Category Archives: Christianity

Appropriate agnosticism: navigating around the tempest in Russell’s teapot

The fact that I’m slightly wary of the prospect of ‘outing’ myself as an agnostic in this article shows that there is an issue here that I ought to address. I think most of those who know me reasonably well would imagine that I would prefer to be categorised as an atheist… but the confusion that I may create by suggesting that I’m agnostic rather than an atheist can hopefully be turned into a learning opportunity with regards to Middle Way philosophy.

TL;DR version One can be agnostic about more than the existence or non-existence of God, and one should not confuse agnosticism with wishy-washy indecisiveness, fence-sitting, uncertainty or appeasement of people who hold proudly to absolute beliefs that inevitably lead to psychological repression and sociological harm. There are everyday situations in which agnosticism is the more ethical position as it steers the agnostic away from metaphysical dilemmas and towards provisional beliefs that have the possibility of being integrated, reducing the amount of unhelpful repression required of the believer.

In a letter of 1958, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.” [1]

This teapot analogy was first mentioned in an unpublished article of 1952 titled Is There a God?, in which he wanted to make clear that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others. However, in the quote above Russell is using the teapot analogy to explain why he considers himself to effectively be an atheist rather than a theological agnostic, and this is the way that I have seen the teapot analogy called upon most often, for example by ‘new atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins.

An instance of Dawkins’ use of the teapot analogy is worth quoting at length because I want to argue here that this kind of argument misses the point:

A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But “agnostic” on its own might suggest that he thought God’s existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about God, he considers God’s existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy’s. … Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn’t mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence.” [2]

If I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of Russell’s teapot then I would be expressing a weak agnostic position. I would essentially be saying that I was suspending my belief in the existence or non-existence of the teapot as it was not currently possible for me to know one way or the other, to any degree: I would be awaiting suitably persuasive evidence from experience, that in principle could arrive later… but I might be in for a very long wait.

Claiming this kind of agnosticism is unnecessary because the beliefs involved can be held provisionally, and also incrementally (that is, to a degree of certainty). If pressed to express an opinion, I would say that I believed in the existence of Russell’s teapot, but to only a very small extent – or, alternatively, that I believed in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot to a very great extent. That’s the incremental side. The extent of my beliefs could be altered by new evidence to arrive through my experience: perhaps altered very greatly if my astronaut friend returned home from a trip to space, bearing Russell’s teapot as a souvenir of her journey… although even then I would suspect that she was playing a philosophical prank. That is the provisional side – the ability to modify the belief in response to new evidence.

Russell’s teapot exists and Russell’s teapot does not exist are not a pair of opposing absolute claims because the truth or falsity of these claims depends on evidence that we could, in principle, experience. That said, I can find the idea of the existence of Russell’s teapot meaningful, even if I believe it to be very unlikely – in the same way that I can find the fictional characters depicted in films and books to be meaningful, even though the chances of them existing may be very slim.

However, to bring the discussion back to theology, if I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of God then I would be expressing a strong agnostic position about an absolute belief. As a finite and fallible human being my embodied limitations prevent me from accessing evidence about a perfect metaphysical being, so I cannot hold a weak agnostic position about this pair of opposed beliefs: if my astronaut friend returned from space claiming in all seriousness that she had ‘met God’ out there I could concede that she’d had a meaningful religious experience, but it wouldn’t constitute evidence of the existence of God.

The belief in the existence or non-existence of God is absolute because there is no scope for incrementality – it either is, or it isn’t, and my belief in it is not open to evidence that arrives through my experience as an embodied human being. Furthermore, there is no way that such a belief can be held provisionally – I could only flip between the two absolute poles. These opposing beliefs cannot be successfully integrated, so the only Middle Way route is to navigate a course of agnosticism between the two poles.

