Sunday, 24 May 2015

Pentecost —The democratic state as a descendent of the Free Church of the Spirit

Readings: Acts 2:1-21

Our responsibility in Society (The Essential JLA, Skinner House Books, 1998, pp. 163-164)
by James Luther Adams

We of the Free Church tradition should never forget, or permit our contemporaries to forget, that the decisive resistance to authoritarianism in both church and state, and the beginning of modern democracy, appeared first in the church and not in the political order. The churches of the left wing of the Reformation held that the churches of the right wing had effected only half a reformation. They gave to Pentecost a new and extended meaning. They demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church. The new church was to make way for a radical laity – that is, for the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers. “The Spirit blows where it lists.”
          Out of this rediscovery of the doctrine of the Spirit came the principles of Independency: local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state. Power and responsibility were to be dispersed. In a fashion not unlike that of the primitive church, the doctrine of the Spirit became the sanction for a new kind of social organization and of social responsibility. A new church was born, and with it a new age.
          Once released, the new spirit poured forth into all areas of society. It could not be kept within the bounds of church life. First it was carried over into the sphere of the state. The Independents began to say, ‘If we are responsible to God for the kind of church we have, we are also responsible for the kind of state we have. If it is wrong to be coerced by church authorities, it is wrong to be dominated by political authorities. As children of God, we ought to have a greater share of power and responsibility in the state as well as the church.” By analogy the conception of the new church in a new age was extended to include the demand for a democratic state and society. Thus the democratic state is in part the descendent of the Church of the Spirit.



There is a well-known story that I first heard in educational circles about a sailing ship setting-off for a long voyage to a distant, promised land. The crew begin the journey with passion, clarity and purpose and undertake all their tasks in this light whether they are coiling ropes, setting sails or cleaning decks. However, after many, many months at sea slowly they begin to forget their beginnings and, without them fully noticing it, their tasks become increasingly detached from the initial, enabling passion, clarity and purpose and the crew begin only to coil ropes, set sails and clean decks and emptiness, listlessness and dissatisfaction begins to set in; in a word, “ennui”.

I have noticed that, whenever this story is told, most people believe that the solution to this problem is to be found simply by somehow restoring the original conditions of the voyage. If this can be done, so the argument goes, then the meaning of and passion for their present tasks will suddenly be restored, all will be well and, re-energised, and the journey can proceed as before. But this reading fails to take into account the fact that the present state of the journey, with all it’s ennui is, in fact, a fruit of the same original conditions.

It is important to see that it is impossible to restore to the crew the initial conditions that obtained at the start of their voyage because, thanks to the experiences of the journey, they are now very different people from those who originally set-off. Additionally, they are now, quite literally, in a different place and time.

Consequently, the matter of how to restore meaning and passion to the current crew is, therefore, more complicated than it first appears because the only thing that might be capable of restoration is something about their faith in the original promise even though, right at this moment, the current fruit of that promise — their ennui and lack of passion, clarity and purpose — tastes to them bitter and bad.

Let’s now translate all this into the story of Pentecost as we have understood it in the Free Church tradition.

The strange account of the giving of the Spirit is the mythical story of the initiating moment when we were gifted with our initial passion, clarity and purpose which, in turn, sent us out into the world to proclaim a new message of hope: namely, the promise that the Spirit of God, which would bring with it the new, fulfilled and free life of which Jesus spoke, would be poured out on all flesh. This Spirit, it is important to understand, was primarily a community-making power which the early Christians spoke about as “living in Christ”.

But Christian community can be made in all kinds of ways and “at different times Christians have demanded the rule of the free-Spirit of God (pneumatocracy), theocracy, absolute monarchy, sectarian communism, constitutional democracy and democratic religious socialism” (The Essential JLA p. 161).

Our own, Free Church conception, centred on the words of Joel cited by the author of Acts: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh”.  

Not least of all this was because by the sixteenth-century we felt that this promise had been utterly stymied by the monolithic, medieval institution that Christianity had become. As some wit later said, Jesus may have promised us the kingdom of Heaven but what we got was the Church, and the Church most certainly did not want the community-forming power of the Holy Spirit to be shared openly and freely by all.

