thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Existentialist ubuntu

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This is a response to Religion and ritual on Terry Sissons’ blog The Other I.

Funeral of Princess Diana

Funeral of Princess Diana

I think Terry’s article points to what could be one of the most unresolvable ethical dilemmas we humans are heir to. On the one hand we think that regardless of our level of success or failure, there should always be a ‘right answer’ – the right thing to think, the right thing to do. But in a context like this maybe there isn’t. I’m not thinking about funerals in particular but about ‘standing together’ in general.

Terry is right of course about us all being in this together. In Africa there is the philosophy of ubuntu: ‘a person is a person through other people’. But I am sceptical as to how far a person can authentically ‘stand together’ with others if he or she does not share the other people’s beliefs. The nearest we may get to it may be in those lucky moments when we happen to be with a set of people all of whom believe different things, know they believe different things, and perhaps as a result are consciously looking for what they have in common. They each want to rely on each other, but they know they cannot rely on any shared understanding. Occasions like these are however quite rare.

Terry is also right about the importance of ritual. But the essence of a ritual is that a group of people subscribe to it and share it. The idea of a ritual unique to one individual borders on pathology.

But except in those circumstances where the group of people do share a core set of beliefs on which the ritual is based, what is shared in ‘standing together’ may not stand too much examination. At the very least there needs to be a shared understanding of what that ‘core’ is.

If not a core then at least an overlap. For example there may be no single component of doctrine or practice shared by each person who sees him- or herself as Jewish. But each will share enough with enough of the others who call themselves Jewish. It’s a bit like Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family resemblances’.

Terry is right again that we are surrounded by mystery – and some of the biggest mysteries relate to what makes us suffer the most and what we feel most helpless about. Hence the crucial significance and value of sharing.

The tragic irony is that it is precisely in those areas of greatest mystery and greatest potential suffering where stories are shared which purport to illuminate the mystery and feed the rituals designed to assuage the suffering. The stories themselves may not be wired into us but our need for them may be.

Giulio Romano: Allegory of immortality

Giulio Romano: Allegory of immortality

Why do we die? Do we go anywhere when we die? Will we meet our loved ones again? If death is the end then why do we live?

There is a kind of innocence in sharing stories about things we cannot be sure of but need for reassurance, and sharing the rituals which bring us together. There is a kind of innocence about the assumption that these are the only stories and the only rituals, because our group is the only group. The first dent in that innocence comes with our first discovery that there are other stories and other rituals – that maybe the stories are only stories; and we can hold the rituals at arm’s length. Neither the stories nor the rituals give us answers.

We realise we were wrong to think we knew something when we didn’t. We were wrong to have thought at least some of the things we thought when we were innocent of our ignorance. We will have to find other ways to preserve our togetherness and it will be harder work. Socrates was executed because his fellow Athenians, rightly or wrongly, saw him as a threat to their community.

The search for ‘truth’ is in many ways a search for that lost innocence. It might be achieved by travelling as far as possible away from where we lost it the first time. Or we may never find it. It is a risk and a choice.

The first innocence was the certainty that comes of ignorance of certainty. The second innocence is also certainty of a kind – the certainty of knowing how we stand in respect to certainty. Perhaps we never really had the first, and will never really have the second.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

20 November 2010 at 9:16 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] is a response to Existentialist Ubuntu on Chris Lawrence’ blog Thinking Makes It So, which is itself a response to my post two days […]

  2. You bring another dimension to my thoughts, Chris, one which is unfortunately painfully relevant. I’m making it the topic of my post on TheOtherI today.

    There is something about your thinking that I so often find enriching. Thank you.



    20 November 2010 at 1:53 pm

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