Sunday, 3 May 2015

”Roll up, roll up for the big event” — some thoughts on God and Baseball Gloves

Not a baseball glove but, perhaps, just near enough:
my softball glove 
READINGS:

Introduction to “The Size of God — The theology of Bernard Loomer in Context” by William Dean (Mercer University Press, 1987, p. 1).

Bernard Loomer’s (1912–1985) father was a sea captain. He was acquainted with his small place in an uncontrollable nature. In a talk in 1974 Loomer described his father’s instructions about the uses of a baseball glove. The father had just overheard his son’s sandlot [playground] complaints about the thinness of a glove inherited from his older brothers. When his father asked him what a baseball glove was for, young Loomer had said that it was to protect the hand. In the words of Bernard Loomer in his sixties, his father replied: 

“Son, I never have played baseball, but it seems to me you ought to be able to catch the ball bare-handed. The way I look at it, you use a glove not to protect your hand, but to give you a bigger hand to help catch balls that are more difficult to reach. I assume that in this as in all walks of life there are tricks to the trade. I suggest you learn how to catch with that glove for two reasons. First, because you are not going to get another one, and second, because you don’t need protection from life. You need a glove to give you a bigger hand to catch baseballs you might otherwise miss.”

As the decade of the 1970s progressed, Loomer reflected increasingly on the fact that what you might otherwise miss was irrational, even evil, but must be caught anyway, Loomer grew increasingly dissatisfied with those who seemed to restrict their reach—even Whitehead was faulted, And, increasingly, it appeared that Christian theology was the theology Loomer had—that he was not going to get another one—and so, although it was thin in places, he attempted to use the one theology he had, to catch all he could.


—o0o—

ADDRESS

Even in a church such as this, one which accepts and welcomes people who are agnostic or even atheist in outlook, there is no way to avoid using or referencing the word “God”.

We may sometimes choose to use instead words like Spinoza’s “Deus sive natura” (God-or-Nature), Spirit (or Source) of Life, the Divine, the transcendent other, or whatever, but we all know they are being used because there is always-already floating around in the background that tricky three-letter word, “God”. Coming from a liberal Christian and Enlightenment tradition of free-religious thinking, it would be hard (perhaps impossible) to understand ourselves as being some kind of religious community without making some reference to it — even negatively, and even as today we find ourselves (perhaps) moving towards articulating some kind of secular, and religious naturalist understanding of the word.

Some people think this is mere indecisive, theological shilly-shallying about, an indication of our collective confusion about God, the divine and the sacred and why as a religious community we should not be taken seriously. Sometimes this may be true — our flexible approach to the word God can be used to hide some very sloppy and sentimental kinds of thinking — but, in my opinion, another way of looking at it is that, at best and for the most part, it is a frank acknowledgement that the source (foundation) of all things, and all life, remains utterly mysterious and beyond the grasp of all our theories. What “this” is (even if it is an “it”) just doesn’t seem to be amenable to articulation by human language and concepts.

But, despite this, each of us seems to have little choice but to use some kind of theological language to catch all we can about “God” and also, therefore, to catch hold of those things we might meaningfully call the divine and the sacred.

The still unfolding theory I and this church tradition has inherited is, if not one derived from a full-blown theological version of Christianity, then it is certainly one derived from a Christian humanism that prefers simply to centre upon following the practical example of the man Jesus. And, just like Bernard Loomer, I know — and I think we probably all know deep in our hearts — that we’re not going to get another baseball glove (or theological theory) anytime soon and so, although the one we have might be worn thin in places, we know it’s the only one we’ve got at the moment to catch something, anything. So whenever I’m engaged in religious thinking or practice, such as today, I still find myself putting on my (figurative) baseball glove as I come out to play.

Before I begin properly, I frankly acknowledge the possibility that we may one day simply be forced to get a new glove and/or perhaps even start playing an entirely different game but, right at this moment we are not in that situation. The basic game remains religion as it has grown out of human experience around the world and the glove I/we are using here to catch what we can remains more or less liberal-Christian, humanist and Enlightenment shaped.

With this important caveat in place what is it that, as your minister, my baseball glove currently helps me to catch?

Here I may turn to John Caputo’s (b. 1940) words we heard earlier (see end of this post) who, along with a number of other key modern theologians, has stopped trying to talk about God as a super-being (an ultimate entity) who (or which) could only ever be abstractly theorised about and he has, instead, begun to talk about and gesture towards understanding God as event.

In other words, Caputo thinks — and I agree with him in this — that what he can no longer catch with his glove is the God of theism, the God with whom most of us here today grew up. What he catches today is something very different, namely God as event. But, as I indicated when I read the passage earlier, I think that in order better to be understood, Caputo’s words benefit from being brought down clearly into the context of our own church’s life and experience. So, let me run very quickly through Caputo’s five points in my own words:

Firstly, when I speak with you about God, I do not understand God as some “thing” that is present, but rather as something seeking to make itself felt in what is present. So, for example, for me it's not right to say Jesus is God because I always encounter him as having been my brother, always-already a human being like me. Rather what makes Jesus special to me, and to the religious tradition to which I belong, is that he lived in such a way that we felt we saw something making itself felt in his presence among us, something which we have been minded to call God. He was a person who seems to have been able given shape to this presence in what happens. This is why I still point so regularly to the example of Jesus and say to you both explicitly and implicitly, “Look there! That is what I mean by God!” Of course,  although Jesus remains for us our own primary, exemplary model of this occurring, we have a lively sense that this kind of event has occurred, and still can occur, in and around other people.

