Sunday, 5 July 2015

A Faith of the Faithless — Some thoughts arising from a singing of Amazing Grace

On Monday morning an email popped into my inbox from a trusted friend which simply read, “Listen, watch” — apart from these words all it contained was a link. It took me to the closing moments of President Obama’s eulogy last week for the South Carolina state senator and minister, the Revd Clementa Pinckney, who was killed at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church along with eight other churchgoers two weeks ago.

Completely unexpectedly, I found my heart racing and I was genuinely moved to tears when President Obama, after a good twenty second pause at the very end of his eulogy which had concluded with the words, “Amazing Grace, Amazing Grace” began to sing on his own that most powerful and poignant of songs.



It goes without saying that the very large congregation quickly joined in and, within seconds, they were in full flow. As the verse finished Obama then powerfully began to list the names of those who had been shot saying after each one that they “found that grace.” His manner of doing this displayed a deep connection with some of the great preachers of the African-America Christian tradition. But, despite this, I feel it is also possible to detect in his words a hint that Obama did not simply slip back into an old-school, supernaturalist Christianity but, in fact, offered us a glimpse of a powerful, progressive, this-worldly, religious naturalism. However, before I say more about this I want to bring something else into play.

A couple of weeks ago I read a very interesting essay that was sent to me under the heading: “Can there ever be a truly successful, secular revolution?” As a religious naturalist and minister of religion who remains actively involved in secular, progressive, political circles, this is a question I’m always asking. I regularly look around me at the current secular, civic set-up (with it’s highly destructive obsession with endless growth and the acquisition of things, and also with its primary ideas of value and worth derived from the world of neoliberal finance) and, for the life of me, I cannot see how the current generation of clearly non-religious, highly technocratic, professional and supposedly progressive political parties and politicians involved with our current form of secularism are suited to bringing about the kind of radical social and environmental change we so desperately need, not only for our own human well-being but also for the well-being of the whole ecosystem of earth of which we are an inextricable part.

On the other hand the idea of our own politics and politicians becoming explicitly religious disturbs me greatly. “IS” represent, of course, an extreme example of this theologisation of politics, but we don’t need to go to those extremes to feel concerned and, although I never had any sympathy with the New Labour project, I still resonate strongly with the feelings of Alastair Campbell who, back in 2003, famously told an interviewer who had just asked Tony Blair a question about his Christian faith that, “We don’t do God.”

With that thought in mind, let’s now turn properly to the essay asking whether there can ever be a truly successful, secular revolution?. It is actually titled, “Will the left ever get religion?” and was written for openDemocracy.net by the writer and activist Michael Edwards. He begins by asking “Why does religion drive so many people nuts?” and he continues:

“On the surface the answer is obvious, at least for progressives — it’s because of the damage that’s been done by religion to the causes they hold dear: independence and equality for women, gay marriage and LGBTQ rights, peace and protection from zealots and fanatics, and safety in the face of sexual abuse. How come the ineffable being is always a bloke with a beard who privileges others who look the same as him? Religion has become the mother-lode of patriarchy, stupidity, homophobia and all things conservative.”

Yes, indeed. But, although I feel all these things are true, I’m a minister, and this is a church, that has consistently pushed against every single one of these things. I know, as Michael Edwards knows, that

“. . . the opposite is also true: religion gives tremendous strength and staying power to the struggle for equality and social justice. It’s a force that makes people go to jail for their beliefs, break into nuclear weapons facilities and daub biblical slogans on the walls, found social movements that change society, organize workers to stand up for their rights, and confront dictators at the cost of their own lives. Religious groups are also the mainstays of health, education, social welfare and community-level conflict prevention in many countries. . . . [For countless people] religion isn’t incidental to social change, it’s pivotal — it’s the reason why they are willing to give so much to the cause.”

It is something like this kind of positive "religious" force that I know many of us sense is entirely absent in most of our present, technocratically inclined, secular political leaders who claim to be on the progressive side of politics. They may have inherited the vocabulary of progressive action and social justice (especially in the UK from the Christian Socialist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) but now they talk using a dreadfully hollowed out language of abstract values that is delivered with no deep, visionary force or drive behind it — a force that is evident within religion

Of course, I say most of our political leaders on the progressive side of things, because in that extraordinary moment last week this "religious" power could, I think, clearly be seen animating Obama in Charleston.

As I have slowly, and I confess with great difficulty, worked my way through the question of the appropriate relationship between religion, theology and politics in the fifteen years I’ve been with you, and even though my own theology is by now thoroughly this-worldly and naturalist, i.e. not at all theistic and supernaturalist, I have been forced to acknowledge that something akin to religious faith, and the engagement in some kind of meaningful philosophical and theological thinking about that realm of existence about which we use the words God/the Divine/the Sacred, is indispensable to human well-being in the political and social milieu, because without this there seems to be no sustained access to some kind of vital, life-changing motive power that is able to drive truly effective and lasting progressive social and political change. As Michael Edwards notes, for deep social transformation to occur it’s not sufficient merely to engage in institutional, technocratic reform rather we must be engaged in the business of forming new kinds of people “who are willing to make sacrifices and live out their values in truly radical ways”. Religion, of course, in nearly all of its major forms, has always been about changing lives: vide Jesus’ call to “Change your life now (repent) for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. The religious tradition we inherit in this church is all about bringing into existence a new kind of being-in-the-world and, as many of our progressive British forebears called it, bringing into existence a “New Jerusalem” (even though, for obvious modern political reasons, today we might wish to use another name for this more progressive community.)

But, although I think something like religious faith and theology must be recovered by the progressive end of the political spectrum there is little doubt in my mind that a simple revival of anything like old-school religion — Christian or otherwise — would be very dangerous for us all because it is way too wrapped up in simplistic visions of an all-powerful being, a monotheistic God who is “up there”, and who is too easily believed to be, “on our side”.

In the light of my words so far, does this mean there are before us only two responses, one of which is the need to defend a version of “evangelical secularism” whilst the other is quietly to accept the slow return to some form of “traditional theism?” Well, I don’t think so and, as you know, I think that one of the duties a modern liberal church such as our own has is to challenge all such absolute, binary positions. Thankfully, in Simon Critchley’s recent book, “Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology”, we find some help to mount a secular religious challenge to this binary position. Critchley is clear, he wishes us to reject this either/or option and to seek a third response, a “Faith of the Faithless”.

In a various earlier addresses I have tried to show why I think that, as contemporary, liberal religious people, we should actively let go of any idea that the word God refers to an interventionist monotheistic being external to ourselves whom we believe we can propitiate and enlist “on our side” and, instead, as Jesus seems to have done, come to believe that, henceforth and forever, God is present for us only in and as one’s neighbour and in the call to justice and love.

