Ordinary Man, No Ordinary Album

One of the characteristics of the Old Wave that sets it apart from the rest of contemporary music is the depth and breadth of life experience behind the songs. That is exemplified nowhere better than on Steve Banks’ album, Ordinary Man*.

It’s Banks’ first album, but it captures a lifetime of highs and lows he’s experienced as a businessman, family man and—by no means least—a phenomenally talented singer, songwriter, guitarist and live performer.


These three quite distinct themes find expression in a fusion of blues, rock and soul which feels and sounds completely natural rather than conceptually driven.

Partly this is because of the extent to which Banks has absorbed and integrated these styles in his highly personal approach to musical self-expression. In the album’s flawless execution, it’s also a reflection of the close working relationship between Banks and his producer Jeff Burstin, former lead guitarist with the Black Sorrows and Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons.

Burstin—as his current work with Melbourne-based The Hornets attests—is a blues man through and through, and it’s the blues sensibility that helps to give the album its overall unity. The blues is quite rightly respected here as the Old Testament of modern popular music, but a willingness to infuse it with a contemporary feel makes its influence timeless rather than dated, and comes close to giving the album a classic quality.


Double trouble: Burstin (L) and Banks live in Byron Bay

There are no duff tracks and all stand tall, some very much so. The first, “The Way That It Is”, is what used to be known as a breezy little opener. It kicks off with a nail-it-down-tight drum intro followed by a brass riff that adds a touch of big-band swing which not only manages to avoid overwhelming the punchy compactness of the song but also complements Banks’ smoky vocal perfectly. It’s a classic tale of man chases woman and gets caught in his own trap (“I was in need of inspiration/She took me from behind…”) and introduces the relationships theme in a positive light.

“Money”, is a soulful lament about materialism (“You talk about money like you’ve had some for a while/You talk about money like it’s going out of style”) which is complemented neatly by the next track, “Like Robbie Says”, a tribute to The Band’s former guitarist, now solo artist, Robbie Robertson.  It’s a laid back country rock number which nicely captures The Band’s feel for Americana with a plea to free the spirit from the shackles of the social media age.

“Throw Me a Bone” combines great Stax brass with funky guitar to tell an all-too-familiar tale of a man trying to redeem himself in the eyes of a woman (“I’ve been walking, stalking the night/Trying to think of ways and means of making this right”) but it’s the next track, “Millie’s Song”, that really takes the relationships theme into Old Wave territory. It’s a beautiful tribute to Banks’ daughter, written for her 21st birthday, that could bring a tear to the eye of any proud parent. Not the least of its strengths is the killer line: “You had me at the ultrasound”.

The relationships theme takes a dark turn with “I Wonder How You Sleep”, payback for a business relationship sabotaged by betrayal—a pain made all the worse by the fact that the relationship had been based on close personal friendship (“The mistake I made was trusting you with my life and family/ I gave you all that I could give, you repaid me ruthlessly”). Expletives are two a penny on albums these days, but the one used here is heartfelt and almost chilling in its effect.

The title of “Me, Innit” betrays Banks’ Mancunian roots and the track is probably the most reflective on the album, looking back on a successful life but wondering how much of that success was the result of personal authenticity and how much the result of an ability to bluff others. It’s a brave song, laying open Banks’ insecurities for all to see.

“Gotta Get My Balls Back” is also highly personal. I have it on good authority that the song references a dark period in Banks’ life which involved, by Old Wave standards, some pretty serious substance abuse—a liking for herbal tea and gluten-free bread. I’m pleased to report that, after a stern talking-to by said Millie, our man is now back on the beer and chip butties. Driven along by Burstin’s aggressive 12-bar walking blues, it’s a great track for harmonica players to vamp along to.

The fun continues with “Fitzroy Rag”, one of several tracks co-written by Banks and Burstin, and a colourful homage to one of Melbourne’s more famous suburbs, not far from where the album was recorded.

