Sunday, 4 October 2015

Sacred Economics: "We’ve all been given a gift, a gift of life. What we do with our lives is our gift back"

The komorebi in the church back-yard
Readings: From a short film about Charles Eisenstein’s book “Sacred Economics 

The film begins with a epigraph by Edo: “We’ve all been given a gift, a gift of life. What we do with our lives is our gift back.”

Charles Eisenstein: Any time you want to understand something, why such and such happened. Why is there a biodiversity crisis, or why are we drilling for more oil when it’s polluting the atmosphere and causing oil spills? And you ask why—down a couple of levels you always get to money. 
I talk a lot about the idea of self that every culture has, and answers the question what are you, what is it to be human? So it says that your this separate being amongst other separate beings, a universe that is separate from yourself, like, you’re not me, that plant is not me, that’s something separate. And, this story of self really creates our world. If you’re a separate self and there’s other separate selves out there, and other species in the universe and the universe is fundamentally indifferent to you, or even hostile, then you definitely want to control, you want to be able to have power over other beings and over these whimsical, arbitrary forces of nature that could extinguish you at any time.
This story is becoming obsolete. It’s becoming no longer true. We don’t resonate with it any more and it’s actually generating crises that are insoluble. And that’s what’s clearing space to step into a new story of self, a new story of the people. 

From publisher’s blurb: Sacred Economics traces the history of money from ancient gift economies to modern capitalism, revealing how the money system has contributed to alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth. 
Today, these trends have reached their extreme—but in the wake of their collapse, we may find great opportunity to transition to a more connected, ecological, and sustainable way of being.

In all this Eisenstein points out that: 

“We didn’t earn air, we didn’t earn being born, we didn’t earn our conception, we didn’t earn a planet that could provide food, we didn’t earn the sun” 

In other words, all the important things in life are gifts and, therefore, our own economic systems need to acknowledge this truth at every level.

My mother and I debate:
we could sell
the black walnut tree
to the lumberman,
and pay off the mortgage.
Likely some storm anyway
will churn down its dark boughs,
smashing the house. We talk
slowly, two women trying
in a difficult time to be wise.
Roots in the cellar drains,
I say, and she replies
that the leaves are getting heavier
every year, and the fruit
harder to gather away.
But something brighter than money
moves in our blood–an edge
sharp and quick as a trowel
that wants us to dig and sow.
So we talk, but we don’t do
anything. That night I dream
of my fathers out of Bohemia
filling the blue fields
of fresh and generous Ohio
with leaves and vines and orchards.
What my mother and I both know
is that we’d crawl with shame
in the emptiness we’d made
in our own and our fathers’ backyard.
So the black walnut tree
swings through another year
of sun and leaping winds,
of leaves and bounding fruit,
and, month after month, the whip-
crack of the mortgage.

A poem by William Stafford from “The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems”, Graywolf Press, 1998)     

A flavor like wild honey begins 
when you cross the river. On a sandbar 
sunlight stretches out its limbs, or is it 
a sycamore, so brazen, so clean and bold? 
You forget about gold. You stare — and a flavor 
is rising all the time from the trees. 
Back from the river, over by a thick 
forest, you feel the tide of wild honey 
flooding your plans, flooding the hours 
till they waver forward looking back. They can’t 
return: that river divides more than 
two sides of your life. The only way 
is farther, breathing that country, becoming 
wise in its flavor, a native of the sun. 



Two of the "gargoyles"
Behind the church hall is the back-yard in which you will find the shed, the bins and the raised flower-bed which, at times, has been “the children’s garden” with it’s back, boundary-wall decorated with humorous, gargoyle-esque faces that the children made one summer Sunday morning. Some of them are reputed to be depictions of me; I’ll leave you to decide which, if any of them, really are!  

Over-arching the yard are the wonderful branches of an old walnut tree growing in next door’s garden and which, from spring to early autumn, provides the most beautiful, dappled light of sunlight; something for which the Japanese have a delightful, single word, “komorebi”. 

The back yard, bins, garden and the "komorebi"
Most days of the week I spend some time there doing my Tai Chi and, on the odd occasion, I even take a desk out there to work. 

As I have spent time thinking about this tree particularly during this year I realise how much I owe to it’s latent capacity to aid me in the development of my own thinking about how things are and what things matter. Indeed, I find that working, thinking, meditating, listen to music, moving and simply being in the presence of this tree becomes more and more important to me as I grow older. 

And so, as a kind of harvest-time thank-you letter to the tree, it seems worth bringing you something that has slowly become clear to me in it’s komorebi.

Over and above the komorebi, one of most delightful other things the tree gifts us is, of course, it’s fruit. Each year many of us enjoy thousands of walnuts which we share freely and happily with the many squirrels that live nearby. 

However, along with these obviously desirable gifts there are those which we are inclined to feel are less desirable. So, although the leaves in spring and summer may provide komorebi when they fall they fall in great abundance and are always threatening to block the gutters and drains, as one or two of us are only too well aware. Being an old tree, during windy weather, there is also always in play the worry that it is going to lose a significant branch or two and cause some damage to the roof not to mention the possibility that, one day, it’s roots might spreading into areas deemed undesirable. Both things, of course, Mary Oliver knew about well.

These less than desirable things has meant that, over the years, occasional calls have been made to have the tree taken down. However, I’m glad beyond measure, that this has never happened. 

But I know, were the tree to go, that my grief and sadness would be great and my whole life and working environment would be effected badly and each time the matter has been raised, Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Black Walnut Tree”, which we heard earlier has always come to mind.

Once back in my head her poem always-also reminds me of a daily fact that is relevant to everyone of us. It is that, whatever we feel about the rights and wrongs of it, we live today in a world that has developed a deeply disturbing tendency to bottom out all it’s measuring of the worth and value of everything in monetary and/or financial terms. Oliver’s image of “the whip-crack of the mortgage” stands for me as a reminder of the very real, ever-present, coercive power of capital (and capitalism) over our modern lives.  

