Spiritual Values and Negative Capability

Photo of Paul Wienpahl in his Zen Diary (1970)

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation


Last week I brought before you the dilemma that faces any genuinely liberal, inquiring and free religion, namely: that even as, at key moments in its practice, it must be philosophically pragmatic — encouraging it’s adherents regularly to ask the question of whether or not this religion’s beliefs and practices remain helpful and can continue to be held with a clean heart because there is enough evidence either to support them or, at least, to not rule them out of court as plainly false — it must also, and primarily, be a religion that can be held by the same person with full belief or pathos.

But liberal religious traditions today are everywhere in real trouble because they continue to struggle to address the profound motivational deficit caused by the difficulty of moving from pragmatic knowledge about the world (of which it has lots) to some actual, living, existentially committed religious faith and understanding concerning the meaning of our life and our place in the world (of which it has little).

Now, having finished writing my piece for you last week, I went back to an essay written in 1966 by one of the most important thinkers in my own theological/philosophical development, Paul Wienpahl (1916-1980), who experienced exactly this problem. The essay is called “Spiritual Values in a Scientific Age” and, should you wish, you can download a copy of it at this link.

Although he was an active and committed member of the Episcopalian Church until the age of eighteen, by the time he began to teach after 1945 he was calling himself a Logical Positivist and had been deeply influenced by Philosophical Pragmatism. However, sometime in the mid-1950s, something happened. He tells us:

“But then, quite beyond my control and even unwanted, something or things else began to creep into my life. These manifestations were numerous and I shall not begin to catalogue them. I had children and learned from them that environment is not as important as I used to think. I began to feel sorrier for other persons than I had before. In moments of exhaustion I would find myself weeping for this friend and that acquaintance. Then I made an important step. I realized that I was not weeping for them. My tears were for myself. The more success I had in life, the higher I mounted the rungs of my profession and the more articles I published, the greater the need for tears. I wanted not to admit that there was emptiness in my life. For those who know the story of Job, mine was an ancient history.”

What he discovered was that he had not been able to transform his scientific and philosophical knowledge into understanding and religious faith and commitment.

During this time of crisis, he didn’t abandon the insights he’d gleaned from the logical positivists and pragmatists but, he tells us, he could suddenly see that what they’d been really been saying, namely, “that science is a means of controlling our environment.” And he goes on:

“I had thought, you see, that Science (from the Latin scio, to know) is knowledge. That is, that the ultimate understanding of the world comes in science. But now I realized that science does not give understanding. It gives control. It enables us to navigate, to build bridges, to cure disease, but science does not provide understanding.”

This caused Wienpahl to reassess an idea that, in Europe anyway, had arisen during the Middle Ages, namely, the doctrine of “twofold truth” in which the two ways to truth are faith and reason. As he notes, “[a]t first it was said that, if the two conflict, we must follow the lead of faith.” But, as he goes on to observe, in time “the emphasis was . . . reversed and in the age of positivism the way of faith came under ridicule (if mentioned at all), and the way of reason was held to be the only way.”

However, Wienpahl’s crisis helped him “appreciate the doctrine of twofold truth in a new way.” He found that we humans “have an inner as well as an outer life; a spiritual as well as a biologic, political, social and economic life.” And, as he notes, “the poets came to be of more assistance to me than contemporary technical philosophers.”

It is at this point that Wienpahl became more and more concerned “to inquire more deeply into the nature of religion and, therefore, of spiritual values.”

In Wienpahl’s life this inquiry was primarily undertaken through Zen Buddhist practice — indeed, he went to Japan to study Zen for six months and wrote two books about it (HERE and HERE) — and also through the, not unrelated, religious philosophy articulated by Spinoza. Wienpahl also wrote a very important book about him called “Radical Spinoza.”  

Wienpahl tells us that what he quickly came to learn was that “there is a tremendously important difference between the practice of religion and a religion” because the practice “includes a quiet, regular, disciplined and ascetic life. It implies detachment from worldly affairs and things.”

And it was this realization that finally helped him to articulate what he thought were the spiritual values for which he had been seeking, namely, “quiet strength, simplicity, tranquillity, detachment from material things.” Values, I should add, that he found as much in Zen Buddhism as in Spinoza’s religion.   

Following Wienpahl’s personal crisis mentioned a moment ago, it was to these values that he discovered he had no choice but existentially to commit — he could do no other — and it was this commitment that began to bring into his life meaning and give him an understanding of his place in the world that could sit alongside the knowledge he had gleaned from the natural sciences and his study of Logical Positivism and Philosophical Pragmatism. Wienpahl had realized that:

“Religion does not concern the relation of the soul to God, though by some people, the Christians, religion is talked about in this way. (In the Buddhist religion, or at least one sect of it, we are told that there is no God and that we should abandon the idea of the self or the soul.) Religion has to do with that other part or side of our lives. We are being religious when we are being alone with ourselves. We can be alone and be with others. The ‘other world’ of which all religious people speak is this world. Being religious, being in the so-called other world, is simply being in this everyday world in the religious way, the quiet way. There is nothing mysterious about it. It seems mysterious only because so few have practiced it.”

And it is this point of Wienpahl’s that brings me to my own point today because his words are an expression of why, during and after the pandemic, the centre of gravity of our Sunday Service has moved away from the minister’s address to a time of mindful meditation. This short address continues to have its place in so far as it contributes in some fashion to our knowledge about how the world is, but it is entirely secondary to the work of quiet work of meditation through which we truly come to understand life’s meaning and our place in it.
I have become ever more convinced that liberal religion’s greatest mistake has been to think that it can move a person from the pragmatic, knowledge and evidence-based side of its practice to the existentially committed side of its practice connected with religious understanding, by relying solely upon ratiocination, i.e. the process of making judgments about something based on sensible thinking or logic.

I now think that’s profoundly wrong. What liberal religion needs fully to realize is that ratiocination always runs out at a certain point, and that the deep, religious understanding of life we are all seeking will always lie outside ratiocination’s purview. Liberal religion needs urgently to reconnect with what the poet John Keats (1795-1821) called our “negative capability” through the employment of which we are able — with quiet strength, simplicity, tranquillity and detachment from material things — to “remain in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

And, lastly, even after all the available evidence is in, and the critical investigation and talking has been done and has become scientific and philosophical knowledge, we will still need to sit down, every day, with quiet strength in meditation for only there does meaning and understanding eternally spring forth.