Easily one of the album’s highlights is the title track, “Ordinary Man”, a deeply affecting elegy for a dearly loved brother. It’s one of those rare works of art where any attempt at criticism feels like an act of trespass, so I’ll restrict my comments to referencing The Band again and comparing the song to “It Makes No Difference”, written by Robbie Robertson and sung, heart-rendingly, by Rick Danko.

Both these songs, for my money, stand apart for emotional depth and delivery. The fact that more than 40 years separate them says a lot not only about the rare quality of Banks’ writing and singing, but also the extent to which he has absorbed and continues a great musical tradition.

The two final tracks—the bluesy “Give You My Mind” and the evocative sixties-style surf instrumental (complete with theremin) “Castaway”—round out the album to a very satisfying conclusion.

Available on iTunes and highly recommended.

*Full disclosure: Banks has a history of collaboration with Universal Stranger’s songwriter-in-residence, Rody. For more on the Old Wave, click here.


Notes for a poem, “Black”; by Simon Jones

(Notes for a poem)


‘Stick to the bitumen and you’ll be right.’


Black ribbon road

Laid down by some Ariadne of the outback

Through the red dust

(Ancient fire, consumed to powder

By its own heat)


Inscribed like black letter law;

Reminds me of Moses in the desert―

O children of Israel!


Takes me back

To my childhood

Land of my fathers

Wanderers in a deforested landscape

‘Pilgrim through this barren land’


(Should I start singing Bread of Heaven?)


The burning bush

Burns without consuming:

I am.


The howling dingo emptiness behind me

Always at my heels

Chasing my wheels.


God is an abstraction

Anthropomorphic attributions are idolatrous


But necessary

Because redemption is the human and the abstract (or divine)

Partaking of each other’s nature.


Prophets are inspired

A means to salvation by virtue of being human mediators of the divine (or abstract)

A variation on anthropomorphism.


Who is your prophet, O lost tribe of Israel?

(For so the Welsh were thought to be.)


“Speaking for myself, it was my Great Uncle Tom,

Or Rhondda Tom (as he wasn’t known; I just made that up).

The pinnacle of manliness in my family―

Teacher, politician, social activist―

In whom faith and scepticism wrestled,

Each making the other stronger;



In the issues of the day.”


The black economy;

Faces black with coal dust,

Their words hung black and biblical on the air, in their own ink of sound

And fell into print

Black letters

Fingers black with ink.


Tom inspired my father

My father became a journalist


A matter of record now

The echoes have died

But not

The fire in their eyes or on their tongues


The flames still dance in the darkness


Like the sunset up ahead

At the end of this long black road

Out of nowhere


(Painting: Three Generations of Welsh Miners, by Eugene Smith)

Alienation, Democracy and the Trustee Class: The Stranger’s View

Hi, Lizard – you received some interesting comments among the 2,737 Facebook likes for your item about The Book of Genesis (see last blog, below), and not all of them of the “Repent and accept Jesus” variety.  I was particularly intrigued with the discussion about the ancient snake-worshiping cult and its possible links to the Genesis story and to the snake incident in The Epic of Gilgamesh. One can only imagine how deeply these archetypes lie in the history of story-telling. It almost persuades me that there might be something to Jung’s idea of the collective consciousness after all.

I’m not a fan of populism, and I think its resurgence is an opportunity to reassert the importance of a trustee class and, in Britain and Australia, the continuing relevance of the monarchy.

Thank you, too, for referencing the Alienation Theory of History. The older I get, the more I find this theory—the idea that the roots of human alienation run back to the Neolithic—helpful in regaining some perspective on the ceaseless flux of daily life. It enables me to imagine that the flux and confusion can be characterised as the result of tension between pre-agrarian and post-agrarian traditions which, arguably, continues to resonate in our contemporary culture because (as you point out) such traditions began relatively recently in the timeline of our socio-intellectual evolution.


“The roots of human alienation….” Cliché or not, it’s still a powerful image.