But, as the poem reminds us, for all capital’s present power, another deeper, more ancient power thankfully remains still at play at the heart of our being, a power which I’m pleased to say seems quietly, if painfully slowly, to be re-emerging into the general intellect and consciousness. It is a power which helps us see that the meaning and worth of the walnut tree, of any tree, indeed of any entity in our natural world (whether sentient or not), can never be anything like adequately known and understood merely through the medium of money and capital. This walnut tree, whenever it is known solely through this medium, is immediately turned from a living thing completely part of a living ecosystem into a mere, discrete, material cog (called lumber) that is functioning in a machine of production from which a monetary profit can be extracted and which, in turn, can be used in the attempt endlessly to drive up unsustainable growth and to service ever increasing, and also unsustainable, debt.

But even the most causal passing acquaintance with the walnut tree will reveal how much more than mere lumber it always is. True there are always it’s apparently problematic, craggy aspects (leaves, roots and falling branches) but we all know that it is precisely those same things things that help gift us a wonderful harvest, both in terms of it’s nuts and that O so wonderful komorebi. It is a cliché (but it is a cliché because it is true) that as a whole-being the walnut tree can never be adequately measured or understood through the medium of money and capital. 

What I increasingly discover in the presence of the walnut tree is something I really already know but so often forget, choose to ignore, or even hide, namely, that in this tree (and in every natural entity, sentient or not) we sense something shining that is brighter than money, something whose glistering charms should, on this occasion, be responded to.  

A poem that seems to me to speak eloquently about this something brighter than money is that we heard earlier by William Stafford (from “The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems”, Graywolf Press, 1998)     

Like Stafford’s sycamore, looking at the walnut tree as a whole being I, too, sense in it a wonderful flavour “like wild honey”. It is a flavour that, like an incoming tide, increasingly flows into every part of my being, “flooding my plans”, and I realise that the walnut tree stands for me today as a helpful marker in my own life. What the river is for Stafford, the tree is for me and I can see that it divides more than the two sides of my life. I realise there is an aspect about it rather like that found in the terms BC and AD, Before Christ and, after Christ, Anno Domini — literally, “the year of our Lord”. For me there is BWT and AWT, before and after the walnut tree. 

“Before the Walnut Tree”, BWT, I was able to split my life into two sides. I was able, or so I thought, to be both passionate about nature and natural world and yet, somehow, also quite happy to acceded to structuring most of my life wholly by the metrics offered up by the old conceptions of money and capital. But the more and more I look at the walnut  tree, eat it’s fruit and stand consciously and gratefully in it’s komorebi, I realise that, “After the Walnut Tree”, AWT, “The only way is farther, breathing that country, becoming wise in its flavor, a native of the sun.” 

That is to say, it helps me identify a need to go further into the tree’s country, becoming wise in it’s flavour and knowing myself as a native of the sun. It helps me understand explicitly what I know deep in my bones, namely, that I can no longer return to, serve and give loyalty to a world that continues to structure itself solely around the metrics offered up by the old conceptions of money and capital. This thought powerfully reminds me of Jesus’ saying that, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). [In my case, of course, for “God” I read “Nature”.]

I find I want to serve nature not money and wealth. But the problem with this way of expressing things is that it seems to set up a problematic binary, either-or, situation something about which, these days, I’m very suspicious. What if we could bring nature, money and wealth back together in a healthy way and, therefore, head off the need to decide for one against the other? Charles Eisenstein’s book, “Sacred Economics”, offers us one way we might be able to do this. 

But I rush ahead of myself . . . 

Hearing my discomfiture about serving money and wealth, you may object and say, but we live in a world of money and capital and you may feel my words here simply reveal to you my impractical, delusional flabby idealism. You would not be alone in thinking this. I well remember being told that a friend of mine’s father (a senior executive with a major European financial institution, I might add) once said about me in the early 80s, “Lovely lad, lovely lad, but head in the clouds.”

He wanted, of course, to contrast what he thought was his highly practical money metric oriented mentality with my flabby, highly impractical, alternative, hippy and ecologically inspired way thinking that had at the time just been kicked into life by discovering the work of Henry David Thoreau. He was prepared to admit that some of my thoughts were nice and even attractive but, ultimately, my way of wanting to proceed was impractical, wrong and doomed.

Like many teenagers, I allowed myself to bow somewhat to the pressure of the wisdom of my elders and, in consequence, heeded less than I should have done the wisdom of the walnut tree. The result was that I tried (and like most people generally succeeded) to divide my life artificially into different worlds, the poetic, religious and pastoral on the one hand, and the supposedly practical and monetary on the other. But some important things have changed since my friend’s father opined about my so-called “idealistic” take on life that have shown we can no longer keep these things apart and that our conception of money and economics simply has to start listening to, and be  radically changed by the walnut tree and, of course, the natural world as a whole. 

The first change to occur was that the system upon which my friend’s father based his dismissive words has, since 2008, suffered a seismic shock that continues to reveal it as fatally flawed and failing. The second thing to occur is, as Eisenstein notes, that it is becoming clearer and clearer by the day, month and year, that this same system is continuing powerfully to contribute towards “alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth“. The recent, outrageous revelations about Volkswagen’s actions are but one perfect example of this tendency at work. The third thing to occur is our growing recognition that our old conception of “the self” as being separate from all other things and selves which, in turn, requires us both to desire and obtain excessive amounts of power and control, is as wrong as wrong can be.

As Eisenstein points out, all these things — and many more besides — mean that increasing numbers of us simply no longer believe the old story about the world and self that our elders told us and we cannot, and will not, go back there because today we know another truth: “We’ve all been given a gift, a gift of life. What we do with our lives is our gift back” (Edo).

