Monday, 30 May 2011

The Individual and Society

"The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul: The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes."
Psalm 19:7-8

I shall let you all into a little secret; I love Beatrix Potter books! Yes you read correctly, I am fully grown man who gladly confesses to becoming lost in the innocent and evocative words and pictures of Beatrix's Edwardian era children's books. One of my favourites is "The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse". For those of you not fortunate enough to have read it I shall quickly outline the story. The tale concerns two mice, one known as Johnny Town-mouse born in the cupboard of a house in town, and the other mouse answering to the name Timmie Willie, born in the garden of a house in the country. One day Timmie sneaks into a hamper full of vegetables destined for town and falls asleep. He awakens to the sound of a busy town and before long arrives at his destination where he is discovered by a housemaid as she empties the hamper of its contents. Running for his life he darts into a hole in the skirting board only to land slap bang in the middle of a smart dinner party being hosted by Johnny Town-mouse. At this point the culture-shock begins. The town mice work diligently to make Timmie feel at home, and to initiate him into the mores of town life, but unfortunately Timmie just cannot get accustomed to the noise, fear of the cat, or the food consumed by his urban cousins. With some disappointment that their country friend has failed to enjoy town life and perceiving that Timmie is becoming ill, Johnny informs his friend that he can return to the country by way of the empty hamper which returns to the farm each Saturday. Finally back at home he happily glides into the comforts of his own world and yet often thinks of his town-mouse friend, periodically visiting the hamper to see if he has fulfilled his half-promised intention to visit. And needless to say, one fine day Johnny does indeed decide to pay his rustic friend a visit. Despite Timmie's best attempts at showing Johnny the best that country life has to offer, the town-mouse just cannot adjust to the quiet pace or many of the other peculiarities of rural living. In the end Beatrix Potter concludes "One place suits one person, another place suits another person. For my part I prefer to live in the country, like Timmy Willie" a sentiment, I must confess, I too share.

At the heart of this cute, and beautifully illustrated little story, is a sentiment summed up by the modern phrase "different strokes for different folks." It speaks of our individual natures and personal preferences. Each of us has our own personalities, with unique quirks and proclivities. We each approach life very personally and see the world ever so slightly differently from our neighbours. This human individualism is deeply important for our sense of self, and for providing us with the wherewithal to contribute something special, however small, to the greater human project. Its expression is often deeply implicated in human happiness. Many philosophies and movements have sought to repress this individuality, to their detriment. Others have encouraged it. To this day Unitarians strongly value the contribution and freedom of the individual, and some have had and continue to have deep theological foundations for this perspective. I personally am always inspired by the Rabbinic dictum that traces the importance of human individuality back to the scriptural account of the creation of humankind being centred on the creation of one individual.

But that really is only half a picture.

"And the Lord God said, It is not good that man should be alone." Genesis 2:18

I think it eminently reasonable that to regard the human person solely as an individual is to harbour a myopic reductionist view that does a great disservice. Man is a social being. We exist within and are shaped by the society in which we live. The countless daily acts of informal and formal interaction with those around us shape how we think, how we act and how we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others. By necessity our own individuality and freedom must have certain restraints if we are to play a constructive and healthy part in society, and for this reason we have rules, laws and principles to which we are all expected to conform. In addition we generally exist within a particular set of cultural assumptions drawn from the environment and history of the place in which we live, and this provides us with a common language, both linguistic and cultural, that allows us to know each other better than we know others outside our sphere.

Many wise and informed people have pointed out that in Britain a hyper-individualism has developed which has led to an erosion of our common values and identity, which in turn has atomised our society and left the most vulnerable without the protection that should be theirs. Some find the origins of this problem in the hedonism of the 60's and others localise the origins in the materialism and selfishness of the 80's. Most likely it is a mixture of the two, and maybe the origins go as far back as the Enlightenment. Either way there is a certain view out there that views morality as simply an issue of personal preference. Not so much what is right or wrong, but more what is right or wrong for me. But surely something is right regardless of whether or not it is convenient or pleasant to the individual. Likewise something that is wrong, is wrong irrespective of how much a person may find it pleasant or suitable for themselves. Why is such hostility displayed towards the authority of moral rules from time to time? Why is the accusation of "judgementalism" so easily deployed to silence moral debate? Is not morality in principle similar to ecology? Moral Ecology if you will. Just as we understand that in order to safeguard the cleanliness and vitality of our environment we must control our behaviour, even if it inconveniences, surely the same applies to our protection and maintenance of the common good.