But, as James Luther Adams reminds us, during the Radical Reformation, along with many other small, independent communities, we were inspired to re-kindle the Spirit so it could continue to spread truly into all flesh. We “demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church.” For us the “new church was to make way for a radical laity – that is, for “the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers.”

As the centuries continued to unfold the Spirit re-kindled by churches on the left-wing of the Reformation was, indeed, poured out upon more and more people and not just in churches. However, it is important to realise that in this process the Pentecostal flame that was passed from person to person was not in the form of literal tongues of fire but rather in the form of the tongues of men and women who, in an increasingly conversational, democratic spirit began to create what became our modern, secular democracies. As Adams says, “Thus the democratic state is in part the descendent of the Church of the Spirit” (ibid. p.164).

(As I gave the address, in connection with the previous thought, I noted that people may be interested in exploring Simon Critchley's recent book "Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology" A review of the book for the LSE can be read at this link.)

But, as this democratic fruit of the Spirit matured, it began to acquire a hitherto fore unfamiliar taste. The new “taste” that emerged was the important recognition that every illuminating vocabulary (including our own Christian derived one) is only contingently useful — i.e. useful “here” in such and such conditions but not necessarily “there” in such and such conditions.

And so, today, each of us knows deep in our bones that had we been born, say, in Saudia Arabia, India or Soviet Russia rather than in Western Europe or North America, our basic, illuminating vocabulary would, in all likelihood, not be Christian but Islamic, Hindu, or Atheistic.

And so an important fruit of the Spirit’s recent movement among and within us is this powerful recognition that no voice, ideology or belief (not even our own) can any longer dominate the whole in an absolute way — single voices and illuminating vocabularies can only properly play their part when they engage conversationally in the ongoing process of discernment (enlightenment) that is a genuine, pluralist democracy.

But the recognition of such a pluralism as a gift of the Spirit has not been easily received and accepted by many kinds of Christian thinking. Let me tell you of one example of this that happened to me.

I trained for the ministry in Oxford and our college, Harris Manchester College, in addition to being a full college of the University, is also one of the University’s Theological Colleges. This meant we were always invited to contribute to an annual ecumenical service in the University Church. In 1999, as the only full-time Unitarian and Free Christian ministry student that year, I was duly sent along to the preparatory meetings to play my part.

I was asked to contribute a pastoral prayer to follow the singing of Psalm 130 by the monks of Ampleforth Abbey who attended St Benet’s Hall; that psalm begins: “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine” — “From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord.” Given this theme I wrote a prayer which spoke about the darkness we often experience in the lived moment and I concluded with the line: “And so we pray for the wisdom to acknowledge the flame of truth wherever we may find it.”

I read this prayer to the preparatory meeting and, for a few seconds, thought all was well until one of the representatives from Wycliffe Hall began to speak. Some of you will know that in 2007 that this notoriously conservative Anglican theological college was finally “placed on notice that it must improve its academic standards and not succumb to narrow conservative evangelicalism if it [was] to remain part of Oxford University.” The university told it that “it must maintain the values of a liberal education and will be monitored to ensure it does.” 

Well, in this unmonitored room, Wycliffe’s representative insisted that I should tell him exactly where I saw the flame of truth? I replied that I didn’t think it was necessary for me to spell this out because, surely, we would all acknowledge the flame of truth wherever we thought we had found it? He insisted I answer. I refused to accept that it was necessary to provide an answer. This carried on until the hapless convenor also insisted I answered. And so answer I did. I spoke of the flame of truth seen in both men and women, in Christian saints and sages and the saints and sages of other faiths and, if I may be forgiven for putting it this way, in all the humanist and atheist saints and sages. I spoke of the flame of truth found in the Bible and the whole panoply of holy books and secular literature in all human culture. I spoke, too.  of the flame of truth found in the insights and discoveries of the natural and social sciences. The representative from Wycliffe Hall was horrified by all this and threatened to boycott the whole event and then promptly left the meeting. Over the next few days a number of letters were sent to me and my College Principal asking for the prayer to be dropped or significantly altered. It was all very unpleasant.

