Friday, 30 November 2007

Teddy Bears and their potentially dangerous consequences

Like many people, I am fairly staggered and intensely disappointed about the decision to jail Gillian Gibbons to fifteen days in jail in Sudan. Here is a link to an article on the matter from the think-tank Ekklesia that may be of interest to folk. My concern is that these little stupidities and intolerances being shown by some sections within the Muslim world are slowly mounting up to the point where it becomes increasingly impossible for many people in countries such as the UK to see the many potential positive aspects of Islam. Then, if the proverbial shit hits the fan and another major terrorist attack occurs under the name of Islam, I am fearful that a dangerous polarisation will occur. Of course one expects young thuggish right wingers to go further to the right but what if the educated middle-classes also shift suddenly to the right?

If that happens those of us who call ourselves liberal (whether religious or not) and wish to help re-negiotiate the secular space for the twenty-first century are going to have the mother of all hills to climb and in some very unpleasant weather too.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Welcome to Lucy, Desi and Daniel? A Response to a question by Daniel C. Dennett

A sermon delivered at the Memorial Church, Emmanuel Road on 25 November 2007

From Daniel C. Dennet's book Breaking the Spell - Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Allen Lane, London 2006 pp. 208-210):

Mystery is declared to surround the various conceptions of God, but there is nothing mysterious about the process of transformation, which is clear for all to see and has been described (and often decried) by generations of would-be stewards of this important idea. Why don't the stewards just coin new terms for the revised conceptions and let go of the traditional terms along with the discarded conceptions? After all, we don't persist in the outmoded medical terminology of humors and apoplexy or insist on finding something in contemporary physics or chemistry to identify as phlogiston. Nobody has proposed that we have discovered the identity of élan vital (the secret ingredient that distinguishes living things from mere matter); it's DNA (the vitalists just didn't have the right conception of it, but they knew there had to be something). Why do people insist on calling the Higher Power they believe in "God"? The answer is clear: the believers in the belief in God have appreciated that the continuity of professing requires continuity of nomenclature, that brand loyalty is a feature so valuable that it would be foolish to tamper with it. So, whatever other reforms you may want to institute, don't try to replace the word "God" ("Jehovah," "Theos," "Deus," "the Almighty," "Our Lord," "Allah") when you tinker with your religion. In the beginning was the Word.
I have to say that it has worked pretty well, after a fashion. For a thousand years, roughly, we've entertained a throng of variously deanthropomorphized, intellectualized concepts of God, all more or less peacefully coexisting in the minds of "believers." Since everybody calls his or her version "God," there is something "we can all agree about"—we all believe in God; we're not atheists! But of course it doesn't work that well. If Lucy believes that Rock (Hudson) is to die for, and Desi believes that Rock (music) is to die for, they really don't agree on anything, do they?

[An] eminent Episcopal cleric once confided to me that when he found out what some Mormons believed when they said they believed in God, he rather wished they didn't believe in God! Why won't he say this from the pulpit? Because he doesn't want to let down the side.
-o0o-

One of the puzzling things about Dennett's call is that we are in fact living through a time when many religious groups are doing precisely what he calls for and doing it for wholly unhealthy reasons. As I am sure many of you are aware, increasing numbers of conservative religionists, of all persuasions, are now defining very tightly what it is that they mean when they talk of God. I can take you to three churches within five minutes walking distance from here where you will be told in no uncertain terms what it is they believe about God - and, by extension what it is you should believe. It will come as no surprise to discover that I also know some Muslims whose definition of God is also becoming increasingly clearly defined. Although I still wish to remain on as good as terms as I can with all of them, I have to say that I find their understanding of God to be extremely bitter, dark, repressive, narrow and judgemental. I would like to be able to say that the ultimate religious sanction, namely violence and even murder, is not on their agenda (and for most it isn't) but, as we know, a recent terrorist bomb plot did, alas, have some roots here. Given time and, if not encouragement then at least the opportunity and space, I becoming increasingly concerned about how religion may be developing in the British context.

Given all this Dennett's call must be addressed primarily to the liberal churches and religious groups of all faiths and its ministers - which includes us. I think he is right to make this call and it is becoming increasingly important in this age of conservative radicalisation to say publicly that we do not believe in the kind of God that can underpin any kind of extreme fundamentalist religion of whatever stripe. We are beginning to bump up against the very inconvenient truth that, as much as we may like to keep up the appearance of there being a genuine consensus amongst all religious groups - let alone just amongst Christians - it is no longer either realistic to do this nor, today, even safe. In fact not to break ranks and to take the risk of "letting the side down" would be, I think, a culpable failure on our part.

