“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday 12 April 2024

Why Reason is Important

When I first read this week's quote, by Austrian philosopher, Karl Popper, I was doubtful about it. It reads, "The do-gooders are the real enemies of an open society."

Luckily, it is my practice to try to discover the actual words of the quote, rather than depending on Google to translate them correctly from the German (although, to be fair, if often does a good job). And discovered that the quote comes from his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, and that his argument is not a simple dismissal of the works of "do-gooders". 

Instead, he seems to be advocating the primacy of reason over emotion, to which, as a Unitarian, I have to give serious consideration. Here is another, somewhat longer quote, from the same book: "Aestheticism and radicalism must lead us to jettison reason, and to replace it by a desperate hope for political miracles. This irrational attitude which springs from intoxication with dreams of a beautiful world is what I call Romanticism. It may seek its heavenly city in the past or in the future; it may preach 'back to nature' or 'forward to a world of love and beauty'; but its appeal is always to our emotions rather than to reason. Even with the best intentions of making heaven on earth it only succeeds in making it a hell - that hell which man alone prepares for his fellow-men."

Hmm. I'm not sure I entirely agree with him - I believe there is room for hopes and dreams in our lives, otherwise what would be the point? Yet at the same time, I can reluctantly understand what he seems to be saying: that when those hopes and dreams are founded on emotions rather than reason, they may not have a very good chance of success. I believe we need a mixture of hopes and dreams with hard-headed reason and commonsense, if we are to move towards a better society for all of us.

It reminds me of the oft-misquoted words of Samuel Johnson, from 1775: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." What Johnson actually said, commenting on "the unhappy failure of pious resolves", was, "Sir, hell is paved with good intentions."

So perhaps our take-away from this should be not to rush into blindly "doing good" without a wider and reasoned consideration of all the possible consequences of our actions. Which may be a colder way to live, yet ultimately, it may do more good than the alternative.

Saturday 6 April 2024

Considering Death

The 18th century American polymath, writer and statesman, Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, "Nothing is certain except death and taxes." However, it is sometimes possible to be exempt from taxes, or to get a refund, but death is certain. Every living thing, including us, is mortal, and will one day, sooner or later, die.

Death is the final mystery; I blogged about this way back in 2011, here. More than twelve years later, my attitude to death remains the same. I believe we cannot know what happens after death, but we can choose to face it with courage or with fear and dread. And, being an optimist, I choose to face it with, if not courage, then at least with equanimity. As someone mutters at the beginning of a track of Pink Floyd's wonderful album Dark Side of the Moon, "I am not frightened of dying. Everyone's got to die sometime. Why should I be frightened of dying? There's no reason for it. Any time will do, I don't mind." I first heard that at the age of 13, and it had a profound effect on my attitude to death.

 (I hasten to add that I've had any bad health news, I've just been thinking about it lately - the fruits of getting older, I guess). 

When I carried out a survey of the beliefs, values and practices of contemporary British Unitarians, back in 2017 (the findings are published in Unitarians: Together in Diversity, published by the Lindsey Press) one of the questions I asked was, "What do you believe happens after we die?" And the responses were varied and fascinating: a significant minority of the respondents (19%) declared that they did not believe in life after death - that when the body dies, that's it. More than a third were open-minded about it, but were not sure what form, if any, it might take. Many of these were willing to consider such possibilities like the idea that human beings 'live on' in the memories of others; or that the soul / spirit lives on after death, perhaps as a return to God / the Source; or as life on a spiritual plane or some other form of consciousness; or in a reincarnated existence.

Many shared my own belief that it is far more important to concentrate on doing the best we can, where we are, in this life, rather than worrying overmuch over what might happen "afterwards". For me, living well is far more important. As a Unitarian, I am fortunate that I don't need to worry about where my soul might go after death, depending on my actions in this life: I believe in neither heaven nor hell as after-life concepts. As far as I'm concerned, we make our own hells, our own heavens, here and now. And, through our actions (or inactions), we can turn other people's lives into living hells, living heavens.

