Sunday, 23 November 2014

Belief-in, belief-that and faith — Kierkegaard and "Where's Wally?"

Søren Kierkegaard
One of the last lengthy, valuable and in depth conversations I had with my friend the philosopher of religion, Jonathan Harrison, before he died earlier this year was about faith. He always wanted to make a distinction between faith and belief and felt I didn’t talk enough about faith. In fact I agreed with him on this point but, I told him, the reason I didn’t speak about it was that I wasn’t sufficiently clear about what was meant by the words “belief” and “faith”.

In terms of his own thinking about belief Jonathan was very influenced by his teacher at Oxford University during the late 1940s, a certain H. H. Price (1899-1984) who was at the time the Wykeham Professor of Logic. In so far as his work is still remembered, Price’s “best known” works were his 1969 Gifford Lectures collected together in a book called “Belief”. Jonathan would often point me towards a distinction Price made between “belief-in” and “belief-that”.
Wally being painted by Martin Handford 

Price thought belief-in was not empirical. That is to say belief-in was not based on the guidance of external evidence but was, instead, something like an inner conviction. A good, everyday example of this is the belief a parent might have in their child. John Byrne, writing on critical thinking for medical practitioners notes, “People can believe-in their children, meaning that they always consider them to be truly good people (even if their children have not demonstrated such qualities outwardly).” Byrne also adds these helpful examples of “belief-in”:

“People can believe-in an idea (such as democracy) without empirical evidence. One can believe-in a god or other supernatural forces even while acknowledging that such things may never, or could never, be proven. Most of us believe-in human rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech. Many believe-in freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.” 

“Belief-that”, however, is a very different animal. Byrne, again following Price, writes:

“Belief-thats can have measurable degrees of uncertainty. [So, for example] A meteorologist can believe that there will be a 70% chance of rain on Tuesday, based on observable facts today and applying scientific theory to come up with a prediction. When scientists use the words “believe” and “belief”, they are likely referring to believe-that and belief-that.”

Now, whilst it is impossible ever to be wholly free from some kind of belief-in, given the nature of this skeptical church tradition with it’s long commitment to the natural sciences, most of us here, when we use the word “belief”, are going to be using it primarily as “belief that” and we really should hold this in mind. I realise that to some this may seem overly technical and complicated but, as Price himself said,

“It is not trivial. Religious belief whether we like it or not is quite an important phenomenon. Those who have no religious belief themselves should still try to understand what kind of an attitude it is and they cannot hope to understand it unless they pay some attention to what is said by those who do have it.”

Living in an age when belief-in is coming back very much into play, whether it is the kind of belief-in of religious fundamentalists (of whatever religious flavour) or the kind of belief-in that is, for example, driving so much of the current murky politics concerning immigration or our involvement with, say, the European Community, we are becoming increasingly and acutely aware that this is not a trivial issue at all.

So let’s now turn to consider faith. However, this is not a turn that can be made without difficulty. This is primarily because most of us, coming from a generally Christian culture, tend to think of “faith” in terms of the famous passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews from which you heard an extract earlier and this text has come to be understood by most Christians — and Christian secular culture — as being belief-in something.

So, when the author of Hebrews said that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” the conventional Christian (theistic) believer will believe this refers to a list of propositions about those unseen things that they believe-in. Here’s an example of a typical list — I’ll just read the first four of eleven propositions of the things believed in that cannot be seen found in the Statement of Faith presented by the Cambridge University Inter Collegiate Christian Union (CUICCU):

We believe in:

  • The unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the Godhead.
  • The sovereignty of God in creation, revelation, redemption and final judgement.
  • The divine inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.
  • The universal sinfulness and guilt of human nature since the fall, rendering man subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.
  • etc. etc.

In this context notice that the word “faith” (remember it's supposed to be a statement of faith) "is clearly being used as a synonym for “belief-in” these propositions about unseen things, things which can be recited and listed and posted on a door or website or printed in red on a white shirt.

But, despite this common usage, is “faith” just a synonym for “belief-in” and is this really the insight the author of Hebrews was trying to pass on to us? Jonathan would certainly say no. Well, we can only have a hope of teasing out some kind of satisfactory answer if we can see that faith is something different from belief. The question is pressing upon me once again because the difference between belief and faith is so important to J. L. Schellenberg’s work to which I’ve started introducing to you in recent weeks.

Serendipitously, just a yesterday morning my friend, the philosopher Ed Mooney, read a paper at the American Academy of Religion meetings in San Diego at a session on Kierkegaard. His paper is a very accessible and moving piece which draws on his book “Excursions with Kierkegaard” and in it he asks, what is faith? Given the fact that “faith” is so often misunderstood as “belief-in” we can see why he begins by telling us the story we heard earlier:

“Let’s say we overhear a conversation about religious believers. The gist is that persons of faith are victims of massive self-deception. “Faith offers beautiful beliefs. God is perfect goodness; he grants forgiveness, and immortality. These are pipe-dreams, lovely thoughts, but nonsense.” The chatter continues: “There’s a simple reason why believers don’t see the nonsense of their lovely beliefs. They shield against the realties of cruelty, suffering, and death. The believer,” we’re happy to learn, “clings to these lovelies to blot out what are really ugly facts of life.” In some corner of consciousness, the believer, it seems, knows death is final, and only half-believes that God exists, and half-believes that God’s at fault for letting evil and injustice win. The believer, we’re told, is in the sad business of manipulating her belief as part of a massive cover up” (From It’s Impossible: Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith can’t be self-deceptive by Edward F. Mooney).

