In Memoriam: Jonathan Harrison (1924-2014) — On the religious benefits of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds and of having one’s cake and eating it

Prof. Jonathan Harrison (1924-2014)
Professor Jonathan Harrison died last Sunday (14 September) just a few days short of his ninetieth birthday.

Jonathan was born in Liverpool in 1924 but was brought up in Wells, Somerset where he went to the local school. From there he went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford as a scholar subsequently becoming senior scholar. He got a first in P.P.E. in 1950. His first job was at what was then called the Durham Colleges in the University of Durham. He was appointed to a lectureship and then a senior lectureship at the University of Edinburgh in 1960. He was appointed to the chair of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham in 1964 and, whilst there, spent a couple of terms at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Jonathan was particularly noted for his work on Moral Philosophy especially his 1971 book, “Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong” (George Allen and Unwin) and his two books on Hume’s moral philosophy published by the Oxford University Press in 1976 and 1980. Jonathan retired in 1988 but continued to write and it was during this time that he published his final, and I think very important book, God, Freedom and Immortality” (henceforth GFI), which, he was delighted to say, one professional peer review thought was as comparable in merit to Hume’s “Dialogues on Natural Religion.”

The reviewer in “The Philosopher” (the journal of the Philosophical Society in England) thought this was a “well written and objective work”, one which:

. . . could well have been entitled ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about God but were afraid to ask’. It was a real pleasure to follow Harrison's reasoning, in a prose style that intimated his familiarity with the written word. Indeed, the text could be read for its salutary use of the English language. 

The same reviewer concluded that one’s own “yea or nay” about this book “does not really come into play; the journey is that pleasant.”

Indeed, my own decade long journey of philosophical friendship with Jonathan, though never less than very challenging, was in the round, just as pleasant as the reviewer had found his book.

Now, before my address looking at certain aspects of Jonathan's philosophy, here are a couple of short extracts from GFI:


From William Shakespeare: King Henry IV, Part II — the quotation Jonathan chose to appear opposite the title page of God, Freedom and Immortality

“Now I, to comfort him, bad him not think of God, I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.”

From Chapter 30 — “Conclusions” — of God, Freedom and Immortality by Jonathan Harrison (Ashgate Press, 1999, p. 660)

This long and sometimes involved book may regarded as a sustained attempt to investigate the existence of God. If — as seems likely — God does not exist in any straightforward way, it attempts to find some place for religion in a world that shows absolutely no traces of his existing. (There are, of course, for good or ill, numerous traces of people’s believing in God, but God’s existence cannot without circularity be reduced to the effects of people’s believing that he exists, though this ploy is sometimes attempted.)
l regard my attempt to find a place for religion as largely but not wholly unsuccessful. Almost all the traditional attitudes to God — trust, gratitude, reliance upon his help — must turn out to be misplaced if he does not exist. All that remains is a God whom one can contemplate, love, possibly worship and from intercourse with whom one may gain strength and consolation. (The kind of worship I am thinking of is silent and wordless, public worship is heavily laden with belief.) However appropriate these attitudes may be, what solace and help one derives from them is the result of the contemplation and worship themselves, not of divine intervention on our behalf.
This book may also be regarded, perhaps too charitably, as an attempt to reconcile the views on religion of Freud and Jung. Freud regarded religion as harmful because it produced false belief. Jung - to oversimplify - regarded religion as beneficial because it augmented mans powers and made him whole. My somewhat pragmatic attitude to religion involves attempting to recommend it as a way of producing wholeness and augmenting man’s powers, which Jung thought it did, without producing false belief, which Freud though it did.

And from the end of the Introduction (p.4):

It would be a great mistake, however, to suppose that such interest as this book has lies only in its conclusions. In philosophy it is not only conclusions that are important, but also the route one takes to acquiring them. Though it may not be entirely true that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, at least one should observe and if possible enjoy the scenery on the route to one's destination. 


Address: In Memoriam: Jonathan Harrison (1924-2014)
On the religious benefits of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds and of having one’s cake and eating it

Jonathan Harrison’s late philosophy speaks powerfully to an age and culture in which many people have come to feel that conventional religious beliefs and metaphysics are no longer either persuasive or sustainable and his final major work, GFI, was a sustained attempt to see whether it might be possible “to find some place for religion in a world that shows absolutely no traces of [God’s] existing” (p. 660).

As I was writing this piece I was continually tempted to dialogue directly and critically with his philosophy — after all this is what I did every time I met with him — but to have done this would have been to fail to bring you before something of his own provocative thinking and that would have been a loss. So, all I want to do in the remainder of this address — necessarily limited to just fifteen minutes — is give you just a few hints of his own religious thinking and to do this mostly in his own words.