"While Unitarians maintain the moral responsibility of every individual, they acknowledge that society as a whole must bear the shame of many iniquities. They hold that individual life should be shaped out of consideration for the larger life of humanity, and that it is the duty of every man to ask himself whether he would consider the course of his action and the mode of his life, if seen in another person, beneficial to the community".
Alfred Hall's The beliefs of a Unitarian.

This is not to suggest that issues of morality are simple. Not at all, they are often highly complex with many subtleties requiring a great deal of thought to comprehend. Neither is morality simply something to be imposed by an authority against the conscience of the individual, after all ultimately it is the individual who makes the decision to accept his or her obligations or not. But bearing all this in mind, the reality of an objective right or wrong and the reality of a system of duties and responsibilities towards God and our fellow man, is in my opinion, central to human flourishing and civilisation.

It is this objective moral reality, existing beyond ourselves and appealing to our conscience, and which for me is rooted in my belief in God, and learned from His revelation in the words of the Bible and Jesus, guided by reason, that leads us to go beyond ourselves and become part of a greater human existence. Paradoxically when we thus limit our own desire and will, in order to play a full part in society, we maximise our uniqueness and individuality. The same can be seen as true in personal relationships. When a monogamous couple forsakes all others, sexually and romantically, in order to create that exclusive bond, they limit themselves as individuals, however at that very point they maximise their individual importance, for without either one of them, there is no couple. A little piece of wire in a pacemaker may have no intrinsic value, but without it serving its small role, in a specific and limited place, the device would not work, and life would be threatened.

This past week we heard of the terrible treatment of elderly patients in a few hospitals. Sadly not for the first time are we aware of such news. Perhaps many of us have heard impatient and even scornful comments about the elderly in general, and I have personally seen and heard the elderly being spoken of derogatorily in public. In general I don't think that this country of ours deals well with both ends of life, the young or the old. But why is this? I feel that the slow individualisation of morality, which has led to a degree of selfishness, that does not wish to extend itself too much in the service of others, is significantly implicated. Children and generally the elderly are those who need the most care, and are as such the first and most hard hit victims of the changes in our cultural life. The sacred value of care, even in unpleasant circumstances, is being dethroned. Words such as "undignified" or "demeaning" are sometimes heard in reference to caring and being cared for. An ethical NIMBYism is on display when sentiments such as "it's not my responsibility" and "I'm not cut out for it" are articulated. And as a result the vulnerable are becoming increasingly so, and the scope of human greatness is becoming truncated.

This situation, combined with an ever growing distance from any organic, place-specific culture in Britain, particularly in England, also leads to the elderly, who in other countries are regarded as the source of wisdom and traditional knowledge, being overlooked by a society that feels that they have nothing to learn from them.

Many thinkers today are searching for ways to unite our society, to heal its divisions while promoting common values and identity, and yet converting the aspiration into reality is proving more difficult than some expected. I strongly believe that Unitarian Christians, and the wider Unitarian community, despite being hampered by our small numerical size, have something unique to contribute to the effort. We have had much practice in creating loving, welcoming and uniting fellowships while allowing for a wide range of belief and understanding. We both value the individual and the communal. We assist individuals to think for themselves and live full lives, while simultaneously advancing the cause of self-discipline and altruism. Unitarian Christians in particular, deeply rooted in this country's Christian heritage, culture and belief, while being broad enough to reach out to those whose own backgrounds stem from outside Christendom, have a strong advantage in helping to develop common values and shared identity.

It is therefore of great importance that congregations involve themselves in the life of their local communities, becoming part of the warp and weft of its society, as we once were. Religion like life itself is nothing unless lived for others.

"Not everyone that saith unto me lord, lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he who doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." Matthew 7:21

It is the will of God that we should rule our spirits, bear with each other's infirmities, and live in charity towards all men; that we should endeavour to be of service to others not absorbed in our own interests and pleasures; that we should seek in all things to overcome evil with good and do our part to redeem the world from sin pain and sorrow".
Unitarian Orders of Service.

"We believe that the really good man is in the way of salvation, whatever may be his outward form of religion. Mere surface morality, not rooted in principle, we do not call goodness. But whoever seeks to do the will of God, and to be faithful and just to man, whether he be heathen or Christian, we believe will be accepted by God, the Father of all mankind".
James Freeman Clarke's Manual of Unitarian Belief.

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