Being a few thoughts inspired by the Scottish novelist Neil M. Gunn on the kind of way those of liberal persuasion might seek to follow post COVID-19.
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Music, "New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass)
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One of the common questions being asked by almost everyone today is what might be the best possible way for them to move on as the current pandemic restrictions are, hopefully, more permanently eased, and the actual, challenging outlines of the post-pandemic social, political, religious and economic situation begin properly to emerge from the fog.
This seeking out of confident and clear ways to move on well — either individually or institutionally — is, of course, a question that has always lain close to the surface of religion and philosophy, or at least the kind of ancient philosophy explored by Pierre Hadot which was conceived of as being ‘a way of life’ rather than only a specialised, academic and quasi-scientific discipline. In the particular European and American liberal religious context in which I work, the idea of the best way forward comes to the fore most noticeably either in its Christian form, when the author of the Gospel of John (14:7) has Jesus say, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me’, or in its Taoist form, in the idea of the Tao, ‘the Way’ — often spelt, alas, with a capital ‘W’.
At this point in proceedings, as an heir to a liberal, rationalist tradition, I might now easily spend a great deal of time with you engaging in a detailed comparative study of these different ways, either in an attempt to reveal one as better, or at least more preferable, liberal, wise or humane than the other or, perhaps, to show that at some, putative, deeper level they were really expressions of some underlying, universal and definitely capital ‘W’ Way. But, as I have got older these academic and/or polemical ways of proceeding have become less and less interesting to me, not least of all because they seem to miss something that does seem to me to be very interesting and important, especially to those of us with liberal inclinations.
As I have increasingly noted during the twenty-one years of my ministry, the articulation, and then the highly disciplined embodiment of any kind of capital ‘W’ way forward seems to bring with it, to my mind anyway, more problems than solutions and, in a moment, I’ll concentrate on what I see as being one of those major problems. But, first of all, let me say I fully appreciate that in a complex and uncertain world a certain kind of disciplined focus on capital ‘W’ Ways can have useful, limited roles because they clearly can help some people live highly valuable and extremely worthwhile lives. I accept that. But I also want to make it clear that the success gained is always done so at the expense of that something else which I think is very interesting and important and which I, as a liberal religious and philosophically inclined person, do not want to lose sight, or regular experience, of.
The fact is I can’t help but thinking that deciding what the best capital ‘W’ Way forward is before one has walked in full the crooked walk of one’s own life, is surely to put the proverbial cart before the horse. Rather than being an opener of horizons, a capital ‘W’ Way forward can only ‘succeed’, if success it is, by deliberately narrowing the horizon before one to the width of the road ahead on the gamble that, as the Christian tradition puts it anyway, ‘narrow is the gate and close-cramped the pathway leading away to life, and those who find it are few’ (Matthew 7:14). Consequently, we can see, by their very nature, that capital ‘W’ ways, rather than being engines of immersion in the breadth and complex intra-actions of life in its fullness, turn out to be engines of partial removal or protection from that complex fullness and they do this by foregrounding and focussing upon narrow simplifications and generalisations. Yes, that process of simplification and generalisation has its place and value but, I want to ask, should it really be the central concern of religion and philosophy, especially liberal forms of religion and philosophy?
This is, surely, the very same question addressed by Jesus in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The Jewish priest and the Levite in the story are proceeding through life on their own capital ‘W’ ways. Their roads, their Ways forward, are narrow and close-cramped and it is their focus on a narrow, preconceived idea of in what consists the good life that causes them to pass by the injured man on the roadside because to attend to him would be to step off their capital ‘W’ ways and begin to walk something they fear is the ‘broad and open’ path to destruction (Matthew 7:13). However, as we know, the Good Samaritan, if he also had his own version of a way, seems to have been following a lowercase ‘w’ way that was broad and open, one which allowed him to see that something very, very important was going on ‘by the way’ and that he should heed its call, turn aside, stop, and pay close attention to it. In this case, of course, the important something ‘by the way’ to pay close attention to was the injured man. We can see that the intra-actions which then occurred ‘by the way’ between the injured man, the Good Samaritan and the inn-keeper together served to reveal not only new ways for them all to move forward but also, by extension, new kinds of ‘by the ways’.
In recent weeks, both alone and with other friends and members connected with the Cambridge Unitarian Church where I am minister, as I have been reflecting on what kind of liberal way forward I would like to try to embody in the complex and challenging post-pandemic situation, it has increasingly struck me that it needs to be, not a single minded capital ‘W’ way but, instead, a lowercase ‘w’, intra-active, way which allows me to continue to pay attention to, and stop to consider, those things that I find ‘by the way.’