It’s possible to visualise this tension in various ways. I see one aspect of it as arising from the relationship between constitutional monarchy and democracy, in Britain and Australia particularly. The tension in this relationship (much of it synthetic, in my view) seems to be growing. Just so we’re clear, I am a democrat, although a conservative one who believes that the monarchy and democracy can, and should, co-exist happily and to their mutual benefit. I am not star-struck about the British monarchy or any other, however. I believe that any stable and successful country needs a strong trustee class—people who exist above politics and who, through their personal values and public duty, embody their country’s character, history and traditions. It doesn’t need to be a monarchy but the British monarchy is all this and more. Nobody in their right minds, still less a patriot, would willingly entrust their country’s soul to a former politician or bureaucrat (Brexit is proof that many people share a similar view). Unless and until we find a better alternative trustee class to the British monarchy (and I can’t think what that might be) it should stay in place.


Gawd bless yer, Ma’am

What the monarchy (and, indeed, any credible trustee class) represents to me is an idea of social relationships based on human values such as trust, morality, loyalty, mutual care and compassion. This is in direct and absolute contrast to the values one encounters, and which are expected of one, every day in modern democratic society. There, relationships are essentially contractual, self-interested and short term. Indeed, as the Alienation Theory of History proposes, the movement towards these lesser values has been the overall direction of our social development since the Neolithic. Among modern historical examples, one need think only of the 16th century enclosure movement in England and, in the 19th century, the increasing use of legislation to regulate human behaviour (much of it necessary to extend the franchise and limit social evils such as child labour, etc.). Morality became less and less the governing principle of life, being superseded by technicalities.

This complex of shallow social democratic values is a source of alienation to me (and others) and I locate my sense of belonging in the traditional relationship that still exists (almost exclusively outside cities these days, in rural communities) between ordinary people and the trustee class. The social democratic microcosm belongs to a shallow self-serving bourgeois elite which, as the election of Donald Trump as US president last year showed, is losing its grip. I’m not a fan of populism, and I think its resurgence is an opportunity to reassert the importance of a trustee class and, in Britain and Australia, the continuing relevance of the monarchy. The internal corrosion of our cultural institutions by the fascist green left provides another opportunity.

Isn’t it strange how reflections like this should be set in train by a free-thinking meditation on the Book of Genesis?


The Stranger

Deconstructing Genesis: the Lizard’s Tale

Rody – you asked me to expand on my ideas about Genesis, as discussed during our well lubricated lunch with Ms Drysdale some weeks ago. As you will recall, they’re more about Adam and Eve and the Fall than any other part of the book. They’re not particularly well informed or thought through, so consider them not so much as opinions but more as speculations to which I would welcome your intelligent and critical response.

Firstly, let me make clear that I, like you, do not take the Bible literally or believe in the supernatural. I do regard the Bible, however, as important source literature, not only for understanding key aspects of Western history, but also for helpful insights into the human condition. Like all great literature, it’s a repository of profound psychological truths.


Insights into the human condition (Alltime 10s, YouTube)

My starting point in thinking about this subject is to remind myself of the historical perspective. As my favourite historian J. M. Roberts points out, humans have existed more than 20 times longer than the civilisations they have created (indeed, as the picture below reminds us, not all of today’s humans are “civilised”). That alone is a clue to understanding much about the human condition: civilisation occurs relatively recently in our development, and we’re still getting the hang of it. In this I subscribe to the Stranger’s Alienation Theory of History: that alienation has been a permanent structural feature of settled societies since they began, its origin traceable back to the Neolithic and the emergence of agrarianism alongside the established hunter-gatherer mode of existence—a major divergence in the human lifestyle, and a new and more polarising cause of social and cultural estrangement. (This is all theory, remember.)


We’re all still trying to get the hang of civilisation…. (© Gleison Miranda/FUNAI/www.uncontactedtribes.org)

Using this idea as a lens through which to read Genesis, the story can be interpreted as a symbolic account of this primeval disruption (with which, surely, our own highly disrupted age can find some sympathy). Adam and Eve are foragers in a pristine environment which, I’m tempted to think, might be a poetic evocation of the landscapes left by the retreating Ice Ages, as remembered in the oral traditions of stories handed down since prehistory (I tend to get a little carried away on points like this, so please be patient). There’s a (no doubt tenuous) school of thought that suggests one of the drivers of agrarian settlement was the discovery of the pleasures to be derived from ingesting fermented fruit, and the application of this discovery to religious rituals. The Genesis story links the Fall to a change of consciousness in Adam and Eve, which occurred after they ate the forbidden fruit; perhaps that change of consciousness is analogous to that which occurs after drinking too much alcohol! Again, this is fanciful speculation on my part, but I note that a recurring theme for Roberts is the extent to which human history – or at least the story of human development – is the story of our changing (or growing) consciousness. According to Genesis, a change in consciousness caused humanity’s downfall.


