Riprap is playing at the Fleece Jazz Club in Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk tomorrow night, Friday 7th March 2013. Doors open at 7.30pm.
Tickets at 01787 211865 or www.wegottickets.com/fleecejazz
www.fleecejazz.org.uk is always up to date.
Meals and accommodation at the hotel at 01206 262836
Here's their spiel (incorporating our spiel) about the gig . . .
KEVIN FLANAGAN ~ Saxophones
DAVE GORDON ~ Piano
ANDREW BROWN ~ Bass
RUSS MORGAN ~ Percussion
RIPRAP formed more than eight years ago from a group of musicians who wanted to explore more open-ended improvisation and include modern poetry in their compositions, inspired by the music of Miles Davis and the Beat Poets of the 1950s. They released an album in 2009 which featured the work of the award-winning poet Gary Snyder; their latest release in 2012 is ‘Snow Blue Night’ which is purely instrumental.
"Haunting and atmospheric ", "Acoustic jazz of the highest order" - Sue Edwards, Bookings manager, Royal Festival Hall.
Kevin Flanagan is from Lowell, Mass. USA. He co-founded an improv and jazz-based co-operative which toured New England and the UK in the 1970s & 80s. He has lived in the UK since the mid-80s and worked on the London jazz and pop scene, gradually becoming primarily involved in jazz, playing with his own group and the Tommy Chase Quartet at UK festivals. In the 90s he worked with Chris Ingham in FIQ.
Dave Gordon plays both with Riprap and with his own trio. He has performed at Ronnie Scott's and numerous international jazz festivals, has released a number of CDs and has recorded CDs with his crossover band Respectable Groove and the band Zum. He is also currently working with Chris Garrick and Jacqui Dankworth.
Andrew Brown has played in bands with Pete King, Benny Green, Pete Oxley, Simon Vincent and FIQ with Kevin Flanagan, and Chris Ingham. As well as Riprap he also works with Respectable Groove.
Russ Morgan is currently playing with the Chris Ingham trio, and Trio East as well as Rip Rap. He has toured and recorded around the UK and Europe with many Fleece Jazz favourites ... there is not room to name them all! FLEECE JAZZ is non-profit making, receives no external funding and is run entirely by unpaid volunteers.
"The resulting music ranges from burning neo-groove jams and blues to haunting and atmospheric 'free' jazz that makes sense"
You can see and hear Riprap by going to www.kevinflanagan.net and clicking on "Riprap Quartet".
Thursday, 6 March 2014
A few photos taken with Hipstamatic and my iPad mini on a ride out into the Fens on Tuesday along the Lode's Way after what seems like an outrageously long winter hibernation. What a joy to get the Pashley Guv'nor out and experience the sun once again.
|A somewhat painterly version of the previous shot using Hipstamatic's|
"Robusta" film with the "Lucas" lens. The previous shot uses the "Robusta" film
but with the "Lowy" Lens.
Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Just a reminder that there is a Sea of Faith Meeting in Cambridge tonight - 5 March 2014 - On Pope Francis' attitudes to non-believers
|Pope Francis (Photo: Wikipedia)|
Since the Pope makes direct reference to the need for "a sincere and rigorous dialogue with those whom, like you [i.e. Scalfari], describe themselves [as] “a non-believer for many years interested and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth”, it seems like a good topic for a Sea of Faith evening.
The Pope's letter, in an English translation, can be found at the link below.
Don Cupitt has kindly made a few notes for us that he has said we can use at the meeting. Please click on the following link to get a pdf copy of these notes:
The meeting takes place on Wednesday 5th March, 2014, in the church hall of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church,Cambridge and will start promptly at 7.30pm and finish at 9.30pm.
Sunday, 2 March 2014
|Newly painted ceiling and restored floor in the|
Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge
Readings: Mark 1:10–15
From the introduction to Donald Szantho Harrington's Unitarian Lent course "Outstretched Wings of the Spirit - On Being Intelligently and Devotedly Religious" based on the work and thought of Henry Nelson Wieman. This begins with a quote from Hans Kung ("On Being a Christian")
"Faith must not be blind, but responsible. We ought not to be mentally coerced, but rationally convinced, so that we can make a justifiable decision of faith. Faith must not be void of reality, but related to reality. We ought not to have to believe simply, without verification. Our statements should be proved and tested by contact with reality, within the present-day horizon of experience of individuals and society, and thus be covered by the concrete experience of reality."
The primary purpose of churches and fellowships is to help people become intelligently and devotedly religious, to be so convinced of the truth and rightness of a particular way of life as to be compelled to place oneself under Its command, to live with It and for It, to dedicate to It all that one has, all that one is and all that one may become.
Such a total dedication of oneself is obviously dangerous. One may give oneself to a way that is evil, indifferent, small, inadequate, idolatrous, irrational. Hitler gave himself totally to a cause which was initially partial and which became increasingly demonic, especially because of his total dedication, which he believed had the blessing of divine Providence. The power of religious dedication is great, the danger equally so.