But this inconvenient truth reveals a whole load of other complex issues because once you have started taking such a stand and challenging conservative readings over in what consists being a faithful and honest disciple of the man Jesus of Nazareth it then seems to be insufficient not to go on and be a little more explicit about what it is we do believe about God. But, in important ways, this kind of clarification can run counter to how we have been developing over the last few centuries, namely towards orthopraxy (right practice) rather than orthodoxy (right belief). We felt, for what were good reasons, that what counted was what we did and not, primarily, what we believed. But one down side of this is that, slowly and surely, and especially at the liberal end of things, we have become increasingly disconnected from the important motor of belief which gave us our initial energy, vision and direction.

Here is a story told to me by someone in education research in Cambridge which helpfully illustrates my point. A crew and passengers board a fine large sailing boat with the intention of finding new wondrous lands to settle and to live in freedom. They set off with passion for the search and for years this passion animates them as they seek the promised land. But, as the years pass by and they do not find their dreamed of port they begin to sail differently for the true purpose of their life has changed. Where once they coiled ropes, raised sails, cleaned decks and polished brass to get the ship to its final port now they simply coil ropes, raise sails, clean decks and polish brass. It looks like they are sailing with purpose but they are not. They are simply sailing. Expand this story by a few generations and you will get to where we are today.
If this process had been mirrored across the board and had affected all forms of religious beliefs then the situation would be different but we know this is not the case. It is clear that conservative religion is on the rise again and with it increased religious commitment and belief.
The conference I chaired and spoke at this week at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst was yet another frightening wake up call on this matter.

Now I'm very much a theologian and philosopher and so naturally my default position is to think hard about this stuff and try to present rational arguments for the truth of my own position and that of Unitarian and Free Christianity. I think this can be done, and done well, but I am increasingly realising that to do this would be to play a similar game to the conservative religionists. I could very easily try to tighten up the detail of what it is we believe but we, too, would quickly become a theologically narrow community; a veritable parody of the liberalism and openness we currently espouse.

It seems to me that the great intuition of the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth - in whose footsteps we seek to follow - was that the kingdom of Heaven is not in the fiefdom of any synagogue or church nor even a single religion. Jesus realised that the kingdom of Heaven is God's and God's alone and it has always included the whole of creation with all its different peoples and beliefs. The great Unitarian minister Robert Travers Herford said in 1929 the problem was that the Church decided to preach:

"Jesus and the resurrection"; they did not preach what [Jesus] preached. And what gradually came into being, as the result of their labours, was the Christian Church; it was not the Kingdom of God - the Christian Church, as a society of those who "believed on their Lord Jesus Christ," and interpreted their belief, as time went on, in terms of doctrinal propositions about him rather than in efforts themselves to do the things that he said (The Idea of the Kingdom of God 1929, p. 1).

Reflecting upon this failure of the Christian Church Herford boldly went on to state in the same lecture that:

No one but a Christian ever did, or ever could, work for the Church. But all can work for the Kingdom of God, not Christians only but all who consciously own God, whether Christian or Jew, Mohammedan or Brahmin, or any other of those to whom God has revealed himself “by diverse portions and in diverse manners (The Idea of the Kingdom of God, p. 12).

Now, although the practical religion we practise here is wholly shaped by following Jesus example and teachings and, therefore, certain Christian traditions and forms of worship and prayer and is, in this sense 'Christian,’ because we are prepared at the same time to state explicitly that any individual who realises their true relationship to God also experiences the kingdom of God as a present reality we reveal that we believe, in principle and in practice, that any faithful person in any religious tradition can and does manifest the kingdom of God in their own lands and societies and in their own hearts. In the most general sense - albeit very strongly - we believe in a God, an ultimate unity, that holds all things and peoples together.

How such an ultimate unity may be doctrinally expressed is actually manifold. It can be expressed by my own form of Spinozism, it can be expressed through all kinds of 'orthodox' Unitarian and Trinitarian theologies, it can even be expressed by atheistic philosophies; J. M. E. McTaggert's philosophy is one such beautiful and inspiring example. It can be expressed by Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and Brahmins and many more. This is our great heresy and God, understood as such an underlying unity, is that in which we believe and we seek to make this unity visible in our world by following Jesus of Nazareth and seeking what St Paul memorably called the "Mind of Christ" (I Cor. 2:16).

As the writer of I John said: "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action" (3:18). Our call is, therefore, not to tighten up our words and speech - that is to say our doctrine - but simply to show truth and action by our public commitment to a Divine Unity who includes in love beyond our understanding of love not only ourselves but all, including Lucy, Desi and even Dennett and all sectarian conservatives. Now that is, surely, a Gospel worth taking abroad and proclaiming to all those who would take our world down the narrow path of exclusion, violence and destruction.

