The Flight of the Phoenix — or what can be done to prepare for a future, post-COVID-19, time?

In the current crisis, or rather set of overlapping crises, caused or exacerbated by the pandemic, everything we are and do is effected. To be sure there are individuals who, and institutions which, are suffering way more than others — and those discrepancies need to be acknowledged and acted upon — but, without doubt, for everyone, what once was is now either no longer or, extremely likely soon to be no longer. We can all see that businesses of all kinds, including theatres, music venues, shops, pubs, restaurants, factories, cinemas, holiday companies and airlines are all being threatened. Also on this list we must include, of course, religious and philosophical communities such as the very liberal one where I am minister. If, figuratively speaking, we take each of these collective ventures to be varieties of aircraft, then we may say that many of them have crashed, or are very close to crashing to earth and scattering its various occupants and components across a very inhospitable landscape. I realise that this is not an uplifting image to bring before you and, although I’m going to use the next few minutes to offer a narrative which offers us the prospect of moving on from this situation in a positive, if very modest way, the background to the picture I paint cannot be anything other than a challenging, frightening and depressing one. But, as the British Idealist philosopher F. H. Bradley (1846-1924) once wrote: “Where everything is bad it must be good to know the worst” (Appearance and Reality, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1893, p. x). 

With this thought in mind let me move closer to my very modest positive thought by recounting to you the basic storyline of a film made in 1965 which utterly captivated me as a child growing up in the 1970s called, “The Flight of the Phoenix”. Based on a novel written by Elleston Trevor, the film was directed by Robert Aldrich and starred James Stewart as Frank Towns, the captain of a twin engined Fairchild C-82 cargo plane.

Whilst Towns and a dozen or so other men involved in the oil industry are flying across the Sahara desert en route to Benghazi in Libya, they encounter a sudden sandstorm which shuts down both engines and forces them to crash-land in the desert. Those who were not killed instantly necessarily quickly turn their attention to the question of how to stay alive until rescue comes. Although they have a large quantity of dates on board they realise that, at best, their water will last for only a couple of weeks. When help doesn’t immediately come three of the crew attempt to walk to an oasis. Days later, one of them returns alone to the crash site and very near to death. Not surprisingly, despair threatens to set in. However, one among them, an aeronautical engineer called Dorfmann (played by Hardy Krüger), has the seemingly crazy idea that perhaps they can build another, smaller aircraft from out of the wreckage and fly themselves to safety in that. It may be a crazy idea but it helps them all begin to focus their remaining energy and hopes on something both possible and positive. However, as they proceed with their plan, Towns and his navigator Moran (played by Richard Attenborough) discover that Dorfmann designs model aeroplanes and not, as they had initially assumed, full-sized aircraft. Although Dorfmann insists that the principles are exactly the same, Towns and Moran are, understandably, horrified at the idea of attempting to fly an aircraft made by a man who, as they say, works with “toys”. However, without any other plan to follow Towns and Moran decide to press on without telling the surviving members of the crew about their discovery. As you might imagine much of the film’s impact is to be found in its exploration of the wild emotional ups and downs felt by the protagonists during their ordeal. All of that I leave aside for you to discover yourself and here I’ll simply jump to the end of the film when the, by now single engined, aircraft is finally finished which, with an explicit nod to the ancient Greek legend, they christen “The Phoenix”, after the mythological bird which obtains its new life by rising from the ashes of its predecessor.

After naming the aircraft a few more tense moments follow as they try to start the engine — they only have seven starter cartridges and the first four of them fail. Fortunately, the engines do start and the plane succeeds in taking-off by sliding down a steep sand-dune to help pick up speed. With the surviving crew tied to its wings, the Phoenix succeeds in flying to a near-by oasis where they experience both the ecstasy that comes with having survived something catastrophic and also, especially for Towns and Dorfmann, the consummating joys of reconciliation.

Now why do I tell you this story in the context of our current pandemic? Well, because it seems to me to be a parable that tells us exactly the kind of activity we need to be engaging in in connection with our various crashed, or soon to crash aircraft, and whether those aircraft are businesses or religious and philosophical communities such as our own. Many of these attempts will fail but some will succeed and, towards the end of this short talk, I will concentrate simply on what it is that I think needs to be done in this, specifically Unitarian, free-thinking, liberal religious community. However, as I do this, I trust that, in a very general way, it may stand as an example that can be applied more widely.

But let’s firstly look at three key things I think we can learn from the film. 

The first thing to note is that the Phoenix is built only by using the material and resources that are actually to hand in the wreckage lying about on the desert floor. That’s it. Nothing that isn’t already present and available to the crew can be drawn upon or used, no matter how much they would like any of those ideal things.  

The second thing to note is that the Phoenix is designed and built out of only the most important, absolutely necessary and still serviceable bits of the wreckage, and it is built only with the intention of carrying what the crew decide is the most minimal and most important payload of all, namely, themselves with all their own stories, dreams and values.