You will, I hope, be pleased to hear that I did not change my prayer and, in the end, Wycliffe Hall did not boycott the service but I did add the line of Jesus where he is reputed to have said “In my house there are many rooms” (John 14:2). As I left the church at the end of the service the representative from Wycliffe whispered angrily in my ear: “You know full well that’s not what Jesus meant”. Oy vey! 

It was for me a salutary lesson and taught me of the pressing need to keep alive and burning bright the Pentecostal flame that was our Free Church community's first empowering promise — that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh and that this would open our world up to multiple languages, visions and dreams.

James Luther Adams is one of the few people I have read within our own tradition who saw this clearly and who powerfully reminded us that we must accept that Christianity, at least as we in the radical Free Church tradition have been living it for over four-hundred years, has consistently been revealing to us that our world is plural and that the modern, secular democratic state is a descendent of the Church of the Spirit. It’s priesthood and prophethood is one to be shared by all people which, in turn, means that power and responsibility in our society must continue radically to be dispersed among us.

In consequence, Adams thought that our “peculiar responsibility in society” was

“. . . to offer a church in which there is an explicit faith in the community-forming power of God, a practice of the disciplines of liberty, and eliciting of the participation of our own membership in creative fellowship. From such a fellowship, concerned to extend the community in which all persons may be encouraged to make their own contribution, our members can meet their social responsibilities by expressing in the other areas of life — in the state, the family, the school, the voluntary association, and industry — the response to the love that will not let us go” (ibid. p. 174).

If we can begin to feel again “the vocation placed upon us by the promise of old, [that] ’I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh’”, then I have hope that all our activities as members of the crew that is this liberal Free Church community, and as citizens of a secular democracy, whether we be coiling ropes, setting sails or cleaning decks, we will, once again, begin to be filled with a passionate fire that can give our lives direction, meaning, passion and purpose.

Happy Pentecost to you all!

Following the service those who wishes stayed behind for a brief communion service. The liturgy for that can be found at this link.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

“Tribunus plebis from first to last” — an Ascension Sunday meditation on the democratisation of Heaven

Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer by B. Barloccini, 1849
READINGS: Acts 1:6-11

“Tribuni Plebis”, from the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1970 and wikipedia:

Tribunus plebis, rendered in English as tribune of the plebs, tribune of the people, or plebeian tribune, was the first office of the Roman state that was open to the plebeians, and throughout the history of the Republic, the most important check on the power of the Roman senate and magistrates. These tribunes had the power to convene and preside over the Concilium Plebis, or people’s assembly; to summon the senate; to propose legislation; and to intervene on behalf of plebeians in legal matters; but the most significant power of these tribunes was the power to veto the actions of the consuls and other magistrates, thus protecting the interests of the plebeians as a class. The tribunes of the plebs were sacrosanct, meaning that any assault on their person was prohibited by law. In imperial times, the powers of the tribunate were granted to the emperor as a matter of course, and the office itself lost its independence and most of its functions.


Something that’s becoming more and more important to me as I look for an effective way we as a liberal religious community might help our contemporary culture and society to reinterpret and change itself in ways consonant with present secular understanding and knowledge, is to ensure (a la Gianni Vattimo) that we engage, not in a process of overcoming (überwindung) — that is to say attempting to affect change by the wholesale defeat of certain aspects of our former religion — but by finding ways to incorporate, twist or weakening those same aspects of it (verwindung). To sum it up: “Overcoming is worthy only when we think about incorporation” (M. Heidegger: “Overcoming Metaphysics” in the End of Philosophy, trans J. Stambaugh, New York, Harpur and Row, 1973, p. 91).

Next Sunday is Pentecost (Whitsunday) and I’m going to be speaking more about our radical, liberal vision, both where it comes from and what it seeks to achieve but here, in nutshell and in the words of our own great twentieth-century theologian James Luther Adams, we may say that out of our rediscovery during the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation of  “. . . the doctrine of the Spirit came the principles of Independency: [that is to say] local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state” (James Luther Adams: “Our Responsibility in Society” in The Essential JLA ed. George Kimmich Beach, Skinner House Books, 1997).