Charles Eisenstein is a man who is trying to put into a language that is understandable by old-school economists precisely this recognition of the gift of life. He has a vision of “the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible” (the title of another of his works) and his book, "Sacred Economics" is an inspiring first attempt to articulate an economics that takes this recognition with the upmost seriousness. In it he expresses the desire to create a “sacred economics”, i.e., an economics that acknowledges what is truly sacred to us as connected living beings enmeshed in a whole world. 

It was underneath the walnut tree out the back of the church that, over the past two weeks, these long developing ideas have finally reached the point of my pen and my tongue today. 

Eisenstein concludes the short film about this book with the following words, words with which I shall also conclude:

“We have been messing around, playing with our gifts of technology and culture. And developing these gifts. Now we are coming into adulthood. And it’s time to apply them to our true purpose. At the beginning, it’ll be about healing the damage that’s has been done. […] We are in the business of creating a miracle around Earth. […]I’m saying that it is something that’s impossible from an old understanding of reality but possible from a new one. And, in fact it’s necessary. Anything even less than that is not even worth trying.”

I commend his “Sacred Economics” to you.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Charles Eisenstein's Sacred Economics and some other "provocative documents for thought"

On the advice of an old and trusted friend I've just got hold of Charles Eisenstein’s book "Sacred Economics". I look forward to reading it and seeing what he has to say. Here's the basic blurb about the book:

Sacred Economics traces the history of money from ancient gift economies to modern capitalism, revealing how the money system has contributed to alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth. 

Today, these trends have reached their extremebut in the wake of their collapse, we may find great opportunity to transition to a more connected, ecological, and sustainable way of being.

It was this latter thought in mind that I walked around Cambridge this afternoon taking a few street photographs. This kind of photography is, inevitably, set in a untransformed, highly capitalist context and, as I looked at the people around me I wordlessly felt that, Yes! how much better their lives, and mine, would be were we able to change our relationship to and with money.

But, as I've just intimated, on the street and right now as I post this piece I don't have the necessary words to speak of this powerful feeling. So, I fall back on my photographs and remind myself of the Manifesto of the “Provoke Group” (1968) signed by Kohi Taki, Takuma Nakahira, Takahiko Okada, Yutaka Takanashi, and Daido Moriyama:

“Today, when words have lost their material base—in other words, their reality—and seem suspended in mid-air, a photographer’s eye can capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is. He can submit those images as a document to be considered alongside language and ideology. This is why, brash as it may seem, Provoke has the subtitle, ‘provocative documents for thought.’” 

A set of photos from an early autumn walk at Wandlebury Country Park

A single, suspended autumn leaf
On Sunday I used the following words as a meditative reading in our religious naturalist evening service of mindfulness meditation. They were still very much in mind when I set out by bicycle to Wandlebury Country Park for an early autumn walk.  I add them below and, for your enjoyment, below them, a few of the photographs I took along the way. I used my Ricoh GR throughout; they're all unprocessed jpegs straight out of the camera.

Harbingers of Frost by Robert T. Weston

Autumn, we know,
Is life en route to death.
The asters are but harbingers of

The trees, flaunting their colours at 
     the sky,
In other times will follow where 
     the leaves have fallen,
And so shall we.

Yet other lives will come.
So may we know, accept, embrace,
The mystery of life we hold a 

Nor mourn that it outgrows each 
     separate self, but still rejoice 
     that we may have our day.

Lift high our colours to the sky! 
     and give,
In our time, fresh glory to the 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Sacred Depths of Nature — Ursula Goodenough's religious naturalist devotional

View from outside the Memorial Church
I did not have to give today's address as we had a visiting preacher, James Barry.

However, since I have been talking about religious naturalism recently I thought it would be worth republishing an address I gave a couple of years ago about Ursula Goodenough's wonderful book, "The Sacred Depths of Nature".  It had a big influence upon me and I can thoroughly recommend it to you all.

Since then I've become actively involved in the Religious Naturalist Association (of which Ursula is the president) and am now helping to run for them a clergy internet discussion group.

So, here is that address from 2013 . . .


Just before leaving for the summer break (in 2013) I began to read a number of books by four leading religious naturalists, Jerome Stone, Donald Crosby, Charley Hardwick and Ursula Goodenough (her lab page at Washington University can be found here). (It's worth mentioning in passing that the first of these authors, Stone, is directly associated with the Unitarian Universalists (for example here) and the third, Hardwick, centres his own thinking on a Unitarian religious naturalist to whom I introduced you a few weeks ago, Henry Nelson Wieman.) [I've since discovered that Donald Crosby is also a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.]

Today's address aims simply to encourage you to look at a book called The Sacred Depths of Nature (SDN) by the fourth author and cell biologist, Ursula Goodenough because it addresses, in a very practical and beautiful way, the human need for stories which help us to reflect upon who we are, what we feel, what we know, and what it is we should be doing with our lives.

But, before we go on, it is important to be clear what the term "religious naturalism" means. A wide variety religious naturalisms exist but all of them 'assert that the natural world is the centre of our most significant experiences and understandings’ and that nature is felt to be ‘the ultimate value in assessing one's being.’ Religious naturalists share a deep ‘sense of Nature's richness, spectacular complexity, and fertility’ and, secondly, in the ‘recognition that Nature is the only realm in which people live out their lives’ and that ‘humans are…interconnected parts of Nature’. Of course, in all forms of religious naturalism the natural sciences are considered to be a ‘fundamental, indispensable component’. (cf.

Now, as one of those authors, Charley Hardwick notes, since today, whether or not we hold traditional theistic, religious beliefs, we are all ‘willy-nilly’ living within a scientific worldview any reasonable, genuinely truth-seeking, contemporary religion has to take this fact into account and, whilst I have no choice but to accept that there are many people and communities who don't think like I do, in a universe whose primordial reality is increasingly perceived to be wholly *natural* and not *supernatural*, as a representative of a four-and-a-half century old rational religious tradition I find I have no choice but to try and articulate what one form of flourishing, meaningful religious naturalism might look like for us today.

