Welcome to The Middle Way Society

The Middle Way Society was founded to promote the study and practice of The Middle Way. The Middle Way is the idea that we make better judgements by avoiding fixed beliefs and being open to practical experience. We challenge unhelpful distinctions between facts and values, reason and emotion, religion and secularism or arts and sciences. Though our name is inspired by some of the insights of the Buddha, we are independent of Buddhism or any other religion. We seek to promote and support integrative practice, overcoming conflict of all kinds.

Autumn Retreatgirl meditative thinking

Announcing our autumn weekend retreat 2017, Compassion, imagination and the Middle Way, led by Nina Davies in Sussex UK! Please see this page for more details.

Martin Luther, the dogma breaker

This year is the 500th Anniversary of what is often seen as the decisive act that set off the Reformation: when Martin Luther, a monk and theology professor, nailed ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg. A few years ago, I was travelling through eastern Germany and made a point of stopping in Wittenberg to see Luther’s House, and the experience only increased my admiration of this flawed, stubborn, but nevertheless courageous, inspired, and often down-to-earth man. He has gone down in history as one of the great breakers of dogma, though, like many people with that kind of achievement, he was also instrumental in setting up new counter dogmas of his own.Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_Monk Lucas Cranach the Elder

I recently heard a talk about Luther given by church historian Judith Rossall, which also refined my understanding of the key events that led to the Reformation. In some ways, Luther was lucky: he managed to get away without being burned at the stake because of political protection from the Elector of Saxony, and because German national pride rallied people to his support against the trans-national papal bureaucracy. In some ways, then, the Lutheran Reformation resembled an early German version of Brexit. His defiance of the church’s authority also gradually grew as the argument became more polarised and more started being at stake. He started off only protesting against the selling of indulgences (a medieval church money making scheme where people paid for time off purgatory), but it was in 1519, when in a debate his position was compared with that of Jan Hus (a previous reformer who had been burned at the stake as a heretic) that he made his most courageous move, saying that he believed the condemnation of Hus was wrong and thus by implication questioning the church as an absolute source of authority.

It’s at that crucial point that I’d see Luther as moving out of the absolute positions that dominated the church of his time into a more creative and ambiguous zone. In his debate with Johann Eck, he was then asked what authorities he did accept. Only scripture and common reason, he said. From that realignment of authorities so much else in the Reformation followed, because Protestants were thus able to strip away 1500 years of accrued church dogmas dependent on tradition, on Aristotelian metaphysics that had been adopted by the church, or on the authority of the pope or the councils of the church. So much that was previously closed became open for re-examination, and that of course created a huge wave of creativity and thought.

Did Luther in any way achieve a Middle Way? In those heady early days in 1520’s Germany, when everything seemed to opened up, when new thinking spread quickly because of the recent invention of printing, and a whole new set of radical thinkers were further sparked off by him, it’s easy to think that he might temporarily have got somewhere near it. All sorts of customs were re-thought: church governance, the eucharist, monasticism, the marriage of priests, the role of saints, the sacraments. Most of all, the door was thrown open to individual judgement, enabling individuals to bring their own thinking to bear on religious matters rather than simply accepting the authority of the church. In the longer term that emphasis on individual judgement was extremely important in stimulating the enlightenment and the rise of scientific method and democratic politics. If you want to understand why the Middle Way has in effect been practised more in the West than in the East where it was first explicitly formulated, look to some of the effects of Martin Luther.

