Education, Religion and the Full Life
THE FRIENDS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF SURREY
15 November, 1985
I must begin by tryhg to define what I mean by the phrase ‘the full life,’ for it is patient of a number of rather cranky interpretations. I am using it to mean life during which a man or a woman’s fullest possible human potentiality is developed, freed from the various external and internal threats to such a development. In one way our contemporaries are lucky, for there has probably never been a time in our own country, when people have been so free from the two worst all external threats to a full life, namely poverty and disease; plainly this is not the case in some other countries today. It is currently fashionable to decry the materialism of our society and indeed virtually obligatory for the clergy to do so, but this is nonsense unless the enormous benefits conferred on us all by the material plenty and the scientific expertise of our time is first acknowledged. People who decry materialism root and branch should be transported by seme magical time machine to any previous age they care to choose, there to discover what it was like for most of the population; hunger, oppression, disease and early death were the lot of almost all men. Even the rich and the powerful died absurdly young and suffered from a multitude of diseases: the teeth of the Pharaohs, mummified for our post mortem examination, were rotted into black stumps with holes right through them, and must have given their owners hell in their life time. A little later it would be an exaggeration to say that half the great musicians, poets and artists of Europe seem to have died of syphilis, but it is not far from the truth; and so I could go on. Thomas Hobbes’s celebrated bucket of cold water poured on the idea of the noble savage, whose life, he rightly reminded his romantic contemporaries, had in fact been ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short; and lived, which is worst of all, in continual fear and danger of death’ could almost equally well have been poured upon romantic notions about the lives of any past generation, not just that of savages; we are almost the first to be free of many of the things that made it difficult, if not impossible, for most people to develop their full human potentiality. So let us pay a tribute to the excellence of our materialist age, before we go on to criticise it.
But having said all that, it is also true, I think, that the enhanced quality of life available to all of us in the West as a result of the virtual banishment of poverty and the spread of such things as universal education, medical care, a measure of social justice, improved housing and travelling facilities has been accompanied by some unexpected defects. Just how unexpected these defects were even as short a time ago as a hundred years is beautifully brought out in the writings of a typical nineteenth century prophet of Progress with a capital P, whose name was Winwood Reade. Seeing men for the first time in history furnished by science with the necessary technology to banish poverty, and believing that the spread of universal education would also banish poverty’s devilish twin sister, ignorance, Winwood Reade and many of his thoughtful contemporaries in the late nineteenth century believed themselves to be on the threshold of Utopia. Religion which, on the whole, had been the enemy of science and the obscurantist opponent of anyone in the educational world, who was not prepared to toe the ecclesiastical party line, would have to go before the twin evils of poverty and ignorance could be dealt with; but then, wrote Winwood Reade in 1875 in a book entitled The Martyrdom of Man, ‘the earth, which is now a purgatory, will be made a paradise, not by idle prayers and supplication but by the efforts of man himself… Food will then be manufactured in unlimited quantities and at trifling expense. Hunger and starvation will be unknown… Population will mightily increase, and the earth will be a garden. Governments will be conducted with the quietude and regularity of club committees… Luxuries will be cheapened and made common to all; none will be rich and none poor. Not only will man subdue the forces of evil that are withou; he will also subdue those that are within. He will repress the base instincts and propensities, which he has inherited from the animals below. Man will then be perfect; he will then be a creator; he will be what the vulgar worship as a god.’
