Becoming philosopher-alchemists . . . "In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, they had better aim at something high."

I want to preface my Sunday address with a few additional sentences.

After having outlined some difficulty in the world and/or local community that we face, I would love to be able to say to members of the congregation I serve "But of course, as we know, God is love and so, secure in this knowledge, and following Christ's teachings, we know that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." I would so love to be able to do this and for those before me to draw genuine comfort from these words. But - for all the reasons I have given in earlier addresses I can't, for even as we may appreciate the words' sentiments (and genuinely wish we could feel them to be true) to us it feels like whistling in the wind.

On the other hand there exists no simple translation of this theistic hope into a non-theistic secular language - i.e. where I can say "Well trust in God and Christ really means such-and-such" and then to let the "such-and-such" do the simple work of instilling genuine hope in us.

No, I think we have to find a way to be able to use the religious language we have in a way that doesn't mean we read it either literally (as quasi-scientific) OR metaphorically. This means one has to attempt to show how, in the Christian context I work, we can continue to use Christian language and genuinely access its hope but without slipping back into old usages or being encouraged to accept of reject Christianity on the old grounds many of our liberal compatriots do - an acception or rejection that is just based on the old way of thinking how religious language worked.

Genuine human expression of hope seems to me ineluctably tied to the language offered to us by religion but it only seems to me to be genuine when we are freed from certain ways of understanding that same language (a la Wittgenstein and Heidegger). If we slip back in any way into old usage (either to reaffirm Christianity in some way or to reject it) then my whole project founders (as I realise it so easily can and probably will).

But success matters in the present context - REALLY matters that is - because it increasingly appears we are entering a period in our culture when old fashioned truth-claims about religion are once again being made (by both religious and secular groups) that I fear will lead to something very nasty occurring in our culture. Just take a look at this BBC report about today's YouGov poll.

How long before this fear is played out violently against our Muslim brothers and sisters?

The constant misunderstanding of what religious language can and can't do (on all sides) contributes to this worsening situation and my words below are a totally inadequate attempt at freeing us from the bewitchment of language that allows such dangerous arguments to gain traction in our society.

I know my address might seem to many merely to be a abstract and irrelevant rambling that disappears up its own arse (and perhaps it is) but I assure you that it is offered because I really do fear that something wicked this way comes and I'd like to offer us some tools to help avoid it.

Now something so bleak is hardly something one likes to admit in polite liberal church circles - is it? . . . and maybe that's why my address below was so oblique. Well, in these introductory words I finally pluck up courage to avoid the oblique. These are dangerous times my friends and it will take much better rhetoric than what I offer below to inspire people to act sooner rather than later.

However, having said all of this I admit that what I'm trying to say below is at present really beyond my grasp and I apologise for this piece of serious over-reaching. But, as Thoreau once said: " In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, they had better aim at something high."


During last Wednesday's conversation I was reminded that I gave an address a year ago which explored some territory in a way that seemed to help make better sense of what I was trying to say last Sunday. In consequence I offer you the basic element of the earlier address directly tied into the major theme of last week's address.

We begin with an observation made by Wittgenstein who was concerned to show that no language is complete. He did this by likening language to a city:

". . . ask yourself whether our language is complete; - whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses" (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 18).

With this thought in mind I'll begin by recounting some elements of what it is like to live and work in London today (or the very recent past) and, as I do this, I'll also be asking you to imagine William Shakespeare living in the London of his own age . . .

Although I was living in London in late 80s and Shakespeare was there in the late 1500s it was a complete city for both of us. We crossed it regularly on the way to work, Shakespeare to theatres, me to gigs, and both of us traveled to the homes of friends and colleagues and frequented its inns, shops and markets. We shared knowledge of the routes of many of the same London streets as well as their names and both us, at times, traveled on them to get out of the city on hot sultry days like this. Of course, where the city ended and ran out into the countryside was for both of us in a different place but - and this is my basic point - London was for us both a complete (though not *completed*) city.

Yet, for all the continuities and overlaps - remember London is still meaningfully called London - for all the continuities and overlaps to live in London of the late sixteenth-century is clearly a very different thing to living in the same city in the late twentieth-century.

Given this it should be obvious that I must use very different directions and descriptions to those used by Shakespeare because if I didn't I simply wouldn't be able to get around. All around me are new buildings, roadways, bridges, sub-ways and footpaths. By the same token we may observe that Shakespeare, were we able to resurrect him, could not get into a London taxi and, using a map of the London of the late 1590s give adequate directions to the driver to get around the city. Of course he couldn't because even to get to things that are pretty much the same as they were in his day - say the river Thames or the Tower of London) - he will have to negotiate the multitude of "new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses" and no amount of romantic longing on his part is going to bring back to life the city routes of his memory. But I'm sure we can all just see that the London of Shakespeare's age is the same city we know even though they are clearly very, very different.

Now this seems to describe something similar to the situation of inheriting a religious tradition (which is the same as being born into a complete, though never completed, city) - in our case Christianity. Even as some major landmarks remain much of what it was has simply disappeared or been raised to the ground to make way for new developments whilst other aspects of it have been extended in new suburbs - I think it remains meaningful to keep calling our tradition Christian (just as we still call London London).

Now, although you won't be able to find a modern Londoner trying to deny that the city where they were born is London even when they are well aware it is clearly not the city of her parents, grandparents or Shakespeare we do seem to get religious people denying this kind of continuity exists in religion. Now why is this?