However, Protestantism today is polarised between liberals who have come to terms with the enlightenment, and much more numerous fundamentalists who take Martin Luther’s invocation of the authority of scripture as a new basis of absolutism. Despite its value in supporting individual judgement, the narrower legacy of the Reformation is the allegiance of individuals who believe that absolute truths can be represented in the words of a book. Until the development of Biblical criticism in the nineteenth century, Protestants continued to ignore all questions about the human origins of the Bible or the ambiguities of its interpretation. While Protestants influenced by Luther thus built the church and its meaning anew, they also rapidly created the new rigidities of puritanism, repression of the imagination, spiritual accountancy and sectarianism. Iain McGilchrist writes disapprovingly about the Reformation because of its degree of dependence on the left hemisphere, and he’s certainly right that much of Luther’s legacy seems to have consisted in people adopting abstracted absolute beliefs that were strongly identified with a limited group who shared them, and were the focus of obsessive loyalty. Along with the enlightenment and individual thinking, another indirect legacy of Luther is ISIS/ Da’esh and the kind of thinking it represents. Fundamentalism was invented by Protestants long before it was adopted by Muslims.

However, to understand the positive aspects of Luther’s complexity more fully, let’s go back to the motivations of the man himself. One of the other crucial conflicts in Luther’s experience that helped to give birth to the Reformation was the question of salvation. The idea of God’s grace, reflected particularly by St Paul in the book of Romans, is central to the early motivation of Christianity and the way that it differentiated itself from Judaism as early Christians perceived it. Luther apparently had a strong ongoing sense of sinfulness, being tormented by the ways that his varied motivations as a human being were inconsistent with his commitments to following God’s will. The Catholic Church of Luther’s time often seemed in practice to have gone back to the legalism that Christians tend to attribute to the Pharisees, in which we have to save ourselves by obeying the rules set by God. The medieval church reconciled this to Christian teaching about grace by saying that God’s grace still requires enough of a response from us to allow us to save ourselves. Even if we save ourselves from mortal sin and avoid going to hell, we will still have to sweat out our lesser sins in purgatory before we can be saved, and it’s this view of how sin is expiated that justified the sale of indulgences.  Luther was still tormented by this, because he could never be sure that he had responded enough to God’s grace to be saved. Re-reading the book of Romans, however, he concluded that the church was wrong to believe that we saved ourselves at all: only God could save us. We were solely justified by faith, not by actions. We could only throw ourselves on God’s mercy.

The positive thing to note here is that Luther went back to his experience. Trying to open himself to God’s grace, he went back to the openness of the brain’s right hemisphere rather than being solely dependent on the representations of the left. Rather than just accepting that he couldn’t be sure of salvation under the church’s model of how it worked, he compared his experience of sinfulness to his experience of God and the experience of what he interpreted as God’s grace working in his life. He found that the church’s teachings didn’t fit his most profound and valuable experiences, so he gave those experiences higher priority, and had the courage to try to make new beliefs that were more adequate to those experiences. Of course, that could only be part of a long journey of developing beliefs that are more adequate to the conditions, and we can look back at it today and are struck by how far he was from any destination. But nor have we reached any final destination today. The Middle Way was a journey for him as it is for us, responding as well as we can to the conditions of each time and place.

Picture: Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (public domain)

The MWS Podcast 119: Hári Sewell, Arno Michaelis and Robert M Ellis on Prejudice

In our latest round table discussion we welcome back to the podcast Hári Sewell who is a trainer and consultant in equality and social justice and author of Working with Ethnicity, Race and Culture in Mental Health , ex-white supremacist and now peace activist Arno Michaelis, author of My Life After Hate and the chair of the Middle Way Society, the philosopher Robert M Ellis, author of many books including the Middle Way Philosophy series. The topic today will be prejudice, what it is, how it affects us and what we might do about it.



MWS Podcast 119: Prejudice as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_119_Prejudice
Click here to view other podcasts

Poetry 143: Unicorn by Rainer Maria Rilke

Oslo Vigeland Unicorn Sculpture Girl Bronze
Oslo Vigeland Unicorn Sculpture Girl Bronze

This is the animal that never was.
Not knowing that, they loved it anyway;
its bearing, its stride, its high, clear whinny,
right down to the still light of its gaze.

It never was. And yet such was their love
the beast arose, where they had cleared the space;
and in the stable of its nothingness
it shook its white mane out and stamped its hoof.

