Henry Bugbee's "even strokes" and a ‘somewhat absolute’ in experience

Readings: Luke 14:28-30 and Acts 17:22-28

From “The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form”, University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 121-123

Tuesday, July 28th, 1953

I remember how my heart went out to William Carlos Williams when he prefaced the reading of some of his poetry with some remarks so genial and unassuming, so quiet, and so ordinarily phrased, that one might readily have missed what he was saying. It has just dawned on me what he was saying, after some two years. He was talking about listening to poetry, something like this: “Relax! relax. Enjoy it. Poetry is to be enjoyed. Do not try to make something of it. Don’t try to batter down the doors and take possession of it. Take it as it comes. Poetry is for pleasure. If one understands it in time, that will be fine!”
         What was he saying? It is conceivable that philosophy students wrote down in their notebooks: “has a hedonistic theory of value.” But I think he was saying for the benefit of the Protestant conscience in us, his autonomously-minded audience: “Sit still!” ... And it may be that some who have defended pleasure have wished to say as much.
         [. . .]
         We must see to it! We worry. We hurry along. We translate necessity into anxiety and effort, trying to take charge. We are swimmers flailing the water to keep from going down. We try frantically to swim in a relaxed manner, or taking relaxation to be inaction, go down like lead. We take everything that may be said of our condition as instruction on how to go about dealing with it, alert for the cues to success.
         Yet there are times when waves overtake us from behind, lifting us up and along; from these we may take courage and be thankful. But it is not always so. For we may claim as our own the power of the wave in the exhilaration of swift swimming, and this is demonic swimming, in which we suffer the illusion that we are not fallen into flailing: We have become the masters of our element.
         Then there is the even stroke informed by the sea that carries us all alike; a sea of which trough or crest are but undulations. Now and then we swim a few even strokes and know where we are.

Wednesday, July 29th, 1953

With that phenomenological image of the even stroke I felt that I was drawing near to the meaning of Thoreau's utterances on the theme of free labor. Steadiness and steadfastness are alive to the constancy of our being sustained. They guard against the illusions of elation and depression; such are the undulations of our sea while we ignore our being sustained.
         [. . .]
         I want to set down now one version of what it may mean to be in a true position: The sense of the sustaining sea is bound up with the sense of communion with all the creatures swimming or floundering in it, as may be. The joys and the sorrows deserving our affirmation are those in which we affirm our togetherness with fellow-creatures. These are true joys and sorrows, and as men have ever borne witness, they are true in their concrete understanding of reality and of our togetherness in reality.

—o0o—

ADDRESS
Henry Bugbee's even strokes and a ‘somewhat absolute’ in experience

On Wednesday ten of us shared an interesting conversation teasing out something of the differences that exist between hope and optimism. One thread of the conversation led me to introduce the thought contained in the passage you heard earlier written by the American, twentieth-century philosopher, Henry Bugbee (1915-1999).

The passage was particularly in mind because I was about to share it with my colleagues in the Religious Naturalist Association’s Clergy Group whose occasionally active online discussion forum I maintain and moderate.

I wanted to use it to help raise, and begin to answer, the question of what foundation for hope those of us who can no longer offer their congregations the traditional assurances of theism can still offer their congregations and communities. After all there always remains, as Jesus reminded us, the question about upon what sure (enough) foundations is a stable (enough) hope going to have a chance of being successfully built?

For me one of the most powerful and accessible religious naturalist expressions of upon what foundation one can build is offered up by Bugbee. As you will hear his foundation is a this worldly, experientially derived one that gifts us a steadiness and steadfastness in our going on and, therefore a secure (enough) place from which to continue meaningfully to do our do our work.

