Nancy Richards reviews CONJECTURES by James Leatt

If ever there were a time to be asking the big questions, it’s probably now. I mean – commercial Christmas, COVID, universal chaos, climate change crisis – you know. But let’s narrow it down and start at the top – Is there a God? And / or is it possible to be good without God, the ‘standover man’? Endless list really. But these and so very many more are the questions with which James Leatt has been living – for a very long time. In his 80s now, Leatt set out on the religious path as lay pastor for the Order of Christian Service aged just twenty. He recalls spending his twenty-first ‘preaching on a hot February day in a tent mission at a new housing estate in Retreat.’ His calling to the ministry was loud. But not impervious to question. ‘Doubt,’ he quotes a proverb, ‘is the beginning, not the end of wisdom.’

In this book, he charts for the reader his path over the decades of religion, faith, doubt and questions, all the while spilling out some contagiously quotable lines and thoughts from a lifetime of reading and thinking. He was captivated for instance by Durkheim’s view that ‘religion provides the glue that holds societies together.’ He quotes a Dutch Reformed Minister who said a mining disaster was ‘an act of a wrathful God calling a sinful nation to repentance.’ He talks about ‘theodicy’ (the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil) and of a ‘crisis of credibility in religion’ … and more.

Interestingly however, he has not been sitting Buddah-like under a tree mulling over all this enlightenment doing nothing, he has led an exhaustively busy life teaching Social Ethics at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, becoming Deputy VC and Vice Principal at the same institute, later becoming VC and Principal at the then University of Natal. He was a founder member of the Independent Mediation Service of SA and Deputy Chair of the Institute for Democracy in SA (IDASA) – amongst other roles. But I tell all this, not to knock you dead with his CV, but to indicate that the path he has trodden has also wound its way through some hectic, challenging and revealing times here in South Africa. That he has emerged as a mild-mannered, silver-headed man still questing and questioning when others of his era have taken up bowls, is inspirational. Especially thought-provoking are his chapters on ‘Looking east’ and ‘Living without gods’ – but it’s all interesting, and as I opened by saying, infinitely quotable. My favourite takeaway is the parable of dharma – which he writes, is like a raft that you build out of all the things that come your way. You use it to ford the river in front of you, then you leave it on the other side for someone else to use. Like a legacy. I’m sure James Leatt will leave many others, but this book is truly a nine-carat piece of legacy for thinking readers to use. 

First published on the GBAS FB page.

Archie Swanson reviews CONJECTURES by James Leatt

There can be no doubt that Conjectures is a work of extraordinary breadth taking the reader on the author’s journey towards the resolution of deep personal questions of spirituality and faith. James Leatt’s life experience, first as a Methodist Minister and then an academic, serve as a backdrop to the conjectures he outlines.

Of course, a conjecture is a conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information and therein lies the challenge of the book. How does one pull all the philosophical threads of the ages together to discover a sort of spiritual Theory Of Everything. Leatt experienced a Damascus Road moment standing on the verandah of his alcoholic parents’ rented house in Kalk Bay as an eleven-year-old boy — a deep inner assurance that he had a right to be part of the universe. What followed was a journey in search of spiritual understanding which initially led to his conversion to Christianity followed by a life-long transcendence away from that safe harbour of the Doctrines of the Church towards a secular spirituality.

Enroute we are taken on a tour de force of the thinking of the great writers and philosophers of the ages: Pascal’s ‘The heart has reason that reason cannot know’. In Tennyson’s Ulysses ‘I am part of all that I have met’. The third century BCE questions posed by Epicurus ‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Is he able but not willing? Is he both able and willing? What then is the origin of evil?’ The particularity problem raised by Reinhold Niebuhr in relation to Jesus as the only way. Jung’s theory of the two-million-year-old self. Marx’s ‘The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness’. Freud’s religion as a projection of suppressed desires. In Speaking of God, William Horden’s ‘The language of religion is not scientific but rather describes the mystery of God. Nietzsche’s ‘… the death of God’. There are discussions of mindfulness and Eastern beliefs.

As Leatt puts it, “I have been a forager looking for ideas that throw light on my life and times”. He concludes that he can no longer accept Judaism, Christianity and Islam’s appropriation of the world’s religion. He is glad to be the beneficiary of the process of disenchantment whereby magical thought and practice are eliminated by science and technology.

His wrestle with the issues of faith, meaning and ethics finally leads him to the formulation of the tenets of his secular spirituality, yet somehow one is left with the impression that Leatt is still that hungry eleven-year-old boy looking to the Kalk Bay stars for answers.