Let’s start with Jonathan’s view of God. Here’s an important passage from GFI:

Once upon a time I thought that God did not exist, but might be the object of favourable attitudes (for example love) in spite of this. I have since revised that view and now hold (very tentatively) that a better way of putting the matter is to say that God neither exists nor does not exist. (This is a view that has been held by some mystics.) By saying God neither exists nor does not exist I hope to do justice to two strands in sensible thought about religion, the fact that there are no traces of God in nature and the fact that at least some men need God, and have experience that presents itself as direct awareness of him (p. 672).

His quasi-mystical “way of putting the matter” here needs to be unfolded properly — Jonathan would never forgive me for leaving you thinking he was somehow, secretly, a religious believer. He wasn’t. Firstly, it is important to stress that he thought God, as some kind of actual entity (being) in the universe, simply did not exist. He never once wavered from this view.

But, secondly, even as he strongly affirmed his atheism, he also wanted to make it clear that he saw that:

. . . the vast number of people have thought there was a God because they have confused the phenomenological object of their religious experience with an externally existing, omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good being (pp. 681-682).

Here we find one of his chief, general criticisms of conventional atheists — and Jonathan was certainly never one of those — was that they “have chosen to ignore the phenomenological object of their experience because they have believed that there was no God” (p. 682). In other words they weren't paying proper attention to something important.

Jonathan was an unusual atheist in that he refused to, in fact in all honesty could not, ignore his own religious experiences. In part this was because he “suspect[ed] that religion, like sex, gets dangerous when swept under the carpet”. But it was not just this somewhat negative (though I think correct) concern that kept him concentrated upon his intimations of God because Jonathan’s religious experiences bore for him, for the most part, many positive fruits. Here is a touching, almost confessional, moment from his book:

. . . I have come to be that embarrassing, but not, I think, uncommon thing, an atheist who has what appears to be [be an] experience of the deity whom he believes not to exist. At intervals I feel myself in contact with a being who seems to watch over me and to care for me. Though it comes in different guises, it sometimes — not always — appears to be a moderately benevolent and not excessively agitated eye which follows me wherever I go and occasionally strengthens my resolve and gives me solace and help when I need it, though only to a limited extent (p. 681).

Although, given what you have just heard, this might initially seem a puzzling statement it is helpful to remember that Jonathan thought his book might be regarded as “an attempt to reconcile the views on religion of Freud and Jung” (p.660). As Jonathan noted, “Freud regarded religion as harmful because it produced false belief. Jung — to oversimplify — regard religion as beneficial because it augmented man’s powers and made him whole” (p. 660). Jonathan went on to describe his own pragmatic approach to religion as involving an attempt “to recommend it as a way of producing wholeness and augmenting man’s powers, which Jung thought it did, without producing false belief, which Freud thought it did” (p. 660).

With this mention of wholeness and augmentation we begin, I think, to touch upon something of the human heart of the matter. Although for Jonathan religion — and the idea of God — was clearly a fallible, entirely human product (cf. p 687), for all that, he thought it could still provide real, if always limited, support and comfort to an individual:

The reason why I think my [religious] experience is valuable to me — and I assume that at least some other people are similar — is that it sometimes makes me calm when I am not calm and more confident when I am not confident at all. Sometimes it enables me to look at things from a more detached and less self-centred point of view than I would otherwise. 
[. . .] 
The experience I am talking about is not only (up to a point) useful, it is also enjoyable. Having it has some of the characteristics of certain kinds of (predominantly visual) art. I imagine that in others more fortunate than me it can occasionally be sublime. Even in myself it can partly resemble a clap of thunder or the view of a distant mountain range (p. 684).

Now, there is much more of Jonathan’s thought about God that I could bring before you but it is I think more helpful today to give you now an indication of what he felt his experience of a “non-existent God” did, and did not, require of him.

In the first place it certainly required of him the need to live some kind of “spiritual life”. Here is what Jonathan said about that:

Living a spiritual life may be regarded as paying attention to such intimations of the divine as one has in this world, without our having thought to any other world. Paying such attention might not suit everybody. I suspect doing so is more a matter of prudence than of morality. To love God, if I am right in thinking that it is possible to love a nonexistent God, cannot benefit him, for he does not, strictly speak, exist, but to love him may be of benefit to oneself (p. 671).

On a number of occasions in the last few weeks I asked him whether he was doing any philosophy? He laughed and told me categorically, “No!”, and immediately said he was spending all his time “contemplating the Deity”. Although he quickly added to this his obligatory caveat that he knew such a God did not exist, he was absolutely clear that what counted for him in these difficult times, and which brought him a measure of real benefit and comfort, were his “intimations of God”.