This is why reason and intelligence are important for religious devotion. Faith is too dangerous and too important to be accepted on anyone's say-so, whatever the source of authority. All of us must be convinced that our faith is sound, true, reasonable, just, and that its rightness is ascertainable by some external, objective criteria, evidence drawn from our own and shared human experience. Faith may venture beyond the limits of reason and hard, scientifically-validated evidence; it should never be irrational or anti-science.
Henry Nelson Wieman, forty years ago, introduced me to the concepts of process theology - God in and as the universal process. At a moment when my intelligence and scientific world-view had led me to reject both the idea of God and most traditional theological concepts, Wieman's naturalistic philosophy and theological explications restored them to me as the foundation for a vital, living faith, capable of undergirding a lifetime of urban ministry. In the hope that his insights may help others as they did me, I have prepared this Lenten Manual based on his approach. "God," says Wieman, "is the integrating process at work in the universe."
From the opening of Plato's Symposium
This was the style of their conversation as they went along. Socrates dropped behind in a fit of abstraction, and desired Aristodemus, who was waiting, to go on before him. When he reached the house of Agathon he found the doors wide open, and a comical thing happened. A servant coming out met him, and led him at once into the banqueting-hall in which the guests were reclining, for the banquet was about to begin. Welcome, Aristodemus, said Agathon, as soon as he appeared-you are just in time to sup with us; if you come on any other matter put it off, and make one of us, as I was looking for you yesterday and meant to have asked you, if I could have found you. But what have you done with Socrates?
I turned round, but Socrates was nowhere to be seen; and I had to explain that he had been with me a moment before, and that I came by his invitation to the supper.
You were quite right in coming, said Agathon; but where is he himself?
He was behind me just now, as I entered, he said, and I cannot think what has become of him.
Go and look for him, boy, said Agathon, and bring him in; and do you, Aristodemus, meanwhile take the place by Eryximachus.
The servant then assisted him to wash, and he lay down, and presently another servant came in and reported that our friend Socrates had retired into the portico of the neighbouring house. "There he is fixed," said he, "and when I call to him he will not stir."
How strange, said Agathon; then you must call him again, and keep calling him.
Let him alone, said my informant; he has a way of stopping anywhere and losing himself without any reason. I believe that he will soon appear; do not therefore disturb him.
Well, if you think so, I will leave him, said Agathon. And then, turning to the servants, he added, "Let us have supper without waiting for him.”
Given that we have just completed a major piece of redecoration and restoration in the church (see picture above) and that this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday my mind began to be open to the possibility that a meaningful connection might be made between our church building and the season of Lent.
Peter Sloterdjik's recent book "The Art of Philosophy" (Columbia University Press, 2013) There he reminds the reader of Socrates' legendry strange behaviour of "sinking into thought". As you heard in our readings one well-known example of this was when he arrived noticeably late for dinner because he had stopped in the doorway of a neighbouring house to think.
Sloterdjik briefly explores this phenomenon in the first part of his book and I present here certain elements of this for you. Sloterdjik notes that:
"Seeing a savant during one of his absences means being a witness to a special kind of abandon. We do not know what is happening inside him: is he hearing voices or seeing images, is he grappling with a demonic presence or even receiving a ray of divine light? One thing is certain: he is standing still in front of us and is very far away. Anyway, we are inclined to think this is something different from ordinary hanging around. Rather we assume it is a matter of the thinker keeping calm in response to a roll call that reaches him from a place somewhere else that cannot be clearly defined" (p. 29).
As I have explored with you in other contexts, this phenomenon came to be explained, by Platonic metaphysics, as the thinker migrating to an alternative world - a transcendent, really-real world that was, for them, "the homeland of the better part of our soul" (ibid. p. 29). But, for reasons I have also explored with you over the years, belief in the reality of such another world has become increasingly difficult for our own culture and so we have to find a different way of talking about this kind of absence that we still acknowledge as being a real phenomenon. In a chapter called "Where are we when we think?" found in her final, postumous, book "The Life of the Mind" (1978), Hannah Arendt stressed the point that it is impossible to define the place of thinking using everyday topology, This means that we moderns have to be content with a different answer to the one which satisfied the ancients. She used the word "nowhere" but Sloterdjik offers, to my mind, a more satisfactory word for this, he suggest that the answer to where a thinker is when they are thinking is "short and to the point: they are in a place Elsewhere that we are unable to give any more detailed information about for the time being" (ibid. p. 31).
Sloterdjik points out that, as this idea developed in ancient times, there followed from this certain important social and political consequences. He notes that these were manifested:
". . . in the dramatic discovery that every highly developed society has to deal with the existence of counter societies of thinking persons. For over two and a half millennia, a small but not insignificant part of the population of our hemisphere has always been elsewhere in thought. Academies, schools, monasteries, church buildings, and retreats show how this Elsewhere is articulated in architectural terms" (ibid. p. 30).
Then, as now, many people have envisage the ideal retreat as being found outside the city in the countryside, but, in founding of the "Academy" in 387 BC in Athens, what Plato did was to bring the retreat right into the heart of the city. The Academy became, to cite Sloterdjik "an excluded place that fits into the normal . . . surroundings of the polis, yet totally obeys its own laws that the city finds incomprehensible, even outlandish."
