find any "thing" at all. Put slightly better than that we seem to have found "no-thing" which is not quite the same as "nothing."

And again in the spiritual and religious sphere because of increasingly deep encounters with ever more people and cultures we have discovered a plurality of beliefs and practices that suggest to us that there is no such thing as one perfect coherent pure religion or culture. If one were imposed - the spectre of an imperialist monoculture looms here - all kinds of insights, cairns, waymarks, wisdom, and cultural colour would definitively be lost to us.

So the world's richness and wonder - at least at the level revealed to us by classical enlightenment reason - seems to be inextricably wrapped up in its ability to remain indeterminate and un-graspable in itself.

The songwriter Graham Nash tells of a letter he got from Joni Mitchell when their ways parted: "I remember getting a telegram from Greece from Joan. The last line of which was, 'If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers.' It was Joan's way of saying goodbye to me."

Reason which, at the outset, showed to us its pre-eminent worth by helping us, or so it appeared, grasp the world ever more firmly and securely is now helping us see clearly that we cannot hold the world tight because, like sand, it just runs through your fingers. Reason's final gift to us, at least in the form we once knew it, may be in saying goodbye and setting us free to form some new relationship with the world. I think that this is going to be for us a hard and sad parting just as it was for Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell. We may draw some real comfort, however, from the fact that just as Graham and Joni's parting left us some timeless, poignant and beautiful songs there will be for us some timeless, poignant and lasting beauty from our former relationship with reason and the world known through it. The prophet Jeremiah memorably called upon Israel to "Build cairns to mark your way, set up signposts; make sure of the road, the path which you will tread" (Jer. 31:21 REB). It seems to me that reason has indeed built for us some lasting cairns which will help us to consider wisely the path which we will tread in the coming years. So my critique of reason is not one which seeks to overturn it but to suggest that today it really has begun to reach its upper limits. Of course the wise amongst us always knew this limit existed. John Locke was one notable figure who memorably pointed out in the introduction to his great Essay that:

It is of great use to the sailor to know the length of his line, though he cannot with it fathom all the depths of the ocean. It is well he knows that it is long enough to reach the bottom, at such places as are necessary to direct his voyage, and caution him against running upon shoals that may ruin him.

In the sphere of religion and belief and, quite surprisingly to all concerned, maybe even physics - at least in its quantum aspect - reason's line has run out into something unimaginably deep indeed.

Now all this talk of the "path", "no-thing" and the essentially indeterminate and un-graspable nature of the world resonates, as some of you will be aware, with the world-view of philosophical Taoism - the word Tao means, in part, "the way". I think the connections are real but we can recognise these connections because we inherit the same basic ideas via key figures in the Western tradition such as Plotinus, Nicholas of Cusa, Meister Eckhart and my own beloved Spinoza. There are more if you care to go looking.

It is at this point that I can come back to Robert's critique of Woolf. You will remember that he said that although "Reason can show us how a thing can best be done . . . it cannot modify or co-ordinate our basic inclinations, as religion and poetry attempt to do, and as the politician needs to do."

To those who are comfortable with it the insight that reality may well be something akin to "no-thing" certainly shows how a thing can best be done but, because particularly to the western mind this is still so counter-intuitive, it is not so good - at least on an initial encounter - at positively modifying or co-ordinating our basic inclinations. Even in Buddhism and Taoism which are religious, or better, philosophical positions which do not find "no-thing" as disturbing as much western religion and philosophy does, even there there is a recognition of the need for rhetoric - for poetry and religious stories, myths and legends which, if properly taught, help people to live comfortably, even joyfully, in the face of profound indeterminacy as they come to recognise the "reality" of "no-thing."

It seems to me that as heirs to the rational enlightenment we are going to have to find our quotidian, practical commonplace order and meaning, not primarily through reason any more, but through some re-embrace of older rhetorical forms. As a matter of some urgency I think we need to find healthy ways to return to our poetry, our religious stories, myths and legends to help us live and modify our basic inclinations whilst we come to terms with the rather unsettling realisation that the "reality" isn't quite what we thought it was.

I have used this phrase a few times before nearly always at Easter and Christmas - basically because it seems so on the money - and I think we need to be active in developing amongst ourselves a coherent "post-critical naivety." That is to say, without destructively pulling them apart, we need to learn again how to inhabit our stories but this time to use them to bring us, not to the solid physical security that Christianity once offered, namely a perfect, ideal, tangible and predictable world called the Kingdom of Heaven, but to a humble, flexible and joyful way of living as part of an infinitely complex and endlessly creative and indeterminate Nature in which we find the ultimate reality not to be nothing but, at the very least, "no-thing."

This is, I admit, quite a perplexing idea to handle so, in the hope of leaving you with some easier way of grasping what I am saying I'll end now with a poem I have explored before by R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) called "Lost Christmas."

He is alone, it is Christmas.
Up the hill go three trees, the three kings.
There is a star also
Over the dark manger. But where is the Child?

Pity him. He has come far

Like the trees, matching their patience
With his. But the mind was before
Him on the long road. The manger is empty.

If you go up the hill only with the mind - that is to say with a classic enlightenment rationally - you will find no Christ-child in the manger. I take this to be a useful factual statement about the world. In fact, considered in a certain way, there is not only no Christ-child but no manger, no road, no trees, no star, no three kings nor any you nor me.

But if you also go up the hill with the rhetorical and imaginative understanding of the poet and the story teller all these things become real and meaningful once again and can teach you lessons of real and great worth. And, when you have fully understood those lessons, when you understand without grasping the true meaning of the Christ-child - a window on the Divine Unity - then you will be fully able and content to understand all these things are really "no-thing." As the fourteenth chapter of the Tao Te Ching (Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English) perfectly puts it:

Look, it cannot be seen - it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard - it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held - it is intangible.
These three are indefinable;
Therefore they are joined in one.

From above it is not bright;
From below it is not dark:
An unbroken thread beyond description.
It returns to nothingness.
The form of the formless,
The image of the imageless.
It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.

Stand before it and there is no beginning.
Follow it and there is no end.
Stay with the ancient Tao,
Move with the present.

Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.