And so they fed it, not with hay or corn
but with the chance that it might come to pass.
All this gave the creature such a power

its brow put out a horn; one single horn.
It grew inside a young girl’s looking glass,
then one day walked out and passed into her.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This weeks poem was suggested by Robert M. Ellis.  If you would like to suggest a poem for inclusion in this series then please email Richard Flanagan at richard@middlewaysociety.org.

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Ride the elephant (you’ve got no choice), but do you have to eat him?

It was not a sudden, blinding revelation, but more of a gradual realisation: the decision I’d made to eat a vegan diet was not a rational one.

Now, I made that decision back in September 2015 and—rational or not—over the past 20 months I’ve believed that animal products are not for my consumption, with no regrets. Please understand that for me it isn’t all about purity: I’m not a vegan fundamentalist. I’ve occasionally submitted to the social pressure to eat egg-containing (and delicious) home-made cake, and in an effort to prevent food going to waste I’ve ingested some cheese made with cow’s milk. I can’t say that either of those deviations from the vegan norm have particularly troubled me, although I was hyper-aware of what I was doing as I did it.

Over the past few months I’ve come to realise that it would be a mistake to argue that my dietary decision lacks justification simply because it was irrational. Not because the rational doesn’t or shouldn’t play a role in moral decision-making, but because our secular Western culture seems to believe that true moral decision-making flows purely from rational, logical thought. And a quick review of our actual experience shows that this default theory of secular morality is mistaken. Let’s dig deeper…

Moral psychology and an elephanty metaphor
The origins of morality have presumably been debated for as long as debating has been around. In the mid-twentieth century academic psychology got involved and researchers tested hypotheses such as ‘morality is innate’ or ‘morality is learned’. More recently the field has reached a level of sophistication where some psychologists are able to conclude that, as seems to be the case generally with nature/nurture dichotomies, it’s a bit of both.

The Righteous MindOne of the most prominent researchers in this area is Jonathan Haidt, and in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind he sums it up like this:

[M]orality can be innate (as a set of evolved intuitions) and learned (as children learn to apply those intuitions within a particular culture). We’re born to the righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about.

Now, I’ve been getting to grips with the idea that people’s moral arguments (including my own) can’t really be taken at face value because generally they’re post-hoc cognitive constructions developed for social reasons once the automatic and instantaneous moral intuition has done its work making the initial moral choice. I knew this was one of Haidt’s principles of moral psychology, from reading other books, Robert’s review of The Righteous Mind and online videos. Now I’ve actually borrowed the book from the library and read it I’m better informed about his model, and the research that it is entwined with.

The first part of this book is the most relevant to what I’m talking about here. In it he states the first principle of his moral psychology as being: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. It is this principle that seems to be at work in me with regards to my dietary ethics. In both his books he uses an interesting metaphor when discussing this first principle, namely that

…the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behaviour. … [T]he rider and elephant work together, sometimes poorly, as we stumble through life in search of meaning and connection.

Riding my metaphorical elephant
c-rayban-86816In the subtitle above I imply that I possess the metaphorical elephant, whereas – in the light of Haidt’s moral psychology model – it might be more accurate to say that the elephant both is me (as the part of my mind that works before and at a more fundamental level than my conscious cognition) and has me (in the sense that the conscious cognitive “I” serves it and has little control over where the elephant is going).

Going back to September 2015, there was a definite moment in time when I resolved not to eat animal products any more… I think I had been off work through illness for a couple of days and I’d been watching films on Netflix – including an American documentary called Vegucated which explores the challenges of adopting a vegan diet. Immediately afterwards I went upstairs and found my wife (I think ostensibly to discuss what we might have for dinner) and blurted out something along the lines of “I can’t eat eggs any more. I just can’t.” And then stood there wobbling a bit thinking about the half-finished box of eggs downstairs in the kitchen.

egg-1803361_1920Looking back on it, perhaps there was a bit of embarrassment that I didn’t have a rational reason for not wanting to eat eggs any more, after all, usually people want to know why you’ve changed your position on an issue and it seems culturally appropriate to have a ‘proper’ rational reason. My wife said something like “If that’s your decision that I stand by you making it.” and I went off to make something eggless for our evening meal. The elephant had decided: “Boom! No more eggs for you!” and then my cognitive mind was left floundering around trying to do some strategic reasoning that would no doubt be required in socially justifying my new food ethos.

