Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Trouble with surfaces

A sermon preached at the Memorial Church (Unitarian), Cambridge on 28 October 2007

At the tale end of that sublime text, the Gospel of John, there is a well known passage concerning Thomas, doubting Thomas (John 20:24-29 NRSV):

. . . Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with [the other disciples] when Jesus came. So [they] told him, We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later [Jesus’] disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

As I was re-reading this story during the week I noticed something very odd about it that I had never really seen before. You see, it reveals a world view that, whilst affirmatory of what we might call the ‘reality’ and value of surfaces, it simultaneously affirms their ‘illusory’ nature. The ‘real’ surface in our story – real in the way we commonly and loosely use this word – is Jesus’ body which Thomas feels he must, not only look at in order to believe, but also touch. However, at the same time as the ‘reality’ of surfaces is being affirmed by Thomas, the fact that a ‘real’ bodily Jesus has come into in the room whilst all its entrances are closed reveals to us the ‘illusory’ nature of surfaces. Also notice the very suggestive fact that Thomas is astonished but not surprised by the encounter. I shall return to this point for my conclusion.

Now, in most churches, the sermon that might follow such an observation would be an attempt to show that this ‘proved’ something about Jesus’ divine status and our relationship with him. After all, it will be pointed out, the passage concludes with John telling us Jesus’ went on to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” But to me, at least, this seems to be the least interesting and useful lesson we can draw from the text.

A real and powerful modern desire – amongst all sorts of people – is to find ways live in a more engaged way, that is to say more deeply, compassionately and spiritually related to God and/or Nature. This desire is driven in many of us by concerns about the over-materialistic nature of our modern societies and our dreadful degradation and destruction of the environment. The reason many people are exploring – with varying degrees of commitment and understanding it has to be said – various non-Christian religions and philosophies is because they seem to offer this deeper and more connected relationship with the world conceived of as a whole than does much western derived religion and philosophy. Though a committed, although fairly heretical Christian, broadly speaking I think this is true and so, not surprisingly, a great deal of my time has been spent looking at my own religious tradition’s faith – essentially a form of liberal protestant Christianity – to see what the problem is and how it might be addressed.

Well, one key problem connected with this lack of depth and disconnectedness, is left over from a certain way of viewing the world that was derived from a particular eighteenth and nineteenth-century understanding of in what consists the scientific endeavour. Liberal protestant Christianity, of course, very early on embraced science and its clearly astonishing and practical results. Many early notable scientists were intimately connected with liberal expressions of Christianity. We may note, in passing, people such as Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley and Henry Cavendish, after whom the famous laboratory here in Cambridge is named.

Scientists, in looking ever more closely at things, slowly and inevitably, began to see the world in terms of ‘objects of concern’ – the discreet individual things you were going to research. The anthropologist Tim Ingold, in a paper called “Rethinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought” (Ethnos, Vol. 71:1, March 2006 pp. 9-20) noted that, in order to do this, you had to place yourself ‘above and beyond’ the very world science claims to understand. Ingold also observes that the ‘conditions that enable scientists to know, at least according to official protocols, are such as to make it impossible for scientists to be in the very world of which they seek knowledge’ (p.19).

Although this way of understanding the scientific endeavour seems to be being blown out of the water by quantum mechanics, we non-scientists (and certain kinds of scientists) still inherit the earlier tendency to think of the world as only being made up of discreet independent ‘objects of concern’ all of which have surfaces – boundaries which, in some way, definitively separate the ‘object’ itself from the ‘environment’ around it. In fact the whole of planet earth itself is tacitly understood this way - as a globe over whose surface we, and all other things, move and upon which things exist. Even our popular understanding of the sky is coloured by an obsession with surfaces. Ingold observes the following:

Consider the definition [of the sky] offered by my Chambers dictionary. The sky, the dictionary informs us, is ‘the apparent canopy over our heads’. This is revealing in two respects. First the sky is imagined as a surface, just like the surface of the earth except, of course, a covering overhead rather than a platform underfoot. Secondly, however, unlike the earth’s surface, that of the sky is not real but only apparent. In reality there is no surface at all. Conceived of as such the sky is a phantasm. It is where angels tread. [. . .] the surface of the earth has become an interface between the concrete and the imaginary.

Ingold’s point is, in part, that such a view encourages in us once again the idea that there exists some solid boundary, or surface, between the ‘concrete’ and the ‘ideal’ and we moderns are sort of trapped in this bounded region surrounded by impenetrable surfaces, for ever disconnected from each other, ourselves and creation. This dilemma seems, to me at least, to be a modern version of hell.