Does this let the side down? Well, if the side is orthodox Christianity (or pretty much any orthodox expression of every religion I know) then the answer is a resounding "Yes!." But I'm prepared to go to my grave arguing that it doesn't let down Jesus of Nazareth nor his inclusive vision of the kingdom of God. In the end that's all I care about and, I would argue, all that any of us should care about.

Amen.

Reason, the only oracle given you by heaven

A sermon given at the Memorial Church, Cambridge & Girton College Evensong on 18 November 2007

Parables come in many forms and one of my favourite non-Biblical and comic examples is found in Monty Python’s film “The Life of Brian.” The PFJ, the “People’s Front of Judea” (Judith, Reg, Stan and Francis), are sitting in the forum discussing Judith’s idea that any “Anti-Imperialist group” like theirs “must reflect a divergence of interests within its power-base.” Francis agrees and he says, “Yeah. I think Judith’s point of view is very valid, Reg, provided the Movement never forgets that it is the inalienable right of every man . . .” Before he can finish Stan interjects, “Or woman.” Stan continues to add “woman” to every mention of “man,” and “herself” to every mention of “himself” until finally Francis asks him why he’s always going on about women. Stan replies, as I am sure you all remember, that he wants to be one, to be called Loretta and he also demands the right to have babies. Reg, the character played by John Cleese, can’t control himself any more, “But . . . you can’t have babies.” Stan replies “Don’t you oppress me” and Reg explodes “I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! Where’s the foetus going to gestate?! You going to keep it in a box?!” After some more lunatic exchanges the “People’s Front of Judea” agree that they will fight the oppressors for Stan’s right to have babies as a symbol of their “struggle against oppression.” Reg, in quiet despair concludes the scene with an aside, “Symbolic of his struggle against reality.”

Now, in my role as a liberal Christian minister serving the Cambridge Unitarian church and also as an active member of various local and regional ecumenical and inter-faith bodies this parable has become increasingly important to me because it helps illustrate a vital aspect of faith that, in our increasingly secular age, is often missed – I refer to the fact that much in real faith is simply given and, in a culture obsessed by choice, it is easy to forget the importance of certain “lack of choices”. In just the same way that Stan cannot choose to have babies we cannot choose the cultures into which we were born nor our religious or philosophical upbringings and our personal religious and philosophical experiences.

Too many people in today’s world have naively come to view a human-being’s identity as being created wholly by choice – and that includes faith. In just the same way that we make choices about whether to have latte or a cappuccino it is easy to assume, in the liberal West at least, that various faith positions are laid out menu-like before one, and that a person simply chooses one from this list which suits their present mood and lifestyle. But one cannot choose faith like this. Think about it.

For starters, the place of one’s birth is hardly a matter of choice and I am sure we all recognize that if we had been born in Iran or Saudi Arabia the odds are we would have almost certainly been brought up as Muslims. If we had been born in Israel, Tibet or India we would most probably have been Jews, Buddhists and Hindus respectively. This is perhaps the most obvious example of a lack of choice in religion.

A second, and related example is the matter of personal religious experience. I had a religious experience in my early twenties about which I had no choice and, given that I was born in England into a Christian family, the imagery and language I used to explain, explore and interpret that experience was inevitably derived from Christianity. This religious experience was decisive in calling me back into a creative living dialogue with the Christian tradition and it eventually brought me into the ministry and so here today. It most certainly wasn’t one choice out of many possibilities on some menu board which made me say, “Uhmmm . . . I think I’ll have one Christian ecstatic religious vision to go please!” But what if my upbringing had been different and that the vision had been one in which I described not God understood through the life and teachings of the man Jesus of Nazareth but God understood through Krishna or the teachings of Mohammed? If that encounter had been as affecting as the one I had (and I have no reason to doubt that those who have religious experiences within Hinduism or Islam were not just as powerfully affected as I was by my own) then I have no problem imagine taking myself off to some Ashram or seeking membership of some Sufi order and spending a life in devotion to God in those contexts. Wild horses wouldn’t hold me back.

These examples, and there are many others, simply cannot be rationally chosen and, especially in our own age where it is impossible, or should be impossible, for any of us to hold any religious or philosophical position without simultaneously being aware that it is only one option amongst a myriad number of other available possibilities, we must find ways creatively to acknowledge this and live with the consequences. To an extraordinary degree we have to acknowledge that we are who we are because of contingent unchosen elements. Not to acknowledge this would be to be rather like Stan and to be struggle against reality.