The third thing to note is that the Phoenix is not designed in their moment of crisis to be, in-and-of-itself, some permanent, beautiful, shiny, super-efficient, world-beating or new and innovative creation; it is a thing knowingly built using old, existing technology and knowledge simply to make a wholly pragmatic, short, emergency flight from out of the hell in which the crew currently find themselves so as to have a chance of finding another, temporary, but survivable abode at an oasis. It is only if and when they get there that, following a time properly to recover, regroup and rethink, they might then turn their thoughts engaging in some grander, innovative, longer-term project. 

Now, to begin to move in a modestly positive fashion towards a time of constructive conversation, let me run through these same three points but by explicitly connecting them to what it is I think our Unitarian community needs to do in this crisis.

The first thing to realise is that our own Phoenix can only be built using the materials and resources that are actually to hand and lying about us on the desert floor. This means that we need to look carefully around at all the scattered bits of our congregation’s former form-of-life to see what is actually to hand and still serviceable. We need to be aware that the shattering of our old aircraft may have brought to light certain formerly hidden materials and resources that we had either forgotten about or didn’t even fully appreciate were part of our old construction. A vitally important point to remember here is that we cannot proceed by relying on materials and resources that appear on any kind of ideal wish-list. Some lucky something or other may turn up whilst we are attempting to build our Phoenix but we cannot afford to make any plans that are completely dependent upon the turning up of that lucky something or other.    

The second thing to note is that our Phoenix can only be designed and built out of the most important, absolutely necessary and serviceable bits of our wreckage and only so as to be able to carry on a short flight what we decide is the most minimal and most important payload of all, namely, our own liberal, free-thinking religious traditions’ best and still serviceable motive powers,  dreams and values. For our own tradition they are those religious and philosophical practices which centre upon the two central figures I spoke about with you two weeks ago, namely, the wholly human Jesus and the Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates.

To remind you:

With regard to the human Jesus it is to build with and carry out of the desert a way of being in the world which is concerned to dissolve all of religion’s former supernatural, superstitious and apocalyptic ideas into a simple, if always challenging, existential, ethical demand for justice and love for all creation, right here, and right now. (Just to reinforce something very important here — please note that following the human Jesus need have absolutely nothing to belief in God as Julian Baggini’s new book, “The Godless Gospel, makes eloquently and very attractively clear.)

With regard to Socrates it is to build with and carry out of the desert a way of being in the world that helps people freely exercise their faculty of critical reason in seeking out new clues and empirical evidence about how the world is (and isn’t) and our current place in it.

In short, the human Jesus and Socrates are our tradition’s only available and still serviceable motive forces and pair of wings and, along with ourselves, they are also our most valuable cargo. Other kinds of crashed aircraft (whether businesses or religious communities) will, of course, have other kinds of available motive forces, pair of wings and valuable cargo. But it is their task, and not ours, to build a Phoenix out of those things. Our task is simply to build something serviceable out of the examples of the human Jesus and Socrates to help get ourselves out of the desert and to some kind of oasis for the work to come.

The third thing to note is that in this immediate moment of crisis our Phoenix need not be in-and-of-itself some kind of shiny, new, permanent, beautiful, super-efficient, world-beating or new and innovative creation. All that is required of us is to use our existing religious and philosophical knowledge to build some ad hoc form-of-life out of the materials and resources actually to hand. The question of what we might think about building later on is for later, if and when we have succeeded in flying to, and landing at, an oasis, and have had time to recover, regroup and rethink.

So, to conclude, although the form-of-life that is our freethinking, liberal religious community is highly likely to look significantly different in a post COVID-19 world to the way it looked like only six months ago, our job right at this moment is NOT to build that new thing. That’s a job for when, and if, we make it to the oasis. The job, right now, is simply to build our Phoenix, get it into the air with ourselves, the human Jesus and Socrates on board, and attempt to set a decent and ethical course that has some reasonable chance of bringing us to some kind of oasis. As to what may follow, only time and luck will tell. 

But right now, at least as far as I am concerned, we know what it is we must do: build and fly our Phoenix.



If you would like to join a conversation about this piece on Wednesday 21st October at 19.30 you can join a live Zoom event. Please note that the event will be recorded. 

Here’s the timetable:



19.30 - approx. 20.00: 

Streaming of the most recent podcast "Making Footprints Not Blueprints" <>

20.00 - 21.00: 

Questions to, and conversations with, Andrew James Brown moderated by Courtney Whalen Van de Weyer

21:00: Event ends 

Those of you who have already listened to the podcast and who only wish to join in the conversation are invited to login to the meeting at around 20.00.

Topic: Cambridge Unitarian Church Evening Conversation

Time: Oct 21, 2020 07:30 PM London

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