Thursday, 5 May 2016

An Ascension Day post on the democratisation of heaven—a religious and secular interpretation

In connection with Ascension Day last year I gave the following address: “Tribunus plebis from first to last” — an Ascension Sunday meditation on the democratisation of Heaven

Naturally, it was directed to the audience who attend the Memorial (Unitarian) Church in Cambridge where I am the minister. However, in my addresses I often try to pick up on themes and subjects that have genuine relevance in the wider world and, in this sense, a lot of what I say is also directed to a secular audience and this is why a slightly re-written version of my address has just appeared at The Culture Matters website. If you fancy reading something about the Ascension on the day itself you can find that version here:

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

A couple of thought provoking "posters" from Wolfgang Tillmans encouraging people to vote REMAIN

A couple of thought provoking "posters" from  the excellent Wolfgang Tillmans encouraging people to vote REMAIN in the upcoming EU Referendum. More of them are available at the link below:




Delivery from Slavery: Attempting a Biblical Theology in the Service of Liberation—Dick Boer

As many of you will know I value highly the thought of Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), a German Marxist who fully understood the potential revolutionary power of the Biblical text. Leftist thinkers like Bloch are all too rare so I was delighted and intrigued when a couple of weeks ago a comrade of mine kindly pointed me in the direction of the soon to be published paperback version of an English translation of a book by a Dutch pastor, Dick Boer (b. 1939), who, in 1984, was called to be a minister in the Dutch Ecumenical Congregation in the DDR (Niederländische Ökumenische Gemeinde in der DDR) where he remained until after the fall of the wall and the end of the DDR.

The book concerned (the link here is to the hardback edition) is called Delivery from Slavery: Attempting a Biblical Theology in the Service of Liberation (Brill and Haymarket, forthcoming October 2016)

The new foreword was written by Roland Boer and, should you be intrigued, you can read that at the following link:


You can also read a closely related piece by Roland Boer online at the Political Theology Today forum for interdisciplinary and inter-religious dialogue:



Monday, 2 May 2016

Sabbatical Reading and some thanks to you all

Today is the first day of my sabbatical and I won't be returning to explicitly church related work until Sunday 4th September. However, a sabbatical is (or at least should) always be connected in some way with one's work and that's certainly how I see it. It seems worth publishing this post to give members of the congregation (and other regular readers) some idea of what I'll be up to during the next four months. I won't just be resting, walking and cycling — though I hope there will be a good deal of that too!

In my Sunday addresses since my last sabbatical I've tended to concentrate particularly upon what I see as the need to cure ourselves of the metaphysical illness that our culture silently bequeathes us —  the almost pathological desire to discover some assured foundations, especially of the kind that we have labelled as "God". But the foundationalist God of monotheism seems to me, as regular readers will know, a very problematic and often highly dangerous idea/belief and, in my opinion, if we are going to keep using the word then I remain convinced it has to be used in a very weak ways indeed ("weak" in the way Gianni Vattimo articulates it). It is worth saying that this essay of Vattimo's was hugely influential on my own thinking.

Anyway, listening to my congregation (whose support, encouragement and appropriately made criticism I value highly), it seems to me clear that I need now (and indeed can now) shift the emphasis to an exploration of morality/ethics.

To this end in the next four months I'm planning carefully to revisit the work of two authors whose ethics have struck me over the last eight years not only as worthy of the most serious consideration but, in my case, adoption.

The first is Simon Critchley and especially his Infinitely Demanding. Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (Verso, 2007) and The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology (Verso, 2012).

The second is an author whose work was introduced to me by reading Critchley, Knud Ejler Løgstrup.  I want to re-read Løgstrup's The Ethical Demand (Notre Dame Press, 1997) and read for the first time a series of his own later ethical essays, Beyond the Ethical Demand (Notre Dame Press, 2007) and the two volume set called Metaphysics (Marquette University Press).

Lastly — but connected intimately with the above — I'm going to be working carefully through the wonderful recent scholarly edition of the Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley published by Oxford University Press. I came across Winstanley via Christopher Hill's work when I was studying for my "O" levels and we did a project on the English Revolution — it was love at first sight. Many years later in my 30s whilst studying theology at Oxford I finally got access to photocopies of Winstanley's original publications and, over the years, I have slowly made my way through some of them. Now I have both the time and inclination to finish that pleasurable task. Winstanley's work connects with Critchley's and Løgstrup's because he was a man highly alert to the ethical demand and he had an understanding of God that is very this worldly and naturalist.