But, like Stan, this given reality can sometimes weigh upon us and bring us to utter despair. Tradition, one’s birthright faith can feel like the worst kind of trap because it cannot be undone – it is just there. No wonder, then, that many are tempted to deny its importance or even existence, they try to ignore or forget it and make some claim that we can choose freely and absolutely some other identity.

However, there is one another given about which we have no choice and it is one which redeems and transfigures all the others. Moreover, it is given to all peoples in all places and times – an appropriate point to make in an educational institution that draws its students from different cultures and faiths around the globe. It is, as the writer of Proverbs put it, the human spirit which is “the candle of the LORD, searching all the inward parts of the belly” (Proverbs 20:27). This verse was the watchword of the Cambridge Platonists and you can find it in emblazoned in one of the windows of Emmanuel College. This spirit, this candle of the Lord, is nothing less than Reason – the human and divine faculty or capacity for truth seeking and problem-solving. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), the third President of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence in a letter to Peter Carr once memorably said:

Lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision (Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787 ME 6:261)

This is not to underplay the role of direct religious experience or tradition – I have already nailed my colours to the mast on that matter – but it is a recognition that religious experience and tradition, if it is to be in any way a useful guide to the good life, must be reflected and reasoned upon.

The Irish poet, dramatist and suffragette Eva Gore-Booth (1870–1926) wrote a short poem called Form which can helps us unfold this thought a little further (quoted in The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse. Ed. Nicholson & Lee. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1917):

THE BURIED statue through the marble gleams,
Praying for freedom, an unwilling guest,
Yet flooding with the light of her strange dreams
The hard stone folded round her uncarved breast.

Founded in granite, wrapped in serpentine,
Light of all life and heart of every storm,
Doth the uncarven image, the Divine,
Deep in the heart of each man, wait for form.

It seems to me that within every religious given there lies an uncarven Divine image and it is the creative and divine gift of Reason which can help us shape this raw material in ways that can reveal and release this universal but as yet uncarven image. The light of Reason brought to bear on the apparent raw and fixed given-ness of so many elements of our personal faith and religious experiences reveals to us that it is good material and as such necessary for us if we are to become artists filled with God’s free and creative spirit. Although we cannot choose our initial material we are graced with Reason which can help us reshape, recast and reinterpret it. We may not be free to choose the place of our birth, the religious environment in which we grew up, the religious and spiritual experiences we may have had but, but God’s gift to us of Reason is what allows each of us to take the givens of our life and to learn, as did the Psalmist they have “fallen unto us in pleasant [places]” and so be able to say “yea, I have a goodly heritage.” Jesus knew this intimately and it is why he could say with complete confidence: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” He had understood the power of Reason to recast, reshape and reinterpret the givens of his own life in ways that honoured the past but which always remained creatively open to a new and developing future.

In the light of this, here in this city of learning and this beautiful college chapel I simply ask that we consider two things in the coming years . The first is that we should, as scholars and people seeking faith, give ourselves over completely to the task of developing the divine gift of Reason in ourselves. The second is to use this gift, not to deny our past traditions and experiences, but to reshape them into beautiful representations of the all inclusive God of Love.

To conclude, I return to the parable from “The Life of Brian.” In a gently comic way we see just this process occurring. The decision of the PFJ to affirm the right of Stan to have babies, even though both he and we know he never can, is an example of acknowledging that though some things cannot be changed his friends, as loving, compassionate and reasoning people, can find a way of recasting and reinterpreting the situation so that Stan is not trapped and destroyed.
May each of us have the wisdom to accept the gifts of our birthright faiths and cultures and, in the divine light of gifted Reason release from that material a new and better world for all who follow us in God’s glorious creation.

Amen.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Remembrance Sunday - Accepting Ambiguity and Eschewing Sentimentality

A Sermon given on 11th November 2007 (Remembrance Sunday)

As far as Remembrance Sunday is concerned we are about to cross an important line as we begin to say a final farewell to the generation that fought in the First World War. There now remain in the world only 22 veterans of that conflict. That war was of course the one that gave rise to our modern Remembrance Sunday observances. The day began as Armistice Day, which was set aside by the United States, Great Britain, and France to commemorate the ending of the war at 11am on the 11th November 1918. Following World War II it was additionally recognized as a day of tribute to the veterans and the dead of that conflict as well.

In earlier years I have explored aspects of the day which, I hope, have shown that it is a day which, far from glorifying war, in fact reveals a profound horror of it. The recent trend of wearing white poppies - whilst I certainly support the desire for peace that lies behind it - is one I have not adopted because it seems to me that the red poppy says the same thing but in ways that better allow the painful moral ambiguity of conflict to be explored.