It letting go of such a mono-theistic conception of God and adopting, instead, this this-worldly human conception of the divine makes us one of Critchley’s “faithless”. But this does not for us rule out the possibility of maintaining a kind of religious naturalist, or religious humanist faith that can powerfully motivate and change us better to create a fairer, more just and loving world for all. As Critchley says: “This faith of the faithless cannot have for its object anything external to the self or subject, any external, divine command, any transcendental reality” because it is rather “a work of collective self-creation where I am smithy of my own soul and where we must all be soul-smiths, as it were” (p. 6).

We may ground this thought of Critchley’s in the words that I so often use following our own prayers: “Though we may often doubt that our prayer changes anything, let us never forget that prayer changes people and people change things”. In saying this I am agreeing with Critchley that here we are are attempting to become soul-smiths — to change ourselves into new-beings, to build that new society as religious naturalists or religious humanists — to express the faith of the faithless.

Now it seems to me that, when you come closely to examine the text of Obama’s eulogy, one can see Obama be speaking in a similar way. To be sure he references “God” many times — he has, after all, also to appeal to a very conservative religious audience as well as to people with a progressive, humanist and naturalist outlook — but this God doesn’t seem to me to be a supernatural, interventionist monotheistic one rather it is a wholly immanent, humanist conception of God. Obama finds God and God’s grace in, for example, “the light of love that shone as [those who died] opened the church doors and invited a stranger [the killer] to join in their prayer circle.” This immanent humanist God is found in the way the families of the fallen responded when they saw the killer in court — “in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.” It is an immanent humanist conception of God found in “how the city of Charleston”, how “the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America” responded — “not merely with revulsion at his [the killer’s] evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.”

Do not Obama’s words here powerfully echo Critchley’s words regarding the faith of the faithless, namely, a religious naturalism or religious humanism, which is a work of collective self-creation where we are all smithies of our own souls? Indeed might not Obama’s eulogy be a quiet call (to those with ears to hear) to become soul-smiths ourselves and make of ourselves and our neighbours (enemy and friend alike) new and better beings?

Now, I realise this eulogy might just be great rhetoric from a great rhetorician and I am seriously misreading President Obama who is, in fact, evoking the God of theism. If he's doing that then I'm worried.

But, in the end (at this moment in time) a close reading of the text makes me feel that Obama really did express a profound faith in the belief that God’s amazing grace is to found only in and as one’s neighbour and in the call to justice and love. If I'm right here, in a major political setting, we catch just a little glimpse of of what a powerful "faith of the faithless" might look like.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

A Ritual to Read to Each Other: being some thoughts about apples and elephants and remaining a distinctive Unitarian and Free Christian place of worship.

A picture showing many of the important religious
symbols I mention in the address 
The picture on the right shows the candle on our communion table, a light shining in the darkness, which we kindle at the start of every service using the following words:

Divinity is present everywhere; it fills the world but, in certain places and at certain times, we feel a specialty of presence. May this be such a place and such a time.

READINGS: 



If you don’t know the kind of person I am 
and I don’t know the kind of person you are 
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world 
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star. 

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind, 
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood 
storming out to play through the broken dyke. 

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail, 
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park, 
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty 
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact. 

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, 
a remote important region in all who talk: 
though we could fool each other, we should consider— 
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark. 

For it is important that awake people be awake, 
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep, 
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe— 
should be clear; the darkness around us is deep. 

—o0o—

ADDRESS

I want to begin by pointing to two ever-present pressures on a small, independent, liberal religious community such as our own. This is not a complaint, it’s just the presentation of a couple of facts. They are, of course, not the only pressures we face, but they are the only two immediately relevant to what I’d like to say this morning. 

The first pressure is the need to maximise the returns we can get on our buildings — not to make a profit (for we are not an arm of capitalism) but simply to ensure that we can continue to balance the books and fund the church and it’s basic ministry — as you know we don't do a bad job at this but it remains somewhat touch and go for us and we cannot merely bumble on.

The second pressure comes thanks to our tradition’s principled openness to other religious and philosophical ways of doing things — as it says on every one of our orders of service, "We need not think alike to love alike". We value the highly plural nature of existence and we most certainly don’t want to engage in anything that cuts against seeing that plurality flourish.

OK, with both these pressures very much in mind a few weeks ago I took the decision to let the church for a wedding conducted by a humanist celebrant. I have no principled objection to humanist ceremonies  and, after meeting the couple briefly prior to saying yes to ensure that there were no hidden issues, it seemed to me worth seeing how it played out and felt. But, key to today’s subject, it was a service with which I had nothing at all to do.

In retrospect I’m genuinely glad I allowed it to go ahead because it helped me see clearly — and feel viscerally, deep in my bones — why doing it in the completely hands-off way I allowed was not a good idea. Even though I've been in the professional ministry for fifteen years I think that this will count as one of the most valuable lessons I have learnt about how appropriately to promote and protect our liberal religious tradition. (I think that what I talk about in this local context also has something to say to our wider liberal political and social culture which is also in great need of being protected and promoted.) 

To help show you why I think this we can turn for help to Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) writing about Spinoza. Deleuze writes:

“When a body ‘encounters’ another body, or an idea another idea, it happens that the two relations sometimes combine to form a more powerful whole, and sometimes one decomposes the other, destroying the cohesion of its parts [. . .] we experience joy when a body encounters ours and enters into composition with it, and sadness when, on the contrary, a body or an idea threatens our own coherence” ("Spinoza: Practical Philosophy", City Lights Books, 1988, p. 19)

Now, the reason I read you the story of the apple in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-7) is because Deleuze points out how Adam hears God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit as a prohibition — “Thou shalt not eat of the fruit. . . ” But what if God’s command is to be heard as alerting us to “an instance of an encounter between two bodies whose characteristic relations are not compatible: [for] the fruit will act as a poison”? If the story is interpreted this way then we may understand God to be teaching us the vital lesson that the fruit “will determine the parts of Adam’s body to enter into new relations that no longer accord with his own essence” — it will destroy Adam in some important way (ibid., p. 22). Deleuze continues by noting that, “because Adam is ignorant of causes, he thinks that God morally forbids him something, whereas God only reveals the natural consequence of ingesting the fruit.” Deleuze notes that Spinoza is categorical on this point, that “all the phenomena we group under the heading of Evil: illness, and death, are of this type: [i.e. simply] bad encounters, poisoning, intoxication, relational decomposition” (ibid., p. 22).

Now, I think that my letting the service take place without any proper relationship being set up between us as a distinct religious community on the one hand, and the couple and their chosen humanist officiant on the other, was a classic example of such a “bad encounter” and it certainly caused some “relational decomposition” in which I experienced a temporary, but thankfully minor and ultimately educative, “poisoning”. Most of you won’t have had an inkling of why I say this so let me tell you.

