Tuesday, 25 December 2007

The nativity as koan

During Advent I have, as usual, tried various ways to encourage us deeply to engage as modern people with the Christmas story. In our own time it remains, I think, very difficult to know how best to do this - especially if you refuse, as I do, to leave my head at the door of the church and have no wish to be forced to believe three impossible things before breakfast. It is difficult because we know that in key respects how we view the world is radically different from the way Jesus' and his own parents viewed the world. Previous sermons have tried to explore some of the ramifications of this.

But in at least one key respect we are no different from our forebears, namely we remain human-beings who, in experiencing the world, must also then go on to reflect upon its meaning with the best tools we have to hand. (Hang on to the word "tools" for it is going to become important.) It is a truth enshrined in the Gospels themselves and I am particularly fond of that verse found in the Gospel according to Luke in which Mary, after the angel's visitation and after giving birth to Jesus "kept all these things, pondering them in her heart" (Matt. 2:19).

So here we are then, come ourselves this happy morn to pay homage to the Christ-child once more to ponder these things. Perhaps in earlier years I might at this point have tried further to unravel what this season might mean but not today and I don't think ever again - at least not on Christmas day itself.

I have been searching for a good way to express this is the case and I have been particularly helped in this by the writings of a philosopher called Paul Wienpahl. In a lecture entitled "An Unorthodox Lecture" given in 1956 Wienpahl wrote:

I have grown tired of thinking and the rational. This is not to say that thinking and the rational can be found to be unimportant. It is rather to say that something else slips in. I feel the need for control, and, hence, for the rational and reasonable, as strongly as ever. But from investigation I have gone to reflection,- from the river to the pool, from the clear and clean to the turgid and opaque. The way is not easy and perhaps I should not have selected it for myself. [. . .] Words and ideas are tools. My life, and it may be, the life of any intellectual is troubled because of living only with the tools - and without using them. I am like the miser who forgets what money is for, and has only the money [See note 1 below].

I am increasingly realising how easy it is to only live with intellectual tools and then to be painfully lax in using them myself - really using them that is. Wienpahl has also helped me understand why I personally have not been to keen to use the tools of my trade. He said:

I find it hard to relax and admit that there is something else than knowledge. For it gives my friends the chance to say that I am becoming mystic. And what I don't like about this is that it seems to say that I disparage knowledge. I don't. I simply now see that knowledge is not everything. And this seems so obvious a thing to see that one wonders why it should be remarked.

When you have to give a sermon each week - clearly a product of intellectual tools and itself, then, only a tool - it is very hard to relax and admit confidently that knowledge is, indeed, not everything. I am finding this easier to see this now and even occasionally to admit it. But it is not easy and it leaves me, a minister and a teacher, - though always I hope very much as a student and student myself - a problem. It is a perennial problem. For example when the Buddha became enlightened under the bodhi tree he realised - though words cannot do this realisation justice - that all sentient beings lack nothing and are, and always have been, complete and, therefore, perfect. The problem he faced, I and we face, is that if that which we seek is already ours then teaching/learning this becomes quite difficult! What I have been grappling with over the last year and trying to articulate is a version of this insight drawn from our own Judaeo-Christian heritage (particularly Hans Denck and Sebastian Franck) and distilled through Spinoza's philosophy. It is summed up in Jesus' teaching that I have uttered many times during this last year - "the Kingdom of Heaven is within or among us."

But, as I have just noted, in the end all the knowledge in the world doesn't help us understand and experience this, we have to experience it directly. In Zen Buddhism there exists one method which can help us out of this dilemma and it is called the koan. Here is what Heinrich Domoulin the Jesuit scholar of Zen says about them:

Literally the word 'koan' (Chin., kung-an) is a combination of graphs that signifies "public notice" or "public announcement." A koan, therefore, presents a challenge and an invitation to take seriously what has been announced, to ponder it and respond to it. But the special character of this "announcement" confronts the listener or reader with a perplexing puzzle. One becomes confused, and the more one tries to come up with an answer and search for a solution, the more confused one gets. The essence of the koan is to be rationally unresolvable and thus point to what is "arational" The koan urges us to abandon our rational thought structures and step beyond our usual state of consciousness in order to press into new and unknown dimensions. This is the common purpose of all koan no matter how much they may differ in content or literary form (From The Song Period: A Time of Maturation by Heinrich Dumoulin in Sitting with Koans ed. John Daido Loori (Boston 2006: Wisdom Publications p. 17).