* * *

Archie Swanson’s poetry has been widely anthologised both in South Africa and overseas. He has published three collections of poetry: the stretching of my sky, the shores of years and, most recently, beyond a distant edge. He serves on the Board of the South African Literary Journal which publishes New Contrast. Instagram @poetarchie 

Jonathan D Jansen reviews CONJECTURES: LIVING WITH QUESTIONS by James Leatt

James Leatt’s Conjectures: Living with questions (Karavan Press, 2021)

In this captivating and evocative new book, Conjectures, Professor James Leatt delivers a master class in how to think about and think through those perplexing questions that humans everywhere grapple with—questions of life and death, salvation and suffering, faith and doubt. Rich in literary references, the book is nevertheless accessible to a broad readership well beyond the landscapes of theology and philosophy that the author traverses with remarkable ease.

What makes this work particularly interesting is that Jim, as friends call him, teaches us about ‘living with questions’ (the sub-title of the book) through the biography of his rich and rewarding life, shared with us warts and all. The eldest child of a broken home (alcoholic parents), Jim finds the objects of his devotion in the Methodist Church and its sense of mission leads him to preaching in the backyards of my youthful upbringing (Retreat, on the Cape Flats) and ministering in the once promising community of Alice in the Eastern Cape before the apartheid government drained those small oases of non-racial living.

During his studies at Rhodes University, Jim begins to question the certainties of his faith as he engages some of the great thinkers of the 19th century on truth, knowledge, and human reason. It is his openness to challenging ideas and his courage in confronting unsettling questions that impress throughout the reading of this intriguing text. In the writing Jim gives us access to his head and his heart, and the slow but steady process of change that starts to transform his thinking about divine authority and the human condition.

Right in the middle of this contemplation, Jim shares insights into his roles as a leader of universities from Cape Town (UCT) to Durban (University of Natal) and eventually Thohoyandou (University of Venda) where, in the latter case, he led the successful transformation of a dysfunctional institution that is now regarded as one of the two or three historically black universities that have overcome the ideological and material deadweight of the apartheid burden.

Jim reassures the reader that he is not an atheist but one who has through his openness to ideas found his calling in ‘secular spirituality’ that values human connection, owns up to personal responsibility, lives compassionately, and revels in the ordinary. His “non-theism” inspired by Eastern thought, insists that we are on our own and that “there isn’t someone or something that is going to make things right for me …”

No doubt, the book will disturb those of us raised on foundational truths and the comforting certainties of fundamentalist faith. Fortunately, Jim does not set out to win over converts to his commitments but to invite readers into a world of conscious deliberation on vital questions about transcendent living that makes a difference in the lives of those around us. For that reason alone, Conjectures is highly recommended for these uncertain times where self-absorption, even mere survival, has displaced deep thinking about humanity, connectivity, and solidarity in an unjust world.

Jonathan D Jansen, Distinguished Professor of Education, Stellenbosch University

ISBN: 978-0-620935-87-6

Also available on Kindle: Conjectures

The latest Karavan Press title – Conjectures: Living With Questions – in the hands of its author James Leatt

Always a happy moment: the handover of author’s copies to The Author! Yesterday, James Leatt received the first copies of his Conjectures: Living With Questions and signed a copy for the Karavan Press archive.

When I put up two of the above photographs on Instagram yesterday, the post attracted two very moving comments:

“There’s an author who once slept holding … a copy of his first book. He finished a matchbox looking at the book at night since there was no electricity in his rural area. Congratulations James.”

— Sipho Banda

“I love that you publish outsider authors with exceptional talent that other publishers are afraid of. You’re like the originals, publishing words not social media followers. Literature is better for Karavan Press.”

— Rachel Zadok

Instagram

Rachel is the founder of Short Story Day Africa. She and her work – as writer, editor, publisher and curator of Short Story Day Africa – continue to be great inspirations for Karavan Press.

And, like no other, Sipho’s comment captures the pride and joy of the moment of holding your book in your hands for the very first time, especially when the journey up to that point had not been easy. But no matter what the path, the magic of the arrival is extraordinary.

Thank you, Rachel and Sipho! And thank you, James, for travelling with Karavan Press!

Conjectures: Living With Questions tells the story of James’s search for how to live a meaningful life at a time when the socio-historical realities all around forced him to question the mere possibility. The book is now available from all good bookstores (please order, if not in stock), online from Loot, and as ebook.