Whenever faith is understood like this, as part of a massive cover up, it is no surprise that in a place like this we get mighty nervous about using the word. It was this concern that certainly stopped me from talking about faith and which ultimately triggered Jonathan’s probing comment. But there is another way to understand what faith is and here’s a story that Ed uses to bring it out:

“Imagine a moment in ice dancing when the male releases his partner, throwing her into a leap (or letting her leap?) – and then watching as she lands. Or stumbles. If she falls, she does not return. But he has faith he will get her back. She spins full circle, and drifts back into her partner’s arms. Faith is the openness to contingency of an initial leap and trust in abiding this initial loss and separation – one trustingly awaits her return, assured one will gracefully get her back. Faith is action and release, and receptivity to the gift of return.”

The dancer has faith (believes-that) the partner they have just thrown into a leap will come back into their arms.

Following Kierkegaard, Ed points out then, that faith is a double movement, namely, that “of giving up and getting back”. As he says:

“For the ballet dancer, it’s the leap up (resigning the security of the floor, letting go) and the trust that a safe landing awaits (she’ll get the oak-floor security back, transformed).  The dancer leaps with composure and courage and lands with openness and trust. Trust refuses to let the possibility of disaster have the last word. . . . Faith is rich in ways of moving and being, of giving up and getting back.”

So to “track faith” — that is to find out what it is and to find out if Jonathan was right to encourage me to talk about it more often — I/we need to look around us for this double movement. We see it, Ed suggests, when we “look for love, unflappable assurance and steadiness of purpose, for courage”, for “vulnerability and humility” and always noting “the absence of self-righteousness or of shouting truth from the rooftops.” He also suggests we should keep an eye open for “the modesty of Socratic ignorance.” Ed concludes by saying:

“If it didn’t sound like a patter song, I say we find character, carriage, comportment, and composure — with a dash of care, courage, and commitment.” 

You can see that Ed’s patter song of c-words is very different from the list of propositions presented by the statement proposed by the letter “c” heavy CUICCU. Whilst you can post statements like this on a door or website or print it in red on a white shirt you can’t do this with a steady hand or a leap’s graceful descent because faith “concerns the marvellous movements, the ups and downs, of ways of being and becoming.” These are always living, new and changing things unique to this or that situation and person.

It should also be clear that the life of faith is a multifarious thing. It’s not only one narrowly defined thing — like that delineated by any kind of belief-in statements — instead it is a truly rich, moving, lively and incredibly plural phenomenon.

Herein lies, I think the wit of the cartoon strip you have before you (Source found here).

As I’m sure you know the “Where's Wally?” series of children's books by Martin Handford which challenge the reader to find a character named Wally who is hidden in picture along with hundreds of other characters. Of course, Handford uses all kinds of visual tricks to hide Wally but, in the end, Wally's very distinctive red-and-white-striped shirt, bobble hat, and glasses make him easy to recognise.

Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith”, on the other hand, is in some senses, much harder to recognise because he or she doesn’t a distinctive wear red-and-white striped shirt (which stands here as a kind as a visual equivalent to a list of propositions to believe in which can publicly be posted up somewhere). No, the Knight of Faith displays their faith very differently, namely in their steady hand and graceful leap, in their character, carriage, comportment, and composure, all topped off with a dash of care, courage, and commitment.

Faith understood this way can, in principle, be found in everyone everywhere — the Knight of Faith is, potentially anyway, everyone and everywhere. The knight can be the mother, the father, the shopkeeper, the train driver, the checkout assistant, the airline pilot, the engineer, the mathematician, poet, the dancer, musician, teacher, chemist, biologist, physicist secretary, footballer, doctor, librarian, translator, philosopher and even, at times, ministers of religion. It can, of course, also be found in Christian. Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Atheist and Humanist alike.

In the cartoon the difficulty of spotting the Knight of Faith is humorously revealed. He and she is there to find but only when we look well and hard enough through the double movement of faith — something beautifully and movingly displayed by so many people in their everyday lives.

I have a feeling that this might be something like what the author of Hebrews may have been pointing to in the last two verses of Chapter 11. Once upon a time people were promised easily recognisable things — simply propositions to believe-in. But the faithful, according to the writer of Hebrews, get something better, far better. Might he not be gesturing towards the thought that through the double movement of faith — of giving up and getting back — they gracefully receive the only life that can truly be their own, one that comes with a steady hand and graceful leap, character, carriage, comportment, and composure all topped off with a dash of care, courage, and commitment?

I imagine most members of CICCU will say to me that I am wrong in this and say that belief-in is the "something better". But that’s OK. Each to their own and I bear no-one any ill-will as long as their belief-in is not imposed forcibly upon me or anyone else.

But, as for me, I’m interested in finding, and in helping you to find, that “something better”. What we find won’t be able to be posted on a door or website or printed in red on a white shirt because, of course, it can only be expressed through your own faithful double movements “of giving up and getting back” — of trusting that disaster, darkness and failure need not have the last word.

Have faith my friends, have faith.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Jazz At The Movies play "Meglio Stasera" from the film "The Pink Panther" (1963)

L. to r., Joanna Eden, Alan Barnes & Chris Ingham
One of the bands I'm enjoying playing with at the moment is "Jazz At The Movies". Last month we played at the Mumford theatre, Cambridge, England, (10th October 2014) and the gig was recorded. Below you'll find a video of the band playing "Meglio Stasera" from the film "The Pink Panther" (1963).

The band is fronted by the wonderful singer JOANNA EDEN ("the UK's answer to Norah Jones and Diana Krall" TIME OUT) and presents material ranging from Bond to Bacharach, Dankworth to Disney, Porter to Pinter. The band has played successful shows at jazz clubs and venues throughout the country including sold-out appearances at London's Ronnie Scott's in 2012 and 2013, St James Theatre Studio, Wavendon Stables, Bury St Edmunds Apex, Pizza Jazz Club Soho, Colchester Arts Centre and many others.