The more and more I think about it the more and more convinced I am that the Gospels are filled with koan (or koan-like elements) and the nativity story is one of the best known. It will never be resolved logically. It will never be resolved historically. It will never be resolved scientifically. It will never even be resolved poetically (even though it is the poets - and I would add musicians - who come closest to achieving this). Like Mary we can only ponder on it again and again and yet again. One day, if we are disciplined enough about contemplating its paradoxical and unresolvable nature - paradoxical and unresolvable at the level of language and rational thought that is - will force you to see through to a unifying Divine reality in which all paradoxes dissolve. As the Zen Master John Daido Loori succinctly puts it, "The answer to a koan is not a fixed piece of information. It is one's own intimate and direct experience of the universe and its infinite facets. It is a state of consciousness" (From "Introduction", ibid p. 1).

But do be warned, getting 'it' - even the barest glimpse of 'it' - will give your friends the chance to say that you too are becoming mystic - perhaps like some of those who heard Wienpahl's lecture a visit to the psychiatrist might be suggested (see note below)! Perhaps even this piece is too much for some already. Anyway as we greet the Christ-Child this Christmas morn all I can and want to do is to gently remind you of the simple truth that knowledge is not everything. It really isn't. When we come to understand this then we will be able to sing, with all our being, "O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord." It won't make any more sense, mind, but we will better understand it.

Merry Christmas to you all.


Note 1. The quotations from Paul Wienpahl are taken from MANAS VOLUME IX, NO. 24 JUNE 13, 1956 "AN UNORTHODOX LECTURE" The whole article is available at:


The editors state that "It is an abridgement of an All-University Lecture delivered by Dr. Paul Wienpahl, professor of philosophy at the University of California in Santa Barbara. As Damon Runyon used to say, “a story also goes with this.” Reactions to Dr. Wienpahl's lecture were extreme—ranging all the way from the worried suggestion by two colleagues that Dr. Wienpahl see a psychiatrist, to a demand for copies from enthusiastic students. In publishing this version of the lecture MANAS editors hope that readers will be pleased to learn that self-questioning does sometimes occur within ivied halls, and will be stimulated by these unprofessional questions."

Are you coming or going?

A central concept in the season of Advent is "coming." The word itself, of course, derives from the latin "adventus" meaning coming. In the Christian context it specifically refers, as we know, to God, who is at hand, and to Jesus. Though I certainly question a literal acceptance of the story today, in the words of certain Native American Indian story tellers, I still feel able to say, "I don’t know whether this story happened but it is true." But then the question must be addressed is in what sense might it be true?

Part of the Christmas story’s power relies firstly upon the idea of preparing the way, all those visions had by Mary and Elizabeth and the role of John the Baptist are part of this; and secondly, of there being some ultimate purpose to fulfil - i.e. in the narrative there was for God a reason to come in human form and also a reason, place and time to come to. Now, a fairly straightforward literal reading of the story - such as the one I have just presented - is deeply problematic because if God is, in some real sense, all things or at least intimately connected with all things, can God be said to go or come anywhere? The first Englishman openly to declare his Unitarian beliefs was John Biddle (1615-1662) He had realised this was a problem and used it as part of his argument for the Unity of God. Argument I in his 1647 book "Twelve Arguments Drawn Out of the Scripture: Wherein commonly received Opinions touching the Deity of the Holy Spirit, is clearly refuted" begins:

He that is distinguished from God, is not God. The Holy Spirit is distinguished from God. Ergo [the Holy Spirit is not God].

Argument VIII begins:

He that changeth place, is not God. The Holy Spirit changeth place. Ergo [the Holy Spirit is not God].

Problems with the Christmas story only begin when it is understood simply at the literal level because such a reading would imply that there was a time when God, Divinity, was not present in the world in and through the kind of being we know as humankind. I don’t know about you but I just don’t believe this to be true. instead I think the Christmas story invites us to recognize something that has always been true but which we so often fail to see namely, as our opening words remind us week to week that "Divinity is present everywhere, heaven and earth are filled with God." When we learn to see Divinity in the simple daily facts of life, such as the birth of a child, we begin to see it everywhere.

Remember that the Unitarian Christian tradition has come to see Jesus not as someone who changed reality (the Jesus of orthodox Christianity) but some one who was capable of helping us better to see what was always true.

