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Methodism and the Open Society and Its Enemies

David Bell's profile picture
Posts: 1061

23 April 2016, 10:56 PM

The video Knowledge and Vital Piety touches on Karl Popper's  concept of the  open society. What is an open society?

Popper wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies during WW2,  in New Zealand. He had fled Nazism and found a refuge here for some years. The message of the book warns about the effects of totalitarian states, and argues for liberal democracy as the only kind of political system that can bring societal change without bloodshed and violence. 

How do churches organise themselves? Certainly NZ Methodism does not look much like a liberal democracy, and that's also true of Anglicanism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and most Reformed/Protestant denominations.  What do others think?

Stuart Manins's profile picture
Posts: 140

02 May 2016, 7:32 PM

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper discuss aspects of the 'open society'.

Given the closure of the 6senses site by MCNZ, does the kind of interchange of ideas in Kiwiconnexion represent the open group in an open society we are describing and promoting in this forum?

In recent responses from an American midwest University it seems that Kiwiconnexion is gaining the international recognition and praise it deserves. Congratulations David Bell!

David Bell's profile picture
Posts: 1061

02 May 2016, 10:44 PM

Thank you

Thank you kindly Stuart for the reference to the Conference at Notre Dame. I will be say a bit more about this in the newsletter for May.

Closure of 6senses and birth of kiwi connexion

The closure of 6senses certainly resulted in the loss of a lot of useful dialogue and interchange.  Although journals and pages can be exported  from the Mahara ePortfolio that is not the case with forums, so inevitably there was a major shrinkage of interesting work from many different thinkers within the Methodist Church of New Zealand.

On the positive side of the ledger the kiwi connexion site is now completely independent from MCNZ and has some of its most creative talents working in it. In a short time we have begun some major initiatives. 

All of which is absolutely relevant to your question about the Open Society.

Karl Popper's The Open Society

Popper wrote this book as his personal project for the war effort. As indicated in the YouTube resource Knowledge and Vital Piety (Susan Thompson's history of Trinity Theological College) Popper had fled Europe and found a home as a refugee in New Zealand. But until the battles of Coral Sea and Midway turned the tide decisively in America's favour, Popper felt that Australia and New Zealand would fall to the Japanese. Similarly, in Europe. Until Hitler's ill-fated push on the Eastern front resulted early in 1943 in the loss of the battle of Stalingrad, Popper had no cause to be optimistic about the future. These events marked a turning point in the war and also in Popper's work.

Thus it was that Karl Popper worked feverishly to complete the his lectures, courses and talks all of which formed the Open Society political project. There's a really splendid history of this by Malachi Haim Hacohen, Karl Popper, The Formative Years 1902-1945, Cambridge University Press, 2002.  

The forces of totalitarianism and anti-democratic elements were the backdrop to Popper's life during the war years. The loss of civil values was inevitable: life was cheap and war made it cruel. In some ways today we see remarkably little has changed. The same terrors are endemic in the middle east. Nazis burned books, and Isis fundamentalists destroy the treasures of history. 

Do I see parallels with our kiwi connexion forums and the ideals expressed by Popper? Yes indeed. we are attempting public discourse. This was fundamental to the open society project. The opposing forces seek to control, purge, eliminate public discourse. 

Edits to this post:
Stuart Manins's profile picture
Posts: 140

19 September 2016, 7:53 PM

 Have you ever wondered why some people have a view of knowledge that excludes the acceptance or even consideration of other views? They hold that their beliefs are exclusively right and that others therefore must be wrong. People with such religious beliefs include fundamentalists. The scientific equivalent of fundamentalism is scientism. This absolute view of knowledge is contrary to much contemporary thinking.

Christian fundamentalists received their title in the early 1900s in the USA as a conservative movement to promote the fundamentals of Christianity whose cardinal beliefs are listed by Rachel Kohn as the inerrancy of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Birth, a substitutionary theology of atonement and the physical resurrection and bodily return of Christ. It was in contradistinction to the modernists who were reforming doctrine in the light of contemporary philosophical and scientific research.

