Looking and considering - ensuring the wheels of liberal religion don't slip on the ice

The River Cam in some icy weather
Readings: Matthew 6:25-34

Judith Genova – Wittgenstein: A Way of Seeing, Routledge 1995 p. 55

Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? - Don’t say “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games”’- but look and see whether there is anything common to all.- For if you look at them 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!... (Philosophical Investigations 66 – L. Wittgenstein)

The word “see” in the expression “a way of seeing” is not fortuitous. Wittgenstein explicitly means to speak of “a way of seeing” and not “a way of thinking.” Not only does he rarely use “thinking,” but he repeatedly thematizes the differences between it and seeing:

One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that.
But the difficulty is to remove the prejudice which stands in the way of doing this. It is not a stupid prejudice. (Philosophical Investigations 340 – L. Wittgenstein)

Surprisingly, for a philosopher, he insists that looking, not thinking, remedies philosophical ignorance. One would have thought that seeing only reproduces the status quo; not so for Wittgenstein. Sounding like Bacon chastising his mathematically-minded contemporaries, Wittgenstein cautions that adequate deductions only follow from the meticulous examination of data. Don’t guess, he admonishes; be there, look, observe.

Judith Genova – Wittgenstein: A Way of Seeing, Routledge 1995 p. 57
Concepts are meant to generalize, to bulk experience. Percepts, on the other hand, are meant to particularize. In fact, by crossing wires, thinking tends to see identities and essences, where seeing, in contrast, thinks differences. (The ultimate goal is to find a skill tuned to family resemblances). While we ordinarily picture thinking as more liberating than seeing, Wittgenstein reminds us that thinking can be as conservative as other modalities. Instead of liberating one from provincialism, thinking can imprison one in ritualized beliefs.


A question put to me again and again in various ways is "What do you, or what does your church believe?" Sometimes this question is put in a gentle, inquiring way but, alas, it quite often comes in the form of an aggressive first shot in a pre-prepared theological or philosophical battle over claimed truths and falsities about the nature, and reality of, a supernatural God.

Because this generally adversarial way of proceeding which centres on beliefs has been culturally sanctioned for centuries - and is still taught to us in our schools of theology - it's very easy to let oneself be drawn into this kind of activity.

But I increasingly try to avoid this because like many other contemporary liberal theologians I've come to feel that in talking about beliefs all too often our words about God are simply allowed to go off on a lengthy holiday free to skate about with gay abandon on the ice of the ethereal, invisible, intangible, frictionless religious winter-wonderland that is formed solely from human conjectures about the general nature of divine reality. When our religious words are only, or primarily being used in this frictionless realm they cannot gain any real traction - they avoid detail and particularities. The mind's power may be on and the intellectual engine may well be producing a great deal of noise and using up a lot of fuel but this is all to no avail as the wheels of our language are simply spinning uselessly on the ice beneath us.

It seems to me that the best way to keep our wheels from such a useless spinning is always to ensure that we bring them back to the sure, rough ground by using them in relation to a real, existent, living context or tradition - in our case "the liberal Christian tradition."

Importantly, this tradition (which has incorporated within it not only many insights and practices from it Judaeo/Christian roots but also, most importantly from the Greeks) is not some fixed once-and-for-all system of beliefs but rather a very complex and still unfolding story about a how, as our order of service puts it, we as a people have tried to express our ongoing "sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it."

A defining aspect of this tradition is that it has maintained at the centre of its being an open, creative clearing in which something new, whether a religious or philosophical insight or a discovery about the natural universe, is always given the space and freedom to show up or shine, to be looked at and also considered. This, almost mystical and miraculous clearing in the midst of our being, is powerfully related to what we call our civic, secular space - the place where a genuine, embodied societal conversation and debate and form of life is birthed and maintained.

Such a tradition, when and where it is actually being upheld, remains highly resistant to being turned into an "-ism" of some description. Not incidentally this is why I won't espouse any kind of "-ism" - not even some supposed thing called "Unitarianism". But, perhaps even more importantly, the liberal Christian tradition cannot be restricted to one Christian denomination nor even solely to something called the Christian Church. It simply isn't something that is only available to what one might call traditional Christian believers (whether Unitarian or Trinitarian) but to all those whose open-ended ways of being (whether theist or atheist) has been birthed from out of the creative clearing the tradition has consistently been able to hold open.

So, now, when someone asks me about what I believe or what this church believes, I try very hard not to talk in terms of frictionless beliefs but instead to find ways to point, firstly to this central clearing and, secondly to the kind of grounded practices offered by the tradition that help keep us as individuals and as a society radically open-minded and open-bodied to new ways of thinking and doing but without, at the same time, being so formlessly open-minded and open-bodied that our brains and organs simply fall out everywhere in a shapeless, chaotic and relativistic mess.