So, I'll be blogging now and then about various things and I hope you all have a good and fruitful summer.

Thank you once again for taking the time to read this blog and, in various ways, join in the conversation.

Warmest wishes to you all.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

In search of lost cheekiness: Cynicism, kynicism, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Osses and the Rebel Clown Army

Diogenes of Sinope
Readings: Ecclesiastes 8:14-15

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

Some Anecdotes of Diogenes of Sinope (fourth century BC)

Seeing a child drinking from his hands, Diogenes threw away his cup and remarked, “A child has beaten me in plainness of living.” 

To Plato’s definition of a man as an animal, bipedal and featherless, Diogenes plucked a chicken and declared, “Here is Plato’s man.”

Alexander the Great was reported to have said, “Had I not been Alexander, I should have liked to be Diogenes” and, once, while Diogenes was sunning himself, Alexander came up to him and offered to grant him any request. “Stand out of my light,” he replied.

When asked why he went about with a lamp in broad daylight, Diogenes confessed, “I am looking for a [honest] man.” 

Why do people give to beggars, he was asked, but not to philosophers? “Because they think they may one day be lame or blind, but never expect that they will turn to philosophy.” 

To a young man who complained that he was ill suited to study philosophy, Diogenes said “Why then do you live, if you do not care to live well?” 

Of grammarians, he was astonished that they desire to learn everything about the misfortunes of Odysseus but nothing about their own. 

Of mathematicians, that they keep their eyes on the heavens and overlook what is at their feet. 

Of orators, that they speak of justice but never practice it. 

When asked why he alone praised an indifferent harp player, Diogenes replied “because he plays the harp and does not steal.”

When asked what wine he found most pleasant to drink, Diogenes replied, “That for which other people pay.” 

Once, eating some dried figs, he offered some to Plato, which prompted Diogenes to remonstrate “I said that you might have a share of them, not that you might eat them all.” 

Once when Diogenes was in a crowd of people, a certain youth farted. Diogenes poked him with his staff and said, ‘And so, vile wretch, though you have done nothing that would give you the right to take such liberties in public, are you beginning here and now to show your scorn of opinion?’” 

As to when was the proper time to eat, he replied that for the rich, whenever one pleases; for the poor, whenever one can. 

Asked why he begged in front of a statue, Diogenes replied that he did so to get used to being refused. 

Reproached for masturbating in public, he lamented only that he wished it were as easy to relieve hunger by rubbing one’s stomach. 

Criticized for drinking in a tavern, he said that he also had his hair cut in a barber’s shop.

Seeing a bad archer, he sat down beside the target so get out of harm’s way. 

Asked why he anointed his feet with scent, he replied that he then would be able to smell it; if on his head, it only would pass into the air above him.

To someone who declared life to be an evil, he corrected him, “Not life itself, but living ill.” 

When asked from where he came, Diogenes said, “I am a citizen of the world” (cosmopolitan). 

And, lastly, when someone was queried as to what sort of man Diogenes was, the reply was given, “A Socrates gone mad.”


Alan Lomax's film about the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss festival — Oss Oss Wee Oss! (1953)


The Address:
In search of lost cheekiness: Cynicism, kynicism, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Osses  and the Rebel Clown Army

A few weeks ago, when I noticed that the last Sunday before my sabbatical fell on May 1st, I had the thought that I might incorporate into the address something about the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Osses and the town’s famous May Day Festival. However, when I came to sketch out some initial ideas, I could not find a theologically/philosophically relevant enough strand that would warrant introducing it to you on a Sunday. That was until last week when I read an article in the Guardian by my namesake, Andrew Brown, connected with the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” (FSM) and His Noodly Appendage.

The FSM was introduced to the world in 2005 by Bobby Henderson, then an unemployed physics graduate from Oregon, who wrote a satirical open letter to protest against the Kansas State Board of Education’s decision to permit teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. In his letter Henderson satirized creationism by professing his own belief that whenever a scientist carbon-dates an object, a supernatural creator that closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage. Henderson concluded his letter by saying:

“I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.”

