Think Global, Act Local - another look

While [Jesus] was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy; and when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and besought him, 'Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.' And he stretched out his hand, and touched him, saying, 'I will; be clean.' And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one; but 'go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.' (Luke 5:12-14)


The phrase, "Think Global, Act Local", has been attributed to Sir Patrick Geddes (October 2, 1854 - 1932). Geddes was a Scottish biologist who was also known for some innovative work in both urban planning and education. Although the exact phrase never appears in his works in his 1915 book, "Cities in Evolution," we find the following:

'Local character' is thus no mere accidental old-world quaintness, as its mimics think and say. It is attained only in course of adequate grasp and treatment of the whole environment, and in active sympathy with the essential and characteristic life of the place concerned. Each place has a true personality; and with this shows some unique elements - a personality too much asleep it may be, but which it is the task of a planner, as master artist to awaken. And only he can do this who is in love and at home with his subject - truly in love and fully at home - the love in which high intuition supplements knowledge, and arouses his own fullest intensity of expression (p. 397).  

Since then, of course, this phrase has gone on to become a well-known slogan amongst environmentalists. But it has also become a slogan amongst those who would describe themselves as being 'liberal' in their spirituality. I deliberately use the word spirituality because it has come to signal their dislike of traditional forms of religion. But I think the slogan, fully thought through, actually undermines some of the key assumptions of certain kinds of liberal spirituality. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek makes a very powerful point about this:

'. . .when today's New Age ideologists insist on the distinction between religion and spirituality (they perceive themselves as spiritual, not part of any organised religion), they (often not so) silently impose a 'pure' procedure of Zen-like spiritual meditation as the "whiteness" of religion. The idea is that all religions presuppose, rely on, exploit, manipulate, etc., the same core of mystical experience, and that it is only "pure" forms of meditation like Zen Buddhism that exemplify this core directly, by-passing institutional and dogmatic mediations. Spiritual meditation, in its abstraction from institutionalised religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today's global capitalism' (The Monstrosity of Christ pp-27-28).

I think he is right and that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, much modern western so-called 'liberal' spirituality is far from being liberal and in fact silently colludes (although it is true this is often unknowingly) with some of the worst aspects of global capitalism.

To show why this is the case I'll begin by noting Geddes' point about 'local character' being intimately related to the whole and that, to understand the 'local' one must have some 'adequate grasp and treatment of the whole environment'. But notice that Geddes doesn't say anything about the 'local' being superseded by the 'whole'; rather for him the local and the whole are related in 'active sympathy.' He seems to be saying that local character is not an accidental feature of reality but a necessary one and, therefore, also a necessary aspect of the whole. In other words if you strip away the local you do not thereby reveal the "true" world in its pristine "white" form - you are left with nothing.

Now, for Geddes, the task of the master planner/artist is to awaken in people an awareness of the 'personality of place' - a personality that is born out of this active sympathy between the local and the whole.

OK, but why have I chosen the reading from Luke we heard a moment ago? Well it has to do with how the story has often been interpreted in 'liberal' religious circles. Forget the truth or otherwise of the miracle performed in the story and concentrate on the fact that Jesus asks the leper to go and show himself to the priest, and make an offering for his cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to the people. Now why might Jesus, who is so concerned to reveal to his hearers a way of being religious in the world that is not wholly dependent upon human institutions, law and priestly mediation, say this?

Well, in a very recent modern Christian scholarly commentary (Oxford Bible Commentary) the authors write that we should understand Jesus as pointing "the leper into a way of observing the law but from a position of one who already transcends it."

Here we see the commentator make a move so typical of 'liberal' spirituality which is to claim that behind the distorted and flawed laws and practices of our extant local/regional religions - in this case Judaism - there lies a superior, purer, "true", globally relevant, transcendent religion and, more to the point, one which we can, thanks to Jesus, now see. Once you buy into this view it quickly becomes possible to believe that the leper and those like him who go to the temple (or synagogue, church, mosque whatever), although they are not doing something wholly wrong, you implicitly come to understand them as being benighted in comparison to yourself, you who can see the whole.

Holding such a view also has the pleasant side-effect (although it is only pleasant for holders of this view) of seeming to offer a way of keeping you out of the contingent muck and dirt of local religious life by pointing to a spirituality that is beyond nasty particularities realities such as law and other local practices. How wonderful, n'est pas, a spirituality that allows us to stay clean nice, white, untainted, pure and utterly uncommitted to the contingent realities of our world. Many modern spiritualities play on this and use the colour white and a loaded 'plainness' to sell their products.

But, if I am right, why is this particular form of universalism so hard to challenge in liberal circles? Well, I think that the lure of there being some pure transcendent "white" spirituality lies in the hope it seems to give that everything can be understood to be bound together in a meaningful, transcendent whole. Such a thought remains attractive to us at this time because we know the world needs to develop a sense of wholeness, a sense of being an interdependent unity. We also now know that we must develop not only a sense of our interdependence with other humans but the whole of creation for the world (as a whole) is not human centred. The ecological disaster we seem to be facing makes this desire for some sense of underlying wholeness even stronger in us.

But, if we are going to promulgate a feeling that such a underlying wholeness is real (or at least a meaningfully useful creative fiction) then we have to ensure that we keep this feeling absolutely rooted in local particularities with all the problems and messiness that this brings. The trick I think we have to pull off as a community that is trying to revise and reform what we mean by the word 'liberal' is that which I think Jesus managed to pull of in his own time and place and which was explored by Patrick Geddes in the apparently quite different context of town planning.