Stories form an important part of any such articulation and, as I have already intimated, Goodenough acknowledges this. In the book she explicitly says that "humans need stories - grand, compelling stories - that help orientate us in our lives and in the cosmos" and for her the "Epic of Evolution is such a story". It is a story that, she says, is "beautifully suited to anchor our search for planetary consensus, telling us of our nature, our place, our context". Not only that but she also feels "responses to this story - what we are calling religious naturalism - can yield deep and abiding experiences" (all quotes here from SDN p. 174). These are the experiences of awe and wonder that all of us had when encountering either directly through experiment or through texts and photos the sublime macro and micro-cosmic world of nature. The gasp of astonishment and wonder at our first sight of the Alps, a darting kingfisher, a photograph of distant galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope or the tiniest organism through a microscope, the spiralling pattern of DNA, or the merest trace in a sea of data that allows someone to say, "Higgs-Boson!"

Goodenough's book is designed to tell something of this scientific, natural story, a story which is for her the *core* narrative. She recounts this in twelve brief, clear and shining chapters: "The Origins of the Earth", the "Origins of Life", "How Life Works", "How an Organism Works", "How Evolution Works", "The Evolution of Biodiversity", "Awareness", "Emotions and Meaning", "Sex", "Sexuality", "Multicellularity and Death" and, finally, "Speciation". She has a masterful way of introducing the current scientific thinking on these subjects that is able to elicit from a lay-reader like me, over and over again, the involuntary need to say "My goodness, that's amazing!"

But, although for her this is the "core narrative" it is not, by any means, the whole story. To illustrate why this might be the case let's consider Stephen Dunn's well known poem, "At the Smithville Methodist Church". Read it at the link below: 

It recounts a modern, naturalist couple's feelings upon seeing their child return from a Christian Sunday school beaming and singing "Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so". This causes their heart to sink as they experience a terrible kind of recognition; they know that "evolution is magical" but they also feel it's "devoid of heroes" and that they cannot, in fact must not, say to their child, "Evolution loves you". They cannot and must not say this because, of course, it's not true, evolution doesn't love their little child - any little child. The parents know, as Dunn says, that in an important way "the story stinks of extinction and nothing exciting happens for centuries". Off the back of this natural fact he allows the parents to express a commonly held view, namely, that a scientific world view leaves them religiously voiceless and without any of their own emotionally engaging religious stories to tell. For Dunn's parents "there was nothing to do but drive, ride it out, sing along in silence."

But what I find so valuable about Ursula Goodenough's approach is that she offers us a way to begin to emerge, naturalistically and religiously, from out of this silence. Although she is herself not a believer in God - she explicitly calls herself a "religious non-theist" or "religious naturalist" - she was profoundly influenced by her father, whom she loved dearly. Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough (1893-1965) started life as a Methodist preacher but went on to become Professor of the History of Religion at Yale University. He apparently used to begin his undergraduate course on the Psychology of Religion by announcing "I do not believe in God" and yet, despite this, he was still able to end one of his last books by saying "I still pray devoutly, and when I do, I forget my qualifications and quibbles and call upon Jesus - he comes to me" (SDN p. ix).

His example of how naturalism can combine with some kind of real, living Christian religious understanding clearly played a powerful role in helping Goodenough to ask and think through her father's question of "Why are people religious?" and then to ask of herself "Why she was not religious?" (SDN p. x). This led her, in turn, to ask whether that was true? and to ask whether it was "possible to feel . . . religious emotions in the context of a fully modern, up-to-the-minute understanding of Nature?" (SDN p. xi).

The answer for her was, "Yes" and part of that answer was The Sacred Depths of Nature. Her answer holds together three integrated responses to the modern understanding of Nature. In one of her public talks she points out that the core naturalist narrative cannot simply stand alone but requires, 1) an interpretation of the story, 2) some kind of spiritual response, by which she means "internal feelings" of, for example, wonder and gratitude and, lastly, 3) some moral responses.

In the same talk Goodenough points out that in our theistic, religious, core narratives these responses are indissolubly bound up in the narrative itself. However, in the story of nature the responses are not built in. Consequently, those who, to borrow another of her felicitous phrases, "take nature to heart", have to find ways together, in community, to articulate these responses in both words and in deeds.

(In the following Youtube film entitled "Does Evolution Imply Atheism?" Ursula Goodenough offers, what seems to be a primarily Christian group at Washington University, St Louis, a basic précis of her religious naturalist position. Her contribution starts at 14'20" and finishes at 24'50").

But the thing is, and this is something I will never cease from pointing out, "reality, our world, is always-already 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others, and others beside us such as other cultures' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9). None of us can ever start articulating our responses to anything from a blank, neutral, supposedly objective position. Goodenough, thanks to her father's life and work, knows this intimately. So in addition to the "Epic of Evolution" she says:

". . . we need other stories as well, human-centred stories, a mythos that embodies our ideals and passions. This mythos comes to us, often in experiences called revelation, from the sages and the artists of past and present times" (SDN p. 174).

Her book takes this insight beautifully into account in its basic structure. A conventionally religious friend of hers, a Lutheran, saw an early draft and pointed out to her that her book was "set up like a Daily Devotional booklet" (SDN p. xix).  Not being a Lutheran she hadn't noticed this. The structure of the book is simple: "core text" (in this case a scientific and natural rather than a religious and supernatural one) followed by a section entitled "Reflections". She says of the latter that:

". . . for the most part each response is personal, describing the particular religious emotion or mental state that is elicited in me when I think about a particular facet of the evolutionary story. For example the evolution of the cosmos invokes in me a sense of mystery; the increase in biodiversity invokes the response of humility; and the understanding of the evolution of death offers me helpful ways to think about my own death" (SDN p. xx).

She concludes by saying:

"If religious naturalism is to flourish, it will be because others find themselves called to reflect on the dynamics of Nature from their own cognitive, experiential, and religious perspectives - in which case this book will become one of an emergent series of Daily Devotionals" (SDN p. xx-xxi).