Going beyond theological agnosticism
The way that I’ve talked about the God/no-God situation so far is perhaps almost as trivial as the teapot/no-teapot situation. In my everyday life, I am not faced with a metaphysical dilemma between the existence or non-existence of a perfect God-like being, except in the occasional quiet moment of speculation. I certainly do not have to face Inquisitors who want to verify my adherence to their theological dogmas; I don’t even have to attend church on Sunday mornings out of social obligation. What I am faced with are very specific truth-claims and value-judgements made by adherents of various religions and denominations within those religions, and also by those who reject religion and favour other, more secular approaches.

Unlike the general musing on the God/no-God question, these more specific religious beliefs have specific ethical implications in my diet, my sex life, my profession, my health and treatment of my ill-health and so on. Must I take an agnostic position about these positive and negative beliefs, even if it seems like a proliferation of absurd teapot-like trivialities? The straightforward answer is yes. However, this usually seems to be unacceptable to people who have little understanding of the Middle Way: it seems absurd that I should be agnostic about the belief that, for example, I should not cook meat and dairy produce in the same meal.

As a non-Jewish person living in a non-Jewish culture, couldn’t I just say no, I don’t believe that meat and dairy must be kept separate because the laws of Kashrut in the Torah say they should? The determining factor is whether the belief in question is absolute: if the very formulation of the belief means that it cannot be held provisionally and that it cannot be incrementalised, then the middle way is to remain agnostic about it. In the kashrut case mentioned above, the Torah says that I must separate meat and dairy and that’s the end of it. I am either to believe it or not: I cannot believe it to some extent because the belief is based on an appeal to the absolute authority of the Torah.

In short, if ever an issue reduces down to being ‘a self-evident belief’ (or, as is often said, a matter of ‘faith alone’) then it is something that the Middle Way requires us to be agnostic about. An obvious example is the claim that a book, such as the Book of Mormon, is the truth from God as revealed to Joseph Smith via the angel Moroni. As implausible as it seems to me, the truth of this claim (or its counterclaim) relies on belief alone, and as such, I should remain agnostic about it. Dogmatically stating that the Book of Mormon is not God’s revealed truth is as unhelpful as dogmatically stating that it is – and by ‘unhelpful’ I mean not conducive to integration. The Salvation Army’s eleven articles of faith that I affirmed as a teenager are a textbook example of a set of beliefs that are a matter of ‘faith alone’.

Pragmatically speaking, it is very easy for me to avoid getting involved in disputes about the validity of the metaphysical claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as I don’t live in Utah. Similarly, I’ve not been involved with the Salvation Army for 20 years, so my agnosticism about their articles of faith is somewhat of a moot point. It wouldn’t be so easy if, for example, I was a full-time physics teacher in a Catholic school in the UK. That’s a lot closer to my own lived experience (I trained in such a school for three months in 2004) – and I can imagine that if I worked in such an establishment now I’d be fighting hard to resist sceptical slippage – but that’s a topic for another time!

Does agnosticism annoy some noisy atheists?
So, to return to the Richard Dawkins kind of objection to agnosticism, the following quote [3] exemplifies what he finds unacceptable:

Agnostic conciliation, which is the decent liberal bending over backward to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loud enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking. It goes roughly like this: You can’t prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true). Therefore, belief or disbelief in a supreme being is a matter of pure, individual inclination, and both are therefore equally deserving of respectful attention! When you say it like that, the fallacy is almost self-evident; we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto. We can’t disprove it. But that doesn’t mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn’t.” [3]

Dawkins’ objection is to a kind of relativism that bestows equal value on belief in God and disbelief in God. I hope I’ve been clear enough in what I’ve written above that the agnosticism that is part of the Middle Way is not of this ilk. One cannot integrate belief in the existence of God and belief in the non-existence of God due to their opposed absolute statuses, and thus it is not an area that is worth shouting ourselves hoarse about.

Richard Dawkins and other new atheists, such as Sam Harris, are very vocal about the harm that they consider to result from religious belief, but they may have slightly missed the point that the harm (or lack of integration) comes from the absolute beliefs that are considered part of most traditional religions, and not from the religions in general. In short: religion is not the problem, absolute beliefs are the problem. Other, non-religious, ideologies often make the same error of remaining beholden to absolute beliefs – which may have the advantage of allowing groups to survive due to the sociological ‘binding’ effect of absolute beliefs – but a dogmatic Marxist is going to have the same problem integrating their beliefs as a dogmatic Roman Catholic.