In addition to Joanna Eden the band playing in the video is made up of Mark Crooks on clarinet, Chris Ingham on piano, George Double on drums and myself on bass.

The next gig, part of the band's A SWINGING CHRISTMAS! tour, is on Friday 5th December at St James Theatre in London. Details available at the following link:


Monday, 17 November 2014

A sunny day in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden with Susanna and Epicurus

To our surprise, when Susanna and I woke up this morning the sun was out. We seized the moment and walked across town to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. While we had a cup of tea in the café I read a little bit of Epicurus. Sitting there in the sun with my wife, who is also my best friend, one of his "Vatican Sayings" (No. 52) jumped out at me:

"Friendship dances round the world announcing to all of us that we must wake up to happiness."

Yes, indeed! Here are a few photos taken during our visit.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Religion for pioneers — another look at Schellenberg's "EvolutionaryReligion"

Christ's Pieces opposite the church this morning
Reading: Luke 512:54-56

One of the most powerful criticisms of the liberal religious movement to which this church belongs, with its roots in liberal Christianity and the Enlightenment, is that it is too lacking in content and way too skeptical to be itself a meaningfully sustaining religious approach. The most well-known popular version of this was found in the Simpsons. Many of you will recall it.

Homer and Marge’s children, Bart and Lisa are going to a church fête at which the Revd Lovejoy is to serve ice-cream. Lisa asks: “Ice-cream at church?” Bart immediately adds, “I’m intrigued, yet suspicious.” When they arrive at the stall Lisa looks at all the different ice-creams and says, “Wow, look at all these flavours, black-virgin berry, command-mint, bible-gum . . . “ but the Revd Lovejoy quickly interrupts and says, “Or, if you prefer, we have Unitarian ice-cream” and immediately hands Lisa a bowl. She looks confusedly into it and then back up at Revd Lovejoy and says, “There’s nothing here.” The Revd Lovejoy crosses his arms and simply says, “Exactly.”

To give you a more nuanced flavour of this criticism, no pun intended, here is an extract from John B. Cobb’s influential book from 1973 called Liberal Christianity at the Crossroads (Westminster Press).

The image I have chosen for the title of this chapter is an all too obvious one for church people in these times. Consider the crossroads at which we stand as liberal Christians in terms of decisiveness of commitment on the one hand and openness on the other. [. . .]
          At the crossroads we can choose the way to the theological right. In the years after World War I, Karl Barth, recognizing the bankruptcy of liberal Christianity, pioneered that road. He showed that the turn to the right theologically could support courageous movements to the left in the political and social spheres. [. . .]
          Even so, despite the power and value of what can be found on the road to the right, for many of us it is too late. We are committed to openness to the truth that comes from multiple traditions and new discoveries in the present and the future. We cannot reaffirm one tradition against the others. However valuable the symbols and memories of the Christian heritage, they can no longer encompass the whole to which we must be open. The road to the right involves a going back, in however sophisticated a form, and we are committed to going forward, open to all truth and value from whatever source it comes to us.
          Hence we are more attracted to the road to the left than that to the theological right. That, too. is a well-traveled road. But the record of its travellers is not entirely inspiring. They begin with a commitment to openness wherever it may lead. But commitment to openness as such does not provide a place to stand, a place from which to evaluate the many claimants for our attention and belief. Hence the road to the left leads to one of two ends. One may adopt the academic stance of openness to all and commitment to none. [. . .] Alternately, openness may lead to the full acceptance of some vital and persuasive movement or vision, an acceptance that en-grafts one into a new history but ends the openness to which he was first committed. For decades liberal Christian churches have supplied the universities with uncommitted intellectuals and each new social and cultural movement with many of its most dedicated followers. This is not a shameful record, but it shows that the road to the left holds little promise for the future.
          The image of the crossroads, unlike that of a fork in the road, suggests that there is a third way we can go. Straight ahead. But whereas the roads to the right and the left are easy to make out and have well-known destinations, the road ahead is more like a goat path up a steep mountain. Only a few Christian thinkers have explored that trail, and their reports are conflicting. We do not know whether at the top we may reach a new plateau for travel or only more rugged cliffs. Even so, I am convinced that as liberal Christians we are called to scale the slope ahead.
          We cannot do this if our liberal openness and our Christian commitment continue to be in tension with each other. Openness can be sustained only where it is grounded in a faith that justifies and requires it. But we can affirm Christian faith wholeheartedly today only insofar as it opens us to all truth and value. Openness and faith must be brought for us into a new relation of mutual support.

I was profoundly struck by John Cobb’s book when I first read it back in the late eighties and it elicited from me a personal promise to try to take the road ahead.

For reasons obvious to most of us I felt sure as I could be that the route to the right was not going to work. However, a significant problem before me, then and now, was that as a liberal religious movement we had, for the most part, already gone a long way down the route to the left and it was clear that along the way many of us had discovered to our cost that “commitment to openness as such does not provide a place to stand, a place from which to evaluate the many claimants for our attention and belief.”

By the time I entered the full-time ministry in 2000 I had seen many examples of where liberal ministers and/or churches (in all kinds of denominations) had taken one of the two options that became available on the road to the left. To recap, the first option was to adopt an “academic stance of openness to all and commitment to none” whilst the second tended to lead “to the full acceptance of some vital and persuasive movement or vision, an acceptance that en-grafts one into a new history but ends the openness to which he was first committed.”

Neither of these options seemed acceptable but, on entering the professional ministry, I realised the path straight-ahead was considerably steeper than I had imagined. For many people it was, and still is, a very difficult path to get up.

However, I want immediately to add that, forty years on, we can see that it can be done and, should you choose to take it yourselves, along the way you will now find an increasing number of helpful and supportive signposts and guides along the way.