It seems clear to me that God cannot really be conceived as coming and going anywhere. Given this and, if we are ourselves meaningfully part of the whole, we should wonder, too, about the reality of our own comings and goings.

The first example which came to my mind was Goethe’s epigram "In living as knowing be" which suggests that we end at our beginning:

In living as in knowing, be
Intent upon the purest way;
When gale and current push you, pull you,
Yet they’ll never overrule you;
Compass and pole-star, chronometer
And sun and moon you’ll read the better,
With quiet joy, in your own fashion
Will reach the proper destination.
Especially if you don’t despair
Because the course is circular:
A circumnavigator, hail
The harbour whence you first set sail.

T.S. Eliot’s extraordinary poem, "Little Gidding" also bursts back vividly into the imagination:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

And later:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It has always seemed to me that Goethe and Eliot had, in these words, understood the still startling and joyous saying of Jesus’(Matthew 17:20-21):

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you."

Both Goethe and Eliot, although rooted in the Christian tradition, had profoundly important interests in other religious traditions including Hinduism and there we find something else that pertains to our subject. Gandhi, for example wrote:

My experience tells me that the Kingdom of God is within us, and that we can realize it not by saying “Lord, Lord,” but by doing His will and His work. If, therefore, we wait for the Kingdom to come as something coming from outside, we shall be sadly mistaken. (Quoted in Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 145)

And Ramana Maharishi comments:

The ultimate truth is so simple. It is nothing more than being in the pristine state. This is all that needs to be said. All religions have come into existence because people want something elaborate and attractive and puzzling. Each religion is complex, and each sect in each religion has its adherents and antagonists. For example, an ordinary Christian won’t be satisfied unless he is told that God is somewhere in the far-off heavens, not to be reached by us unaided; Christ alone knew Him and Christ alone can guide us; worship Christ and be saved. If he is told the simple truth, that “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he is not satisfied, and will read complex and far fetched meanings into it. Only mature minds can grasp the simple truth in all its nakedness (Quoted in Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 147).

There you have it - in all its nakedness - Advent, taken literally, is deeply problematic because God doesn’t need to come and go anywhere - God is always everywhere and always available to the pure in heart - those who, in Ramana Maharishi’s words, are in “the pristine state” or, in Goethe’s words, "In living as in knowing," are "intent upon the purest way." The story of Advent is glorious and true when it reminds us to come to ourselves - to a state of genuine mindfulness and presence to a place where every birth is Divine and everyday is the epitome of Christmas - true Christmas that is rather than the really rather tawdry and overly commercialised Christmas of contemporary culture.

The Christmas story, at least as I see it, is about this coming to ourselves - to that realization that "This is it!" The Christmas story is a wake up call to be present to each other as representations of Divine Love.

All our own comings and goings are but lessons to teach us that we are already here where we need to be and so is God and his kingdom. May we take time this season to sense that Divine presence in ourselves and each other and always act accordingly, with justice, compassion and wonder.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Spinoza - Mind of the Modern

I thoroughly recommend this interesting open source programme on Spinoza Spinoza - Mind of the Modern. The interview is by Christopher Lydon and his guests are excellent:

Rebecca Goldstein Fellow, Radcliffe Institute and author of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Schocken, 2006)

Antonio Damasio Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology, University of Southern California and author of Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (Harcourt, 2003).

Monday, 17 December 2007

Susanna, me and Lex the dog

Off for a morning stroll.

The Old Work Bench

Whilst eating breakfast during a short break out at a friend's place in rural Suffolk I looked out on an old work bench . . .

the old work bench
silent now in early
morning winter sun
no hammer strikes
no vice grips
but the frost
upon its surface reveals
a work more finely wrought
than any man could shape

Sunday, 16 December 2007

A few thoughts offered before a Carol Service

There is no doubt about it but that Christmas is for us today a very complex and ambiguous time. We are all aware of the commercialisation of the season; we are all aware of the creeping political correctness that continues to marginalise the Nativity story which lies at the heart of the season; we are all aware of scientific and historical studies which have gifted us an enlarged and radically different understanding of the world from that known by our forebears.

In the face of such difficulties and challenges the quite natural tendency is to retreat into a merely sentimental celebration of the season. Given this it is worth remembering the words of the philosopher Roger Scruton that I used on Remembrance Sunday. In his new book, "Culture Counts - Faith and feeling in a world besieged" you will remember that he observes:

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.