Concluding remarks
In the current climate of highly-polarised opinions in broadcast and social media, it would be beneficial if we could be clear about the most helpful applications of agnosticism, and why it is not a position that needs to trouble us with regards to provisional beliefs such as belief in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot. It would also help if we could focus on the problem (absolute beliefs) and not so much on the contexts with which those absolute beliefs are most often associated – in this way we could avoid unhelpful dismissal and dehumanisation of people that we would do better to engage with. The final thing is that there is a way to positively benefit from remaining agnostic on absolute beliefs (such as metaphysical beliefs), and as it is far from easy there are small but growing organisations like the Middle Way Society who want to promote the kind of practices that aid rather than inhibit integration.


Afterword
I would like to add a few remarks here about how I came to write the above article. The first thing is that I was looking again at the idea of agnosticism and the Middle Way in preparation for a discussion group meeting about the fifth of the Introductory series of videos. Although I’d come across the idea of agnosticism before in Middle Way Philosophy, I don’t think I’d understood the bigger picture. Returning to it has certainly helped.

The second thing is that I was motivated to clarify my thoughts and feelings about it by the idea that if I “came out” as a theological agnostic to my friends then most of them would probably be surprised that I hadn’t chosen to claim the position of ‘atheist’, or even ‘atheist agnostic’, rather than simply ‘agnostic’. For those who don’t know me so well, I’m a physics teacher by profession and a theoretical physicist by training; I haven’t been a practicing Christian for over 20 years now, I rarely talk about God or other supernatural entities, I don’t express opinions that would make others think that my ethical outlook is motivated by a belief in a perfect creator God, and so on. For those who are reading this in the USA: very roughly speaking, the default position in the UK is that of atheism, with maybe a nod to the Christian cultural heritage of this country… some recent surveys suggest that more than 50% of the population consider themselves to be ‘of no religion’.  This is more than a discussion about definition of terms and epistemology (how do we know what we know) – I believe that it matters that I would categorise myself as a strong agnostic, not because I want to ‘leave the door open’ for supernatural theologies, but because it leads to the broader and more helpful Middle Way stance on absolute beliefs generally.

The third thing is that when I started to type up my thoughts, I didn’t have a very good grasp of exactly what it was that I was trying to argue for (or against!). I went down the rabbit-hole of reading comments on YouTube videos about agnosticism, but not so far that I couldn’t get out easily before getting trapped in the toxic sludge. This really helped to clarify what I was up against, as were some clips from an episode of South Park in which Kenny and his siblings are sent to live with militant agnostic foster parents.

The usual difficulty arises when attempting to write on a topic like this: make it too short and you’ll be misunderstood, but trying to make yourself understood leads to more words than most are willing to read in the era of tweets and terse Facebook comments typed hurridly whilst doing something else. That said, thanks for reading this to the very end!


References

  1. Bertrand Russell (1958) Letter to Mr Major. In Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950 – 1968 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969).
  2. Richard Dawkins, ‘A Challenge To Atheists: Come Out of the Closet,’ Free Inquiry, Summer 2002.
  3. Richard Dawkins, ‘Snake Oil and Holy Water’ FORBES ASAP, October 4, 1999

Further reading

Picture credits

New retreats for 2018

We’re pleased to announce two new weekend retreats for 2018.

At Easter 2018, Barry Daniel will be leading a walking retreat in the English Lake District, combining walking in the mountains with meditation. An opportunity to get lots of exercise, make friends and develop mindfulness, all with a Middle Way theme and at the same time! Please see this page for more details.

In July 2018, Robert M Ellis will also be leading a retreat on the Christian Middle Way – for anyone (whether self-identified as ‘Christian’ or not) who wants to work positively with appreciating the meaning of the Christian tradition whilst avoiding absolute beliefs. This retreat is timed to coincide with the release of Robert’s new book ‘The Christian Middle Way: The case against Christian belief but for Christian faith’ and will include several talks by Robert, as well as discussion and meditation. Please see this page for more details.

