The Life of Brian

The Life of Brian
An address given to the Manchester College Oxford Chapel Society
by Professor John Toye on Sunday 17 August 2008

I was born in Wisbech, a small town on the Wash at the edge of the Fens. Not a lot happened there. Hardly anything did, in fact. It was pretty quiet – apart from the occasional murders. So when some Jehovah’s Witnesses came to town, it was a major event. I trailed around after them, curious see what impact they would make on the local people. Many of the locals were descended from the Dutch immigrants who had come to England to help to drain the Fens. Old Abraham was one of these, now retired and rather deaf. The Jehovah’s Witnesses came and knocked at his door. He opened it. “We have come to talk to you about Jesus”, they said brightly. Old Abraham looked very, very puzzled, and then he asked: “Dutch cheeses?”

So at a very early age I learned an important lesson – that cheese could be a barrier to religious enlightenment. This is a theme, incidentally, which has been relatively neglected by the writers of sermons. And yet it is everywhere! It pops up again in the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, for example.

I am thinking of the scene in which Jesus was just finishing preaching the Sermon on the Mount, as we heard in our first reading. The camera pans across an absolutely huge crowd to our anti-hero Brian, who is standing at the edge of the crowd, too far away to hear properly what Jesus was saying.

“What is he saying, what is he saying?” Brian asks his neighbour anxiously. His neighbour turns to him and replies: “Blessed are the cheese makers”. “Blessed are the cheese makers?” echoes Brian, utterly incredulous, “what is so special about cheese makers?” Then another man standing nearby turns to Brian and says, with an impeccable Oxford accent: “Yes, Jesus did say: “blessed are the cheese makers” – but of course by extension he is referring to all producers of dairy products.”

Much more might be said on the theme of cheese and religious misunderstanding, but for that you will have to wait for my next sermon.

I expect that some of you will be thinking that “The Life of Brian” is a mere fiction, and sermons should be about real life. So let me switch back to real life and tell you about the lives of two Brians whom I have known – and which are very much the stuff of reality.

The first Brian I shall call Brian Brighton, because that is where I met him. He came to our house one day to a meeting of a campaign for civil liberties that we were leading. Gradually, we began to socialise with Brian, and went out together for meals in some of Brighton’s many restaurants. I suspect that he did not have much sympathy for my membership of the Brighton Unitarian Church, although we did not spend much time discussing religion.

One day he phoned me up and asked me to come for a drink at the Old Ship Hotel on Brighton seafront. “How are you?” I asked him when he arrived. “I’ve some bad news”, he replied. He explained that he had been diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the liver, and been given six months to live. Even more surprising, he told me that the reason he had invited me to the hotel was to ask me to be his literary executor. I suppose he knew that I had written books and dealt with publishers as part of my academic work. He said that he had a case full of plays that he had written, and diaries that he had kept throughout his life. When he died, he said, he wanted me to select everything of literary value and see it through to publication. The rest I was at liberty to discard.

Nine months on, he passed away, and a member of his family delivered Brian’s case of papers to my front door. Eventually, I found the time to go through them. There were only two scripts of plays, and each was of a very amateurish quality – but there were many volumes of hand written diaries. I dutifully read my way through them. I was looking, I suppose, for some insights into the events that he had lived through, the people that he had met and the reflections that he had distilled on his journey through life. Instead, what I found was the details of the quarrels that he had had with his family, of the slights that he had suffered in his professional life as a schoolmaster and of the grievances that he had written down and stored up year after year. It was a catalogue of accumulating bitterness. Yet he had evidently thought was suitable for publication after his death.

I was quite upset. There was absolutely nothing of literary value in the entire case, just a piteously sad record of a life lived in self-righteous anger and in the condemnation of others. I took the whole lot to the local tip, and I could not help thinking that this is what should have happened to it years before. How could anyone have held on to so much bad feeling for so long?

I want to contrast that Life of Brian with a different one, the life of a man I shall call Brian Swansea, because that was where his path crossed ours. This Brian suffered from cerebral palsy. Although he could move around the Day Centre where he spent each day, he had difficulty with reading and thus also with writing. My wife Janet volunteered to help Brian improve his reading, and thereby do something to break down his social isolation, which found very frustrating and depressing.