During this season, however, we are not talking about grief but joy, indeed joy to the world. But just as grief is capable of being sentimentalised so to is joy and the result is the same; a sentimental Christmas concentrates on the subject, namely us, and its object "becomes hazy, idealised, observed with no real concern for the truth."

So the antidote to this is clearly to refocus on the object of the season and no matter what your theological perspective this can be nothing other than the birth of one particular child, Jesus of Nazareth, in whom we feel we can say, as did the three Persians in Gibran's story (see below) "The child is not but a day old, yet we have seen the light of our God in His eyes and the smile of our God upon His mouth. We bid you protect Him that He may protect you all."

And in the person and story of Jesus we encounter the great paradoxes of spirituality and religion namely how we can know and understand God as both Transcendent and Immanent. On the one hand we conceive God to be wholly other, beyond all real human knowledge, whilst on the other hand we know that God can be experienced as companion and friend. Any religion that stresses one side to the exclusion of the other is in danger of being, in the case of the former, too intellectual, cold and abstract and, in the case of the latter, too emotional, overheated and literalistic.

So Christmas is a time when those two tendencies must meet and dialogue if the season is to hold for us genuine meaning and depth and, in its own simple way the Advent and Christmas services here at this church try to bring together those two tendencies - the transcendent and the immanent.

Put simply Christmas is a time to practise our real and imaginative encounter with this paradox of transcendence and immanence. No one answer and response to the Christmas story can do the job - how could it and why should it? And wisely it has been noted that things die when they become nailed and fixed - the allusion being again to Jesus, but this time to the end of his life. So here, in this liberal religious community, let us try to celebrate fully the fecundity of the Christmas story. May each of us find ways to live it well in this season of peace and goodwill to all.

From Jesus, Son of Man by Kahlil Gibran:

Jesus the son of my daughter, was born here in Nazareth in the month of January. And the night that Jesus was born we were visited by men from the East. They were Persians who came to Esdraelon with the caravans of the Midianites on their way to Egypt. And because they did not find rooms at the inn they sought shelter in our house.

And I welcomed them and I said, “My daughter has given birth to a son this night. Surely you will forgive me if I do not serve you as it behoves a hostess.”
Then they thanked me for giving them shelter. And after they had supped they said to me: “We would see the new-born.”
Now the Son of Mary was beautiful to behold, and she too was comely.

And when the Persians beheld Mary and her babe, they took gold and silver from their bags, and myrrh and frankincense, and laid them all at the feet of the child.
Then they fell down and prayed in a strange tongue which we did not understand. And when I led them to the bedchamber prepared for them they walked as if they were in awe at what they had seen. When morning was come they left us and followed the road to Egypt.

But at parting they spoke to me and said, “The child is not but a day old, yet we have seen the light of our God in His eyes and the smile of our God upon His mouth. We bid you protect Him that He may protect you all.”
And so saying, they mounted their camels and we saw them no more.

Now Mary seemed not so much joyous in her first-born, as full of wonder and surprise.
She would look upon her babe, and then turn her face to the window and gaze far away into the sky as if she saw visions. And there were valleys between her heart and mine.

And the child grew in body and in spirit, and He was different from other children. He was aloof and hard to govern, and I could not lay my hand upon Him.
But He was beloved by everyone in Nazareth, and in my heart I knew why.

Oftentimes He would take away our food to give to the passer-by. And He would give other children the sweetmeat I had given Him, before He had tasted it with His own mouth.
He would climb the trees of my orchard to get the fruits, but never to eat them Himself. And He would race with other boys, and sometimes, because He was swifter of foot, He would delay so that they might pass the stake ere He should reach it.

And sometimes when I led Him to His bed He would say, “Tell my mother and the others that only my body will sleep. My mind will be with them till their mind come to my morning.”
And many other wondrous words He said when He was a boy, but I am too old to remember. Now they tell me I shall see Him no more. But how shall I believe what they say?

I still hear His laughter, and the sound of His running about my house. And whenever I kiss the cheek of my daughter His fragrance returns to my heart, and His body seems to fill my arms.

