Interweaving forms of decent dependency

The hurley burley of a French market at Velleron this summer

Friday saw, of course, Jonathan Harrison’s funeral. For those of you who don’t know, Professor Harrison was a regular attender of this congregation over the last ten years who became for me both a philosophical companion and friend on the way as I tried to see how I might, with intellectual integrity, be a religious naturalist — that is to say to live wholly without the God of theism — and yet still have a lively, religious sensibility and life.  (Here is a link to Jonathan's own website and here is a link to last Sunday's address about Jonathan's personal philosophy.)

As an atheist, albeit one with profound religious intimations, Jonathan was a man, like me and many of us here today, who could not — as you heard in last week’s address about his philosophy — bottom out our world upon the absolute ground of God.

In terms of Jonathan’s funeral as I, a non-theist, stood at this lectern conducting a religious service for my atheist friend, amongst a group of people with the most diverse range of philosophies and theistic and atheistic beliefs imaginable, I became powerfully aware that, from my own point of view, there was no absolute ground upon which I thought this service could be said to rest.

The lack of absolute grounds that I saw so clearly on Friday came as no surprise to me; it’s long seemed like this. But what made the matter of there being no absolute grounds to stand upon so striking was seeing this in the context of loss and grief. Dealing with loss and grief without any absolute grounds to stand upon, forced me to try to articulate to myself — and now to you — what it is in which I do trust; what it is in which I ground my life and which helps me move forward well (enough). I feel I need to do this because you so kindly continue to call me as your settled minister.

Here we may turn to our reading today in which we heard Stanley Cavell suggests that our going forward is

. . . a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation — all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life.’ Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying (Stanley Cavell, “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy” in Must We Mean What We Say?, Updated Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 52).

Cavell’s use of the word terrifying here is, I think, key. One may, intellectually speaking, be able to agree with Cavell’s view of what it is we are doing but there are always going to be moments when the lack of something absolute, permanent and God-like to ground it all will seem utterly terrifying — most pressingly, of course, at moments of loss.

It is at these, heart-stopping moments, that there often arises a powerful temptation, explicitly or implicitly, to reintroduce into play an absolute ground — a conventional God — upon which a person believes they can surely depend. My continued use of God-language meant that, at times, Jonathan certainly thought I was trying to do just this and, every now and then he would accuse me of backsliding in my atheism! It was somewhat amusing to me — and I’m sure to Jonathan — that a conversation such as this would occur between a minister and congregant immediately after Sunday service at the Clarendon Arms over lunch and beer.

Let’s stay with the understandable human desire for some kind of absolute dependence in the face of the terror invoked by a lack of absolute grounds. On what kind of God might we depend — that is to say, reasonably ground our life — that isn’t, to borrow a phrase from Edward F. Mooney, “A Strong Force, An Office of Cosmic Management, nor An Inscrutable Interventionist”?

Well, Mooney, in his own work on Søren Kierkegaard, “aimed [to offer his readers] a kind of coverlet or quilt whose patterns evoke a God on whom a self could depend” that was not this kind of strong force. Mooney tried to lead “toward this patterned design by interweaving forms of decent dependency that we can recognize apart from any larger figure of divinity or commitment to a divinity on whom we depend.”

Left like that, this could all sound somewhat vague and insubstantial but here’s Mooney’s own, wonderfully grounded, analogy — one which shows clearly what he means by “interweaving forms of decent dependency”:

My son the scientist does fieldwork, counting bugs on flowers at 10,000 feet in Colorado. He teaches students how to use statistical methods to chart the results of that work. He does grunt work, running a lab, and joins ceremonies of celebration as papers get published and tenure gets awarded. His scientific sensibility is honed and expressed locally in many imbricated practices — fieldwork, lab work, looking at flowers and statistical distributions, running evidentiary checks, proposing explanatory models.   