 Scientism allows the acceptance of only one explanation for the world in which we live and this view is most likely to consider physical phenomena alone. Since World War Two this has usually been referred to as materialism and is the prevailing major paradigm for scientific explanation and exploration. Currently, fundamentalism still flourishes in scientific and religious communities.

 This introduction is brief for two reasons: First, much has already been written on these topics and second, my interest is to examine the reasons why such views are held rather than their history and content. It seems that in this field of extreme views, the dangers of inconsistency and hubris are pursued with greater energy and acrimony than in most others. Many people I know who can be fairly so described as fundamentalists, are thoughtful, compassionate, unselfish and intelligently discriminating in other areas, but not here. In short they are zealots for what they believe to be absolute truth and it is their mission to convert others to their way of thinking or at least to confine their own or others’ thinking exclusively to one view only.

Could it be that the two groups are at either extreme ends of continuums of doubt and faith in an effort to protect security? Religious fundamentalists fear doubt and often label it a sin because it may disturb the security of an established accepted position, while materialists fear faith and often label it as blind because it may not have the security of their kind of proof. Sometimes an explanation for these views is given as, ‘But it works so it must be true!’ Herein lies the problem. There is no doubt that either stance can work well for some people, producing worthwhile social lives on the one hand, and useful research on the other. What needs to be questioned is whether or not it is true, or to be more specific, whether or not it contains elements of truth.

 Consider the case of the fundamentalist Christian. It is the situation I know best because it describes the position in which I was enculturated but which subsequently needed to reject. What still remains after the rejection of certain aspects of dogma is the conviction that underpinning my religious experience is something of the utmost importance both for me as well as the world I live in. For me, the essence of religious experience is spiritual sensitivity. I don’t attempt to prove this other than to recognize that it gives my life meaning and purpose. It provides me with guide-lines by which I can live a satisfying and good life. But the symbols of language and those referred to by language, and other non-linguistic symbols associated in my mind with religious experience have become increasingly inappropriate. This does not cause me to devalue my experience but to be increasingly suspicious of the terms of reference and mythology that inevitably build up around any institutionalized ideology. I wonder, then, if my example can be used to describe what happens to other people.

 In my fundamentalist stage I was quite prepared to accept that a literal, personalized God spoke to Moses and gave him tablets of stone which contained a statement of God’s law. At the same time as believing this literally true for Christianity, I doubted the literal truth of similar stories in other faith systems; for example,  where tablets of gold (also since lost) were claimed to be found on other mountains. The inconsistency of this self-centred and illogical position (so strong in childhood) took many years to break down.

 Furthermore, I was not prepared to be honest with inconsistencies in my experience. When my prayers were not answered I thought that the answer was different from what I thought had been promised by scripture, when so called prophecies were not fulfilled it just meant that they were taking a longer time, when some passages of scripture disagreed with other ones then it was the translation or my understanding of the terms that were at fault. No matter what my honest doubt suggested, it could always be met with watertight answers that protected the absolute veracity of the conservative opinion.

 And yet a place for intelligent design within a process of evolution satisfied my acceptance for a ineffable force underlying the development of matter and life, I am still convinced that prayer can change situations in ways I can’t explain, and, like other great religions, a Christian faith can reform lives from being self-centred and pointless to being other-centred and purposeful.

 As I have grown older I have discovered the need to keep working at God concepts. This process was working in me in childhood but I was unaware of it. The problem for all of us is to raise this awareness to a greater level of course. God concepts are not fixed. They are not the only ones for all people and all time.

 It is not so much one of belief in a system that does not work; it may work! It is more in accepting as absolutely true, ideas which can only be symbols for something bigger, to which at their best they give a temporary satisfactory model of explanation. Of course we can all benefit from the use of symbols. The difficulty is in using inadequate symbols and in not realizing that we are doing so.

 Maybe developmental psychology can provide us with a better framework. We learn from the writings of people such as Erikson, Piaget, Giblin, Parsons, Bruner, Kolberg, and, Peck that across many social science fields there is within human development a move from being self-centred to being other-centred, and from concrete thinking to abstract thinking. Being right precedes periods of doubt, which can then merge into some kind of balance between acceptance of the status quo and the freedom to explore and change.