There are also still a few places left on our Autumn Retreat: Compassion, Imagination and the Middle Way led by Nina Davies (Nov 10th-12th 2017). Book now!

The Exorcist: A Middle Way Interpretation

Spoiler Alert: This isn’t a synopsis or a review but I will reveal certain, important, plot points.  As such, if you haven’t yet seen it yet – and would like to – you may want to stop reading now. 

Cursed. Obscene. Scary. Nauseating.  Pea Soup.  These are just a selection of words associated with William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist (adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name).  The Exorcist tells the story of the Exorcism of 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil, who has been possessed by a malevolent force.  It is set in affluent 1970’s Georgetown USA, where Regan lives with her atheist mother, who also happens to be a famous actress.

Even in the early 1990’s, when I was at school, this film had a reputation as being the most disgusting and frightening film ever made – which of course meant everybody wanted to see it.  This desire was only intensified by the fact that The Exorcist had been banned in the UK since 1984; a few friends and I even attempted to watch a pirated copy of it on VHS, but our excited anticipation was soon extinguished once we realised that the video quality was so bad as to render further viewing impossible.  In 1998 the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) lifted the ban, and The Exorcist was released – with much fanfare – in cinemas across the country.  Many of my peers came back with reports of disappointment and boredom.  ‘It’s not scary at all.  I didn’t jump once’ they’d say, or ‘I don’t know what the fuss is about, nothing even happens for most of the film’.  I was worried.  I’d recently read the book and really enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure how it would be translated into the ‘Scariest Film Ever Made’.  Could this really be the same film that had caused people to faint and vomit while watching it?  I knew loads of people who’d seen it the first-time round and refused to even talk about it, let alone watch it again.  Perhaps it hadn’t aged well?

When I did eventually get to see it that I could understand why my peers were confused about the reputation it had achieved.  I’m not the kind of person that finds Horror films particularly scary anyway, but I had expected The Exorcist to be an exception.  It wasn’t.  In this respect, the length of time that had passed since its original release did seem to have had an impact.  Horror films throughout the 90’s had a tendency to reject the kind of subtle psychological techniques used in the 60’s and 70’s in favour of ‘jump scares’ and ‘gore effects’.  Therefore, that is what any teenager going to see a Horror movie at this time would be expecting.  That’s not what they got with The Exorcist.  There’s hardly any ‘gore’ and it is almost entirely void of ‘jump scares’.  In addition to this, much of imagery was much less shocking in the 90’s than I suspect it would have been to a 70’s audience.  With these considerations in mind I can understand many of my peer’s sense of disappointment – in this respect it had not lived up to the hype.  However, as much I wasn’t scared in the cinema, I loved it.  I found it absorbing in a way that few films had been and was surprised by the skilful way in which it created an atmosphere.  The deep layers of meaning hidden within the imagery and narrative demanded repeated viewing.  It is a deeply unsettling film and I found that it stayed with me (as the book had) long after I’d left the cinema; something that did not happen with contemporary horror films such as ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (which is instantly forgettable).  While it wasn’t what the hype had lead me to believe it would be, The Exorcist, as a film, had aged very well indeed.

After a period of about 10 years, where I watched it quite a lot, I spent a further 10 years without seeing it at all.  That is, until a few months ago, when I heard Mark Kermode (film critic and Exorcist expert/ super-fanboy) discussing it on the radio.  With some trepidation – I feared that it really might have aged badly by now – I sought out a copy and sat down to watch it again.  I needn’t have worried, it stands up incredibly well & I enjoyed it just as much (if not more) than I had before.  More importantly for this blog however, I also realised that it related, both stylistically and narratively, to the Middle Way.