Changed consciousness (Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise)

On this reading, the Fall represents the loss of human connection with the natural environment because of the growth of settled communities and the challenge they represented to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in terms of territorial claims, religious beliefs and cultural values. It’s worth noting in this context that Genesis was written, according to Wikipedia, “either just before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC, and the Priestly final edition was made late in the Exilic period soon after”. For the Jews in exile, the tale might have been a way of rationalising and “owning” their alienation in a great foreign city. Like the 40 years in the wilderness, the experience was formative: some important identifying characteristics of Jewish culture, such as the observance of the Sabbath, were established during this period.

Adam and Eve left Eden and went to the land of Nod—a Hebrew word for “wandering” or “wander”. They became the eternal outsiders – the first Universal Strangers, perhaps?




P.S. – On Creative Engagement and Religion….

Dear Rody – I’ve been thinking more about your note on meditation and Esse and I guess it raises the broader issue about the relationship between Esse and religion. As you know, I don’t see Esse as a religion and would be appalled to think that it could become one, but I am interested in the potential for existing religions to add it (somehow) to their world view. I haven’t really thought about this, but I offer here some preliminary ideas.

The link lies in the Judaeo-Christian idea of sacrifice—the ritual of atonement through which the relationship between man and God can be (re)established.

Esse sees the various religions as a branch of human creativity, and I think that the religions we have would appeal to people far more than Esse as vehicles for spiritual expression and fulfilment, because of the symbolism and traditions that they embody—attributes that would be so much more effective in engaging people’s senses and affections than the abstract and, let’s face it, arid nature of Esse.  It’s the idea of religion as essentially a creative pursuit which helps us to maintain a rational perspective on it, and this rationality is (or attempts to be) consistent with the rationality that the Esse concept claims for itself.

[This underlines idea that Esse is potentially most useful in the secular sphere, as a positive statement about God and a counter-narrative to theocratic zealots who claim that nihilism lies at the core of the capitalist-democratic project.]

So, looked at from this rational/creative perspective, how does religion or the faith experience line up alongside your quasi-mystical take on Esse? I’m going to come at this from a liberal Anglican Christian point of view.


In the Old Testament, it was goats…

The first thing to note is that, in my personal experience, trying to exercise Christian devotion to Esse rather than to the traditional theistic God doesn’t work on a creative level. For the devotion to mean anything, it must embrace the anthropomorphic fallacy of theism (symbolism and traditions etc,; see above): the relationship with God through Christ has to be seen as a personal one (again I’m speaking for myself). This is where the creativity or “willing suspension of disbelief” comes in. But what’s the link, relationship or point of transition between this and the real world?

I think it lies in the Judaeo-Christian idea of sacrifice—the ritual of atonement through which the relationship between man and God can be (re)established. In the Old Testament, it involved goats; in the New Testament, it’s the Crucifixion.  Here, it’s the sacrifice of reason to enable the creative engagement in faith. Like the other forms of sacrifice, it can take a sacramental form: the Eucharist, for example, sends us out into the world to be a “living sacrifice” to God.

The more I think about this the more powerful the idea seems to be, and the more it seems to offer a sane adjustment between the secular world and spiritual experience.

This doesn’t answer the broader question about how religions might relate to Esse but, for now, I’m enjoying the sense of balance that it’s restored to my life.


[Pic – The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854]

Neurology vs. Cognition

Thanks, Rody; interesting (I can only guess at what the physical side effect might have been). As to the role of meditation in Esse, it’s not something I’ve really thought about, but I imagine it would raise all sorts of questions about the relationship between neurology and cognition, and what influence our neurological processes might have on our cognitive ones.