And now I can bring you the headline good news, on getting to the top myself (if, indeed, I have . . .) I have found, as have many others, to borrow a phrase from Cobb, at the very least “a new plateau for travel”. Not only this but at the top one of the guides I met introduced me to a way to travelling  which I think successfully maintains a balance between “liberal openness” and, if no longer precisely “Christian commitment” (in terms of Christian belief), then at least a new and genuine kind of “religious commitment” that still allows us to take something forward from our inherited Christian tradition.

A Prairie Schooner 
To help you through what follows it’s worth keeping in mind the image of the early pioneers travelling across the North American. Back in February 2013 and June 2014 I also suggested that we might usefully think of our liberal church as resembling a prairie schooner — one of those iconic wagons with a white cloth cover that they used to make their extraordinary journeys. It is important to remember that, as large as they were, they could only carry a minimal amount of stuff — just the essentials and with nothing extra that might unnecessarily weigh them down and grind them to a halt. I want to suggest that for those of us who choose to take the path ahead we, like the pioneers of old, need to ensure we go light, very light indeed.

With this thought in mind I can now return to the work of J. L. Shellenberg to whom I introduced you a couple of weeks ago through his 2013 book, “Evolutionary Religion”, the penultimate chapter of which is called “Religion for Pioneers”. I do this because he is the guide who has offered me a very light, minimalist religion that seems entirely appropriate to the path ahead, one that balances openness and commitment.

Schellenberg, you will remember, wants to place everything in the evolutionary perspective — into the context of deep time. I’m choosing to re-tell the basic story now because, as the Harvard biologist and paleotontologist, Stephen Jay Gould put it: “an abstract intellectual understanding of deep time comes easily enough — I know how many zeroes to place after 10 when I mean billions. Getting it into the gut is another matter” (cited in Evolutionary Religion p. 3). This address is designed to help, in a small way, to get this perspective into our guts.

So, let’s remember, we live on a planet that is approximately 3.5 billion years old which has, all things being considered, a possible further billion years of existence before the sun gives out on us. Squeezed in between the deep past and the deep future lie us, who, as Homo sapiens, have only been around for about 200,000 years. Of this figure only 50,000 years have seen us producing what we can call distinctively human culture and only 6,000 years have seen us engaged in the kind of religious and philosophical thinking we inherit today. The history of the natural sciences is, by a considerable degree of course, even shorter still.

Is it likely then, Schellenberg asks, that our best religious and philosophical ideas are behind us? The answer, surely, has to be “No”. Is it also likely that the natural sciences have already discovered everything there is to know about the universe, it’s make up and operation? Again the answer is, surely, “No”. This means that in the areas of religion and philosophy, and in the natural sciences, we must acknowledge that we know very little indeed and should, therefore, adopt a properly skeptical attitude that is firmly committed to an openness to the possibility that for an almost unimaginable period of time to come “new light and truth” will continually be discovered and emerge.

At this point, you may be forgiven for thinking that this radical openness simply sounds like Cobb’s road to left only reached by a different route. But Schellenberg does not stop here for, like Cobb, he realises our need, not just for openness, but for commitment and, more specifically for something that we can call religious commitment.

Remember, for Schellenberg, any religion (at this early stage in our development) must live itself out by committing to three general assertions:

  • Firstly, that “Divine” reality needs to be “a more fundamental fact about reality than any identifiable natural fact”. (Metaphysical transcendence)
  • Secondly, that “Divine” reality’s splendour excellence and value also needs “to exceed that of anything found in nature alone” (Axiological transcendence)
  • Thirdly, that our relationship with “Divine” reality “will make for more well-being, fulfilment, wholeness, and the like for creatures than can be naturally attained” (Soteriological transcendence)  (Evolutionary Religion p.94).

The natural sciences, as we currently practise them, certainly buys into the possibility of the truth of the first of these assertions and so, on this very general level, there need be little or no conflict between science and religion. However, the way science is currently understood by many of its practitioners and advocates means that science is all too often co-opted by people  who want to rule out the possibility of the truth of the other two, clearly religious, assertions. But go back to Schellenberg’s point about being at an early stage of development, can the natural sciences really be said to have shown, confidently and absolutely, that we can rule out the possibility that there might be in the universe some, as yet, undiscovered fundamental value and/or wholeness and set of relationships? The answer is, of course, “No”.

But, at this point, please don’t misunderstand Schellenberg (or me) because it is also absolutely clear that neither can these things be confidently and absolutely ruled in. The point here is simple, at this early stage in our development, we can neither rule any of these three assertions in, nor out. We must adopt an appropriately agnostic and skeptical stance.

Again you may complain that is still sounds like the road to the left by another route — it’s all just openness, it’s all just an empty ice-cream bowl. But now let’s hear Schellenberg ask us an important question: How can we — at this early stage of our development — best find out whether these three assertions are true or false?

Well, we can begin to get to an answer by considering a very down-to-earth human example. Let’s go back to our image of the pioneers and imagine ourselves travelling across the open prairie in our wagon. Suddenly we come across someone walking alone whom we have never met and about whom we know nothing. How do we find out if we can trust them? After all, we think to ourselves, an extra pair of honest hard-working hands would be a wonderful thing. So, you pull up, stop, get down and begin to talk with them over coffee and beef jerky. They seem nice enough and during the conversation they assure you that they are indeed trustworthy, hardworking and will prove to be a worthy companion and help. But, as they stand there before you, you realise you have no way of finding out whether their assertions are true except by taking the risk that what she claims will turn out to be true. The best — in fact the only — way to find out is not to leave them behind on the prairie but to invite them to join you, to take them on board, in faith. Notice that I speak of having “faith” in, and not “belief” in, them.