The service took place on a Saturday whilst I was working in my study getting ready for Sunday and I saw absolutely nothing of the event except for a few guests whom I had to redirect to the lavatories as they accidentally ended up in the back garden or trying the door of my study. I finished my service preparation at 5pm (long after the wedding had ended) and went over to the church to leave there the orders of service and put up the hymn numbers and generally get the church ready.

As I walked into this, for us sacred, space I was hit by a totally unexpected wave of existential sadness. What did I see? Well, it was primarily what I couldn’t see that struck me. In the space of just a few hours almost everything in the church that spoke of it’s current, distinct, living, community story had been utterly hidden from view and effectively erased. 

The candle which we light each week and which reminds us that divinity is present everywhere — the source of life and light which we are minded to call God — this had been hidden completely from view and thus silenced. So, too, were hidden away the candles which grace our old communion table. All the kneelers which are memorials to past members had been removed from view and were thus, silenced. Our blue mouse, friend to our young children and the homeless and who is the subject of some beautiful children’s stories by Sabrina, was hidden away and thus silenced. The small font, made and given in memory of our minister Stewart Carter (1905-1966) upon which it is written: "The water used in this service is a symbol of the purity God desires in all his children", it too had been hidden away and thus silenced. All our hymn books which contain the songs of aspiration and hope we sing each week and which try to encapsulate something important about our liberal religious tradition had been taken out, hidden away and thus silenced. Our food-bank table and box, which symbolises in a small way our desire to help vulnerable people in our wider community, that too had been hidden away and thus silenced.

In short, I walked into a space that was no longer that of the distinctive one-hundred and eleven year old liberal religious community to whom I have been called to minister. If ever there was a case of relational decomposition this was it. This, in turn, caused in me an unexpected, surprisingly rapid, and I have to say, disturbing, sense of personal relational decomposition. As I stood there it really felt like I’d been poisoned and I genuinely felt a sickness unto death in that I could see with utter clarity how quickly this delicate, living body of a community could die if I, we, weren’t intelligently very careful about what we allow ourselves to ingest .

You may, correctly, say to me, “Well it’s your own fault — you chose to ingest this event, so don’t complain.” You would be right in thinking this and, although I could cite the mitigating circumstances with which I began, I will here simply take it on the chin and say, “Yes, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” But, let me be clear, I’m bringing you this story today not to seek any sympathy from you but only to encourage in us all a better deep collective understanding of an important issue that is always facing us as a liberal community that is both financially vulnerable and open to others in a principled way.

Now, before I continue I need to be absolutely clear that I’m not making any moral judgements here — none at all. It is not that I think that the humanist wedding in the church was wrong in any moral sense (to use the classic moral binary opposite of “evil” rather than “good”) — clearly, from the point of view of the couple and the celebrant, it was good, very, very good. Indeed, had I been a guest with no connection to this community it would have been very good from my point of view too and I unconditionally wish them well. I do not, repeat, do not, cast any blame on them at all.

Instead, it’s vital that you hang on to the fact that I’m simply trying to help us clearly see why, as a modern liberal religious community, we can, and should, say “No” to certain things, not on the basis of ideas of good and evil and their opposition, but on the rather more practical basis that there exists, to quote Deleuze, “qualitative differences of modes of existence”. That is to say we need clearly to see that for every body (whether an individual or a corporate one) some things are simply good for it, and some simply bad. I am saying today that, as far as this liberal church is concerned, ingesting a humanist service (or any other religious or quasi-religious service) with which we have no connections at all is not evil (and to be condemned), but it is, potentially, simply very bad for us (in a non-moral way). 

Now to help me frame my concluding remarks let’s turn to the poem by William Stafford (1914-1993) that we heard earlier called, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”.

The truth is that the couple and their celebrant did not really know the kind of person I am nor the kind of community we were and I, of course, did not really know the kind of persons they are; and because of this, for us here, “a pattern that others made” came, temporarily, to “prevail in the world”. As I stood in our symbolically emptied-out church I saw first-hand how easy it was to follow “the wrong god home” and to have missed “our star”.

The “small betrayal” I made in my mind was my “shrug”, that is to say the all-too-easy thought that the church might be able to be let commercially without there also being a real, deep conversational connection to us. This, in turn, “let the fragile sequence break sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dyke” — I’m thinking here of my own, childish, angry and despairing utterances that I made to myself as I stood alone in the church when I realised our history — our "fragile sequence" — had (temporarily) been silenced thanks to my careless "shrug".

The event helped me see with utter clarity that when I, we don’t continue to hold each other’s tails like elephants in a parade, then I, we won’t find “the park”; that is to say, we won’t find the place where we can be meaningfully together in community and able publicly to perform our liberal religious faith well and effectively.

But, as Stafford says, it would be “cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty” for me, as your minister, not publicly to admit making this mistake, this shrug,  and to bring it’s valuable lessons before you all. So, along with Stafford I, too, “appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: [that] though we could fool each other, we should consider” this salutary experience, this bad encounter, poisoning and relational decomposition “lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.” 

I do this because I can see and feel, as never before, how important it is that “awake people be awake” because “breaking line” — that is to say losing touch with each other’s tails as a liberal religious community stretching across geography and generations — may discourage us back to sleep  as if nothing mattered, and that would be a tragedy, it would be the beginning of our end. Stafford is right, “the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe — should be clear” because “the darkness around us is deep.” 

So, let me be clear now. If we wish our distinctive liberal religious light to continue to shine helpfully in the deep darkness — small though this light is, and though we know it is not the only light available to light the way for humankind — then I, we need ways, confidently, and non-morally (this very important), to say “No” to certain things that, though neither evil nor bad in a general way, are bad for us, very bad, and that there exist things which, carelessly ingested, could cause our own “relational decomposition” — a true sickness unto death.

For my momentary folly — and even though no lasting harm was done, and no one would know anything about it unless I had told you — I ask your forgiveness. For what, I hope, is my honest and good teaching born of my folly, I invite you, my fellow elephants, to share with me your considered thoughts on the matter.

But lastly let me wish the couple who married here a very happy and fulfilled married life. I will forever remain in their debt for helping me to see something vital to our well-being as an effective  and distinctive liberal religious community.   

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Having Listened — On prayer and fenceposts — a response to what lays claim to us

Readings: Matthew 6:5-15

From Wise Thoughts for Every Day" (trans by Peter Sekirin, Arcade Publishing, 2011) by Leo Tolstoy:

“Prayer reminds you who you are and what your purpose is in life. Think this over in solitude, when you are not distracted by anything else. When you pray, pray only for yourself. Do not think you can please God with your prayer. You please God only when you follow his will.”