Knowing this is important because it helps us see how we might usefully incorporate the otherwise frankly very odd and off-putting story of the Ascension into our own contemporary liberal narrative by giving it an interpretation that helps us achieve the aims Adams mentioned.

When understood and depicted in an excessively literal way the Ascension Day account can appear comic in an almost Monty Pythonesque way. I remember well the first time I visited the Anglo-Catholic shrine at Little Walsingham. Unexpectedly I came across a little side-chapel dedicated to the Ascension where, above my head I saw two near life-size feet disappearing into the chapel ceiling.

But understood metaphysically the Ascension is no longer vaguely comic but somewhat disturbing for it speaks of a kind of divine ennoblement from on high which simply removes Jesus from our world. As Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) suggests this is to see Jesus as a “Kyrios/Son of God, a super-Hercules in a super-firmament.” Bloch points out that this picture is “of the dynastic solar variety, with the chariot of the sun-god and the general style assumed by ascending heroes when they quit the earth” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164).

Another common way of thinking metaphysically about it is to understand it as an example of the profoundly problematic doctrine that became known as Docetism. It is derived from the Greek words “dokein” (to seem) and “dókēsis” (an apparition or phantom) and refers to the idea that Jesus only seemed to be a human being and that, in consequence, his physicality — his humanity — was merely an appearance.

In both these cases the problem — for me anyway — is that the whole story of Jesus actual life’s work of teaching and healing the poor, sick and excluded in society and his subsequent death for challenging the coercive and exclusionist power-structures of his own day, becomes something which occurred at no cost to God. God came all-powerfully from on high and after only appearing to be human merely returns, unharmed to on high. Net gain and change to God? Zero, zilch, nada. And, for us? Well, in these interpretations we are reduced to mere spectators of and pawns in a drama, through-scripted by a distant, infinitely perfect, disengaged divine author.

In consequence the Ascension story looks to many liberals like a dangerous piece of ancient mythology that really can’t be salvaged by a process of verwindung and incorporation and, consequently, is one that must be wholly overcome (überwinden). At first sight it is admittedly very hard to see how one might incorporate it meaningfully into our own, contemporary mythology — i.e. the story through which we might ourselves can come to live more fully.

But Bloch has a reading of the the myth that doesn’t proceed by overcoming (überwinden) but, by incorporating, twisting and weakening aspects of it (verwindung). In so doing he opens up for us a way of using the story that is for us creative and helpful.

To get to this interpretation we need to be aware of two things that are important to Bloch when he reads the Christian story. Firstly, he points out again and again that Jesus’ own prefered title was “ben Adam” — Son of Man and that Jesus, himself, never used the title the Son of God. Secondly, Bloch draws our attention to Jesus’ claim that “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30; cf John 17). This claim might make it look like Jesus is really saying he’s the Son of God but everything here hinges on the overall direction in which Bloch thinks this story is heading. Culturally we are used to seeing the direction as being “downwards” from a God “outside” the world travelling towards the human. Bloch, however, turns this upside down and he makes humanity, in the person of the representative Son of Man, head firmly and courageously in the other direction into realms once reserved for God alone. The Ascension story is for Bloch one place where we see this happen. He says:

“The Son of Man not only broke through the myth of the Son of God, but also through that of the throne “at the right hand of the Father”: now a Tribune of the people sits upon that throne, and so revokes it. For all his celestial dignity after the Ascension, Christ is still, even for Paul, the man Adam — indeed Paul is explicit: ‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven’ (1 Corinthians 15:47). And his human character stays with him there: that of a Tribunus plebis from first to last” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164).

Bloch continues:

“The model of ascension here, even if it is still the ascension of Christ that is in question, is no longer the departure of a mighty lord for high places, but is, instead, one of the most striking images of hope — that archetypal anchor pulling us home” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164-165).

The image of an anchor drawing us home Bloch borrows from the author of Hebrews who says “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered” (Hebrews 6:19-20a).