Sloterdjik adds an important caveat at this point in his discussion which is to remind us that the academy is not a utopia, "it is not a structure in Nowhere that people might go searching for in vain like the civilisation of Atlantis. It is an entirely concrete place very close to the city, within walking distance of its walls, a real existing Elsewhere that we can enter once we have satisfied the admission requirements . . ." (ibid. pp. 33-34). And what those admission requirements? Well, for Plato's Academy they were "a good grounding in mathematics and the good-will to take instruction from persons who are 'unconcealing' or 'non-deceiving'" (p. 34).
But firstly let me briefly summarise the foregoing: (1) sinking into thought a person goes away and becomes absent in some fashion; (2) we have to be content not to try and locate the absent thinker in some metaphysical, utopian place (topologically speaking) but to be content with simply saying they are Elsewhere; (3) Academies, schools, monasteries, church buildings, and retreats were set up so that in them people could be Elsewhere even in the heart of a city and that these buildings are an architectural expression of Elsewhere; and, lastly (4) that we, ourselves, can enter such an Academy, school, monastery, church building, or retreat once we have satisfied the admission requirements of that particular community.
Before I go on I need briefly to connect these points to the season of Lent which begins this coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Within Christian culture the season of Lent, which runs into Holy Week and Easter, is understood to be a time during which a person withdraws and reflects in some fashion on their life and the world in imitation of the "forty days" Jesus spent in the wilderness doing likewise. I hope it is clear that in the wilderness Jesus was himself thinking and so was as "absent" as was Socrates. Even had you been able to go out into the wilderness and actually find Jesus in that place you would still have not found him because he would still have been Elsewhere.
Revd Dr Donald Szantho Harrington, minister of the Community Church, New York between 1944 and 1982.
The first thing to say is that it should be clear that our church building is "a real existing Elsewhere" in the city - "an excluded place that fits into the normal . . . surroundings of the polis, yet totally obeys its own laws that the city finds incomprehensible, even outlandish.” As a radical, dissenting liberal religious tradition we have historically always formed just such counter cultural societies.
What is and has been particularly outlandish about our counter cultural laws is that, at our best, we have never been prepared to take at face value, nor unthinkingly affirm, the current values and mores of our society - whether in its religious or secular forms - but instead we have always insist that our members should all take time to go Elsewhere, to sink into thought to consider them critically. This remains, without doubt, one of the admission requirements of our own contemporary communities. As Harrington says - echoing the words of Hans Kung that he places prominently on an opening page of his book - we require this of our members because we feel:
“All of us must be convinced that our faith is sound, true, reasonable, just, and that its rightness is ascertainable by some external, objective criteria, evidence drawn from our own and shared human experience. Faith may venture beyond the limits of reason and hard, scientifically-validated evidence; it should never be irrational or anti-science.”
Thought is not everything of course for from thought there must always follow action - as the author of 1 John wisely instructs: “Little children, let us love, not in word of speech but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). Harrington is well aware of this but is insistent, as I am, in saying:
“The primary purpose of churches and fellowships is to help people become intelligently and devotedly religious, to be so convinced of the truth and rightness of a particular way of life as to be compelled to place oneself under Its command, to live with It and for It, to dedicate to It all that one has, all that one is and all that one may become.”
But this mix of intelligence and devotion in religion is a hard one to achieve for, on the one hand, our secular culture values critical intelligence highly but does not value religious devotion; on the other hand, so much religion in our culture values religious devotion highly but does not value critical intelligence. Our outlandish, counter-cultural stand is to say, absolutely clearly, that intelligence and devotion can, and should, belong together.
But to develop this mix takes time and discipline, it requires a person to sink into thought about this and to go Elsewhere. In this church building - an architectural expression of Elsewhere in the midst of the city, now beautifully redecorated and restored - we have a very special place apart in which, together, we can to sink into thought. But a building alone doth not make a church, nor does it make intelligent, religious people. No! We have to work at that by engaging in some kind of disciplined practice which brings together intelligence and devotion. Harrington’s Lent course does just this and I can do no better than conclude my address with some words and a prayer of his which form part of his opening, Ash Wednesday, meditation:
Religion is a way of growing. Growth is the increase in the complexity and organization of sensitivity and responsiveness to such forces as foster life and give it value. Sensitivity and responsiveness provide the avenue by which the outer life of nature and society can enter the inner life of the individual. Conscience appears when values begin to function as habits and ideals.
We begin, then, by consciously cultivating a spirit of devotion, an ever increasing sensitivity and responsiveness to the universal forces which surround us and operate within us, in order that we may accommodate our lives to their requirements. A feeling for these requirements becomes our conscience.
There is no escape from religion. All human beings are inevitably religious. Their religion is what they are living. The only question is whether it is thoughtful or inane, deep or superficial, good or evil.
God, open us wide in awareness of the creative urgency which You have set within us. Help us to understand that only when we stop growing into harmony with Your Larger Life do we begin to die. Open us to what this implies in all our relations with living beings, near and far. Let that new awareness change our lives. Amen.
Sunday, 23 February 2014
|Charles Olson teaching|
And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, Jesus went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed. And Simon and they that were with him followed after him. And when they had found him, they said unto him, All men seek for thee. And he said unto them, Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth.
Jesus said: "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."