To Fencepost by Gary Whited from Having Listened (Homebound Publications, 2013, p. 5)
(This poem can also be viewed at this link)

It knew my breath
and knew my cheek.
It was yesterday,

a long time ago, 
when I stood alone 
next to any old fencepost

and waited before I knew 
I was beginning 
a practice of listening to what stands still

a long time. 
Today, standing anyplace,
that yearning might come

for a way in
to where fenceposts stay without ceasing,
each one a priest of stillness.

Any day this is so—
on a hillside where wind trembles the grass
stands a quiet gray weathered post,

crust of golden lichen 
glowing
on the shadowed side.

His Religion by Gary Whited from Having Listened (Homebound Publications, 2013, p. 26)
(This poem can also be viewed at this link)

Thundered sky, tattered by lightning, 
comes back whole but blackened, 
clouds full with the promise of rain.

My father looks west from the barn 
before descending the rickety wooden steps 
to the corral and his one Holstein cow 

waiting just beyond sunup for oats 
by the door where she always waits 
and to be relieved of the load brimming in her udder,

the fresh milk she’s been making all night 
while these clouds gathered, 
filling with what by late afternoon

could be hail instead of rain, his biggest worry, 
what makes him light another cigarette, 
wondering if his fields will be saved 

from the hail stones’ torture, 
his wheat crop gone in minutes. 
His hands protect the match’s wobbly flame, 

his deep breath sets the cigarette on fire, 
its smoke rising, his ritual, his prayer.

—o0o—

ADDRESS

As many of you know a figure who remains highly influential in my own religious thinking is Leo Tolstoy and, during the course of this year, I’ve been using a book of daily readings drawn from his final major work written between 1903 and 1910 called, “A Calendar of Wisdom” (Russian: Круг чтения, Krug chtenia), or “Path of life” or, as my edition translates it, “Wise Thoughts for Every Day”. It is a collection of insights and wisdom, both Tolstoy’s own and many others including Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, Jesus, Muhammad, Confucius, Emerson, Kant, Ruskin, Seneca, Socrates, Thoreau and even James Martineau.

Anyway this week, on Thursday 18th June, the entry for the day contained the words you heard in our reading about prayer:

“Prayer reminds you who you are and what your purpose is in life. Think this over in solitude, when you are not distracted by anything else. When you pray, pray only for yourself. Do not think you can please God with your prayer. You please God only when you follow his will.

Now, I heard these words this week alongside a recent set of poems by Gary Whited and it was the resonance set up between them that gave rise to the address.

I came across Whited’s work because he was a student of another of my philosophical heroes, the philosopher Henry Bugbee some of whose thinking I brought before you during Advent and Christmas. Whited contributed a beautiful piece called, “Henry Bugbee as Mentor” to a book of essays about Bugbee put together by someone who over the past year has become a good friend of mine, Ed Mooney. In that piece Whited writes that he feels that the central theme of Bugbee’s work was:

“To see our life as a response to what lays claim to us and, as best we can, to remain true to this in order that the meaning and purpose of our life, and the things that touch it, might dawn on us” (Wilderness and the Heart, p. 236).

I hope you can see that that these words resonate with Tolstoy’s about prayer and it strikes me that the connection between them is gestured to by the word “listening” — Tolstoy seems to be encouraging a listening for what he calls “God’s will” and Whited/Bugbee encourage a listening to “what lays claim to us”. These two things may seem to be very different but remember when Tolstoy spoke of God he didn’t imagine God in any conventional sense as some kind of supernatural being, "up there" but, as he explicitly says, “What we call God is comprehension” and that “this is the true God and is the entire fundamental principle” (Shubin). Another translation of this passage puts it as “Knowledge of life is God” (Condren).

Now, in order to discern “God’s will”, and/or that which “lays claim to us”, and through it to find the meaning and purpose of our lives (and what this is will be different for each person), we simply cannot be engaged in the kind of petitionary prayer that is all about transmitting our personal wishes outward; as Jesus memorably taught, in prayer we should not babble but become silent and enter into a quiet, un-showy, receptive way of being; it is to listen. It is this we, ourselves, must learn.

Now Whited’s new collection of poems is called “Having Listened”  and as a poet, philosopher and psychotherapist, listening is clearly of the greatest importance and I think he is a fine guide who can help us to learn to see and practice this listening.

In his poem, “To Fencepost” you’ve already had a glimpse of what began to teach him about silence and stillness but, before turning again to his poem about his father, “His Religion”, I think it’s valuable to give you a sense of what this means in terms of his work as a philosopher and psychotherapist.

As a philosopher a text that has filled his thought since his days as a graduate student is the poem, of which we only have a few fragments, by the late sixth or early fifth century BCE writer, Parmenides. On his website Whited tells us the following story. It is worth quoting in full.

“As a grad student, translating Parmenides’ poem from the classical Greek opened a floodgate of remembering my life on the prairie. That remembered prairie life became a vehicle for traveling into the language through which Parmenides’ poem evokes a journey into thought on the nature of Being and Becoming. Remembered fenceposts and my standing next to them exploring their weathered sides and imagining what they had seen and heard standing there at one spot all that time became metaphors that pointed toward the stillness I began to glimpse in the well-placed words of Parmenides.
          I’d sit for a long time next to a phrase of the Greek, waiting to hear it in its own terms, hoping to move nearer to Parmenides’ choice of a word, a verb tense, or a metaphor that evoked a sense of the one and the still and that embodied these in words that do what they say. 
          Someplace along the way of this translating journey, I began to imagine that standing next to a Greek phrase, waiting to catch its idiosyncratic lean toward its possible meaning was not so different from standing next to those fenceposts as a kid, feeling drawn toward their stillness, their ever-presence, signalled in the sound of wind fluttering through the splinters on a weathered side of an old ash or pine post. The solidity of weathered wood against the movement of wind, the earth below me feeling still even while spinning, all of it conveyed into my body an interweaving of movement and stillness toward which Parmenides’ poem pointed in sound and word as I came to hear it. It was in this standing next to Parmenides’ Greek phrases that I began to remember the longing I felt while standing next to the fenceposts, the longing for “what stands still a long time.”

Beautiful and helpful words, I think.