Bloch offers us here an interpretation of the Ascension that transforms the story into one where we bear witness to an extraordinary moment of a revolutionary hope and freedom. The celestial palace, the seat of disinterested unchanging power, has finally been incorporated by us by being taken over for the use of the peoples of the earth with Jesus leading the way as our Tribune. A Tribune, you will recall, was an officer who had been elected by the plebeians of Rome to protect their rights from the arbitrary acts of the patrician magistrates.

Now some of you may now be saying well, OK, but really what’s the point of this reinterpretation? Who really cares? And since, in offering this to us in the way he does he's more or less admitted that he doesn't believe the Ascension story in any literal way, so why can’t he, and we, simply move on and ditch the story entirely?

It’s a tough question that requires a clear answer. We begin to get that when we acknowledge that only someone with their head plunged deep into the sand can fail to see, in the words of Peter Thompson:

“. . . that religion as both debate and way of life has not crumbled in the face of an apparently inexorable rationalist, scientific, modernising Enlightenment and globalisation of the market economy, but retains a potency and strength which remains far in excess of its ability to explain” (Peter Thompson’s introduction to Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. ix).

Whether we like or dislike this fact matters not the least because it would be politically naive, foolish and dangerous not to take this fact of our age into account. So the question is not whether or not we are to deal with our religious inheritance it rather is how are we going to deal with it?

The new atheists and hardcore secular humanists want to tackle religion by a fairly straightforward process of overcoming (überwinden). Of course, many newly active religious believers of all stripes also want to tackle atheism and humanism in the same way. It is this "all or nothing" approach that has given rise to the unfortunate culture wars we are beginning to see all around us in the unedifying spectacle of the often angry bitter and recriminatory debates between atheists and theists in all human spheres of endeavour, science, politics, literature, education etc., etc.. This desire for overcoming (überwinden) also lies behind the growing number of violent religious conflicts of our own age all of which are being encouraged by leaders of both small terror groups and nations who are increasingly committed in strong metaphysical ways. Everything in this sphere is about defeating the perceived “enemy” with a more powerful metaphysics or more powerful tactics of violence. But it is clear that this kind of power play cuts clearly against our own liberal desire for the existence of a plurality of voices within our society and, in consequence, I do not believe we should be supporting, in any shape of form, such tactics.

In my mind this requires us to commit to an ongoing attempt to affect change by finding ways to incorporate, twist or weaken aspects of our inherited religious culture (verwindung). (This is the “weak thought” of Gianni Vattimo — il pensiero debole). It seems to me that only by doing this that will we genuinely achieve the kind of liberal society we desire. Verwindung, verwindung, verwindung should be our public proclamation at every step along the way.

We need to be smart about this because religion is not going away, so let’s take the Ascension story, the story of Pentecost and all the other religious stories we inherit and show how we may reinterpret them in ways that pull us towards local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state.

But to conclude I want to be absolutely clear about something. I’m not just offering you my comments merely in the spirit of political expediency — though I hope my comments are, indeed, politically expedient. No, in the end I offer them because, when it remains open to kind of reinterpretation, transformation, incorporation, twisting and weakening that Bloch and the other thinkers I bring before you engage in, I think there is something about the Christian tradition that can help us move consistently and determinedly towards the conversationally driven democratic, freedoms I have already mentioned. Such a movement is still the closest thing to truth I know.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Benny Rides Again! A Tribute to the King of Swing @ Headhunters Jazz Club, Bury St Edmunds, 15 May 2015, 8pm

Greeting Jazz Fans! I'm playing bass with the wonderful Mark Crooks and Roger Beaujolais in a salute to the King of Swing, Benny Goodman tomorrow, Friday 15th May, at the Headhunters Jazz Club in Bury St Edmunds. Full details in the poster above (just click on it to enlarge).

As this is part of the 2015 Bury Festival tickets are only available via the Festival Box Office on 01284 758000 or online HERE.