Schellenberg suggest, given our early stage of development, that the situation is similar with regard to the three assertions I mentioned earlier. We cannot rule them out but neither can we rule them in and this means it’s way too early for us to believe they are all true because we simply don’t have the right kind of evidence to allow that.

But we can, at this moment in evolutionary time, choose to live faithfully with, and commit fully to, these assertions. It is important to see that we both can, and need, to make this commitment for good, rational and skeptical reasons because we know the only way to find out if the three assertions are true is to live with them for a while, to invite them, in faith, onto our prairie schooner. We can see it would be highly irrational and foolish, at this stage in our development, to leave them behind "on the prairie."

In short, what Schallenberg offers those who make it up the path to the plateau for further travel is “a form of religion appropriate to our place in evolutionary time” (Evolutionary Religion p. 4), one that lives ”on imagination rather than belief” and which “keeps open the door” to evolution in both cultural and physical terms (Evolutionary Religion p. 5).

I realise that for many people, Schellenberg’s skeptical, evolutionary religion for pioneers is going to be too thin and minimal, not least of all because it is a kind of religion that must not be thickened up into the kind of religion we have practiced until now — including even our own old beloved forms of liberal Christianity.

This doesn't mean, of course we have to let everything go. We can, for example continue to keep on board Jesus but only in so far as we do not take the heavy and thick "theological Jesus" but only the lighter, leaner human teacher, guide and companion. But, to my mind at least, that is sufficient unto the day.

To conclude today, I think it is worth remembering that Jesus seems once to have criticised people for being able to interpret the appearance of the sky but not the signs of the times (Luke 512:54-56). Let us not commit the same mistake and fail to see the signs of our own times which are beginning powerfully to reveal to us the extraordinary implications of deep, evolutionary time.

Our own times are surely saying to us: have faith only in the most simple, minimal and light religious assertions and let all the rest go. Only then will we have an appropriate religion for pioneers one capable of helping us humbly and faithfully setting out for perhaps a billion year long journey of discovery across the new plateau stretching ahead of us.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Our sentimental addiction to "Paths of Glory" — A Remembrance Sunday meditation

Edgell Rickword (1898-1982)
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

Trench Poets by Edgell Rickword, MC (1898-1982)

I knew a man, he was my chum,
but he grew blacker every day,
and would not brush the flies away,
nor blanch however fierce the hum
of passing shells; I used to read,
to rouse him, random things from Donne —
like ‘Get with child a mandrake-root.’
But you can tell he was far gone,
for he lay gaping, mackerel-eyed,
and stiff, and senseless as a post
even when that old poet cried
‘I long to talk with some old lover's ghost.’

I tried the Elegies one day,
but he, because he heard me say:
‘What needst thou have more covering than a man?’
grinned nastily, and so I knew
the worms had got his brains at last.
There was one thing that I might do
to starve the worms; I racked my head
for healthy things and quoted Maud.
His grin got worse and I could see
he sneered at passion’s purity.
He stank so badly, though we were great chums
I had to leave him; then rats ate his thumbs.


Archilochus (c. 680–c. 645 BC), the soldier and ancient Greek poet who is credited by some with the invention of the Elegy, wrote:

No man dead
Feels his fellows’ praise.
We strive instead,
Alive, for the living’s honour,
And the neglected dead
Can neither honour
Nor glory in praise.

(Fragment 231 trans. Guy Davenport: 7 Greeks, New Directions, 1995 p. 61)

“No dead man feels his fellows’ praise.” Indeed not. Not only this, of course, for no dead man feels any fear at the terrifying sound of passing shells and neither do they feel delight at the poetry of Donne, Gray and Tennyson, something Edgell Rickword found out whilst keeping company with his dead chum in a trench on the Western Front during 1918.

The leaders of nations, neither those of ancient Greece, those who held power during the two World Wars of the twentieth-century, nor our own present day politicians, have ever liked to admit this truth and the picture before you today allows us to see a perfect illustration of this.

In March 1918 an exhibition called “War” was about to open in the Leicester Galleries in London. It proved to be a very popular show.  Due to be included in the exhibition was this painting by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946).

"Paths of Glory" by Christopher R. W. Nevinson (1889-1946)
However, at the beginning of 1918 Nevinson was told by the official censor of paintings and drawings in France, Lieutenant-Colonel A . N. Leethat, that his painting would not be passed for exhibition. Nevinson ignored this but decided to display it but with the addition of a brown strip of paper stuck across it upon which was written a single word, “CENSORED”. For this he was reprimanded, not just for displaying the painting, but for using the word 'Censored' without authorisation.

The painting was entitled "Paths of Glory". The dark irony of these words is, I think, obvious, but the full weight weight and resonance of these particular words, especially when attached to this image, would have been far greater to our early twentieth century forebears than it is for many of us today. Why? Well, as some of you will already know the words come from Thomas Gray’s (1716—1771) once well-known “Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard” — a poem learnt by heart by countless children even into my own day. It was, as you have heard, the second poem that Rickword reads to his rotting chum.

Gray’s poem is a sustained meditation on what he feels he learnt whilst contemplating one night the "rude forefathers of the hamlet" who lay sleeping in their unadorned graves in a village church graveyard. The two stanzas particularly relevant to us today are as follows:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:—
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Gray sees like so many before and since, that death is the great leveller but he sees more than this. He sees, as did Archilochus, that the dead are not going to be moved by either our praise or honour. As Gray writes in a later stanza:

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

No, they cannot and it is this fact that has been central to my own Remembrance Sunday meditations in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War.

As I have observed the various centenary events so far — including the 888,246 ceramic poppies installed at the Tower of London — I have been left with a nagging feeling that, as moving and powerful as many of these events have been, they are too much about us, the living, and, as such, they are sentimental.