Some while later, the Day Centre employed someone to teach those who wanted to learn the use of the computer, and Brian took eagerly to finding how to use this new channel of communication. He took up writing poems. Some of them were self-pitying, expressing his frustration with his disabled body and the many things that others could do but he could not. But some were love poems in which he tried to reach out to others with whom he was now able to communicate. When Brian Swansea died, the Day Centre decided to publish a small volume of his poetry. The poems, I would say, were on the sentimental side, and also not of great literary value, but they were a record of his personal struggle and his positive attempt to reach out to others.

What does this tale of two real life Brians tell us? You won’t have missed the contrast, I hope, between the one who hugged all his harvest of bitterness to himself so that it could spill onto the heads of his enemies after his death, and the one who, despite feeling frustrated with his physical circumstances, tried in his own way to communicate love during his lifetime. Nor the contrast between the one who ultimately left nothing and the one whom others wanted to commemorate by publishing his work.

I now want to suggest that each of us has something of these two characters in us. We all have a wounded self, the victim of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, a self that harbours resentments and broods upon the wrongs that we have suffered. Yet we all also have a communicating self, a self that needs to engage with others and to exchange with others feelings of love and affection. And, as we learned from our reading from Mary Lou Leavitt, it is better for us if we can trust our communicating self to help us overcome the hurt and confusion of the wounded self.

The 17th-century Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, developed an idea of the good life that helps us to understand this. He pointed out that, as we start out in our adult life, we cannot know the good or evil of which we are capable; we simply do not know what our body and mind can and cannot do. So, when we are young, we have to think of the good as living within an inherited moral system, or a set of rules that are already out there, or achieving a level of moral heroism that is already defined by our traditional culture – such as martyrdom or self-sacrifice. Yet we inevitably discover as time goes by that these ideas are hollow and false – they are not adequate to help us deal with our own life experiences.

By contrast, Spinoza envisaged the good life as both individual and dynamic. It is individual in the sense that what is good is what is good for you, for your own nature – for your particular physical and psychological make-up. So the good is diverse, and may be different in practice for each of us. It is also something that that is only revealed to us by our own experience – and it is only by reaching out to others that we discover what it is that is good for us. It is only by communicating with others and committing ourselves to others that we find what is useful for us, what complements our individual weaknesses and individual strengths. So we should endeavour to match what is good in us with other things in the world that are good for us.

Coming back to the Brian in the Monty Python film, being good is not fundamentally a matter of establishing whether some great teacher – whether Mahomet or Jesus – has told us to be a cheese maker, or, as of course Jesus actually told us, to be a peacemaker. It is about taking the opportunity (with all the obvious associated risks) both of striving to understand our selves, and of reaching out in the world towards those people and those things that will help us to be good. Wisdom is not to be found in holding tightly to creeds and codes, but in communication – and in using all of our skills to communicate – naming clearly our issues, listening closely to others’ reactions and allowing ourselves to let go of our commitment to opposition and separation.

Personally, I find Spinoza’s idea of the good life very much in line with Unitarian attitudes. I like its emphasis on diversity, on the goodness and wisdom that comes to us in many forms and guises.

I like the value that it places on the simple and commonplace elements of ordinary living. Things that can be good for you do not have to be extraordinary or special – it could be just going to the theatre, playing sport, listening to music, creating a garden, cooking enjoyable food, doing work that is fulfilling, having a loving relationship with parents, partners and children – and many, many other everyday things beside, depending on our individual personalities and on the enduring features of our human nature.

Above all, however, I value Spinoza’s commitment to the freedom of the individual to search out, through deepening personal relationships with other people, an ever fuller, ever richer vision of spiritual truth.

Perhaps you remember the scene in the film where the fictional Brian is desperately trying to disperse the crowd that thinks he is the messiah. “You are all individuals” he tells them, “You have got to go away and think things out for yourselves”. “Yes! Yes!” they all echo together, “we are all individuals, we have got to think things out for ourselves”. Well, that is not the response that I would either want or expect from a Unitarian congregation. Unitarians are not natural followers, and they are ready to take responsibility for their own spiritual destinies.