But, today, I want to address something else connected with the imminent loss of all those who fought in WWI. One of the significant problems that occurs whenever the object/s of memory moves beyond a certain kind of sight is that sentimentality begins to enter the picture. It seems to me that it is impossible properly to honour the veterans and dead of war if we allow this sentimentalisation to occur. If we wish to avoid this clearly one important initial task is to identify in what sentimentality consists. The philosopher Roger Scruton is helpful here. In his new book, Culture Counts - Faith and feeling in a world besieged he observes that:

Sentimentality . . . is habit-forming. And those to whom it appeals are frequently unaware of its principal characteristic, which is that it is a pretence. Sentimental words and gestures are forms of play-acting: pretending to noble emotions while in fact being motivated in another way. Thus real grief focuses on the object, the person lost and mourned for, while sentimental grief focuses on the subject, the person who grieves, and whose principal concern is to show his fine feelings to the world. Hence, it is a mark of sentimentality that the object becomes hazy, idealised, observed with no real concern for the truth.

In the light of this as we engage in our act of remembrance today the key question for us must be for whom is the grief felt - for us or the veterans and dead and by extension, therefore, the war itself? In 1918, on that first Armistice Day, it would have been hard, if not impossible, for most people’s grief to be directed clearly upon the true object. The presence of the dead alive in their memories and of the survivors alive in their streets and homes was immediate. We must not forget how catastrophic and utterly unsentimental that conflict was (even though the politicians tried to give it a sentimental patriotic sheen) and the profound impact it had upon our culture and faith.

One important way of avoiding sentimentality in our remembering is simply to recall the brutal, cold statistics of the war. In the British Empire 8,904,467 men were mobilized; 908,371 were killed or died; 2,090,212 were wounded; making 3,190,235 casualties. In total, allied and axis figures are as follows: 65,038,810 men were mobilized; 8,528,831 were killed or died; 21,189,154 were wounded making, in total, 37,468,904 casualties. Sentimentality just cannot enter the frame in the immediate presence of such numbers. In passing, but importantly, we may note our own liberal religious tradition began its steep decline in the aftermath of this conflict. Our theology was at the time too optimistic - too sentimental to survive the brutal realities of the age. That is a lesson we must ensure we never forget in the future.

Anyway, when there are only 22 people who directly experienced that conflict left amongst us, then the situation is close to a significant. The inevitable result will be, unless checked, a loss of focus on the actual events and people involved and they will begin to be read in ways that internalize them - making them symbolic of our own struggles and fears, loves and hates. That may have some positive aspects but Remembrance Sunday can then easily become merely an occasion for showing off publicly - showing to the world how we really care, that we are people of real emotion and not unthinking individualists. It can also become merely a social duty that one must fulfil if one is to remain visibly 'respectable’.

It is also a moment when the occasion can begin to turn into an excuse for mere personal entertainment. Reading the Radio Times this week was an instructive exercise. I was pleased to see that the writing about the programmes being specially broadcast or made for the day was uniformly careful not to sell them merely as entertainment. The emphasis was upon educating people so that they were given a sense of the brutal 'realities’ of the conflict and its aftermath. I don’t think one can ask for more but, of course, the whole of the Remembrance Day programming needs to be seen in the wider context of entertainment and lifestyle. Today remembrance - perhaps -, tomorrow a sci-fi movie, a sit com or time spent with a shopping channel.

In case you think I am being unduly disparaging of television watchers - for those who don’t know Susanna (my wife) and I don’t have one and we haven’t for twelve years - and that I sit in pristine moral perfection, well I assure you it is not the case - it is actually impossible for any of us to escape this wider cultural context. Here is how I noticed how easy it is to be seduced. Having read through the TV pages to see how they were presenting the day I finally got to the radio section, the bit I usually read. Now I’m passionate about the music of an almost forgotten British composer, John Foulds, whose music is experiencing a revival at the moment. This evening, at 6.30, the BBC are to broadcast his "A World Requiem" a piece which has not been performed for 81 years. The work - monumental in all senses of the word - requires no fewer than 1,250 musicians to perform and was for four years in succession, from 1923 to 1926, the centrepiece of the Armistice Day Festival, which brought war-ravaged Britain to a virtual halt every 11 November - something that doesn’t happen today. How many are we today and how many are there in the new H&M and John Lewis at this very moment? But, in spite of such a successful beginning, 'A World Requiem’ disappeared from the repertoire. The reasons for this are in themselves interesting and manifold - but not to be explored now. But what saddened me was that when I read about this performance I was excited for me, that I was going to be able to hear, at last, this extraordinary, even legendary work. I was going to be entertained and thrilled and I was, in that thought alone, entertained and thrilled. But Foulds created this work, not to entertain and thrill, but to bring the listener - and himself - face to face with the abject horror of a world conflict in which 8,528,831 died and 21,189,154 were wounded. I had committed the grave sin of sentimentalising the piece and, therefore, the event it commemorated. It is worth recalling Scruton’s words at this point. I had completely lost focus on the true object of the requiem’s grief opened myself up to the possibility of engaging in a pretence - pretending to noble emotions whilst being motivated in another way, namely my own desire simply to be entertained and thrilled.