Henry David Thoreau from Walden, ch. 2 Where I Lived:
The present was my next experiment of this kind, which I purpose to describe more at length, for convenience putting the experience of two years into one. As I have said, I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbours up.
Charles Olson from "The Present is Prologue" in Collected Prose eds. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, University of California Press 1997 p. 205-207:
My shift is that I take it the present is prologue, not the past. The instant, therefore, is its own interpretation, as a dream is, and any action - a poem, for example. Down with causation . . . And yrself: you, as the only reader and mover of the instant. You, the cause. No drag allowed, on either. Get on with it.
In the work and dogmas are: (1) How by form, to get the content instant; (2) what any of us are by the work on ourself, how to make ourself fit instruments for use (how we augment the given - what used to be called our fate); (3) that there is no such thing as duality either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact in the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one (yrself done right, whatever you are, in whatever job, is the thing - all hierachies, like dualities, are dead ducks).
[. . .]
I find it akward to call myself a poet or writer. If there are no walls there are no names. This is the morning, after the dispersion, and the work of the morning is methodology: how to use oneself, and on what. That is my profession. I am an archaeologist of morning.
An image often found in spiritual writing is that of "the morning". Almost universally, getting up early to pray or meditate has been understood to be a good and cleansing practice, one which prepares one well for the necessary work to be done and the good life.
My own key texts which mention this "morning spirituality" are the passages you heard earlier from the Gospel of Mark (1:35-38) and Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" (Where I Lived - Ch. 2). Over the years both of them have powerfully and continually encouraged me to try it - not least of all in a number of visits to the Benedictines at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of White (and, boy do they do early . . .). Alas, natural proclivity plus a life spent as a professional jazz musician has always cut against early morning lifestyles. Consequently, it is true to say that in my own life early mornings have almost only ever been experienced after the long gig and subsequent drive home and, more often than not, I've observed the sun rise, not like Jesus, ready to go "into the next towns" nor like Thoreau to "brag as lustily as chanticleer", but simply to my bed and to a long, long sleep.
Given that such an actual morning spirituality seems definitively closed off to me, a question that has remained with me throughout my life is whether something of what is religiously or philosophically meant by "the morning" is available to more crepuscular creatures like me, perhaps under another practice or form? The question is what is being elicited when these writers use the image of "the morning"?
As I have noted in other addresses (for example here) I take it that authors like Mark and Thoreau wrote what they did because they experienced in the morning 'certain conditions in which their minds were set in motion' (Michael McGhee: Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice CUP 2000, p. 124) which allowed 'something [to] well up in the inner reaches of their consciousness' (William James quoted by McGhee p. 17). These authors then tried to communicate their experience to us through means of 'aesthetic ideas and images' - in this case those associated with early morning; in other words they 'gave us an approximation of this experience and, in so doing, gave it the semblance of objective reality' (McGhee p. 119).
What I'm trying to do today is to use Olson's phrase, "Archaeologist of morning", to help me to express in my own words something that approximates to the experience I feel Mark and Thoreau were gesturing towards when they talked about "the morning".
Olson's work as poet and prose writer has long been of interest to me since I picked up his early study of Herman Melville (called "Call Me Ishmael") in the Arts Council funded poetry bookshop in Colchester where I had my first job after leaving school in 1983. The manager was an extraordinary man - a poet himself - called John Row. I later went on do a number of wonderful, madcap tours around the UK, East Germany and Poland with his avant-garde music and poetry collective called "John Row's Sound Proposition". John, seeing my growing interest in Olson, early on lent me Martin Duberman's book about the experimental, interdisciplinary school set up in 1933 in North Carolina called Black Mountain College which, before it's closure in 1957, managed to attract a faculty that included many of America's most important artists, composers, dancers, poets, and designers. Olson became College Rector during the second half of its life and at the same time amongst the teaching staff were a number of other figures whose work became central to my own formation: the composers John Cage and Stefan Wolpe, the poet Robert Creeley, the dancer Merce Cunningham and the architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller.
If you click on this link you can see some excerpts from a documentary film called Fully Awake about Black Mountain College.
Olson wrote the words you heard earlier in 1952 whilst he was at the College. Going back to them after some twenty years I can see how clearly they mark out the particular path I have come to follow since those days.
Now, the way I have just told this story comes, of course, very naturally because Olson's words, written sixty years ago and read by me some twenty years ago, are in some obviously real sense in the past and so could be thought of as forming a prologue to who I now am now, speaking to you in the present about this subject.
But it should be clear that telling my story in this way cuts completely against Olson's feeling that it is *not* the past which is prologue but the present, this moment now. What does he mean?
Well, we may begin by observing that one of Olson's major concerns throughout his career was how to get himself, his students and his readers away from theories about the world and back into a lived and experienced world. A key way he thought this could be affected was breaking down what he came to think were the many artificial barriers that existed in our North American and European culture. It has long seemed to me that one of the reasons he took the post of Rector at Black Mountain College was because the anarchic interdisciplinary nature of the place deliberately transgressed traditional academic boundaries and brought together an astonishing range of endeavours from both the so-called humanities and the so-called sciences. Olson thought they all belonged together in a kind of geography, a complex horizon of human life within which one could, and should, be free to wander.