Have you thought about that?



Rody Chips In…

Howdy, Stranger (always wanted to say that) and Lizard:

You’ve both been looking at the relationship between metaphysics and practical philosophy; I’ve been thinking about Esse from a different perspective, namely reflective or meditative. I see a parallel of sorts between the kind of seamless conceptual coherence that the Lizard is looking for and the mental clarity I find that contemplation of Esse can give me.

The meditative technique—if I can call it that—begins, as most do, with a relaxed but stable sitting posture with eyes closed. After focusing initially on the idea of Esse as the object of contemplation, the mind disengages from conscious thinking and becomes aware only of itself. The process then follows a path analogous to your description, in the “Genesis” piece, about the self, spontaneously aware of its singularity, becoming conscious of an external reality which (the mind having been primed to contemplate Esse) manifests itself in this instance as a generalised sense of existence. This state having been achieved—I call it “apex consciousness”—the mind focuses on the idea that existence is God and God is existence or Esse, and that Esse is eternal, with nothing before or after it. The object is to sustain this thought and no other for as long as possible.


The first time I tried this I was stunned by the feeling of transcendence it gave me (not to mention a particularly interesting physical side effect). I’ve tried it a few times since without the same intensity of impact, but I plan to keep practising with the aim of getting better at it, and developing the ability to use it as a psychological resource.

I’m not sure what, if anything, this adds to your conversation, or what role, if any, meditation etc. plays in your thinking about Esse.


Order Out of Chaos: the Rule of Three


As I said, the model can’t be applied holistically; the implementation must be sequential: that is, each component is implemented to address specific issues as they arise, be they metaphysical, spiritual or ethical. The components don’t fit together organically because we live in a post-synthetic age[1], where our thinking about life is informed more by empirical knowledge than by pure, internally consistent, reasoning. This is certainly the basis of my approach which (as I indicated in the personal anecdotes) has been shaped by the loss of my younger self’s religion-based world view and by subsequent attempts to understand life by examining the facts of my existence.

One of the characteristics of the post-synthetic era is a sense of flux and fragmentation

This is probably a good point to acknowledge one of the (no doubt many) shortcomings of my approach. It is, at its core, emotional rather than rational because it’s a response to a specific event—an existential crisis in my youth. No, I’m not playing the victim card; it’s a fact and I need to put it out there as a matter of full disclosure.

That said, I’m hardly alone. One of the characteristics of the post-synthetic era is a sense of flux and fragmentation. That has a basis in historical and cultural fact: it’s there in the modernist movement (think T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, Joyce’s “Ulysses”, Woolf’s stream of consciousness etc.) and in our own post-modernist, post-fact, post-truth, post-West, culturally relativist era. The coherence in the pluralistic model lies, perhaps paradoxically, in acknowledging its incoherence, arguing that the incoherence is consistent with the flavour of contemporary life, understanding the implications, and applying that understanding systematically in the way we think.


Under the brown fog of a winter dawn….

The way I do this is through the “Rule of Three”, which is my way of rationalising the incoherence of daily life into something manageable. It’s based on the idea that experience breaks down into three categories—change, continuity and crisis—and that the idea applies as much to general history as it does to individual lives. The model is consistent with this, as follows: change corresponds to the active, socially conscientious lives lived by my father’s side of the family, which I wish to emulate (ethics); continuity corresponds to the cultural affiliation to religion and tradition (“spiritual epistemology”) and crisis corresponds to the alienation that I’m trying to escape or overcome. For ease of reference, I commonly refer to change in this triad as “alpha”, continuity as “beta” and crisis (or disruption) as “gamma”.

There is of course a fourth element which is something of a special case—the metaphysical solution or Esse. This is associated with continuity or stability but, because of its theoretical pre-eminence, I assign it the unique status of “super-beta”.

At some stage, I’ll share some examples with you of how the Rule of Three works in practice but, for now, trust me, it does….



