Tag Archives: Bertrand Russel

A Country Childhood – Enchantment

A friend of mine often mocks my religious beliefs, citing Bertrand Russell. A philosopher who said he had no respect for those who claimed to worship an unknown God. People such as me believe he thought in an irrational and nonsensical set beliefs that could withstand the cold of scientific scrutiny. What I believe is that they they lack is an understanding of the magic of existence. One of the benefits of a country childhood was being gifted with an understanding of the magic of nature. Now in my seventies I can see it as a time of enchantment.

As a child of the 1940s when technological advances had left the countryside largely untouched, anything could be magical. One such occasion was my first visit to the blacksmith. His workshop was dark and gloomy, the only light coming from the forge and a soft ingrained window. Usually the lack of sunlight meant he left the door open, whatever the weather so as to get sufficient light with which to work. I witnessed this man using hammers, pincers and the forge to manufacture a horse shoe. A man so shrouded in shadow, that the only feature of his that I can recall is his bare arms. As a child of a pre-industrial age I can understand why medieval man intuited magic to the work of blacksmith. Seeing him turn a lump of shapeless metal into a horseshoe for the horse tethered outside seemed to be the practice of some spectral art. Given the powers of the swords wielded by the heroes of the medieval sagas, magic had to be part of the process of their making. Excalibur could well have been made in that age old smithy in the Gloucestershire of my childhood. It was not so far distant from the reputed land of Arthur.Technology robs today’s children of that sense of wonder. Excalibur for them could feature in a game played on their tablet, becoming a sword robbed of all its magic.

Today’s urban children are remote from the natural environment. I was not only in it, but part of it. . The natural environment was an ever changing constant in my life. Nature started at the bottom of my garden. There the hidden world of the woodland started. Even those paths through the woods that were familiar to me were constantly changing. Each day there would be something new to discover. Autumn was the time to look for toadstools, what I wanted to spot was the red Fly Agaric. A red toadstool with white spots, so loved of the illustrators of children’s books. Surprisingly they were not a common sight in the woods, instead they were full of their duller cousins. Although one duller cousin the puffball gave off delightfully clouds of black dust when kicked. Once the red Fly Agaric was finally found you knew that you were a participant in those stories about fairies that you read. Not only that there was the even more exciting time when you came across a fairy circle. These toadstools grew in a circle within which you knew the fairies danced at night. Adults then never disabused you of this belief. They also knew that nature was never a mystery can could never be fully explained. In their lifetime they had seen things that could that not be contained within rational explanation.

Naturalists claim that the rooks court is but a figment of the rural imagination. Rooks courts were those held by the colony of rooks, in which those rooks that have committed infractions of the rules of the colony were judged and punished. Yet my father one day heard a cacophony of noise from the vicinity of the rookery. There he saw a circle of rooks in centre of which were two rooks. From the tone of the rook’s cries it was obvious that were antagonistic to these two at the centre of the circle. Unfortunately these rooks became aware of my father’s presence and flew off, so he never discovered how the rookery would have dealt with these two miscreants. All countrymen could recount the similar stories, so for them nature was a mystery that could never be reduced to the explanations of science.

One of the most important events in the estate calendar was the village fete. All the villagers wanted to earn the prestigious title of best of show for their vegetables and flowers. Tricks and ploys of various forms were used some whose practice seemed to be the practice of some natural magic. Some men swore by planting their vegetables during the evening of a full moon. I cannot comment on the efficacy of this practice, although my father did try it one year, but disappointingly it produced no excessive profusion of vegetables.

None of the men of my childhood ever attended church. Church was for those of a different social class. It was for those who considered themselves superior to the workers, the rural middle class. The attitude of these people towards their supposed inferiors can be illustrated by a story. When the estate agent was checking on the work of the gamekeepers, he came in a car accompanied by his wife. She while observing the workers from the open car window, dropped a glove. She said to her husband while pointing at my father, tell that man to pick up my glove. What my father and his co-workers seemed to believe in was a religion was one that predated Christianity. An older religion that was founded on a respect for nature and its ways. They knew little of the church rituals or practices. Yet they were aware were the seasonal Christian rituals, as these rituals marked the changing of the seasons and there work practices. Then harvest festival signalled such a change. By now the crops had been harvested and the pace of work slowed. Work lost the intensity of summer. No longer would men work late at night harvesting the crop to take advantage of the favourable weather conditions.

