Some more thoughts on Garden Academies

Some more thoughts on Garden Academies in response to a couple of perspicacious and interesting comments made by Jonathan to earlier blogs before I went back to England for a few days last week. Thanks once again Jonathan.

Jonathan makes the important point (with which I agree and one which must surely lay at the heart of any liberal approach to religion), namely that the philosopher (for which I read an active member of any kind of liberal community) is not:

". . . one who HAS wisdom, but as one who WANTS wisdom and is chasing more or less hard on its tail."

As Jonathan goes on to note, in this search

". . . the challenge . . . is holding fast to a liberating consciousness of my own fallibility. It's easy at moments like these, when I can voluntarily announce it to the world and presumably score a point or two for my honesty; it's much harder in the thick of a discussion when SOMEBODY ELSE is demonstrating my fallibility and I am forced to concede that I have overstated my position."

He concludes by saying his wife "has been a wonderful teacher for me in this respect" - I must add here that my own wife, Susanna, certainly teaches me likewise.

This point allows me to swing back to Garden Academies - not least of all because, and once again I concur with him in this, Jonathan also notes that he and his wife feel they are together a kind of "garden academy cooperative." He continues by saying that:

We figure that when our little cell is far enough along on the path, [it will] join-up with other like-minded cells will follow naturally, or perhaps we will become a nucleus of sorts around which others may gather. I think a key is to allow the center to emerge organically, like a plant. We provide the inputs (our contemplative lifestyle in fellowship with friends and family) and the plant just grows.

This point seems particularly important to me because if liberals are going to get real things done in these difficult times then we need to recall that our power has always been in the cultivation of small and ever-evolving gardens which, collectively, show something real about our liberalism which includes, of course, a commitment to the incredible diversity and vulnerability of all life upon our home planet. The moment we are tempted to scale up to bigger institutions we begin to resemble, not gardeners (i.e. people actively commingling with the world) but managers (i.e. people who act at a distance from the world).

It might seem counter-intuitive (and to some even dangerously quietist) but I venture to suggest that perhaps liberals should start thinking much, much more small scale whilst simultaneously learning to trust - absolutely - that the whole is good beyond all our usual human conceptions of in what consists good and bad and that some kind shared covenant (centre) will, if we tend with care our particular plot all the while keeping alive our willingness and desire to talk with our neighbours, emerge organically and the liberal garden will simply grow. However, we mustn't allow this liberal garden simply to become a municipal garden, the real care of which is palmed off to a distant council but, instead, ensure that it always remains a startling diversity of individual yet interconnected gardens that, whilst to some extent private and personal, are always open for view - gardens that always have a bench, a shelter and refreshment available to encourage convivial dialogue with all who pass through.

In saying this I am not advocating some hopelessly idealistic piece of new-age thinking that doesn't acknowledge the brute realities of life but, instead, following a more realistic point made by Robert Pogue Harrison in a chapter exploring an aspect of the work of the Czech writer Karel Capek:

While nature (or God) can be ruthlessly cruel towards the solicitations of human care, as every farmer or gardener knows, its cruelty is in fact only a temporary suspension of its otherwise reliable generosity. (The ever-present threat of such suspension is what keeps human care both anxious and humble in its relations to nature.) Fortunately for the creatures of the earth, nature by and large tends to fulfil its obligations and promises. And fortunately for the gardener, there is enough of Eden in the mortal earth that despite the vagaries of the weather, the miracle of life erupts and blossoms year after year. Thus, even in January, "without the gardener having suspected or having done anything, crocuses and snowdrops have pricked through the soil" (Harrison, Robert Pogue, Gardens - An essay on the Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008, p. 28)

I guess all I am doing here is expressing something about the well known maxim of the Deep Ecology movement: "Think globally, act locally." What would if a liberal church began to understand itself as one such open garden and each of its members came to see themselves as gardeners of the same?