In his book, “The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form” (University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 121-123) in the entry of Tuesday, July 28th, 1953, Bugbee turns his attention to some genial, unassuming and ordinarily phrased advice given by the great poet William Carlos Williams, advice that could easily be missed. Indeed, Bugbee himself admits that it took him two years before what it was Williams was saying dawned on him. Here’s the passage once again: 

“Relax! relax. Enjoy it. Poetry is to be enjoyed. Do not try to make something of it. Don’t try to batter down the doors and take possession of it. Take it as it comes. Poetry is for pleasure. If one understands it in time, that will be fine!”

In a nutshell Bugbee thinks this was a gentle call our wider cultures generalised, ever busy, ever worried, ever individually striving Protestant work ethic type conscience to “Sit still!” and to take some kind of pleasure (or at least accept) whatever comes along regardless of whether we fully understand it in the here and now. (Bugbee acknowledges in a number of places his debt to Zen thought which, of course, values highly sitting still. Indeed, in the early 1950s he traveled with D. T.  Suzuki (1870-1966) whose work was instrumental in spreading interest in Zen to the West.)

But we who have grown to maturity in a generalised Protestant work ethic culture don’t really understand stillness and its potential power not least of all because, again as Bugbee observes “We must see to it! We worry. We hurry along. We translate necessity into anxiety and effort, tying to take charge.”

It is at this point in proceedings that Bugbee introduces the image of swimming saying that — in our Protestant mode — in all this activity we are somewhat like swimmers flailing in the water to keep from going down. When, in this situation, we hear the call to sit still, to take things as they come, we often do one of two things. The first is to try frantically to swim in a relaxed manner; the second is to think that being still, taking things as they come, is really a kind of total inaction and so we stop swimming and go down beneath the waves like lead.

But, he reminds us, these two options don’t leave much space for us to notice that “there are times when waves overtake us from behind, lifting us up and along”, waves from which “we may take courage and be thankful.” “But”, he continues, “it is not always so.” There is in us always the hubristic temptation to think that such waves are really our own, autonomous doing, and we foolishly claim the power of the wave to be our own. This is, Bugbee suggests, “demonic swimming, in which we suffer the illusion that we are not flailing.” This is a time when we are seduced into thinking “We have become masters of our element.”

Me cycling on the Lodes Way. Photo by Keep Pushing Those Pedals
In my own younger life I came to know this phenomenon from cycling and often at this very time of year. Finally a sunny and warm enough day comes along and I set off on my first long ride of the season. I’d find myself bowling along at a lovely eighteen to twenty miles an hour and in the exhilaration of easy speed I’d totally forget that I was, in truth, tired and significantly out of condition after a winter spent off the bike and mostly inside. It was only when, after a pleasant lunch, that I’d turn the bike around to make my return and discover a  surprisingly strong wind hit me full in the face. And so I'd flail all the way home sadly reflecting on the fact that I was far from being the master of this element. It was during those return rides that I first discovered the need to work hard at ensuring I didn’t succumb to a kind of demonic cycling.

Anyway, this basic thought leads Bugbee to the final paragraph of the July 28th entry when he articulates something vitally important:

“Then there is the even stroke informed by the sea that carries us all alike; a sea of which trough or crest are but undulations. Now and then we swim a few even strokes and know where we are.” 

He realises that if a person can learn to stop flailing the water and be still, not by stopping entirely so as to sink, but by taking occasional, even strokes then we can come to know where we are.” But where are we?

Well, on the following day, Wednesday, July 29th, 1953 this “phenomenological image of the even stroke” helps Bugbee begin to sense, as he says, that “[s]teadiness and steadfastness are alive to the constancy of our being sustained. They guard against illusions of elation or depression; such are the undulations of our sea while we ignore our being sustained.”

The point is that if we can learn to take even strokes, to be still in this sense, we suddenly notice that we are in a sustaining sea.

Bugbee then goes on to make a number of associated observations, all of which could individually be followed up fruitfully, however, all of them help Bugbee move towards this paragraph were he offers a tentative summary of his basic insight.

