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Radio review: I Feel Therefore I Am, Heart and Soul, Sunday, and Woke: The journey of a word

03 March 2023

University of Oxford

In I Feel Therefore I Am (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Professor Abigail Williams adjudicates on the competing claims of emotional and objective truth, and their histories

In I Feel Therefore I Am (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Professor Abigail Williams adjudicates on the competing claims of emotional and objective tr...

“EXPERIENCE, though noon auctoritee Were in this world, is right ynough for me.” Thus Chaucer’s Wife of Bath proclaims her contempt for the whole panoply of medieval scholarship, the theological commentariat whose endless interpretations of scripture choked up the margins of biblical manuscripts. She then proceeds to invoke authority as liberally as her fellow storytellers; but we allow her this hypocrisy because she appears to be authentic. In modern parlance, she owns her own truth; she speaks of her lived experience.

In I Feel Therefore I Am (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week, second of a 3-part series) Professor Abigail Williams adjudicates on the competing claims of emotional and objective truth, and their histories. Starting with the Reformation, she identifies the Protestant requirement for a direct relationship with God as a precursor of our contemporary mistrust of mediating institutions, be they scientific or spiritual.

In the post-modern era, the challenge comes from writers such as Audre Lorde, casting doubt on the fundamental basis of scientific objectivity. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (Penguin, 2018) is the title of her most famous work — and a position that has the exasperating characteristic of being irrefutable. It is as if the Wife of Bath had decided to withdraw from the storytelling competition and head back to the Tabard.

The clash of authority and experience was present also in Peter MacJob’s story, told in Heart and Soul (World Service, Sunday), of conversion from Roman Catholicism to the traditional Nigerian religion of Ifá. Steeped in Roman Catholic ceremony as a child, MacJob became disillusioned with the faith after moving away from home. In this documentary, we followed him on his return journey to tell his mother the news. For many, Ifá has not thrown off its image as a satanic cult; and his mother was predictably alarmed by what she saw as her son’s heresy.

The programme said little about the intellectual and spiritual process that had brought about MacJob’s conversion; but a complementary interview on Sunday (Radio 4) filled in some gaps. The Christian denominations, he said, seemed to be all about money: a visit to the Vatican impressed on him a venal image of Catholicism, while the Pentecostal Church wanted to extract from him ten per cent of his income. Ifá makes no such demands; it requires of its followers no sense of guilt.

In Woke: The journey of a word (Radio 4, weekdays of last week), Matthew Syed attempted something similar to Professor Williams: the history of a way of thinking, here instantiated in a single syllable. Here we have, rather than a linear narrative, a series of fascinating vignettes that tell a story of semantic appropriation by mainstream culture from the African-American lexicon of racial injustice.

Syed touched also on the biblical pre-history of “woke”, though he failed to mention its most striking use in scripture. I imagine the parable of the wise virgins would have confused things.

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