Becoming a Garden Community

Those of you who follow this blog will be aware that whilst in France I was exploring one particular way liberals might begin to reform their religious institutions.

I'll begin by picking up on the theme of my address two weeks ago. There I suggested that one of the key problems within western culture is its tendency to privilege the ideal over the actual. Its basic modus operandi is to be dissatisfied with Nature and it encourages its members to believe that, independent of any real ongoing encounter and dialogue with her, they can better see how Nature could - in fact should - be.

Here's another, less abstract, way of putting it. Imagine meeting Mr or Ms X (though remember this is merely a literary conceit - there are only real people never ideal X or Y people . . .) and, after only a cursory initial meeting, deciding that you know they should loose or gain weight, change their clothes and glasses, cut their hair differently, use a different aftershave or perfume, adopt a different philosophy etc., etc.. Yet, without a proper encounter with Mr or Ms X, you would not really know whether they should do any of those things. You would always be in danger of merely imposing utterly inappropriately on the other. Their reasons for being or doing one thing rather than another are always going to be an exceedingly complicated mix of genetics, culture, psychology and much more that can never be reduced to your, let alone anyone else's, ideal. To force them to conform to your ideal type is always going to cause problems. But in truth the only way to find out what the true flourishing of anything - including oneself and others - is through a conversational and creative encounter with the things/people in the world as they are. The only way to ameliorate anything or person is by first meeting them as they present themselves and then to inviting them into a process of change through an ongoing encounter. What you will then find is that the encounter will change, not only the thing or person but also you. You may find out, to your surprise, that you should loose or gain weight, change your clothes and glasses, cut your hair differently, use a different aftershave or perfume, or adopt a different philosophy etc., etc.. (Some readers will be alert to the fact that the attitude outlined above, taken in a certain way, can actually cause more problems than it solves - but hang on a couple of paragraphs . . .)

Now my problem with much 'church' thinking is that it is often predicated upon the idea that it does in fact know what the world and human beings should be like to be saved - or, putting it in a way more congenial to me at least - what it is for anything fully to flourish.

In many liberal churches - and I find myself guilty of having done this at times - this approach has often been transformed into a rather bizarre mirror image. The message you can get from some liberal churches is a call to an ideological commitment to no commitment and you will then be encouraged to act that ideal non-commitment out in the world. Liberal adherents cannot really believe that people really believe all 'that' stuff (whatever 'that' stuff is) and they reveal that they believe this as strongly as anyone else engaged in the belief business.

But, without a commitment to some governing idea that can generate sufficient energy to sustain a meaningful active life we find that inertia, indifference and even depression can set in. Many individuals and liberal churches have sunk into this state. In fact, I would go so far as to say our wider secular culture in its liberal democratic forms is revealing that it is in such a depressed and sick state. Indeed, it is worth noting at this point that our modern so-called multiculturalism is really a symptom of this passive depression and not an positive and active dialogical engagement with difference. We simply don't know how to express ourselves positively and actively without being liberal bullies so we have backed-off and become passive-aggressive depressives. This is not a good space to be in and it is having all kinds of dangerous consequences.

So, today, to what positive idea can one as a liberal really commit? What energised and active way of being in the world doesn't turn us into imperialist bullies imposing inappropriately on the given things of the world? What energised and active way of being in the world will tend towards the appropriate flourishing of both the self and the other, the Many and the One? What can help us back into the public space with a similar passion we had in earlier centuries?

I really cannot see how we can begin to answer this without firstly engaging in a full blown re-commitment to real, and utterly unsentimental encounter. But, before I go to unfold what this might mean, I need to make absolutely clear that I am not promulgating here trippy-dippy-new-agey-everything-is-lovely forms of encounter. I know - I really do - that to encounter the world as she is is damnably dangerous and, as much as it can be exhilarating, it can also be very frightening. Truly to meet the world is at every step knowingly to risk death and all kinds of other dissolution but it is also the only way we can have true abundant life - to experience, even in potential, what our true flourishing within the context of the whole might be.

In part, my address two weeks ago about becoming metaphysical hitchhikers began to explore what this way of being in the world might be like for an individual - so I refer folk back to that. Today, however, I want to offer one suggestion of what a community of metaphysical hitchhikers might look like. For the reasons outlined above I don't think the best model is, any longer, that of a church. The best model is, I think, the garden or, even better and to borrow and slightly alter an idea from the Greek fourth-century BCE philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE), a Garden Community (he called them Garden Academies). Again, I must stress that am not presenting you with some trippy-dippy-new-agey-everything-is-lovely-in the garden approach but a much more realistic position. It is worth remembering some words of the Czech writer Karel Capek (1890-1938) at this point:

'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)' (quoted in Harrison, Robert Pogue, Gardens - An essay on the Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008, p. 28).

Firstly, we may note that the genuine member of a Garden Community - a gardener - can never be loyal only to their own particular garden come what may (as one needs to to be if one is a genuine member of this or that institutional church) but only loyal to God-or-Nature which allows their own particular local garden and, indeed all gardens, to exist and flourish in the first place.

This means, secondly, that although the most successful gardeners clearly seek to create a local ordering of God-or-Nature in their own gardens (i.e. they are not passive quietists) they do not, at the same time, attempt seek to impose this order on Her but seek only to allow an ordered garden to unfold though an ongoing dialogical encounter with God-or-Nature. In other words, although no two gardens are alike, and consequently reveal much about the personal likes and dislikes (that includes what we call prejudices) of the gardeners involved, no truly successful garden/er can ever pretend fully to be in control of the basic "material" of their project. They know they cannot choose the wider contexts or their garden, the soil, the overall climate, the weather, as well as a myriad other factors. In short the gardener knows that they cannot choose without restrictions what and how something might or might not grow in the plot of land that is temporarily theirs to nurture and cherish. The successful gardener accepts the given and only works in collaboration with it to create an infinite number of local orderings.

If you move this image into the sphere of religious community then to be a successful individual gardener helping to create a thriving local Garden Community you must, firstly, develop a profound understanding and acceptance of the fact that one's own local (Congregational) ordering of God-or-Nature is, of necessity, only possible because because of a complex commingling within ever wider contexts (ranging from one's local neighbourhood and continuing up to the whole - God-or-Nature). Secondly, you must develop an acceptance that you will always have to work with all the local givens and limitations. The shape of the local Garden Community you end up contributing to is never going to be precisely what you or anyone else might have imagined it was going to be but it will have an integrity about it that is conducive to appropriate flourishing and thus brings into our world those things we call, meaning, goodness, truth and beauty.

I think that in his parable of the sower found in Matthew 13 (and parr.) Jesus was desperately trying to teach his disciples this really, very obvious, truth, namely, that not everything can or should flourish everywhere:

'Seed from the sower's hand falls sometimes too close to the path and the birds swarm down and eat it; falls sometimes where rocks lie hidden and its shallow roots die in the sun; falls sometimes on thorns ploughed under and the thorns grow back to choke it. But seed from the sower's hand falls also on soil that is good and yields: thirty grains on a stalk, sixty grains on a stalk, one hundred grains on a stalk' (John Dominic Crossan's presentation of the parable (Saying 5) in 'The Essential Jesus' 1998, Castle Books, New Jersey).

In saying all the above I'm not calling for any obvious institutional upsets and revolutions. I'm simply encouraging us to see our relationship to this liberal community (any liberal community in fact), not as a church goer and a church, but a gardener and a garden. I'm fairly convinced that if we succeeded in becoming a Garden Community and not a church we would quietly begin to effect an extraordinary revolution that liberal religion, and liberal culture in general, desperately needs at this time.