The Real McCoy: Real Islam or fake Islam? And since we are on the subject, the real MacKay Whiskey or fake MacKay Whisky? Real Christianity or fake Christianity?

A wintery Christ's Pieces opp. the church during the week
Readings: Luke 6:37-45

From An Unorthodox Lecture by Paul Wienpahl reprinted in Manas, Vol. IX, no. 24, June 13, 1956

As I see it, the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself. (Tautologies are, after all, true.) If you wish to persist by asking what reality is; that is, what is really, the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing. 

To see this is to be a man without a position. To get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian. I am a man without a position. I do not have the philosophic position that there are no positions or theories or standpoints. (There obviously are.) I am not a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist. I am simply a man without a position, and this should open the door to detachment. 

[. . .]

When one says that he is a man without a position, does this mean that he is without direction? Perhaps. But this is misleading. For it means too that I have a direction and that direction is my own. It will come from within rather than being imposed from without. It means that I will guide it, I will give my life its form. And consciously too. Which seems to be hoisting one by one's bootstraps, but is not. It is just difficult. 

Being without a position also means that I cannot judge others. I have said that I have come to see what people mean by saying that there is evil in the world. In fact, I can see this thing. To be unable to judge, however, seems tantamount to believing that there is no evil. I seem, therefore, to be saying contradictory things. But the contradiction is apparent only, for I think that what people have called evil is simply the recalcitrant, the unmanageable. 

[. . .]

I have been thinking that I want to get away from knowing to living, from trying to understand and classify things to the things themselves. 


“The real McCoy” is, according to  Wikipedia: 

“. . .an idiom and metaphor used in much of the English-speaking world to mean ‘the real thing’ or ‘the genuine article’, e.g., ‘he’s the real McCoy’.” 

It goes on to say that the phrase

“. . . may be a corruption of the Scots ‘The real MacKay’, first recorded in 1856 as: ‘A drappie o’ the real MacKay,’ (A drop of the real MacKay [whisky]). This appeared in an 1856 poem ‘Deil's Hallowe'en’ published in Glasgow and it is widely accepted as the phrase's origin.”



Think back to the likely source of the phrase “the real McCoy” and imagine this little story I have spun out of my own imagination. Let’s say there were two MacKay brothers, both of whom learnt the art of fine distilling from their father who originally founded the MacKay Distillery. On their father’s death the brothers argue, disagreeing about how best to make their father’s whisky. The result was that one of them leaves the company and sets up a rival distillery, also claiming to produce the real MacKay. All of a sudden customers are now faced in the shops with two whiskies, both claiming to be the real MacKay. One claims they have the original recipe, the other claims they use a later better recipe, one claims they have the moral right over the label, the other claims they have the legal right and so on.

And you, you who want the real MacKay for your fast approaching Burns Supper, how are you to decide? You decide, as they say, that the proof is almost certainly in the pudding, and so go to a tasting. On the basis of your actual, personal experience you decide to buy one, rather than the other because the best one, according to your criteria, is clearly the real deal whilst the other is not. You part with your forty quid, assured in your heart that you have before you, the real MacKay.

With enough imaginary whiskey inside us to take the edge of the day we can turn now to consider the real Christianity. How might we go about finding out what that is? As I’m sure we all know there are countless claimants to be that.

One approach would be to begin by looking at which Christianity is closer to the person perceived to be its originator and to look around to see who practises that kind of religion. But is the originator Jesus or St Paul? If it is Jesus then Christianity needs to look more like Judaism than it currently does, for Jesus was never a Christian and only ever what he thought was a faithful Jew. If it was Paul — also a Jew — then Christianity needs to look a lot more like his letters and, therefore, much more like an end-time apocalyptic religion. Perhaps, however, real Christianity is to be found in one of the later, more developed churches when it is more clearly no longer a kind of Judaism? Is it then to be found in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy or, perhaps, in the Coptic Church? Perhaps, instead, it is the religion that developed after the Reformation and so one might find real Christianity in either Lutheran or Calvinist churches. But, instead, perhaps real Christianity is to be found in mystical forms of the religion as espoused by the German mystics, Pietists or groups like the Quakers.

Once upon a time, though thankfully no more, our own tradition of churches has also staked it’s claim to be real Christianity. Our two most famous nineteenth-century pitches for this were: “Christianity [or religion] in its simplest and most intelligible form” and “Practising the religion of Jesus, not the religion about Jesus”.

But, back to you my friends. How are you going to decide what is the real Christianity?

Without properly attempting to answer that, let’s now imagine you feel you have found certain historical evidence that persuades you, at least intellectually speaking, that Church X is the real Christianity and that you are going there because you want the real McCoy, the genuine article. I mean who wouldn’t want to taste the real rather than the fake product? We’ll return to this important question in a bit.

