The Sunday Address in a world without why


Die Ros’ is ohn’ Warum; sie blühet weil sie blühet. Sie acht’ nicht ihrer selbst, fragt nicht ob man sie siehet.

The rose is without why; she blossoms because she blossoms. She pays no attention to herself, does not ask if anyone sees her.

Look at me, and be appalled,
   and lay your hand upon your mouth. 
When I think of it I am dismayed,
   and shuddering seizes my flesh. 
Why do the wicked live on,
   reach old age, and grow mighty in power? 
Their children are established in their presence,
   and their offspring before their eyes. 
Their houses are safe from fear,
   and no rod of God is upon them. 
Their bull breeds without fail;
   their cow calves and never miscarries. 
They send out their little ones like a flock,
   and their children dance around. 
They sing to the tambourine and the lyre,
   and rejoice to the sound of the pipe. 
They spend their days in prosperity,
   and in peace they go down to Sheol. 

Job 21: 5-13 

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Attributed to Epicurus (341-270 BC)


The problem of evil remains one of the greatest challenges to a belief in the existence of god, or at least the god of monotheism. It was the paradox attributed to Epicurus dealing with this that had one of the greatest long-term impacts upon me and which, eventually, led me to leave behind, not the divine and the sacred per se, but certainly the god of my forebears.

In my various conversations with you I know that the problem of evil continues to press upon many of you too and has contributed, if not to you adopting the kind non-theistic religious naturalism I have, then it has at least contributed to a significant loosening of formal theistic belief. In relation to being the minister of this church this has, naturally, a major effect upon the kinds of things I both can and should be saying to you each week and it is this question that concerns me today. It’s a question, I should add, that a number of you have put to me in a variety of ways over the past few weeks.

The complete loss of, or significant doubt in, a once central conception always has significant knock on effects and, in relation to the loss of belief in the god of our forebears, one of the most important has been the increasing realisation that, like the rose, we now have to learn to live in “a world without why.”

I’m not saying, of course, that we no longer find in the world an almost infinite series of, local, contingent answers to “why this” and “why that” but I am saying that for many of us there is no longer available an ultimate, “buck-stops-here” answer to the why of anything — the kind of ultimate answer that an "old school" minister could invoke authoritatively to tell you what you should believe and, ethically and politically, what kind of actions you should be undertaking.

So, for example, think of the many thousands of innocent people who will have been killed by human or natural means last week and then ask yourself the question, why did all those innocent people die?

We can, of course, find many local, contingent, geopolitical, sociological, ecological and medical answers that can (to a limited extent anyway) explain why certain, so-called, innocent people died. But what I can’t find any longer — and I imagine most of you can’t find either — is a big answer of the type the Christian church has pointed to, namely, that these innocent deaths are, somehow, all part of god’s good plan for the world’s ultimate salvation. In other words I simply can no longer accept the reality of a “Heilsgeschichte” (a Salvation History), a view of history which thinks it can uncover the personal redemptive and saving activity of god within human history.

These opening reflections allow me to put before you the three ways of responding to a world without why that are offered by the Cambridge based philosopher, Raymond Geuss (in an essay called "A World Without Why") and which have had an impact upon what it is I can or should be bringing before you each Sunday in my address. Naturally, I’m very interested in hearing your responses to what I say.

So, firstly, Geuss says we

“. . . could be clever enough to turn the why-game against itself from within. This has been the dream of any number of philosophers including, most notably, Hegel and Heidegger. This way out does not recommend itself to me because I am not clever enough to tread this path successfully, but also because even if I were successful, who would notice?”

Like Geuss I don’t think I’m clever enough to do this myself but, thanks to certain writers I do feel it’s possible to make some headway here. In a nutshell I think that a mix of Epicurus’, Nietzsche’s, Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s insights (tied into poetically philosophical and naturalist writers like Lucretius, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Bugbee, Wallace Stevens, Mary Oliver a.m.o.) do offer a way successfully to turn the why-game against itself from within and that it is possible to make headway towards making the deeply problematic metaphysical, big why questions completely disappear (cf PI §133) and this, in turn, can help to cure us of our metaphysical malaise.

But the problem, as you know, is that this is a path difficult to make clear to and share with others. Every now and then I try to do this and I know that, often, I fail to get their ideas across to you sufficiently well enough and to persuade you all explicitly to commit to become Nietzschean free-spirits and to transform this church into a disciplined body of people prepared to work  collectively through the implications of the work of the aforementioned philosophers. As a friend of mine once said to me, “In your dreams cupcake!” And, surely he’s right — it is unlikely to happen isn’t it! Also, even were I successful in this I think Geuss is right in saying that almost no one would notice.

But despite this, of course, I do notice and continue to work through these thinkers’ ideas and, in a gentle, conversational way, I will continue try to persuade you, every now and then, to at least consider such a philosophical response to a world without why. This is my personal contribution to our collective conversation but it's no longer my role to tell you what you must believe.