What I mean by this is best expressed by the philosopher Roger Scruton in his book “Culture Counts — Faith and feeling in a world besieged” (Encounter Books, 2007, p. 50) where he observes that:

“Sentimentality . . . is habit-forming. And those to whom it appeals are frequently unaware of its principal characteristic, which is that it is a pretence. Sentimental words and gestures are forms of play-acting: pretending to noble emotions while in fact being motivated in another way. Thus real grief focuses on the object, the person lost and mourned for, while sentimental grief focuses on the subject, the person who grieves, and whose principal concern is to show his fine feelings to the world. Hence, it is a mark of sentimentality that the object becomes hazy, idealised, observed with no real concern for the truth.”

Scruton’s words remind us of the stark truth that lies behind so many of the big public events surrounding the commemoration of the outbreak of World War One, namely, that the dead soldiers themselves become hazy, idealised and observed with no real concern for the truth.

Rickword and Nevinson are important artists because they do not succumb to sentimentality and they bravely and honestly bring  sharply back into focus those dead soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Please don’t mishear me at this point. I’m not here thoughtlessly to dismiss everything about our current public remembrances; nor am I making some hidden argument for a pacifism which is unable properly to honour the dead of war. Not at all, for though I often wish it were otherwise, I feel that old Ecclesiastes’ words remain for us, at least at this very early moment in our species’ development, painfully and depressingly true. There are, alas, still times to kill and times for war. I also find myself thinking that there remain  many significant moral and ethical values that should be defended by us — even unto death, even though exactly when and how this should be done is never simple nor clear. There is also still a time to speak of honour and to praise the war dead for their bravery and sacrifice made on our culture and society’s behalf.

But surely, surely, we must never let all these things that concern us, the living, obscure the real object of our remembering today, namely the dead themselves, the absolutely dead of all our human conflicts and who, as the Kohima Epitaph so powerfully says, gave their todays for our tomorrows.

Rickword’s poem and Nevinson’s painting help here because they are so effective at taking us away from fuzzy sentimental generalities that concern us to real individuals, the real object of our concern. Before us in Gevinson's painting are two of them now.

They have no more today . . .

no more tomorrows . . .

no more feelings of fear, that is true, . . .

but neither have they any more feelings of love and delight . . .

and no more ears to hear of honour, praise or poetry . . .

In referencing Gray, Rickword and Nevinson seem to me to be right in strongly suggesting that the paths of human glory have a disturbing tendency to lead us all too swiftly to the endlessly repetitive realising of the picture before us.

But, what continually disturbs me about so much of our public culture’s remembering is that it still seems to be encouraging us to continue to walk down paths of glory. Sentimental remembering is precisely what helps this state of affairs flourish and continue, and this is why we should be so openly critical of all such remembering.

It is sentimentality that obscures a central fact about war, namely, that it kills real living individuals. Millions upon endless millions of real living individuals. And, though an impressively large number, the 888,246 poppies are but the tiniest fraction of those killed in war. To be truthful to the truth the installation wishes to gesture towards, the sea of red would have to spill unstoppably out of the moat and into every home in the land, the commonwealth and, eventually, into the whole world and the homes of friend and foe alike.

The strange thing is we can only properly approach the truth the poppy installation seeks to reveal when we have courage to reduce these large numbers to ones and twos. Today I have tried to reduce it only to Rickword's chum, and to Nevinson’s two dead soldiers.

But this is a truth that is really still “CENSORED”.

I would venture to suggest that there may be no more fitting a way to remember the bravery and sacrifice of the war dead than for us to build a memorial made out of all the brown strips of paper that have been and still are used to obscure us to the brutal truth of war and to the dangers of our continued sentimental addiction to paths of human glory.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

A walk to Meg's Mount from Wandlebury along the Roman Road and a note about "divine hiddenness" and the "argument from non-belief" for atheism

Below are a few pictures from my walk yesterday from Wandlebury Country Park along the Roman Road to Meg's Mount.

Much of my thinking on the walk was connected with J. L. Schellenberg's powerful (and to my mind persuasive) argument from non-belief for the non-existence of a theistic God (I talked a little bit about Schallenberg's idea of Evolutionary Religion on Sunday). This argument appears in his 1993 book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason. You can also hear him talk about it in a short filmed interview found at this link.

Laid out in full it looks like this (taken from the wiki page Argument from non-belief).

  • 1 If no perfectly loving God exists, then God does not exist.
  • 2 If a perfectly loving God exists, then there is a God who is always open to personal relationship with each human person.
  • 3 If there is a God who is always open to personal relationship with each human person, then no human person is ever non-resistantly unaware that God exists.
  • 4 If a perfectly loving God exists, then no human person is ever non-resistantly unaware that God exists (from 2 and 3).
  • 5 Some human persons are non-resistantly unaware that God exists.
  • 6 No perfectly loving God exists (from 4 and 5).
  • 7 God does not exist (from 1 and 6).

Of course, this is not to say that "Divine reality" (Schallenberg's own term) may not be real and experienced by us but it is (very strongly) to suggest that this Divine reality is unlikely to be the personal God of theism.

It was with this thought in mind that I strolled along . . .

Entrance to the coppice wood on Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount

Sunday, 2 November 2014

If we are going to have faith that _______ to guide all our religious activities, what proposition should fill the blank? On an Evolutionary Religion

Autumn rain this morning outside the church
Immediately upon finishing this address at the breakfast able this morning I realised it was a kind of outplaying of a splendid "bon mot" by the Unitarian minister David Usher who, upon being asked whether he believed in God?, replied, "The short answer is no; the long answer is yes."



