Is it really, self-evidently true, that that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"?

The view from the lectern in Cambridge
Over the past few weeks I have been exploring a mix of Judaeo-Christian thinking and that of the Greeks — a powerful combination that the Unitarian minister and theologian John F. Hayward presented so well in his 1962 book, Existentialism and Religious Liberalism. A helpful aide-mémoire is to see us as taking our basic religious and ethical cue from the figures of both the human Jesus and Socrates and with neither of them taking precedence over the other.

But, here, I just want to bring to the table a reminder of perhaps the most important aspect of Socrates’ teaching, the implications of which run somewhat counter to a great deal of our inherited patterns of thought in liberal religion. Socrates’ questioning was designed to bring us — not to certain knowledge but to a state of aporia, that is to say to serious perplexity and what feels like (and to some extent is) confusion. Yet, for various reasons, we have been taught that the only truly useful kind of thinking is that which brings with it simple clarity and assured, final knowledge. This is, of course, the kind of thinking that allowed one of the most famous (and admirable) sentences in the English language to be written (and one that, in some way, I'd like still to affirm):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

But, had Socrates been present at the drafting of the American Declaration of Independence, I doubt he would have easily assented to these thirty-six words, no matter how fine they sounded. He would have probed further and asked in various ways, ‘are these things truly self-evident?’

He would have questioned whether we really can have any such simple, easy, self-evident certainty in these areas, not least of all because all the empirical evidence runs wildly counter to this. The truly dreadful events in Israel-Palestine and the Gaza Strip (and also the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine) are, as I write, simply those which press most painfully and immediately upon me in the here and now.

The truth is that we have never seemed to be living under the rule of a God/gods who gifts equality and inalienable rights to all and, as I watched those children on that Gaza beach running away from one rocket strike only to be targeted, and hit, by another, I could not but think of a story told by the French anthropologist Pascal Boyer. A week after the 9/11 attacks in New York he was watching a memorial service on TV with a friend in which the congregation was singing the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd”, for those who had been killed. His friend turned to him and said, “Wow, some shepherd” (Interview in "A Rough Guide to Disbelief" pt 1, at 3'55").

The fact is that the simple, self-evident liberal religion promulgated by our optimistic forebears was always a chimera but, today, we can see more clearly that they were, alas, barking up the wrong tree. It falls to us, therefore, rigorously to question, Socratically, our inherited liberal religious optimism and our all too easy desire for naive, simple, self-evidently true religious and ethical answers to the problems of our age. Deconstructing our old religious certainties and patterns of thought inevitably brings with it serious perplexity and confusion but, unless and until we have lived with and worked through this we cannot begin to offer the world a new, meaningful and effective liberal religious alternative.

Yes, the kind of thinking that goes on here at the church's lectern about these matters is at times hard, perplexing and confusing - perhaps like last Sunday's address. But, as Spinoza said at the very end of his Ethics:

If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found. And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard. For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare (Bk 5 P42 translated by Edwin Curley)

Post a Comment