Watching The Exorcist is a physical experience.  I know that watching any film can be described as a physical experience, we are embodied beings after all, but The Exorcist goes further.  You can feel the cold of Regan’s bedroom.  You can smell her necrotic breath as she lies, unconscious on the bed.  I don’t understand what cinematic tricks are used to create this effect but I suspect that it has as much to do with the sound as it has with visuals.  The ambient sound is hypnotic and the groaning rasp that accompanies Regan’s breathing creates a powerful and absorbing effect.  There are other scenes where the combination of visuals and sound work together to create the experience of embodied physicality, such as when Regan is made to undergo a range of intimidating and painful medical tests.

On the surface, The Exorcist is a fairly standard tale of good versus evil; light overcoming darkness.  During the first scene – where an elderly Jesuit priest, Father Merrin, is seen attending the archaeological excavation of an ancient Assyrian site in northern Iraq – the contrast between quiet contemplation and loud commotion is jarring.  While the scene is set within the suffocating glare of the desert sun, it is also pierced with dark imagery.  It’s within this context that we finally see an increasingly disturbed Merrin wearily, but defiantly, facing a statue of the Assyrian demon Pazuzu.  It is no coincidence that this scene brings vividly to mind the Temptation on the Mount, where Jesus overcame Satan’s attempts to divert him from his holy path to righteousness.  I’m sure that this premonition of the battle to come, is constructed and representative of several Jungian archetypes, but I’m not familiar enough to identify them all.  However, I’m confident that there’s the Hero, the Shadow, God and the Devil; the latter two also being representations of two metaphysical extremes: absolute good and absolute evil.  The key point however is that Father Merrin is not God (or even Jesus) and the statue is not the Devil (or even Pazuzu), they are both the imperfect embodiments each.

Understandably perturbed by her daughters increasingly disturbing behaviour, Regan’s mother seeks the help of neurologists and then physiatrists.  Both fail to identify a cause and both fail to succeed in their interventions.  Eventually, the perplexed psychiatrists suggest that Regan’s exasperated mother enlist the services of a priest, to which she reluctantly agrees.

The priest that she finds is a man called Father Damian Karras.  Karras is unlike Merrin, whose background is not really explored, in that he is clearly a conflicted and complex character.  We see him caring for his elderly mother, when no one else seems willing to, and we also see him, dressed in his Jesuit regalia, turn away from a homeless man who asks for his help.  Karras, then, is not a bad person, but neither is he that good.  The viewer is left to wonder the nature of this priest’s faith.  When we add to this the fact that he is a scientist (psychiatrist) as well as a priest, we start to see the depiction of a complex, multifaceted individual who struggles, in all aspects of his life, through the messy middle in which we all exist.

Karras, who is not qualified to perform the Exorcism ritual, convinces the Church of Regan’s need and Father Merrin is subsequently called upon.  The moment when he arrives at the house and looks up at the room which contains the possessed girl is inspired by The Empire of Light, a series of pictures painted by René Magritte in 1953-4.  As with the opening sequence, we are shown our archetypes juxtaposed in preparation for battle; this striking image was also used as the now famous promotional poster (which I used to have on my bedroom wall).  The clichéd battle between good and evil begins.  Except it doesn’t… not really.  Like the statue of Pazuzu, Regan is not an absolute representation of evil; she has been embodied by evil but is not the embodiment of it – she’s a 12-year-old girl.  Father Merrin is not the embodiment of good, he is just a representative of Christ (and therefore God).  This is made explicitly clear (if it wasn’t already) in an extended scene where the two priests desperately shout, ‘the power of Christ compels you, the power of Christ compels you’ over and over while throwing Holy water on the levitating girl.  A lesser film would have Merrin eventually defeat the demon and save the girl, but this is not what happens.  The elderly Exorcist dies during the gruelling exchange and Karras is left facing the demon alone.  Again, a lesser film would have Karras take up the role of Exorcist and overcome the evil force against all odds.  This is not what happens.  Religion, like science before it has failed and Karras appears to be in a hopeless predicament.  In the heat of the moment he takes the only course of action that he feels is available to him; he grabs Regan and shouts at the demon, ‘take me, take me’.  The demon gladly obliges and, a now possessed, Karras – who already exists somewhere between good and evil – is able to throw himself out of Regan’s window, where upon hitting the ground he falls down a flight of steep stairs, where he dies, presumably taking the demon with him and leaving Regan to make a full recovery.