Rational questions remained: would I have to stop eating cheese and mackerel too, in order to be consistent? Might it be easier to just stop with all the dairy products, since the dairy industry seems to involve the same level of cruel practices as the egg industry? Would my friends think I was being precious when I started turning down offers of milk in tea, or declining to join in a shared non-vegan lunch? These and many more. But, most importantly, the elephant had made up its mind and I was going to have to follow through with my role as its servant.

Feeding the elephant
Clearly the elephant had been heading in this direction for some time – I’d been a sympathiser for most of my life, not a persecutor of vegans and their weird ways. This wasn’t a ‘road to Damascus’ style conversion from omnivorism to veganism. But in order to arrive at the point where I completely cut out animal products from my diet the elephant had taken a long sequence of small turns towards this direction, at at each stage my intellect had dutifully generated post-hoc rationalisations for these.

1929605_22166090365_2545_nIt goes back, of course, to childhood. I was a fantastically fussy eater, ‘difficult’ about food, and I cannot remember ever not being this way. My brother, two years younger, was quite different: a human dustbin, he’d happily eat what I would not, and probably this was why so many adults asked if we were twins; despite him being two years younger he was always the same size as me (as you can see in the photo on the right, taken perhaps when I was 9 and he was 7).

In early teenage years my moral intuition told me that I should stop eating meat, so that’s what I did. The logical reasons were well rehearsed—I’d witnessed many mock arguments between peers about whether it was right to eat meat or not—but it really wasn’t these arguments that persuaded me. It just felt like the right thing to do, even if it was considered rather effeminate for me to give up meat (this was the 1990s… but is it any different now?).

Aged 18 I very abruptly got over my life-long fussiness with food—I’m not at all sure how this came about at all, let alone so quickly—but this was the age where it also felt intuitively OK for me to eat meat again. So I did, and shortly after (when I went off to university) I didn’t introduce myself to anyone as being a vegetarian. Whilst at university I met my now-wife, and we’ve been together for 22 years. She became a vegetarian at university because it seemed like the right thing to do, although one that wasn’t particularly interested in cooking. So for those first 20 years together—with me as the domestic chef—I was a quasi-vegetarian, making and eating vegetarian food at home, but usually eating meat if I ate out anywhere. I only went through a meat-at-home phase during the three years that we lived apart in order to do our doctorates at different universities.

As an adult, then, I was definitely over my childhood fussiness and managed to get a reputation as a human dustbin. The elephant kept directing me back for seconds, thirds and so on, and I subsequently concocted rationalising stories about ‘not letting food go to waste’. Another set of questions came along with the birth of our son, just over 8 years ago: when it came time for him to be weaned, here was a tiny human being whose menu was (initially) completely dictated by his parents’ choices.

5995306074_e400da02c4_zWhat was the ‘right’ choice for us to make? To what extent would he decide what he ate and why? Either the elephant, or pragmatism, made the decision: we weren’t going to specially buy in meat for him to eat at home. He grew up healthy and un-deformed, despite some frowning from meat-eating adults, and he eventually settled into something like a pescatarian diet—vegetarian, but with occasional fish dishes—and, as far as I know, he’s never eaten the conventional chicken, beef, turkey, lamb and pork foods that most of his friends eat.

