Illuminating comparisons to get an understanding of how [things] are

Today I sat in a cafe in the gardens of the Rocher des Doms in Avignon (see picture on right) all afternoon reading Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein as well as thinking about some of the stuff I talked about in the last blog. There, over a cold beer in the cafe, it struck me that part of the reason those who like to think they are liberals (that includes me of course) are in big trouble is because we are operating with concepts which are highly unstable (such as tolerance, inclusivity, fairness, justice etc.) and consequently dangerously open either to accidental confusion or deliberate misuse. Despite my recognition of this problem - though it is daily becoming a more forcible recognition - I realise how easy it is to be seduced into believing that these terms can be used to refer clearly to reality itself. It may well be doubtful they could ever have done that but assuredly today they do not.

Ray Monk offers up a useful summing up of what Wittgenstein's (later) philosophy was trying to get us to do which may prove useful in this matter. It was to encourage us to keep in mind "that things are as they are" and that we should try "to seek illuminating comparisons to get an understanding of how they are."

So perhaps one very practical thing those of us who are liberal writers, commentators and pastors can do in the increasingly uncomfortable situations we find ourselves is to start finding some illuminating comparisons to show in what consists a liberal religion and praxis rather than trying to say it with words that can no longer (and never really could) bear this weight. (Maybe this is why Jesus never wrote a word - except that famous doodle in the sand - but only lived and taught?)

I suppose my point (obvious though it may be once stated) is that to be a liberal (and to follow Jesus) isn't to subscribe to some socio- or religio-political doctrine that you can outline or describe conceptually but something you do (illustrate) every moment of your life. It is seen in the way you greet the day and the people you meet, in the way you walk through Nature herself, buy and eat your food; it is in all the gestures of your being. As Jesus said:

"By their fruits - by what comes from them - you will know them. From the burdock you do not gather grapes, nor apples from an aspen. A good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bad fruit. So you will know these men by the fruits of their teaching" (The Gospel in Brief Ch. 4).

As I smiled at the waiter who had brought me my beer, said thanks, left a tip, said 'au revoir' to the people on the table next to me and tried not to step on the ducklings that had wandered up to my table from the pond, I realised that these acts were a better expression of my desire to be liberal presence in the world than any amount of conceptual talk about tolerance, inclusivity, fairness and justice I might attempt here or elsewhere.


The other two pictures in this blog are me looking daft out on a ride into the foothills around the Ventoux (nowhere near ready for the big climb) and the Reformed Church in Avignon we have been attending since being here and where we have been made most welcome. A very nice bunch of people indeed.


Anonymous said…
Hi Andrew
I've been following your recent posts with interest.

I don't want to simplify your debate, but I do want to ask - Is orthodoxy always a bad thing?

My own perspective is that we need a degree of orthodoxy. A stable rock or starting point that despite our explorations, remains there for us to come back to.

Unitarian Christianity is a small drop in an ocean of faith. Surely having a degree of orthodoxy - in the form of established beliefs and an adherence to tradition - is necessary?

We can still be reasonable and open minded enough to accept other faiths contain truth and value - but if we really feel passionately about our beliefs and respect our heritage, then we must preserve as well as develop.