These locally overlapping activities, loosely ceremonial practices, hang together as a sensibility. They can be pictured as having a nodal point or center of narrative gravity that hovers some distance above this dispersed variety of local sites – and we can call that point or center, ‘Science,’ or ‘the Spirit of Science.’ But to get the feel of this sensibility we don’t obsess on this hovering point or center but immerse ourselves in the local and quotidian, and we certainly don’t start with a detachable and prior commitment to — or belief in — a royal abstraction called “Science” or “The Scientific Method.” Initiates are thrown into the hurley burley collecting plants and learning names. Focusing on local assemblages of meaning and practice – lab work, model building, and so forth — frees them from the need to establish as a condition of local practice the necessary existence of a reified — “Science” or “Scientific Method.” There might be occasions to invoke such an entity commanding the devotion of masters and apprentices, perhaps in the service of rewarding the good or punishing the cheaters. But such occasions would be the exception (from the typescript of Chapter 2 of Excursions with Kierkegaard by Edward F. Mooney  all the quotations in this address by Mooney come from this text).

Reading this analogy only two days ago I experienced a genuine Eureka! moment — “Yes! (I said) that’s it, that’s exactly how I use the word God”.  (My gratitude to Ed Mooney for his insights on this matter is very deep indeed).

It helps me to say to you that, as your minister, I can see I no longer use the word God (god) as “a royal abstraction” but rather as something evoked by the patterns of our form of life together. I realise that I understand God (god) to be a word that emerges within the almost countless, overlapping human, this worldly practices that form our culture’s general hurley burley. I realise, too that I use the word God (god) as a “nodal point or center of narrative gravity that hovers some distance above . . .” our life together. One that only occasionally — for example on Sunday mornings and in certain other  exceptional situations like funerals — needs to be referred to.

Here’s an example from the day of the funeral of what it is I’m trying to get at.

Immediately after the funeral I, along with many others, was sharing some of my own memories of Jonathan. At one point I began to express my deep gratitude for Jonathan’s presence in my life and I found myself saying, without conscious thought, and quite naturally, that this presence had been for me a “God-send”. The people with whom I was talking — knowing both Jonathan’s and my own philosophy — immediately laughed at this because what I had said was clearly both right and wrong at the same time.

It was clearly wrong if the “God” bit of this word was understood as a “royal abstraction” — an absolute ground of being “out there” that was consciously doing the sending and over whose existence or non-existence we could argue endlessly and, mostly, pointlessly. But “God” was just the right word when it was understood as a nodal point or centre of narrative gravity. Citing (the contemporary British theologian) George Pattison, Mooney points out that “the choice is not: do I have to be a fundamentalist believer or a secularist, but: how can I best articulate this mysterious moment in which I realize my life is given to me, as if from another.”

In this sense, when I quite naturally said Jonathan was a “God-send” it was to help me tell a story which expressed my realisation that my life is given to me “as if” from another. I used it to indicate a recognition that both I and Jonathan were grounded in, and depended upon, the gift that is the complex “form of life” which allowed us both to be who we were and in which we were able to share “routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation.”

Under these circumstances, a religious naturalist like me calling a religious atheist like Jonathan a “God-send” is, I think, not to engage in any kind of backsliding as Jonathan feared but, instead, an entirely appropriate expression of a decent dependency “that we can recognise apart from any larger figure of divinity”.

As I stood here on Friday at this lectern I realised that what I felt grounded us all sufficiently — and in which I sufficiently trusted — was the patchwork quilt or coverlet being made with, before and around me, that is our constantly evolving hurley burley life together and whose patterns sometimes evoke from me a phrase like, “he was to me a God-send”.

This is not, of course, the God in which the fundamentalist believes; nor yet is it the God in which the secularist atheist disbelieves. This kind of God is not “A Strong Force, An Office of Cosmic Management, nor An Inscrutable Interventionist” but it is a name I can sometimes meaningfully invoke and which is for me the nodal point or centre of narrative gravity of my own life as your minister.

The word “God” (god) and its use emerges from a form of life which, with its complex, beautiful ever moving quality, seems always to bear witness to the groundless ground upon which we may all decently depend.

This still makes me, I think, a kind of atheist (although I prefer the term religious naturalist), but it also allows me, with integrity, to have said then, and to say now, not only thank God for Jonathan’s life, but also thank God for all of you and the hurley burley life together we all share.