If we can squeeze in a few on the night, we’ll let you know. But personally, I wouldn’t risk it.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Philosophy of Walking — A Sea of Faith Meeting, Wednesday 13th, 7.30pm @ the Unitarian Hall, Cambridge

On Monday I talk one of my regular walks across Grantchester Meadows to Grantchester itself for a pint in The Green Man's shady beer garden. As always I took a few photos along the way and post them here for your enjoyment (click on a picture to enlarge it).

As most of you know I consider walking to be the best philosophy and I agree wholeheartedly with Friedrich Nietzsche, who memorably said in The Gay Science:

We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.

With this thought in mind it seems worth noting here that this Wednesday, 13th May, I'll be hosting a Sea of Faith meeting in Cambridge on the subject of "A Philosophy of Walking" 

As always it takes place in the church hall of the Memorial Church, Cambridge and will start promptly at 7.30pm and finish at 9.30pm. 

Here's some of the blurb I wrote for the meeting:

Along with Nietzsche, Henry David Thoreau is, perhaps, one of the most pre-eminent philosophers of walking and those attending the meeting may wish to read his influential essay of 1851 entitled, simply, “Walking.” You may find it, and an introductory essay, by clicking this link.

Recently the French author, Frédéric Gros published a best-selling little book called “A Philosophy of Walking” which explored a variety of ways into this idea and, should you be minded, this is another excellent introduction to the subject. You can read more about this book by clicking this link.

This meeting, following a very brief introduction by the convenor, Andrew Brown, is designed to open up into a conversation in which attenders can bring and share their own stories and experiences of walking and philosophising.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

“It is one thing to dance as though nothing has happened; it is another to acknowledge that something singularly awful has happened . . . and then decide to dance.”

Chief Plenty Coups
Following the British General Election and it’s astonishing and surprising result, probably like most of you, I watched with disbelief the resignation in quick succession of Nigel Farage, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, three moments in which we witnessed the collapse of a person’s individual hopes, dreams and way of life. For each of them the situation may be even more serious in that along with their own personal failure and existential crises there comes  an associated crisis of meaning occurring within the cultures of the parties they led and, it seems, within wider British (and I deliberately stress here the word “British”) liberal-democratic culture.

On Friday I found that, as a liberal religious person, and although not myself a Liberal Democrat, I took very seriously Nick Clegg’s feeling expressed in his resignation speech that, “Fear and grievance have won, liberalism has lost.” Miliband could have added that so, too, had socialism lost.

But whether or not you agree with these conclusions, following the election questions inevitably arise for many of people, about who they are, and how they are to go on?

This general, very human, matter struck me as something that can meaningfully, usefully, and non-party politically, be talked about within our own community on this Sunday following the election.

It sent me back to a very beautiful and poignant book I introduced you to in 2011,  “Radical Hope — Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation” by Jonathan Lear (Harvard University Press, 2008) which “raises a profound ethical question that transcends . . . time and challenges us all: [namely] how should one face the possibility that one’s culture might collapse?” As Lear says, “This is a vulnerability that affects us all — insofar as we are all inhabitants of a civilization, and civilizations are themselves vulnerable to historical forces.” This allows Lear to ask us a couple of important questions, “How should we live with this vulnerability? Can we make any sense of facing up to such a challenge courageously?”

But before turning to Lear’s case study it is important to recall that our own religious tradition was born out of a major collapse and trauma. Jesus was, as you all know, a faithful if radical Jew and, at the heart of Jewish life in Jesus’ time was the Temple in Jerusalem where he famously overturned the money changers tables because they were misusing this holiest of places. Without the Temple many people believed that there could be no (proper) Jewish people nor religion.

The first Temple, known as Solomon’s Temple (for which there has been found no archeological evidence by the way), was believed to have been destroyed in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II, when the Jewish leadership of the Kingdom of Judah were forced into exile in what is known as the Babylonian captivity.

Under Cyrus the Great of Persia (c. 600 or 576–530 BCE) it became possible both to re-establish the city of Jerusalem and to rebuild of the Temple, a task completed in c. 516 BCE, traditionally under Ezra-Nehemiah and so one traumatic destruction of the temple was survived.

