Thursday, 31 January 2008

Holocaust Memorial Day - A new commandment

When teaching the history of Jewish-Christian relations, as I do from time to time, one of the many issues that inevitably has to be addressed is that of the Holocaust or, as it is often called within Jewish circles, the Shoah (שואה) meaning "calamity".

The Jewish philsopher and Reform rabbi Emil Fackenheim (1916-2003) famously stated that the Shoah gave rise to a new commandement - the 614th - that it was incumbant upon Jews to survive as Jews in order that Hitler was not provided with a postumous victory. He wrote:

We Jews are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, second, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with Him or with belief in Him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler's victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other posthumous victories (E. Fackenheim, "Transcendence in contemporary culture: philosophical reflections and a Jewish theology" in H.W. Richardson & D.R. Cutler Boston (eds.), Transcendence (Beacon, 1969), p. 150).

Although this claim remains somewhat controversial in Jewish cirlces, I think that Fackenheim's words contain an important insight that can be applied more widely than to just the Jewish community. However, before I move to that we must address a clearly problematic aspect to allowing the Shoah to become such a central element of one's religious and community identity. Edward Kessler, the director of the Woolf Institute, puts it as follows:

There is a danger that by focusing solely on the Shoah Jews and Christians will gain a distorted view. For example, a young Jew will construct a negative Jewish identity, which without the positive side of Judaism, will not be a value to be handed down over the generations. A young Christian will come away with an exclusive picture of the Jew as a victim, without an awareness of the positive aspects of Jewish culture. If the Jew disappears from the horizons from the end of the biblical period and only appears again in 1933, where is the Jew and what is Jewish-Christian relations? (Jewish Christian Relations - The Next Generation CJCR 1999, p. 4).

Additionally it is important to recall that, although the Jewish people clearly bore the brunt of the Nazis unimaginable brutality members of other groups were also persecuted and murdered. These include around half a million Roma and Sinti (French Manouches, mostly found in France, Alsace, and Germany - often traveling showmen and circus people), the deaths of several million Soviet prisoners of war, along with slave laborers, gay men, Jehovah's Witnesses, the disabled, and thousands of political opponents. As many of you will know one of our own communities of faith found themselves caught up in this Shoah, this calamity: the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians (RSCU).

Unsurprisingly the RSCU's liberal theology was not highly regarded by the Nazis and it is clear that they had prepared plans finally to close the church but fortunately for them the war ended before they could see them through. Although this turn of events meant that their congregations and buildings as a whole survived the war, a number of leading figures in the movement were killed, the most notable being their founder Norbert Fabien Čapek. After being arrested on 28th March 1941 he was tried and, in June 1942, ordered to Dachau by the Prague Gestapo. He died on October 12 of the same year at Hartheim Castle, near Linz, Austria, during one of the Nazi’s infamous ‘medical tests’. Leadership of the movement passed to his son-in-law, Dr. Haspl.

Alas the allied victory did not, for those in the East of Europe, spell the end of their problems for, as we know only too well, various Communist regimes came to power. This further downturn brought with it a renewed and extended period of religious and social repression which continued to curtail many religious and cultural activities. For example these regimes did not, for the most part, allow churches to organize any youth meetings such as Sunday schools and, whilst worship for adults was often permitted, many people were simply too frightened to attend services because this could result in serious consequences, such as the loss of employment. Inevitably this impacted upon many communities desire and ability to congregate and worship freely and so nourish and pass on its faith.

In common with other groups for the RSCU this resulted in a steep decline in the commitment to, and knowledge of, Czech Unitarianism and they were, as a whole, thoroughly demoralised. No longer having a confident sense of identity, it was inevitable that other influences would come into Czech Unitarianism - where ever there is a vacuum make no mistake it will be filled. After Dr. Haspl’s death many of these influences were post-modern and eastern influenced 'new-age’ ideas (in common with some other Unitarian churches in Europe and America). One of the leading contemporary Czech Unitarians, Jaroslava Dittrichová, described the religion practiced in Prague during this period as being like a 'mixed grill’ and it very nearly caused Unitarianism to die out in the Czech Republic. (Hill et al. 2002, p. 197). Even after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989 the troubles of the RSCU were not over because this 'spiritually vulnerable situation’ made it possible for a man called Vladimir Strejcek to be accepted as the leader of their church in Prague at the beginning of 1991 with what Dittrichová calls 'all his irrational ideas’ (ibid.). Strejcek even managed to take over their building, a situation which was, happily, reversed by the courts in May 2000.

The damage these three hits had caused the community is clear. From the figure of about 8,000 members in the early 1940s the present day community of three Congregations (in Prague, Brno and Plzen) and one fellowship (in Liberec) now consists of only about 420 members.

As an admirer and, I hope useful friend of the RSCU and as someone who has written and spoken about them at various conferences what has been interesting for me is to see how the RSCU has responded to the Shoah and the period of Communist repression in order to survice and to give itself the strength to continue into the future. What has been its version of the 614th Commandment?