But there is a way out – a way of ‘salvation’ if you like – and Ingold points to it in his paper. He asks us to consider the world-view of peoples who hold animist viewpoints – that is to say peoples who attribute conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects. He reveals that they did not think of the earth or the sky as having surfaces, ‘real or imaginary’, but thought of them rather as a ‘medium’ through which all things move.

Thus [Ingold says] we must cease regarding the world as an inert substratum, over which living things propel themselves like counters on a board or actors on a stage, where artefacts and the landscape take the place, respectively, of properties and scenery. By the same token, beings that inhabit the world (or that are truly indigenous in this sense) are not objects that move, undergo displacement from point to point across the world’s surface. Indeed the inhabited world, as such, has no surface. Whatever surfaces one encounters, whether of the ground, water, vegetation or buildings, are in the world, not of it. And woven into their very texture are the lines of growth and movement of its inhabitants. Every such line, in short, is a way through rather than across. And it is as their lines of movement, not as mobile, self-propelled entities, that beings are instantiated in the world (p. 14).

Here we can move to Ingold’s – and today my own - most important points: which is that although we do not need to become thoroughgoing animists ourselves to reconnect with the profound insight that it might be a great deal healthier – and closer to the truth – to begin to realise that we move through the world not across it; that we do not ‘simply occupy the world’ but ‘inhabit it’; and, lastly that it is as ‘lines of movement’ that as beings we ‘are instantiated in the world.’

We may now return to our biblical reading and I hope that after this you can see that the most interesting aspect of this story doesn’t really concern Jesus’s status at all but rather the way it helps us see the world and the ‘things’ in it – including Jesus. It seems clear to me that the gospel writer – through the character Thomas – shows that he understands surfaces to be in the world and not of it and that he understands Jesus – as a paradigmatic being – to move through the world, not across it. If we take care to inhabit this story rather than aggressively occupy it and if we try to understand the Christian narrative (of which we are part) as a line of movement rather than as a bounded denomination then it reveals to us not, the endless problems we ‘modern liberals’ usually have about such a story (its historical truth or whether Jesus appeared as spirit or body or whatever) but instead a profound call to live as part of something that, ultimately knows nothing of surfaces and boundaries and is best thought of as a complex living unity.

To conclude, I want to return to the little point I made earlier about Thomas being astonished but not surprised by the encounter with Jesus and I’ll leave you with some very wise and beautiful words by Ingold:

Surprise . . . exists only for those who have forgotten how to be astonished at the birth of the world, who have grown so accustomed to control and predictability that they depend on the unexpected to assure them that events are taking place and that history is being made. By contrast, those who are truly open to the world, though perpetually astonished, are never surprised. If this attitude of unsurprised astonishment leaves then vulnerable, it is also a source of strength, resilience and wisdom. For rather than waiting for the unexpected to occur, and being caught out in consequence, it allows them at every moment to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgement and sensitivity.

May we, too, remain astonished but not surprised and so able to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgement and sensitivity.

For or Against - One World Week

A sermon given at the Memorial Church (Unitarian), Cambridge on 21 October 2007

One puzzling problem I remember from my earliest reading of the Gospels was how to reconcile Jesus' two teachings we will hear in full in a little moment. On the one hand Jesus says "who ever is not against you is for you" (Luke 9:50) and, on the other hand, he later says "who ever is not with me is against me" (Luke 11:23).

A common tendency in liberal circles, particularly when addressing difficult sayings, is either to claim that the historical Jesus didn't say them or to run straight to a mystical or spiritualised reading. The first move is always seriously flawed because it hides a claim that it is possible to identify the authentic words of Jesus simply by whether you agree with or understand them or not. But, as with all great spiritual teachers, some of the teachings are hard and obscure and it is likely that we are going to be called to address issues we would really rather avoid and dismiss if we can. The second move, to spiritualise the saying and look for the mystical meaning is much more acceptable but remember that there is an ancient Jewish tradition called PARDES which encourages us to interpret the biblical texts in four ways, the literal or simple, the metaphorical or allegorical, through the use of additional material to help unfold the text and, lastly, the mystical.

Today I'm going assume that Jesus did, in fact, offer these teachings and then I am going to try and tease out from them a simple and practical reading directly relevant to a continually present dilemma that faces all liberal religious communities whether they be Christian, such as ours, or from another faith. The dilemma being faced is how can and should necessarily narrow and relatively particular beliefs and traditions expand to contexts that tend towards greater inclusivity without at the same time loosing a coherent identity on the way?