So, here are the last few elephant moves and subsequent rationalisations that brought me to the point of veganism:

  1. A lactose-intolerant wife meant soya milk in the fridge. I made the (initially gross) switch to soya milk in tea. Rationalisation: Efficiency. There’ll be more room in the fridge if I stop buying cow milk. The cow milk always goes off anyway.
  2. A work trip to California for 10 days in the spring of 2015, started off eating huge beefburgers (“when in Rome…”) but within a few days swung back to an entirely vegetarian diet. Rationalisation: Burgers are gross, my digestive system isn’t used to this kind of treatment, America has an obesity problem, I want to avoid going home ‘smelling like meat’ like last time I had a work trip to the USA.
  3. A later work trip in the summer to the south of France, with Jonathan Safran-Foer’s book Eating animals as reading material at the airport, the meatiest thing I ate was fish. Rationalisation: Eating meat supports horrific treatment of sentient beings – as explored in the book. I described myself to one of the students as ‘a vegetarian who sometimes eats meat’, he said I was hypocritical and being a hypocrite is bad. There’s lots of cheese in France, cheese is OK isn’t it?
  4. Meeting an exceptionally bright ex-student who was back from university for the summer, and had enthusiastically embraced veganism whilst at university. I felt sympathetic towards his position. Rationalisation: He is a really clever person, and a person of great integrity, therefore I should emulate him.

In conclusion
In writing all this I’ve taken a leaf out of Jonathan Haidt’s book – rather than battering you with rational argument after rational argument as to why I think it is right to eat a vegan diet, I’ve instead taken you on a personal journey. I’ve let you see that I’m a real person with vulnerabilities and uncertainties, rather than an android with a socially-awkward diet. Similarly, I’ve not set about criticising your own personal food choices and ethics using (what I would see as) pure logic and cold hard facts. Your intuition would have steered you away pretty quickly, entrenching any differences between us and leaving us both feeling like we were always right and the other was just plain wrong. In fact you would have been very unlikely to get this far in unless you were planning some kind of logical refutation of everything I’d said in order to prove just how wrong I was.

If you have the slightest interest in becoming more vegan than you already are, then I refer you to the recommended listening, reading and viewing that I’ve listed at the end of this post; they’re full of partisan rational arguments, many of them biased, but that’s the way things are and I’m sure you’re mature enough to cope with that.

Now, given that this is a Middle Way Society blog post perhaps I ought to conclude with a few Middle Way pointers:

  • The Middle Way is not a soggy compromise between two contrasting views: one can arrive at a seemingly ‘extreme’ viewpoint (that it is better to eat a totally vegan diet) whilst holding that belief provisionally, without becoming dogmatic about it. It’s not easy, but knowing that it’s not easy is the first step to making it work. Unlike the decision to donate a kidney, the decision to go vegan is instantly undo-able, and yes—of course I’d rather eat meat than starve to death.
  • The Middle Way stresses the incrementality of our beliefs – we do not need to succumb to the ‘all or nothing’ thinking of the nirvana fallacy. It is not a case of either you are or you aren’t (a vegan). You can eat less meat, you can use fewer dairy products. You can give up flesh for Lent. You could just eat less. There are many dietary configurations in the human population, there have never been such a wide variety of food options on offer in supermarkets and restaurants, and—to be quite frank—if you’re reading this you’re probably not starving for lack of funds or opportunity.
  • The Middle Way suggests that we should be sceptical in an even-handed way. If you want to be exposed to extremely polarised views on veganism, I refer you to the thing known as ‘social media’. If your elephant has chosen a particular path for you, based on intuition, make sure that any post-hoc rationalisation that you do isn’t based on the sort of absolutisations that you will quickly encounter on the interweb. If you can’t understand the way that your opponent justifies their position, or their objections to your arguments, then do you really understand the rational justification for your own beliefs?

So, as I said at the start of this post, the decision I’d made to eat a vegan diet was not a rational one. But I hope you appreciate now that choices are only rational to a degree, and that an ‘irrational’ impetus can still lead to a beneficial outcome!


Suggested listeningMelanieJoySmall

Suggested reading

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Photo credits
Photos of elephants and eggs courtesy of pixabay.com [License: CC0 Public Domain]
Photo of brothers from the 1980s was scanned from the family archive [License: CC BY-SA 2.0]
Photo of my son is all my own work. [License: CC BY-SA 2.0]