I find that I am one of those people called to reflect on the dynamics of Nature from my own cognitive, experiential, and religious perspective. I also believe that our own liberal Christian tradition with its historic affirmation of the natural sciences and the natural world is likewise called. Also, through conversations with many of you, I believe that most of you here today are also called to reflect on the dynamics of Nature from your own cognitive, experiential, and religious perspectives.

My question is, what would such a religious naturalist, Daily Devotional book (or Sunday service liturgy for that matter) look like that came from this community, one rooted, as it is, in a liberal Christian cognitive, experiential, and religious perspective?

I have some ideas - I've even tried a few of them out, especially in the context of our evening service with its central practice of mindful meditation - but I'd very much like to hear yours.

But whatever emerges in our conversation about this I unhesitatingly encourage you get hold of Goodenough's "Devotional" book and spend some time with her in prayerfully, devotionally, meditating upon the wonderful story of Nature.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

What is one to do in so-called dark times?

Pond in a garden, Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes 
Readings: I wanted to read the following short passage from the Song of Songs for a number of reasons. The first is simply because it is set in a beautiful garden in the Near East — the region from which so many of the refugees entering Europe at the moment hail. I cannot but help wonder how many such beautiful and peaceful Near Eastern gardens have been utterly destroyed by war in recent decades? I chose it, secondly, because it speaks of love and that causes me to wonder how many lovers have been killed or forced to flee this region and, of course, how much love has been lost or completely destroyed? Lastly, I chose this passage because, for the third-century BCE Greek philosopher Epicurus, a garden was the place where one could most fruitfully spend time with friends in goodly conversation learning how to live and die well. It was this Epicurean garden that lies behind Boccaccio's poem "The Decameron", a line from which which we shall turn in a moment. 

Song of Songs 4:16-5:2 (NRSV)

Awake, O north wind,
   and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden
   that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
   and eat its choicest fruits. 
I come to my garden, my sister, my bride;
   I gather my myrrh with my spice,
   I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
   I drink my wine with my milk. 
Eat, friends, drink,
   and be drunk with love.
I slept, but my heart was awake.
Listen! my beloved is knocking.
‘Open to me, my sister, my love,
   my dove, my perfect one;
for my head is wet with dew,
   my locks with the drops of the night.’

From The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)

To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others.

From Robert Pogue Harrison: Gardens—An Essay on the Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 71, and pp. 94-95

What is one to do in so-called dark times, when the world that “comes between men” no longer gives them a meaningful stage for their speech and actions, when reasoned discourse loses its suasion, when powerlessness rather than empowerment defines the citizen’s role in the public sphere? There are times when the thinker, patriot, or individual has no choice but to withdraw to the sidelines, as Plato did when he gave up the idea of becoming a statesman and founded a school on the outskirts of Athens. In her book “Men in Dark TimesHannah Arendt writes: “Flight from the world in dark times  of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped.” The same could be said of the sanctuary that gardens have traditionally offered people when their human condition is under siege. A garden sanctuary can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on the degree of reality it preserves within its haven. Some gardens become places of escape that try to shut out reality . . .. Other gardens, by contrast, become places of humanization in the midst of, or in spite of, the 
forces of darkness. 
[. . .]
Illustration from an edition of the Decameron (c.1492)
Boccaccio was no moralist. He was not a reformer or would-be prophet. He was not especially preoccupied by human depravity or humanity’s prospects for salvation. He did not harangue his reader from any self-erected pulpit of moral, political, or religious conviction. If the ethical claims for the Decameron which he lays out in his preface are finally extremely modest (the author hopes through his stories to offer diversion and consolation to those in need of them), it is because the human condition itself is a modest one. The plague demonstrates as much. To be human means to be vulnerable to misfortune and disaster. It means periodically to find oneself in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification. Our condition is for the most part an affair of the everyday, not of the heroic, and our minimal ethical responsibility to our neighbour, according to Boccaccio’s humanism, consists not in showing him or her the way to redemption but in helping him or her to get through the day. This help takes many modest forms, not least of which is rendering the sphere of social interaction more pleasurable through wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability. To add to the pleasure rather than the misery of life: that is the arché or first principle of Boccaccio’s humanism, which is not the  triumphalist humanism of later eras (which saw self-reliant humankind as the glory of all creation) but the civil humanism of neighbourly love. (It is not by chance that Boccaccio begins his preface with the word umana, or human: Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti [It is human to have compassion for those in distress]).



In addition to the brief address you are about to hear, this week I ended up completing two other, very different addresses.

The first was a gentle, but I hope still meaningful, autumnal piece reflecting on something we might learn from the walnut tree in the church’s back yard. However, the continuing refugee crisis and the associated the religio-political inspired wars and conflicts in and around the middle and near-east, the continuing problems in the financial systems of Europe and China, and the astonishing series of political events surrounding the election of a new Labour leader, made me feel my first address was in danger of being heard merely as a case of fiddling while Rome burns (I don't thinks it is that but I'll return to this thought in a moment).

Abandoning it, I realised that there was something about the general situation that could usefully be foregrounded since it might help us better to understand something of the exceptionally challenging problem a liberal, free-religious church such as our own is facing in the current situation. So I wrote a second address exploring something that has become increasingly clear to me, namely, that the very useful and highly effective fiction that was the post-war British and European consensus concerning our civic, religio-political and economic life together has begun, if not yet completely to unravel, then at least to show signs of potential, serious structural failure.

The way we are dealing, or failing to deal with the refugee crisis, the global crises in finance and banking and also those more locally in the eurozone, the crisis with how to deal with religious extremism at home and abroad, the crises in mainstream social democratic political parties, the crises connected with national identities across Europe, and many more besides, reveals this worrying trend in spades.