Secondly, when I speak with you about God, it is important to realise that I’m distinguishing between the name “God” and the event that is astir in this name. So, when I use the word “God” here it I always try to attach it to the restless events in which I see people called, as the prophet Micah summed it up (and as we sung in our first hymn), to express to themselves and others true justice, the love of mercy, and the desire to walk with God. This is why I point to any act of justice, mercy, love and the walking with others and say, both explicitly and implicitly, “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”

Thirdly, when I speak with you about God, I do not understand God as an ultimate thing, a super-being whose existence could be proved or disproved by either science, philosophy or theology because I take it that God is that which is astir in all things. This is why I often point to the interconnectedness of the universe, the natural world and its constant commingling, and say, both explicitly and implicitly, that in the provisional and ever-revisable interplay of things, “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”

Now before I turn to Caputo’s fourth point I need to add a quick word here about the deconstructable. Take a word like “democracy” (an appropriate word to consider during this General Election week). The thinking goes something like this: There is something astir in the name “democracy” that means every actual existing system to which we give the name democracy will be critiqued and taken apart by that same something astir in it’s name. That something astir in the word always calls us to do better, to revise, to reshape, to try again to be true to the astir something that trembles at the heart of the word. The something astir in the word “democracy” cannot be deconstructed, but every actual expression of democracy can always deconstructed. What is true of the word “democracy” seems especially true of the word “God”.

So, fourthly, when I speak with you about God, I do so having been persuaded that, no matter how beautiful or venerable they are, whether they are Trinitarian or Unitarian, whether they theist or atheist, all human expressions of and theories about God are always deconstructable — including the one I’m making today! These expressions may, and often have had, some temporary ad hoc usefulness, but they must never be thought of as being themselves the event that they harbour. This is why I so often point with particular approval to living and always unfolding, self-critical, non-doctrinal and non-creedal forms of religious or secular community and say about them, both explicitly and implicitly, “Look There! That is what I mean by God!”

Fifthly, when I speak with you about God, I understand “God as event” as something that is always calling us from afar – call it from “heaven” if you like – something which is always persuading us into living a form of life ever more committed to seeking more justice, more love, more mercy and a continued walking with each other and God. I also understand “God as event” as a memory that remains very dangerous to all earthly powers that, for whatever reason, want to repress the memory of, and call to, this same life of justice, love and mercy. It is no wonder that every earthly, coercive human power which wants to control and dominate others and nature feels the word “God” to be a dangerous memory and an always-already new call for reform and (non-violent) revolution. This is why I constantly point to what might seem to be utopian, radical visions of human organization, such as that expressed in Jesus’ idea of the kingdom of God or, and in my mind this amounts to the same thing, the republic of heaven, and say, both explicitly and implicitly, “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”

So, to conclude, it seems to me that my job as a pastor in this liberal-Christian, humanist and Enlightenment tradition is never to try to persuade you of the truth of this or that theory or doctrine about God (for they are all going to be seen as severely limited or even plain wrong in the end anyway) but, instead, simply to find ways to catch with my admittedly worn-thin glove certain events occurring in life and to throw them gently on to you with the words, “there that’s what I mean by God.” The gamble I’m taking is that there is in fact something astir in these events and that, as you catch them in your own gloves, this same something will felt by you too, and that the resonation it sets up will cause you to have an a-ha moment and say, “Ah! Yes, I think I see what you mean!”

But, as your pastor, it is also my duty to say that, whatever any of us catch, it must never be mistaken as fixed and final, stable and settled, done and dusted. Not at all! for no single thing, word, theory or doctine is ever large enough fully to contain or finally define the mysterious something that might be astir in them. As Bernard Loomer himself said: “Final answers are not to be trusted. We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery.” (Source: Wikipedia)

It seems to me that our calling in a liberal church such as this is simply being always prepared to be set astir ourselves by this same mysterious, yet liberating something which continues to call upon us better to build the kingdom of God or republic of heaven amongst and within us all and to see, as did Loomer, that

“. . . the world is holy ground; and because it contains and yet enshrouds the ultimate mystery inherent within existence itself. . . . The world in all the dimensions of its being is the basis for all our wonder, awe, and inquiry” (ibid.).

Amen.

—o0o—

“A Theology of the Event” — from John D. Caputo’s essay “Spectral Hermeneutics – On the Weakness of God and the Theology of the Event” in “After the Death of God” by John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo (Columbia University Press, 2007, pp, 47–49).

One way to put what postmodernism means is to say that it is a philosophy of the event, and one way to put what a radical or post modem theology means is to say it is a theology of the event. Obviously, then, on such an accounting, everything depends upon what we mean by an event, which, for the sake of simplicity, I describe as follows.

1. An event is not precisely what happens, which is what the word suggests in English, but something going on in what happens, something that is being expressed or realized or given shape in what happens; it is not something present, but something seeking to make itself felt in what is present.

2. Accordingly, I would distinguish between a name and the event that is astir or that transpires in a name. The name is a kind of provisional formulation of an event, a relatively stable if evolving structure, while the event is ever restless, on the move, seeking new forms to assume, seeking to get expressed in still unexpressed ways. Names are historical, contingent, provisional expressions in natural languages, while events are what names are trying to form or formulate, nominate or denominate.

3. An event is not a thing but something astir in a thing. Events get realized in things, take on actuality and presence there, but always in a way that is provisional and revisable, while the restlessness and flux of things is explained by the events they harbour.

4. What happens, be it a thing or a word, is always deconstructible just in virtue of events which are not deconstructible. That does not mean that events are eternally true like a Platonic eidos; far from being eternally true or present, events are never present, never finished or formed, realized or constructed, whereas only what is constructed is deconstructable. Words and things are deconstructible, but events if there are any such things (s’il y en a), are not deconstructible.