The fascinating thing about that quotation, as about many similar pronouncements made at the same sort of time, is the almost uncanny accuracy of much of it and_the tragic and ironic inaccuracy of the rest. Such radiantly optimistic forecasts of future bliss were possible because of a belief, which was born at the time of the Renaissance, which flowered during the Enlightenment - especially in France - and which bore fruit in the doctrine of progress, which inspired so many people during the Victorian era. It was a belief in the original goodness, and therefore in the eventual perfectibility, of man. Those who held this belief did not deny the existence of evil, but they attributed it to distortions and perversions of human nature forced upon man by an evil social system: politically evil, economically evil, philosophically and religiously evil. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s noble savage was the prototype of this mythical homo naturalis gratia plena, and he captured the imagination of thinking men everywhere. They believed themselves to have both the opportunity and the power to create a new society in which civilised men might be freed from all the distorting influences and perverting pressures of the evil old society, and thus be made free to regain the lost innocence and nobility of savages. This was most likely to happen in two places: first, in America, God’s own country, where government of the people, for the people; by the people free from all the old perversions of the various European governmental systems was already liberating the common man and enabling him to enter into his noble destiny; and secondly in any country where the old pernicious system of government could be overthrown by the kind of revolution preached by anarchists, Communists, syndicalists and others. Engels, writing to Marx, defined his aim as a revolutionary as being ‘to see the glory of human nature, to understand the development of the human species in history and its irresistible evolution, to realise its always certain victory over the unreasonableness of the individual,’ and to build a society in which this glorious human nature would be able to triumph. This kind of faith in human nature continued to inspire men until as lately as 1922, when H.G. Wells ended the edition of his Short History of the World, which was published that year, with a question. ‘Can anyone doubt,’ he asked rhetorically, ‘that presently our race… will achieve unity and peace: that it will live, the children of our blood and lives will live, in a world more splendid and more lovely than any palace or garden that we know, going from strength to strength in an ever-widening circle of adventure and achievement?’
It is symptomatic of the changed ethos of our own age that, fifty years after Wells posed that rhetorical question, a sober Australian Professor of Philosophy has answered it in a recent book entitled The Perfectibility of Man by saying that ‘Only too easily can we doubt wh ether oun children will live in a world more splendid and more lovely than any palace or garden tLat we know. At best they will live in an air-conditioned box, at worst they will not live at all, or they will live in a devastated world.’ Sadly, too, when Wells himself came to revise his Short History in 1946, he removed his optimistic predictions, and in their place he added a new chapter significantly entitled Mind at the End of its Tether. ‘Homo sapiens,’ he there wrote, ‘is in his present form played out. The stars in their courses have turned against him, and he has to give place to some other animal better adapted to face the fate that closes in more and more swiftly upon mankind.’
I am sorry to have gone on for so long about the historical development of the idea of progress as a movement in history which, aided by science and education, would inexorably usher in paradise on earth, but I have done so because I believe that a combination of the very great achievements of this idea and its collapse in our own time has done more to affect the quality of life today than any other single factor. Some of its achievements I have already mentioned, but what about its collapse? The principal causes of its downfall are obvious enough: two world wars, the spectacle of one of the most civilised nations on Earth building concentration camps in which to exterminate six million Jews, the radio-active wastes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the continuing brutality of wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the racial hatred between black men and white men, Jews and Arabs, Greeks and Turks have been enough to test the most credulous of men’s ability to share Winwood Reade’s late Victorian belief that ‘not only will man subdue the forces of evil that are without; he will also subdua those that are within.’ Meanwhile, what with the spread of strife in our cities, the epidemic of terrorist violence in ireland, Beirut and elsewhere, the growth of a drug sub-culture of unprecedented proportions amongst young people (and not only the young), and the massive physical pollution of the world, for many people the Utopian dreams of the past have become the nightmares of today.