[1] I’m thinking of Hans Reisenbach here, in “The Rise of Scientific Philosophy”. But I often wonder about the biggest project in physics today, the attempt to reconcile the general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Isn’t that a form of synthesis?

Pic source here


Lizard Writes: “Please Explain”

“Liz.” Seriously? After I asked you not to?

Anyway, you say that your model for the relationship between metaphysics and practical philosophy is pluralistic, but that it can provide a coherent perspective on life. How? You don’t explain. If this model is supposed to add up to something coherent, then surely all the individual components must fit together somehow—and yet, by your own admission, they don’t.

Maybe spend less time on the silly name calling and more time thinking things through?

The Lizard.

The Stranger Also Replies (at Length) to the Lizard….

Dear Liz (ha!),

If I understand your point correctly, it’s a good one: what is the relationship between metaphysics (or, as I often think of it, psychological theory) and practical philosophy? Let me bounce some ideas off you.

For some people, the big questions about life – Is there a God? Why are we here? – can be a distraction from daily living. In extreme cases the search for answers, and the failure to find them, can lead to anxiety, depression and dysfunction. Browning was being ironic when he wrote, “God’s in his Heaven—all’s right with the world!”, but the words reflect that, for many people, the idea of the existence of a God who has all the answers, even if He doesn’t fully reveal them, can be comforting enough for them to get on with their lives with peace of mind. In this way, the metaphysics—whatever they are, however they work—can be a way of quarantining the quotidian mind from disturbing thoughts.

Esse…provides a metaphysical answer that takes us beyond the traditional idea of God

So, to my way of thinking, the relationship between metaphysics and practical philosophy is that they are separate but symbiotic (it’s a two-way street: people need a metaphysical construct to help them get on with their daily lives, and the search for meaning gives effect to metaphysics).

Esse, to me, provides a metaphysical answer that takes us beyond the traditional idea of God to one that is secular (and, strictly speaking, atheistic—i.e., non-theistic), rational and humane. It’s something that I think the modern mind can accept, and then get on about applying itself to life.

But this is really looking at the relationship between Esse and day-to-day life from a theoretical perspective; what are the practical implications?

God and the World

I’m going to try to answer this by referencing Christianity, as it’s the religion we both know. In Christianity, God and the practical world are intimately connected. God is the metaphysical solution (creator of heaven and earth, with a plan for humankind) who is also involved in human affairs (showing the Hebrews the way to the promised land, making a gift of his son to the world). The West repaid the compliment by adopting Christianity as the religion of empires and nation states. The relationship between God and Man was engaged via the Church which, in turn, had an ambivalent but usually mutually supportive relationship with the State. That changed over time with the Protestant Reformation and the rise of non-conformism, both of which put more emphasis on the relationship between God and the individual. Christian Puritanism appears to have given particularly robust expression to the idea of God’s will working through the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.


Christian Puritans: a robust expression

That’s the potted history, as I understand it. Now let me share with you how I see this relationship in terms of my own experience, beginning with a brief look at my childhood and later years (sorry to bore you, but please stay with me…).

God and the Individual: a Personal View

I was brought up as a Wesleyan Methodist, in which the sincerity of one’s relationship with God was front and centre—even more so (I would argue) than God or Jesus Christ themselves. The temptation to egoism was obvious. When I lost my faith, as one does, at the age of seventeen, the shallowness of my relationship with God was revealed to me in the most shocking way. It was easy for me from that point onwards to believe, aggressively, in nothing.

So that relationship failed, to be replaced in later life by a less personal, more institutionalised, brand of Christianity in the form of Anglicanism. The terms in which it expressed the relationship between God and the congregation—through pre- and post-Reformation traditions, the historic role of the Church of England in building the nation state and subsequent empire, the centrality of Christ the Redeemer, the effect of ritual in enhancing the sense of communion, and the practical and symbolic functionality of the Book of Common Prayer—were much more congenial to me.