Now let’s hear Whited talk about his work as a psychotherapist. He begins with a headline quote, “One condition for the possibility of listening is silence. A second is stillness” and he continues:

“Each time I sit down to do a session with a client, I approach the experience in the same way I approach reading or hearing a poem. One day it dawned on me that every session is a new poem and my job is to hear it, to hear it as fully and deeply as I can, and out of this hearing, with as open an ear as I can offer, to reflect it back to the speaker in a way that helps the speaker hear his or her own story and his or her own listening to that story. The shared listening between myself and my client carries both of us toward what is ready to be uncovered. It carries us toward the truth in the spirit of the ancient Greek sense of “aletheia,” or “to uncover.” Listening to Parmenides’ poem encourages me to expect that something unexpected and amazing can happen in any single therapy session, as in an entire therapy process, as in life itself, when our listening carries us toward what we don’t know yet, toward what is still hidden even as it is being uncovered. Moving toward our not knowing is where healing happens. As I hear Parmenides, he encourages us to live there where our knowing borders our not knowing, to lean into our not knowing as we listen, to speak into it, to let it show itself to us and to invade our knowing.”

Again, I think these are beautiful and helpful words. So, now, with them in mind, let’s turn again to Whited’s poem, “His Religion”.

When I read Tolstoy’s words this week I felt it was worth bringing them before you today. But I knew it would be helpful to ground them in a memorable and very accessible example and I think this poem offers that.

Now, in such a dry climate as that found in the prairies it should come as no surprise, to quote Joni Mitchell’s beautiful song, “Paprika Plains”, that the people living there, particularly farmers like Whited’s father, are “such sky oriented people/Geared to changing weather”.

So, Whited’s father stands at the barn door looking west contemplating the coming storm because he knows that rain is necessary and the promise of it falling is something to be welcomed and celebrated; without rain there comes the dreadful destruction of drought. However, he also knows that a summer thunderstorm can bring with it, not only life-giving rain, but also “the torture of hail” which, if it falls, will take his wheat crop from him in minutes. As he steps out of the barn in the early morning to walk to the corral where his Holstein cow is waiting to be relieved of the fresh milk, “brimming in her udder”, his whole being is filled with the knowledge of the storm’s double aspect and this stops him in his tracks to contemplate the approaching storm once again. Faced with such a reality — one in which he realises his utter dependence upon something greater than himself — there remains nothing to do but, in one way or another, to pray. So, Whited’s father strikes a match, protects it’s wobbly flame with his hand, and lights a cigarette which, along with his deep breath and the rising smoke, his son came to see as his father’s “ritual, his prayer”.

As some of you will be aware, the smoking of tobacco also had an important place in the rituals and prayers of the Plains Indians such as the Crow and Sioux and for them the smoke was “believed to carry prayers to the attention of the Creator or other powerful spirits.” I’m sure that here, Whited is quietly making a deep connection with the prayer of those who had earlier inhabited the same landscape as his father.

It would be easy to assume that his father’s prayer is, underneath it all, merely a petitionary request for rain, rather than hail. But the whole tenor of the poem — and his father’s general deportment (at least as Gary Whited presents him to us) — suggests that he is not asking for the former rather than the latter — for rain rather than hail — but rather that he is a man listening with his whole being to what the world around (and within him) is saying to him. His prayer seems to be much more of a silent acknowledgement of “what lays claim to him” in the totality of his life as a farmer in this landscape and whether that life experiences rain, hail or bright sun. In a sense, does this not make Whited's father the human analogue of a fencepost, “a priest of stillness” that, as Whited says in another poem (“Grief in Fenceposts”), “knows every sunrise to sunset, each moon’s wax and wane, every season, every storm, the cow, the deer, the meadowlark and hawk, rattlesnake, magpie, badger and horse”? To put it in the way Tolstoy does, does not his prayer, his lighting of his cigarette seems to be akin to saying, “Thy will be done”.

Whited’s work as a whole seems to me to be a powerful invitation to a prayer that is a kind of listening which allows the full import and meaning of our life to dawn upon us — to hear our own story and our own listening to that story.

As Whited said “One condition for the possibility of listening is silence. A second is stillness” and is this not what Tolstoy was also saying in his own way? We need to stop and find quiet and solitude when we are not distracted by anything else and we also need to pray for ourselves to be stilled, which is, in turn, to be opened up to the "will of God", to that “which lays claim to us.” 

So, as we join together now in the communion of music (the musical offering followed the address) my question for each of us today is twofold. Firstly, what have been for you “priests of stillness” — from what still and silent things have you learnt to listen to that which lays claim on us? And, secondly, what are your rituals and prayers that have come to express this?

—o0o—



Wednesday, 17 June 2015

I'm playing with SARA MITRA on Friday, 19 June @ Jazz at the Hunter Club, Bury St Edmunds

Greetings Jazz Fans,

I'm playing this Friday (details below) in Bury St Edmunds with the wonderful singer Sara Mitra and drummer (and Sara’s husband) Tim Giles, along with my friend and colleague Chris Ingham (piano).

If you’d like to pre-pay, visit www.headhunterslive.org and follow the links.




Sunday, 14 June 2015

An Archeologist of Morning — some thoughts on Charles Olson, Thoreau and Jesus and the question of who Unitarians are and what they do

Summer, Charles Olson in hayfields.
Taken 1945 in Virginia, by Murray Morgan or his wife, Rosa.
Readings: Matthew 25:14-28 (we used John Dominic Crossan's version of this which you can find at the end of this post)

Charles Olson (1910-1970) 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 (sic): 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 (sic) done right, whatever you are, in whatever job, is the thing - all hierarchies, like dualities, are dead ducks). 

  [. . .]

I find it awkward 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.

From “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, “All intelligences awake with the morning.” Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour. All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.

—o0o—

ADDRESS

Last week, I used the historian and philosopher Thomas Sheehan’s insights found in his book “The First Coming: How the kingdom of God became Christianity”, to suggest to you that by the kingdom of God Jesus meant that, henceforth and forever, “God” was present only in and as one’s neighbour. In a sense, by doing this, he was one of the first people to announce what, today, we have come to know as “the death of God”; although for Jesus perhaps the term “abdication of God” would be a more suitable way of putting it. But, whatever you choose to call it, Jesus’ basic insight was that the metaphysical God “up-there” has been emptied into the world, henceforth only to be seen by us in the simple call to justice and charity as it is played out in this natural world in the present and the ever-unfolding future. According to Sheehan Jesus’ proclamation marked the death of religion and religion’s God and heralded the beginning of the post-religious experience — a life lived, not in the past or the far-off future, but here and now.

Now, to take this proclamation seriously — as most of us did last week — is to become something that is not really a disciple of Jesus. Why? Well, because what counts in all this is not Jesus but his message. Remember the point I made last week that, whilst Jesus had a message, Jesus WAS NOT, NOR IS HIMSELF the message. To use an old Buddhist image, Jesus is a finger pointing at the moon not the moon itself.

So if, to follow Jesus in this proclamation is not to become his disciple — and it is certainly not to become a Christian because, as Sheehan ably illustrated, Christianity singularly failed to understand Jesus’ proclamation — then what does this make us? How might we as a religious community describe ourselves, our message and therefore, by implication, our task both to ourselves and to the world? What is it we are trying to get ourselves and others to become?

