Open and Closed

As we are now in the days of the great O antiphons leading up to Christmas in its most Christian meaning, I have intentionally looked away from politics and its incessant contradictions, smoke and mirrors. Apart from my translation work, which has picked up again after a worrying lull, I have returned to revising my book on the esoteric dimension of Christianity with the title of A Cry in the Night. My intention is to avoid resuming everything strictly in the light of Romanticism but rather to reflect also on that long tradition characterised by Jakob Böhme, Nikolai Berdyaev, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin and Novalis among others. Like these thinkers, I have been concerned with the eternal problem of evil which is so inadequately explained by exoteric Christianity.

I came across an article contrasting the idea of Open against Order, the first representing tolerance, fair debate, diversity, etc. and the second representing authority, the collective, etc. When I decided to write this little piece, I had discarded the link to this article and I could not find it in my history tab on Firefox. I found almost the same ideas and better in Open Society in Wikipedia. Another article Is open/closed the new left/right? Paradigm shift and Europe’s centre right brought some things home for me. For example, why are people like Philippe Mélenchon and Jeremy Corbyn such dinosaurs in their attempts to get into power? Simply, the ideas of right wing and left wing are no longer valid categories. The paradigm has shifted into open and closed.

This was an eye-opener for me, since I saw things in these terms in my childhood. I also understood why words no longer have the meaning they had. As someone who has always been rather pedantic with things like words and language, I like to analyse words and their etymology. Then sometimes I amuse myself with puns and rhymes as children often do with words when they haven’t yet entirely learned the conventional meanings. I quite enjoy spelling howlers like “The Gestapo needed to make the prisoner talk, so they torchered him“. I suppose they used the excruciating method of shining a torch beam onto the victim’s body! I suppose all this word play is a part of Aspergers autism and my quirky ways.

A critical way of reading words is essential to filter out the bullshit of euphemisms and the implicit. My Old Testament professor, Fr Barthélemy OP, insisted on the various ways of reading a text, largely developed by Origen, literal, moral, allegorical and  anagogical. Likewise, modern communications can be understood in different ways, even when they are expressed in good faith and honestly. Language can be distorted by the use of euphemisms, equivocation and lies. When words mean nothing, we are truly in trouble! We have to learn to be critical.

There are lots of ways to acquire a critical mindset, but there are some guidelines I would suggest. Who is saying this? Who benefits? Who gets harmed or deceived? Has this thing been debated and reasoned out? Has the person come up with something original or is he just repeating a fixed line? Does it stand up to examination? There are plenty of other questions to be asked.

Having a critical mind is encouraged in an open society, but in something like North Korea or under the Nazis, the secret police would have you for breakfast, and doing something more painful than shining a torch beam! The Wikipedia article talks of the philosopher Karl Popper, of whom I had never heard, but who seems most interesting.

The contrary of open is closed. Various words describe the closed paradigm like static, exclusive, tribal, tradition, authority. Open is associated with tolerant, transparent, flexible, innovative. An open society depends less on authority and constraint, but rather on a sense of ethics, morality and personal responsibility. It is the very distinction between the Old Law and the law of the Spirit introduced by Christ to the scandalised Pharisees.

Popper’s paradigm obviously exists as a reaction against the Nazism that drove him from his native Austria to seek refuge in England. The essential characteristic is the freedom of the individual / person from the tribal or collectivist society. The key to democracy is education and the ability to think critically. In a collectivist society, truth is subservient to the party’s ideology and praxis. Society must be open to different points of view and perceptions of truth. Knowledge is never complete but is an ongoing process of discovery. This is one bone of contention I had with Roman Catholic anti-Modernism with the idea that divine Revelation was closed with the death of the last Apostle – and that everything else is passed-on Tradition.

Popper said “If we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society… into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure”. It reminds me of Walt Whitman’s Passage to India as he describes the spirit of great explorers and navigators:

O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!

We English will judge our new “people’s government” by how open it is to new ideas or whether it will be gradually imposing a single “groupthink” or “orthodoxy”. It is absolutely necessary to maintain the separation of powers between Parliament, Government and the Law Courts. If this is eroded, it is time to resist or move to another country!

A last warning by George Orwell before his death in 1950:

Does such an open society exist anywhere? In the capitalist world, people are manipulated by commercial advertising and political deception. If the electorate is victim to such propaganda, altering the very perception of reality, democracy will mean very little. The Wikipedia article leaves me with a much more favourable impression to George Soros, who was horribly demonised in the run-up to Trump’s election as President.