When he says "If there are no walls there are no names" it is to this interdisciplinary geography that he is referring. He personally resisted being called a poet or a writer because he could see that if there were no walls then these names, "poet" and "writer", didn't tell you much about what he was really up to - namely being an "archaeologist of morning." What this is, or might, be we'll come to in a moment.
Now, as I've just said, in terms of the split between disciplines, Olson wanted to pull down all artificial walls to allow for the possibility of there being a free and instantaneous movement between them. But things didn't stop there because Olson wanted to pull down *all* the walls in our culture which created dualisms - especially those which created the apparently separate realms of the "body" and "soul" and the "world" and the "individual." (Please note as I say this that there is, however, a great deal of difference between "differences" and "dualisms" - Olson is challenging dualisms, not differences.)
For him one important wall that came tumbling down was that which divided in a dualistic way what we have learnt to call "past" and that which we have learnt to call the "present". Olson was became acutely aware that in every living, alert whole human being the memories of the past (so-called) were not really past at all but always-already present and capable of gifting us something now that would take us into the future in a new way. Like Gianni Vattimo, although some forty years earlier, Olson saw that reality, our world, is always-already 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others, and others beside us such as other cultures' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9).
It was into this rich always-already present cultural soil that, in his poetry and prose, he sought to dig, just like an archaeologist, in order to find and reveal things that were both new to us but which were also, paradoxically, in some fashion old. In undertaking this task Olson seems to me to be enacting that which is gestured towards in Jesus' teaching that "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (Matthew 13:52).
Olson called this "treasure", this always-already present soil "morning" because, when paid attention to and without beforehand dividing it up artificially into science here and the arts there, the past behind us and the future before, this soil's natural complexity was always capable of gifting us some unique combination of different things which could suddenly and unexpectedly show up and shine for us in new ways that called us, irresistibly, to our work, whether that was to an act of new justice and compassion, the composition of a new poem, piece of music or a dance, to see a new way to build a house or construct a dome and also, like Jesus, to be impelled to tell about what you have seen to the "next towns" or, like Thoreau, "to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake [your] neighbours up."
Olson's educational point was to say to everyone he met and taught, either in person or indirectly through his work that, to anyone who cared to look and to dig, our rich cultural soil was always ready to gift us something radically new and relevant - that our present is always prologue to some new vision or insight. In short, every day, every hour and every minute of our life was, potentially at least, a new morning and not just when our natural sun was rising. All we had to do was "get on with it" and become ourselves an archaeologist of morning.
If you want to hear some recordings of Olson reading his own poetry then click on this link to go to the wonderful PennSound poetry resource.
If you want to know a little more about Olson click on this link to see the short film made about him called Polis is This. It is made available on Youtube by the director himself, Henry Ferrini:
And, lastly, below is a well-known clip of Olson reading his wonderful poem, Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld]. If the the poem leaves your puzzled but intrigued then click on the following link to go to a podcast in which the poem is explored in what I think is a helpful way.
Sunday, 16 February 2014
|My Way of Life necklace|
I am only too aware that I have a reputation for being an "overly intellectual" minister. This address, at least in its published form below, is unlikely to change anybody's mind about that. But I hope that what follows will clearly reveal that, at the back of it all, lies a old-fashioned, "down-home" religious experience - one that was, at the time, felt viscerally in the deepest and, I suppose, in the simplest and most immediate of ways. It did nothing less than set the course for the rest of my life. My trouble has been what on earth to do with it? The truth is that everything I write on this blog, with all it's complexities (whether necessary or simply caused by poor thinking and bad style) finds its well-spring in the experience I recount below. In many ways I wish it were otherwise - but it's not. So, on with the show . . .
Readings: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6
Chapter One of the Tao Te Ching
trans. by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo (Hackett, Indianapolis 1993)
Tao called Tao is not Tao
Names can name no lasting name.
Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.
Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.
Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.
These have the same source, but different names.
Call them both deep –
Deep and again deep:
The gateway to all mystery.
From James Luther Adams and the Transformation of Liberalism
Presented at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, June 2005,by George Kimmich Beach
James Luther Adams . . . said: More important than any particular idea of God is a belief that history has meaning, and its corollary: our responsibility to be engaged. Or there’s hell to pay—it’s that awesome. In sum, Adams’s life-long quest was to articulate a faith that “takes time seriously.”
If we “take time seriously” we will know ourselves as rooted in a sacred tradition—a tradition that is both our “gift” and our “task.” Adams characterized his faith in these few words: “The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth.” That is the gift. He continues: “In a world that has with some conscientiousness turned against this kind of witness and its vocabulary, the effect of this witness will in a special way depend upon the quality of its costingness in concrete action and upon its relevance to the history that is in the making.” That is the task.
In two sentences Jim Adams sounded two notes together—the tradition in which “the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth” is a central symbol and our gift—something given out of love—and the present, costing commitment that is our task. A transforming liberal faith is a faith that “takes time seriously,” that does not view faith as an escape hatch from the vicissitudes of personal life or communal history, but as pathway into the community of God. Its faith is both “gift and task,” a gift of grace and a task of personal and social responsibility.