James Leatt was nine when the Nationalist Party came to power, and eleven when he saw a documentary of the Allied forces liberating Nazi death camps. For most of his life the shadows of apartheid and the Holocaust have dogged his beliefs about faith, the meaning of life and the moral challenges humankind faces.

Conjectures is a philosophical reflection on his life and times as he grapples with the realities of parish work in black communities, teaching ethics in a business school under apartheid, managing a university in the dying days of the Nationalist regime, and eventually working in higher education in post-apartheid South Africa.

Weaving strands of his personal life with the questions of theodicy and modernity as well as drawing upon the Western philosophical tradition and the wisdom of East Asian traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism, he comes to terms with a disenchanted reality which has no need for supernatural or magical thought and practice.

He has learned to live with questions. If you no longer believe in God and a sacred text, what are your sources of meaning? What kind of moral GPS allows you to find your way? Is what might be called a secular spirituality even possible?

Conjectures traces the author’s search for a secular way of being that is meaningful, mindful and reverent.

ISBN: 978-0-620935-87-6

Forthcoming from Karavan Press: CONJECTURES by JAMES LEATT

Conjectures, when the book still went by a different working title, was one of the first manuscripts to arrive on Karavan Press’s doorstep. “Lovely to be entrusted with an author’s intellectual and creative work. A great honour and responsibility. Looking forward to the read…” I commented about it on Instagram at the time.

The manuscript and the author came highly recommended by a writer who has been running creative writing classes for a long time and who knew that this book was special and needed a home with an independent publisher. They thought we would be a good fit. And so it is.

Reading James’s reflections about his life and work, I felt as if someone had written about my own intellectual and spiritual journey, but with the deeply grounded theoretical and practical insights that I had lacked at the time when I was travelling this path. He writes with care, integrity and joy, and an unmistakable gratitude for the treasures he had discovered along the way – a journey marked by many difficult questions and challenges, but also rewards and achievements.

Beautifully written, Conjectures will appeal to readers who have questions of their own and are willing to open their hearts and minds to them, no matter how complex and arduous the attempt may be. Some of us might arrive at a different destination, but the journey itself is quite a thrill.

The book’s cover and content have been designed by Stephen Symons. We are in the final stages of production and I can’t wait to share this intellectual and creative literary gem with our Readers.

Karavan Press title: Conjectures – Living With Questions by James Leatt

DESCRIPTION

James Leatt was nine when the Nationalist Party came to power, and eleven when he saw a documentary of the Allied forces liberating Nazi death camps. For most of his life the shadows of apartheid and the Holocaust have dogged his beliefs about faith, the meaning of life and the moral challenges humankind faces.

Conjectures is a philosophical reflection on his life and times as he grapples with the realities of parish work in black communities, teaching ethics in a business school under apartheid, managing a university in the dying days of the Nationalist regime, and eventually working in higher education in post-apartheid South Africa.

Weaving strands of his personal life with the questions of theodicy and modernity as well as drawing upon the Western philosophical tradition and the wisdom of East Asian traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism, he comes to terms with a disenchanted reality which has no need for supernatural or magical thought and practice.

He has learned to live with questions. If you no longer believe in God and a sacred text, what are your sources of meaning? What kind of moral GPS allows you to find your way? Is what might be called a secular spirituality even possible?

Conjectures traces the author’s search for a secular way of being that is meaningful, mindful and reverent.

ISBN: 978-0-620935-87-6

Publication date: August 2021

Also available on Kindle: Conjectures – Living With Questions

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

DR JAMES (JIM) LEATT began his career in banking before becoming a Methodist minister, working on the Cape Flats, in District Six and at the Federal Theological Seminary, Alice. In 1977, he became Lecturer in Religious Studies at UCT. His work in industrial relations mediation and interest in applied ethics led to a joint appointment with the GSB at UCT in 1980. Three years later, he was appointed to the first chair in Social Ethics at a South African business school. In 1985, he became a Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice Principal at UCT, and in 1991, he took up the post of Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of Natal, where he initiated a major strategic review of the university. On his return to Cape Town, he became CEO of the Cape Higher Education Consortium involving the four public universities in the Western Cape, and consulted in higher education.

He is the author of journal articles, chapters in books, and is editor-in-chief of Contending Ideologies in South Africa (David Philip, 1986 & 1989). He was a founder member of the Independent Mediation Service of SA (IMSSA). He retired after eleven years as Deputy Chair of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), and as Deputy Chair of the Tertiary Education Network (TENET).

James and his wife Jenny live in Somerset West. They have two children, Christopher and Ann-Marie.