Science, religion and the explicitly archetypal forces of good have not triumphed over evil and, in this muddled mess, appeals to authority do not always provide the promised solutions.  Instead our Middle Way hero, who’s able to hold onto his beliefs lightly, is left to address challenging conditions as they arise.  The solution he finds, I would like to suggest, seems remarkably like an extreme example of the ‘two donkeys’ analogy that is a favourite of this society.  By integrating competing desires, he is able to overcome conflict, albeit at great cost to himself.

 

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)

Order, disorder, reorder – part 3 of 3

It’s almost a simplistic metaphor, but … picture three boxes: order, disorder, reorder. … [I]f you read the great myths of the world and the great religions, that’s the normal path of transformation.

–Richard Rohr

687px-Rohr20010928svobodatThis blog post is the final part of a three-part series inspired by the above quote by Richard Rohr (shown in the photograph on the right). If you’ve not read parts one and two I recommend doing so now so that you appreciate the context of Rohr’s words and how they might apply to the great myths of the world, and to political maturation.

Here I will attempt to frame my own spiritual development in terms of Rohr’s model, although I have some reservations about using the term ‘spiritual’ about myself. I will also acknowledge the limitations of such a simplistic metaphor, with reference to my personal history. I will conclude by taking stock of where I am right now, aged 40 – which is viewed conventionally as the mid-point of life, and where I may perhaps navigate to in future with the aid of the middle way.

Born into disorder? Not me.

What’s difficult is so many people formed in the last 30 years were born into the second box of disorder. [They] don’t have that order to begin with, to reject and improve on.

Me aged about 7 or 8. That's not my school uniform, that's what I had to wear to go to church!It’s been 40 years since I was born, and I reckon I do not fall within Rohr’s grouping of people “formed in the last 30 years”. Not due to the mathematical exactness of his figures (in context he did not literally mean a cut-off at 30 years old!), but due to the fact that I was brought up in a very rigid  – and ordered – container. My family was of the more evangelical protestant Christian variety and our acts of worship were not confined to Sundays (although there was a service every Sunday, sometimes two), but spread to other activities throughout the week and a general feeling of being watched at all times by an omniscient God who was, by turns, strict and loving. This religious context defined the pattern of my weeks and years, much more so than any other aspect of my life such as school or neighbourhood friendships. To put it into Rohr’s terms, I was, quite definitely, born into a box of order.

Due to the specific strictures of our denomination (which was a part of the so-called Holiness movement) I was brought up with very rigid views on the moral validity of abstinence from alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, gambling and pre-marital sex, as well as the more usual protestant insistence on truthfulness before God, honesty in my human interactions, an awareness of my innate sinfulness, observance of the Ten Commandments, belief without evidence (which was termed ‘faith’), worship of the one true God, Bible-reading and prayer. There was also a very strong devotion to charity work, putting others first, observing Sundays as a holy day (so no shopping or engaging in other worldly pursuits on a Sunday) and a lot of encouragement to proselytise to my unconverted peers, through deliberate use of words of personal testimony and through the example (or ‘witness’) of my actions.

This ordered container – which, of course, seemed normal, reasonable and inevitable to me as I grew up, as I didn’t know any different – started to develop holes as I moved into adolescence. It became obvious that other people did not have the same beliefs, and not just those people in the wider ‘sinful’ world but even people who I respected and looked up to within our own congregation. I’m not talking about anything illegal or conventionally controversial like child sex-abuse or misappropriation of funds, but it seemed eye-poppingly amazing to me that other church-goers might be quietly making money on a Sunda or perhaps discreetly but casually conducting a sexual relationship with someone that they weren’t married to. When the holes got big enough, I could get a better view of what might be in store for me in the disorder box. It was a confusing, topsy-turvy place…

Me, aged 18. And yes, that's a bible under my arm.For example, I was indebted to the Jesus Christ whom – I was told – had died for my sins, but didn’t believe that anyone was listening when I prayed. I respected by parents, who became ministers in our denomination when I was 16, but had to find a way of hiding the fact that I was trying out drinking, smoking and other recreational drugs with my peers. I had been instilled with the ideal that sex was expressly for marriage and marriage was for life, but everyone else seemed to be doing it and when I eventually started doing it too it didn’t seem at all immoral or wrong – nothing had ever seemed so natural, normal and right. In other areas, in my school education for example, I was realising that there were well-justified reasons for believing that the universe was not centred around the human race, and this contradicted the interpretation of holy book that I’d been brought up to revere.

