by Patrick Lewin
from Signs of the Times No. 25 - Apr 2007
[Other parts: • part 1part 2part 4part 5part 6]

Part II's introduction to 'character, talent, chance and destiny' ended with Bernard Levin's reflections on Shakespeare in Enthusiasms, 1983. The final chapter of this, his most enduring work, 'An irresistible celebration of the joys of life', is a lyrical summation of his experience of life's wonders and his own convictions.

Levin felt his disposition to wonder - wondering 'may be the most important element in the universe' - began with art. 'I am not talking about revelation; I have never had such an experience, and...  I am not sure I want one.' But listening to Mozart or a performance of the last three Schubert piano sonatas, standing before a Rembrandt painting or a statue by Rodin, reading a fine poem (he gave notable examples of each), 'the work of art, the artist and I are all three bound together...  - we are part of something that is vastly greater than ourselves, and which makes sense .'

He goes on to describe his experiences of natural wonders, the heavens at night, the curvature of the earth seen from an aircraft window, and the combination of the two, the Golden Gate bridge, 'toiling up the Acropolis to the blinding marble miracle above', the Taj Mahal, his first visit to the Oberammergau Passion Play with a fighter plane screaming 'across those hills, its shadow racing beneath it on the green tableau.' And he ends with Gustave Vigeland's lifetime achievement, the monumental bronze statuary carefully placed in Oslo's Frogner Park, the sinister dragons on the bridge. 'At that moment I realized what is the greatest truth behind such sights...  I knew, as we all know, that the dragons will be defeated.'

The Pity: the slave trade, then and now

The law of the jungle is more humane than some of the customs of humankind. Since the dawn of recorded history most societies have had slaves and traded them. It was more profitable to enslave and sell captured prisoners than kill or eat them. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica , 'Approximately 18,000,000 Africans were delivered into the Islamic trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades between 650 and 1905.'

Figures for those shipped westwards are disputed: 'upward of 7, probably nearer 13.4 million, since Portugal first imported Moors from North Africa in the mid-15th century. Explicit condemnation in the world's scriptures is rare and the Biblical and Islamic practice of manumitting (freeing) slaves after six years helped account for 'the ferocity and frequency of ...  slave raids'.

Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566), the Spanish Dominican known as the 'Apostle of the Indians', initially recommended the importation of African slaves to save the South American Indians, until he saw that happened to the blacks. So strong was the influence of Aristotle, who taught that humans were divided into those that had souls and those that didn't, that at first he could only plead that the Indians had souls, not that slavery in itself was wrong.

'So integral to the British economy was the slave business,' said The Economist on 24 February, 'that there were few men and institutions of wealth who did not want to invest in it, from the royal family and the Church of England downwards. Slavers could count on the Archbishop of Canterbury to defend them before God, and on politicians, like the young William Gladstone, himself the son of a plantation owner, to plead their case in Parliament.'

Slavery still flourishes under our saintly Christian noses. On 25 February the Independent on Sunday reported that the modern slave industry is now 'a £5bn-a-year business, second only to the illegal drugs trade. Nearly half of those trafficked end up being sold for sex.' The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says there are 5,000 child slaves in Britain, most of them girls.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence with its clarion cry, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...  ' himself kept slaves and had a child by one. Are we all fundamentally hypocrites?

With the Golden Rule in all the holy books, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you', or its negative equivalent, 'Do not... ', along with pious injunctions to love God and our neighbour as ourselves, how is it that our species remains so inhumane: that men, women and children are still wage slaves; that there are powerful forces within the Church and other religious institutions that would keep them the last bastions of male supremacy (not the only cruel prejudice), keeping the Devil grinning happily in pew and prelate alike?

At the launch of two religious books, one by a member of the MCU, an Anglican clergyman stood up, confessed to being steeped in wickedness, or words to that effect, and then said how much worse he would have been but for his evangelical conversion.