Some of you know that a thinker I am continually finding helpful is the Norwegian philosopher and ecologist Arne Naess - and here I would like to thank Mishko for introducing me to his work. I'm always trawling through aspects of Naess' work and this week read a 1986 paper called "The Basics of Deep Ecology." The Deep Ecology platform is one I personally support and if anyone wants to know more about that please ask me later - I'll put it up on the blog for sure. Naess' paper is, in part, "an attempt to distinguish a common platform of deep ecology from the fundamental features of philosophies and religions from which the platform is derived" (The Trumpeter Vol. 21, No. 1 p. 61).

He points out that many different philosophies and religions - which make up what Naess calls "level One" - are capable of underwriting the same common platforms. So Christians, Buddhists, Hindu, Muslims, Atheists etc. can all find in their faith rooted reasons to support various platforms such as deep ecology or, say, the various global ethic or religious freedom platforms. Naess calls these common platforms "level Two" activities. "Level Three" is where, on the basis of the common platform and in relation to local conditions and opportunities, actual decisions are made by individuals and groups about what campaigns or actual activities can or should be engaged in. "Level Four" is the getting dirty and actually doing something stage.

It should be relatively obvious to everyone here that "level Two" is where most agreement is found and this is made possible because these platforms are always kept fairly general in expression. However, levels One, Three and Four, being much more specific, are necessarily where significant disagreements become inevitable. But Naess' important point is that the common platforms of "level Two" wouldn't be possible without Level One philosophies holding them them up and giving them deep validity, stability and strength and, without the possibility of working together through levels Three and Four, standing on any common platform would all just be navel gazing (or worse!). I leave for another day matters concerning levels Three and Four.

So, let's turn directly now to Jesus' teaching. If you observe the different contexts in which he offers his teaching you will notice he is referring firstly to level Two activity and then to level One activities. He didn't call this or even think them in such a fashion! Here is Luke 9:46-50 (NRSV):

An argument arose among [the disciples] as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, "Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest." John answered, "Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us." But Jesus said to him, "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you."
Notice that the man casting out demons is not, in the strict sense of the word, an actual 'follower' of Jesus, that's what irritates the disciples. He is not a member of what they think of their level One activity - namely actually following Jesus, listening to his teachings directly and sharing with him prayer and worship and the joys and sufferings of life. What that man casting out demons has done is recognise that there exists a common platform of that we might call "in Jesus' name." His name summed up certain common norms and hypotheses. In this teaching I think Jesus shows he is acutely aware that people who hold different level one philosophies can underwrite such common norms and hypotheses. Another example of this would be Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan. Anyway, I would argue that what we have here is a developing level two platform and when Jesus says "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you" he reveals his support for such a platform that includes people who did not believe as he or his disciples did. Now here is Luke 11:17-23 (NRSV):

But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? - for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
Here we are witnessing, not a debate about a common platform, but one inside a particular community - figuratively speaking a 'castle' that needs protecting. It's about keeping true to a particular metaphysical or philosophical understanding of God and not about dividing the religion, the kingdom. Jesus is concerned to show that he is able to cast out demons because he has a proper relationship with God and not because he has a relationship with Beelzebul. This is why Jesus says here, "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters" - he is being a good steward of some fundamental level one philosophical and religious insights that he is not going to let go. But don't get distracted by the actual metaphysical details here, because what I simply want you to note that in this context this is much more about metaphysics and detailed belief than the earlier passage. In short this is level One stuff and here there will always be much more contention and a certain kind of 'narrowness'.

It is worth remembering that many religious groups in this country now thought of as liberal - I think particularly of Unitarians and Quakers - historically held fairly narrow fundamental level one philosophies that were radical and Christian but they were of a type that also encouraged them to support and even start some vitally important common platforms with people who believed very differently to themselves. Their liberalism is an emergent quality. So they were involved in numerous liberal platforms concerned to promote workers and women's rights, they campaigned for the abolition of slavery and for decent public health systems and battled for religious freedom. These platforms were incredibly effective and on them they learnt a great deal about people who were very different from them - they began to respect, even to love, many of them. The level two common platform experience was and is an intoxicating experience and we inherit its fruit. We all agree, we are all one - isn't this marvelous!? And it is - I remember very well the visceral excitement of blockading various nuclear weapons establishments in the '80s standing shoulder to shoulder with people of wildly different faiths and beliefs.