But then, in 70 CE, under the Emperor Titus, the Romans decisively ended the four-year long Jewish Revolt by destroying the Temple a second time. The Temple was never rebuilt and the structure and shape of Judaism was radically and irrevocably changed. This traumatic event helped give prominence both to the local synagogue and the teachers of the Torah, the Rabbis. It also necessarily contributed to the development of the distinctive, domestic character of Judaism as we know it today, with it’s many home rituals.

It is also important to understand that it was in this new Jewish context that Jesus’ own teaching and example came to flourish and, in the hands of the disciples and their followers, it eventually developed into the religion we know as Christianity. It was not simply the trauma of Jesus’ execution that drove the development of Christianity, it was also the trauma of losing the Second Temple and the collapse of the culture that centred upon it.

Only an acceptance of this allowed our forebears meaningfully to imagine that Jesus had promised to the Samaritan woman that it was possible to worship God no longer in the Temple (or, for the woman, on Mount Gerizim) but in spirit and in truth anywhere and everywhere (John 4:20-24).

Crow Indians c. 1878-1883
Let's now turn to Lear’s story concerning the native, North American tribe called the Crow which had its lands mostly in what is modern day Montana. They were a people whose understanding of in what being-in-the-world consisted centred wholly on hunting and warring with their Sioux enemies and these activities, and the practices that were related to them, were absolutely constitutive of Crow subjectivity — i.e., their understanding of who they were.

Consequently, when the white European settlers came and not only destroyed the buffalo herds but also outlawed intertribal conflict, what it was to be a Crow was immediately placed in danger. Their remarkable chief, Plenty Coups (1848–1932), said of this period, “when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

But what does this mean? To answer this let’s begin by concentrating on hunting buffalo.

Lear notes there is something here we are liable to miss if we are not careful because, when we say “It is no longer possible to hunt buffalo”, we are speaking of two things (Jonathan Lear “Radical Hope”, Harvard University Press, 2006, p. 38ff).

The first is that “Circumstances are such that there is no practical possibility of our hunting for buffalo” — i.e. there are simply no longer any buffalo to hunt.

The second is that we mean “The very act of hunting buffalo itself has ceased to make sense.”

Not clear about the difference? Well, Lear gives us a modern illustration to help:

Consider a person who goes into her favourite restaurant and says to the waiter, “I’ll have my regular, a buffalo burger medium rare.” The waiter [replies], “I’m sorry madam, it is no longer possible to order buffalo; last week you ate the last one. There are no more buffalo. I’m afraid a buffalo burger is out of the question.” Now consider a situation in which the social institution of restaurants goes out of existence. For a while there was the historical institution of restaurants — people went to special places and paid to have meals served to them — but for a variety of reasons people stopped organising themselves in this way. Now there is a new meaning to “it is no longer possible to order buffalo”; no act could any longer count as ordering. In general [Lear continues] these two sense of impossibility are not clearly distinguished because they often go together. (Jonathan Lear “Radical Hope”, Harvard University Press, 2006, pp. 38-39).

If only the first possibility had played out it would have been bad enough but, for the Crow, both occurred.

Now let’s turn to war and to an act which was for the Crow closely bound up with it, namely, the Sun Dance. This dance was a prayer-filled ritual asking for God’s help in winning military victory. But, as Lear points out, what is one to do with the Sun Dance when it has become impossible to fight — impossible in both the senses I’ve just noted. In essence a culture facing this kind of cultural devastation has three choices:

1. Keep dancing even though the point of the dance has been lost. The ritual continues, though no one can any longer say what the dance is *for*.

2. Invent a new aim for the dance. The dance continues, but now its purpose is, for example, to facilitate good negotiations with whites, usher good weather for farming, or restore health to a sick relative.

3. Give up the dance. This is an implicit recognition that there is no longer any point in dancing the Sun Dance. It is also to give up, of course, any hope of continuing as a Crow people.

By 1875 the Crow finally chose the third option. When, ten years later and by now on the reservation, Plenty Coups said “After this, nothing happened” Lear points out it is tempting to think that Plenty Coups simply meant no traditionally important events like the Sun Dance happened any more.