But is it not passing strange that my daughter does not speak of her first-born to me?
Sometimes it seems that my longing for Him is greater than hers. She stands as firm before the day as if she were a bronzen image, while my heart melts and runs into streams. Perhaps she knows what I do not know. Would that she might tell me also.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Not nothing but no-thing - Second Sunday in Advent

I begin with a caveat. This is what one might call an interim report. It is not offered today merely on a whim as I have been thinking about it for a long time now so it is, at the very least, considered. But it is only a considered preliminary statement very much up for discussion.

During the week I was re-reading a 1935 review written by the poet and editor Michael Roberts of "Quack, Quack!" by Leonard Woolf. Woolf, although not mentioned much these days, was an immensely influential liberal left-winger during the first half of the twentieth-century and his work helped to lay the foundations of both the policy of the League of Nations and the United Nations and also of our welfare state. In his review Roberts states:

He [Leonard Woolf] mocks at intuitions and absolute beliefs, they are all quackery, but he does not see the limitations of reason. Reason can show us how a thing can best be done, but it cannot modify or co-ordinate our basic inclinations, as religion and poetry attempt to do, and as the politician needs to do. We need some criteria of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, as well as of truth and falsity, and we need to persuade others to accept those criteria. The problem is not to destroy all rhetoric but to teach people to distinguish between good rhetoric and bad, good poetry and bad. The liberal-rationalist assumes that he can get on without rhetoric or poetic use of language at all, and that every relation of power between individuals is bad: consequently he speaks only to people like himself, and the field is left to the quacks with their false rhetoric, their sentimental poetry and their bullying use of the power of personality.

This passage critiquing the use of reason alone seemed to me rather suggestive, particularly during the season of Advent and Christmas, and particularly in a religious tradition such as ours that values reason very highly and which has been somewhat suspicious of influential emotional rhetoric whether it is found in speeches or poetry. After all the reason we called ourselves during the eighteenth-century Rational Dissenters - a title recently back in circulation as the title of the Great Yarmouth Unitarian & Free Christian Newsletter - was to distinguish ourselves from those known as Enthusiasts, primarily Wesley's rhetorically very effective Methodists. My Old Testament tutor Father John Davies once told me of a gravestone of a rational dissenter which read "The Revd N. died ever unenthusiastic." Marvellous eh?! I hope it is true!

Well in this address I'm going to make an unusual critique of reason but it is one that I make because of my support for the use of reason. We do need to begin by being clear that the careful use of reason has brought us many extraordinary gifts which have helped us achieve significant new perspectives on the world whether in the realm of science, philosophy or theology. But some of the revealed perspectives were not entirely expected and as we have come to have greater knowledge of our complex world world in its various modes, in our wisest moments at least, we have also come to see ever more clearly how little we know and, perhaps, can ever know. Reason has brought us a great gift which we were not only not really expecting but also one many of us have been rather disinclined to accept with delight - namely the gift of radical uncertainty.

For example quantum mechanics seems to be teaching us that reality - in itself - is at best understood as veiled. We went looking for real describable and graspable things and you know what, it seems we can't find them. In fact we can't find any "thing" at all. Put slightly better than that we seem to have found "no-thing" which is not quite the same as "nothing."

And again in the spiritual and religious sphere because of increasingly deep encounters with ever more people and cultures we have discovered a plurality of beliefs and practices that suggest to us that there is no such thing as one perfect coherent pure religion or culture. If one were imposed - the spectre of an imperialist monoculture looms here - all kinds of insights, cairns, waymarks, wisdom, and cultural colour would definitively be lost to us.

So the world's richness and wonder - at least at the level revealed to us by classical enlightenment reason - seems to be inextricably wrapped up in its ability to remain indeterminate and un-graspable in itself.

The songwriter Graham Nash tells of a letter he got from Joni Mitchell when their ways parted: "I remember getting a telegram from Greece from Joan. The last line of which was, 'If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers.' It was Joan's way of saying goodbye to me."