 A Platonic or Pythagorean acceptance of ideal fixed laws of nature may not be helpful. The twentieth century scientist/priest Pierre Teihard de Chardin had some important insights to counteract this. More recently, Rupert Sheldrake’s proposal of morphic resonance with its basis also in evolutionary development might provide for even more flexibility.

 Perhaps consideration of how religious language and practice might have formed could be helpful. If it is accepted that all language has its origin in experience and that all mental concepts are human in construction, then religious language can be a symbolic way of referring to spiritual experience. The experience comes first, yet the words first used to indicate it must always be inadequate compared with the experience itself. These ideas, words, and practices in our belief systems are constructed from the culture in which we are brought up, which is necessarily different in different places. If we take the word God, for instance, (and there are many people who sincerely seek spirituality but prefer not to use the term) then the human concept of God changes over an individual’s life time and the individual finds that its use, function and symbolic value in the sacred text also change. There is no fixed meaning yet the fixing of terms with absolute certainty is at the heart of fundamentalism.

 Another unhelpful tendency is to see things in either black or white or mutually exclusive opposites when in reality they may be just different sides of the one whole. The relatively recent world of science, resting on the Cartesian dictum, “Cogito ergo sum” might have become unbalanced because Descartes in his desire to be as objective as possible didn’t also say “Sentio ergo sum” and acknowledge the place of feeling in the wholeness of living.

 Before moving on from here you might require me to identify what I mean by spiritual. Because most of my professional life has been connected to music and teaching, it is here that I look for illustrations.  In musical performance and in group relationships one learns to sense what matters most, before it is articulated in language. Every musical performer knows that there are moments when their contribution is more than the sum of their practice skills, more than their individual contribution to the group, more than the notes of the manuscript in front of them (if they are reading notation), and more than what they know themselves to be at that time. This is sometimes called a peak experience, hard to define, totally absorbing to experience, and impossible to forget. It has the essence of spirituality and we are left in awe of it, overwhelmed with appreciation that it has happened, humbled by being part of it, and with an insatiable desire to repeat it.

 It represents something beyond us but which connects us to others and our world. It is connected to what we consider to be the best in life and is at the core of our being. It is impossible to recreate by describing in language.

 Technique from hours of practice, understanding of style, discipline to the demanding requirements of the music and other fellow performers, creative and interpretive skills from rehearsals where freedom to experiment and firm requirements go hand in hand, all have their necessary place in the approach to this ‘other worldly’ experience but can only contribute to it and in no way substitute for it. It is a time when intuition and creativity take over producing, if not overt joy, then at least the deepest satisfaction. It is an experience of the spirit not just the body or brain or mind.

 Similar experiences can occur in a variety of situations: at the birth of a child, at the contemplation of some natural phenomena, being moved by an act of extreme kindness or extreme skill, at the height of some sporting activity, during the reading of a poem or looking at a work of visual art and so on. I suspect that in part, religions have grown around the human need to recognize such experiences but in doing so have been trapped into turning the means intended to preserve them into ends themselves. What matters most is that we are transported out of the ordinary, sometimes seemingly beyond time and space, where the small and mean in life are replaced by truth and beauty and love. Life is enriched.

 When I ask myself why I took so long to change my fundamentalist view of religion I find the following: fear, ignorance, inconsistency, immaturity, confusion between cause and effect, misunderstanding the symbolic nature of language, and a corruptive desire for power over the thoughts of others provided important negative influences. Not a pretty profile!

 The Christian fundamentalists miss the real fundamentals of faith. The truly fundamental elements are much more universal than any set of particular dogma and are rooted in unconditional love. There is always a constant need to refine religious language in the terms of this love. Similarly there is a constant need in scientific language to keep refining the understandings of ourselves and the universe we inhabit in terms of ever changing reason. We can expect much of the scientific knowledge of today to be replaced considerably in one hundred years time.

 There remains the question, “Why do materialist scientists so often react strongly and aggressively against considering the possibility that some aspects of human experience may have a non-physical origin?” A scientist friend of mine who has spent a lifetime as a research physicist claims that for some of his colleagues any evidence suggesting that there are phenomena which indicate that mind may be more than neuroscience tends to attract labels such as super-natural, magic, flaky, fraudulent, etc and is accordingly rejected without further attention. This kind of reaction is rooted in a resolute determination to reject anything which might threaten its autonomy or even have a whiff of religion about it. What ought to be common to all scientists, religious people, philosophers and seekers of spirituality is a thirst for knowledge and wisdom. Deep down we all want to know what can explain our existence, our experiences and improve our lives. In the commonalities are shared ideas which are far more important than the differences that we allow to separate us. We all seek our own truth.