The problem is that many liberals were utterly seduced by this experience and forgot that, like any platform, without considerable support from underneath it simply isn't stable or sustainable. In that forgetting many liberal churches have changed from being religiously committed communities (necessarily 'narrow' in certain respects) to becoming themselves platforms for social justice, religious freedom, ecology or whatever. Remember, don't get me wrong, I think platforms are wonderful and I support many of them and value the diversity of belief found in those who share these platforms with me. But common platforms are not religious communities and they cannot replace them. Props and pillars are narrow things that can be driven deep into the soil. That narrowness and rootedness is what enables platforms to stay on the surface of things. Religious communities are also narrow things that can be driven deep into the soil of the divine and it is the stability gained in that self limitation that, as they emerge above the soil, can help them be such strong support to many common platforms.

I think Jesus was acutely alert to this problem and recognised that am emergent, wider, sustainable, diverse and genuinely liberal common platform is only to be achieved if you can first maintain your own necessarily quite narrow level one philosophies which, in turn, have emergent more widely supporting qualities.

In short, reflecting on Naess' work and Jesus' two sayings, I want to make it clear today that I am increasingly of the opinion that if we really are concerned to encourage true liberalism and commitment to diversity in our wider society - to help build One World - then our first duty is to be pretty strict and disciplined in maintaining our own, necessarily, narrow level one philosophy namely Unitarian Christianity. As long as this 'narrowness' it is kept at the appropriate level (level one) it is not illiberal to say in our churches "whoever is not with us is against us, and whoever does not gather with us scatters." The reason it is not illiberal is because if we don't take time to challenge people who would undermine our own tradition's theological position then we destroy its powerful emergent liberalism and we are left with no strength or will to play our role in supporting wider and more inclusive level two platforms where we can truly say, and truly mean, "whoever is not against us is for us."

Being a follower of Jesus is hard because his teachings always bring us up against the realities of life but the two teachings we have explored today are perhaps amongst the toughest for those of us who self-define as liberals. But, as I noted earlier, it is becoming clearer to me by the day that if we wish to be able to utter strong and inclusive yeses in our world we first have to be able to say some strong and exclusive nos. Alas, this is hard wisdom that comes not come easily nor smoothly.


Sunday, 21 October 2007

Bike stuff and a bit of ecology

Well, as you may have noticed, on my last blog there has been a call for more on cycling. I'm happy to oblige. On the back of feeling better after my dose of crypto -whatevidium I've been out on my "new" Colnago fixed. Frame courtesy of a good mate Kev - thanks Kev. Notched up 110 miles last week though fifteen of those were by accident as my direct route home through Toft was blocked by flooding. There were all these signs saying "Road Closed" and "Divertion." Working on the dodgy (but generally correct) principle that no road is truly closed to a cyclist I went on. The road was, indeed, impassable. Suitably chastened I turned round and went another way home - there is probably a sermon in this but I'll leave you to preach it. The picture shows me looking far too serious on a ride to Creake Abbey during our week in Wells. I love this place though from my photo you would be hard pressed to tell - but I was actually very happy at the moment the shutter opened and closed.

The ecology link is to direct folk to The Trumpeter a wonderful online journal connected with Arne Naess. The Naess festschrift is a delight.

For those dropping off to this site immediately after Sunday's sermon - the sermon will be up here by Tuesday as usual but here is a link to a page with the Deep Ecology Platform simply presented.

Have a wild time out there . . .

Monday, 15 October 2007

A Common Word

It is natural that there should be some good and interesting dialogue between Unitarian Christians and Muslims, our common belief in the Unity of God and the humanity of Jesus cannot but help this continue to develop. Over the years here in Cambridge we have developed just such good and rewarding relationships. I have realised that there are also some hidden historical links between our communities - at least in terms of perceived identity. Back in the seventeenth century the foundational foundational document of Unitarian Christianity, the Racovian Catechism, was denounced in 1650 by Francis Cheynell as a ‘Racovian Alcoran’ and in 1698, the Anglican preacher Robert South referred to an anti-Trinitarian (i.e. a Unitarian) as a ‘Mahometan Christian.’ As Nabil Matar in Islam in Britain 1555-1685 (CUP 1998) notes, ‘[e]vidently, those who ventured into anti-Trinitarian theologies were viewed as crypto-Muslims: as a result, orthodox theologians started seeing Muslims wherever they saw Unitarians’ (p. 48). I recently preached a sermon unfolding the implications of some of this. You can find it here.

Anyway, historical relations aside and as interesting though they are, we must not ignore present relationships and attempts to reach out to each other in a constructive spirit. To this end some 138 Muslim scholars from around the world and from an extremely wide spectrum of the faith have produced A Common Word addressed to Christians everywhere. It begins:

and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.

