Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Enlightenment

A motion was proposed at the UK GA in defence of the Enlightenment. The author of the motion was sitting in front of me, and said that he just wanted to start a conversation about it. What a good idea, I said. So here goes.

The Enlightenment was a complex phenomenon with many strands. One of those strands was the origin of the Pagan revival. Another was the rise of rational religion in the form of Unitarianism, deism and humanism. A further strand was the rise of rationalism, which at the time was in opposition to the empiricism of Locke and others. The rationalists held that reason was a priori, God-given; the empiricists held that we are born with a blank slate (tabula rasa) and acquire reasoning skills by experience. It was only in the early 20th century that a synthesis of rationalism and empiricism was finally achieved. Another strand of the Enlightenment was the concept of the sublime - the experience of awe when confronted by natural phenomena such as mountains, waterfalls and wilderness. This represented a considerable shift in attitudes to nature, and it was out of this that Romanticism emerged. A further aspect of the Enlightenment was the rise of feminism, with the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and others. There had been previous feminist writings, but Wollstonecraft represents the beginnings of a movement as opposed to a few isolated individuals. Remember also that evolution by natural selection had not yet been discovered; hardly anyone was aware of the great age of the Earth; science was still called natural philosophy; Oxford and Cambridge were Anglican-only universities and generally not very science-focussed; if you wanted to study science, the best place to go was a Dissenting Academy, like Joseph Priestley.

So the Enlightenment was a multi-faceted phenomenon, a mixture of sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory discourses. It was an intellectual ferment, an explosion of interest in natural phenomena, history, and literature - an awakening.

The legacy of the Enlightenment is therefore also a mixed blessing. Pure rationalism has given rise to reductionism, logical positivism, behaviourism and other scientific dead-ends; but the idea that we should subject all impulses and beliefs to reason before acting on them seems to me an excellent idea. Empiricism - the primacy of experience and experiment - is also a good principle to work by. Always asking, "Yes but does it work? What are the consequences?" is a good test for most situations. And utilitarianism (another Enlightenment idea) is also useful if not carried to extremes. Seeking the greatest happiness of the greatest possible number of people is good, as long as the rights of the remaining few are not trampled.

Where the legacy of the Enlightenment has failed us is when we assume that science does not need to be tempered with other approaches. The worst excesses of industry, pollution, eugenics, behaviourist psychology and other extreme science should have been tempered with compassion and humanity.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

A happy whale

I just received this very touching story via email.
If you had read a recent front page story of the San Francisco Chronicle, you would have known about a female humpback whale that had become entangled in a spider web of crab traps and lines. She was weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat. She also had yards of line rope wrapped around her body, her tail, her torso, and a line tugging in her mouth.

A fisherman spotted her just east of the Farallon Islands (outside the Golden Gate ) and radioed an environmental group for help.

Within a few hours, the rescue team arrived and determined that she was so badly off, the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her.

They worked for hours with curved knives and eventually freed her.

When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles.

She then came back to each and every diver, one at a time, and nudged them, pushed them gently if thanking them.

Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives.

The guy who cut the rope out of her mouth said her eyes were following him the whole time, and he will never be the same.
I found the original story in the SF Chronicle.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

My GA UK experience

At the weekend, I went to the Unitarian General Assembly event. It was a great opportunity to see old friends and make new ones, and find out more about other Unitarians and their spirituality. There were a number of business meetings with votes on various issues (none particularly ground-breaking this year, though they were important, and there have been some very important motions in the past). The sense of participating in the democratic process of the Unitarian movement is quite important to me - it means that there is a mechanism for change.

There was the opening ceremony (I am afraid the drumming in the opening ceremony was too loud for me, but I appreciated its energy); and the Anniversary Service, which was excellent and I experienced a genuine sense of the divine in it.

I also attended some of the fringe meetings. The Unitarian Earth Spirit Network meeting had Prudence Jones as its guest speaker (an excellent choice). Perhaps ironically, I see her Enlightenment-inspired version of Paganism as being much closer to Unitarianism than to the views expressed by most Pagans these days. But then that's why I am a Unitarian, because I agree with most of her views.

I also attended the Unitarian Christian Association session, which was holding a launch of a new book by David Doel, entitled The Man they called the Christ, which embraces the mythological view of Jesus, which regards the whole story as mythology along the lines of other dying-and-resurrecting Middle Eastern vegetation gods. This does not make the story any less valid; it just sets it in the context of other similar mythology and allows us to experience it as the death of the ego and the resurrection of the larger self as we turn towards the Divine in the experience of metanoia.

Another really great session was the Labyrinth Walk. The labyrinth is a metaphor for life's journey; it twists and turns towards the centre, but you never know how close you are to the centre until you get there. You meet people on the way, and pass people, but each journey is an unique experience, even though we're all travelling on the same path. This is the second time I have walked this labyrinth, which is based on the Chartres Labyrinth.

The Nottingham University campus, where the event was held, is lovely - lots of water and modern wooden buildings, and a very tame heron. The food was quite nice, the rooms comfortable, and the staff were very friendly and helpful.

It was fantastic to see old friends and make new ones, and I look forward to more of the same.