After Henderson published the letter on his website along with a delightful, crudely drawn picture of the deity “creating a mountain, trees and a midgit [sic]”, the FSM went viral and quickly became a symbol of opposition to the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

To accompany this fictional, satirical deity a fictional, satirical “religion” has also sprung up called “the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Pastafarianism (a mix of pasta and Rastafarian)”.

So far, so satirical, but I confess to being surprised to learn that Pastafarianism has been legally recognized as a religion in Poland, the Netherlands and in New Zealand – where where the first legally recognized Rastafarian wedding was performed just last month.

Despite these examples, also just last month, a Federal Judge in the US state of Nebraska ruled that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not a real religion. The decision came about after a prisoner requested special dispensation to practise his Rastafarian religion by being given permission to wear certain, special, religiously required clothing, a pirate costume, possibly a colander (for draining spaghetti) on his head and regularly taking “communion” consisting of “a large portion of spaghetti and meatballs”. The judge’s ruling reads, in part, that:

“This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension. The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement. To read it as religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a 'religious exercise' on any other work of fiction. A prisoner could just as easily read the works of Vonnegut or Heinlein and claim it as his holy book, and demand accommodation of Bokononism or the Church of All Worlds.
Of course, there are those who contend — and [the prisoner] Cavanaugh is probably among them — that the Bible or the Koran are just as fictional as those books. It is not always an easy line to draw. But there must be a line beyond which a practice is not 'religious' simply because a plaintiff labels it as such. The Court concludes that FSMism is on the far side of that line” (Source: https://www.scribd.com/doc/308299698/Cavanaugh-v-Bartelt).

I imagine that most of us here would not only be supporters of Henderson’s marvellously inventive and very funny fictional deity but also of the Nebraskan judge’s decision to draw the line where he has and not to allow Pastafarianism to be accepted, in law, as a religion. Surely, common sense makes it clear that the judge is right?

But my namesake in the Guardian last week rightly points out that “the case of Pastafarianism does raise the question of what makes a religion religious” and Brown begins by pointing out that, although we may like to think we can appeal to common sense, it, in fact,

“. . . turns out to have quite strict limits. Almost everything that modern science tells us is intuitively untrue, and much more interesting than common sense can imagine. If the defence of scientific knowledge is that it can be supported by evidence, this too turns out to be more complicated and much less secure than seemed obvious 150 years ago. The things that we take for granted – democracy, equality, human rights, and so on – turn out to be very easy to deny, in theory, as well as in practice, and impossible to justify except by their fruits. They are just as vulnerable to the charge of absurdity as most religions are” (Source: The Guardian).

In the end, Brown is forced to conclude (as do I), that

“It’s not theology but ritual that makes a religion, and the strongest rituals are those performed without any clear idea of what they mean. The real future for Pastafarianism is not to be found in Nebraska, but in New Zealand, where a couple have just got married in the first Pastafarian ceremony. Weddings, however frivolously entered into, do end up meaning something, but the meaning is not in the vows. It emerges, for good or ill, out of the subsequent marriage” (Source: The Guardian).

It is Brown’s point that “the strongest rituals are those performed without any clear idea of what they mean” which took me back to the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Osses which seem to many people to have embedded within it some real religious meaning.

For many, many years the Padstow festival was simply assumed by participants, antiquarians and scholars alike to be continuous with some form of pre-Christian pagan religion but, as we have entered into the twenty-first century and continued to carry out extensive historical, archeological, sociological and anthropological research, it has become increasingly clear that we have no idea about the theological origins of the celebrations in Padstow and, although there is documentary evidence of May Day celebrations in the 16th century, the earliest mention of the Obby ‘Oss at Padstow dates only from 1803. So if it is today a religious event — it’s certainly a strong ritual — we can’t root it in any ancient theological beliefs.

So let's return to Brown’s point that “It’s not theology but ritual that makes a religion, and the strongest rituals are those performed without any clear idea of what they mean.”