The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.

Do please go to the website and take a look at the document. It encourages folk to endorse it and, especially because it is signed by a two scholars whom I know personally and for whose intelligence, compassion and openness I can personally vouch, this is something I have done myself.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

A circle a hundred feet round and Agnes Arber

As I said in my sermon last week at Harvest (see below) I might actually go out and draw the size circle Lew Welch suggested in his poem. Well I did (you can just see the line in the foreground) and here I am in it, looking a bit daft I'll admit, but hey, do I care?

Whilst In Wells-next-the-Sea I got hold of a book called The Manifold and the One by a Cambridge botanist called Agnes Arber. Now she was one extraordinary person and I recommend that anyone who is interested in the whole pan[en]theistic position should take a look at her work. Here is a link to a page which should enable you to do that. I particularly recommend the brief paper by R. L. Hauke Morphology to Metaphysics and Mysticism. I went into Cambridge University Press this afternoon to see what they still have in print (and on the shelves) and was told that only Herbals; Their Origin and Evolution: a Chapter in the History of Botany: 1470 to 1670 (1912) was still available. It is a lovely book but doesn't get into her own thinking. I hope CUP decide to make the later works available once again. At least The Manifold and the One has been reprinted. Try ABE Books for the others.

I'll leave you with a photo of Susanna and me drinking tea after the exertions of circle drawing and counting way more than three hundred things!

Harvest - Step out onto the planet

A sermon delivered at the Memorial Church (Unitarian), Emmanuel Road, Cambridge on the 7th October 2007

This address began to form in my mind around a poem written by Lew Welch called "Step out on to the planet" from his 1964 collection "Hermit Poems" (found in his collected poems - Ring of Bone):

Step out onto the planet.
Draw a circle a hundred feet round.
Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody's ever really seen
How many can you find?

I'm sure you can see how from this poem came my first thought which was to write something on the harvest freely given by simple existence; the harvest being those three hundred things. It would have been a rather nice sermon, if a little vacuous! But, living daily in a consumerist culture it is perhaps inevitable that one's eye is taken off the ball and in our age it has become all too easy to equate harvest with product - the 300 things. Because those three hundred things look so damned attractive - whatever it is that they are - we are prepared to give over all the time God gives in earning money to buy them. It is no wonder we think that they must surely represent the harvest.

Well, fortunately, out of the corner of my eye and just in time for today's service, I was passed the real ball and today I am attempting to make a long pass across the pitch so you can try to put it firmly in the back of the goal - the real goal of life.

The ball was passed to me whilst reading the philosopher Roger Scruton's new book called Culture Counts - Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Though a natural, lower case 'c' conservative, being rather left of centre in my practical politics I don't always agree with all of Scruton's conclusions in it but his basic points are always well made and, as Jack Becker notes in a review of an earlier book by Scruton, The West and the Rest, 'Scruton makes you think, even though there’s a lot that needs sorting once you’ve done it.'

So Scruton reminded me of Aristotle's exploration of work and leisure in the Nichomachean Ethics (1177b). The question he asked was: what purpose is served by all the work we do in our lives - in other words what is our work's real harvest? Aristotle does not, of course, challenge the idea that we must work for the obvious fruits of the harvest - namely our food and other basic creature comforts - but for him that is not the end of it and so the obvious fruits of the harvest (the 300 things in Welch's phrase) are only a step on the way to the real harvest. Ultimately, we work in order to 'free [ourselves] for leisure, and in leisure [we] are truly free: free to pursue the contemplative life which, for Aristotle, was the highest good' (Scruton, Roger, Culture Counts, New York, Encounter Books 2007 p. 17).

The important point in all this is that for Aristotle contemplation - true leisure - is its own reward. I think you will agree that our story for the children about the fisherman and the businessman illustrated this beautifully and humorously. Anyway, as Scruton observes, because all our plans and projects come to rest in this state of contemplation, this is why we are at rest in leisure: 'This, we are apt to say, is the point of it all, what we worked for, the goal to which our labour was a means' (ibid. p.17).

Consequently, to return to Lew Welch's poem, we can now see that the true harvest is not the 300 things at all, but rather the time to draw draw the circle one hundred feet around and the leisure to look for and contemplate the '300' things.

Alas, today, we inhabit a culture which thinks the true harvest - and therefore our true rest - is the three hundred must have things themselves - whether that be fishing fleets and money for the businessman in our story or, to quote one of my favourite songwriters Donald Fagan of Steely Dan fame in Things I Miss The Most: 'the Audi TT, the house on the Vineyard, the house on the Gulf Coast, the comfey Eames chair and the '54 Strat'.

