St Cuthbert

What does it mean to call something special?

Last Sunday the main service at St Bride's Liverpool was on the topic of pilgrimage. Many people there had been on a pilgrimage to Lindisfarne. I hadn’t been myself but it was interesting to hear the stories and see the photos.

So we heard about acts of worship, meditations, the local church, the walk along St Cuthbert’s Way, watching the stars in the absence of street lighting. People kept affirming that such-and-such a thing, or event, or place, was special.

Special? What’s that about? You mean it produced a funny feeling in you?

As it happens, while they were on their pilgrimage I was sitting at home reading some postmodern theologians on metaphysics and God. The usual postmodern complaint is that modernity brings everything down to the level of stuff we can perceive through the senses, so that nothing ends up being special. Aquinas and Descartes, philosopher-theologians respectively of the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, are typically contrasted to draw out the difference.

For Aquinas and his predecessors reality was a whole, created by God. Humans can observe and understand parts of it. These parts do not provide a complete account. They make sense to us within a bigger picture, the rest of which is beyond our understanding. What we know points to glimpses of what we do not know. By reflecting on what we already understand we may discover somethig new, but we neither expect not need to understand it all.

By the time of Descartes the modern agendas of control and certainty had taken hold. Science would enable us to understand how the world works, and in conjunction with technology would enable us to control it. In order to make this seem credible reality had to be reduced to what the human mind can fully understand.

Descartes’ account of reality was that it consisted of two realms, the physical and the spiritual. It was the physical which humanity would learn how to control.

So Aquinas’ single reality, some of which we know, and with fuzzy edges between the known and the unknown, got split into two separate parts, the physical which we can find out about so as to control it, and the spiritual where the human soul related to God.

Before the split, people could believe that the physical things we see are part of a much richer reality, richer than we mere humans can understand. The natural sense of wonder or gratitude that we feel in the presence of great beauty or complexity could be taken as an honest guide, alerting us to the greater glory of the whole.

After the split, we learned that what you see is what you get. All there is to physical reality is what we can observe, measure and calculate.

Western society is saturated with the assumptions and agendas of certainty and control. We can look back at our own or somebody else’s report that a thing or event or place felt ‘special’, and treat it as just a misleading feeling. After all, what is the nature of this specialness? Where is the evidence? Why should we believe anything if we haven’t got hard, measurable evidence for it?

The heyday of this reductionism was about a century ago, just before Einstein showed that reality is far more complex than physicists had previously thought. Over the last century the trajectory of scientific research has been clear: every time an uncertainty is resolved, new questions arise. The universe just keeps getting more and more complicated.

So the ancients and medievals were right to believe that what we understand is only a tiny part of what there is. When they believed that what they knew about witnessed to a much greater reality, which felt special and admirable because it really was special and admirable, they were right. There is no way mere human brains will ever get a complete account of it. We were wrong about certainty, just as environmental destruction shows that we have been wrong about control.

So the pilgrimage was indeed ‘special’, because despite what materialists tell us, we do have the capacity to recognise physical things and events as more than just what we see: as revelations of greater reality, pointing us to a greater beyond.

Of course, for those who dislike anything they cannot control, or struggle to cope with uncertainty, the idea of all this indefinable spiritual stuff is unwelcome. It knocks you down a peg or two.

But for those who have no desire to become masters of the universe, those happy to live without certainty and control, willing to put their trust in the benign nature of things, the additional richness of the vast unknown is something to celebrate.

Just now that word ‘special’ has to do a lot of work. Back in Aquinas’ time, before the spiritual had been separated from the physical, there was a rich vocabulary for describing those spiritual presences and occasions that were accepted as part of life. Personally I have my doubts about all those saints and angels that were supposed to accompany people on their pilgrimages; but we do need to develop better, richer ways of talking about our spiritual awareness.

In order to do so, we need confidence. We need reassurance that these feelings of something ‘special’ are not necessarily misleading quirks of our hormones. At least sometimes, they rightly draw our attention to the spiritual beyond for which our eyes and ears are inadequate.