And now something for the children!

The Victorian poet Matthew Arnold in his poem Dover Beach famously compared the withdrawal of traditional (Christian) religious belief to the seas,

melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

There are those who have hoped to argue that the withdrawal of religious faith is also a transitory phenomenon, and we can discern already a sea-change.

They may be right. I for one devoutly hope so. But it should be clear that it is one thing for a person to adopt religious belief, even traditional religious belief, it is another for someone to be willing to stand up and face the onslaught of what I suggested in my recent TOI blog marks a return of the Dark Ages, the new barbarism of pagan flat-earthers characterised by a denial of or minimisation of the Shoah and expressed in an outright denial of the objective existence of Truth and rampant intolerant abuse and absurdity that would reject any appeal to polite and rational conversation in favour of threats and exclusion.

Indeed, several friends have told me they are simply too frightened to stand up and say anything no matter how mild, against a contemporary ethos that is polarised around ‘Palestinian/Hamas = good, freedom fighters versus Israel/Jewish = evil, Zionist baby killers, genocidal ethnic cleansers’.

And who knows what someone may consider they are justified in doing to you if they judge you an apologist for genocidal baby-killing.

Alas, no matter how much we might detect a return to religious belief, the fact is that we also see a global willingness very quickly to embrace rampant out and out antisemitism, to justify pogroms and the elimination of a small independent nation while at the same time remaining silent or relatively inactive over other nations like Russia or Syria or China that carry out appalling slaughter but who no one wants to eliminate as nations because, well, they do not have the obvious disadvantage of being Jewish.

Jews, we all know, are greedy blood-letting child murderers who secretly control the world. Hamas, of course, have quite explicitly pointed this out in their Hamas Charter. But we all knew it anyway from centuries of being told so. It goes without saying, and therefore needs no saying. What does need justification is the continued existence of the one nation these vicious people call their own.

The use of rhetorical emotive expressions like ‘genocide’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and so on invariably incoherently and often in a contradictory manner is particularly depressing. It is not a mark of the love of Truth that (as I pointed out in my previous blog) is at least a feature of the religious faith I aspire to.

‘Why do they hate us so much?’ Why indeed!

So — the sea of faith has turned? I am doubtful. Actions do not seem to support the claim. Rather, pagan barbarism is undergoing an upsurge and the new plunderers are battering at our gates (see the wonderful modern Irish animated film, The Secret of Kells, easily available online). ‘From the fury of the Norsemen, good Lord protect us!’

Well, enough. As T.S. Eliot says, in Four Quartets, ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’!

Here are a couple of lightweight short pieces I have written for our children. It marks a break from my recent reflections on the new Dark Ages of holocaust denial.

For children are still our hope for the future. Humane, reflective, tolerant, understanding, properly-educated, civilised children with manners and a proper developed sense of responsibility and honour. Please – with hope, prayer, give it a couple of generations. And we have to start now.

By all means give these little pieces to your children to read. Or read them to the children yourselves. But do not forget the funny voices. Never forget the voices. And the gestures. The excitement.

Advice to his grandchildren and great grandchildren from an old Pappy, to the new generations

Who nowadays needs principles? Well, one who would live from hand to mouth soon finds relying on a rule of thumb to be insufficient. If they would avoid a finger in every pie it is then that some principles can be quite handy. But how to discern which principles make for life?

In general it is better to be alive than dead.

In general it is better to be awake than asleep.

In general it is better to be conscious than unconscious.

Always it is better to think and act clearly and lovingly than without principles and to no meaningful purpose.

But mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me, advise me – how can I best learn to do that?

Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Which reflections are the best of all?
“The best are those with an inner Light.
The best reflections help you shine at night!”

And now, a short story to encourage young philosophers! Yes, I admit it does have an eensy-weens bit of a Christian slant, dear Jewish readers.  But I cannot deny my identity. And anyway, just as I learn so much – really, so very much – from reading Jewish sources (especially, nowadays, the incomparable Martin Buber and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) so I am sure you can put up with me too.

Bottom’s Dream – a children’s story-meditation for Monday morning

But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” . . .  (1 Corinthians 2:9)

I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. . . .  The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream,” because it hath no bottom . . . (William Shakespeare, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘, 4: 1)

I remember, many years ago, hearing that there were folk called philosophers who, I was told, didn’t really do anything very much. They were paid, by universities usually, to sit in a chair and think. They could also be paid more if they sat in their chairs and  showed others how to sit in chairs and think too. From when I was really quite young I decided that sounded like a very suitable career for me.

Hence one day years later my university of Bristol made me Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy. I was also very pleased when I heard that was actually called officially, ‘giving me a chair’, a chair in philosophy. Who would ever have thought it!

So, when philosophers tell stories usually they are strange stories. Philosophers like to tell stories that, as they say, ‘make you think’. They make you puzzle. For philosophers are experts in puzzling, looking at things differently, asking questions maybe others hadn’t thought of or were uninterested in, questions that somehow open up whole new ways of looking at things and understanding them.

You can see things exist, can’t you? You can see this table exists. And you can ask why this table exists, for example. After all, this table might not have existed – don’t you agree? Or it could be all smashed to bits and not exist any more.

