Ruminations upon the Open Mind

As part of my Unitarian training at Harris Manchester, we did a day thinking about marriage. We discussed the institution of marriage, how it is perceived in society today, and we all presented pre-written examples of marriage services. I learned something quite surprising. When it comes to the institution of marriage, amongst Unitarians I’m apparently quite conservative. I believe that if people enter into marriage, their intention from the offset should be until till death do they part. Of course, this ideal is not always realised, and ultimately defining the contours of any relationship is an enormously personal matter, but I guess I am an idealist. It seems silly to me to enter into a marriage on a conditional basis; that doesn’t strike me as being a marriage at all.

It’s funny I think, how one’s views being regarded as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ is so conditional upon the context in which one finds oneself. It’s been one of the funny things about moving from Anglicanism into Unitarianism. In Anglicanism my views were almost always regarded as being radically liberal, uncomfortably so, but in Unitarianism I guess I occupy centre ground. I’ve been reading a book this week by the social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, called ‘The Righteous Mind’ – it’s about the character trait ‘Openness to experience’. How open people are to new experiences determines the degree to which they crave novelty, diversity, variety, new ideas, and travel, whereas people less open to experiences prefer the familiar and the dependable.

 Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt argues that this single character trait can tell us a great deal about individuals, down to the politics they settle on, even things like the kind of food they like to eat, and the places they like to go on holiday. ‘Open’ individuals have an affinity for liberal, progressive, left-wing political views, whereas ‘closed’ individuals prefer conservative, traditional, right wing views. Note that this is a psychological preference; there are obviously exceptions to the rule. Also, the types of organisations ‘open’ people are attracted to tend to emphasise things like freedom of belief and social action, they value virtues like tolerance, compassion, and creativity. In other words, organisations like the Unitarian movement are much more likely to attracted ‘open people’ than ‘closed people’. If openness predicts who becomes liberal, and openness predicts the kind of people who become Unitarians, you would imagine that most Unitarians are small L liberals, and that indeed seems to be the case. But this presents us with a problem.

The problem is, as Unitarians we are seeking a deeper understanding of the world. A lack of moral diversity amongst us makes that harder to do. When people all share values and morals they naturally become a team, and the psychology of ‘team’ shuts down open minded thinking. Those who happen to find themselves outside of the team’s consensus are, perhaps subtly, perhaps overtly, shunned, and belittled for holding contrary views. It’s one thing to go against the grain, and hold views that are contrary to those around you, but that is made all the more difficult when you identify as being part of the same team, or group, as the people with which you disagree. Jonathan Haidt argues that in any community of people, having both conservatives and liberals is a much healthier state of affairs.

The argument goes that in fact liberal and conservative should not be thought of as being at odds, but rather the ideal is that they might have a balancing effect upon one another. There is an immense value in having people operating with a different set of moral presuppositions in your midst. This idea of balance, finding a social equilibrium, appears in many eastern religious philosophies. Take for example the symbol of Yin & Yang. Shadow and light. Yin & Yang are not enemies – they are two complimentary energies which work in a symbiotic fashion.  It is a symbol which describes all of reality as one integrated whole. If we are all part of one integrated whole, our perspective upon reality shifts subtly. You should regard your neighbour’s gain as your own, your neighbour’s loss as your own. Jonathan Haidt quotes the Zen master Sent-ts’an, “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against”. The struggle between ‘For’ and ‘Against’ is the mind’s worst disease.  It is a disease we so naturally fall into; as soon as we pick a side, we begin to belittle, diminish, and dehumanise the other. So that then is the higher state, if you will. To step out from the battle between good and evil, the battle between ‘for’ and ‘against’, and not be for or against anything. That is the much more difficult space to occupy. And it’s a very challenging mind space to get into.

It’s important because our natural disposition is to the contrary – we naturally gravitate towards teams which confirm our biases, and therefore blind us to the truth. Of course we cannot perpetually operate in the realm of not bring for or against, ultimately decisions do need to be made, but to be made dispassionately, to start from a point that doesn’t assume one’s own correctness, and to be ready to receive and be open to other perspectives. Whether our subjective places such ideas in the realm of liberalism on conservatism is a moot point. That is the kind of space we should strive to make here. A space where at the door we put down our rightness, our labels of liberalism or conservatism, our moral superiority, and enter into fellowship unburdened, ready to be nourished by this space, by one another. Ready to be challenged by dangerous ideas; juggle with them, delve into them, and delve into the self, in our ongoing desire to understand this world, and the landscape of ideas. This is one way to understand that narrow door that Jesus speaks about, the hard way, which is not followed by many, because the norm is to gravitate towards the tribe or group which confirms our biases and to become increasingly reinforced in them. That is the way if ignorance, where the blind lead the blind.

In a way, the ideal we can imagine, of a community in which one can enter with another into a free exchange without the baggage of ideology, or political identity, or pre-conceived loyalties weighing us down, is what this community already is - and in another way it’s what we are moving towards. One of the difficulties with traditional forms of Christianity is that it hinges on this idea of what is to come. That question is the preoccupation of much of humanity, the ‘what is to come’ mentality – one day such and such will happen and I will be complete, one day I will get x, y or z, and I will be complete. In Christianity, in most literal terms, we might speak about some heavenly realm which is to come. We toil in the now until we die, then we move to that next realm, when all is made well, and there are no more tears or toil or anguish. Deconstructing that a bit, we might rather speak of striving to bring that heavenly realm, that Kingdom of God, into this world. We might imagine a time when justice, and mercy, and compassion, are the guiding lights for all humanity. That is the ‘what is to come’ we strive towards.

 Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Unpicking that still further, we can talk of the Kingdom of God, that ‘to come’ reality, as if it can be manifested into the present. That is like when we experience another, and see them wholly in the present, seeing past the masks of conformity we wear for the world. The Kingdom of God is not coming; it is made present. Present in the real. The real which is beyond ‘For’ or ‘Against’, beyond even good and evil. To reference another famous thinker and writer, this was the crux of Leo Tolstoy’s insight - we can live now in the present, that ‘to come’ reality. Live as if we were wholly liberated from the baggage of life, wholly liberated from respectability, wholly liberated from any frameworks of oppression which have a bearing upon us. This most radical idea was to have a profound influence upon Gandhi, and his campaign of love that liberated India. As Gandhi famously put it, ‘be the change you want to see in this world’.

Jonathan Haidt’s book ‘The Righteous Mind’ concludes that the problem is that everyone thinks they are right. We must cultivate a moral humility, by stepping outside of the ‘For or Against’ dichotomy, and appreciating the landscape of morality for what it is. To do so, is to overcome our natural state, our natural desire to cluster together with people who share our ignorances. To get out of humanity’s normal pattern of self-righteousness. When we understand this fact, we can step out of the moral maze, step out from ‘For’ or ‘Against’, and try to see it as a struggle playing out before us. We can get some semblance of objectivity, in which we can see and appreciate that of course everyone has their reasons for believing what they do, even if you do disagree with them.

In this way we might begin to create community which is capable of really hearing the other. A community which does not think of itself in self-righteousness terms, a community which is open to the whole spectrum of morality. Perhaps in this way we will see the world a little clearer, and overcome our natural ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ blinkers. We can move beyond humanity’s struggles to have power one over another, and move beyond humanity’s desire to neatly categorise the world around us, and rather, move towards truth.

Amen.