It seemed appropriate to raise this matter because in our modern form a church such as this has, at least in my reading of the matter, been significantly shaped and sustained by this post-war consensus. In my abandoned second address I argued that the slowly building crisis in the consensus has brought about a parallel, slowly building crisis in our own identity and role. In part this is because today we don’t like extremes (or extremists) and feel it is important always to be nuanced and balanced as possible (avoiding simplistic either/or situations or paradigms)and  preferring to move forward slowly, carefully weighing and reflecting on all things over an extended and, we hope, stable period of time.

This approach, naturally, works reasonably well when it is embedded in a wider stable culture of consensus but it quickly becomes highly ineffective when we discover ourselves in a wider world that is throwing up all kinds of unstable, “in-your-face” events that need dealing with right now, and are the kind of events which very quickly produce highly polarised, non-consensual answers. The refugee crisis is one very powerful international example of this.

As we know Harold Macmillan was once supposedly asked by a journalist, “what is most likely to blow governments off course” to which he reputedly answered, “Events, my dear boy, events”. Well, few people can doubt that after a long period about which Francis Fukuyama (b. 1952) could proclaim “the end of history”, we are now fully back in a world of highly unpredictable and serious, status quo challenging events that are contributing to a wind which is seriously threatening to blow away so much of the old post-war consensus.

As a consensual and diverse community (diverse in religious, theological, political, social and temperamental terms) in these increasingly polarised times it becomes very hard to know what on earth it is we should collectively be doing and it seems to me that, whether we like it or not we, too, are being forced into something that feels like our own either/or moment.

On the one hand, we could attempt to plump for one of the many polarised positions that are whooshing up around us all over the place and, in so doing, leap fully and explicitly into the current fray on the political, religious or economic left or right (or whatever terms you wish to use). Hypothetically speaking, I think that, under certain conditions, this option should be followed and could be strongly justified. However, in our immediate time and context, it’s not at all my preferred option because I don’t think this approach would be able successfully to keep alive the kind of liberal religious and ethical thought I both want to see, and I think needs, to survive beyond these dark (and seemingly darkening) days.

My preferred option is consciously to plump for an approach with both ancient Greek and Renaissance roots that I first explicitly explored with you just over a year ago with the help of the fourteenth-century Italian writer, poet and humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375).

To remind you, one day the July before last, as I began to fall asleep, his poem “The Decameron” (1353) came quietly into my dreams. The year is 1348 and there is a terrible plague running unchecked in Florence. As Robert Pogue Harrison says:

In the city, civic order has degenerated into anarchy; love of one’s neighbour has turned into dread of one’s neighbour (who now represents the threat of contagion); the law of kinship has given way to every person for himself (many family members flee from their infected loved ones, leaving them to face their death agonies alone and without succour); and where there was once courtesy and decorum there is now only crime and delirium (Gardens, p. 84).

To escape this horror a group of seven young women and three young men decide to leave the city for two-weeks, go to a secluded villa with a beautiful walled-garden and there “to engage in conversation, leisurely walks, dancing, storytelling, and merry-making taking care not to transgress the codes of proper conduct” (Gardens, p. 84).

What could be more different from the horrors of plague-ridden Florence than this garden idyll? It is seemingly so different that, at first sight, it might seem as if that their retreat was merely an escape from reality. But, as Harrison points out:

While their escapade is indeed a ‘flight from reality’, their self-conscious efforts to follow an almost ideal code of sociability during their stay in the hills of Fiesole are a direct response to the collapse of social order they leave behind. In that respect their sojourn is wholly “justified” by Hannah Arendt’s standards [when she says]: “flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped (Gardens, p. 84).

As it was a year ago this seems to me to be a vital insight to hold on to in our day to day life as a diverse, consensual voluntary church community because I’m sure we can all see that, in order just to keep going, we are all going to need a place of appropriate retreat and are likely to be increasingly “in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification.” But, and this is a hugely important element in the overall picture, this escape must always be undertaken by us according to Hannah Arendt’s high standard I've just mentioned.

In consequence, I strongly feel this community should primarily be concerned to understand itself as offering something analogous to the garden into which Boccaccio’s ten youngsters retreated six-hundred and sixty-seven years ago where all kinds of different people may continue “to engage in conversation, leisurely walks, dancing, storytelling, and merry-making, [and are able to take] care not to transgress the codes of proper conduct” whilst always keeping well aware of what it is we are trying to escape. This address is directed at the latter; my address about the walnut tree would have been an example of the former. 

The real (if extremely modest) hope I have is that those who seek us out on a Sunday will, when they return to reality on Monday morning, find they are just slightly better able to get through the next day and the next week. At the very least a place like this might be able to provide just a little meaningful support for the preferred activism each of us as individuals feels called upon and able to undertake in our own, personal lives so as to "show compassion for those who suffer" — whether that activism is religious, social and/or political in orientation.

It important to remember that in the Decameron, after two weeks retreat, the ten storytellers then make a return to reality. Although for them, as for us, the time spent together in fellowship, sharing story, song and conversation about all kinds of things (including walnut trees) may seem to have little or no immediate, direct effect on the “outside”, “real” world, it is not true that nothing changes in our time together. This is because what the ten friends, and we, do together here is something we may call “recasting reality.” As Harrison notes,

By recasting reality in narrative modes, [the ten youngsters] allow what is otherwise hidden by reality’s amorphous flow of moments to appear in formal relief” . . . [and the magic of stories, like gardens, is that] they transfigure the real even as they leave it apparently untouched.

As I have put it many other times, whilst it is true that in one sense there is no other world than this one, there is another world, namely, this world seen or interpreted differently. To paraphrase what I often say about prayer, though we may doubt our interpretations change anything, let it never be forgotten that interpretations change people and people change things.

In other words, in the present, darkening, extremely unsettling historical, political, religious and social situation we find ourselves in, one with less and less consensus, it seems to me that the best and most effective way a small liberal, free-religious community like our own can play a meaningful role in the world is to continue to gather 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 is clearly not the only thing that needs to be done, but it is the only thing I think that together, in this very small, and highly specific community, we can and should be trying to do right now.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Trees, kettles, ladles and bottles of wild sauces as answers to the question: “What is the meaning of life?”