I am recording the performance and, before I wrote this address I would have been able to say to you that I would be looking forward to hearing it. Now I’m not - not at all. I’m going to listen to it, but I have been rather saddened and shaken by my observations of myself. I leave you to examine and judge your own rememberings. (Author’s note of 26 November): My machine failed to record the performance so, alas, I cannot report what I did, in the end, feel like as I listened to it.)

Because an underlying object of Remembrance Day is not war but peace, true peace, it will come as no surprise to anyone that I begin to conclude by speaking of peace. But if our remembering becomes increasingly sentimental then the danger is that our thinking about peace will also become increasingly sentimental. Again recall Scruton’s observation that it is "a mark of sentimentality that the object becomes hazy, idealised, observed with no real concern for the truth." When it comes to war and peace there must be a real concern for truth. We cannot afford to lose sight of the real object of our grief - not only the 8,528,831 dead of WWI but the many millions before and since. This is not thrilling nor entertaining. It’s a dreadful, mind and soul-numbing object but only if we face that truth - in all its stark emptiness - do we stand a chance of building a true peace.

Given all the above it was so tempting to leave you all today with an obviously uplifting thought after the darkness - perhaps a passage of scripture such as from I John 1:5: "This is the message we have heard from [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all." . But, although I may believe this deeply, in the immediate context, just swiftly turning to such a thought feels too close the sentimental I have been criticising. In this context I remembered a letter written in Tegel prison during 1944 by Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German protestant pastor and theologian imprisoned and then executed by the Nazi’s. As a profoundly faithful Christian and one of the most influential modern theologians he knew the Biblical text inside out. Recalling an apt text for any occasion was never a problem for one such he. Yet he movingly tells how, during a particularly bad bombing raid, he was hiding under a table with some other prisoners when he realised that in the face of all that was going on around them the only thing authentic response was simply to be with them silently and fully sharing the horror and fear of the moment. It is only in so far as we can authentically experience - or at least authentically understand and recall the true horror of conflict, the true object of our remembering today, will we be ready to work consistently and passionately for authentic peace.
So where there would normally be a reference to an ultimate good in which all is held let there be only another brief silence as we gather unsentimentally in a non-judgemental solidarity with all who have served in every conflict and whether they are whether dead or alive.

SILENCE

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

Amen.

The 'All' in All Souls and All Saints

A sermon given on 4 November 2007 at The Memorial Church, Cambridge

During the week we have experienced (or perhaps not) that complex melange of festivals which confuses many people. Firstly there was 'All Saints’ or 'All Hallows’ in which all the known and unknown Christian saints are remembered. The same festival has, of course, its eve and is known as 'All Hallows Eve' or more commonly as 'Hallowe’en.’ It is a festival intimately linked with the Celtic end of summer festival 'Samhain’. Secondly, there followed 'All Souls’ in which those baptized Christians who are believed to be in purgatory because they have died with the guilt of lesser sins on their souls are commemorated. Roman Catholic doctrine still holds that the prayers of the faithful on earth will help cleanse these souls in order to fit them for the vision of God in heaven.

This concern for the soul (however conceived and in whatever number) is not, of course, confined to the Christian Church. In Buddhism, for instance, there is an important 'All Souls’ Festival called Ullambana. Worshipers make "boats of the law" (fa-ch'uan) out of paper, some very large, which are then burned in the evening. The purpose of the celebration is twofold: to remember the dead and to free and let the 'pretas’ ascend to heaven. The pretas are the spirits of those who died as a result of an accident or a drowning and as a consequence were never buried; their presence among us is thought to be dangerous.

Today, I want to concentrate on the adjective 'all’ in the festival names and so I don’t, therefore, propose to explore the many and complex theories of the soul that exists. However a brief, tentative definition of in what consists the soul is useful. In outline, we may define the soul as the immaterial essence or animating spiritual principle embodied in either human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or in the universe conceived of as a whole. Within some cultures and philosophies everything, including animals and apparently inanimate things, also has a soul of some description.