Before I continue I need to point out an easy and common mistake to make which is to confuse contemplation with distraction. As Scruton points out it is perfectly possible to switch off from work without switching on to any higher purpose but, since contemplation is an active state in which we reconnect with all that makes life meaningful, switching off or being merely distracted is not contemplation and so not true leisure. In Scruton's opinion - and indeed mine - distraction is 'more and more the normal position of people when their work is set aside' (ibid. p. 19) and he points, convincingly to much popular culture in particular much of the output from television and the pop music industry.

So, lets bring all this round to us as 21st century people living in an industrialised western culture and ask ourselves why are we working - many of us for ludicrously long hours - and for what end? Are we not living in an age that is rapidly loosing its collective sight sight of the real purpose of life, life's true harvest? I think the answer is yes and so that leaves us with the very practical question about how we should respond and we might renew our culture?

We'll, as is almost always the case, we can and must start with ourselves. We each need, in our own ways and almost certainly figuratively - although I am tempted next week on holiday to do it for real on the sand of Holkham Bay - to go out and draw that circle and contemplate on what one sees and finds and through them understand and experience an active and contemplative reconnection with God or Nature - the goal of life itself. In this state of contemplation we begin to practice the purposeful purposelessness much spoken of in Asian religions. And this purposeful purposelessness brings me to my next practical point and to one of the major points of Scruton's book. Because this goal of life is effectively hidden behind the allure of the 300 things we only begin to learn about the deep purposes of life when we have the means to communicate it to ourselves and to others around us. This is primarily done through what Scruton calls high culture which he describes as: 'the accumulation of art, literature, and humane reflection that has stood the "test of time" and established a continuing tradition of reference and allusion among educated people' (ibid. p.2). It is this culture which enables us to explore and experience in community profound depths of meaning in our lives. Culture - high culture that is not the merely distracting as so much of popular culture is (and here I ought to add I include in high culture a great deal Scruton would exclude as being popular - but that's another issue!) - is absolutely necessary to developing the ability to contemplate and so engage in true leisure which is, as Aristotle said, the true fruit or collective harvest of all our hard work as human beings. This is precisely what Lew Welch's poem did for me and, I hope for you. The problem is that because high culture doesn't offer any immediately obvious practical measurable outcomes (at least in old-style economic terms) our present day prosaic and deeply philistine educational experts have successively got rid of subjects that have been proven to help us to achieve true contemplation and leisure. They have stolen the harvest and I'm increasingly angry about it. So we loose philosophy and literature departments as philosophy and poetry is deemed pointless, no one learns ancient Greek and Latin anymore because no government department uses them and it doesn't help you order car parts, music departments are constantly under threat unless they provide eduction for so-called 'actual' jobs in the popular music industry - industry being the key word for them. All of these activities are now deemed unnecessary, mere ornaments on the fringes of the so-called 'real' world. Education must be overtly practical they say. But to what end? To more money making, more business deals? Viewed in this context we suddenly realise that many modern day educationalists are simply behaving like the businessman in our children's story who has utterly lost sight of the real purpose of life.

So today I call you to some acts of rebellion and ask you to consider teaching our children (and ourselves I should add) to be latter day Socratess, we must encourage them to read and write poetry, to explore Shakespeare, to learn Greek and Latin, to paint a landscape or simply watch the clouds whilst chewing grass, we must teach them to play music for the simple joy of playing music and we might even teach them to fish. Remember Isaac Walton, the author of that sublime book The Complete Angler (1653),took words from I Thess. 4:11 as the final words of the book (Ch. 21) and as his personal motto: 'study to be quiet'. But what we must not let them do, or ourselves, is be distracted by the 300 hundred things seen as ends and purposes in themselves. They are not the Harvest we seek.

As usual, Jesus was spot on when he quoted from the Torah (Deuteronomy 8:3) saying 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God' (Matthew 4:4). A true and happy life is indeed found in the contemplation of the all words of God or Nature - all our work as human beings is to this end, this moment of leisure, this true harvest of existence. The promise Jesus makes is that in this endeavour if we seek we will find, if we ask we will receive, if we knock the door will be opened to us (Matthew 7:7-8 & Luke 11:9-10).