 For the time being I am content to have as fundamental to my beliefs, such qualities as love, honesty, truth, freedom and responsibility in my search for spirituality. With goals such as these in the hearts and minds of   people of goodwill, the future can look good; but more importantly the present can be enriched.






Rosalie's profile picture
Posts: 50

19 September 2016, 9:58 PM

Hi Stuart, thanks for sharing your personal journey and thoughts. The thing that comes to mind for me is your story is not at all unusual. In my experience a high proportion of Christians who claim to be liberal or progressive come from a sincere fundamentalist back ground and they have been fortunate enough to be exposed to experiences and teachings that have broadened and deepened their understanding of faith and truth.

This is the very reason why I wrote my novel 'Green, Ho!' and the digest version 'Greys & Greens' reviewed in this month's Touchstone. I wanted to move a character from a fundamentalist faith to inclusive liberal understandings while raising issues church people have traditionally shied away from discussing openly (including sex, suicide, and situation ethics). But as far as I am aware no one has down-loaded the free and very user-friendly discussion guide that goes with the novel. I do wonder why this is?

David Bell's profile picture
Posts: 1061

20 September 2016, 1:01 PM

Stuart's post is interesting enough but I can't quite get into. maybe because I'm a walking drug cabinet, but an open society involves more fun than analysis? The life well lived is reflected onand integrated into mythical pattern which transcends all the rationality.T S Eliot put it thus
The unattended moment,t he moment in and out of time, the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight
It's all about transcending mere analysis and getting to the implicate order. This requires openness.
Dorothy Willis's profile picture
Posts: 19

20 September 2016, 9:40 PM

A huge post Stuart.  One that covers a progression over time.  This is how we do our own theology I guess.  Most of us will have our root system in some type of fundamentalism.  For me that is just how it was.  Where my Bible learning and spirituality started was learning the stories quite literally as they were told.  When one starts out on a faith journey the safe place is in that very black and white way of looking at things.   Only with time, maturity and exposure to influences that are going to expand us do we gain the confidence to start thinking outside the comfort zone.  To start looking for our version of faith and belief.  For me love is the key.  The rest should all fall naturally together.  But sometimes that is easier said than done.

In the book "God in all worlds" an anthology of contemporary spiritual writing by Lucinda Vardey - Ram Dass (ex Harvard Professor) writes about Nobody's Special.  He says "we spend a lifetime trying to be somebody but we really become somebody when we become nobody".   Now that is something to consider.  He says   "that when we  become nobody, there is no tension, no pretence, no one trying to be anyone or anything, and the natural state of the mind shines through unobstructed.  The natural state of the mind is pure love.  ......... When we are love.  We have finally acknowledged who we really are.  We have cleared away all the mind trips that keep us being who we thought we were.  Now everybody we look at we are in love with."

Maybe, he is right.  Are we all trying too hard to be somebody?





Julie Thomson's profile picture
Posts: 13

21 September 2016, 7:41 AM

Thanks Stuart,David,Rosalie and Dorothy,
Thought provoking contributions. I come from a common fundamental background (not what I would call extreme ) with early years in the Baptist Church and then confirmed in the Anglican Church in Sydney in my early teens. I am grateful to the Baptist Sunday School and later the extensive time spent on Bible study often using Barclay and other material available at the time. We were a group of young people studying the Bible in a disciplined way.I wonder if I had not had that background if I would still be in the church.
I developed a more liberal way of thinking as we were challenged by people like Bishop Robinson and Lloyd Geering ( by now I am married to a Presbyterian )! Moving to Auckland and attending the nearest church which happened to be Methodist our destiny was to  have at least 15 years under the Ministry of Dr David Bell. Well what does that do to your mind !
David Bell's profile picture
Posts: 1061

23 September 2016, 5:11 PM

Probably ruined it, Julie
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