This, Brown thinks, is becoming true of Pastafarianism and it is clearly true of the Padstow festival, the meaning of which today is to be found, not in ancient belief or theology, but in the complex totality of doing of the rite; of drinking, dancing and singing with one’s neighbours and friends and, without any cynicism, irony or distance, truly singing together:

“Unite and unite and let us all unite,
For summer is acome unto day,
And whither we are going we will all unite,
In the merry morning of May.”

It seems to me that key here is the phrase I have just used, “drinking, dancing and singing with one’s neighbours and friends  . . . without any cynicism, irony or distance”.

According to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, “Cynicism is enlightened false consciousness” (Sloterdijk, Peter: Critique of Cynical Reason, translation by Michael Eldred, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 5) and for him a cynic (be aware that cynicism is here spelt with letter “c”) is someone, who is part of a social group or institution whose existence and values that same person no longer feels are truly grounded and trustworthy because the process of Enlightenment has shown them that their existence and values are not absolute, necessary and unconditional. Sloterdijk points out that many such people (most?) are miserable because they are now forced to stick to principles in which they do not truly believe. The only thing left for a cynic is their trust in reason but, alas, this cannot provide them with a truly firm basis for committed action, and this is yet another reason for being miserable.

(Although I have read Sloterdijk's book I'm indebted here to the excellent critical overview of the book's contents by Stefan Lorenz Sorgner found at the following link http://www.tabvlarasa.de/20/sorgner.php which helped me both to refresh my memory and which offered me a number of helpful new insights.)

Now a problem for someone like me, and almost certainly for many others in Western European cultures (and perhaps you, too?), is that my whole education within our Enlightenment tradition has done a pretty good job at giving me a false consciousness of enlightenment and making me a (letter “c”) cynic. So, for example, I almost cannot but help look at, not only at the FSM and the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Osses, but also my own inherited Christian religion and most other extant axial and post-axial religions, and see in them all only fiction and this means that, from them, I am truly distanced and this distance can, of course, at times, make me very miserable.

Although the skeptical side of all this is vitally important and goes a long way to help stop someone like me from being drawn into adopting spurious ideas and beliefs it is also true that it also threatens to stop me from engaging joyously and fully with things such as the liberating lunacy expressed by those who promote the FSM to protect the teaching of good science in our schools and who want to get married according to it’s rites, with those who, once a year, throw themselves fully into the wonderfully social madness of the Padstow festivities.

In saying all this neither I nor Sloterdijk are seeking to attack the Enlightenment — its real gains are way too valuable to lose — but it is to realise the need to critique the state of false consciousness which all too easily follows on from enlightenment and which so often results in the development of “cynical reason”.

Fortunately Sloterdijk sees that there is a different, more positive, potentially freeing and life-affirming way of being a cynic, one which recovers in some fashion the older kynicism (now spelt with a “k”) that we find in the wonderfully provocative figure of Diogenes of Sinope (412 or 404 BCE-323 BCE) some anecdotes about whom you heard in our readings. It should be clear from them, as Sloterdijk points out in his very influential book “Critique of Cynical Reason” published in 1983:

“Ancient Kynicism, at least in its Greek origins, is in principle cheeky . . . In kynismos a kind of argumentation was discovered that, to the present day, respectable thinking does not know how to deal with” (p. 101).

Commenting on Sloterdijk’s book, Stefan Lorenz Sorgner, points out that just like cynicism

“. . . kynicism is a realist position one which rejects idealism, absolutes, and unconditional truths, however, in contrast to Cynicism, which makes people miserable because cynics are still part of higher orders in which they themselves do not believe any longer, the kynics are happy, cheerful, and cheeky and kynics do not belong to hierarchically ordered systems or normal social institutions” (Source: http://www.tabvlarasa.de/20/sorgner.php)

Sloterdijk thinks that there are three sites where this cheeky, joyously subversive kynicism is still, at times, practised: the carnival, the universities, and in Bohemian circles (p. 117). I’d also add that I see it exist in certain non-violent protest groups such as the wonderful “Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army” who dress in military-style camouflage clothes with clown faces, brightly coloured trimmings and badges and whose “weapons” are generally limited to feather dusters although, I’ll admit, some push the boundaries by carrying water pistols. It’s the only army I’d be prepared to join!