That these 'All Soul's' festivals are still ‘celebrated’ (or perhaps better merely acknowledged) in both secular and religious ways across both our own country and the world bears witness to the perennial concern with the soul and its fate. Given this it is, I think, incumbent upon us as a particular kind of liberal Christian church to recall what has been our own tradition’s position regarding the soul and its fate so we may speak as clearly and meaningfully as we can to those who seek us out for solace and inspiration. For us a key word is one connected with our family of churches - namely 'Universalism.’ But, having just spoken of clarity before we continue we need, firstly, to clear some considerably muddy water that has gathered around this word and also around that of 'Unitarian’ with which it is often connected.

I am sure that many of you, in deciding whether or not to come to this church, will have 'Google-searched' the name 'Unitarian’ and come across many sites relating to a religious view-point called 'Unitarian-Universalism’ (written with a hyphen) - you may even have assumed that this church is a Unitarian-Universalist one. Well, to begin with, we need to note that the names 'Unitarian’ and 'Universalist’ are for us derived from adjectives which modify the noun Christianity. So a Unitarian is a Christian who, essentially, affirms the unity of God and who consequently strongly affirms the humanity of Jesus. A Universalist is a Christian who is of the opinion that, however conceived, every soul, and that does mean every soul, will somehow obtain salvation - even if that soul is not a Christian one. Universalist Christians may, or may not, be Unitarians. As it happens I am a Christian who is both a Unitarian and a Universalist. But Unitarian-Universalism (remember written with a hyphen) explicitly defines itself as a new, post-Christian religion. The website of the American Unitarian-Universalist Association (the UUA) states that: "Unitarian-Universalism no longer solely holds traditional Universalist or Unitarian beliefs, but does draw directly on its heritage for much of its inspiration and grounding." So, when someone tells you they are a Unitarian it is worth finding out - simply for clarity’s sake – whether they mean Unitarian Christian or Unitarian-Universalist.

This church is not, and do please remember this and make it clear to those whom you meet, this church is not a Unitarian-Universalist one. It is a Unitarian and Free Christian one. However, because we share with it important elements of the same liberal religious history we continue to have with it many pleasant, fruitful and constructive relationships. As the cover of our order of service notes we "strive for a broader understanding among religious groups and endeavour, in a spirit of enquiry, to appreciate truth, beauty and goodness in whatever form of religion or philosophy these may be found."

Although in our immediate context this clears up one aspect of the meaning of the word universalist it leaves another unaddressed. Unitarianism - in challenging the validity of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity - is what is known as a Christian heresy - though we don’t see it as a heresy of course! Because of this the word Unitarian is utterly redundant as an adjective attached to any other religious tradition with perhaps the single exception of Hinduism where the Unitarian tradition is represented by the Brahmo Samaj (the Society of God). But Judaism and Islam, for example, are already 'unitarian’ (lower case u) in outlook. But universalism is a "global" heresy not limited in any way to particular historical, cultural, and religious context. It is a sad fact but all the world’s religions have, in some form or other and at various times, tried to claim that a soul’s ultimate salvation is absolutely dependent upon being a member of the right religion, namely their own and has claimed there will be damnation, or at least utter perdition or oblivion, for all those souls who practise any other faith. The theological conviction that unites all universalists in all the various world religious traditions is an absolute rejection of these notions. All universalists have proposed that it is grotesque in the extreme to imagine anything worthy of the noble name(s of God or the Absolute that would either allow this or behave in such a fashion. So universalist Christians, Hindus, Moslems, Zoroastrians and Manicheans, Jains, Jews, Buddhists, (the list is endless...) - all say, in their own languages and historical and religious contexts, that God, the Absolute simply does not give birth to the world and suffuse it with 'Its Essence’ in order to discard any of those 'pieces', or 'reflections', or 'sparks' forever. The 'reconciliation of each with all' may take a very, very long time - but the ultimate outcome is, to a universalist, not in any real doubt: in the end universalists believe that all souls find salvation, healing and wholeness.

The connecting link that binds these varied universalists together is a train of theological thought, intuition, and argument which holds that when you consider God’s unity then it becomes impossible to imagine anything that does not come from God - God being seen as the Absolute reality. For this reason it becomes impossible to imagine anything that does not return to God in the end because, in truth, it has never left this Unity. Here is found the intimate connection with the Unitarian position.