Yet I do believe that some part of me will be reunited with the Divine, from whence my soul came, when I was born. I find this belief comforting, and it even helps me to listen to the Divine spark within, so that I can strive to be the best person I can, here, now.

Friday 29 March 2024

Choosing to Follow the Example of Jesus

I don’t know why it is, but most of the news we read in the papers, hear on the radio, see on the television or the internet, seems to be bad news. Decent behaviour seems less spectacular and is less often reported. Why is that, do you think? Could it be because we instinctively expect such behaviour, and therefore feel it unnecessary to call attention to it? I think that this would be more the Unitarian view of human nature. I believe it is our job to rise above our petty human limitations and find a better, more inclusive, more compassionate way of living in relationship with the rest of humankind, and with the blue-green planet that is our home.

(credit:RasooliArtowrks on DeviantArt)

I love the writings of Richard Rohr, a Catholic Franciscan monk, who is one of the most open-minded Christians I have ever known. He tells us, “Jesus never said, 'Worship me,'' he said 'Follow me.' He asks us to imitate him in his own journey of full incarnation. To do so, he gives us two great commandments: (1) Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and (2) Love your neighbour as yourself. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shows us that our 'neighbour' even in cludes our 'enemy'."

It is up to us to follow the example of Jesus, love our neighbours as ourselves, treat them as they would wish to be treated, with lots of compassion, no judgement, and absolute equity and respect, and do our best to make the world a more positive, happier place.

I have long believed that there is a divine spark within each of us, "that of God" as the Quakers would say. As I see it, our job as Unitarians, as human beings, is to be constantly aware of the divine influences around us, in the world, in our fellow human beings, and to recognise that there is that of God in everyone, and that we are all connected to each other, on a very fundamental level. When we are in loving relationship with others, we can form circles of love. Because being in loving relationship with others is the strongest way I know of influencing the world for good.

Which the world desperately needs at the moment. Although our headlines are filled with news of the war in Gaza (not so much about the Ukraine now, although the war there continues), there are many other places in the world where war and famine and hatred are spreading their toll of misery. Many other places which need our attention, our compassion, our action. We human beings are complex creatures. I think we have to accept that the polarity between what we call good and what we call evil is present in every individual, as well as in humankind generally, but that it is up to each one of us to make a conscious effort to choose the good over the evil, and to make of our lives a greater whole.

So what should we do about this? We are all human beings, we are all members of many communities – our families, our friends, our colleagues, our faith and other communities – and we are all members of the human race. What difference can we, as individuals, make to those communities? I think we need to be aware that we are in a living relationship with the rest of the world, and that our words and actions can influence the fate of that world and its inhabitants, our fellow human beings, not to mention all the other living things. Whether our influence is for good or ill is up to us.

There are people whose lives have been shining examples of putting this Golden Rule, which is shared by all the major religions, into practice. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr was one; Nelson Mandela was another; so was Mother Theresa. I could also mention the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. What all these people have in common is that whatever life threw at them, they somehow managed to rise above the natural human instincts for revenge and hate, and continued to live their lives in a spirit of love.

It’s a big wide world, and we are only little people. But we can resolve to make our little corners of the world more loving places.


Friday 22 March 2024

Life's Ups and Downs

You know how it is... on any particular day, we can be strolling along in our lives, quite happy, with nothing in particular going on, then some news comes which turns everything upside down. It might be that something terrible has happened in the world - another war or natural disaster, or we are reminded that the climate change crisis is still getting worse, day by day, whether we ignore it or not, whether we do your best to minimise our own carbon footprint or not. The news is full of distressing stories.

Or it might be something more personal: a family member or close friend is ill, when yesterday they were fine; or something else has happened to them, which will change their life, and hence ours.

Or it might be something quite trivial that matters to nobody else but us: perhaps a coffee date is cancelled, or we realise we've screwed something up at work. But it still hurts or irritates us, upsetting our equilibrium.