Anyway, in the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss festival we are clearly in the circle of carnival; in the religion of the FSM we are clearly in the university, or at least in the circle of formal learning.

But what about Bohemian circles?  There are many of them, particularly to be found in the arts but, today, speaking as much as a jazz musician as a minister in an Enlightenment inspired religious tradition that values reason highly, I would like to think that here we are also creating a kind of Bohemian circle which is able to develop, not its cynical reason but, instead, its kynical reason and, with the cheeky, noodly help of fictions such as the FSM, is able fully to throw itself into, not only the necessary critical joy of laughing at the absurdities of so much religion, but also, now and then, fully to throw itself into the embodied joy of religious carnivals that are not trapped by the always dangerous need to offer the world any absolutizing theological beliefs.

So, on this happy note of rebellious freedom, my last act before going on my sabbatical is to wish you all a Happy May Day:

Unite and unite and let us all unite,
For summer is acome unto day,
And whither we are going we will all unite,
In the merry morning of May.

‘Oss, ‘Oss, Wee ‘Oss! 

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Celebrating Hoagy live in Leicester

Last night we took the Hoagy Carmichael show over to Leicester and the Attenborough Arts Centre. A good time was had by all.

During the interval, a chap called Pete Bunney came up to us and kindly gave us a couple of sketches he made during the first set. We enjoyed seeing ourselves transformed in cartoon-like musicians and I thought some of you out there might enjoy them too . . .



Sunday, 24 April 2016

Jubilant Utilitarianism—Elective Ethics and the Republic of Heaven

Readings: Two readings concerned with "the peaceable kingdom" from Isaiah 2:4 and 11:6-9

From “A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist” by Michel Onfray (Columbia University Press, 2015, pp. 48-49):

Against godly morality, inasmuch as it is inaccessible for humans, I propose an aristocratic and elective ethics. Do not aim for sainthood, but wisdom. Instead of the false bijection of the triangular Christian relationship, I argue for a geometry of ethical circles, all of which share a central focal point: the Self. Each one is the centre of its own system and organizes others around it, concentrically, according to whether or not there are reasons to keep others near. There is no definitive place, every position in this space is decided by what is said, done, shown, proven, and given as signs of the relationship’s quality. There is no such thing as Friendship, but only proofs of friendship: no Love, but only proofs of love; no Hate, but only proofs of hate; and so on. Deeds and gestures compose an arithmetic that allows us to deduce the nature of a relationship: friendship, love tenderness, and camaraderie or the inverse . . . 

There are two simple movements: election and eviction; centripetal force and centrifugal force; drawing something closer to oneself or casting something off to the margins. An ethics based on these movements is dynamic, unceasing, ever moving, always in relation to the actions of others. Therefore, the other is accountable for his engagements and responsible for his place in my ethical schema. From a hedonist perspective, desiring the other’s pleasure is what activates their movement toward you; wanting their unhappiness activates the opposite movement.

Thus, ethics is less a matter of theory than of practice. The cardinal rule of the game could be called jubilant utilitarianism. Action — including thoughts, promises, and deeds— animates the dynamic. Platonic friendship does not exist, only its incarnations. Proofs of friendship bring people together, and expressions of enmity push people apart. The same goes for what we call the salt of existence: love, affection, tenderness, sweetness, thoughtfulness, delicateness, forbearance, magnanimity, politeness, amenity, kindness, civility, attentiveness, attention, courtesy, clemency, devotedness, and all the words carrying a connotation of goodness. These virtues forge connections; their failure loosens those bonds; and their total breach leads to severed relations. 

—o0o—

From time to time some of you may wonder what practical reason I have that makes me so keen to encourage folk to leave behind belief in a traditional monotheistic God and to adopt other ways of speaking of the divine and sacred and of using that, oh so tricky work, “God”. Well, today, I hope that, in a small way, I may help you to see why.

I realise that my concern with this matter can look a bit odd in a tradition such as our own which has slowly come to realise that having, so-called, “true beliefs” about God is not the most important thing in religion, rather what truly counts is right behaviour and action. As I often say, we are here more concerned with orthopraxy (right practice) rather than orthodoxy (right belief). After all, this is why we have on our order of service each week and on our major noticeboard the words "We need not think alike to love alike".