Let's move now to our Gospel story in order to give one example of how one might see this being outplayed. In what follows I need you to keep in mind Wittgenstein and Judith Genova's words heard earlier and to pay close attention to the different use of the verbs "to think" and "to look."

What I find particularly interesting about this story in Matthew's version is that he has Jesus use two different verbs where Luke reduces them to one.

Some birds of the air over Cambridge
Matthew first of all uses "emblepo" which means "to turn one's eyes on" or to "look at" - he has Jesus calling upon us to "look" at the birds of the air. This has an immediate feel about it, one that encourages us "not to guess" but to "be there, to look, observe." Looking or seeing is here an example of Jesus' encouragement particularly to think of grounded differences.

Matthew then uses "katamanthano" which means "to learn thoroughly, examine carefully or to consider well" - he now has Jesus calling upon us to "consider" the lilies of the field which is tantamount to saying "think" about them. This has a less immediate feel about it, more like an encouragement to back away from an immediate looking and to do some theorising, perhaps even some creative guessing. Considering (or thinking) is here an example of Jesus' encouragement particularly to see something general, to see identities and essences.

Field of Lilies - Tiffany Studio c. 1910
Luke, by the way, uses the same verb for both, in his case, "katanoeo" which means "to perceive, remark, observe, understand or to consider attentively". So Luke has us "consider" both the birds and the lilies. Now Luke is very much an author who was concerned to think through, to consider the story about Jesus, so as to be able to offer his readers a beautiful and inspiring but a sometimes rather frictionless story about underlying identities and essences. He's quite explicit about this - remember his account of things, which includes both his Gospel and the Book of Acts, begins:

"I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed" (Luke 1:3-4).

Matthew's account, on the other hand, is much craggier, much more ragged and keen to offer some rough ground where we can see Jesus checking that his theories and his beliefs about God have got real traction and are not just slippery conjectures. In various places we see Jesus use this method radically to reassess the situation and change his way of being in the world (cf. Matthew 15:21-28).

Matthew's choice of words allows me to suggest that this seems to be Jesus' general way of proceeding. He is clearly capable of thinking and considering, of imagining frictionless identities and essences suggesting possibilities but, even as he does this, he is also clearly always-already alert to the need to bring that kind of thinking down on to the rough ground of our world to see which ideas had real purchase and embodied use.

Right now, in this address, I'm not going to explore what differences we might *think* when we see, or look at, the birds of the air; nor am I going to suggest what identities and essences we might *see* when we consider (or *think* about) the birds of the air. What I do want us to see today is that Jesus, although he is prepared to go into potentially frictionless realms of thinking, considering and conjecturing, he is also always concerned to bring things back to earth by looking and observing how they play out - he gets down into the world and encourages us to do likewise. In the end we see that his looking and thinking is inseparably of a piece - its an open-ended way of acting in the world.

Shockingly, for some anyway, in the liberal Christian tradition we do not need to agree absolutely or finally with Jesus' conclusions on any matter but instead to take seriously his method of proceeding, the way he comported himself. As our church covenant says we meet in the *spirit* of Jesus and not in the *beliefs* of Jesus.

So our liberal Christian tradition is not defined by abstract beliefs (even though it has some) but by a kind of empirical method. It's a method which, although it allows that our beliefs and abstract theories are important (they can help show up new possibilities and useful generalisations) always insists that they must be brought down to earth to be tested again and again. The space at the heart of our tradition is where our thinking and our looking are allowed to meet in loving and critical conversation and action. This space is the source of our  liberal freedom to affirm those things which have real purchase in our world and to let go of those things which don't.

I'm minded only now to say that in this tradition I most certainly do *believe*.


Yewtree said…
Interestingly the Buddha told his followers to only believe what he said if it fitted with their own experience.

Living in the spirit of Jesus would certainly imply being critical of him where necessary.
Dear Yewtree,

Good to "hear" your voice again. I quite agree. As Jesus said, "A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully taught will be like his teacher" (Luke 6:40). I was always struck by the use here of the word "like" which is most certainly not to say the "same" as. Anyway I've always taken this verse to mean that the greatest teachers free us to follow the best in them so that we may be free to be the best we can. I'd argue that this is what belonging to a tradition means - one doesn't supersede the wisdom of our teachers but simply nuance them, enlarge them, build on them - we join (as Johnny Ray Youngblood once said) a moving train and together are on our way.

Warmest wishes as always,