Now we come to the equivalent of that whiskey tasting for you have decide firstly to try what you think is the real one at Church X. However, as things progress you find yourself utterly horrified by what you see and hear. It’s terrible to you and, at the end as you leave, you realise that you really don’t like this real Christianity and you won’t be trying that again.

Disturbed by your experience, but still persuaded by your own feelings that you’ve just experienced real Christianity, you find you are sufficiently intrigued about it to go and try out — taste — what is by your own still in use criteria, some form of fake Christianity, namely, Church Y.

Next Sunday you again find yourself in a service but this time in Church Y. As things progress, you find to your surprise that you are liking what you see and hear. It’s all very amenable to your taste and, at the end, you decide to stay for coffee and, perhaps, just perhaps, you may go again next week.

But, before you do that, you realise you have an important personal problem to work through. This is because, looking back over your earlier research, you still find yourself more or less persuaded that the first church you went to and so disliked has, overall, a far better claim to be real Christianity than the second one you went to and liked the taste of but which, according to your own earlier criteria, is a fake form of Christianity — i.e. not Christianity at all. Hmmmm. What’s this all about?

Well, let’s leave this thought in play for now and turn to Islam. For dreadful reasons I do not need to rehearse there is a growing, dangerous and deeply troubling problem with, in and around Islam. We can no longer avoid acknowledging that we all, Muslim and non-Muslim are going to have to face up to this before things get completely out of control.

It is a problem that I have noticed many people would like quickly to solve by identifying the “real Islam”.

The basic argument is that “real Islam” is essentially a religion of peace filled, for the most part, with good people doing good things and getting on well with its neighbours. “Fake Islam”, on the other hand, is a religion of violent jihad filled with bad people doing bad things and getting on very badly with its neighbours”.

I have, of course, painfully simplified an already painfully simplistic argument but I do it to get us quickly and, I think not inaccurately, to the point I wish to make today.

Think back to my examples of MacKay Whiskey and Christianity and then ask yourself a couple of things. Firstly, how are you going to find out for certain what is the real Islam and what is the fake Islam? Claim and counter-claim is made by everyone and everything hinges on the criteria you choose to judge these things. Peaceful folk pit their claims against those of the violent jihadists, Sunni argues with Shia, both of them argue with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

Secondly, assuming you are able to come to a decision that grouping X is “real” whilst all the others are “fake”, what happens if you the discover that you prefer what seems to you one of the supposedly “fake Islams” to the “real Islam”?

I hope there is emerging in your mind a realisation that this adjective “real” (and the antonym I’m employing today, “fake” — though I could have used the word "false") is being used here as a weasel word. Why a weasel word? Well, this is because weasels are supposedly able to suck the contents out of an egg without breaking its shell and so, by extension, we say that a weasel word is one that is able to suck the meaning out of a sentence whilst leaving it, apparently, untouched and intact.

Being the kind of culture we are need to be aware that for us the word “real” carries with it an awful lot of weight — mostly that accumulated through its use in the natural sciences. We take it for granted that it is unequivocally good to know what the “real” is because we don’t want to be duped into living a life based on a “fake” world, a world built upon illusion and a false belief.

But the word “real” as I have been using it in my examples about whiskey, Christianity and Islam is not, for the most part, the way the word “real” is being used in the natural sciences. On the basis of certain inherited preferences and empirical but more subjective yet still valuable experimentation, I have been using it to mean that which we “prefer”, that which we feel deep in our bones is good, true, valuable, tasty, trustworthy, workable with and so on.

We really do need to be aware of this and not try to hide behind some claimed "neutral" conception of the “real” that doesn’t require us to take proper responsibility for our decisions to chose this whiskey or that, or to feel positively disposed towards "this" Christianity or Islam rather than "that" Christianity or Islam.

Now I mention this today — and perhaps would have done so even without the horrific events in France this week — because in the current edition of the denomination’s magazine “The Inquirer” there is an article by the Revd Cliff Reed called “Consider the real Islam”. The italicisation of the adjective “real” got me concerned straight away.

In this article Cliff  makes many important historical points and expresses certain personal preferences that, for the most part, I share with him — and I can, and do, support what seems to be his underlying motivation for writing the article — i.e. to remind us that these violent terrorists are far from being the norm. But it seems to me Cliff's use of the adjective “real” (especially when italicised) hides the fact that what seems really to be being said is not, “Consider the real Islam” but, instead, the much more pragmatic, “Consider the Islam we prefer and can actually get on with”.

In fact, are we not happy and able to get on with most people whether or not they are real or fake Muslims or Christians, or even if they are not Muslims or Christians at all — fake or otherwise?

As Jesus said, we know things by their fruits; the proof is surely to be found in the pudding.

Isn’t it the case that it doesn’t really matter one jot or iota about the religious labels anyone of us chooses or is given by another? Let me be bolder about it. Are not all these labels getting seriously in the way of us finding some kind of real human solution to the mess we are in — a mess that is only made worse by being seduced and sidetracked into endless arguments about whether this or that form of Islam, Christianity or any other religion or philosophy is supposedly "real" or "fake"?