This general thought has been powerfully enriched by a recent reading of the extraordinary autobiography of the important twentieth-century Scottish novelist, Neil M. Gunn (1891-1973). The book, first published in 1956, is called “The Atom of Delight” and it has been described as being an expression of “Highland Zen”, not least of all because in it Gunn began an explicit and creative conversation with some of the ideas he had found in Taoist thought in general and, in particular, Eugen Herrigel’s book, “Zen in the Art of Archery.” In the opening chapter called, ‘By the Way’, Gunn writes as follows:
The difference between “by the way” and “on the way” may be the difference between not having any kind of philosophy and having one. To be “on the way” is to have an idea of what Eastern thought calls the Way. But whether there is such a way or not, there can be no doubt at all about “by the way.” What happens by the way is not a matter of philosophy but of life, of universal experience. One can of course attempt to analyse it, to fit it into this system of thought or that, but by its very nature it is bound to cause a diversion in the neatly fitted jigsaw. In the end the diversion becomes the deviation which wrecks the system.
No wonder those who create systems fear it like the devil. This simple atom of longing, of delight, carries a high explosive potential. It is verbally miscalled from “the irrational” to “heresy”. It has been hanged, drawn and quartered, burnt at the stake, gassed, and shot in the back of the neck. Then it pops up when least expected; with a smile, too, that is a whole dawn of wonder — if persecution hasn’t got its claws in too deep; and, if so, at least persecution is then seen for what it is — senseless, futile, the bloody destroyer’ (pp. 3-4).
Gunn reveals throughout the book how the ‘by the way’ is the place, or rather are the places, where he has most often found what he was looking for even though what he found was often surprising to him (cf. p. 1). His books and its characters, and indeed his own life, are filled with moment after moment had ‘by the way’ and, together, they form a kind of dispersed, uncentered centre to both his art and life.
It’s no wonder that, on publication of his autobiography, which so clearly revealed Gunn’s penchant for both ‘by the way’ and a connection with a certain style of Eastern philosophy, some of it’s first critics who had been impressed at Gunn’s ability to write a ‘solid, mainstream Scottish novel’ (p. 246) were profoundly disturbed by this. For example, the hugely influential poet, critic and broadcaster Maurice Lindsay (1918–2009), in his ‘History of Scottish Literature’ wrote, that in his opinion Gunn’s ‘increasing preoccupation with . . . Zen Buddhism blurred his practical sense of purpose’ and Lindsay also writes dismissively of Gunn’s ‘retreat into a personal mysticism.’ The reception of his heartfelt and deeply insightful autobiography which revealed the inner dynamics at play in his writing was negative enough to make Gunn decide that there would be from him no more books or novels and so one of the most important writers of the Scottish Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s fell silent, in literary terms anyway, until his death in 1973. However, we are fortunate that since then a reassessment of Gunn’s overall achievement has begun. Indeed, Alan Spence in the ‘New Edinburgh Review’ of Summer 1982 wrote that in Gunn’s ‘Atom of Delight’ his ‘true sense of purpose, far from being blurred, was never sharper’ and Spence continues by noting that ‘as for his “retreat” into mysticism’ he preferred to see it ‘as an ascent, pathfinding, a showing of the way.’ It’s significant, I think, that Spence does not capitalise the ‘w’ of way in this last sentence.
Anyway, Spence seems to me to be right here, and Gunn’s writing, Jesus’ parable, as well as my own ongoing experience of life, together serve to remind me again and again of the value of those things that are found ‘by the way’. But this is not a popular lowercase ‘w’ way of proceeding, indeed, as Gunn noted, it has often been characterised as being irrational or heretical which has cost people not only their public standing and livelihoods but, at times, even their very lives. Why? Well, it’s because they have always been the people who have reminded us that life as it is actually lived is, for the most part, one lived ‘by the way’ and that recognising this modest, everyday truth, is always going to cause a diversion in the neatly fitted jigsaws that the-powers-that-be like to claim is the only Way, Truth and Life. As Gunn saw, and to an extent experienced in his own life, a life lived ‘by the way’ becomes not simply a diversion but the deviation which wrecks the system and so, exiled or terminated you must be.
But if, like me, you are basically a liberal ‘skeptic with a naturally religious mind’, or an open-minded ‘reverent’ humanist — the subject of Episode 17 of this podcast — then you’re never going to be fully persuaded that there exists any single, actual capital ‘W’ Way or capital ‘S’ system.
However, as Gunn states clearly, though we will always doubt the existence of any actual capital ‘S’ System or capital ‘W’ Way, the one thing about which there can be no doubt at all is the existence of ‘by the way.’ We can also be confident that what happens ‘by the way’ is not dependent upon having some highfalutin (or even some lowfalutin) philosophy, but of life, of universal human experience. More and more it seems to me that we only find something approaching what we can call the common ground of humanity when we have the courage and wisdom to step off our capital ‘W’ Ways and are prepared to linger together, now here, now there, ‘by the way’.
Naturally, I fully realise that for many people all the foregoing will simply be a perfect illustration that, like Gunn before me, I have become a person whose practical sense of purpose is now fatally blurred and that I am merely retreating into some kind of personal mysticism. But forgive me if I demur and choose continually to linger by the way because, my friends, it is only by paying attention to what’s going on by the way that I think we’ll have the best chance of finding together the most appropriate and compassionate way forward out of the mess in which we currently find ourselves.
Oh, and by the way . . .