Hope, then, for the time being lies dead; at least, one kind of hope does so. Hope comes in two kinds, personal and trans-personal hope, and it is the latter which has died. Personal hope, of course, still informs people’s lives in all sorts of ways: hope of passing one’s finals, hope of being married and raising a family, hope of success in a job, hope of going to Majorca again next summer; or even just hope that my poor old legs won’t play me up so badly this winter as they did last. This kind of personal hope is the very stuff of living; if for some reason it dries up, people can become seriously ill or even die: a fact noted by the Austrian psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, when as a Jew he spent three years in Belsen and Buchenwald successively. In order to retain his sanity, he used his time there to study the effects on people of extreme adversity, and one of the things he noted was that, when a prisoner became totally devoid of personal hope, if this was not backed by some kind of trans-personal hope, he simply died. Under eoncentration camp conditions, sooner or later all personal hope evaporated. The people who survived this loss of personal hope best were the Communists, the dedicated Christians - both Catholics and Protestants - and the Jehovah’s witnesses: the men, in fact, whose personal hopes were supplemented by hopes pinned to a belief or a community greater than themselves, which gave their lives a purpose and a meaning greater than anything they could claim as individuals: a purpose and a meaning which transcended their personal plight in the camp, and which would transcend their personal deaths if they were to die there, because it was vested in something greater than themselves. It is this kind of hope, which I have called transpersonal hope, and it is this which is is largely dead in our own time. Its absence from most peopleâ€˜s lives is the greatest single defect which must be put in the scales as a counterweight to the material excellence of our society. Creative societies during epochs of greatness - the Athens of Pericles, Byzantium under the Macedonian dynasty, Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England - have without exception been inspired and powered by transpersonal hopes of one kind or another, and the life of individual men and women in such societies at such times, even if extremely poor economically and short in duration, had a quality, which most of us can only envy. Of course, while such hopes are always immensely fufilling to those inspired by them, they can be immensely dangerous too; fanatical religions and ideologies have been responsible for untold horrors. Moreover, Northern Ireland demonstrates today how easily a religion, which is in fact concerned with love, peace, and self-sacrifiee, can be used as a front for a fractious tribalism wedded to hatred, war and murder: yet another example of what human nature can do when it tries; Nevertheless, a society in which people are not inspired by any kind of transpersonal hope is, to that extent, an impoverished society. It is, I believe, against this kind of impoverishment of our own society that much youthful protest is made today, and it is because of it that some of the young symbolically reject the materially abundant heritage of the West and seek their fulfilment elsewhere; they have tried a number of things - flower power, the hippy trail to Nepal, eastern gurus - and none of them have worked for long or very well. This is extremely serious, for people cannot develop anything like their full human potential in the absence of hope, when, as Matthew Arnold saw - or perhaps more accurately foresaw - clearly enough
the world which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain, And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, As ignorant armies clash by night.
Unfortunately, that is not the end of it. There are other threats to human fulfilment apart from the vacuum of transpersonal hope in which so many people today find themselves trying to live and breathe and have their being: threats which are essentially human - built-in, so to speak, to the human condition and peculiar to it - and not, apparently, experienced by other animals as far as we can tell. Unless these other threats are coped with, they tend to cause neurotic anxiety and to become obsessive. I shall mention them only briefly, for they are so well-known that their menace need not be elaborately explored here, though it cannot be ignored either. I am referring to the so-called ontological anxieties centred upon our mortality - now we are, tomorrow we shall not be - upon our sense of guilt, and upon the suspicion that our lives may be meaningless. Glancing very briefly at each of them and taking our mortality first, I am not speaking of the fear we experience, when our lives are in imminent danger; then, like any other animal, we sweat, tremble, feel like evacuating our bladders and bowels to lighten ourselves for flight, while our heart beats faster and our breathing becomes shorter. I am not speaking of that. ‘I am speaking of the anxiety we experience, perhaps in the small hours of the morning when we cannot sleep, and we become acutely conscious of the fragility of the membrane which separates the little warm citadel of our sentient being from the abyss of not being all around us; a blocked artery, a stroke, an invasion of bacteria, a cut finger and a little poison in the blood, almost anything might launch us into that abyss, and we know it. Of course, we put such morbid thoughts away, shun people who mention the taboo word ‘death’ and resolutely keep ourselves so busy with trivia - the telly, the office, the golf course, the whisky bottle, the annual escape from reality to Skegness or the Costa Brava - that we think ourselves to be free from such evil thoughts; but we are not. We have merely stuffed them doWn into the basements of our minds, where they linger, grow, faster, and poison-us even more insidiously than before.
Secondly, guilt. Freud has abolished guilt, we tend to think, in our own day and age; but alas he has done nothing of the sort. He ha made people a little freer from a sense of guilt arising from sexual peccadillos but only a little freer. It is possible to argue that, as an age, we are not so hag-ridden with neurotic and unresolved guilt as the age in which pardons and indulgenoes, flagellant seats and masochistic stylites, and a universal obsession with the horrors of hell fire flourished, but it is doubtful whether even this is true. Oh the contrary, there is ample evidence that, whether we are aware of it or not, we are riddled with guilt for the bombs we have dropped and the wars we have waged, for the Hiroshimas and Nagasakis we have countenanced, for the Belsens and the Buchenwalds with their six million Jewish dead, for our treatment of colonial people - black, brown and yellow - and for our tolerance of the slums of Dickens’s time so graphically depicted in Dore’s London; and so I could go on. I am sure that any psychiatrist could easily add to that short list of the things mugh we-and perhaps our children even more than we ourselves - feel helplessly guilty about.
