Particularity and universal love, a hard won fruit - A meditation inspired by Virgil and George de Benneville

18th Century illustration of the Georgics
Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page): Particularity and universal love, a hard won fruit - A meditation inspired by Virgil and George de Benneville - 22 January 2012

Reading:  John 17:17-26

David R. Slavitt's translation of Virgil's opening poem of his series of 'Georgics' offers up an image that I'd like to use today to help bring out an issue about unity that is always arising in one form or another within liberal religious circles. But firstly, here is C. D. Lewis' fairly straightforward translation of Virgil's Latin lines:

'But plough not an unknown plain: First you must learn the winds and changeable ways of its weather, the land's peculiar cultivation and character' (l.50-52).

Virgil is reminding his readers that, although they may have available (in books or in our memory) general unifying rules about agriculture which tell them how to get the best out of the type of land which lies before them these rules are, alone, never sufficient if they wish the land to be truly productive. Virgil is saying that they must always take the time to come to know intimately the land which they are intending to cultivate and that, before they begin to plough, they must make every effort to learn this landscape's unique particularity, i.e. it's orientation, its geology and all these things and many more in their relationships with the local seasonal patterns of wind, rain, sun and snow.

Slavitt's powerful 1972 translation brings something else out from Virgil's insight by using an image drawn from the structure of language:

All knowledge is hard won;
a farmer must know his field, its soil, its weather,
and from years of trial and error he learns which land
grapes thrive upon, which will produce corn
better or earlier so he can beat the market's
glut. A week, a weekend can make the difference
between comfort and bare survival, survival and loss.
It is all particularity - as in grammar:
to farm is to conjugate irregular verbs.
Beyond the rules, you must learn the brute words themselves
by rote and with stern hunger for schoolmaster. (p.94)

It always forcibly strikes me that the image of farming, of cultivating land, is one which can easily also stand for the cultivation of ourselves and that, therefore, we may also think of the cultivation of our lives as like conjugating irregular verbs.

Here I'd need to emphasis the point (because it seems to me of such great importance) that what it is to be a person is always-already to be within horizons (i.e. within a particular cultural landscape) 'which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others, and others beside us such as other cultures' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9). Connecting this insight to Virgil's line of thought, this would mean that, although we may be able to articulate a few, more or less, universal rules about what it is to live anywhere and anytime if we wish to live in a way that bears appropriate and abundant fruit in *this* landscape, this is only possible in so far as we take true account of local particularities. Such a true - meaning-ful - account can only be taken by someone who has learned these things by rote by living in that same landscape. Learning 'by rote' means, as I have just noted, learning 'by heart' and when we learn something by heart we make it part of our very being - so to say we are coming to 'know' a landscape becomes also to say we are coming better to 'know' ourselves.

Virgil/Slavitt's point about particularity came back into my mind this week because after last week's address a question was posted on my blog which caused me to revisit the work and life-story of one of my great heroes, George de Benneville. (Albert D. Bell's biography, The Life and Times of Dr George de Benneville, can be downloaded here.)

Born in England three hundred and nine years ago to French Huguenot refugees, de Benneville (1703-1793) was one of the earliest Universalists to make it to America and to plant there the seeds of a very particular, extraordinary tolerant and open-hearted form of Christianity. This way of being in the world was open-hearted, not only to an incredible variety of other Christian groups - Pennsylvania was full of groups fleeing religious persecution in Europe - but also to the world-view and ways of the Native American Indians and other religious traditions, including in de Benneville's case Islam which he had encountered in his early life at sea. (An account of this latter encounter can be read in Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of Dr. George de Benneville which you can download here).

Some of de Benneville's inspiring words lie on the opening page of a prayer-book I wrote in 2007 with the American Unitarian Universalist minister John Morgan which, for me, still sum-up (though, of course, very much in contemporary post-modern key) what I try to do in my role as your minister:

'Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular. . . . Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception. . . . The Inner Spirit makes men feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things.'

But they are not easy to understand in the way I think de Benneville understood them and over the years I have come to realise how often these words are heard as referring to the existence of an actual universalist religion of a decidedly Platonist kind - i.e. that behind the transient accidental accretions of time and culture their lies a single unifying pure religion waiting to be uncovered by us and which might eventually be practiced by an extant, enlightened church community - usually, it is hoped, our own.

This religious idea has been, and continues to be, very influential in the way many have tried to develop a form of inclusive, tolerant liberal religion in our own time and culture. But the trouble has always been that in order to achieve this in ways that won't snag, scratch or cause problems or cause any kind of offense or dislike in *anyone* at all, all the particular, craggy, sharp, difficult (and it is believed, accidental) bits of any extant religious tradition must first be filed-off in order to leave behind them only smooth, regular, safe, universally acceptable and accessible essences. These essences, it is hoped, can be held together, unproblematically, in a new, single, universal religion.

But every attempt to create such an essential universally inclusive liberal religion has failed because, by definition, it cannot recognise the central importance of the particular craggyness of our actual lives and of our actual, existing living religious traditions.

Looking at De Benneville's own life it seems clear that he realised that such a smoothing out and reduction to imagined essences was not the most fruitful and abundant way to achieve, either for himself or others, the desired tolerance and openness in religion and society as a whole. It did not express for de Benneville a proper liberal approach to religion because it failed to take into account the particular and abundant fruits that come about precisely because of local, sometimes very craggy conditions.