(In passing I would point out that from most orthodox, traditional Christian perspectives, the Unitarian movement (in which I, the author, exercise most of my public ministry) has been and remains considered as being a clear example of "fake" (false) Christianity . . .)

To bring it back to whiskey, I really don’t care whether my whiskey is the Real MacKay or not, as long as I like it and it strikes me as being of good, reliable quality. There’s room in this, of course, for endless and wonderful variety — for Scottish, American, English and Japanese whiskeys and, I'm sure many many more).

Anyway to bring this piece to a temporary, personal conclusion, this is why events in France make me more fully understand why so quickly over the past two years I've nearly lost all interest in calling myself any longer a Christian (or Unitarian), real or otherwise.

I think Paul Wienpahl is right to suggest becoming men and women without a position and to get out of the mind and into the world. To do this and to get beyond language and to the things is, as he suggests, to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian, a sceptic, an agnostic or an atheist and, today, I'll add a Unitarian or a Muslim. As Wienpahl says, surely the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself — i.e. only with the actual multifarious real (used in a non-weasel way) people and communities that we meet every day in our local neigbourhoods and with all of us stripped utterly naked of these divisive and endlessly disputed labels.

It seems to me that only when we are all standing before each other, label-naked as the day we were born, will we have a chance of figuring out a proper, globally shared, human response to the religio/political mess we are currently in.


Anonymous said…
Excellent post. Important points, carefully and thoughtfully made. Thank you.

I can't quite go with your conclusion as I still think that whilst it is important to call out the superficial (if strategically useful) claims about what the 'real' form of a religion is, and the appeal of being 'label-naked' is a strong one, it could also be a chilly one, and ends up sounding pretty existential. To some it might also seem disingenuous as what we are, what matters to us, is all too obvious to others whatever we say or however much we might want it to be different. Pick us up and put us in a very different context and far from being 'label-naked', our commitments, histories and identities will be all too apparent, however much we might want to deny them or remove them. We run the risk of deciding that being 'label - naked' is just another claim about what is 'real', what ultimately matters. Sorry for the wittering.
Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comments. Much appreciated.

I think you are quite right to point to the fact that we can never fully escape our inherited commitments, histories and identities and are, in that sense, never fully label-naked.

But I think that what Wienphal’s trying to get us to do is free ourselves from attachment to those labels and not allow them to define who/what we are — i.e. give us a fixed position. Wienpahl is much more interested in ‘direction’ — the ongoing flow of life unfolding from within and this is something that is not only hard to define by the use of labels but this use of labels can actually stop the flow.

So, for myself I think of the security and value I found at one point on my life in being able to adopt the label “liberal Christian”. The trouble came for me when, after so ardently nailing my colours to this particular mast (position), I suddenly realised that the label didn’t fit properly any longer and was, in fact, constraining me in a damaging, unhelpful way. It’s not that I want to ditch all things liberal Christian — far from it — but one’s life flows on and fixed positions simply can’t take this movement of life into account.

I think this is what is so attractive about Earl Morse Wilbur’s point that the Unitarian religious tradition (and I think liberal Christian and Enlightenment traditions too) is best characterised by the phrase “complete spiritual freedom” — something that is a flowing, constantly changing state of affairs. Along the way the Unitarian tradition certainly proposed certain fixed doctrinal positions — the unity of God and the humanity of Jesus, for example — but in the end they have all passed away because they seem simply to be epiphenomena of the main current — the creative flow of spiritual freedom. As Wilbur says, “the doctrinal aspect is but a temporary phase” — which is also to say the fixed position is but a temporary phrase.

Your point about this “no-position” being a “chilly one” that “ends up sounding pretty existential” is also well-made — and what I am suggesting is clearly something like what J. L. Schellenberg in his “Evolutionary Religion” calls “a religion for pioneers”. Yes, one is out in the open on the prairie, away from warm housing, known streets, mores, rules and laws and this can at times feel chilly and existentially demanding. But, on the other hand, it is, as Wienpahl encouraged, to began to get away from “knowing to living, from trying to understand and classify things to the things themselves.” There is a thrill and warming excitement about this that should not be underestimated. But I realise that this can also be scary and I have no doubt that many (most?) people will always prefer the fixed position to the “no position” and “direction” I’m advocating.

Incidentally (or perhaps not so), all this — and a bundle of other things — has sent me back this week to an essay that had a big impact on me when I first read it aged nineteen, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. (It’s worth a read if you don’t know it.) In it there are to be found many similar and overlapping themes to those I addressed in my last piece and I’ll undoubtedly be considering aspects of this over the next few weeks (privately if not always publicly).

You may be interested that next Sunday I intend to continue a bit with some of this thinking by revisiting something I wrote a couple of years ago.

But, most of all, thanks again for taking the time to write.