Lastly, meaninglessness. That is perhaps the worst and most widespread anxiety today: the terrible suspicion that life is meaningless, futile. After all, we are minute scraps of life on one the planet circling around one ordinary star out of more than 100,000 million similar stars in one galaxy out of 100 million others in the depths of space; and as the Frenchman, Professor Monod, reminded us all in his book Chance and Necessity, ‘man has emerged by chance. His duty like his fate is written nowhere… Man as any other animal species is a pure accident of evolution; it might just as well not have appeared.’ Plainly, if that is all that can be said of mankind - if we are no more than end-products of an infinitely insignificant biochemical accident in the unimaginably vast depths of a vacuous universe - Macbeth got it right, when, in terminal despair, he cried out,
Tomgrrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time, And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more; it is a tale Told by an idiot, - full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
But have all our yesterdays done nothing more than light fools the way to dusty death? Perhaps. I think not; but it is at this point, whether you agree with me or not, that I must point out that, while it is perfectly legitimate to accuse religion in general and the Christian faith in particular of not being true, no one can accuse the latter of not being relevant to the human quest for fulfilment. For in the past man’s anxiety over the fragility of his mortal life has been met by the promise of resurrection, his anxiety over his own guilt has been met by the love and forgiveness of God (even if in certain ages the Church has hidden the divine compassion behind the fires of hell), and his suspicion that his life may be a tale told by an idiot-signifying nothing has been routed by his belief in the eternal destiny reserved for him by God. Thus, with these ontological anxieties conquered, even in times of appalling poverty and insecurity, his life has been informed by such an unquenchable transpersonal hope that during its often brief span he has blossomed like the rose.
So far, I have not said much about education, but in the few minutes left I shall try to make amends for that omission; and may I begin by saying that I do not think that the impoverishing absence of religious faith suffered by so many people today is the sole result of the fact that, where in the past all education was in the hands of the Church or of churchmen, nowadays most of our schools are in secular hands. It is true that universities and schools during most of our history were Christian foundations and staffed almost entirely by clerics, but the fact that that is no longer the case is not the cause of our present secularism but the result of a far more fundamental change in our whole approach to education and t0 the human minds, which we try to educate: indeed, to the human beings whom we try, through the educational process, to equip as fully as possible for as full a life as possible. The change to which I am refering is that, somewhere along the line, we in the West began to take the view that the only valid road to the discovery of truth was by way of the rational intellect turned on to the study of observable facts - the scientific revolution, if you like. It was triggered off by a healthy reaction against the excesses of the medieval metaphysicians and the convoluted and tortuous meanderings of some of their theological contemporaries, and on the whole it was an admirable and much needed revolution, which has had an even greater success than its most optimistic originators could possibly have predicted: a success which has hugely enriched human knowledge. But although it was initiated by godly men in search of the truth of God’s world, in the long run it has led to the enthronement of the human intellect - the analytical intellect - over all other means of human apprehension and to the widely held belief that observable material facts are the only facts, the sum total of reality, all that there is to be observed. Thus, inevitably, as Nietzsche realised, God met his overdue come-uppance and died, and the idea of revelation died with him; revealed religion based, as it is, on beliefs disclosed to the human mind, was equated with myth, for there was no one and nothing to do the disclosing, and myth was equated with nonsense; therefore religion was nonsense, Q.E.D. This distorting and distortedly over-cerebral view of man led to the demoting of artists, poets, musicians, and even the classical philosophers to the rank of second class citizens, not much better than the mystics and the theologians; it was admitted that artists and the rest could give pleasure to some people with a taste for such things, but they were classed as entertainers rather than as people in search of the truth.