5. In terms of their temporality, events, never being present, solicit us from afar, draw us on, draw us out into the future, calling us hither. Events are provocations and promises, and they have the structure of what Derrida calls the unforeseeable “to come” (à venir). Or else they call us back, recall us to all that has flowed by into the irremissible past, which is why they form the basis of what Johann Baptist Metz calls “dangerous memories” of the injustice suffered by those long dead, or not so long, a revocation that constitutes another provocation. Events call and recall.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Spring in the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens — A set of "platinum" black and white photos

Tuesday was another beautiful sunny day and, after a morning spent hoovering the house, cleaning the bathroom, and shifting the many books and CDs that had (unaccountably!) piled up on the coffee table, I was ready to take a quiet stroll around the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

I was very much in a "black and white" mood and took the following photos whilst there.

Later that evening we were to entertain two friends from the Unitarischen Kirche in Berlin and perhaps that is why as I walked I had Proverbs 4:23 in my mind, the text that was written above Heidegger's front door in Freiberg:

Behüte dein Herz mit allem Fleiß; denn daraus geht das Leben (Luther).
Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life (KJV).
Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life (NRSV).















Sunday, 26 April 2015

An Assembly of Presences — A short address for the church AGM and my brief remarks written for the annual report

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church
Readings: Genesis 1:27: So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

From “The Coming Insurrection” by the Invisible Committee (Semiotext(e), MIT Press, 2009)

The need to assemble is as constant among humans as the necessity of making decisions is rare. Assembling corresponds to the joy of feeling a common power. Decisions are vital only in emergency situations, where the exercise of democracy is already compromised. The rest of the time, “the democratic character of decision making” is only a problem for the fanatics of process. It’s not a matter of critiquing assemblies or abandoning them, but of liberating the speech, gestures, and interplay of beings that take place within them. We just have to see that each person comes to an assembly not only with a point of view or a motion, but with desires, attachments, capacities, forces, sadnesses and a certain disposition toward others, an openness. If we manage to set aside the fantasy of the General Assembly and replace it with an assembly of presences, if we manage to foil the constantly renewed temptation of hegemony, if we stop making the decision our final aim, then there is a chance for a kind of massification, one of those moments of collective crystallisation where a decision suddenly takes hold of beings, completely or only in part. [. . .] There’s no ideal form of action. What’s essential is that action assume a certain form, that it give rise to a form instead of having one imposed on it. [. . .] As for deciding on actions, the principle could be as follows: each person should do their own reconnaissance, the information would then be put together, and the decision will occur to us rather than being made by us. The circulation of knowledge cancels hierarchy; it equalises by raising up. 

—o0o—

ADDRESS

Inside the Memorial Church
We meet today for our own community’s AGM. Around this time of the year, all over the country, many of our congregations do likewise. Also, just a few weeks ago, there was held the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. Now is the season for our AGMs and General Assemblies.

Given the formal, legal and financial structure we have, AGMs and GAs are inevitable and required. They are important meetings that should be taken seriously and I’m absolutely sure we will do this today.

But there is in play in our general culture a deadening air around these kinds of meetings. At the mere thought of them otherwise brave hearts sink, and the fear of entering the dullest and most pointless of all meetings on the planet begins to loom ever closer on the horizon, a horizon for us now only half an hour away. Why is this feeling part of our general culture? Why is it that people are so keen to avoid them?

Well, it seems to me to have arisen from having in our culture too many organisations that have lost the ability to be anything else but organisations and who now seem only to have meetings about meetings about being an organisation that meets.

I have spent most of my life involved in some way with left-wing politics. Although they are very far from having a monopoly on this, the left are notoriously prone to engage in the most pointless, procedural hair-splitting nonsense, something brilliantly parodied by Monty Python in their “Life of Brian”, especially in the scenes concerning the “People’s Front of Judea”. The PFJ, you may remember, remained vehemently opposed to their rivals the “Judean People’s Front”, the “Judean Popular People’s Front”, the “Campaign for a Free Galilee”, and the “Popular Front of Judea”, calling them all “splitters”. The last of these groups, the “Popular Front of Judea”, consisted simply of one old man which was, for those of us in the know, a marvellous piece of mockery of the size of some actually existing revolutionary Trotskyist factions. One man and not even one dog, and you could almost guarantee that this single man, were he to get a dog, would continue to have with it pointless procedural meetings. Now, if this is a representative informing picture of what an AGM and a GA is like then it is no surprise that they fill us with dread.



Although by a very long chalk I’m far from agreeing with everything they say, I am with the Invisible Committee when they want strongly to push against this state of affairs, not “by critiquing assemblies or abandoning them, but of liberating the speech, gestures, and interplay of beings that take place within them.”

I understand this to mean for us that when we meet together in half an hour, we need to ensure our AGM is about releasing us to do together the things we both need and want to do, and not about stopping us from doing them in a morass of pointless procedure. An AGM must not be an end in itself but, instead, an initiating, liberating event of releasement (gelassenheit).

When we attend an AGM fully aware “that each person comes to an assembly not only with a point of view or a motion, but with desires, attachments, capacities, forces, sadnesses and a certain disposition toward others, an openness” then we begin to meet as a living people and not as a pointless expression of process.

If we succeed in this then spending a short, but focused time together ensuring that the buildings, finance, governance are in sufficient and good (enough) order then we become, not merely a General Meeting, or a General Assembly, but rather an “assembly of presences”.