“I want to set down now one version of what it may mean to be in a true position: the sense of the sustaining sea is bound up with a sense of communion with all the creatures swimming or floundering in it, as may be. The joys and the sorrows deserving our affirmation are those in which we affirm our togetherness with all creatures. These are true joys and sorrows, and as men [and women] have ever born witness, they are true in their concrete understanding of reality and of our togetherness in reality.”   

The sea has become here a metaphor for the sustaining quality of an unknown something, that using the language of theism St Paul calls the unknown God, a something in which we live, move and have our being.

And it is here, I think, that we reach the heart of the matter and it is one that begins to look and feel to me like a classic Unitarian and Universalist heart — namely, as the eighteenth century Universalist George de Benneville (1703-1793) put it, it is an expression of our communities strong historic intuition or belief that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things which sustains everything. It is a strong, foundational primordial sense, that we humans, animal vegetable and mineral swimming or floundering really are somehow all in this something together — in communion, in community — always-already sustained, lifted up from behind and carried along by the wave that is mysterious ineffable being, without beginning or end and certainly not ours ever wholly to know or control. 

This interdependent unity, this ineffable something was spoken of by one of the most important religious naturalist Unitarian theologians of the twentieth century, Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975), in the following way. It is important to realise as you read this passage to notice that Wieman capitalises the word “Something”:

“Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however, unknown, does certainly exist” (Religious Experience and Scientific Method, Macmillan, 1926, pp. 9).

However, it is very important that having sensed, with some certainty, the existence of this mysterious, ineffable "Something", this sea of being without beginning or end that sustains us in our highs and lows and which roots a real steadiness and steadfastness, we must not, absolutely must not then go on to reify it.

Reify it?! What on earth is that?

Well, reification is to turn something that is by definition ineffable into something real or concrete. But the trouble is, the moment you turn an ineffable God into an effable one, into a thing that you believe can become an object of knowledge, define and control, then you’re in big trouble — what you quickly get is, to pick up on a word used earlier by Bugbee, a demonic religion. At that point the whole panoply of horrible, dangerous old school religion returns into play with its theologians, priests, doctrines, true faith and much else and all of which crowd out once again the possibility of direct personal experience of and encounter with the world.

It is vitally important then to ensure that this “Something” of Weiman’s is not reified and here Bugbee once again comes to the rescue. My philosopher friend, Ed Mooney, who knew Bugbee personally and who has written very movingly about him in a companion volume to Bugbee’s “Inward Morning”, notes that Bugbee’s “ethical reflections hold out for a ‘somewhat absolute’ in experience.”

All of Bugbee's reflections we have heard today are ethical ones, they are about us, about being in relationship with ourselves and with other people and creatures. Do please fix in your minds the powerful paragraph which concluded our reading. Here it is again:

“The sense of the sustaining sea is bound up with the sense of communion with all the creatures swimming or floundering in it, as may be. The joys and the sorrows deserving our affirmation are those in which we affirm our togetherness with fellow-creatures. These are true joys and sorrows, and as men have ever borne witness, they are true in their concrete understanding of reality and of our togetherness in reality.”

And here I may conclude by returning to the question that lay at the beginning of this address concerning what foundation for hope those of us who can no longer offer their congregations the traditional assurances of theism can still offer their congregations and communities?

It turns out that the "God" or "foundation" I can offer, if one wants to continue using this word — and I’m happy to do this although always with caveats — may best be talked and thought about, not as “Something” absolute but as a “Somewhat absolute in experience.” It is a foundation for genuine hope that is found, not in the transcendent, all-powerful, all-seeing, all knowing God of old, but only in an experiential, grounded sense of being always-already sustained together with all things and, with them, being in some kind of felt relational bond. It is this that gifts us with, steadiness and steadfastness and also, as my friend Ed says offers, us “a solid fulcrum on which action and understanding can be raised.”

So my friends, let's find ways to practice together taking even strokes, even strokes . . .
 
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