Naturally a non-existent God neither allowed for, nor of course required from him, any kind of petitionary prayer; after all you cannot ask a God who doesn’t exist to do anything because the universe will simply continue in its own way regardless — he was always clear about that. So, for example, Jonathan couldn't, and wouldn't, pray for improved health. However, as you can see, a non-existent God did allow for, and seemed to require of Jonathan, a contemplative attitude and, in Jonathan’s own words, “the “proper attitudes” to such a conception of divinity were “awe, devotion, (silent) worship, love, contemplation, and temporary surrender” (p.667).

A second thing his experience of a non-existent God required of him was to be clear that such a God “cannot give one a moral code” (p. 667). This meant that “the moral codes we have cannot be God-given and God-sanctioned” (p. 667). The disadvantage of this, he pointed out, is that “good moral codes will be less stringently enforced.” On the other hand, the advantage is that “some of the moral codes that will be less stringently enforced will be bad ones” (p. 667).

Given this problem (if it is a problem), Jonathan thought that we should, therefore, derive our moral codes by making “a more consistent direct appeal to love as opposed to rigid enforcement of rules based on the authority of a fallible church or an impossible historical revelation” (p. 662) — provided, as he notes, that “the importance of love is not overemphasised and is taken in a wide enough sense to include love of things other than people, including animals other than man” (p.662).

Were this possible Jonathan thought that many of Christianity’s disadvantages could be overcome and he was prepared to state clearly that “the Christian ethic,” at least subject to the criticism he made of it,

. . . is a good one, though nothing in this world is perfect. It offers solace, comfort and help and the possibility of spiritual quietness, rest and solace which many sorely need and from which I suspect most would benefit (p. 662).

But, as he also said, Christianity was not the only religion to provide such benefits and, although he hoped otherwise, he thought it was “unfortunate that these benefits are usually . . . bought, in their Christian form, at the price of accepting superstition and bad metaphysics” (p. 662). In an amusing expression of this thought he admitted to feeling that in his experience “Roman Catholics were more prone to superstition and Protestants to waffle” (p. 661).

And lastly, today, what about “doing religion” and religious community? Well, it will come as no surprise to find that Jonathan was highly suspicious of all forms of institutionalised religion. He could see it had certain benefits but, in general, he felt it brought with it too much “compromise, a hierarchy of power, and careerist churchmen, who perform a necessary function from not the noblest of motives” (p. 686). In the light of this he said:

[I]stitutionalised religion must inevitably be second best to genuine feeling and belief resulting from one’s own experience and thought. Religion requires more than occasional churchgoing and notional assent to a belief, which institutionalised religion tends to perpetuate. It also tends to discourage, or not necessarily to encourage, experiment and unorthodoxy, which are the lifeblood of all artistic and intellectual activity. Though it offers much more than the joys of conformity, there is inevitably a do-it-yourself element in genuine religion, and it should not be relegated to the status of a spectator sport (pp. 686-687).


Jonathan celebrating his 89th birthday with Susanna Brown
I feel confident in saying it was because here we so strongly agree with this, that Jonathan felt he could regularly attend this church.

I think it is also clear that he could do this because of our willingness openly to allow radically differing conceptions of God, the divine and the sacred to be expressed and explored (including atheist ones), this meant he could maintain, with complete integrity, his own very creative balance of atheism and his personal “intimations of the Deity”.

Lastly, I think it was because we consistently offer people a way of continuing meaningfully to engage with the Christian tradition in a fashion that doesn’t require them, in any way, to accept superstition or bad metaphysics, that he also found here a kind of secular Christian practice and religious community that he was happy (enough) to support.

We should, I think, take all of these things as genuine compliments from a very, very fine philosopher.

Jonathan felt that his book and its conclusions — especially the balance it tries to maintain between a clear atheism and meaningful intimations of the Deity — might be taken “as the manifestation of an unfortunate tendency to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds, with the result that it will, like a swallowed filling, fall between two very large stools” (I’ll leave you to unpack this witty school-boy metaphor!) (p. 687). However, he said, that doing this,

. . . is not an unintelligent thing to do. For one thing, it enables one better to understand both animals. And the trouble with wanting to have one’s cake and eat it is not so much that it is wrong as that it looks impossible. If a way could be found of having both, what sensible man would refuse to take it? (p.687).

As a highly unorthodox minister of religion myself, Jonathan helped me feel more confident that the cake and its eating are there to be had and, although there are countless numbers of people in the world who say it is impossible, that we can have a religion without superstition or bad metaphysics.

Jonathan inspired me to continue to try and shape such a secular religion here in Cambridge and in my ongoing attempt to run with hares and hunt with the hounds I will always miss his witty and provocative friendship.

Thank you Jonathan for the journey and your friendship — rest in peace.