Reason which, at the outset, showed to us its pre-eminent worth by helping us, or so it appeared, grasp the world ever more firmly and securely is now helping us see clearly that we cannot hold the world tight because, like sand, it just runs through your fingers. Reason's final gift to us, at least in the form we once knew it, may be in saying goodbye and setting us free to form some new relationship with the world. I think that this is going to be for us a hard and sad parting just as it was for Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell. We may draw some real comfort, however, from the fact that just as Graham and Joni's parting left us some timeless, poignant and beautiful songs there will be for us some timeless, poignant and lasting beauty from our former relationship with reason and the world known through it. The prophet Jeremiah memorably called upon Israel to "Build cairns to mark your way, set up signposts; make sure of the road, the path which you will tread" (Jer. 31:21 REB). It seems to me that reason has indeed built for us some lasting cairns which will help us to consider wisely the path which we will tread in the coming years. So my critique of reason is not one which seeks to overturn it but to suggest that today it really has begun to reach its upper limits. Of course the wise amongst us always knew this limit existed. John Locke was one notable figure who memorably pointed out in the introduction to his great Essay that:

It is of great use to the sailor to know the length of his line, though he cannot with it fathom all the depths of the ocean. It is well he knows that it is long enough to reach the bottom, at such places as are necessary to direct his voyage, and caution him against running upon shoals that may ruin him.

In the sphere of religion and belief and, quite surprisingly to all concerned, maybe even physics - at least in its quantum aspect - reason's line has run out into something unimaginably deep indeed.

Now all this talk of the "path", "no-thing" and the essentially indeterminate and un-graspable nature of the world resonates, as some of you will be aware, with the world-view of philosophical Taoism - the word Tao means, in part, "the way". I think the connections are real but we can recognise these connections because we inherit the same basic ideas via key figures in the Western tradition such as Plotinus, Nicholas of Cusa, Meister Eckhart and my own beloved Spinoza. There are more if you care to go looking.

It is at this point that I can come back to Robert's critique of Woolf. You will remember that he said that although "Reason can show us how a thing can best be done . . . it cannot modify or co-ordinate our basic inclinations, as religion and poetry attempt to do, and as the politician needs to do."

To those who are comfortable with it the insight that reality may well be something akin to "no-thing" certainly shows how a thing can best be done but, because particularly to the western mind this is still so counter-intuitive, it is not so good - at least on an initial encounter - at positively modifying or co-ordinating our basic inclinations. Even in Buddhism and Taoism which are religious, or better, philosophical positions which do not find "no-thing" as disturbing as much western religion and philosophy does, even there there is a recognition of the need for rhetoric - for poetry and religious stories, myths and legends which, if properly taught, help people to live comfortably, even joyfully, in the face of profound indeterminacy as they come to recognise the "reality" of "no-thing."

It seems to me that as heirs to the rational enlightenment we are going to have to find our quotidian, practical commonplace order and meaning, not primarily through reason any more, but through some re-embrace of older rhetorical forms. As a matter of some urgency I think we need to find healthy ways to return to our poetry, our religious stories, myths and legends to help us live and modify our basic inclinations whilst we come to terms with the rather unsettling realisation that the "reality" isn't quite what we thought it was.

I have used this phrase a few times before nearly always at Easter and Christmas - basically because it seems so on the money - and I think we need to be active in developing amongst ourselves a coherent "post-critical naivety." That is to say, without destructively pulling them apart, we need to learn again how to inhabit our stories but this time to use them to bring us, not to the solid physical security that Christianity once offered, namely a perfect, ideal, tangible and predictable world called the Kingdom of Heaven, but to a humble, flexible and joyful way of living as part of an infinitely complex and endlessly creative and indeterminate Nature in which we find the ultimate reality not to be nothing but, at the very least, "no-thing."

This is, I admit, quite a perplexing idea to handle so, in the hope of leaving you with some easier way of grasping what I am saying I'll end now with a poem I have explored before by R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) called "Lost Christmas."

He is alone, it is Christmas.
Up the hill go three trees, the three kings.
There is a star also
Over the dark manger. But where is the Child?

Pity him. He has come far

Like the trees, matching their patience
With his. But the mind was before
Him on the long road. The manger is empty.

If you go up the hill only with the mind - that is to say with a classic enlightenment rationally - you will find no Christ-child in the manger. I take this to be a useful factual statement about the world. In fact, considered in a certain way, there is not only no Christ-child but no manger, no road, no trees, no star, no three kings nor any you nor me.

But if you also go up the hill with the rhetorical and imaginative understanding of the poet and the story teller all these things become real and meaningful once again and can teach you lessons of real and great worth. And, when you have fully understood those lessons, when you understand without grasping the true meaning of the Christ-child - a window on the Divine Unity - then you will be fully able and content to understand all these things are really "no-thing." As the fourteenth chapter of the Tao Te Ching (Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English) perfectly puts it:

Look, it cannot be seen - it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard - it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held - it is intangible.
These three are indefinable;
Therefore they are joined in one.