We come back to the eternal notion of democracy being dependent on truly philosophical education and the nobility of spirit, without which democracy becomes tyranny and mob rule. The ideal of open society must remain in spite of the fallen or corrupted moral state of humanity.

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. – Matthew 5, 14-16

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5 Responses to Open and Closed

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A couple bits and bobs:

    I’ve enjoyed the first part of Popper’s autobiography, but want to follow up some cogent-sounding criticism I’ve heard of his limitations (e.g., re. his (mis-)reading of Plato, among other things).

    Have you read much William Law? I loved his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, but have only read snippets of his later Boehme-related work, so far – though I commend the quotations for last week in Charles Williams’s New Christian Year to any- and everyone’s consideration:

    Reading quotations from interviews with Mr. ‘Soros’ has been a very chilling and hair-raising experience. He also seems happy to fund efforts in the direction of “tyranny and mob rule” shutting down any real open philosophical consideration of things.

  2. Stephen K says:

    Today, my wife and I were speaking of how few Christmas cards we had to send this year – too many have gone far away or died – and how fewer we have received: maybe a hand will cover it. Christmas is promoted as a time for family togetherness, and that is a good ideal and experience if you have it. But millions have no-one to share the day with.

    I remember one Christmas, say, about 40 years ago. A young rough diamond bloke – let’s call him Dave – with whom I was working at the time, in a factory, gave me and an old codger who had ended up there on the day, a lift home. The old codger – let’s call him Harry – was living in a room at the local pub. I was the Christian in those days, but when Harry told Dave he would be spending the day in is room, Dave would have none of it: ‘You’re coming to lunch with me and me folks! I’ll pick ya up at 12 o’clock. How’d that suit ya?’ I never forgot it.

    Years later, I was listening to a recording of Missa Sine Nomine by Juan de Anchieta, some little time after hearing a budget speech that would have made the poor and unemployed starve while the rich got tax cuts, and after visiting and being inspired by a local community of Eberhard Arnold’s wonderful Bruderhof who live the common Christian life. And I was moved to write the following penitential reflection. Today is still Advent and although there seems to be some dispute about whether, despite the purple church livery, this season is truly penitential in character, I thought I would share it with you.

    It was written in keeping with the injunction to remember the Last Things. It is not offered as a dampener on anyone’s festal joy if they are fortunate to have some. But we can remember that from the very beginning, in the symbolism of the crib, and the magi, and their gifts, the scent of sin and redemptive death is at the very centre and a sober thought or two might not be out of place before we let loose on the presents and the port.

    “Do not thou then spurn the weak
    Nor cast aside the halt;
    Take not advantage of the meek,
    Nor fail to own thy fault
    In all thy sins – for thou shouldst seek
    the better path, the better way,
    and ever strive to reach the peak
    before the dark at close of day.”

    The words resound within my head:
    I cannot sleep, nor rest.
    I toss and turn upon my bed
    I feel a tightness in my breast.
    I know that I am clothed and fed
    But others feel the pain
    Of cold and emptiness instead:
    I know I’ve failed again.

    We cannot speak of what we do not do;
    We cannot say one thing and do another:
    We must not lie or say what is not true;
    We must not fail our sister or our brother.
    And if we think it’s justice we pursue
    When to our borders doth the call of arms
    Ring out in patriotic cry and hue
    To guard our cities and protect our farms

    And keep the hordes away; or grind
    Into submission all the jobless and the ill,
    Herd them into desperate ghettos of the mind
    To show them all the firmness of our will,
    To chain them, keep them suffering and blind;
    And while we feast, we turn away our ear,
    Our eye, our heart, deliberately unkind,
    Imprisoned by our crippling and demeaning fear.

    The winter fast approaches and the cold
    Descends on huddling forms in alleyways;
    It slivers under doors; and grips the sick and old;
    Invades the houses where no fires blaze;
    Where children ache from damp and from the mould
    That spreads where warmth has never been
    And all because our leaders brave and bold
    Are thoughtless, venal, insecure or mean.

    “Do not thou then spurn the weak….”
    The voice within my head
    It was my conscience I heard speak
    And all that I had read
    I knew was but as smoke or mist;
    My works were futile, dead,
    Until I could by love be kissed
    I’d weep upon my bed.

    Deeds, not words; not proud or empty phrases:
    For these do not accomplish what we need
    To do to all within our mortal human power
    The homeless shelter and the hungry feed;
    The lonely succour, and with a thousand graces
    Dignify the needy, even though we bleed;
    And only then, upon our dreadful hour
    Will the voice be still and fear recede.

    Happy Christmas to you all.

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