But if that is true of a table, what about other things? Another thing made by someone (an artefact) such as a television, for example. Or a book? Or something not made but from nature (a natural kind) such as a tree? Or a planet?

But then – what about, well, things in general? Or, more interestingly – why are there things at all? There could have been nothing at all, couldn’t there? Why are there things, rather than nothing at all?

A perfectly good question, isn’t it? But gimme a comfortable chair. I need to think this one out.

And another question. What, after, all, is existence? Do things that don’t exist – like unicorns, for example – exist? If they don’t, well,  how can we speak about them, in stories for example? How can I say anything about what doesn’t exist? How can I say one nonexistent thing  – Unicorn Charlotte, for example – that it is not the same as another nonexistent thing – Witch Hagjaws?

 Okay – some philosophers say, they not only like to introduce new and unexpected ways of seeing things but also they hope there may be ways to make people nicer, kinder – wiser – through doing this.  For the word itself, philosopher, comes from an old Greek word meaning ‘lover of wisdom’. But what is wisdom? Only if we know what it is could we know whether it is worth loving, wouldn’t you say?

And that, dear kids, is another example of the sort of questions philosophers think about in their chairs. And get paid for. Good, eh?

And so – to my story!

There was once an old woman.

Though there are those who say there wasn’t even once this old woman, not even once, and we have made it all up and should admit it and say so. It was nunce, this old woman. And if I deny it I am justifiably called a dunce. For that is what we call people who say something that certainly never was. If it never was, not even once – well then, it is a nunce, isn’t it? And of course, if you still say that, and hold it might have been at least once – clearly you must be a dunce. Only a dunce could believe all this untrue stuff. Don’t you agree?

Philosophers love exploring what words may mean or may try to make us mean.

But I don’t care! I think that there was once an old woman, at least once perhaps. Maybe more than once and perhaps still, but at least once.

And then they just say she wasn’t an old woman either. They admit she was old – very, very, old. In fact so old that some people thought there was no beginning to this old woman. She simply went back or was always and everywhere. Or at least however long we went back, and wherever you went, yeah, she was still there. What about that?

So anyway she was once, definitely once, let us say.  And there are those say she was at least once, and very, very old, but she wasn’t a woman. And not a man either. And she wasn’t something else, and it wasn’t that she self-defined as being something that thought maybe she wasn’t or had been exaggerating. None of that. It’s just as somehow we couldn’t say she was a woman. And they couldn’t say she was a man. It was just like that, somehow, but definitely once . . .

And this old woman lived alone. Or maybe she wasn’t alone. Some say one thing, some say another. In fact many hold she was more than alone, usually. There is a suggestion there was sort-of three of them living there, all getting on very well with one other. Well, not exactly three. Sometimes we look and see only one. Other times, maybe more although which one  (or more) of the three was it? Bit of a mystery, to be honest.

Yes, anyway, this (maybe, now, a bit scary?) old woman often spent her days looking out of her window or across her flower beds and smiling. Not smiling stupidly but in a caring sort of way. And nothing made her smile more than when she saw the children from down the road out playing. Playing around her front door, playing in her garden. To tell the truth (as we always should) they didn’t know it was her garden. But she didn’t mind. She liked them playing in her trees, on her swings, eating her fruit, looking at her flowers and sniffing her flowers and sometimes even picking them. Which they liked to do especially in spring, especially in May. But they didn’t know they were her flowers or it was her fruit or her swings or her garden. And she really didn’t mind.

Anyway, the old, old woman (if it was a woman) used to love just watching the children play, making sure they were okay, enjoying their being in her garden. Not interfering in any way. Just keeping an eye on them and making sure they were okay. Especially ensuring that they didn’t wander too far from her garden. Because they could get into some difficulties, there could be some dangers, if they wandered too far from the garden.

What do I know? But there were woods. There were forests. There were peeping eyes, there was whispering and people who somehow didn’t like children. Difficult to believe, really.  I don’t know why. Children are for hugging, not hurting. But not all seem to agree.

What is meant when we say some people are ‘evil’? What is ‘being evil’? Is there anything some people do which if they do it then it is always evil? If so, how come some people still do it?

Another question philosophers like to think about. Providing the philosopher’s chair is comfortable enough.

The children didn’t know this old woman. They didn’t know she cared for them, they didn’t know the love she had for them. They didn’t know it was her garden they played in. I sometimes  wonder –  why did the old woman love the children so much? Why was she there, looking after them even though they neither knew nor appreciated it? In fact, to tell the truth, had they known they would not have cared. I rather think they might have resented it.

Well, some say  – but what do they know? – that if you go back in this story (and it is a very, very long way back, because this old woman is very, very old), if you go back far enough so this old woman  –  I should say no one really knows her name and she was very unwilling, reticent, cautious about telling anyone her name, she would just smile and say softly that ‘they  know who I am, you know I just am who I am’,  but if you go back far enough some say really, deep down, well I don’t know how to say this, but – she was actually (is still, as well, of course) their mother.