Psalm 42:1-5

From James C. Edwards: The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism (Penn. State University Press, 1997,  p. 231):

[John] Dewey was right: in our time the problem with supernatural religion is belief. However lovely and powerful the stories of the gods and their minions for us are, there’s just no way that they are “required, as a necessity requires.” To say that we can’t really believe in them is just to say that we aren’t now forced to; they are not any more for us “inevitable knowledge.” There are plausible—more plausible—alternative accounts of the phenomena upon which the supernatural has based its claims on us: in the public square, or at least in the college quad, genes now compete with gods, and win. For us full Pathos [impressiveness], full belief, comes only with an intellectual or artistic inevitability. Having put myself to the question with all the scruple I can muster, it’s only what I cannot help saying that seems genuinely true, and therefore capable of being believed and acted upon with a clean heart. That’s what we admire (surely on the whole naively) as the achievement of natural science.

From Henry Nelson Wieman: Religious Experience and Scientific Method (Macmillan, 1926, pp. 9-10):

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.
          Of course one can say that there are innumerable conditions which converge to sustain human life and that is doubtless a fact. But in that case either one of two things are true. Either the universe is a single individual organic unity, in which case it is the whole indivisible universe that has brought forth and now sustains human life; or else certain of these sustaining conditions are more critically, ultimately and constantly important for conditions are human welfare than are others. According to the first view God would be, or involve, the whole universe; according to the second he would be those most important conditions which, taken collectively, constitute the Something which must have supreme value for all human living. The word God, taken with its very minimum meaning, is the name for this Something of supreme value. God may be much more than this, but he is certainly this by definition. In this sense, with this minimum, God cannot be denied. His existence is absolutely certain. He is simply that which is supremely significant in all the universe for human living, however known or unknown he may be.
          Of course this statement concerning God proves nothing about his character, except that he is the most beneficent object in the universe for human beings. He is certainly the object of supreme value. Nothing is implied by this definition concerning personality in God; but neither is personality denied. In fact, personality is by no means a clear and simple term. But two things are made certain: his existence and the supremacy of his value over all others, if we measure value in terms of human need.  


Address: If we are going to have faith that _______ to guide all our religious activities, what proposition should fill the blank? 

On an Evolutionary Religion

One of the great gifts to us of the liberal religious tradition to which we belong is, as I have explored with you in other addresses, that of complete spiritual freedom.

Whilst it is true that we started our religious and spiritual journey in the sixteenth-century by promoting certain clear Unitarian Christian doctrines in contra-distinction to orthodox Trinitarian ones, as we have grown and matured we’ve have begun to see that these doctrines were simply passing, temporary side-effects of our ongoing desire to maintain this freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today. We are a classic example of a religious tradition that is open to evolution, evolution in every sense of the word.

It is important to realise, of course, that the gift is not of the freedom to believe whatever we like, rather it is the freedom to believe only what we can. As James C. Edwards noted it is the freedom religiously to affirm only those things in which we can have full belief (pathos) and a clean heart. The natural sciences form an important measure for us in this regard. However, we must not forget to factor into this the human imagination. Again, as Edwards notes, we are looking for a religion that is driven not only by the intellectual necessity that is provided by the natural sciences but by that which he calls “artistic inevitability” — the poetic and fictional stories and ideas which, when they can be interpreted in ways which don’t flatly contradict the discoveries made by the natural sciences, inspire and challenge us to live rich and meaningful lives.

But even the greatest of gifts, such as this one, are never simple and unalloyed because, even as they open up to us new and exciting vistas they also reveal new, hitherto unforeseen, problems.

Perhaps the chief problem that now exists for us is that we find ourselves in a beautiful and remarkable natural world but without any longer the powerful presence of an object of religious belief, let’s give it the name “God”, that can stand powerfully before us with intellectual or artistic inevitability.

This clearly poses a real challenge to any religious body, such as this one, which has fully come to accept that our old conceptions of, and beliefs about God, the divine and the sacred are simply no longer plausible. We can stuggle to fill in the blank that appears in the title of this address.

At this point I can begin to introduce you to a thought offered by the contemporary Canadian thinker J. L. Schellenberg (b. 1959) whose work has long been directed towards articulating something that he has called “skeptical religion” and which he thinks is compatible with atheism (and Shellenberg is clear that he considers himself an a-theist).

A key idea in his overall thinking is that when we change the way look at time and look into both the deep future as well as the deep past, we come to see that humanity may well be at a very early stage in our development as a species for, as he points out, it is possible that the Earth will remain habitable for another billion years. As you hear this figure bear in mind these words of Shellenberg’s from his book Evolutionary Religion (Oxford University Press, 2013):

“. . . one needs to think hard about the fact that the perhaps 200,000-year history of H. sapiens is wedged between three and a half billion years of development on one side — life’s past — and another billion on the other — life’s potential future. Consider especially the second figure. A billion years is a period of time ridiculously longer that the 50,000 years of thinking and feeling that, on a generous estimate, our species has put into religion so far. What developments in religiously-relevant thought and feeling might Earth see in so much time?” (ER p. 3).

Given this, for us, almost unimaginable time scale, Schellenberg  asks, why would we think that our best ideas – even ideas about religion – are behind us? Consequently, right now, at this early stage of our development, Schellenberg argues powerfully that we need a religion of a different sort from that which we have seen before.

I cannot in a 2000-word Sunday address properly unfold the richness of his thinking about this. For those interest it’s to be found in its most complete form in his trilogy (“Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion”, “The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism” and “The Will to Imagine: A Justification of Skeptical Religion”) but most accessibly in his book “Evolutionary Religion” published only last year (2013). However, I can bring before you what seems to me to be a discrete helpful thought about the kind of God that might, today, appear before us and in which we can have genuine faith.