This week, as I often do, I spent some time reading and reflecting upon a number of Mary Oliver’s poems. My meditations settled upon a single stanza (section 4) from her poem “Something” (in “Red Bird”, Beacon Press, 2008):

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

And her poem “Answers” (in "The River Styx, Ohio and Other Poems", Harcourt Brace, 1972):

If I envy anyone it must be
My grandmother in a long ago
Green summer, who hurried
Between kitchen and orchard on small
Uneducated feet, and took easily
All shining fruits into her eager hands.

That summer I hurried too, wakened
To books and music and circling philosophies.
I sat in the kitchen sorting through volumes of answers
That could not solve the mystery of the trees.

My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged my lofty career:
So to please her I studied – but I will remember always
How she poured confusion out, how she cooled and labeled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.

Together these poems made me think carefully this week both about the kinds of religious or philosophical answers that I once sought and also the kind of answers I now not only continue to seek but also have reason to think I find.

Like most people within our culture I was brought up thinking that all the important religious or philosophical answers were propositional in form. To remind you, a proposition, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, is:

“That which is proposed or stated; the content of a declarative sentence, capable of truth and falsity. To grasp a proposition is to understand what is said, supposed, suggested, and so on.”

So, as a child growing up in a protestant Christian context, the answer to life was essentially a belief in the truth of the propositions found in the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is,
seen and unseen. (etc., etc.)

The argument was that if I believed in these propositions — which were, I was taught, of the kind that were capable of truth or falsity (though, of course, their truth was always assumed and proclaimed) — then all would be fine. I was told they provided the fundamental, necessary answers to the question of the meaning of my life and, indeed, all human lives.

Lest anyone think that this address is going to be a simplistic, one-sided swipe at creedal forms Christianity then it is worth reminding you that non-creedal forms of the Christian tradition (such as the one in which this church stands) have also traditionally defined themselves in propositional terms about an abstract object of thought. The only difference being that their propositions have attempted to define that abstract object, i.e. God, differently. So, for example, in the Unitarian tradition the chief propositions were that “God is One” (whatever that meant or might mean today) and that, therefore, “Jesus was not God but a man”. One might be more or less inclined to agree with these propositions but my point is they are still propositions designed intellectually to be understood and capable of truth and falsity.

Those who promote such a way of articulating and offering-up religious or philosophical answers to people, in general seem to be saying that religious belief is all about identifying an abstract object of thought, generally given the same of God, and they are very little, if at all, concerned about our orientation to towards “more worldly objects” which, today, I shall represent by those listed in Oliver’s poem, namely, trees, kettles, ladles and bottles of wild sauces. It is worth noting that Jesus, too, concentrated on more worldly objects as the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast reminded us. Also worth noting is that the first-century Jewish world in which Jesus lived the concept of ‘belief’ or a ‘believer’ is entirely absent. Instead of a believer in the Hebrew Bible (which Jesus knew) we find only the idea of “y’re shamayim”, that is to say “someone who stands in awe of heaven” (c.f. Howard Wettstein in The Significance of Religious Experience, OUP, 2012).

Anyway, as we know, for many people today, propositional based religious belief is becoming problematic because such religious propositions have become increasingly hard to understand and which now show up, to many of us anyway, as false propositions.

Of course, it’s not that propositions about about actual things and/or states of affairs obtaining in the world are, per se, going to be wholly wrong or misplaced — they clearly have a real and important place —, it is just that they are now singularly failing to do the job required of them when it comes to providing satisfactory answers for questions like “the meaning of life.”

But this propositional way of proceeding is so hard to challenge. Over and over again in my role as your minister — and especially on Open Days like yesterday — I get asked by people interested in the meaning of life, their own and others, “what do you and your community believe?” or, “what is Unitarianism?” and they expect to hear from me, of course, a list of propositions that define this imagined “-ism.”

As most if you know, I don’t think that, today, there is any such thing as Unitarianism because we are a free religious movement centred today on complete spiritual freedom which can't meaningfully understood to be any kind of "-ism". So, although it might at first seem bizarre — even to some of you here today — these days I can really only give my questioners an answer by way of reference towards our various attitudes and orientations towards things like trees, kettles, ladles, bottles of wild sauces, mustard seeds and yeast and other “worldly objects”.

This is because it increasingly seems to me that the meaning of life is best to be found in a form of life in which we, as whole beings, take full account of our relationship with these more worldly objects rather than focussing on the highly abstract conceptions of God that have hitherto claimed our religious focus and loyalty. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that my focus and loyalty these days is, not at all to an abstract God but, rather, to the kind of divinity and sacredness that emerges in our encounters and relationships with these worldly objects because it is among them that the meaning of life, at least my life, is found. Again it is worth reflecting upon the fact that Jesus reminded us that the kingdom of God (howsoever this is to be understood) is to found among (or within) the people and the things of the world.

A modern illustration of in what this kind of answer might consist is found in the beautiful vignette that is Oliver’s poem “Answers”. We see there enacted a tiny moment in her grandmother’s actual form of life that is, itself, an answer. It is an answer that is found in the actual act of hurrying between the kitchen and the trees of the orchard “on small uneducated feet”, in the “easy taking of shining fruits into her eager hands”, and expressed “among her kettles and ladles” as she makes, cools and labels “all the wild sauces of the brimming year”. It is a form of life that Oliver feels viscerally is able to “pour confusion out” — both, in fact, in her grandmother’s life and, potentially, in her own in so far as she can herself imitate this kind of living.

One thing Oliver already knows during this green summer as she, too, hurries in seeking her own answer to life — not on this occasion by physically hurrying between kitchen and orchard but, instead by engaging in an abstract hurrying between “books and music and circling philosophies” all whilst sitting in her grandmother’s kitchen — is that all her hard, propositionally orientated seeking (good though it may be in other areas of her life) “could not solve the mystery of the trees” and, likely as not, was not going to be able to “pour confusion out”.