I  know that might be a bit of a shock. Somehow, somewhere, back in the story, she had been thrown out and told never to speak of being their mother again. But why? And thrown out by whom? Phew – this story doesn’t make much sense, does it? It is too raggedy-edged, it doesn’t hold together. What story is as raggedy-edged as this one is raggedy-edged?

I don’t know, well there’s another version of the story that somehow, if you go back a long way to when the children were little, too little to remember any of this now, she herself had regrettably sent them away for their own good.

Which version would you prefer? I think we can accept she  really was their mother. Or father. Or whatever. And I think we can accept the children simply did not know or care. I know she watched over those children with such love, sometimes with tears in her eyes – but whether tears of sorrow, joy, pride or whatever I really could not say.

Anyway, one day something rather dramatic happened. I don’t know what it was exactly. Maybe there was someone who really wanted to get that garden from her, and throw her out. Throw out too the children and turn the garden with its flowers, fruit trees and swings into (maybe) a supermarket complete with a wonderful asphalt car park.

Anyway, he sent a very big, super big, lorry, a juggernaut, down the motorway towards the old woman’s garden with the children playing it. This lorry was to deliver lots of asphalt at the garden gateway, asphalt for spreading in the garden to begin turning it into a car park. Legally he could do that, because somehow the law had said the old woman’s garden wasn’t really hers anyway. It belonged to someone else because she was too old and to tell the truth only dunces would say that she ever really existed.

The humungously great lorry full of steaming asphalt was about to stop outside the gate of the garden when the brakes wouldn’t work.

Okay guys – philosophers are trained to think and express themselves clearly. Maybe if you want me to I could recommend some really good books to help you do that. Books that you would be unlikely to find even in the university libraries of Ivy League universities like Harvard.

Anyway, what do you think of this? The lorry was about to stop outside the gates when its brakes failed. So it was about to do what it could not do. How far, then, can we say it was about to do it? Can you be about to do something you cannot possibly do?

Philosophers love little problems like that.

Back to the thundering juggernaut. It carried on thundering, thundering and thundering some more towards the garden. It was dead set that it would squash those playing children absolutely flat, splat. Here was the old woman, sitting there looking out of the window, smiling at the children playing. Was she knitting? Or was she knotting? Knit, knot. Knit, knot – paddy wot?

She could hear this roaring, thundering, lorry, getting closer and closer. Her hearing was good, much better than mine. And she was alert. Well, but she suddenly moved with some speed given she was so very, very old. Stop. Arms outstretched, bit like a cross. STOP!

Oops! Her hearing was good; the lorry’s hearing was not. In fact, lorries can’t hear at all. And the driver had leaped clear.

Oh dear. What a bloody mess. But somehow – what an amazing thing (a miracle is when something happens that is not just very, very unlikely or unexpected but rather, some say, it is quite contrary to any laws or regularities of nature, of science. Could there ever be such a thing, do you think?)

Well, her body was enough to clog up the wheels and the brakes and working bits of that lorry so that it slowly, very slowly, stopped moving. It stopped, just as it was about to knock down the fence (the protective fence) around the children’s garden. The lorry stopped just in time.

Unfortunately the woman was now completely flattened in a mangly sort of way. Apart from, well, some say they could still see a smile on her face. Knit. Or knot? And there are other stranger things in this story.

Some are sure – maybe me too, but I’ll believe anything –  even now they say she is still there, looking out from her window, rocking away on her rocking chair smiling. Oh yes, smiling and still watching, caring for the children in her garden (the garden is still there too,  though you do need to look for it – don’t look, you won’t see!).

You see, she was their mother. And a loving mother is always there to help her children. She is still there, and always will be. Smiling, loving, caring. And encouraging her children to maybe take some notice of her good example of caring for others, too. And learn something. For whoever thinks they have nothing to learn will, I fear, not learn much!

But then, this is without doubt a stupid story! It is purely made up by those who have nothing better to do (probably a chair-dwelling philosopher). This story doesn’t make any sense at all. All kinds of things here don’t fit together. We are not even sure if she was a woman anyway. If she wasn’t a woman, she was a man. But can she be a man? He would then be their mother. But no he couldn’t. He must be their father, mustn’t he?

And anyway that was a long, long time ago. Way before they had lorries. What are things a long time ago for us now? Why are they to us of the slightest importance? Why should we have any interest in them?

What a stupid story. Is that really the sort of thing philosophers do? And do they really pay you for it? Surely there is something you can do that would be more useful? After all, as another sort-of philosopher, Karl Marx, pointed out, The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; The point, however, is to change it.

Philosophers sitting in chairs would surely be better off doing something useful. Get off your bottom. Get out there. Change the world.

Do something useful like driving a lorry.

About the Author
Paul Williams is Emeritus Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy and the former Head of Religion and Theology at the University of Bristol, UK. He is the author of many books and articles mainly on Buddhist philosophy, particularly in Tibet and a professed lay member of the Dominican Order (Order of Preachers) of the Roman Catholic Church. Since retirement he has been particularly involved in support for Syrian and Ukrainian refugees in the UK, and since October 7th 2023 in outreach and support where appreciated for Jewish friends and contacts.
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