From above it is not bright;
From below it is not dark:
An unbroken thread beyond description.
It returns to nothingness.
The form of the formless,
The image of the imageless.
It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.

Stand before it and there is no beginning.
Follow it and there is no end.
Stay with the ancient Tao,
Move with the present.

Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.


Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace - First Sunday in Advent

An address preached at the Memorial Church, Cambridge
2nd December 2007

Last week I reminded us that the writer of that wonderful epistle I John taught: "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action" (3:18) and I went on to suggest that we should, as liberals, be following his advice and that our love must be shown, not in word or speech that is to say, as many conservative religionists are doing, in ever more tightly defined doctrinal terms, but in truth and action, namely in a practical loving and compassionate as good disciples of Jesus. I also pointed out that, since Jesus preached the kingdom of God and peace and never, per se, a single religion called Christianity, if we can reconnect with his basic message then we again have a strong practical religious response to the Divine that doesn't kow tow to the currently growing conservative and sectarian forces in our world.

It is always worth thinking about the implications of this subject but it is, I think, particularly fortuitous that it comes back into my thoughts at Advent, the time when we as a community and as individuals wait and prepare for the coming anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

But for that 'birth' and that 'person' to be have real bite and meaning in our lives Jesus really must be for us special in some unique way. I'm not now talking about the absolute uniqueness claimed by orthodoxy but rather the unique quality that is attached to certain people and events in the history of any family - whether the individual family or the wider family of a particular faith tradition. Just remember, that at the same time we can perfectly well understand the universal principle of mothering and so celebrate all mothers on Mothering Sunday we don’t then go on to love all mothers in the unique way we do our own. For those who have problems with their mothers - I know there are some! - just replace the word with "football teams" or "wives" or "husbands." The point is simply that to understand the general principle of divinity dwelling amongst us in the flesh does not mean that we cannot see it in a unique way in one human being - for us the Rabbi Jesus. In fact I am fairly certain that without the unique "minute particulars" the universal remains inaccessible.

However, the liberal tendency - understandable and in many ways laudable - to make Jesus just like any other prophet and teacher seems to me to have by now been taken to damaging extremes and reduced his influence upon us to a level that is almost negligible and, if and where it does remain, it has become terribly sentimental. In short - as he and his teachings became simply one option amongst many that we could take or leave - we lost the profound energy that our radical liberal religious movement drew from him and his example. If we are going to flourish as a distinct and healthy religious community I think we need to reconnect profoundly with the person of Jesus.

(An excursus) Just to flag it up clearly albeit briefly, because I think the traditional idea of a personal God is an increasingly problematic and difficult one to hold, a reconnection with Jesus as a man profoundly able to express the reality of a Divine Unity allows us to keep a "human face" to the Divine Unity without then going on to ascribe to it, in and of itself, the nature of a person. We may note that God, though not a person, because personhood is part of existence and therefore in some way part of God, God cannot, therefore, be less than personal all the while "he" is clearly infinitely more than a person. I’ll just leave that thought floating about today and come back to it another time (end of excursus).

Now, round my neck, and reproduced at the start of this blog and with the address of a contemporary maker below - is an image of Jesus that our Polish Socinian forebears (named Socinian after their leading theologian Faustus Socinus 1539-1604) used as a tangible reminder and expression of their faith in a particular kind of Christianity which maintained the complete humanity of Jesus and, therefore, a strictly monotheistic faith.

Reproductions can be obtained from: Marc Lauer, rue de la Gabelle, 57400 Sarrebourg, France
Tel: 06 13 37 70 25

The medallions are available in various metals and several formats. (Prices only as of August 2007) Small 16 mm in diameter: silver (25€), gold (120€); Medium 20 mm: bronze (15€), silver (35€), ‘vermeil’ (58€), bronze with gold-plated edging (61€); Large 36 mm: bronze (23€), silver (56€).

The French historian Albert Blanchard-Gaillard tells us that the medallion was worn by young Polish Brethren of noble origin who, without superstition, loved Jesus and held him as their master and began, in the late sixteenth century, to frequent foreign universities, principally in Holland or Germany, to study under anti-trinitarian ministers or theologians. Because to be a Socinian /that is to say a Unitarian) and to hold this faith was still to risk execution across Europe the medal was, in addition to being a statement of faith, also a way of identifying each other without making their heresy too obvious. The inscription, because it was in Hebrew, would not be understood by most people and the wearer could either claim ignorance as to its meaning or, if it someone could read it, it could be given an orthodox spin. But to most it would be a simple symbol of devotion to Jesus (Revue Regard, no. 2, Summer 1997, Institut d’études et de recherches sur l’histoire, les traditions, la nature et les sciences, pp. 30-34).