In all these cases, what has happened is a life-changing event. But the only thing we can control, is our own response to whatever it is. And how we respond may change over quite a short period of time. Our first response will (probably) to be upset, hurt, angry, sad, ashamed - any one of a number of negative emotions. 

Yet I have found, over the years, that our first responses are rarely the most helpful ones, unless they inspire us to do something positive. (To give an example, if we are upset by a video about something bad happening in the world, and our response is to try to help in whatever way we can, that is helpful.)

But mostly, our first responses to something upsetting are negative, and not helpful in the long term. At such times, I find it useful (if I can) to step away from the bad news (whatever it is) and find somewhere I can be alone and simply breathe. Just breathe. If I'm at home, I'll take myself up into the Forest, and allow its peace to rebalance me. If I can manage to remember to do this, the tumult in my mind will eventually quieten, enabling me to consider the situation with a little more objectivity. Because I know, from long experience of responding first and considering later, that then, and only then, will I be able to respond appropriately, helpfully, compassionately, to whatever it is.

Of course, there are situations when this simply doesn't work - if we have lost a loved one, for example. But even then, simply sitting or walking in silence, meditating, for a while may give us the strength to cope with whatever the situation is, to find some perspective, and to remember that we are not alone. That we have family and friends to support us. And in my case, to remember that God is Love at the centre of everything. And that, as Julian of Norwich famously wrote, in the long term, "all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Friday 15 March 2024

A Huge Challenge

Mahatma Gandhi, the mid-20th century non-violent Indian nationalist and philosopher, who famously led the Indian nation out of the British Empire, once wrote, "To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of truth face to face, one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life."

In other words, it's not good enough to stand at the sidelines of life and spout platitudes about goodness, mercy etc. It is necessary to engage with everything around us, on a deeply compassionate and empathic level, regardless of its / their station and circumstance. Gandhi was famous for engaging with people of the Dalit caste, those who were considered to be "untouchable" by members of higher castes.

But oh my goodness! It is a huge challenge. I am sitting here in my nice warm house, working on my laptop (because I can afford to use as much electricity as I need to) and generally living a life of privilege. I have written about my uneasiness about it before, and am only too aware that as a well-off, White, heterosexual woman, I have a head start on so many others, simply through accidents of birth, and good fortune.

Yet Gandhi is not talking only about having compassion and empathy for other human beings, vitally necessary though that is. He speaks of loving "the meanest of creation" as oneself. If we follow that to its logical end, we should all be vegans, climate change and social justice activists, and committed to non-violence, and to alleviating the circumstances of anyone worse off than ourselves.

And I fear that it too hard for most of us. It is too hard for me. Then I remember that I am in the privileged position of being able to choose whether or not to engage with this stuff. And feel guilty all over again. 

Yet I believe that the attempt to live in this way should at least be made, if we are to save this planet and the people and living creatures on it. If we are to fight for justice and equity for all living beings. Words are easy to say and write, but translating those words into concrete and effective actions is hard. Perhaps the least any of us should do is what we can, where we are. And be aware of what we are running away from facing, if we choose to turn our backs on making the effort, being our best selves.

Like I said, it's a huge challenge...

Friday 8 March 2024

God Beyond Proof

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, theologian and passionate campaigner against the Nazi regime. For this "crime", he was imprisoned by Hitler's regime in April 1943, and executed by them on 9th April 1945.

But his faith in God, in God's grace, was untouched by his sufferings. As the Wikipedia article about him comments, "His writings on Christianity's role in the secular world have become widely influential; his 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship, is described as a modern classic." 

When his fellow dissident pastor, Martin Niemöller, founded the Pastors' Emergency League in 1933, to protest against Nazi interference in church affairs and theology, Bonhoeffer swiftly came on board. The League eventually evolved into the Confessing Church, which stood for traditional Christian values against the German Christians, who supported Hitler's policies.