So, once again, why my concern with theology and beliefs about God? Well it is not so much driven by the desire to gain assuredly true beliefs about him/her/it, rather it is to try and ensure that I, you, we, avoid what seem to be ideas about God that continue to strike many of us cutting against the possibility that the words "We need not think (or believe) alike to love alike" might be actually enacted.

In my opinion — which, as always, I realise may not be yours — one of the most problematic and dangerous problems with monotheism is that “how things are” and “what things matter” are indissolubly tied together from the beginning. The monotheistic God creates the world AND AT THE SAME TIME decides for all time what is to be the good, the true and the beautiful. In other words, to quote Michel Onfray, “As long as God is in charge, morality is a subsection of theology” (Hedonist Manifesto p. 37). We need to separate these things.

And if we truly desire to develop a true morality, i.e. one which genuinely helps us freely to work through the moral issues ourselves and take real responsibility for our actions, then we really cannot continue to allow God dominate and force morality upon us from the beginning to the very end via some eternal, irresistible force or diktat. That’s not freedom, that’s not true moral living, it’s little better than a absolute, divine, kingly dictatorship.

We need, again in my opinion, definitively to break the connection between God and morality and between how things are and what things matter.

This is the very practical reason why I’m so concerned about using theological thinking, to be quite frank about, affect a palace revolution and remove God from the throne of heaven and put in place something akin to what the author Philip Pullman in his wonderful “His Dark Materials” trilogy called, “the republic of heaven.” (You can read one of Pullman's pieces in "The Republic of Heaven" at this link.)

As the humanist, Quaker and former head of current affairs, arts and religion at Granada Television, David Boulton, wrote in the Guardian back in 2003, there is a strong connection here between Pullman’s vision and that held by one of my own great heroes, the seventeenth-century Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, whom I cited a couple of weeks ago in my open letter to David Cameron which you heard from this lectern. Boulton says:

“What the visions of Winstanley and Pullman have in common is the realisation that kingship is dead. Whether we chop off their heads or relegate our monarchs to figurehead status, in the modern democratic world we consider ourselves not subjects but free citizens. And where does that leave the king of kings and lord of lords? Having discarded the divine right of kings, what do we do with the kingship of the divinity?
          “Get rid of that too, said Winstanley, aiming to dispatch not only temporal kingly power but also the throne of God himself. “In the beginning . . . the great creator, Reason, made the earth to be a common treasury.” If earthly kingship was obsolete, how much more so was its divine original? What could it mean to persist in imagining God in the feudal terms of kingship, lordship, as He Who Must Be Obeyed?
          “No king, no kingdom. So the kingdom of heaven becomes a republic, where the public is king — where we have to take responsibility for creating a better world, “as it is in heaven”, instead of leaving it all to the Authority” (Source: The Guardian).

Amen! to that say I.

Anyway, as the contemporary French philosopher Michel Onfray provocatively reminds us, when the monotheistic God remains in charge:

“Ethics can’t pretend to have autonomy. It falls from the sky, descending from the intelligible universe. In this paradigm, morality does not come from a contract with the immanent; it comes from some epiphany, from an apparition. God talks; men listen; then they obey. Just in case his connection to men is hard to understand, since God is not always available, the clergy is there twenty-four hours a day. Ask the priest, the bishop, the cardinal, he’ll tell you. Theology, the pseudoscience of the divine, more accurately the science of rendering people subservient to the fiction of God” (Hedonist Manifesto pp. 37-38).

But once we have removed God (or the fiction of God) from the throne of heaven (which, please note, is not to say that the phenomena we are minded to call the divine and the sacred are also to be removed), we can allow morality freely to develop as a truly human realm, one genuinely emerging from and grounded in the realities of this, our awe-inspiring, natural world.

But if morality is not something permanently given from the start by God but some natural, emergent, developing and dynamic human realm, how can it help us live something we might meaningfully call a good, moral life?

Well, in our reading, you heard three paragraphs from Michel Onfray’s very recent book “A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist” in which he notes, first of all, that getting rid of the monotheistic God allows us, in the first instance, to aim for wisdom rather than sainthood.