These are really important questions to answer because as a denomination it seems to me that we have been — and I certainly have been — hamstrung by needing, and to some extent wanting, to play out our continued relationship to Jesus using Christian categories like “discipleship” or “being Christian”. But we all know this simply won’t do anymore and that we need a new way of talking about what belonging to this church tradition might be “all about”.

But this is an incredibly hard thing to do and, because it hasn’t been successfully done by us for over a century, upon first articulation and first hearing, any new expression is liable to be very puzzling. I also fully admit that my attempt to say this something new might not stick — but that’s a risk I have to take.

Today I’m going to suggest an answer which says that to follow Jesus in the way outlined by Sheehan is to become “archeologists of morning”. This description comes from a short essay of 1952 by the poet and literary critic Charles Olson and the remainder of this address is an attempt to show you why I think “archeologists of morning” might an appropriate description of what we’re about.

Olson first of all wants us to shift our emphasis as creative creatures from the past to the present and to see that the present moment is always the prologue of our unfolding, creative life. In other words the present is the "perpetual morning" of our always-already unfolding life.

Here, to help us understand the image of perpetual morning that I've just used (NB Olson didn't use it himself) it is helpful to quote Henry David Thoreau (in Walden), an author whose work Olson almost certainly knew well:

“All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, “All intelligences awake with the morning.” Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour. All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.”

Now, for Olson the past is available to us in only two living ways and both of them are available to us ONLY in the present, in this perpetual morning. Keeping in mind Olson’s image of the archeologist, it is into this always-already perpetual morning that we are going to be doing our digging.

All this is, of course, not to deny that something called the past and what we call history has a meaningful reality, that would be ridiculous, but it is to acknowledge that for each of us as living, individual human-beings everything we call, identify and have available to us as the past, as history, is something which we are always-already carrying with us right now, in the present — the perpetual morning is always the soil into which we must dig which, in turn, is an activity that can bring most fully into the light the richest and most fulling unfolding of life.

As I have just said, Olson suggests that the past is available to us in two living ways and he uses the example his parents to illustrate the first of these; he call this “our own” history.

Olson recounts a couple of stories that are clearly speaking of the past in some way — but he then notes that “the work of each of us is to find out the true lineament of ourselves by facing up to the primal features of these founders who lie buried in us” (p. 206). The point he is making is that his dead parents — and by extension all the past people, things and events that are our founders and which have made us who were are — all these are only available to us in the perpetual morning of the here and now, buried in the soil of our own cultural memories, whether they be mental or physical. I hope you can see that this is to begin to understand ourselves as the present ground, earth or perpetual morning, into which we must dig.

The second available, living past — which is a past not “our own” — is something a little more allusive because Olson thinks it is a past for which we, in the West, don’t yet have a vocabulary for. He “invokes it” by saying it is “the mythological” but he immediately says that is “too soft” a way of putting it. He then suggests the following:

“What I mean is that foundling which lies surely in the phenomenological ‘raging apart’ as these queer parents rage in us” (p. 206).

I take Olson to be gesturing towards that ancient, mysterious, powerful, universal, animating and raging life-force — gifted to each of us like a foundling child from who knows what parent — that every creature (and perhaps even every thing) has deep within it and which drives each of us to become the distinct, conscious, creative individuals we are.

I think it’s important at this point strongly to suggest that we should hear the word “raging” here in the sense that a storm rages and not in the sense that an angry or disappointed man or woman might rage. Olson’s “raging apart” is a natural phenomenon that is as present in the seed’s drive to become a flower or a tree as it is in the caterpillar becoming a butterfly. This ancient foundling — this present, ancient and mysterious, raging life-force of the perpetual morning — is buried in us in the present in the same way that our parents and other founding elements of the past lie buried in our present being and we, as archeologists of morning, are called upon to dig them up.

But why are we to dig? Well, remember Olson tells us that the work of the morning “is methodology: how to use oneself, and on what.”

With this insight we begin to arrive at the heart of the matter, in the perpetual morning (at whatever time of earthly day it is) the question is always how to use oneself and on what?

Olson thought we found the answers when we became  archaeologists of morning, always to be getting on with it, digging deep into the present soil of ourselves and the world, now, in this instant, with no drag and ourselves as the only reader and mover of the instant freed from all restrictive theories and creeds. This is a way of working that sits, I think, very comfortably with Sheehan’s understanding of how Jesus worked.

So, Olson thinks the "work and dogmas" of such a free, morning way of being is three-fold. (Perhaps "dogma" is the wrong word but Olson seems to uses it clearly to express how strongly he holds to these three aims and, by extension, wants us to hold to them.)

The first is “How by form, to get the content instant”. By this he means he wants us to create things where the form they take perfectly, and immediately, expresses the content. It seems that the primary content of Jesus’ thought was the immediate presence of God — the source and meaning of life — and Sheehan helps show us that Jesus seems to have believed that this was only experienced in actual, immediate expressions of love and justice to our neighbours. However, the form the Christian church took on singularly failed to make this content instant. God was perceived to be either in the past, above us, or a long way off in the future. In the Church God’s presence was something that increasingly became mediated second-hand only through priests, bishops, holy texts, complex rituals and creedal beliefs. A form more designed to make it’s content as far from instant as possible it would be hard to imagine! But, in the form of Jesus’ life, the content — the source and meaning of life — seemed to be instantly and utterly present. Olson sought this, of course, in his own writing.

The second work and dogma of Olson’s way of being Olson thought was “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)”. In his parable of the talents Jesus similarly encouraged us to augment the given and to take it into the world allowing it to flourish and grow in the service of others as best as we are able. Fearfully to bury our talents is an action impossible for any archeologist of morning for it always results in a diminishment and loss. Our digging also helps us to uncover living memories of this same service to others that have beautifully revealed to us the meaning and source of life. In turn we can use these examples to help us make ourselves fit instruments for use and so better able to augment the given for ourselves and others.

The third work and dogma of Olson’s way of being is to assert 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 hierarchies, like dualities, are dead ducks).“

Olson wants to see everything as interconnected and interdependent — to see that, in truth there are no dualities and no absolute hierarchies — and that the task of our lives, our profession, is to shape ourselves rightly in the light of this, whatever we are and in what ever job. The task is to be as fully alive in the perpetual morning as possible making ourselves and our content immediate without reference to any duality or hierarchy. Again I think it is clear Jesus wanted nothing less himself for he could see that we were all sons and daughters of a present God who calls into service of others — ourselves done right. This task can be undertaken as writers, scientists, musicians, poets, engineers, chemists, mathematicians, administrators, or whatever — and this helps us see that in every act of true and present living there are no walls nor any distinct names dividing us. When we do this well we find we are one with life, our own and others, and we come to see there are no dualities and no absolute hierarchies, no God up there and us down here, only the perpetual morning that is the whole of creation ever-unfolding in it’s astonishingly beautiful, plural ways.