Schallenberg wants us to consider what might be the appropriate *object* of evolutionary religion, i.e. a religion that is radically open to the real possibility that we are still in the earliest stages of our religious development. He asks:

“If we are going to have faith that _____ to guide all our religious activities, what proposition should fill the blank? Jews, Christians, and Muslims, for example, have traditionally professed faith that there is a loving and all-powerful personal God. What propositional counterpart can be suggested for evolutionary religion? Put otherwise, how should a bottom-line religious reality (or “Divine” reality, as I will sometimes say) be conceived by temporally contextualised religious beings? (ER p. 93).

That’s a big question, what proposition might we use to fill the blank?

But first we need to note that Schallenberg observes that any “Divine” reality needs to be “more” than our everyday world and life in three ways — he uses the word “transcendent” for this (though be aware that in his hands this this does not at the same time, seem necessarily to imply the "supernatural"). It is also very important to note that the words which follow are found in a chapter called “Imagination is key”.

Firstly, “Divine” reality needs to be “a more fundamental fact about reality than any identifiable natural fact”. (Metaphysical transcendence)

Secondly, “Divine” reality’s splendour and excellence also needs “to exceed that of anything found in nature alone” (Axiological transcendence)

Thirdly, our relationship with “Divine” reality “will make for more well-being, fulfilment, wholeness, and the like for creatures than can be naturally attained” (Soteriological transcendence)  (ER p.94).

Schallenberg then introduces to us two pairs of distinctions, “Thick and Thin” and “Strong and Weak”.

  • A thick concept of the Divine says the Divine is triply transcendent and also gives details as to the nature of its threefold transcendence.
  • A thin concept of the Divine says the Divine is triply transcendent and it offers no additional as to the nature of its threefold transcendence.
  • A strong concept of the Divine says the Divine is ultimate in all three spheres of transcendence.
  • A weak concept of the Divine says that the Divine is not in all three spheres ultimate.

Put all of them together and you get the following:

  • Thick/Strong concept of the Divine gives details as to the nature of its threefold transcendence and moreover regards the Divine as ultimate in all three ways.
  • Thick/Weak concept of the Divine gives details as to the nature of its threefold transcendence and holds that the Divine is not in all three ways ultimate.
  • Thin/Strong concept of the Divine gives no details as to the nature of its threefold transcendence but regards the Divine as ultimate in all three ways.
  • Thin/Weak concept of the Divine gives no details as to the nature of its threefold transcendence and holds that the Divine is not in all three ways ultimate.

Now old fashioned theism — which we no longer find persuasive — is Thick/Strong. As Schallenberg says:

“The theistic God has all power, all knowledge, all goodness, is the absolute Creator of the natural world, and our deepest good, so theists say, lies in being related to God in love. Both details and ultimacy are here. And notice that the triple transcendence is here converted into triple ultimacy” (ER p. 96).

That’s a lot of detail, and for the great majority of us here today, way, way beyond what we could possibly believe in with full belief and a clean heart.

The second option, Thick/Weak, can be found in, for example in the thinking of John Stuart Mill (especially in his Three Essays on Religion), William James and Robert Nozick. A fair few modern thinkers think this is the right way to go and, in fact, it seems to me that this option was in certain ways closely related to the position articulated by Jonathan Harrison, a member of the congregation who was himself a noted philosopher of religion.  

The third option, Thin/Strong, like theism, will embrace ultimacy, but will say less about it, holding only that the divine is in some way ultimate [in the three spheres]. So we still have triple ultimacy on this option but without any content added to that basic characterisation.

Finally, a Thin/Weak concept, although it embraces ultimacy it also has less content. Essentially it simply states the basic content any such religious idea may have — namely some kind of triple transcendence.

Now, according to Schallenberg the problem with a thick religious concept, whether strong or weak, is that there is just too much content. It doesn’t satisfy our pressing need for an intellectual minimalism — this minimalism is required because, as Schellenberg's evolutionary point suggests, we’ve only just begun and it’s best to hang fire until we know a great deal more about the world and have grown up a bit. Given that we know we don’t know so much we need to keep open as many possibilities as we can. So, for Schellenberg (and for me), thin is to be preferred over thick.

Turning to the thin conceptions, the Thin/Weak option has certainly been adopted by many people within our own liberal religious movement. But the problem with this conception is that it is so very, very general and because of that, in our religiously primitive state, it can’t really challenge us, either intellectually or morally. This is why Shellenberg opts for Thin/Strong and says that:

“The religious idea needs to be big enough, surely, to embrace both reality and value. It needs to be worthy of our imaginations, and therefore, must present to us more than the limited deity that, in a concession to the limits of popular imagination [John Stuart] Mill advanced [and which we ourselves might be tempted to advance]. [The religious idea] needs to be big enough that we — impressive creatures though we may be — might exist at an extremely early stage in the discovery of its true dimensions” (ER p. 98).

This mention of a big enough religious idea and the chapter title, “Imagination is Key”, reveals that in a church such as this we are likely to be in the business of constructing a workable compelling supreme religious fiction that speaks of the divine in a thin and strong way. (Schellenberg speaks of "imaginative religious faith" — ER p. 105)

So, with all the above in mind, in what God do I believe — how do I feel that “blank” can be filled in? Well I know of no better pithy candidate than that offered by the Unitarian theologian and religious naturalist, Henry Nelson Weiman (1884-1975) that you heard in our reading:

“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” (From Henry Nelson Wieman: Religious Experience and Scientific Method, Macmillan, 1926, pp. 9-10).

So, apart from this, all I really want to encourage us to do today is to make sure our thinking here about God remains at the "thin" end of things with, perhaps, a general inclination towards articulating something thin and strong.

And now, if you've got this far you might now enjoy watching Schallenberg talking about "New Visions of the Divine." You can view it by clicking here.