My pastoral experience says to me that wisdom is a jolly good and healthy thing to aim for and I cannot tell you how many people I have spoken with over the years who seem bent on destroying themselves by chasing after sainthood rather than wisdom. Time and time again I hear from them stories about how they are turning themselves inside out because of their perceived failure to match up to the insane model of divine sainthood when I, and many others, can often see that they are often quite extraordinarily good friends to many and capable of constantly showing remarkable expressions of love for others. The impossible to achieve platonic, monotheistic model of the perfectly good friend, of perfectly good love, can be let go in the republic of heaven and replaced with the task of creating tangible and achievable human proofs of friendship and of love.

As Onfray is keen to point out this means that “ethics is less a matter of theory than of practice”—here we may properly return to the phrase "We need not think (or believe) alike to love alike" because, to my mind, we can only truly mean and live this out once we have deposed God and abolished the Kingdom of Heaven and put in place a Republic of Heaven. 

We don’t need to be the perfect platonic, saintly friend, we need only incarnate friendship as best we can in this or that situation and it is these proofs of our friendship and love that brings us together; it is their absence that push us apart.

As I hope you can see this is to make human morality a matter of two simple, basic movements: “election and eviction; centripetal force and centrifugal force; drawing something closer to oneself or casting something off to the margins.”

In the republic of heaven it seems to me that a key aspect of our moral duty is constantly to note and respond to these movements and to find ways to encourage as much election and centripetal force as is possible amongst the incredible diversity of human being in order to keep the salt of existence salty. To remind you, the salt of existence includes: love, affection, tenderness, sweetness, thoughtfulness, delicateness, forbearance, magnanimity, politeness, amenity, kindness, civility, attentiveness, attention, courtesy, clemency, devotedness, and all the words carrying a connection of goodness.”

When these virtues are alive in a practice of “jubilant utilitarianism” we know that they “forge connections” and encourage election and centripetal force between people; when they fail eviction and centrifugal force follow; when they are totally breached relations are, of course, severed.

It is important to see that, in the republic of heaven, for such a “jubilant utilitarianism” to get going we must train ourselves and others to be certain kinds of truly free and responsible citizens, to become people who keep their promises, who don’t constantly change their opinions, who don’t have selective and self-interested memory, who don’t engage in tortuous and spurious ways to legitimise their about-faces, who do what they say they will and who don’t continually do the opposite of their pronouncements.

In the republic of heaven we cannot make contracts with the kind of citizen who doesn’t behave in this fashion because their behaviour simply does not encourage genuine election and the creation of centripetal force but the opposite. Once we have detected such citizens, we have, or so it seems to me, a clear right and duty to ensure such people do not come dominate the overall life of our society.

To be sure, in the republic of heaven, we will still have a real and pressing pastoral, moral duty towards such problematic citizens, but we can be confident (enough) strongly to reject their behaviours as bad and destructive and, with kindness, civility, love and clemency, find appropriate ways to evict them from holding central and highly influential roles in the dynamic and ever evolving life of the republic.

In the republic of heaven we can make such moral decisions with greater confidence than before because we will always only going to be looking for concrete proofs of friendship and love. Where they are not present the saltiness of life is gone and, as Jesus said, “it is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Jesus’ words on this matter remind me that David Boulton is of the opinion, and I agree with him in this, that:

“This republic is not, after all, so different from the kingdom. But it is a realm where authority is democratised, so that what were once seen as the king’s [i.e. God’s] responsibilities become our own. The republic imports much from the kingdom; it takes in Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom, Jesus’s world, where all tears are wiped away, and Blake’s Jerusalem.
“What it will not import is unquestioning obedience and uncritical subjection to a divine lord and king, for lordship and kingship belong to the past” (Source: The Guardian).

But, if we want this real morality, this real ethics then, my friends, we have no choice but properly do the revolutionary theology that will finally overthrow the old God of monotheism. If we don’t do this then, be assured, God will always be waiting in the wings with his cohort of religious professionals ready to seize back power for those who do believe that we must believe and think alike to love alike. That is a nasty and brutish world as our dark religious history so eloquently reveals.

So today, I ask you to stand firmly on the side of the Republic of Heaven.

Long live the Republic!