While they never delayed the ploughing until ‘Plough Monday’ and certainly never attended a church service on that day, they knew on what day it fell. Plough Monday and other such rituals sanctified their working lives, it was more than a recognition of there value to the community. It elevated the mundane task of work into something out of the ordinary, something hallowed. For a country child Ash Wednesday was not a day of penance, it was instead the day in which we played with keys from the ash tree, trying to make them spin and fly. A shortage or lack of ash keys would have meant something was very wrong in nature. If I could go back in time and tell my father and his friends, that they practised a natural religion, they would have laughed at me. Religion was not something they talked about. Although I believe it governed there lives. Nature was a certain something, a thing to be respected not abused. They always had tales about the farmer or farm labourer who went against nature and suffered in consequence.

Although I think that my father and his workmates would have implicitly understood Democritus’s statement that every changes and nothing changes. They knew that nature was both ever changing and also a never changing something that endured from season to season and year to year.The rhythm of the seasons taught them this.

What a country childhood has given me is a sense of wonder. I can still see the enchantment within everyday things. As a child I eagerly looked for the first snow drop, as being the sign of the approach of spring. Then, if my father had come across the first snowdrop of the year, I and my sister would accompany him to that spot in which the snow drop was found, and marvel at its presence. Even now in my seventies when snowdrops are so common in urban gardens, I still look eagerly for that first snowdrop that is the first sign of the coming spring.

These old countrymen seemed to me to possess the wisdom of the ages. Not the silly version shown in Hollywood films, but a knowing grounded in reality of human existence. This gave them the strength to endure the horrors of war. In my fathers unit of thirty two that went to war, only three came back in 1945. The man who came back my mother said unrecognisable, he had become an old man. Yet he and the others endured seemed to me and his childhood friends to have come through the conflict unscathed. We longed forward to adulthood when we would possess the strength of our fathers.

Unlike my father I can give a name to my religious beliefs, I am a deist. While I respect Christianity and love the Anglican Church, I cannot call myself a Christian. What I possess is a countryman’s natural religion, a sense of awe at the wonder of existence. A religion which is not one that does not fit easily within the narrow confines of a particular doctrine. One that is without boundaries, one that flows easily from one religious discipline to another. That anonymous author who wrote ‘The Cloud of the UnKnowing’ gives the title to my religious belief. It not require a name.

Having inherited the natural religion of my fathers, unlike my friends I have great respect for the religious writers of the past. I read them wishing to give clarity to my natural religion. Medieval theologians were not as I popularly believed, obsessed with silly debates as to how many angels could dance on a pinhead. Anybody who cares to read the scholastic philosophers will discover thinkers as sophisticated in their thought as contemporary philosophers. Also as difficult to read as any modern philosopher.

John Hick with his term the ‘religious ultimate’ expresses best the belief of the those who cling to the natural religion of their fathers.

Religious mysticism and economics

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Javanese Mystical Beliefs The New York Times

All my adult life I have been trying to come to terms with what I learnt in my undergraduate philosophy classes. Coming from a relatively isolated rural Anglican background I had a belief in moral absolutes such as good and truth. Such terms where regularly used in conversation in my rural community, local villains were known as such and there was no ambiguity in our moral understandings. However at university I was introduced to a critical philosophy that undermined my belief in moral absolutes. One such example were the writings of Gilbert Ryle in which he dismissed the concept of a moral good. Good he explained was a term incapable of definition, as people would give differing explanations of what good meant, therefore could could be no more than an emotion. The same philosopher dismissed human consciousness as the ‘ghost in the machine’. He was sceptical of the notion of a special quality called consciousness existing apart from the biological mechanisms, which produced emotions and feelings. The idea of self was suspect, it did not fit with the understanding that biologists had of the human being. Consciousness and self were unscientific, their existence could not be proved, so it was illogical to believe in them. I guess I like many students felt the moral tectonic plates shift beneath my feet and realised the moral truths in which I believed had no firm foundation. Using the biblical analogy I was living in a house built on the shifting sands of contemporary morality.

However these relativist philosophers had not abandoned any notion of moral good. In practice they saw good as having some functional value, they behaved as would good men and women. They were fair in their treatment of us, turned up regularly to lectures etc. If they had behaved immorally the whole system would have collapsed. The first lesson I absorbed as that even if they did not see good and truth as moral absolutes, they saw them as having a practical utility.

I never really abandoned my Anglican beliefs, although I ceased to be a practising one. The 1960’s and 1970’s were an age of secularism and I used to enjoy discomforting my friends by telling them I was a Christian. Christians were for them a kind of pre-modern being, who were as distant from modern man, as were the Neanderthals from Homo Sapiens. Intelligent people for them could not believe in the myths and fairy stories of which organised religion was composed.

What I have sought since my university days is some intellectual underpinning or substance for my pre-modern beliefs in good and bad. I could not accept that there only purpose was that of enabling men to live together in an organised society. Interestingly I did learnt of one community in the Pacific, where stealing and dishonesty were valued. However this particular community, because of its dysfunctional nature was dying out.