The James Luther Adams essay Beach cites above can be found at the following link:
This embarrassment exists, I'm sure, because we are a religious tradition that has come to value and trust particularly highly the more rational, intellectual and abstract aspects of religion. The concrete, visceral religious experience, the mystical if you like is, on the other hand, something that feels way too subjective and out of our rational control. It is something to be viewed with the greatest of suspicion. It has been my experience that most people who come into fellowship with us share this suspicion even when they have had some kind of religious experience themselves which has given their life a certain kind of real power and direction. But often the truth is that such experiences provide the real energy that sustains and directs a person through their whole life - the lived experience is way more important and energising than many of the rational theories about the world a person may hold.
So, whenever I encounter someone embarrassedly trying to sound out whether or not they can talk about and explore their own religious experience in this community I try to put them at their ease by telling something of my own and how it eventually helped me both to discover and accept the gift of the liberal Christian tradition. This religious experience continues to be the well-spring of my own religious life as your minister.
It is, of course, a very personal story and if you take nothing else from it please do take it as granting permission for you to speak of your own religious experiences that have brought you here into our church community.
|Practising my Tai Chi in deepest Suffolk|
|My prayer-book with my promise written on the left|
Now I can't tell you every practical consequence that followed from my experience - all you need to know was that by 1990 it had taken me to the verge of the Anglican priesthood and then, in 1991 when I realised I could not go down that route, to the door of the Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House and then, in 1997, to Oxford University, to study theology and train for the ministry. But what does need to be told - in a highly compressed way - is something of the thought process that unfolded during the ten years between 1987 and 1997.
The first thing I slowly came to realise was that every person who has a "religious experience" is forced to record it in the religious or philosophical language they speak most fluently. Despite the powerful and enduring influence upon me of Taoist thinking and Tai Chi, in the short time available to me on that evening I was only ever going to succeed in appropriately recording my experience if I did it in the language in which I was, and am, completely fluent - namely that of Christianity.
The second thing I slowly came to realise was that my words could only have been what you might call an initial "grasp" at expressing what I had experienced. I realised that such words, if they are to remain of any real use, must remain open to being surpassed, twisted, and reinterpreted (this is "verwindung" again) and that they must never be taken literally nor thrown out on literalistic grounds. I saw that I always had to be careful to seek out, as St Paul encouraged, the living spirit that informs every written letter - even my own letters. (Even the meaning of our own words is not always - if ever - wholly clear to us.)
The third thing I slowly came to realise was that, when not taken literally, my Christian religious experience did not close me down to my experiences of Taoism and Tai Chi but actually gave me a more grounded and rooted way to think about and engage with them in a coherent, creative and life-enhancing way. In fact, as you will shortly see, I discovered that they would prove to be key in helping me understand and accept the gift of the liberal Christian tradition.
The reason I found I could not unfold all the above (and much more besides) in an orthodox Christian setting was the constant demand made upon me to interpret my experience too literally and to a pre-determined measure - an act which I felt always distorted the open, creative and living spirit of my experience and which cut me off from its depth. Here's one, amusing example of what I mean. I remember telling my story to an ecumenical group of Christian ministers here in Cambridge sometime in 2000. On finishing, one of them said to me, knowing I was a Unitarian minister, "That's marvellous, you had a personal encounter with the second person of the Trinity, our risen, crucified Lord!" I demurred and said, well no, actually, from my perspective my experience seemed better described simply as an encounter with some kind of sacred or divine, creative power felt as "Presence". He replied, "No, you're wrong, you've had a personal encounter with the Trinitarian God." He simply wouldn't accept my rather more open interpretation had any validity at all and he got especially irritated by my evident desire to allow my experience - and my promise to follow Jesus - to keep me open to expressions of the divine and sacred, of creative presence in religious and philosophical traditions other than Christianity. We began to have a very heated argument as he tried to show me how wrong, wrong, wrong I was. It was a timely and salutary reminder of just why I had become a Unitarian minister.
I began my journey into the heart of our own liberal Christian tradition because of something that happened shortly after joining the Ipswich Unitarians in 1990/1991. Their minister, Cliff Reed, introduced me to the work of James Luther Adams (1901-1994), one of the most important Unitarian theologians of the twentieth century. Lots of things immediately fell into place for me after this encounter. As much as I'd love to I simply cannot in this address rehearse fully his rich and powerful thought - here I will only refer you to the key words you heard in our reading which are found in his 1959 essay "Neither Mere Morality nor Mere God". You will recall that he wrote:
"The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth."
At last I had found some words which, in a highly compressed way, gave me a liberal interpretation of my religious experience that I could live by with full belief (pathos) and a clean heart - one which allowed my passion for a certain Taoist influenced way of thinking and acting to remain meaningfully connected with my promise to follow Jesus. (Adams' words are today pasted into the cover of my book of daily meditations by my colleague John Morgan (Awakening the Soul), my little pocket Bible, and my edition of Jefferson's "Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" - the so-called "Jefferson Bible".)