What really attracted me to Anglicanism, however, was the way it presented the psychologically powerful idea that, through God’s unconditional love for humanity and Christ’s sacrifice, the “penitent” (receptive) spirit[1] can be rescued from alienation into a feeling of belonging. That worked for me: the beauty and the power of the idea—quite independently of any consideration of the existence of God, or whether the interpretation of Christ’s death was historically accurate, or whether Christ really rose from the dead—helped me to see beyond my own alienation to a relationship in which I was accepted, warts and all.[2]


Escape from prison/release from alienation

It is the idea, which for all I know might be entirely human in origin, that works for me, and not the supernatural apparatus associated with it. It remains, for me, affective and therapeutic, and is the reason why I continue to identify as Christian.

This acceptance of the psychological benefits of Christianity minus the supernatural trappings might properly be regarded as “cultural Christianity”—and that’s where I think I’m heading in describing the relationship between metaphysics and life at a practical day-to-day level.

The Individual and the Good Life

In this theoretical model, Esse is a self-contained metaphysical solution with no affiliation to any religion, and Christianity is regarded as a strictly cultural phenomenon with powerful and humane psychological benefits.[3] The two are quite separate. Both impinge on the life of a thinking individual, however, and I believe they can do so positively, with Esse satisfying the intellectual curiosity about first causes and destiny, and a cultural version of religion (Christianity, in my case) providing the spiritual richness and moral grounding necessary for a good life.

But let’s drill deeper: how does the model play out for the individual who is looking to create a life for himself/herself, and wondering how to fill the hours in each day in a way that will help, eventually, to achieve that goal?

As an existentialist, I’m reluctant to be prescriptive about this: we all must decide who or what we want to “be” (hence the deliberate vagueness with which I wrote about “life” and “goal” in the preceding paragraph). For this reason, I’m going to refer again to my own experience as I try to formulate an answer (still awake?).

As I think about it, I realise that I need to go back beyond my own experience to that of the people who shaped me—my family. The two sides of my family were quite different: Methodist and quietist on my mother’s side, Baptist (or was it Congregationalist? Or Presbyterian, even?) and socially active on my father’s. When I think of them as models for my own choices and behaviour, I lean towards my father’s side, because the people on it were more dynamic and outgoing and had a real, positive impact on those who knew them.

My father’s aunt and uncle were teachers who worked during the 1930s Depression in a particularly disadvantaged area of Britain[4], where children would turn up to school each day unwashed and in the same clothes minus shoes (their parents couldn’t afford them) and hungry (their parents couldn’t afford food). My great aunt and her sister (my paternal grandmother) started a soup kitchen and joined the Labour Party. My great uncle joined too, and nearly became a Member of Parliament. Perhaps his greatest political achievement was to prevent the Communist Party from establishing a foothold in that part of the country.


Only Hollywood would ever think of building a coal mine at the top of a hill

The sense of justice that motivated them owed at least as much to their religious beliefs as to their political ideology (as well as their own personal decency). They were boots-and-all believers for whom God was a moral, driving force. I don’t share their idea of God but I admire them and what they did and I share a lot of their values. I aspire to be like them, although there’s nothing religious in my motivation, just a sense that doing good with integrity and conviction is a worthy way to live.

Pluralistic, but Coherent

In summary, I see the relationship between metaphysics and practical philosophy as pluralistic, consisting of three separate and independent elements—God-as-existence/Esse (metaphysics), a “cultural” version of a religion (a form of spiritual epistemology) and behaviour modelled on exemplars from one’s personal background or tradition (ethics). Because of their separateness these various elements must be applied sequentially rather than holistically, but I think they can still add up to a coherent perspective on life.




[1] The penitence being symbolised by, and enacted on behalf of all people through, Christ’s sacrifice.

[2] In my state of mind at the time, the idea—which I assume to be human in origin and the work of a genius—restored my faith in humanity.

[3] The role of creativity in the individual’s engagement with religion and pursuit and attainment of grace is an important concept in Esse which merits separate consideration rather than a partial discussion here.

[4] The Rhondda Valley, South Wales—an important coal mining centre at the time.


  • American Gothic, by Grant Wood
  • St Peter Released from Prison, by Gerrit von Honthorst (1592-1656)
  • Still from How Green Was My Valley (1941), 20th Century Fox