In a very real way he was one of the first religious people really to live the modern maxim, 'Think global, act local.' Since we've been looking a lot at the local it's time to turn to de Benneville's global thinking. What is he trying to say through his expression of universalism?

John Morgan reminds us that De Benneville believed that God, whom he called the 'Sovereign Good,' took different forms at different times, but these forms were each a part of the universal truth that all creation would be restored - i.e. in God's totality nothing will be lost or deemed fruitless. De Benneville also wrote that 'Our faith is essentially the combined faith of all Christians' and that 'as no church is pure in all things, so none can be found that does not contain some truth. Glorious truths are found in every church and religion under the sun. And this glorious chain of truths . . . we believe will someday unite all of them into one form of love.' Passages like the one we heard from the Gospel of John (John 17:17-26) some of the key particular echoes, linguistic resources and messages from others that so resonated with Universalists like de Benneville's.

But de Benneville's claim needs to be heard aright. When he says 'Our faith is essentially the combined faith of all Christians' he *does not* mean *his* faith, that his community's faith is actually this thing, but instead it is his faith that *in combination* every church (i.e. all Christian groups including his own) and in all religions under the sun there existed a glorious chain of truth that is capable of uniting everyone. This uniting chain of truth was for de Benneville God and this God was love. De Benneville knew that love is active relational, familial and that, at its best, love unites a family, not by insisting it's members follow only universal rules but by taking account the unique local particularities of it's members and then finding ways to bring these local particulars out in fruitful and abundant ways - for the individual and the whole family.

Therefore, genuine religious liberty and tolerance arises for de Benneville, not through the creation of a universal religion to which everyone can belong, but by finding a way through dialogue by which each local, particular group (whether Christian or not) can begin see and touch in it's own particularity the great chain of love he saw. In short de Benneville's liberalism is rooted in encouraging us to recognise across religious boundaries 'family resemblances'. His point was, I think, something like that which was pointed to by Wittgenstein, namely, that things which may be thought to be connected by one essential common feature may in fact be connected by a series of overlapping similarities, *where no one feature is common to all.* So, although chess, football or children playing freely with a ball in the park can instantly be seen by us as all being games we can never reduce them to something we might call a universal or essential game. As with chess, football and children playing freely in the park so, too, with religion.

De Benneville's universalism is found in his consistent willingness to go out into the world and preach that there existed this family resemblance of divine love and to help every particular community, of whatever kind, to see this themselves, to see itself as a link (or as our final hymn says, a gem) in the glorious chain of truth that is a unity in divine love. The ultimate aim being the possibility that we can all say to each other and mean: 'We need not think alike to love alike.'

This community here in Cambridge, founded in 1904 with it's own liberal Christian particularity displayed in its covenant and in the shape and content of our services, has consistently attempted to live out this same truth and it is because of this that we are still respected and valued in this city by other Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Pagans. It is, for instance, why we were the hosts last summer of the recent city-wide inter-faith service as our city showed its solidarity against the proto-fascist English Defence League. It is why we are able to play a full role in the city's ecumenical bodies.

But this particularity has never been easy to achieve, nor to maintain and to be this kind of community is, as both Virgil and de Benneville reminds us, very 'hard won.' It's hard won because it's all about particularity and to be the unique liberal community and we need the patience to learn to conjugate irregular verbs by learning the brute words of our own tradition by rote and with stern hunger for schoolmaster.

But remember the key message of hope - and what makes the task worthwhile - is that the schoolmaster is understood  to be nothing less than God understood as always unfolding relational, divine love. It is why as your minister I continue to encourage us to heed de Benneville's call to preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.


The Everlasting Gospel by Paul Siegvolck, the pseudonym of George Klein-Nicolai, which was of such huge influence on de Benneville and other's of his generation can be found at Scott Wells' blog here.

Scott Wells also maintains a website with a variety of historical Universalist material online.


Yewtree said…
I think I've finally got it!

There may be a universal truth, but there can't be a universal religion.

I particularly like the game analogy you have used here.
Well, I'm unlikely to be right, but whilst affirming your eureka moment, I feel I must add a note about truth especially when the adjective universal is attached to it.

I'm minded to say that certain human endeavours - like the natural sciences - do seem to have revealed things about the universe which seem to underlie *all* human worlding of worlds and these things might well be universally true (Keeping with the grammar analogy - these are, perhaps, things like regular verbs.)

But when it comes to our worlding of worlds (where the thing we call religion shows up to us) the only truths that show up to us are completely context/language/culture specific and are only disclosed (cf. Heidegger's understanding of alethia) in living and always unfolding and changing actual relationships. These truths are not universal even as they are essential to *any* full (true) living. In the grammar anaology these truths are, perhaps, like the very specific, unique irregular verbs that just have to be learnt by rote. These truths (which include religious truths) are not capable of being reduced to universal truths.

I think that's close to what I want to say - I only hope I've said it in a way that isn't merely irritating or nitpicking. I think it's important to have a go at trying to say and I think you again for your gentle, helpful and supportive prodding.

Warmest wishes as always,