Miserable sinners and damned lucky

'I have often said, and oftener think, that this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel - a solution to why Democritus laughed and Heraclitus wept.' (Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, to Sir Horace Mann, 31 Dec, 1769)

Yet we are all, even the oppressed, immeasurably fortunate. We are alive now for this brief day amid immensities far vaster than those that terrified Pascal. Theodicy is for another time, but the odds against our being here appear to be incalculably great:

  1. whether there is one universe containing both good and evil, the work of a schizophrenic/anguished Creator-Designer, or a bubbling, possibly infinite multiverse in which the fundamental constants are randomly set in the first moments of each big bang, our universe is still either the only one or one of a tiny minority in which it is possible for there to be at least one habitable planet;
  2. biological evolution, despite major mass extinction events and numerous lesser planetary disasters, has resulted in the emergence of our semi-intelligent self-conscious species;
  3. our parents didn't go to the cinema or otherwise occupy themselves that night, or that spring day when the sap was rising; and
  4. had not one particular sperm won each race to fertilize an ovum not one of us would be here.

How could anyone abuse or fail to make use of such an extraordinary privilege? Aldous Huxley's 'Fifth Philosopher's Song' is rueful:

A million million spermatozoa All of them alive; Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah Dare hope to survive.
And among that billion minus one Might have chanced to be Shakespeare, another Newton, a new Donne - But the One was Me.
Shame to have ousted your betters thus, Taking ark while the others remained outside! Better for all of us, froward Homunculus, If you'd quietly died!

Religion in an information age

It made some sense in the past to trust and obey the king, the elders, the witchdoctor, those with power and experience, who claimed the authority of God. Now in this multicultural world 540+ revelations claim to be the special one. Where we took one newspaper, we may now be receiving daily a score of emails from online newspapers across the world. The library of books we call the Bible contends with the Encyclopedia Britannica DVD on our computer, Wikipedia online, and a raft of reference works beside our desk. We are overwhelmed with information, much of it wrong, none of it certain.

Most advances are made by specialists devoting a lifetime to nematode worms ('unsegmented, bilaterally symmetric and triploblastic protostomes with a complete digestive system', as every schoolgirl knows; Google finds about 539,000 references in 0.17 seconds) or epistemology (theory of knowledge; Google in 0.17 seconds finds about 6,590,000, one for every human on earth, almost all of them at sea on this one). No subject more prone to unsettle anyone who takes it seriously. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy has an entry:

'epistemology, problems of. Epistemology is the study of the right to the beliefs we have... '

Fundamentalists and True Believers of every persuasion, thumb in mouth, cling tighter than ever to their comforting Truth. Or use their blanket to smother others.

Generalists are at home here, those who know less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything. They should readily acknowledge with Socrates that at least they know they don't know, and repeat with Abelard, 'I don't know! I don't know!'

A boy arguing with his father never admitted it but was beaten every time. As his father never claimed to have won, they argued for years. The boy lost every joust because his father knew so much more. And the next day, using his father's arguments, he'd have happily taken on anyone. Only years later did he realize what had happened. With some of his information corrected and fresh information added, the pattern in his mind had redrawn itself. These had been invaluable lessons in the need to hold everything provisionally, open to revision.

When sensible people need to move beyond agreeing to differ and find common ground, they usually discover their differences have arisen from insufficiently comprehensive views of the subject under discussion. Reason goes astray without sensitivity and empathy; even the weight to be given to each consideration depends on all the factors involved. The goal is not total agreement - that might take for ever - but enough harmony to agree on what to do.

The MCU was founded in 1898 to be the cutting edge of thought in the Church of England, as grateful heirs of the Enlightenment accepting with Kant that Horace in the first century BC was right: we have to learn to think for ourselves. ' Sapere Aude /Dare to be wise!'

When George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury hosted a reception for the MCU in 1998, he said he had been told we ought to be as welcome at Lambeth Palace as a swarm of wasps.

[Other parts: • part 1part 2part 4part 5part 6]

Patrick Lewin was convenor and chair of a philosophical society and is a Modern Church council member.