But all of this is lost whenever we are tempted to live out of an ancient past, to hold to an ancient name, to hide behind an ancient wall, hierarchy, dogma or tradition; it’s lost too whenever we are tempted to look forward in similar ways to an imagined perfect future.

The only place we have is now, the only place to dig for answers is here, and to be in the here and now is always to be standing at the moment of a perpetual new dawn.

But to live the fulfilled perpetually new morning life expressed by Jesus and intuited by Olson we have to become, not disciples of Jesus or Olson, Christians or the followers of any other formal religion but, instead, simply archaeologists of morning. When we do this we will always see that, as Thoreau said, there is always “more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

—o0o—


There is an interesting essay by Olson's friend and fellow poet, Robert Creeley, available on line called "An Image of Man . . .": Working Notes on Charles Olson's Concept of Person that some readers may be interested in exploring. You can find it at this link.

—o0o—

The Entrusted Money (see, e.g., Matthew 25:14-28) by John Dominic Crossan in The Essential Jesus (Harpur Collins, 1994)

Before he set out to travel abroad an aristocrat
entrusted five talents to one steward, two to another, 
and one to a third.
The first made five talents more 
The second made two talents more 
The third made a hole in the ground and hid it 

When he eventually returned the aristocrat called in 
the stewards to give an account of their activities 

First report: “I have doubled your money” 
Response: “I will double your authority” 

Second report: “I have doubled your money” 
Response: “I will double your authority” 

Third report: “I was afraid 
you are mean: you reap without sowing 
you are hard: you store without harvesting
so I hid your money and here it is” 
Response: “You should have hidden it not in the 
ground but in a bank 
And brought it back not alone but with interest” 

The aristocrat took both money and authority away 
from the third steward and gave it instead to the 
first one

J. D. Crossan's Commentary: A talent was worth 60 mines or 6,000 denarii or 24,000 sesterces. At that time, for example, the base pay of a legionary was 900 sesterces (225 denarii) per annum. And, at the start of the second century, Pliny the Younger’s will established an annuity for one hundred freedmen at 840 sesterces (210 denarii) per person per annum. We are dealing, in other words, with large but not impossible sums of money—for rich people. How would ordinary people, especially peasants, react to a story like this? With which steward would they have identified even in imagination? It is precisely commercialisation and monetisation, where money can be doubled outside a bank or at least increased within it, that most threatens traditional peasant landholdings. How can reaction to this story not become a seminar in social justice? Would it have been possible, originally, to tell this story as a full performance without detailing how those first servants doubled their master’s money?





Tuesday, 9 June 2015

White Fen & White Fen Droveway — A few photos

Cambridge taken with Contrast
Yesterday I intended to cycle on my Dursley-Pedersen (photo at end of post) over to Reach and walk along the Devil's Dyke as I haven't done that for a couple of years. However, by the time I got there it was pouring with rain — something that seemed, alas, likely as I set off from Cambridge (see photo to the right).

Wandering along the top of a very exposed dyke in the rain did not particularly appeal to me so I decided to carry on cycling over to Upware and then to turn homeward via the Lodes Way. By the time I got to White Fen the rain had stopped and the sun was making valiant efforts to come out and so I was able to spend a lovely, restful, warm and bird-song accompanied hour by Swaffham Bulbeck Lode eating my sandwiches and taking a few photos with the Ricoh GR.





















Sunday, 7 June 2015

. . . and everything is dissolved into the call to justice and charity to one’s neighbour.

The man Jesus on my Polish Socinian medallion  
One of our tasks as a liberal church is find a way meaningfully to remain a community trying to live in “the spirit of Jesus” (as our own church covenant states) whilst, at the same time, allowing for, and actively encouraging, the complete spiritual freedom of individual members that, something that is clearly part of the DNA of our free religious movement — a freedom, I might add, which has led to a radical reassessment of what we might mean by the word God and which has taken many of us away from any kind of traditional theism.  

A significant problem facing us in this task is that it’s two elements do not always sit together at all easily. The first seems to encourage a holding back and a general attitude of conservation whilst the second desires the complete freedom to run ahead and fully outplay itself in the always and ever coming new spheres of human knowledge and experience.

But, unless we take care to conserve a shared, communal story and history (in our case rooted in, but not confined to Jesus’ teachings and example) then we will lose that vital something which holds us together as a genuine family or people; and, unless we simultaneously allow ourselves the genuine freedom to follow up the implications of our own experiences and consciences then we have lost an indispensable element of the liberal tradition with it’s emphasis on the free spirit that blows where it listeth.

As your minister I have spent countless hours trying to find ways to undertake this task as effectively and coherently as possible but have never really found a straightforward way of showing how this might be done. It has often felt to me like the famed, and now proven to be impossible (in 1882 — following Lindemann–Weierstrass' theorem), attempt to square the circle.

Tom Sheehan
That is until just over a year ago when I began to read a book by the noted philosopher Thomas Sheehan who taught firstly at Loyola University in Chicago and then at Stanford University, where he remains a professor. I first came across Sheehan very late in the day thanks to a tip-off by our minister emeritus who, at the tail-end of 2012, kindly pointed me in the direction of an essay of his published by the Jesus Seminar in 2000 in which Sheehan asks and tries to answer the question of what, “Jesus[’s message] might signify in the future [millennium] that opens before us” (From Divinity to Infinity). Then, in November last year, Sheehan published a new and groundbreaking book, “Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift”. Very impressed by that (and a briefer essay on the same subject) I looked through his bibliography and noticed that, back in 1986, he had published “The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God became Christianity” and I quickly hunted down a second-hand copy, not least of all because I was puzzled about why I had not come across, or been introduced to, this book earlier, even whilst I was undertaking my New Testament studies at Oxford in 1997.

For me the particular genius of this book is not simply that Sheehan restores to us a Jesus whose basic teaching might meaningfully be available to us today — and what he thinks that teaching is I’ll come to in a minute — but that he does this in a fashion which clearly shows just how badly misunderstood Jesus was by both his earliest disciple, Simon-Peter, and then by St Paul and what eventually became the Christian church. By implication he also gently reveals why we really could (and perhaps should) leave all vestiges of traditional Christian belief behind.