The beautiful picture of the human Rabbi Jesus, is surrounded by the single word "man" ("ishi") which is used in Hebrew in balance to the idea of God so it has the additional connotation of ordinary, customary or common - i.e. that which is not God. On the reverse the inscription reads "Mashiah melekh ba besgalom wa’ Adam - Adam 'asui hai" which can be translated to mean "The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace became a human being."

Now our forebears and we live in a world in which, although we can envisage what it might mean to live in and belong to the Kingdom of Peace in which Love is the only law, we almost never see it actually instantiated. Even when we do see love or try to express it ourselves we know, only too well, that it is often less than perfect and who amongst us can claim to be capable of knowing and returning, let alone manifesting, perfect love? Given this, how do we reconnect with a sense of the reality of the Kingdom of Peace and perfect love when we never see it perfectly revealed in ourselves nor the many situations we find ourselves in or observe?

Well, here is why belonging to a particular unique tradition is so valuable because it is through it that Kingdom of Peace whose law is Love can made visible to us. The genius of the early Christian community was to "see" this love of God through one human being. As the First Epistle to John says "God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them" (I John 4:15-16). Our forebears knew perfect love because they felt they had "seen" it - not as an abstract metaphysical principle of God but as a living breathing human being. Not God, remember this, but a real and complete human-being through whom God's Kingdom of Peace is seen.

When I use the verb "to see" in this context I mean, of course, spiritually "to see" and, as such, it is synonymous with "faith." This is important to realise because it is clear that the majority (if not the totality) of those who put the Christian faith into words never physically saw the first century Jewish healer, rabbi and prophet whose name was Yeshua ben Miriam. But in their remembrance of his life and teachings they continued to "see" the perfect ideal; they saw, in the light of this, that they, too, could move meaningfully towards better expressions of perfect love - towards the underlying and underwriting reality called God or Nature.

Every Christian tradition develops ways by which Jesus, the Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace (and remember the Hebrew word "Messiah" simply means anointed and, in Greek this is translated as Christos) is kept in view and ours was no exception. One method was the medallion we have been considering. I confess that I find this physical reminder extraordinarily powerful and a tangible link with the energy, values and hopes of, not only the faith of the early Unitarians who also first articulated within European culture the highest ideals of religious tolerance (surely itself a mark of the Kingdom of Peace?) but also with the man Jesus of Nazareth himself. I can "see" him and so as I prepare for the coming anniversary of his birth it has for me the quality, not of a remembered historical event that happened two-thousand years ago, but the birthday of someone still present, real and amongst us. So I feel that perfect love has been, and still is, seen amongst us and because of that I feel strengthened to go on as did our Polish Brethren forbears. I feel better able to play a part in the creation of the Kingdom of Peace and making the world better - none of what I do or will do is ever felt to be in vain. That same faith saw our Polish Brethren forbears survive the persecution and expulsion from their homeland by the Jesuits of the Counter-Reformation. It saw them survive exile and their forced journey to all parts of Europe, but particularly to Holland, and thence to Britain and the USA. All the while knowing that "The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace had come in true human form" whom they were trying their best to serve in love and truth. What was true for them can still be true for us and bring great comfort and courage.

Now, I cannot "do" any of this for you because the religious way on offer in this church is not an off-the-shelf "product" or a "tick-box" faith in which you sign on the dotted line, proclaim belief in X, Y, or Z and walk out of here saved. No, it is a way of discipleship following the religion of Jesus and seeing in his example a past, present and future tangible expression of the Kingdom of Peace to which cause you are called to work. It is a calling that lasts a lifetime and its salvation, that is to say its promise of healing and wholeness, is only found in daily being faithful to it to the best of your ability. All I can do is vouch for its effectiveness and say that this is what a church such as this has to offer. As a beginning in this season of Advent, I simply invite you to the birthday party of the person from whom we draw our basic message and model of response, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace.


See also:

“The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace became a human being.” Time has contracted - a liberal Christian meditation on messianic time 

Has the Messiah Come? - A Christmas Day Sermon