Thursday, 9 September 2010


An address given to Golders Green Unitarians on 5 September 2010

Empiricism, according to Alister McGrath, is the idea that 'truth arises from reflection within the mind on what the human faculties experience through sense perception'.  So we experience something through our senses, then we reflect upon it, and from this, truth arises.
According to Karen Armstrong, in The Case for God (which should really be called the case for religion), belief and faith both originally meant loyalty to an evolving tradition; first you did the ritual, and then the teachings were revealed – and they only made sense in the context of the ritual. The ritual was experienced through the senses, and then its symbolism made sense.
In the eighteenth century, rationalists and empiricists sharply disagreed about the nature of truth.  For rationalists, the power to reason was an innate quality of the human mind.  But for empiricists, babies were born as a “blank slate” for experience to write upon – with no innate qualities or faculties.  The conflict continued well into the twentieth century, with the nature versus nurture debate in psychology, which was an argument about whether hereditary traits were more important in the development of the personality, or whether your environment could override your genetic inheritance.
But as far as I can see, it is not a case of either / or – it’s a case of both / and.  We need reason to work things out logically, and to ensure our ideas are consistent with reality.  But we also need experiment and experience.  We do not sit isolated in our ivory towers formulating an abstract theology or philosophy.  We derive our understandings of the world from our experience, the stimuli that come in through our senses: taste, touch, smell, hearing, sight and proprioception (the sense of your location in space, which is governed by your inner ear, and enables you to stay upright and balanced).  We can then compare our experiences with those of others, and reflect upon them.  And we learn new things by experimenting, hopefully in a safe space.  The first time you do a new thing is an experiment – you are testing an aspect of your environment.  And it is by experimenting that we gain experience.  Interestingly in the French language, the word for both experiment and experience is expĂ©rience.
Charles Darwin had a long-running experiment with worms, where he put a millstone in his lawn and then measured how much it settled into the earth because it was being undermined by earthworms burrowing underneath it.  I have seen the millstone set into his lawn at Down House in Kent; the experiment is still going on.  Thanks to Darwin’s curiosity and imagination, a tiny puzzle about the way the world works is being solved.
They say that curiosity killed the cat; but on the other hand, fortunately the cat has nine lives.  And in fact, curiosity is not generally fatal to cats.  Curiosity is a good thing, as long as it is balanced with discernment and compassion.  I am sure we can all think of scientific experiments that are not done with sufficient compassion; and of experiments that were not done with sufficient discernment (such as the development of atomic weapons or genetically modified crops).  So we cannot allow curiosity a completely free rein; it must be tempered with wisdom.  It’s not that any knowledge is forbidden to us by divine edict; knowledge must be tempered with wisdom. In Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy, he explores the ideas of Montaigne, who decried education that imparted facts but did not teach people how to live well.  It is the great divorce of science and religion that has allowed this split in awareness to develop – the fact that fundamentalists continue to insist on literal interpretations which are contrary to reason and science, makes scientists dismiss the whole of religion as a waste of space.  But Unitarians steadfastly maintain, and many other religions affirm, that religion is not about beliefs, doctrines and dogmas – it is about values, and about experiencing the world with a sense of awe and wonder and gratitude.  It is about celebrating life, and experiencing it to the full; letting our imagination and creativity play over the vast panoply of nature.
Imagination is also an important quality; it enables us to imagine the world differently.  And this is what liberal religions do, too.  For my MA, I studied the relationship between Pagans and science, including their interest in science fiction. One of the reasons that Pagans like science fiction (and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was true of Unitarians too) is that it dreams of worlds with different societies, different ethical systems, and different ways of interacting with the planet than our own.  Science fiction is a thought experiment about how things might play out if you had a different set of starting conditions – for example, if people lived in caves with very little living space, how would that affect their sense of space?  They would be agoraphobic and have no sense of personal space.  And if there was another planet that was sparsely populated, they might be claustrophobic and get used to large amounts of personal space.  Now imagine the dramatic possibilities if you transplant the inhabitant of the sparsely populated planet to the cave planet, or vice versa, and how that would affect them.  This is the premise of Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel.  The message of the novel is a hopeful one: that people can overcome the conditioning of their home environment – but they have to be willing to try.
It is the same with our spiritual life.  If we always do the same old stuff, we might get stuck in a rut; but if we try new things, we might gain new insights.  I don’t necessarily mean that the new thing has to be something scary or difficult – it could just be trying again at something you have failed at in the past.  I thought I was rubbish at meditation until I tried again in a morning meditation session at Great Hucklow Summer School, and something that was said – that you can begin again each moment, and that if thoughts arise, do not follow them – gave me the key to learning to relax and just do it.  Sometimes trying something with a different person in a different context can give a different perspective on it.
Similarly with prayer: I didn’t really understand prayer until I read a book about it by a Russian Orthodox monk called Staretz Silouan.  I would never have come across this book unless I had tried Orthodoxy and been lent the book by an Orthodox nun called Mother Sarah.  So doing something outside one’s comfort zone can sometimes be beneficial.  Ultimately Orthodoxy wasn’t for me, but I learnt a lot while I was involved in it, especially about the differences between Eastern and Western Christian doctrine, which enabled me to read the Gospels in a very different way, and look at the Christian tradition differently.
As the Quakers say, “Be open to new light, wherever it may come from” – a very wise saying, I feel.
Another aspect of an empirical approach to religion and spirituality is its pragmatism.  We can try new things and persist with them for a while – but if they don’t work for us, we can stop doing them.  I can’t imagine Unitarians persisting in doing something unpleasant or detrimental just because it was the custom to do it, or because tradition demanded it.  (Come to think of it, this must be the case, because I can’t think of any Unitarian practices that are unpleasant.)
Of course human beings are always a bit reluctant to try new things – we like our safe comfortable ruts and grooves, our tried and tested ways of doing things.  But remember when your mum and dad got you to try that new vegetable on your plate, and you actually liked it?  Or when you first learnt to ride a bike, the feeling of exhilaration when you realised that your dad wasn’t holding on to the back of the bike any more? It can be pleasurable to experiment with new ways of doing things.
So let us approach the world with wonder and a willingness to experiment. Let’s be willing to try new things – even Brussels sprouts. 

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