What I called "Presence" back in 1987 felt as if it were better described as "a Power that is living". (These days - i.e. 2014 - I have good Heideggerian reasons for wanting to avoid using the language of "presence" too much, but I'll leave them to one side today and simply say that, today, I'd perhaps speak about this power more in terms of Wieman's "Creative Event".) I think that, for me, Adams' genius in coining this line was that, even as it reminded me constantly of the need to identify (name in some way) this Power so I could better direct myself to it, his words simultaneously allowed me to articulate what I had learnt from the Tao Te Ching, namely, that it was not a good idea to try to define such a Power (Creative Event) too narrowly by giving it some fixed, doctrinal form or even insisting that it must always and everywhere be given the name "God" - for even the name "God" is not a lasting name. Adams' words also allowed me to find a way of saying, in a Christian context, that such a living, creative Power would, across the centuries, always be known in countless ways and have been given many names. Anyway - in short - I found, at last, an interpretation of my experience that helped centre me in, and keep me focused upon, something (in the language of the Tao Te Ching) deep, deep and again deep, mysterious and nameless, something which constantly gives birth to ten-thousand things - namely all that is.
And what about the response to my experience of this Power that is living, namely, my vow to follow Jesus? Well, Adam's words helped me see that, given my upbringing in a generally liberal Protestant setting, it made perfect sense to acknowledge that I found the decisive response to this Power in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth. Adams, mixed with my reading of the Tao Te Ching, allowed me to articulate the thought that, for all human beings, the deep, mysterious source, the "Power that is living" (the Creative Event) must find its manifestation in some kind of actual, concrete form, something that we could see and be filled with a desire to imitate. For me that was and remains the man Jesus.
This mixture of a certain kind of (Western) Taoist inspired thinking (the word Tao means, of course, "Way") and a deep commitment to Jesus after a kind of mystical experience explains, I think, why I have worn very publicly for many years a symbol called "The Way of Life" (see picture at the top of this post). It is for me a perfect symbol of my own (ongoing) journey of faith within our liberal Christian tradition. As my blog's strapline says ". . .just travelling hopefully . . ."
'What I Have Learned So Far'
Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don't think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.
(From New and Selected Poems, Volume Two)
Sunday, 9 February 2014
This week Georgia has very much been on my mind, not only Georgia, but also Memphis in June. Why? Well, on Friday one of the bands I still play and record with - the Chris Ingham Quartet - launched a new CD at the wonderful, still very new central London venue the St James Theatre. The CD is simply called, "Hoagy", and in it we celebrate the songwriting of the wonderful and extraordinary Hoagy Carmichael.
Anyway with the gig coming up the music of his songs and the words of his various lyricists were running round my head when, on Monday, I went for a long walk around Wandlebury Hill Fort up on the Gogs and then along the Roman Road.
Another thought that was in mind as I rambled around was one offered up by the contemporary neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty. I was reminded (by Gianni Vattimo in his "Nihilism & Emancipation" Columbia University Press, 2004, p. 23) that Rorty felt writers like Nietzsche and Hegel, "exactly like Proust, are the authors of novels, since all philosophies are no more than extended redescriptions of the world on the basis of a system of images and metaphors, forms of subjective expression similar to literary creations". In fact, according to Rorty, "Proust . . . is superior to Hegel and Nietzsche in one point at least: he was aware that he was writing a novel, whereas the other two, even Nietzsche, wanted to proclaim truths. They were still putting forward metaphysical claims".
Now I don't propose to discuss or defend Rorty's basic claim here and now in this address - I can do that another time if you wish - here I'm only going note that, basically, I agree with him and so, throughout the day up on the Gogs, the ramifications of this thought were also mingling with Hoagy's timeless songs.
Before I can begin to weave these two threads together into some (possibly) meaningful fabric I need to tell you a little about a couple more threads that make my cloth possible. The first of these is T. C. Lethbridge's oh, so strange, hill-figure.
In 1919 Lethbridge had gone to Trinity College, Cambridge where he began to become very interested in archaeology such that, on completing his degree, he began working as a volunteer digger for Louis Clarke who was, at the time, the curator of the Archaeological Museum in Cambridge. Despite having a private income, Lethbridge became for a while the keeper of Anglo-Saxon antiquities at the museum and he remained in the city until 1957.
During the autumn of 1954, Tom Lethbridge was the director of excavations for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society by which time he had got it into his head that he should search for the missing chalk-figure, the "Wandlebury Giant." The story goes that his interest in this had earlier been peeked by a conversation with a certain a museum assistant whom he had worked with, Sammy Cowles. This colourful figure told Lethbridge that, as a child he had spoken to an old man who remembered from his own childhood days being able to see the Giant from Sawston (T. C. Lethbridge: Gogmagog - The Buried Gods, Book Club Associates 1975 - first printing 1957, pp. 5-7).
Following this Lethbridge became aware of the other allusions to a hill figure that had once been carved into the slopes of the Gog Magog hills and he became increasingly obsessed, not only with rediscovering it, but also of restoring it to its former glory. In our readings you heard a short précis of this very strange, intricate story (please do click on this link to read this short précis. It is called The Myths and Legends of Wandlebury which you will find half way down the page).