Sheehan offers us a clear and very readable account of how on earth the man Jesus became, firstly a coming Apocalyptic Judge, then the Reigning Lord and Christ, and then the Divine Son of God, an idea which later turns Jesus into God himself as the second person of the Trinity. Throughout he uses good mainstream historical scholarship to show how these increasingly problematic ideas (problematic in terms of what Jesus seems actually to have taught) slowly took hold of the Jewish-Christian and then Hellenic-Christian mind and came utterly to obscure the basic, simple but still startling message of Jesus. Nowhere does Sheehan make any wild, unsubstantiated claims and he always approaches his subject in a measured and even-handed way. In short, for his historical scholarship alone, I’d recommend the book without reservation.


But I’d also recommend it for Sheehan's own, constructive summary found in the final chapter of his book called “Recovering the Kingdom” because he is a man who, as an individual, wishes to engage in a ‘“retrieval’ of the still living possibilities latent in the prophet’s message of the kingdom of God”.

So, we need to start with what Sheehan thinks Jesus was teaching. He suggests that, at heart:

Jesus signalled that God was immediately and intimately present, not as a harsh judge but as a loving and generous father. His presence was a pure and unearned gift, and one could relate to him without fear. “Be not afraid,” Jesus told his followers. “Do not be anxious about your life,” “Do not worry.”’ Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:25-30). Nor did one have to earn this Father’s favour or bargain for his grace by scrupulously observing the minutiae of the Law. One simply had to call on him.’ Ask and it will be given to you. … What man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you, evil as you are, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him (Matthew 7:7, 9-11), When you pray, say “Abba …“ (Luke 11:2). ’This immediate presence of God as a loving Father is what Jesus meant by the “kingdom.” (pp. 59-60)

Holding this presence of God in mind Sheehan feels that '[t]he radicalness of Jesus’ message consisted in its implied proclamation of the end of religion, taken as the bond between two separate and incommensurate entities called “God” and “man.”’ Sheehan goes on to say:

That is, Jesus destroyed the notion of “God-in-himself” and put in its place the experience of “God-with-mankind.” Henceforth, according to the prophet from Galilee, the Father was not to be found in a distant heaven but was entirely identified with the cause of men and women. Jesus’ doctrine of the kingdom meant that God had become incarnate: He had poured himself out, had disappeared into mankind and could be found nowhere else but there. This incarnation was not a Hegelian “fall” of the divine into history, or Feuerbach’s simplistic reduction of God to the human project of self-fulfillment. But neither did it mean the hypostatic union of two natures, the divine and the human, in a God-man called Jesus of Nazareth. The doctrine of the kingdom meant that henceforth and forever God was present only in and as one’s neighbour. Jesus dissolved the fanciful speculations of apocalyptic eschatology into the call to justice and charity.

Jesus’ message of the kingdom radically redefined the traditional notions of grace and salvation and made them mean nothing other than this event of God-with-man. Salvation was no longer to be understood as the forgiving of a debt or as the reward for being good. Nor was it a supernatural supplement added on to what human beings are, some kind of ontological elevation to a higher state. All such metaphysical doctrines are forms of religion, which Jesus brought to an end. His proclamation marked the death of religion and religion’s God and heralded the beginning of the post religious experience: the abdication of “God” in favour of his hidden presence among human beings’ (pp. 61-62 emphasis mine).

It’s no wonder that my New Testament teachers at Oxford — all of them committed in some way to the continuance of both the Christian Church and Christian belief — did not put Sheehan’s book on their list of recommended reading. They may have agreed with most of his historical scholarship but they would not have agreed with his claim that Jesus’ proclamation marked the death of religion and the beginning of the post-religious experience in which everything was dissolved into the call to justice and charity to one’s neighbour.

It will come as no surprise to you that I think Sheehan’s right in saying God is for us today dissolved into this world and the call to justice and charity to one’s neighbour, indeed, as you know, I’ve been saying as much for years in my explorations with you on the matter of what a secular Christianity or religion might look like. But what’s particularly powerful for me is that Sheehan is able to show (convincingly to my mind) that this basic idea can plausibly be shown to stem from Jesus himself.

In other words, to return to the beginning of my address, Sheehan’s book offers us a way to see how it is possible to be a community trying to live in “the spirit of Jesus” whilst, at the same time, allowing for, and actively encouraging, the complete spiritual freedom of it's individual members. Sheehan shows that Jesus seems highly likely to have been calling for something remarkably similar in his own, first-century Jewish context.

Having heard what Sheehan thinks was Jesus basic message it is worth, I think, briefly bringing before you the three major ways Sheehan thinks the interpretation of Jesus as the saviour distorted that message.

(NB: Which is not, incidentally, to rule wholly out of court orthodox Christianities as interpretations that, potentially, have great benefits, but it is to say that they are only interpretations and, likely as not, ones that do not accord well with what Jesus originally seems to have taught.)

Firstly, Christianity failed to see Jesus was talking about God being present everywhere and it made the mistake of identifying this presence with Jesus alone: ’It took the mystery [Jesus] proclaimed — the utterly unfathomable mystery of God’s disappearance into humankind — and reduced it to the Procrustean dimensions of the one who proclaimed.’

Secondly, ’Christianity abandoned [Jesus’] radical sense of time. By interpreting Jesus as saviour, the church surrendered the present-future — the only place where the Father henceforth would dwell — and in its place constructed the mythical past-present-future of a cosmic “salvation history,” according to which God had become man in the past, was reigning in heaven at present, and would return to earth in the future. In so doing, Christianity lost the core of the prophet’s message of forgiveness: that the future was already present — grace was everywhere.’

Thirdly, ’Christianity reconstituted religion. Jesus did not undertake his prophetic mission in order to bring people more religion (surely there was enough available already) or a different religion (Judaism was quite adequate, as religions go) or the true and perfect religion (which would be a contradiction in terms). Nor was his goal to reform the religion into which he was born. Rather, Jesus preached the end of religion and the beginning of what religion is supposed to be about: God’s presence among men and women. And the paradox of the prophet’s message was that God’s presence meant God’s disappearance — into his people. In a sense then, yes, it meant the death of God, his kenôsis or outpouring of himself.’

As I have said to you at other times, what this gifts us with is a highly minimal, post-Christian, non-theistic religion and that won't suit everybody but it has it's charms, not least of all that it is possible to say that it's genesis is to be found in Jesus' original preaching of the kingdom, a preaching that Christianity singularly failed to hear.

And so, to conclude, here are Sheehan's own words once more:

'[W]hat survives the dead Yeshua [Jesus] is not himself but his words, his interpretation of the meaning of life. When we cut through all the theological red tape and get to the core, Yeshua [Jesus] was not about the Christ, not even about God in heaven — because his God was entirely about human beings on earth, enacting justice and mercy — that alone defined his God' (What comes after Christianity).

—o0o—

Two videos with Thomas Sheehan

A short five minute presentation for the Jesus Seminar on "Christianity after Christ"


An hour long lecture at Stanford University on "Transcendence, Mystery, Religion"