In such an assembly of presences we can see that we are freed to bring our own genuine reconnaissances about faith and order (and life and work) into conversational play with each other and that, when all the information our reconnaissances contain is properly put together, the decisions required will occur to us rather than being made by us. As the Invisible Committee suggest, “The circulation of such knowledge cancels hierarchy; it equalizes by raising up”.

This cancellation of hierarchy and equalisation is something absolutely vital for the kind of radical, liberal, lay-church community we aspire to be because, as one of our greatest twentieth-century theologians, James Luther Adams (1901-1994), said: “Liberalism, in its social articulation, might be defined as a protest against ‘pecking orders.’”

We may have begun “as a protest against ecclesiastical pecking orders” but we quickly also extended this protest against to political and economic pecking orders and, as Adams makes crystal clear:

“This protest often found its sanction in the basic theological assertion that all are children of one God, by which is meant that all persons by nature potentially share in the deepest meanings of existence, all have the capacity for discovering or responding to ‘saving truth,’ and all are responsible for selecting and putting into action the right means and ends of cooperation for the fulfilment of human destiny. These religious affirmations are thus the basis of the liberal’s belief that the method of free inquiry is the necessary condition for the preservation of human dignity. This method of free inquiry and persuasion is the only one consistent with both the dignity and the limitations of human nature, and it is the method that yields the maximum of discovery and criticism” (From “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” by James Luther Adams in “On Being Human Religiously: Selected Essays In Religion and Society”, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1976)

So when we gather for our AGM may we all remember that we meet, not merely as a formal, procedural body but, primarily and fundamentally, as an assembly of presences open to the infinite, creative possibilities that may be found in each other and the world. Nothing less is equal to the task that faces us.

MINISTER’S REMARKS FOR THE ANNUAL REPORT & AGM

Inside the Memorial Church
Over the years in this report I’ve often gone back to something said by one of our own great theologians, James Luther Adams (1901-1994), namely that what people want in a liberal church is “ultimacy and intimacy”. In other words people want both to have a place where, in an open-hearted and appropriately critical way, they can address the deep theological and philosophical questions of life and where, at the same time, they can find the intimacy of friendship and support that should come with any genuine community. The former is always easier to provide and sustain than the latter. The former can be sustained by just a few people whereas the latter requires that everyone gets involved in some way.

Without doubt, for me the great joy of the past year has been to see how just such a more intimate community has begun to develop here. We see it together most noticeably in our monthly bring and share lunches, the fourth Wednesday lunch-club, the Christmas Day meal, the Wednesday Evening Conversations and in the other tea parties and social get togethers we have been having. But, as your minister, I also see it in the many personal connections and friendships that are being made between various individuals within the community.

It is these more intimate bonds of friendship and support that help all of us address better and more consistently the always difficult, ultimate questions of life. A church such as ours can survive (just) by only addressing questions of ultimacy, but it will never thrive until it takes care also to address questions of intimacy.

In this task of providing ultimacy and intimacy we need, of course, to remember some people are going to be particularly good at one and less good at the other and this, in turn, means that we should always looking for ways appropriately to share the load among us.

Which point leads me to something else I have often mentioned in my annual remarks, namely, the idea that the modern liberal church needs to move away from being a minister-led organisation and increasingly towards becoming a ministry-led one. That today, everywhere I look, I see a much greater sharing of the load of providing ultimacy AND intimacy to ourselves and the world gives me real hope for the future of this local liberal church community.

Thank you to you all for making this possibility ever more real.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Standing in awe of heaven . . .

My last post dealt with what I see as one of the most deeply problematic aspects of formal religion — particularly Christianity in its orthodox, doctrinal forms. In a nutshell,  it mostly just drives me nuts. What a relief it was then, yesterday, to spend some goodly time with a good and old friend from my college days who has found a home within a Quaker community. To be able to talk at length about the divine and the sacred without getting bogged down in belief and doctrines is such a rare and wonderful thing. As is our want we did all that talking whilst walking over to Grantchester by the river in the spring sun. And then, today, Susanna and I, taking advantage of the continuing fine weather, went over to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden to spend sometime together ourselves in conversation amidst the glories of spring. (All the photos here are from this visit except the last two which are of Emmanuel College where Susanna arranges the chapel flowers during term time. As always just click on a photo to enlarge it.)

Both these splendid events served to remind me, as Howard Wettstein (in his Significance of Religious Experience) is very keen to point out, that the concept of ‘belief’ or a ‘believer’ is entirely absent from the Hebrew Bible. Instead of a believer we find there the idea of y’re shamayim, that is to say someone who stands in awe of heaven

Well, in the presence of such natural beauty my friend, and my wife and I, for sure, found ourselves repeatedly standing in "awe of heaven"— with no doctrines and no belief in play, just awe and gratitude.














Sunday, 19 April 2015

Maintenance or mission? — A problem with the current ecumenical situation in the UK or, "Would Jesus Join A Christian Church Today?"

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church in the evening sun
READINGS: Luke 10:25-37 (The Good Samaritan)

“Would Jesus Join A Christian Church Today?” from “Without Apology: Collected Meditations on Liberal Religion” by A. Powell Davies (ed. Forrest Church, Skinner House Books, 1998, pp. 61-62).

Davies was a English Methodist minister born of Welsh parents who, in 1933, became a Unitarian and who then had a long and influential ministry at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington DC. The essay from which the following extract is taken was first published in November 1947. 

