The Subtle Deer meets Jesus & Socrates

Katsushika Hokusai, painted c. 1840-1850

A podcast of this piece can be heard by following this link

In recent weeks I’ve been trying to show various ways by which, and why, I think both our own liberal, democratic European and North American culture in general — and its liberal religious, Judaeo-Christian traditions such as the Unitarian one to which I belong — can confidently reconnect with its two major religious and philosophical fountainheads, namely, the human Jesus and Socrates. The need to do this is particularly pressing at the moment because it is clear the wise, reasonable, loving and just ways of proceeding that — at our culture’s best anyway — have both been drawn from, and watered by, these two fountainheads, are now under many, many political, religious, economic, financial, ecological and epidemiological pressures. I should add that the felt intensity of this pressure has been exacerbated by our own neglect in nurturing, protecting and promoting these fountainheads in both the private and civic domains of our culture’s collective life. 

However, I am acutely aware that the temptation in such pressing moments is to try to make any kind of “return to tradition” as thick, or maximal, as possible, in the mistaken belief that such an approach will provide us with the most effective defensive wall.

But, one of the things our culture as a whole values extremely highly is openness to new evidences and insights and the freedom to employ our faculty of critical reason on these same evidences and insights so as to be able to change our minds/opinions when we need to. 

Consequently, one significant problem is that all thick and maximal returns clearly opens up the possibility that we’ll simply end up returning to too many of the old philosophical and religious dogmas and creeds that, within Christianity and Platonism, became wrongly and problematically attached to the names, ideas and ideals of the human Jesus and Socrates. 

In short, which ever way you cut it, it is almost always the case that projects claiming to “return to tradition” — even when they are intended to protect liberal, democratic and rational ideals — are likely to imperil that same freedom and openness and, in the end, only serve to steer our culture in an increasingly illiberal, anti-democratic and anti-rational direction. 

So, to be clear, from where I am standing, any return to tradition which helps restore in a substantive, creedal or doctrinal way the Christian religion and Platonic philosophy would, ultimately, be a disaster for us. Whatever is required must assuredly remain heretical to its open-minded and open-hearted core.

So, if the project is not about restoring Christianity or Platonism then what is it I am hoping to achieve when I suggest European and North American liberals should, with the utmost seriousness and urgency, consider making a confident return to the human Jesus and Socrates as providing them with their best models of how best to be in the world? 

Well, an important thing to note is to remind you that the project I’ve been outlining over twenty five years of professional ministry, and now, in this first series of podcasts, is an extremely minimalistic one. 

In the first instance, it is important to realise that this minimalist project does not rely, in any fashion, upon belief in God. It doesn’t doctrinally rule out the possibility of traditional belief in God — that would be to close down a still unproven, if rather unlikely, possibility way too soon — but it most assuredly seeks to make it clear that belief in God is neither central, nor necessary, to the project.     

In the second instance when I talk about returning to the traditions of the human Jesus and Socrates it is vitally important to remember it is a return only to two very minimal presentations of them as models worthy of imitation. 

With regard to the human Jesus it is to learn from him a way of being in the world which is concerned to dissolve all of religion’s former supernatural God-talk, superstitious and apocalyptic ideas into a simple, if infinitely challenging, existential, ethical demand to show justice and love to our neighbours, enemies and all creation, right here, and right now. 

With regard to Socrates it is to learn from him a way of being in the world which helps people, through the disciplined employment of the Socratic method, freely to 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.

That’s it. No more, nor any less.

Naturally, individual people and local communities, to more or less greater degrees, will always make their own images of Jesus and Socrates thicker than these minimal ones. But it is vital to the success of the collective project that these thicker images should never be imposed on everyone, everywhere as being either central, or necessary.

OK. But now I need to offer you an accessible and memorable picture of how these two minimalist strands might be understood to be woven together so as to provide a defence of secular, liberal, democratic European and North American culture and which does this in a fashion that preserves for us an appropriate, sturdy, structured way of remaining open to difference and new evidences and insights.