He once wrote, "A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol." Which is a neat expression of the central paradox of any deistic faith. Because belief in God is essentially a matter of faith, which the anonymous author of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament defined as, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

I agree with him, up to a point. Yes, none of us can prove (or disprove!) the existence of God. For people who believe in Him / Her / It, God exists; for people who don't, God doesn't. But I believe that we can know (in a certain sense) that God exists for us, through faith.  And I, along with so many thousand others, have spent considerable time and energy trying to work out what God means to me, as a Unitarian.

Over the past decade or so, I have come to appreciate that for me, God's presence is everywhere, in our ordinary, everyday lives, if we had but eyes to see and ears to hear. And is also eternal, infinite and real; not unknowable. Or at least, not entirely. I believe we can only get glimpses of the Divine, but we can become aware of Her / Him / It in everything around us, in ourselves, and in each other.

This belief makes me a panentheist, which is defined in Cross's The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church as, "the belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him [sic.] but that His [sic.] Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe."

So for me, the Divine is not only beyond proof and eternal and infinite, but also immanent, within all things. As the Quakers would say, there is "that of God in everyone". To which I would add, "and in everything."

The presence of the sacred in the natural world was first shown to me by my father, when I was a little girl. He showed me a flower and asked me to really look at it, to become aware of its intricate and complex design, having petals, sepals, stamens, carpels; each element working together to form that flower and enabling it to reproduce. He asked me, "How can we look at the design of that flower, and not believe in a creator God?" And I felt an inner jolt, which has always accompanied my understanding of a revelation of the truth. The beauty and intricate coherence of the natural world still fill me with awe and delight, and I often stop, on my walks in the forest near my home, to give thanks.

The understanding that this Divine indwelling presence also extends to humankind has taken longer to penetrate. But today, I honestly trust that there is that of God in everyone; and that God is Love at the centre of everything. And that the best way of worshipping Him / Her / It is to recognise that, and to try to live in the world in response to this sacred presence. 

Proof and trust are very different ways of approaching difficult ideas, such as the existence of a Divine Being. It is, perhaps, natural to want some proof, and many Christians cite a list of belief statements as proof of God's existence, in the form of various creeds which summarise Christian beliefs.

But I say again, belief is not the same as proof. We cannot prove the existence of God, but I honestly don't think it matters. What matters is that we live our lives in the best way we can, try to make a positive difference in the world, and do as little harm as possible. And I appreciate that belief in a divine being is not necessary to resolve to do this, but I find that it helps me, as it helps countless others.



Friday 1 March 2024

Human Being as Spirit

This week's philosophical quote, by the Danish Existentialist philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, reads, "A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? The spirit is the self. But what is the self?"

Of course, this being Kierkegaard, I realised it would probably be more complicated than this. So I Googled to find the quote in context. It is from his book, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. Here it is: 

"A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates to itself or is the relation's relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation's relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the fintie, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way, a human being is still not a self... In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self."

Which hurt my head a little. However, one sentence spoke to my condition: "A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the fintie, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis." Which reminded me of the Quaker affirmation that there is "that of God in everyone."

When we really start to think about or reflect on what we are as human beings, it gets complicated. We have a body, which is physical; we have a mind, which does our thinking; we have emotions, which do our feeling; and many of us believe we have a soul, which is "that of God" within each of us. I believe that our bodies, minds and emotions live in time, but our soul, which I believe came into us at our birth, is that eternal part ofus which is reaching out to that of the Divine which is in, and is, the world and the universe. And it will return to union with the Infinite, which some of us call God, when we die.

As I wrote in a previous post, "For me, God, the Divine, Spirit of Life and Love, is eternal, infinite and real. But not unknowable. At least, not entirely. I believe we can only get glimpses of the Divine, but we can be aware of some Being beyond our finite selves in everything around us, but also in ourselves and in each other."

I have also pondered on the nature of the Spirit here. I believe that when we choose to be open to the presence of the Spirit everywhere, that is when we grow into our true selves. I'm not sure I'll ever really understand Kierkegaard, but that is my take on his words.