Jesus was never a Christian. He was a Jewish prophet upon whose life and work Christianity was partly founded. I am not sure that Jesus would ever have wanted to be a Christian, or that he would want to be one now. I doubt whether he would have felt that any religious institution that narrowed itself to so dubious a theological formula was big enough for the job it was attempting to do. I can easily imagine him telling the story of the Good Samaritan over again and saying with added weight of emphasis, “Go thou and do likewise.” I can imagine him trying to cleanse the temple once more — whether the temple of our national honour, corrupted by avarice and greed, or the temple of the Christian churches, selling their moral birthright to maintain a worn-out creed. What I cannot imagine him doing is going about saying that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
          Because he never did go about saying it — and, being a Jewish prophet and a monotheist, he never could have said it. Every respectable scholar in Christendom knows perfectly well that Jesus made no claim to be God and was even uncertain as to whether he was God’s Messiah — God’s Jewish Messiah. What Jesus would have told the churches is that they cannot serve two masters — the God of truth and the God they put into their creeds. And he would have said that a religious movement should be based upon a way of life, not a theological opinion, and that, therefore, the churches, if they are to unite, should unite upon a purpose, not a creed. This purpose would have been the one he spent his public life declaring — the kinship of all people. And he would have said — as he did — that this meant food, clothing, and shelter for whoever needed it, since religion has to be lived and not merely talked. “Inasmuch as ye did it not unto the least of these,” he should have said, “ye did it not unto me.” And until the churches had accepted this as the true Christian basis, leaving people to believe whatever other doctrines they decided were persuasive, Jesus would, I think, have refused to join them.


ADDRESS

Last Thursday I went to a meeting of the Cambridgeshire Ecumenical Council to hear a talk by the Revd Dr David Cornick, General Secretary of Churches Together in England, about the changing ecumenical landscape.

Before I begin I want to make it clear that I have some good friends and colleagues connected with the council with whom I continue to work well. I also want to say that I like and respect David Cornick very much. In the words which follow I hope simply to present to you a set of reflections to bring back to you to help us all as a community do some thinking about our own place in the current ecumenical landscape.

An opportunity arose in the Q&As which followed David's talk to ask specifically whether, in the changing landscape of ecumenical relations, a Unitarian church such as our own was now considered inside or outside the definition of Christianity that satisfied Churches Together in England. The answer, gently but firmly and clearly given, was that we remain “outside” — Churches Together's self-understanding remains wholly Trinitarian and, well, that is that. There continue to be ways we may work together but the relationship is increasingly like an interfaith relationship rather than an ecumenical one.

I wasn’t at all surprised by this as it’s been that way since the British Council of Churches (of which we were a part) ended and, in 1990, when it was replaced by Churches Together (Henceforth CT).

So, the ecumenical landscape may be changing in England but not in this specific matter.

But that doesn't quite map the terrain properly because the changing overall landscape ensures that what it means to be excluded from CT today is not what it meant to be excluded in 1990. Why this is so began to be revealed when David reminded us that it seems clear we, in Britain anyway, are on the cusp of transformation from Christendom to post-Christendom and that this has helped bring about a change of emphasis “from maintenance to mission”.

What does that mean and how does it effect us?

Well, when the more-or-less liberal, mainstream churches held sway in what was a generally Christian culture (Christendom) any given church’s role was centred on maintaining or upholding this general culture in various ways. We may not be (nor ever have been), doctrinally speaking, a Christian church but we’re clearly a culturally Christian one and in the context of “maintenance” we had a role to play.

As I occasionally point out there is a notice in the vestibule — hand-lettered by Gee Horsely sometime in the 1980s — which says “Our religious thinking is related to the teaching of Jesus and its application in the modern world”.

I hope it is clear how this basic stance ensured a continuing meaningful, and often close, working relationship with other Christian churches particularly in the sphere of practical social action and, for example, in debates about the ethical and moral questions facing our society.

In his talk David said something that initially seemed simply to reaffirm this area of practical collaboration, namely that in his opinion what brings the churches together now is doing things – Street Pastors, Night Shelters, and serving the community in countless other initiatives, particularly at the moment, through foodbanks.

Over the fifteen years I’ve been your minister I’ve consistently encouraged us to maintain a reasonably high level of ecumenical involvement in such practical things. However, something’s been quietly but persistently nagging away at me for the past four or five years that’s resulted in me gently withdrawing little by little from my involvement in the local formal ecumenical scene. The trouble is that I’ve not quite been able properly to put my finger on what the problem is. To some extent I’ve been concerned that the problem was due primarily to changes in my own theological thinking. Inevitably, this has had an effect but, because I’m not so radically different from the person who came here in 2000, this didn’t seem properly to account for the problem.  

Well, it was during David Cornick’s talk that I was suddenly able to see what the problem is. I saw it the moment he pointed out that there had been this change of emphasis “from maintenance to mission”.

When I was able to be involved in the maintenance of "Christendom", which to me meant the maintenance of a certain kind of broadly secular, practical liberal Christian culture, all was fine and dandy enough. But this background is no longer so strong and clear and, for good or ill (and it will always be a mixture of both), the general, clearly Christian (if also secular) flavour of our culture does seem to be going and we are, as David said, “on the cusp of transformation from Christendom to post-Christendom.”

But what about mission? Well mission begins to come into play whenever a church finds itself in a situation when it is no longer the main-game nor even a (let alone “the”) main-figure in whatever the new-game is. As the churches have begun to become increasingly conscious that they are in a post-Christendom situation they have also realised they cannot be any longer in the business of maintenance and so, in their paradigm, they must now shift to mission.

To see the full extent of the problem I saw you need to be clear how Christian mission is generally understood.

