Words and Transgressions 4 - The Fallacy of the Missing Hippopotamus

This is the last of four addresses following some examples given by the psychiatrist Maurice O'Connor Drury in his book the "Danger of Words".

We begin with a discussion that took place between Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein in which the latter illustrated something of what he was trying to say by using the following example:

"Suppose I state 'there is an hippopotamus in this room at this minute, but no one can see it, no one can hear it, no one can smell it, no one can touch it; have I now with all these added provisos said anything meaningful at all?'"


Although the sentence structure here makes grammatical sense most of us would answer, "Surely not!" and Drury points out that within scientific circles a statement such as this that can neither be verified nor refuted has no place. That much we would probably all agree with. After giving a couple of direct examples of missing hippopotami in his own field of psychology and psychiatry he concludes:

"I think we must all be on the watch that in psychology and psychiatry we take care to formulate hypotheses which are capable of being refuted. No more missing hippopotami please."

At this point we should turn to religion - our reason for being here today - and I draw your attention to an aphorism that has been much quoted in liberal circles which I have brought before you at other times, namely, "Unquestioned answers are more dangerous than unanswered questions."

I first came upon this aphorism when, as a student pastor, I was asked to put up a poster with it on in front of one of our churches. As I was pinning it up a senior member of the congregation walked by and commented that this was something that Christianity needed to take seriously and contrasted 'their' approach (a huge and inaccurate generalisation for there is no single thing called Christianity) to the attitude of his own Unitarian church. I pointed out that his church had many of its own unquestioned answers. For example, that God is best thought of as being indivisibly one. I suggested that some relational conceptions of God and unity - of which the Trinity is but one - actually offer some useful and helpful ways of thinking about the complexity of our world and that perhaps we should question, now and then, in what consists our Unitarian position. That wasn't – and isn’t - to say it should be abandoned, just that we should keep questioning our answers on the matter.

I learnt a great lesson that day - not to stop challenging fixed ideas (those of you who know me know I continue to irritate many people by doing that) - no, I learnt that, despite its rhetoric, liberal religion is just as capable of keeping pet missing hippopotami as is any supposedly 'illiberal' religion.

It seems to me that, however we frame it, in our own liberal religious circles we must take great "care to formulate hypotheses which are capable of being refuted". However, what we cannot do is pretend that language we use in religious circles is like that used in science and so the verifications and refutations we must make are also going to be different from those that can be made in scientific circles.

To help articulate what that might look like I have spent some time in the recent past encouraging us look to the *use* made of religious concepts rather than to their apparent surface meanings and so, therefore, to always be asking Lenin's famous question "Who, whom?" - i.e. to ascertain who is doing what to whom and who suffers and/or benefits as a result of an idea or practice’s use.

But to be able to do this in a way that matches our desire to be as inclusive as possible in matters of belief and practice we need to find a practical way of deriving a genuinely liberal perspective rather than drifting into the damaging indecisive and, ultimately indifferent, relativism of recent years.

As far as I am concerned one of the ways we might achieve this that deserves our thought is offered up by Nietzsche under the title "perspectivism." He thought it vitally important to explore different perspectives on the same matter which, although they could seemingly contradict each other, were really best thought of as contributing to an individual’s development of a way of being in and understanding the world that could be, for them, as comprehensive (i.e. ‘objective’) as possible – even as it could never be definitive and objective (in the old fashioned sense of the word) for all people and all times. In his On the Genealogy of Morals, he memorably wrote:

But precisely because we seek knowledge, let us not be ungrateful to such resolute reversals of accustomed perspectives and valuations with which the spirit has, with apparent mischievousness and futility, raged against itself for so long: to see differently in this way for once, to want to see differently, is no small discipline and preparation of the intellect for its future “objectivity” – the latter being understood not as “contemplation without interest” (which is a nonsensical absurdity), but as ability to control one’s Pro and Con and to dispose of them, so that one knows how to employ a variety of perspectives end effective interpretations in the service of knowledge (III: 12).

This may simply be summed up as saying 'better knowledge means having a varied and rich understanding generated from the maximum possible number of perspectives' (Sedgwick p. 114).

Well, as a Christian church of sorts we have inherited just such a practical method from Jesus (though not always necessarily from Christianity). One method he regularly employed was to encourage his listeners to adopt a variety of perspectives in order to draw out the fullest meaning of a given situation and perhaps the most memorable example of such a story is that of the prodigal son.

Although this story is often understood to imply that the reader is to identify with the prodigal son himself. However, as Henri J.M. Nouwen beautifully shows in his book-long meditation on the story and the wonderful painting by Rembrandt found in "The Hermitage" in St. Petersburg, the story's fullness is only begun to found when we understand that we are really also being asked to inhabit the character of son who remained at home and that of the father. Even then the story's richness is not exhausted but, simply entering into the shoes of the three characters does enough to show you what might be achieved by exploring different and conflicting perspectives in the search for understanding and knowledge.

Luke 15:11–32 (NRSV)

Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

Nietzsche, that most vehement critic of Christianity, said of Jesus that:

"This bearer of 'glad tidings' died the way he lived, the way he *taught* - *not* 'to redeem humanity', but instead to demonstrate how people need to live. His bequest to humanity was a *practice*" (Anti-Christ 35).

And at the heart of that practice was his ability to encourage the development of the widest perspective possible so that we, in turn, can encourage the most genuine, though always difficult, inclusivity that we have called the kingdom of Heaven on earth. But the kingdom of Heaven on earth, though it will assuredly contain hippopotami, must never be allowed to contain missing hippopotami – so, always question your answers even as you try to live them as the deepest truths you know. To do anything less is to betray the truly inclusive spirit of Christ.
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