Well it occurs because there is ingrained in us - by now hard-wired into our consciousness - a huge and dangerous confusion about language and what it can and can't legitimately do. As I mentioned last week

. . . the trouble is that one of the *absolutely* key historical defining characteristics of our own Christian tradition was the belief that, in [a] quasi-scientific way, we would eventually be able to show or prove to the world that Trinitarians were wrong and Unitarians were right; that Unitarianism was true and that Trinitarianism was, if not wholly false, then at least a very corrupt form of what we thought was pure, simple and true Christianity. It was sincerely believed by our forebears that if we could just describe matters simply and clearly enough then people would slap their foreheads, a la Homer Simpson, and say "D'oh!, of course, how right you are - now I see it clearly too".

To return to the city anology we may say our forebears thought that a pure, true London could be described and pointed to so that everyone - you, me, Shakespeare and all the rest - would be able to say "Aha! You're right THIS is the true London! How wrong I was to think that the city I actually lived in was the real London."

I concluded this section of last week's address by noting that although in its strong theological form, at least amongst Unitarians in Europe and North America, this belief has significantly dwindled (perhaps even totally disappeared) it remained with us in a more spectral, shadowy form in the vague feeling amongst many modern Unitarian congregations that we somehow *deserve* to grow and flourish (by some natural right) rather than as many congregations are, alas, actually dwindling and dying.

My point - even though I know this is devilishly obscure and hard to grasp I want to make passionately because if you can grasp it then you will stumble out into the creative clearing I have recently talked about - my point is that to continue to try and uphold the old Unitarian project - even in its shadowy spectral form - is the equivalent of trying to prove my imaginary modern Londoner right in her claim that the city she was born in is not the same city Shakespeare was born in.

But that's wrong in a key way for we know she was born in London - the same city as Shakespeare. To claim that her city of birth is not London is just plain wrong even as we know it is a city unbelievably different to that known by Shakespeare. Our community is, in this sense, a Christian one, even though our understanding and practice results, today, in a faith unbelievably different to that known by our forebears.

One thing that strikes me with the force of inevitable knowledge and which continues to keep me in the Christian ministry (Christian in the sense I am grasping for above) is the sense that human knowledge - that is to say, not disembodied facts about the world but rather the knowledge of what it is to be a particular kind of being in the world and not another - human knowledge is contained only in the kinds of procession I have been talking about here and that when these processions end so too does the knowledge. Consequently I desperately want to help us to see that we still live in this procession and that the religious "city" in which live today, even when it is clearly a city radically different from that known by earlier generations, is the same one as our forbears. This allows us to see how we can be different from our forebears but which also offers us a traditional way forward into a future that is very different from our present. It gives us, potentially at least, genuine access to the hopes of Christianity but without the cost of buying into its old metaphysics.

To bring us to a conclusion I cite Wittgenstein again though I have taken the liberty to change his original words. He was talking here about games but I am inserting the many Londons and Christianities there have been over the centuries:

"Don't say 'There must be something common, or they would not all be called [London or Christianity] - but look and see whether there is anything in common to all. - For, if you look at them all [all the Londons and all the Christianities] you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 66).”

What this means - and this really is the oddest thing of all and also the really, really significant break with our religious forebears and why, of course, it is so damnably hard to express - is that when we think about our religion (like we do in all our services in one way or another) we have to find ways consistently to change our thinking into a looking - i.e. into an action, a way of *being in* the world. As Judith Genova put it, if we can learn to act as philosopher-alchemists then there is a hope that we can distill our inherited words and produce, not theories about the world, but instead refine them into pure and beautiful actions.

In the end I guess this is a version of the desire to develop a practical Christianity that is not reliant on Christian metaphysics but nevertheless one can existentially commit to - with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. Only such a commitment will be strong enough to face up to the challenges of our day.

However, assuming we can do this (which I admit is unlikely) we mustn't ever be tempted into once again creating religious (metaphysical) theories about the world as our forbears did - as I said earlier and last week that is a project which I think can be shown to have failed. No, we really must make all our thinking a looking, an action not a theory.


PS - now all I have to do is figue out how to heed these final words myself . . .


Anonymous said…
"The online YouGov poll found 58% of those questioned linked Islam with extremism while 69% believed it encouraged the repression of women."

"Half linked Islam with terrorism, just 13% thought it was based on peace..."

I wonder why that is? Let's look Beslan or London and for all the pseudo-intellectual, chattering class handringing - there is a common thread. Islam like much of Christianity in the past has a dominant current of thought that believes in a 'just war' - ultimately a God-ordained war. This is not just the preserve of 'extremist community', but a belief within the 'mainstream community'.

And to suggest this linking of Islam and violence will somehow translate into widespread violence agains the Muslim community is scaremongering. Most Britons are pretty rational and fair-minded enough to make an obvious link but also treat the individual on a case-by-case basis i.e a judgement ultimately on their individual character / actions rather than those of their particular race or creed.

And I do wonder, how do you think your musings would fair in a Muslim-dominated society? You would probably find yourself in the company of the Ahmadis.

I am not against Islam, racist, intolerant etc before the Unitarian thought police start - I am simply opposed to all religions that demand dominance and have embodied within their doctrine the right to seek to impose their truth on others through coercion.

It's a Western thing perhaps, born out of hundreds of years of struggle against religious persecution.
Yewtree said…
Dear Andrew,

Just as you can see a similarity between all the different Christianities (and I am not sure if I can connect them all up - how can we connect the Inquisition with the Society of Friends, for instance?) I think I can see a similarity between all the different Unitarianisms - the pluralist, the Christian, the Earth Spirit, etc. It's probably that we all value the Enlightenment and its ethos; or that we give primacy to reasoning about things. (I mean those who are committed to full-on Unitarianism, not those who have wandered in accidentally and are simply not paying attention.)

Another excellent post.

Another version of your title aphorism, this one from an Indigenous American tradition, apparently: "Aim for the eagle, bag the pheasant, don't eat crow."