Christian mission is the organised effort for the propagation of the Christian faith. This involves preaching a set of beliefs for the purpose of conversion to Christianity. Mission has, of course, always included a large element of humanitarian work, especially among the poor and disadvantaged, but this work has always closely been tied to the task of persuading a person, community, or country to adopt Christian belief.

And so now here’s the issue. A few years ago I, we, could be involved in many different ecumenical activities because, at the end of the day, what really counted for most of us was the practical action itself. It was never the case that Christian belief never mattered in these things, but it could be left gently and quietly in the background because everybody knew that most people involved were sort of vaguely Christian anyway because, of course, we were all still living in the general context of some kind of “Christendom”. As A. Powell Davies indicated I, we, were involved in the formal ecumenical scene because we felt that “the churches, if they are to unite, “should unite upon a purpose, not a creed.”

But that underlying context has probably been gone for at least a good twenty years, if not more, but the point is that this wasn’t until recently fully appreciated (or at least explicitly acknowledge) within the ecumenical setting. Now it is and, in consequence, the ecumenical scene’s centre of gravity has decisively shifted towards belief and doctrine and any social action that it is now carrying out has Christian belief increasingly foregrounded because this is a necessary part of Christian mission.

(NB. The primary reason for me stopping my work as a Police Chaplain a couple of years ago — this is a local ecumenical project — was because those of us who were there as Christian Chaplains were given access to Bibles, printed up with Cambridgeshire Constabulary logos, and were being encouraged to find ways actively to distribute them to members of the force as part of an overall attempt at Christian mission.)

The problem is that I, we as a church, simply have not for a long, long while done Christian belief nor engaged in Christian mission. This church’s non-creedal religious faith is one centred, as you know, simply on taking the human Jesus as our personal, primary (but not sole) exemplar and model of how we are to behave in the world. A. Powell Davies’ words we heard earlier gave a powerful illustration of that position.

It’s a teaching which means, for example, we give food to a hungry person because we believe Jesus' example revealed to us that this was a good and proper human thing to do. But, as we follow him in this we feel no desire, nor any obligation engage in an underlying Christian mission which requires us, or them, to have Christian belief.

As David spoke last week I experienced a powerful moment of epiphany: I suddenly saw how, although I could do certain kinds of maintenance in the ecumenical setting, I couldn’t do mission. I don’t believe it, I don’t like it and I won’t do it.

In consequence, I don’t think my changes in thinking can really be blamed for my backing-off from ecumenical things rather it’s been caused by an until now, unarticulated realisation the there has been this significant change from maintainace to mission.

So when David, gently said to me last week, that as a Unitarian church we were still excluded from CT, the scales fell from my eyes, and I heard his words now as an exclusion, not from maintenance, but from mission.

I always resisted and strongly pushed against our exclusion from CT’s work of maintenance because, when push comes to shove, I still think a broadly humanistic, secular kind of Christian society is pretty damned good one to try and maintain. It’s not the only way a good and open society might be organised and maintained but it has been our way and I still think it has so much to offer the world.

However, I found myself breathing a deep sigh of relief as I understood that, in the current context, we were now really being excluded from CT’s work of mission. If I, we, weren’t already excluded I realised I’d have to leave anyway.

For me, personally, this is a very important and profound realisation because the first twenty-five years of my life were spent as an Anglican fully inside both national and local ecumenical structures and activities (indeed, some of you will know that I nearly became an Anglican priest in the very early 1990s), and my second twenty-five years of life as a Unitarian lay-person and minister have been spent trying to find ways to remain fully inside those same ecumenical structures and activities. So when, on Thursday, this effort finished I felt it viscerally.

This realisation doesn’t mean, of course, that I’m suddenly going to stop working with other Christians where and whenever I can. That would be ridiculous not least of all because many of the people still involved with CT are still working within the maintenance paradigm which I have already admitted to have been happy (enough) to work with.  But Thursday evening does for me mark the moment after which I feel the need to say, quite publicly, that I have no choice but to consider myself now definitely outside the orbit of formal Christianity and it's ecumenical structures. I was very lucky to have Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch as one of my tutors at Oxford and I was very taken by the fact that he now calls himself “a candid friend of Christianity.” I feel minded increasingly to borrow and use his pithy phrase to express my relationship with my birthright faith.

It seems clear (to me) that involvement in the formal ecumenical scene is now finally ruled out for us and so, regardless of my own personal feelings about all this, in the end this is not just about me, it’s about us as a religious community who still have a real sense of commitment to the human Jesus. It’s about where we understand ourselves to be, in what circles of belonging we wish now to move, to ask what it is we want to be doing and with whom and how we want to be working and collaborating?

These are big questions with no easy or obvious answers but still, they must be asked.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Embracing the creative possibilities of exhaustion

A "useless" tree in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden
READING: “The Useless Tree” in Thomas Merton’s “The Way of Chuang Tzu”


Hui Tzu said to Chuang: 
I have a big tree, 
the kind they call a “stinktree”. 
The trunk is so distorted, 
so full of knots, 
no one can get a straight plank 
Out of it. The branches are so crooked 
You cannot cut them up 
In any way that makes sense. 

There it stands beside the road. 
No carpenter will even look at it. 

Such is your teaching — 
Big and useless. 

Chuang Tzu replied: 
Have you ever watched the wildcat 
Crouching, watching his prey —  
This way it leaps, and that way, 
High and low, and at last 
Lands in the trap. 

But have you seen the yak? 
Great as a thundercloud he stands in his might. 
Big? Sure,  
He can’t catch mice! 

So for your big tree, no use? 
Then plant it in the wasteland 
In emptiness. Walk idly around, 
Rest under it’s shadow. 
No axe or bill prepares its end. 
No one will ever cut it down. 