To do this I want to turn to a short, powerful poem by the contemporary poet, essayist, and translator, Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953).

“The Supple Deer” by Jane Hirshfield

The quiet opening 

between fence strands 

perhaps eighteen inches.

Antlers to hind hooves,

four feet off the ground, 

the deer poured through it.

No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.

I don’t know how a stag turns 

into a stream, an arc of water.

I have never felt such accurate envy.

Not of the deer—

To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.

[This poem can be found in her wonderful collection, Come, Thief (Knopf, 2011). I highly recommend it.]

Hirshfield begins by presenting, in a very minimal, almost calligraphic, brush-stroke way, the two characters who will play out before us an exquisite, miniature drama. The first is the wire fence, the second, a supple deer — a stag.

    The quiet opening 

    between fence strands 

    perhaps eighteen inches.


    Antlers to hind hooves,

    four feet off the ground 

These characters meet in the event when the deer suddenly pours through the wire fence leaving not even a scrap of hair as evidence this had occurred:

    the deer poured through it.


    No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.


Now, if you have ever been privileged to see this happen you will know it occurs so fast and fluidly that, like Hirshfield, there is no time fully to comprehend how such a large and substantial creature like a stag

    turns into a stream, an arc of water. 

Like Hirshfield, in that mobile, moving moment of heightened wonder, we, too, may feel envy.

On my first reading of the poem this comment somewhat jarred because envy is strongly felt to be a problematic emotion. So why on earth, in this extraordinary moment, does Hirshfield seem to sully things by using the word “envy”? And why, too, does she modify it with the adjective “accurate”?

I think she does this to remind us of a vital human reality, that although we don’t often like to admit it, envy always exists and plays a significant role in our lives in at least two distinct ways, namely, as inaccurate (false) envy and accurate (true) envy. 

In this specific case, an inaccurate envy for me would be to envy the deer’s own particular kind of speed, grace and suppleness. Although, as a fifty-five year old, through a mix of cycling, walking and Tai Chi, I try my best to keep up my own appropriate human kind of speed, grace and suppleness, it would clearly be inaccurate to envy the kind of speed, grace and suppleness the deer is capable of expressing because I am not, and never will be, a deer. 

An “accurate envy” on the other hand would be for me to become envious of something which I am not yet like but which I both can — and perhaps should — become more like. 

So, if I cannot become like the deer, then what can, should I, become like?  

Hirschfield answers this by employing what journalists or film-makers called a delayed drop, when she suddenly, and wholly unexpectedly, tells us her envy is “Not of the deer” — something which the poem’s title might have led us to believe was the case — but, my oh my, her envy is of the wire fence. In particular the wire fence’s ability 

    To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.

This epiphanal moment reveals the poem is only secondarily focussed on the deer and that its suppleness and largess is primarily functioning as an aid to seeing something else, something which is usually unseen, in the poetic image this is the wire fence. And as a poetic image the wire fence stands for the many often unthought about structures which everywhere shape, define and delineate all aspects of our world and which helps make us this and not that kind of thing, creature, or culture.

OK, now I can return to a consideration of the project with which I began this piece.

I would gently, but strongly suggest that the fence we should be appropriately and accurately envying is one our culture has, and may yet still make, out of the interwoven, strong, minimalist strands of the human Jesus and Socrates I presented to you earlier. 

By appropriately and accurately envying them, and then trying to imitate their basic actions and methods in a disciplined fashion, we find there is released in us what the contemporary philosopher, James C. Edwards, has called the two “sacramental energies . . . that used to be bound up in the stories of the gods”. They are: “energies for limitation in the face of hubris and for transformation in the face of complacency” (James C. Edwards: “The Plain Sense of Things – The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism”, Penn State University Press, 1997 p. ix).