And now my final thread. As a thirteen year old I was captivated by a BBC TV series written and presented by James Burke called "Connections". The conceit of the series was simple. To quote from the concise description of the series at Wikipedia: "It took an interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and invention" in which Burke contended that we could not "consider the development of any particular piece of the modern world in isolation. Rather, the entire gestalt of the modern world is the result of a web of interconnected events, each one consisting of a person or group acting for reasons of their own motivations (e.g., profit, curiosity, religious) with no concept of the final, modern result to which the actions of either them or their contemporaries would lead."
Burke's TV series profoundly influenced me and since then I've always been on the alert for possible real connections that might be made between even the most unlikely of bed fellows, such as Hoagy, chalk hill-figures, and philosophers as novelists. This explains why the basic question that showed up before me as I walked was whether there was any meaningful connection between them and, if so, what was it and was it of any practical import?
Although there are likely to be possible alternatives, the interpretative (hermeneutic) key that serves for this address suddenly showed up when I remembered the story the pianist and singer Chris Ingham tells during our concerts about the writing of tunes like "Memphis in June" and "Georgia On My Mind". The extraordinary thing is that when Hoagy wrote these songs with his co-writers Hoagy himself had never been either to Memphis or Georgia - in short, his songs create imaginary, archetypal worlds. It's important to hang on to this thought. Although, as Chris points out, "Hoagy always claimed he was a discoverer of tunes rather than a composer" I think that, by this, he meant he understood himself to be discovering something true, not about music in some abstract absolute sense, but rather about music's extraordinary power to evoke in listeners (and, we may presume, in himself) certain moods that helped attune us to perennial aspects of the human condition - of what it is to be in the world. In the imagined localities of Memphis and Georgia he touched upon something that it feels appropriate to call "universal" - (or, at least, universal for the kinds of beings human-beings are).
Having just spent a great deal of time listening to and playing through the songs of Hoagy and his collaborators I am powerfully aware of their extraordinarily consistent ability to create fictions and moods by which we can genuinely live - fictions and moods which remain capable of delivering up to us vision of the kind of hope, joy and laughter that are so necessary for the living of a good and satisfying human life. It simply doesn't matter that he had never been to Memphis or Georgia or, of course, flown on a Skylark's wings because what he saw (or "discovered") in his fictions were things universally relevant to us all in our humanly-being. This is statement is based, not only on my delight and that of the other members of the band, but also the evident delight and enjoyment that we have experienced in our audiences. The themes and moods of Hoagy's songs are clearly as relevant today as they ever were - true, they may not be to the taste of every listener, but taste, well, that's another matter.
So, to begin to sum up. Hoagy may have thought he was discovering tunes but he was always well aware he was writing fictions and, in this sense, his work is clearly closer to that of Proust than it is to Nietzsche and Hegel. His songs are clearly not presentations of fixed and eternal metaphysical truth but are, to go back to Rorty's point, wonderful redescriptions of the world on the basis of a system of images and metaphors (drawn in this case from the southern states) and forms of subjective expression (Hoagy and his co-writer's personal feelings about what had meaning and worth).
What I like about great fiction - and make no mistake Hoagy and his collaborators produced some truly great fictions - is that they are always open to reinterpretation and adaption. It is this that makes them still living and relevant texts. As I am fond of reminding you, I wholly agree with Iain Thomson who said that:
". . . what makes the great texts "great" is not that they continually offer the same 'eternal truths' for each generation to discover but, rather, that they remain deep enough — meaning-full enough — to continue to generate new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work that previously guided us" (Figure/Ground Communication interview).
The problem with Lethbridge, on the other hand, was that he completely failed to see he was creating and presenting a fiction to himself and his audience. In this sense his work is closer in intent to certain philosophers in that he thought he was proclaiming, if not a full-blown absolute metaphysical truth, then at least an absolute historical truth about the ancient Gods. His book is full of this attitude expressed in the use of phrases like "It seems certain" (cf. T. C. Lethbridge: Gogmagog - The Buried Gods, Book Club Associates 1975 - first printing 1957, p. 158) and "I feel quite certain" (Ibid, cf. p. 159). Lethbridge is in the business of closing down openness because he believes he is heading unerringly towards the final truth of the matter. This is why, in so many ways, the text of Lethbridge's book, "Gogmagog: The Lost Gods" is not an open and living text in the way Hoagy' songs still are (and why, of course, you will only find second-hand copies of Lethbridge's book and yet Hoagy's songs are still played and reinterpreted by countless jazz bands around the world).
So what lesson might we learn from this unexpected connection between chalk hill-figures and Hoagy? Well, I think it is that, in religious circles - even liberal religious circles, we are always in danger of being "Lethbridge-like" in believing we can discover and present to others final truths. The tendency to believe this is becoming ever more prevalent in our contemporary world with the resurgence of fundamentalist religion and politics.
But we can help head-off this danger whenever we take care consciously to remind ourselves that in religion (at least the kind of religion we try to espouse here) we are always-already in the business of creating redescriptions of the world on the basis of a system of images and metaphors and forms of subjective expression. What we are always-already doing is to try to write for our own age and time what Wallace Steven's called "supreme fictions" - stories by which we can live with full belief (pathos) and a clean heart. Here in Cambridge I hope we are consciously trying to discover, not absolute metaphysical truths, but simply stories we can live by and learn from and, in this task, we have much to learn from Mr Hoagy Carmichael.