Useless? You should worry!”

ADDRESS

It seems that a very common complaint presented to GPs by their patients is the feeling of extreme tiredness and exhaustion. It even has a name TATT — an acronym for "tired all the time". I’m sure none of us has been, or is, immune from this syndrome — myself included, of course.

A number of things suggest that what is true of so many of us as individuals seems also to true about our general culture. But we have a deep problem talking about it because, as Franco Berardi notes:

“The notion of exhaustion has always been anathema to the discourse of modernity, of romantic Sturm und Drang, of the Faustian drive to immortality, the endless thirst for economic growth and profit, the denial of organic limits” (e-flux).

This discourse has brought with it many problems, not least of because it has generally played itself out in the “romantic cult of youth” which has helped create for us a culture which devalues old people, and particularly old women, for their apparent weaknesses and uselessness.

This thought is always very much in my mind whenever we hold events like our Fourth Wednesday Lunch Clubs which, in a gentle but radical way, attempts to push against this view. Also, as I’m sure you realise, as a minister of religion I’m constantly engaged pastorally in some aspect or other connected with both ageing and feelings of tiredness and exhaustion. Today, I want to try and bring out a positive message about these things that I think is pertinent not only to us as individuals but also one which says something of profound political and social importance to our own age.

Now, I’m soon to hit fifty and, whilst I realise that this is not old in so many ways, one thing we can all agree on is that it isn’t to be young any more. I realise, especially in my parallel career as a jazz musician which still involves lots of travel and late nights, that I simply haven’t got the energy I had only five years ago. Were my weak flesh willing the strong musical spirit that is still within me would snap up every gig going but these days I find myself letting some of them go, and good ones too. This serves to make me very aware, at both a physical and existential level, that I’m growing old and that I need to pay careful, creative attention to this, both for my own benefit and also in my role as your minister.

I consider myself lucky that very early on in my life — at school via the poet A. E. Housman — I came across the philosophy of the third-century Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC). It was through him and his first century Roman follower, the poet Lucretius (c. 99 – c. 55 BC), that I was gently inducted into a religious naturalist philosophy of life that never bought into the cult of youth. Here are just two examples of Epicurus' general view:

We should not view the young man as happy, but rather the old man whose life has been fortunate. The young man at the height of his powers is often befuddled by chance and driven from his course; but the old man has dropped anchor in old age as in a harbour, since he secures in sure and thankful memory goods for which he was once scarcely confident of (Vatican Sayings No. 17).

No one should postpone the study of philosophy when they are young, nor should they weary of it when they become mature, because the search for mental health is never untimely or out of season. To say that the time to study philosophy has not yet arrived or that it is past is like saying the time for happiness is not yet at hand or is no longer present. This both the young and the mature should pursue philosophy, the latter in order to be rejuvenated as they age by the blessings that accrue from pleasurable past experience, and the youthful in order to become mature immediately through having no fear of the future. Hence we should make a practice of the things that make for happiness, for assuredly when we have this we have everything, and we do everything we can to get it when we don’t have it (Opening paragraph of his letter to Menoeceus).

But early Christianity did such a good job of actively suppressing Epicurean philosophy that it was not until Lucretius’ poem, the De Rerum Natura, was rediscovered in 1417 in a monastery in Germany by Poggio Bracciolini that it began, oh so slowly, to find its way back into our culture’s thinking.

The importance of this philosophy has, as you know, grown significantly in importance for me over the years I have been your minister and, all in all, I’m pleased to see signs that this philosophy is continuing to make its way back into the popular imagination. A particularly enjoyable example of this can be found in Daniel Klein’s recent short and accessible book for Penguin Press called “Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life”. Here's an extract from the publisher's blurb:

In his early 70s, author Daniel Klein saw his peers taking up jogging, studying new languages and wearing hormone patches to charge their libidos. Klein already harboured a few misgivings about the frantic striving of the “new old age” when a trip to the dentist prompted an epiphany. Klein recalled that the dentist said ’I had to get these implants over the course of a year [or] I would look older with denture plates . . . and my teeth would pop out once in a while. And I thought, what do I care if have a goofy old man smile? I am an old man!’ Klein returned to the Greek village and philosophers he has visited for decades to discover authentic ways of ageing. In his funny and wry account. . . he concludes that old age is a privilege to be savoured, rather than a disease to be cured or a condition to be denied.

Now, all this is, I think, highly relevant to us for a number of reasons.

The first is that, although our own local congregation’s average age has dropped significantly over the past ten years, the truth is that we live in an ageing society and our age profile, indeed the age profile of every organisation in Europe is, overall, going to continue to rise, not to drop. The consequence of this is something we, as a culture, haven’t properly begun to think about although we are now slowly being forced to do so.

Initially, this not a pleasant or easy thing to do because in the first instance it tends to produce in our culture what Berardi calls “a generalized form of dementia senilis: fear of the unknown, xenophobia, loss of historical memory” (e-flux).

Now why he points to fear of the unknown is reasonably obvious but why mention xenophobia, loss of historical memory?