Obviously I read widely, there is probably not a major philosopher of whom I do not have some knowledge, but it was not until I studied theology as a postgraduate that I began to make progress in finding solid ground on which to found my beliefs. The answer lies in the paradoxical nature of the unknown God, whose is both unknown and known. All theologians are to some degree negative theologians, they admit God is beyond human understanding, yet they claim some knowledge of this unknown God. Bertrand Russell scoffed at these theologians who believed in an unknown God as he pointed out that it was absurd to claim belief in a being that had no existence. However he misunderstood what theologians mean when they say they have no knowledge of God. God is unknown because he cannot be known through the usual methods of human understanding, as he exists beyond human existence. There can be no book of God as it is impossible to describe or explain what God is in language. There can be no science of religion, the science of observation or the laws of cause and effect have no relevance to the study of God. Yet this God can be known to the individual, but not through the usual means of human understanding.

Knowing God is a peculiarly individual experience, it is not as Kierkegaard states something that can be picked up from an afternoon’s study. There are no texts of instruction as such or a required reading list. Following Kierkegaard we cannot use direct language to speak of God, he cannot be described, but instead the language of God must be indirect language. The great religious teachers of the past are largely ignored but to learn the way to knowing truth or God it is to them that one must turn. It’s a knowledge quite unlike the knowledge of science or the humanities. Indirect learning or knowledge is the means of accessing these higher truth. The twentieth century philosopher Jasper explains that myth is one very successful way in which these truths can be accessed. Probably he’s thinking of Plato’s myth of the cave, in which he compares humanity to a group of men chained in a cave facing a wall behind which is a fire. Behind that wall are passed images which cast shadows of the cave wall and the chained men believe that those shadow images are reality. When one of the chained men escapes and goes into the sunlight and returns to tell the chained men what he has seen they refuse to believe him; they prefer the shadows or appearances with which they are familiar. What Plato is demonstrating is that the knowledge for understanding everyday existence is inadequate for the task of understanding what he and his Islamic successors (Sufis) would term the real. Plato has another a myth that explains the link between the real and the world of appearances in which we live. The creator God fashions the world and humanity out of clay and he uses as his model for creation the ‘real’. We are but copies of what the creator God could see, but which are concealed to us. Plato never believed the myths he created were ‘real’ but they was the only way he could explain, the complex nature of reality and existence. Jaspers put it more succinctly, there are some truths that can only be told through the use of myths.

Plato’s separation of the world into two spheres that of appearance and reality has remained influential. It is an understanding of existence that has been developed within the religious traditions of both Christianity and Islam. Rather than myth the Sufi sages use poetry, metaphor being a substitute for myth. One of my favourite phrases is taken from Rumi’s poem ‘The North Wind’

‘No matter how hard you stare into muddy water
you will not see the moon or sun’

It’s one of the best summaries of the Platonic need to search for truth beyond the world of ‘appearances’. However describing this world as one of ‘appearances’ does contradict our understanding of reality. Doctor Johnson gave the best retort, when he criticised Bishop Berkley’s theology, which saw the world as a product of God’s imagining. He said the pain he felt when stone he knocked his foot against was all too real, and was not a product of somebody’s imagining. All I can say is that Plato was trying to describe a level of reality that as it was not immediately visible and it could be distinguished from a reality that was all too apparent, which appears to us.

A person such as myself is described as a mystic, a term which I feel is derogatory as I believe my approach to knowing truth is quite rational. There is however a good reason for writing about my understanding of mysticism as a economist. Mysticism gives a very different understanding of the world to that of a practitioner of a science of the world of appearances. Economics judges the world in quantitive terms, using terms such as cost, loss and profit; it has no place for values. Therefore its practitioners are capable of making the most inhumane decisions, as they lack any sense of value. Milton Friedman could approve the torture and killing of trade unionists because their destruction paved the way to the free market. Ian Duncan Smith the minister for welfare can pursue a policy that through the removal of benefits impoverishes the poor and which even in extreme cases has led to suicide, as a means of incentivising people to return to work. To an economist misery and suffering are good if they produce the right result. Religious mystics could never accept such an inhumane belief system, they value the individual human too highly. Inflicting suffering is never an option for them, one hungry child is never the justification for this cruel method of incentivising work. Only an economist of the Neo-Liberal persuasion could be indifferent to human pain. Economics will constantly fail as it lacks a value system that would enable it to satisfy human wants. What economics so lack as a contemporary science is a knowledge of the old.

Notes
Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BCE) Classical Greek philosopher
Jelaluddin Rumi (30 September 1207 – 17 December 1273) Islamic jurist, theologian and mystic
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 – 11 November 1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic and religious author
Milton Friedman (July 31, 1912 – November 16, 2006) American economist