But, as Lear observes, it is

“also possible to hear him bearing witness to a deeper and darker claim: namely, that no one dances the Sun Dance any more because it is no longer possible to do so. . . . One might still teach people the relevant steps; people might learn how to go through the motions; and they can even call it the ‘Sun Dance’; but the Sun Dance itself has gone out of existence” (Jonathan Lear “Radical Hope”, Harvard University Press, 2006, pp. 36-37).

Remember that the two central shaping activities (hunting buffalo and the warrior life) that gave everything to the Crow had just gone out of existence. Imagine, just imagine, how that felt to the members of the tribe now herded together on their reservation. It is no wonder there were such high levels of depression and despair amongst Native American peoples.

But now I can turn to the theme of radical hope.

The Crow decided that they did want to survive in some fashion — it was a deep, existential decision — and to do this they first had to acknowledge that the old ways of living life had gone. For Plenty Coups that involved “the stark recognition that the traditional ways of structuring significance and meaning had been devastated.” But, in his beautiful book, Lear believes that for the Crow this recognition was not an expression of despair but the only way to avoid it. He points out that one must recognise the destruction that has occurred if one is to move beyond it. (Today, I particularly want to stress this point).

Having acknowledged this Plenty Coups and other members of his tribe returned to their old stories and dreams (dreams and their interpretation were, as I’m sure you know, key in tribal life) and they found ways radically to re-interpret them to find a traditional way Crow forward. There are some beautiful and moving examples of this in Lear’s book but I’ll just use that of the Sun Dance as it is here that I find a convergence with what I’m trying to say today.

In 1941, sixty-six years after they abandoned the Sun Dance, the Crow decided they wanted to re-introduce it but, at that point, they found that the steps of their version no longer existed in the memory of single member of the tribe. However, they pressed on by seeking out the leaders of the Sun Dance among the Shoshone tribe in Wyoming and, in so doing, learned the steps that their traditional enemies had danced when they hoped to defeat the Crow in battle — this is, of course, an important moment of reconciliation. But, you might ask, was this, is this, the maintenance of a sacred tradition or is it, to quote Lear “a nostalgic evasion — a step or two away from a Disneyland imitation of ‘the Indian’?.”

Lear thinks everything hinges on Plenty Coups' declaration that after the buffalo had gone and the warring had stopped “nothing happened” because it lays down something key if a genuinely vibrant tradition is to be maintained or reintroduced. As Lear says:

“It is one thing to dance as though nothing has happened; it is another to acknowledge that something singularly awful has happened . . . and then decide to dance” (Jonathan Lear “Radical Hope”, Harvard University Press, 2006, p. 153).

Because this acknowledgement was made the Crow's decision to dance again helped them, not only survive in some real and meaningful traditional way, but also eventually successfully to bring some of their unique traditional insights to the common table of modern American culture.

Plenty Coups is now a national hero and stands as a powerful example of reconciliation. The singularly awful happening the Crow experienced has not gone away but they have redeemed it — not only for themselves but, potentially, for the whole of modern USA as their stories have commingled and the resulted in an enrichment of the whole. Not everything Crow was salvageable but something was. They have been able to go on and to find ways to bring something meaningful of their old values and vision into the present.

None of this is to diminish or deny the horror they experienced as their culture collapsed around them. That will, forever, remain. But they did find an extraordinarily courageous way to keep continuity with the Crow faith through it all and it is a story we would do well to honour and learn from.

And, lastly, as I wrote this piece I was reminded of some words spoken in 1946 by the Unitarian minister, A. Powell Davies (1902-1957) to whom I introduced you a couple of weeks ago:

“Faith begins after you have faced the worst; faith is born from reality. Anything which comes in any other way is not faith and in the day of trial it lets us down. [If] We endure the pain just as though we did not have it [then we] are shrunken by pain into littleness or bitterness. But when reality is faced, the pain is endurable and the soul grows greater” (The Mind and Faith of A. Powell Davies, ed. William O. Douglas, Doubleday & Co., 1959, p. 273).