Well, one of the common ways energy has been restored to a society that feels exhausted is via the myth of national renewal which has often been associated with an excessive (and sometimes frankly embarrassing) over-promotion and valuing of youthful strength and energy — just think, for example, of Vladimir Putin’s many attempts to present such a picture by, for example his macho topless pose atop a horse. Nationalism in many forms is very much on the rise across Europe and as we all know this has nearly always brought with it some of the most unpleasant forms of violent and oppressive politics. And Berardi mentions loss of memory because if our culture only values and privileges youth and youthful energy then there are in play no experienced voices which can to help put things into the widest possible perspective which can remind people of the great value, worth and wisdom that emerges into the world when you are forced to slow down, look carefully and consider patiently. But, as Berardi notes,

. . . in a different scenario — one that we should anticipate at the cultural level [which is what I’m seeking to do now] — the process of senilization may open the way to a cultural revolution based on the force of exhaustion, of facing the inevitable with grace, discovering the sensuous slowness of those who do not expect any more from life than wisdom — the wisdom of those who have seen a great deal without forgetting, who look at each thing as if for the first time (e-flux).

This is, in my opinion, a beautiful insight which meshes almost seamlessly with Epicurus’ basic teachings and with the things I am trying to encourage here through the practice of our Epicurean Gatherings, mindfulness meditation and a consideration of thinkers like Thoreau and Henry Bugbee and their practice of “patiency” and “gelasseheit” that I explored with you over Advent and Christmas. (Here's an interesting link to an Open Democracy piece on mindfulness and social activism and here is a link to a video a "School of Life" video about Thoreau).

It also connects with an idea I offered up last summer through a consideration of Boccachio's fourteenth-century humanist vision found in his Decameron. You will remember that he offers us a vision of the small voluntary community acting as a place where people can gather and slow down together with wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability in order to offer ourselves and the world more creative, compassionate and civilising interpretations of the world than those we are currently being offered by reality.

This change of paradigm is surely necessary because we are slowly becoming increasingly aware that we cannot continue living the kind of excessive, profligate, consumerist life we currently do, one that is obsessed with youth, energy, endless accumulation, wealth and unlimited growth.

We know we need to change both our own lives our world and culture and, consequently, many of us feel even more pressured to become, or remain, activists in some way. But one of the odd, almost paradoxical things, about the activist tradition we have inherited is that our activism has, itself, been significantly shaped by two of same obsessions it seeks to challenge, namely youth and energy.

But, over and over again, both in my study and via email I often have conversations with traditional activists — both religious and political — who, as they get older, find themselves utterly burnt out after seemingly getting absolutely nowhere in their campaigns, or at least nowhere significant. The levels of exhaustion and depression are, in my experience, high and getting higher and this plays out in either some kind of “quiet desperation” (in my circles the most usual response) or, alas, even at times in violence and/or suicide. (Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged between 20 and 49).

This is, I realise, potentially a bleak piece of news to bring you — but that is no reason not to face up to it — in fact, unless we collectively face up to it we won’t have any proper and positive way to change the picture and find new, more sustainable, effective and joyous and satisfying ways of being “activists” (or whatever the new word must be) in an ageing culture in which we are all feeling increasingly exhausted by it all.

Berardi is of the opinion, and I'm coming to agree with him, that under these conditions we

 . . . should abandon the mode of activism, and adopt a passive mode. A radical passivity would dispel the ethos of relentless productivity that neoliberal politics has imposed. The mother of all the bubbles, the bubble of work, would finally deflate. We have been working too much over the past three or four centuries, and outrageously too much over the last thirty years. If a creative consciousness of exhaustion could arise, the current depression may mark the beginning of a massive abandonment of competition, consumerist drive, and dependence on work (e-flux).

I realise that this will strike many of you here as hopelessly idealistic, if not simply impossible. This will be especially true if you find yourself (as I know many of you do) in situations where doing more and more work is the only way to survive at the moment. This is felt even more powerfully if you find yourself doing the lowest paid jobs on a zero hour contract.

I am not denying this reality but the truth is each of us can begin to play a part in giving birth to “a creative consciousness of exhaustion that, to repeat Berardi’s words we heard earlier, might just help us face the inevitable with grace and discover the sensuous slowness of those who do not expect any more from life than wisdom — the wisdom of those who have seen a great deal without forgetting, and who look at each thing as if for the first time.

We know there needs to be a revolution in our culture’s way of being in the world and Berardi’s suggestion could be a very effective, new form of non-violent civil disobedience and “activism” that might help to bring this about. In connection with all this it’s worth remembering that, as Tolstoy once wrote “There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one: the regeneration of the inner man. " He then asks, "How is this revolution to take place?" He replies:

"Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself” (On Anarchy, 1900).

I think this is true, we do need to change ourselves first — and I include myself in this call to slow down and discover something of this sensuous slowness. Only a non-violent revolution like this will help bring to pass for everyone Daniel Klein's hope that old age (in ourselves and our culture) will come to be seen and felt as a privilege to be savoured rather than a disease to be cured or a condition to be denied.

So, to conclude, I’m being entirely serious when today I suggest to you that, as individuals and as a religious community, we might be able to do nothing better to help our world as new kinds of “activists” than becoming more and more like Chuang Tzu’s highly inactive, big, useless tree.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Spring in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Sometimes it goes that way, suddenly a couple of free hours wonderfully show up in the day. Well, today it happened to Susanna and me. Ministerial and familial duties done we took ourselves off to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden to enjoy each other's company, the sun and the spring blossom. Tomorrow's address has an Epicurean related theme and, as many of you will know Epicurus taught in his famous garden so it seemed highly appropriate to make our way to the Botanic Garden. The address itself really centres on the need for us to resist the obsession with ceaselessness activity and endless growth so a little downtime was for me the perfect way to put my own "amen" to this piece of writing.

And now, for your delectation — and as an encouragement to you all to relax and enjoy the beauty of spring and life itself — here are a few photos I took as we wandered slowly round the garden. They were made using Hipstamatic's Tintype app.
My portrait of Susanna
Susanna's portrait of me