Jesus was a master planner and artist who had an adequate grasp and treatment (and note that an adequate grasp and treatment is not necessarily a complete grasp and treatment) of the whole environment and one who also knew that this was only meaningful insofar he could encourage in himself and others an 'active sympathy' with the essential and characteristic life of place and time - namely his own region and its cities, towns and villages and religion. His genius was to be able, through his life and teaching, to help awaken the personality of his own place and time and to help individuals to experience the whole just where they were - through that local 'personality'. As Geddes beautifully notes, this kind of thing is only possible to someone who 'is in love and at home with his subject - truly in love and fully at home - the love in which high intuition supplements knowledge, and arouses his own fullest intensity of expression' and the available evidence suggests that Jesus was just such a man in love and fully at home in this world: the kingdom of heaven being within or amongst us. (That Christianity later tried to make Jesus' home a transcendent place is besides the point).

Anyway Jesus was one of those teachers who could see that there are always local ways of affirming the reality of the whole and that it is through the local that we act on this vision and give thanks. The leper's Jewish faith was the only language he had in which to say thank-you and it was and will forever be a perfectly adequate way of doing this. If you are English, you say 'thank-you' if you are German it is 'Danke schön', 'Merci' if you are French. The point is that there is no ur-word for 'thank-you.' You have to say thank-you in the only way you can. That doesn't mean one cannot crticise or modify the local - Jesus was certainly critical and desirous of change - but it is to say the local cannot be replaced by the universal.

So, contrary to the modern commentary I cited earlier, I don't think that Jesus sent the leper into the temple and encouraged him into fulfilling the requirements of the Jewish law of the time just because the poor chap was incapable of seeing the bigger universal picture but because Jesus knew that it is only through a proper love of the local can any of us touch, sense and commingle with the universal - the whole - God.

It seems to me that in this passage from Luke we see Jesus giving us a perfect example of thinking globally (of God the Father - ultimate reality) and acting locally (going to the Jewish Temple to give thanks) within his own time and age. I recommend we go and do likewise. We have to fall in love again with the local and learn to be at home in the particularities of our own time and place. This is especially so within churches that like to see themselves as liberal and it is why I encourage, in this congregation at least, a living relationship with its local historic Unitarian Christian faith. The promise is that whenever we take time to woo and court the local the active sympathy (love) that begins to grow is nothing less than the very door to the kingdom of Heaven.


Yewtree said…
I think people fear the particularity of Christianity because they fear it will lead to exclusivism. But I completely applaud your attempt to reclaim the particularity of Christianity, especially the liberal variety.

As you know, I feel drawn to liberal Christian theology (specifically liberation theology and queer theology) at least partly because it so beautifully turns on its head and redeems the fundamentalist stuff I was taught in my teens. But I am also immersed in to pantheist and Pagan theology.

I cannot leave the Christian stuff to one side because it is part of who I am; and I could not leave Wicca to one side, because it is part of who I am. I have also immersed myself in Unitarian history and theology, and find it really speaks to me; indeed I identify with it. To continue with your language analogy, I can say thank-you in three different languages. I frequently encounter concepts and values in Unitarianism that are similar to ones in Wicca; but there is some imagery and practice that wouldn't work in Unitarianism (and vice versa), and this is where one tradition is not reducible to the other.

So I do agree that one cannot create an abstract ur-religion with no local content.
Dear Yewtree, thanks, as always, for your helpful and provocative (in the positve meaning of the word) comments. What particularly struck me this time was your note that you can say thank-you in three different languages and, from your words these are Wicca, liberal Christianity and Unitarianism.

Now the question which follows is NOT one of those usual narky ones about Unitarianism and Christianity that appears in the pages of 'The Inquirer' - I assure you it is a genuine question asked so as to allow more light than heat to break forth!

What, from where you are standing as a speaker of the three languages, are the key differences between liberal Christianity and Unitarianism? Another way of putting it would be to ask what is particular about Unitarianism that cannot be reduced to something else and what particularities from Wicca and Christianity do you think cannot be subsumed into modern Unitarianism?

My problem (which is clearly not yours!) is that, whilst I know I don't know Wiccan traditions (and so don't speak that language) and I feel I do 'speak' liberal Christianity, I becoming increasingly aware that I don't seem to be able speak the third language, namely modern Unitarianism.

Essentially, I have to admit that I simply do not understand what are the particularities of contemporary Unitarianism. Because, nominally, I am supposed to be Unitarian this is why I am so wary of it, wary in a way that I am not with regard to Wicca. I know I'm not a Wiccan so it is easier for me to allow it to be what it is and to dialogue fruitfully with its practitioners. However, I'm implicated in modern Unitarianism (by dint of being a Unitarian & Free Christian minister) and so my realisation that I haven't got a clue what it is (and how to speak its language) makes my dialogue with it very confusing, discomforting and, occasionally, very fraught.

Thanks, too, for the link - an interesting website.
Yewtree said…
Dear Andrew, I didn't see your last comment here until now (I really must remember to tick "email follow-up comments").

Particularities of Wicca: talk of gods & goddesses, style of ritual, positive symbolism of darkness, use of sexual symbolism, strongly gendered symbolism (which doesn't appeal to me) - none of which translates exactly into Unitarian-speak. I also have several criticisms of Wiccan practice, theology and structure, which I may one day blog about, but I am not sure if it would be useful or constructive.

I don't know if I do speak liberal Christianity - well not as a native speaker, to continue with the analogy - but its particularities seem to be symbolic use of the Christian story, and strong emphasis on social justice.

I see Unitarianism as having three strands - the liberal Christian, the universalist (modern sense) / pluralist, and the earth spirit. All of these may draw inspiration from other religions or make use of comparative theology, but they do it in different ways. I don't see the strands as mutually incompatible, by the way.

I need to think more about this.