Breaking away
Anyway, the upshot was that by the time I was an adult the cognitive dissonance became too great, in a quiet crisis I abruptly dropped the public pretence of being ‘a good Christian’ in my denomination, to the quiet disappointment and confusion of the older generations in my family. In time my siblings also rejected the same container that they’d been brought up in, but I was the first and with that I had to lead the way. In fact my younger brother rebelled in a more roundabout way when he was 18 by moving to a different continent and becoming even more enthusiastically evangelical… a phase during which we communicated little (he did once urge me, by email, to “repent and get saved”) and which only lasted a couple of years before ending with a rather shameful implosion. He returned and recovered, I’m pleased to say.

Untitled2The thing about this transition is that I didn’t then enter the metaphorical reorder box, I just cobbled together a different order box: I was an atheist, a materialist, a natural realist, a scientist, a rationalist (and so on – follow this link to a piece I wrote in 1997 about the firewalk we did with Wessex Skeptics). This was easy enough for me to do considering that I was at university studying for a physics degree, with only superficial contact with my family back home. I even adopted a new name through this conversion: James became Jim. Conditioned humility kept me from openly trumpeting my new order to all and sundry, along with some guilt that I’d rejected the certainties of the older generations in my family, who as far as I could tell were good people with the best of intentions in the way that they’d brought me up.

I adapted quickly to my new sense of order, and very little occurred to challenge it – at first. I was living in a secular society,  and my friends and colleagues during my degree, PhD, and teaching career were pretty much all of an atheistic persuasion and those who did have religious beliefs similar to my own from childhood were discreet about it. I knew where I stood, along with the secular majority – viewing organised religion as a childish fantasy based on a human need for consolation – and it hardly had any influence on my life. I winced when I read the polemical work of the more vociferous ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins, who seemed to over-simplify a rather complex situation by attacking crude stereotypes and probably succeeded in pushing moderate Christians away via the ‘backfire effect‘.

Going through disorder

And yet, what I always tell the folks is there’s no nonstop flight from order to reorder. You’ve got to go through the disorder.

So, I think it is more accurate to say that it is only in the past few years, after the certainties of the academic world, after working way too hard as a school teacher for ten years and allowing that ordered container to define my existence, that I have moved into the disorder box. I have been brought to disorder, I have not chosen it. In fact it took a while for me to even realise that I was there, but eventually, gradually, it dawned upon me.

It seems a bit too soon to speak as frankly about this period of my life as I have about the earlier, ordered period, so I’ll just say that in my renewed search for meaning I encountered the Middle Way Society – and I’ve found it to have been immensely helpful in my navigation of the ‘messy middle’ between absolute metaphysical certainties. So, in Richard Rohr’s scheme, I’m right on schedule – as I enter mid-life I’m bumbling around in the disorder box, but I think there’s hope that I can bumble less and eventually crawl through into the metaphorical reorder box.

There is, as always, a danger of absolutising this model and treating it as a single linear progression through three distinct stages, with a definite ‘destination’. Rohr’s usage of it is as an over-arching framing of spiritual development during a person’s life, from naive, exclusive ‘early stage’ religion through to a more mature, inclusive, flexible religion that unites rather than divides. In the shorter term our integration is likely to proceed in a series of cycles rather than through a single pass through the sequence order-disorder-reorder. Also our integration may well proceed asymmetrically, which is not wholly a bad thing as explained in this video from the Middle Way philosophy series.