But the universalist affirmation of this ultimate unity in God does not, at the same time, result in the abandonment of different religious traditions in favour of some lowest common denominator religion. What it does mean, is that each individual religion calls forth an understanding of the universal that is deeply rooted in the different times and places and in the different ways of worship and even belief that humans hold. In short, universalists, believe they are called to be true to the universal truth that they have been bequeathed in their particular traditions. Without those particular and distinct traditions there would be no way of intuiting this underlying unity. Perhaps one of the most beautiful expressions of this that I know is to be found in the Qur’an. In Sura 5 v.48 we read: ". . . for each We have appointed a law and a path, and if God had wished, He could have made you one people . . . so vie with one another in good works. Unto God ye will all be brought back and He will then inform you about those things wherein ye differed" (trans. Martin Lings).

At this time of the year, and particularly in the strange times we are living through when increasingly dangerously sectarian spirits are abroad in the world, it is time once again to meditate hard upon what it is we believe about the soul and which truly underpins our liberal Christian community and which inspires us to reach out and relate constructively and positively with people who believe differently from us. To help with this process I leave you with some words by that great eighteenth-century English Universalist who founded the Universalist Church in the USA, John Murray. I fervently believe that they still speak to us today and commend them to you as one beautiful expression of our faith as a particular people intent upon following the religion of Jesus rather than the religion about him. He speaks, of course about America but he speaks with a universal spirit:

Go out into the highways and byways of America, your new country. Give the people , blanketed with a decaying and crumbling Calvinism, something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.

Amen.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

That vision thing . . .

One of the most vital things every contemporary liberal religious community must do is take the time to figure out what on earth it is about. Living in a secular age it is clear that a church cannot survive anymore just by bumbling along. For starters we may note that many of the social functions our churches used to undertake have been supplanted in some way by other secular bodies. Also many people now look for moral and spiritual support and replenishment in self-help books or in other, more generalised spiritual, practices. So why come to a liberal church? Well, we have to make this explicit in ways that, in former days, were unnecessary.
One common option is to follow the passive approach and simply try to offer what it is we think the general population wants regardless of its underlying content or value. This often comes under the rubric of ‘being relevant’ in order to get ‘bums on seats.’

But religion at its best – especially the kind of liberal and radical Christian tradition to which I belong – is not, in the first instance, concerned about being obviously ‘relevant’ and drawing huge numbers but instead about being truthful to the religious and spiritual vision that lies at its heart. It is a painful truth that this vision is not, at times, popular and so holding to it results in being small and, to some extent, marginalised. But surely a ‘bum on a seat’ is only worth having if that same ‘bum’ is intimately attached to a person with a heart, mind and hand who supports the core religious and spiritual vision of the local community?

Every church is having to face up to this need and, although it can sound horribly PC, all of them recognise the need to articulate ‘vision statements’ which help us explain better what it is we are doing and to show more clearly what it is we stand for and to what a person is being asked to commit themselves. My old philosophy tutor and friend Victor Nuovo attends Middlebury Congregational Church in Vermont and he has helped his own church write such a vision statement. It is worth considering because it so clearly echoes the covenant my own church affirms (In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus the members of this church unite for the worship of God and the service of humankind) and explicitly unfolds it into the realm of the practical. It is a vision statement I certainly share with them and I hope it may anyone who reads this to think along similar lines. As we enter the season of Advent and Christmas – a time of love and gift-giving – should we not be making it clear what is the gift liberal Christians we are freely offering the world? The following statement and vision is, I think, a beautiful gift and I commend it to you.

MISSION
Preamble

We are a community that seeks to live by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth that we love God with our whole heart and mind and that we love our neighbour as ourselves. In this spirit, we affirm universal and unconditional equality and acceptance of all. We affirm but one orthodoxy: a love of truth that is a sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it. With our whole heart, we desire to promote, among ourselves and in the world, compassion, justice, and peace, for such is the Kingdom of God.

STATEMENT

Our Mission is to live as Jesus taught, loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves.

VISION

Therefore, looking to the future with hope, our church community will be defined by all of these characteristics:

The life of Jesus of Nazareth will be the standard for all that we do individually and collectively.
We will reflect continuing growth in our understanding of our place in the world and our responsibility in it.

Children and Youth will be central to the life of our church and will be unconditionally accepted in it.

Our search for truth and a sustaining faith in God will be evident.

Communal worship in many forms will be vital to church life as will our support and encouragement for each other in our individual spiritual journeys.

Education in the ways of Jesus of Nazareth will be an essential and exciting part of our programs for children, youth, and adults.

We will be active and responsible stewards of Earth.

We will be practicing radical hospitality and welcoming all with unconditional equality and acceptance.

We will be caring with compassion for our church family and neighbours near and far.

We will be working for justice and peace among all people.

We will be committing our time, our treasure and our talents to fulfil this vision for our church.