Oliver’s genius as a poet is to have found in her writing ways of asking and answering the question of the meaning of life in a manner analogous to the way her grandmother asked and answered it. Indeed, it seems to me, that Oliver’s poems are her versions of her grandmother’s wild sauces, they are made only after having gone out into the trees of the orchard of the world on uneducated feet (that is to say without any foregone conclusions and theories) to collect the fruit of experience so as to come back to her kitchen (her desk) and her pencil and paper (her kettles and ladles) so as to cool (that is to say reflect and meditate) and label (that is to say write a first draft of a poem) from what she has found so that it can be published and brought to us as a kind of jar of wild sauce (her published poems). Like a jar of wild sauce a poem has to be tasted, imbibed by us as whole beings. A poem, as you will know, simply cannot be reduced to mere propositions about the world! No, you must taste them and on tasting them you begin to sense how confusion is poured out and meaning enters life.

This whole activity, this form of life of poem making from the wild fruits of experience, has helped pour confusion out for Mary Oliver as wild sauce making helped pour out confusion for her grandmother.

To achieve this Oliver has consistently followed the simple method expressed in that single stanza from “Something” we heard earlier:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

But a major problem for most of us comes in the telling about the pouring out of confusion we have experienced in paying attention and being astonished. This is because it is so easy to think we have to do the telling propositionally (mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). But it seems to me that what we need to do in our own individual ways, as Oliver’s grandmother did, as Jesus did, and as Mary Oliver continues to do, is find ways to tell by showing others a form of life that has meaning.

Our telling — as individuals and a community — needs somehow to be come a showing; to show our own versions of running between kitchen and orchard, of our collection of shining fruits held in our eager hands, our kettles, ladles and cooled and labeled wild sauces — a showing that can somehow solve on a day by day basis the mystery of the trees and, indeed the mystery of our own life.

All of these thoughts finally bring me back to one of my favourite poems by the eight-century Chinese poet and religious, Layman P’ang (740-808), who beautifully wrote:

My daily affairs are quite ordinary;
but I’m in total harmony with them.
I don’t hold onto anything, don’t reject anything;
Nowhere an obstacle or conflict.
Who cares about wealth and honour?
Even the poorest thing shines.
My miraculous power and spiritual activity:
Drawing water and carrying wood.

(Quoted in Stephen Mitchell’s "The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry", New York: Harper Perennial, 1989)

There is, of course, no single way this miraculous power and spiritual activity that gives meaning to life is experienced and can then shown to others. This means we have to accept an almost unimaginable plurality of life-expressions in a free-religious community like this, none of which can be passed on to another person via propositional statements of the kind, "Unitarians’ believe a, b, c, and d" — No! Instead, the meaning of life must be shown in our own relationships and dispositions to towards, not only other people's miraculous power and spiritual activity but also towards the wondrous trees, kettles, ladles and bottles of wild sauces, mustard seeds and yeast.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The biologist E. O.Wilson's foreword to Loyal Rue's "Everybody's Story — Wising up to the Epic of Evolution"

Yesterday I gave an address in the Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge suggesting we consciously adopted the Epic of Evolution as our community's central story and it was fascinating to see that, in terms of folk who spoke to me afterwards (which was more than usual), it split folk pretty much down the middle; one half thought the suggestion was wildly misguided and/or plain wrong, the other thought I had hit the nail on the head. I expected some kind of push-back but not one that was so polarised. One point that came up from those not well disposed to my suggestion was that they could simply see no need or point for such a story within a religious setting.

So, by way of providing additional food for thought on this matter, I reproduce the eminent biologist, E. O. Wilson's foreword to Loyal Rue's book "Everybody's Story — Wising up to the Epic of Evolution" both for it's intrinsic interest and in order to encourage some readers of this blog to get a copy to read themselves.

Homo sapiens can justly be called the mythopoeic species. Human beings must have an epic, a sublime account of how the world was created and how humanity came to be part of it. The brain’s architecture automatically makes up stories; and the mind it creates is a theater of competing scenarios. The brain is not confined, animal-like, to instant sensory impressions followed by rough associations of these impressions with past reward and punishment. Instead, it searches continuously backward across time to re-create past events, real and imaginary, and forward to invent future scenarios. Stories that are pleasing to reason and emotion outcompete others less so. Replacing them, they serve thereafter as maps of future action. During this process the self, the central protagonist of the scenarios, is perceived within the present-moment scenario as having reached a decision. 
          The primal instinct of narrative, of continuous scenario invention, is what makes the human brain superior in performance. In dreams we construct stories of unconstrained fantasy. In gossip we evaluate others with tales of their exploits and foibles. And in religious myths we repeat the epics that ennoble our lives, our tribe, and our species. Religious epics satisfy another primal need. They confirm that we are part of something greater than ourselves. They say, Death may claim your precious self, and those you most love, but it will not claim the tribe or sully the benefits that empower the tribe. 
          To have credibility, the religious epic must be thought superior to the stories of competing tribes. Even to think otherwise is, in the eyes of fundamentalists, heretical, blasphemous, and traitorous. Superiority of one’s religious epic is a sacred imperative. 
          To justify religious epics, the two connate properties of human nature, the narrative and spiritual drives, have always served to divide humanity. They create a terrible dilemma: How are we to satisfy them, even enrich them, without the continuance of falsehoods that promote divisiveness and conflict? Is there a way to evolve a great epic that is at once universal, spiritually satisfying, and, above all, truthful? The quest for such an epic is the subject of Everybody’s Story. Loyal Rue’s argument is as bold as it is brief: The way to achieve an epic that unites humanity spiritually, instead of cleaving it, is to compose it from the best empirical knowledge that science and history can provide of the real human story. Spirituality is beneficent to the extent that it is based on verifiable truth. I find his argument persuasive. 

And, lastly, for the moment anyway, here's a recent short interview with E. O. Wilson on the BBC Newsnight programme in November 2014.