Jesus also said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest' (Matthew 9:37 & Luke 10:2). So, in the same rebellious spirit of Jesus I ask you to go out and labour against the prevailing wind, to draw a circle and to contemplate all the words of God. You won't regret it because in so doing your life, and the life of those you touch through your example, will be transfigured. You will bring in a rich harvest indeed.


Tuesday, 2 October 2007

New Book Published

Just to let you know that the Unitarian Christian prayerbook I wrote with John Morgan is finally available. For more information about it and how to obtain a copy please go to the Unitarian Christian Association's website and look under Events (where you can also read the book's preface). To purchase this book (especially if you don't live in the UK) please contact Sandra Wilson in the first instance at:


It costs £10.99 (£9.99 + £1 p&p in the UK)

John Morgan's blog can be found at the Reading Eagle newspaper (just Google his and the newspaper's name and you'll find it - I can't get the link to work from this page, sorry about that).

Shorthand - a sermon given as part of "Cambridgshire Celebrates Age"

30 September 2007
You can also find this address on the Memorial Church (Unitarian) Webpage

When it comes to writing any sermon concerned with age and ageing it is very easy to slip into one of the million clichés on offer: for example - 'age brings greater wisdom.' Well although this is often the case, like many of you, I am sure that you have also met older people whose lack of wisdom has been astonishing to behold. We also know that ageing - even under the best of conditions - is not always a bundle of laughs. Platitudes then, especially from a relative youngster, are pointless and unwelcome.

So what am I going to say? Well, I'll begin in a moment with a skill whose regular practice certainly belongs to an older generation: shorthand. But, before that, I'd like to make an important and more general point concerning one of the things that makes being a human being, whether young or old, worth while: it is the discovery of meaning. Notice I use the word discovery and so by it I do not mean simply making meaning up but uncovering something real about human purposes and projects. This discovery of meaning is, as James Luther Adams (the great twentieth century Unitarian Christian theologian) properly the domain of theology and philosophy in its older forms and he noted:

"Theology deals with meaning, with the meaning of life, with its nature and its resources, its perversions, its possibilities. It aims to deal with ultimate issues, with perspectives in terms of which radical questions can be asked regarding life. Religious meaning is relatedness to the ultimate source and resource - to God" [NB. remember that by God I consistently mean God and Nature - Deus sive Natura] (Transforming Liberalism - The Theology of James Luther Adams by George Kimmich Beach, Skinner House, Boston 2005, p.15)

What Adams is saying is that theology is a practical discipline which tries to help us communicate to each other about how the One and the many relate together - to reveal how they cohere in a greater Divine Unity. Consequently theology is profoundly concerned with the ability to communicate. Communication is the point and to do that you need a language fit for the purpose.

Now we must note that all languages, to some degree or another, compress. They have to because language alone (whether verbal, musical or visual) cannot express all the meaning there is to express in all its forms. Of course, poetry is the obvious example of the compressive quality of language. Anyway, to say that language compresses is, in a rather abstract way, to say that all language is necessarily some kind of 'shorthand.' James Luther Adams, once "told a story about mastering the Gregg system of shorthand as a young assistant to a railroad superintendent. He commented that he was taught that you must not deviate from the system by creating your own private system of notations, because others will need to read what you have written" (ibid. p.16).

Quite naturally we might ask why would Adams remember this and relate it some sixty years after he had learnt it in the context of theology? Well he did it in order to illustrate that all language communicates in 'shorthand' ways and that language continues to communicate effectively only if the 'shorthand' does not become a purely personal language. George Kimmich Beach, Adams leading modern interpreter, points out that, although 'words may contain hidden or deeply personal meanings' if we are to 'enter into a world of SHARED meaning' they can only do this 'up to a point' or 'for the time being.' Beach points to a poetic example to help us understand this by the poet Robert Frost who, in his poem Revelation, uses the image of the children's game of hide-and-seek: 'Those who hide too well away Must speak and tell us where they are.'

The problem we face in our own age is that all of us are playing, not always consciously, very effective games of hide-and-seek with each other. Using private languages the young hide from the old, the old hide from the young - we all know the many reasons cited for this but they often boil down to: the old are reactionary, boring old codgers with nothing contemporary and relevant to say, and the young are all weapons, drink and drugs-crazed computer geeks. Some of them, perhaps, but if we are all hiding from each other how do we know? I mean really know?
Of course, the trouble with this game of cultural, political and religious hide-and-seek - fun though it is in the beginning, if after a while you cannot find the hider, eventually you give up and go in for tea. Eventually, on the basis of much experience, if you come to the conclusion that you won't find anyone when you do go looking you no longer even bother to play the game in the first place. In the end, no one looks for you and you don't look for anyone else. There is a wonderful Jewish story illustrating the very sad results of just such kinds of hiding and not being able to see or know whether anyone is looking or not:

"Rabbi Baruch's grandson Yechiel was once playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He hid himself well and waited for his playmate to find him. When, after a long wait, he came out of his hiding place, the other was nowhere to be seen. It seemed his friend had not looked for him at all. That made him cry and, crying, he ran to his grandfather and complained of his friend. Then tears brimmed in Rabbi Baruch's eyes, and said: God says the same thing: "I hide, but no one comes looking for Me" (quoted in Day by Day by Rabbi Chaim Stern, Beacon Press, Boston 1998 p. 28).

Incidentally, looked at the way I am looking at it this story can also be read as a criticism of God's ability to hide too well. I leave that tantalising thought for another day. But, as our spiritual model and exemplar Jesus reminds us our faith is in fact about calling for an end of all secrets and enabling better and more creative communication of the truth that makes all people and all creation free: "For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light" (Mark4:22).

Yet we are today seriously hampered in our calling as our culture, for all kinds of reasons - some more understandable and excusable than others, has for at least a century been wilfully fiddling about with our cultural, religious and political shorthands. So now - if we ever bother - when we look at each other's shorthand notebooks we are stuffed. Lots of what is written looks familiar but all over the place extra personal symbols have appeared and we cannot read them.

Remember I suggested at the outset that one of the things that makes being a human being worth while - whether young or old - is the discovery of meaning and I also suggested that theology is a vital part of the process and that is dependent upon communication. It is here that good religious and spiritual groups can be of particular help. By good I mean any religious body that seeks to help people discover this meaning themselves and then provides a safe context in which to discover meaning together in community and conversation - not all religious groups do that and those I call bad. This is why, on every order of service I print Bronson Alcott's words: "Conversation as the natural organ communicating, mind with mind, . . . is the method of human culture. By it I come nearer to those whom I shall address than by any other means." These words are printed for a real practical theological reason and not merely for superficial show.

But true communication requires at least three things from us all. The first is that we do not hide ourselves away so well. We need to let ourselves be found. The second thing is to go looking for others ourselves. The third is sit down with those we find or who have found us and begin to try with them to create a new, shared shorthand - the tea, coffee and conversation here occurs, I hope, in this context. You may think you are just having tea, coffee and conversation but, in truth, if you really are talking with each other, then in this church you are engaging in a genuine liberal theology and the discovery of meaning. Lots of the old symbols and stories we will find still work - in fact we might find that new depths of meaning have been added to them over the years of hiding. But lots of the old symbols and stories no longer function so we are going to have to work very hard at creating a whole new lexicon of shared symbols and stories. We can only genuine reconnect with each other - young and old - and begin to have a deepened respect for each other, when we reconnect through a working shorthand with common interests and skills.

(In passing a word of serious warning needs to be given here - very serious. Some groups are now very adept at using the broken shorthand to make us think they are really communicating with each us when if fact they are still remaining very well hidden. I can cite afterwards - for those interested - meetings with various groups, from regional and national government and also religious groups (both liberal and conservative) where you are quietly led to believe you are talking about the same things when if fact you are being led up the garden path.

This is where age can be both a curse and a blessing. It is a curse because many of you will remember how the cultural, political and religious shorthands once worked and so may be ready to believe too soon that you are talking meaningfully with someone. Follow Jesus' advice here and remember to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Talk, yes - there may be real communication - but keep your wits about you. But age is also blessing because it gives you a powerful wild card to play. Because you are older you have a better perspective on this collapse of shorthand meanings. You are the ones that can see, if you keep your wits about you, that something is not right, that the shorthand is being misused. This is more easily seen by you than any youngster who has never experienced the shorthand really working.

To conclude, my basic point today is that without real communication, without real and functioning cultural, political and religious shorthands, we have a bleak future of isolation and a collapse of shared meaning ahead of us all and we will be crying tears much as Rabbi Baruch and his grandson Yechiel did. But it need not be that way if we recognise the time for playing hide and seek is over. We all need to go in for tea, sit round the table and talk. Really talk.

Please, as older people, realise that you are a key instrument, a barometer if you like, by which we can gauge whether we are really communicating with each other or not. It seems to me that, right now, this is the great and unique gift of older age. I know it to be so because some of you have come to me bearing such a gift. The weather report you bring may not be a good one right now, but because of you and your help, we who are younger will be prepared to weather the storm and come out of it stronger and better able to build a shared and open future.