Guess’ second possibility is action. As he notes:

“One deed is worth any number of words. A deed can cut through — I always think of this with the French word trancher — the spider’s web of bogus rationalizations and create not merely new words, but new facts. Unfortunately, this second course of action requires very significant amounts of courage and practical skills of various kinds — neither of which I possess. The courage in question, by the way, is not merely personal fearlessness in the face of threats to oneself, but also the moral courage to face the possibility that one’s actions — which, if they are going to be effective at all, will certainly be almost completely out of one’s own control as far as their actual consequences are concerned — may turn out to inflict great suffering on the wrong people (even assuming one were to know for certain who these are).” 

I think action is a vitally important way to proceed. I seem to have been born with slightly more courage than Geuss and so have been a political activist in one way or another throughout my life. Given my own life experiences and philosophy mentioned above I’ve found myself, for example, impelled to blockade the nuclear weapons factory at Burghfield in the 1980s with CND and, in more recent years, to march and campaign with fellow comrades to protest strongly against the war in Iraq, to raise awareness about climate change and to challenge in various ways current neoliberal programmes that are crushing the life out of all but the richest in our society. As I do this I’m well aware of the dangers Geuss points to but it seems to me that doing nothing and simply allowing the status quo to continue is impossible. But as minister to a diverse company of people such as this — diverse not only in terms of political outlook but also those of age, energy and courage — I recognise that I’m highly unlikely to be able to turn you into a disciplined cadre of leftist, progressive, communalist activists prepared to take collective direct (if non-violent) action against the powers that be. Again, as my friend said, “In your dreams cupcake.” The best I can hope for, I think, is to inspire you to take action as individuals in your own, pre-existing, political and activist circles or, if you don’t belong to such a circle, to join one.

Of course I, too, still have to act politically and so, personally, I’ll continue to be an activist in leftist political circles (circles, I would add, that have always significantly overlapped with the Unitarian tradition) and, in a gentle, conversational way, I will continue to try to persuade you every now and then to at least consider communalist political responses to a world without why. This is my personal contribution to our collective conversation but it's no longer my role to tell you what kinds of political actions you must undertake.

This brings me to Geuss’ third option and it is this that I think best describes the work that, in a world without why I can most meaningfully do for you most of the time as your settled minister. Geuss says:

“The third possibility is the invitation — in particular the invitation to observe, look at or consider something. One kind of thing one can be invited to consider is a juxtaposition: masses of anonymous people storming the Winter Palace and two stone lions standing up on their pedestals, or the Prime Minister oleaginously addressing the House of Commons and a pile of bodies in a ditch in Iraq. By putting two (or more) separate ‘things’ next to each other and inviting people to look at them together, one is not necessarily asking or trying to answer the question ‘why.’ A poem may cause someone to ask a question or to initiate a line of reflection, or even to develop some hypothesis or theory, but then a clap of thunder or a sudden pain in the chest may do the same — that does not make either the pain or the poem a theory or a ‘line of argument.’ A word in a good poem is not a concept. Since neither a picture nor a poem is an argument, neither is a suitable object for counterargument.”

This is certainly what I try to do with you most weeks. I invite you to consider this poem or that reading; to observe this picture and that text; I try to put things together that don’t normally go together and invite you to tell me what emerges for you. Of course, along the way, I will often tell you what emerges for me but, regardless of what shows up for me, at the end of my talk, if it’s been good enough, the juxtaposition of the readings and/or pictures are “still standing there, waiting” for you and, to reiterate, it’s not my role to do all the thinking and work for you and to tell you what you must do in terms of creating either your own philosophy of life or politics. The invitation to consider the things I’ve placed before genuinely remains and, as Geuss notes, “You can’t refute an invitation (although you can refuse it, closing your mind and heart to it): it makes no claim.”

As an ordinary member of the congregation I can’t but help living my own life and committing to this or that philosophy or political action and, by so doing, to be making certain implicit and explicit claims. After all, as an individual I, like you have to live in a world without why and I do this by committing to a certain kind of Epicurean, Nietzschean inspired religious naturalism and, inspired by that to engage in certain kinds of leftist, communalist political activity. But, in their details, these are my own responses to a world without why and they are ones I know I am highly unlikely to persuade all of you to share with me all of the time. “In my dreams, cupcake” I have to remind myself again and again — (though I have to say I always keep my dreams alive).

So, to conclude, as your minister, at the back of it all, it seems to me that my initial, primary practical task is not precisely to persuade you to adopt my own religious naturalist philosophy and communalist politics but to make an invitation — in particular the invitation to observe, look at or consider something and to encourage you to develop your own philosophical and political responses to what you see. I tell you my responses not simply because I have them and think that, on balance they are right enough, but because it is important to show how the invitations to consider "this" and now "that" effect the only person I really know anything about, me. This is intended to play a role in getting a conversational ball rolling because I firmly believe in the truth of the words by Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) that I print every week on our order of service:

Conversation as the natural organ communicating, mind with mind . . . is the method of human culture. By it I come nearer to those whom I shall address than by any other means.”

What you, both as individuals and as a corporate body, are to do philosophically and politically with the invitations I offer here, and the conversations which follow, is always up to you to figure out both alone and through this community’s shared, democratic activity.