I’m still uncomfortable with the specific term ‘spiritual’, as I (rather clumsily) tried to explain in the podcast interview with Barry last year: to me the term is inextricably associated with New Age ‘woo’, eternal souls and Cartesian dualism, the Pentecostalist understanding on the ‘Holy Spirit’, and other metaphysical absolutes which cannot be justified by experience. Richard Rohr, as you might expect, seems to be quite comfortable with using the term but I’m encouraged by the fact that he’s more inclined to talk about spiritual development as the increasingly ethical use of your intellect, heart and body, which seems a long way from metaphysical woo.

themiddlewaysocietylogoA term that’s more agreeable to me than ‘spiritual development’ is ‘integration’, as used here in the Middle Way Society. What others may look upon as my spiritual development, I would like to name as my progress with integrating desire, meaning and belief – and in the process becoming more ethical, a person of greater integrity. As a child I could see a disconnect between the stated beliefs of the adults around me, and their ethical actions. The archaic collection of metaphysical claims which formed their creed were ostensibly used to justify their actions, but I thought that their actions would probably have been just as ethical in the absence of these words. Perhaps a more succinct way of putting it is that there was great emphasis on orthodoxy, and an equally strong emphasis on orthopraxy, but that the connection between the two was not necessarily what it was claimed to be.

An ongoing process of transformation
I’m not claiming to have achieved perfect wisdom, in fact I don’t really believe that such as thing is anything other than an archetypal aspiration anyway. To be more objective in the justification of my beliefs, to hold them provisionally and adapt them incrementally is a more realistic and ethical proposition. In the past few years I think I’ve had a few tastes of what might lie ahead in the second half of my life, beyond the current disorder.

For example, although I’ve felt guilty about leaving the religion that I was brought up in, I can now appreciate that I rejected the ideology and the beliefs of my parents and grandparents, without rejecting the parents and grandparents themselves. In Christianity this sentiment was expressed by Saint Augustine as “hate the sin, but love the sinner”, but – as Gandhi pointed out – this is easy enough to understand though rarely practiced.

1024px-(3)_Flaxman_Ilias_1793,_gestochen_1795,_183_x_252_mmI can also see that the Zeus-like Christian God that I was brought up with is a rather childish (but widespread) interpretation of Christian theology, and my subsequent rejection of all understanding of an Abrahamic God was also rather extreme – more subtle and nuanced agnostic understandings of the concept of “God” exist, and the meaning associated with the God archetype does not have to be thrown out with the metaphysical bathwater. For example, what I came to see as the preposterous proposition of Jesus’s resurrection at Easter can in fact be a source of meaning and inspiration, as discussed in this superb article by Robert M. Ellis.

Thirdly, with regards to the way that I choose to live my life, I can still abstain from smoking, from getting into debt and from lying… but that it is largely my choice, what currently seems most appropriate within the wider conditions of my life, and not a set of imperatives dictated to me by the absolute metaphysical dogma of a particular religious tradition. My upbringing could be (somewhat uncharitably) viewed as an indoctrination into a specific moral code, but in rejecting the supposed authority behind this code I do not instead have to embrace a nihilistic relativism. To paraphrase from Robert’s books on Middle Way philosophy:

The absolutist’s mistake is to understand the right choice in terms of overall principles regardless of the specifics of the situation. The relativist’s mistake is to believe that there is no right choice.

In conclusion…
Turning 40 is something I’ve mentioned to my friends and associates, not because it has great significance for me, but more because it seems to have significance for them. In opposition to our youth-obsessed culture’s conventional position on ageing, I approve of getting older: looking back I can see that I’m not the same fool I was at 30 (or 20, or 10, or even 39 and 51 weeks). Here’s to maturation in general, not just spiritually, and here’s (hopefully) to the next 40 years!


Featured image is an engraving by William Blake, from The Pilgrim’s Progress, via Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of Richard Rohr by Svobodat [License: CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Image of ‘God on this throne’ is actually an engraving of Zeus from John Flaxman’s Iliad, via Wikimedia Commons
The three photos of me (aged roughly 7, 18 and 23) were scanned in from the original prints. Retro.