Naturally, Jesus and Socrates individually offer us examples of both energies at work. But, particularly with regard to energies for limitation in the face of hubris, we find Socrates’ dialectical method reveals, again and again, that the energy which helps drive a person towards developing an appropriately humble and truly wise manner of living is found in the moment they discover they know they know nothing, or at least when they come truly to know — to borrow the felicitous turn of phrase by the poet A. R. Ammons which appears in the introduction to this podcast — that there is no finality of vision, that we have perceived nothing completely and that, therefore, and thankfully, tomorrow a new walk is a new walk. 

And, particularly with regard to energies for transformation in the face of complacency, we find Jesus’ example reveals, again and again, how this energy is accessed only insofar as we learn to respond to the radical, infinite, ethical demand to show love and justice to our neighbour, our enemies and all creation right here and right now, and regardless of what our often complacent selves and culture would often have us do — namely simply to walk by on the other side of the road.

When we willingly give ourselves up to the accurate envy of Jesus and Socrates’ what we also learn is that together they have, and may yet still create for us, a shared, wire-fence like, structure which helps meaningfully to shape and define how the world is and our place in it but which, at the same time, remains highly porous and open to the constant flux and flow of the world and so always capable of having “such largeness” and sacramental energies constantly pass through it to challenge our hubris and change us in the face of complacency. 

As I have noted elsewhere, and often, different cultures will, quite naturally, be able to weave their own porous fences out of different materials which they deem appropriate to their own histories and all my foregoing words simply serve to remind me — and I hope you — that own culture is clearly not the only one on the block and nor could it, and nor should it, be. 

However, having said that, I do wish strongly to claim that thanks to its very thinness and nearly-not-there-ness the minimalist form of liberal, democratic European and North American culture that I wish to promote and defend, still has great worth and, despite it’s many failings and real crimes through history, it continues to carry undischarged within it many things worth preserving and bringing to the common table and conversation of humankind. 

But, in the end — and in the spirit of Jesus and Socrates — I can do no more than simply invite you to consider this claim further and to invite you into a conversation about it.



If you would like to join a conversation about this piece on Wednesday 4th November at 19.30 GMT 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 19.50

Topic: Cambridge Unitarian Church Wednesday Evening Conversation

Time: Nov 4, 2020 07:30 PM London

Meeting ID: 868 7261 6081

Passcode: 827730


Anonymous said…
I found this post very enjoyable to read. For me, the imagery of deer and (deer) fences always connotes the Highlands of Scotland, particularly that majestic desolation of coastal Sutherland where I used to go on angling holidays. And then I find myself led on to the issue of desolation. Those among us who might have seen any kind of desolation in their world may have experienced that solace which can be found in the formation of one’s very own self-nurturing bubbles. And these amniotic bubbles which can often form about oneself during what feels like an eternal pregnancy of their world’s labour can be such nurturing places. But how fragile this membrane between a man and his world can be! Keeping with the Scottish analogy, the bite from a single passing midge is often sufficient to burst the barrier. There is no grounded, long-lived, or permeable barrier here, just a short-lived, ephemeral, and radiant brittleness. But before that point of extinction: a wild, abundant preponderance living alongside a solitary moment of time; and like the first proper spring evening hatch of Mayfly upon the loch: almost futile but just enough of a step from pointlessness to be captivating and beautiful.

Before the passage of the deer or the midge, is the one type of enclosure any more real than the other?
Dear Anon,

Thanks for taking the time to write. Much appreciated. I have been through Sutherland a couple of times but have only ever stayed -- and in fact fished, though I am not a fisher -- in Caithness. I was up there delivering a lama (it's a long story!). Anyway, I can resonate with where you have imagined the poem to be taking place.

I was particularly struck by your last point and it reminded me of something Wittgenstein noted in his Philosophical Investigations:

§18. Do not be troubled by the fact that languages (2) and (8) [languages W. has spoken about in earlier paragraphs] consist only of orders. If you want to say that this shews them to be incomplete, ask yourself whether our language is complete;—whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.

Thanks again for writing.

Every best wish,