I know that that is an over-potted version of events, but time does not allow me to be more elaborate, and I hope that you will not think it unfair if I say that this over-cerebral view of man together with the desperately limited and limiting version of reality, which has accompanied it, has invaded - indeed, permeated - education in all western countries through ahd through. I went to a church school - indeed, a school founded for the sons of clergy, though my father was not a cleric - and yet everything I learnt there was based solidly on the two postulates, namely, that the intellect is the only road to truth, and that truth is coterminous with material reality. We send our children to infant schools at the age of five, and they enter the educational sausage machine with a rich and varied endowment of human gifts; they fill page after page of drawing books with the liveliest and most original of graphic images, they listen rapt to fairy stories, myths and religious beliefs, going like homing pigeons to the various kinds of truth enshrined in these stores of ancient knowledge and wisdom, they dance, they dream, and what happens? They come out the other end at the age of eighteen, atheists and logical positivists knowing all the answers to the problems of life and almost nothing about how to live it, let alone how to live it in such a way as to develop their full God-given human potential. It is tragic. It is also out of date.
For there is a very real sense in which science has changed sides; or, if that is too dramatic a phrase and not entirely accurate, it is the scientists themselves, who have rendered the old materialist attitude out of date. This has been largely the result of two things. First, atomic physics has rendered the old idea that material things - nice solid objects like atoms, billiard balls, rocks and planets - are the anchors to which we must moor our wandering thoughts and upon which we must turn our analytical intellects to the exclusion of all else, no longer valid; for the solid world has dissolved before our eyes, rather like the Cheshire cat, leaving only a derisive grin behind it - or to be more precise leaving baï¬hd it an ethereal reality composed of protons and neutrons and non-particular particles called by delightful names Like ‘charm’ - a world more like a thought than a thing. Secondly, and more or less at the same time scientist after scientist has affirmed that, far from being the fons et origo of the human search for truth, the analytical intellect only comes into play after the great creative discoveries have already been made, or rather have been received in moments of disclosure to the scientist, sometimes even in his sleep, and upon which he subsequently trains his intellect rigorously to test the validity of whatever may have been revealed to him. ‘Scientists often speak of the scales falling from their eyes,’ wrote the American scientist T.S. Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, ‘or the lightning flash that inundates a previously obscure puzzle, enabling its components to be seen in a new way that for the first time permits its solution. On other occasions the relevant illumination comes in sleep. No ordinary sense of the term ‘interpretation’ fits these flashes of intuition through which a new paradigm is born.’
I must conclude, but may I do so by saying that this new revolution in the very basis of science is not new really; scientists have always made their great discoveries in moments of illumination or disclosure, but few people seem to have bothered to think about the implications of this feet of scientific creativity until recently. This new-old revolution and its implications, however, have already begun to seep into our educational establishments, though I suspect that they are mainly confined at the moment to those working at their highest intellectual levels; but as they spread downwards and outwards, they should have some remarkably liberating effects, for science, art, and religion will be seen to be united again at their deepest and most creative levels in something very like a common experience - or anyway a similar kind of experience. As this is realised, ordinary human beings should slowly be released from the strait-jackets fitted on them by educationalists - or, if that is not fair, by the ethos of their times - and once again find themselves free to use the whole range of human abilities to explore both the nature of reality around them and their own potential richness and many-splendoured depths. To help them in this endeavour, not only have the artists - the Beethovens, Shakespeares and Rembrandts - been rescued from their inferior status as mere entertainers, if high class awe, and reinstated as people speaking some of the most profound languages devised by mankind, but even the saints - Paul, Teresa of Avila, de Caussade - need no longer be avoided as not-nice-to-know. But best of all, God, who really did die some two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem, may once again prove that his metier is resurrection, and rise again from the grave in which Nietzsche and others buried him for the second time a few years ago: rise again to cope with the anxieties and guilts of those objects of his unbounded and unchanging love, ordinary men and women like you and me, and give them hope. Then, indeed, education, religion and the full life, like God himself, will be a blessed and undivided trinity, for which we may thank him, not only with our analytical intellects, but with the whole warm and richly varied endowment of apprehensive faculties which go to make us human beings.