I offer their solution to the brutalities they experienced because it has helped them see the dangers of an attitude that has become very prevelant indeed in our own Western European and North American cultures - namely a radical secularism which aggressively privileges reductionist non-religious humanist accounts of reality which has become increasingly suspicious of all forms of religious expression and practice. In consequence we now have many in our societies who wish to abandoning or even ban 'God-talk’ entirely. Jaroslava Dittrichová, one of the leading contemporary Czech Unitarians, made these interesting comments during a Unitarian and Universalist theological symposium held in Oxford during 2000:

[B]elief in one God - is certainly the main Unitarian principle from the historical point of view. We think that this principle is one of the main principles also in the contemporary Czech Unitarianism. Many of you are of different opinion. Perhaps those of you who are non-theists do not find language about God useful. You may think the word God is much abused, and often used to refer to a kind of personal God. You may believe that the fruits of our life matter more than beliefs about God. This may be partly true, but there is a possible hidden danger in this idea. We who lived under the communist brand of totalitarianism were able to see and experience the consequences of a system without God, a system that considered man to be the centre of the world, without responsibility to something higher than himself - or even without a sense of responsibility to "the order of being." [. . .] We believe together with Vaclav Havel that in our contemporary world, we should respect what is beyond us. It seems to us that it is not important whether we call it the order of nature, the absolute or God. We are not afraid of the word "God." We use it because Dr. Capek and Dr. Haspl used this word in their sermons and books, and because the word "God" is used in other churches in our country which are close to us more now than at any previous time. We believe that a humanism which considers human beings the centre of the world without respect to something higher allows humans to be driven by their particular interests rather than governing their behaviour in a way that takes account of general interests. This results in the plundering of natural resources and other dangers existing in our civilization. What we have told you does not mean that we set belief in God against humanism. What we want to emphasise is that humanism should be open to transcendence. Such a humanism may be called religious humanism (A Global Conversation, A. Hill ICUU Prague 2002, pp. 197-199).

We may now return to Fackenheim's words and we can see that there are some very close parallels to the RSCU's response to the same events. Firstly the RSCU simply refuses to perish. Secondly, they, too, still remember in their guts and bones the memory of those they lost and particularly, lest his memory perish, Norbert Fabien Čapek. Thirdly they have refused to deny or despair of God. And, finally, they too, have refused "to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God lest they help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted."

In their own modest way the RSCU has also refused to hand to Hitler, the Nazi regime, or any other brutal regime, any posthumous victory.

May we, in our own witness in these (at present for us) safer times, keep in mind what we owe, not only to our Jewish brothers and sisters but to all who bore the brunt of such violence and hatred such as the RSCU, and never become indifferent to our own faith community's survival and our wider society's commitment to freedom of conscience and to real justice. But as we remember the brutalities of the Shoah may we also be careful to live, not out of any sense of victim-hood, but only out of the positive aspects of our faith namely the love of God and the love of neighbour and our world. Without such love, truly lived among us, we will ever risk allowing the seeds of another Shoah to be sown amongst us.

Amen.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

The view from my chair - The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

It is clear, in this country at least, that even when the churches try to pull together positively - as during the week of prayer for Christian unity - they have not been able to counter the serious decline in traditional institutional forms of the Christian faith.

And, although our own radical and liberal church tradition is critical of certain aspects of mainstream Christianity, always we hope creatively and lovingly, we are also having to face up to this reality ourselves as we try to reshape ourselves so as to remain relevant to the age.

But, in the meantime - i.e. today - there is no point denying the fact of decline and we would do well to heed the advice of John Henry Newman who wisely said: "Let us take things as we find them: let us not attempt to distort them into what they are not. We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them."

We'll start with one of the classic acknowledgments of this decline, namely Matthew Arnold’s beautiful and famous poem, "Dover Beach", in which he memorably spoke of the Sea of Faith’s "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar."

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.


Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.


Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

As Arnold stood on the shore of Dover Beach watching the tide recede it felt to him that so too was the faith of his forebears. In 1875 in his preface to "God and the Bible" he expressed his view clearly saying:

At the present moment two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.

He became convinced that popular religion was "touched with the finger of death" and, convinced as he was of the hopelessness of humankind without religion, he sought to find for religion a basis of "scientific fact" that even the positive modern spirit must accept. (NB: in today's understanding basing religion on "scientific fact" is an unecessary and almost certainly unwise endeavour. I think Arnold was really meaning a kind of naturalised religion that was fully cognisant of scientific knowledge - something the philosopher and Unitarian minister L. P. Jacks tried to do.)

Anyway, the trouble with Arnold’s powerful metaphor of the receding tide is that in many people's imagination the tide's movement was truncated. The tide was in, now its out and that's that. Oh woe is me! This has both unnecessarily depressed us and also obscured from view a better way of dealing with the present decline in the authority of formal religious institutions.

On the one hand, the image has encouraged lots of people to expend a great deal of energy trying to stop the tide going out - a task as pointless and futile as trying to stop the tide coming in - as wise King Cnut knew. Tides go out and come in and will cycle like this until the end of this planet. All the earthly power in the world, whether invested in a Monarch or in an ecclesiastical institution, cannot alter the ebb and flow of any sea whether made of water or faith. At the present time the "Sea of Faith" (also the name of a liberal religious network) may well be on the way out and we simply have to face up to that. We may bemoan the tide’s withdrawal but nothing we can do can stop it. But to understand a beach is to understand that tides come and go. A day on a beach - which is nothing other than a metaphor for our world - is simply to find different ways to appreciate it in its various stages. Yes, we have to acknowledge that our own age is looking out towards what appears to be a still receding tide of faith but what is so bad about that? Although at this moment we clearly do not have the sea lapping delightfully at the feet of our deckchairs and the doorsteps of our beach-huts we can still enjoy the delights and pleasures of sun-bathing, the building of sand-castles, the exploration rock-pools and beach-combing. To turn to another metaphor, offered up by V. V. Rozanov via Richard Holloway, we can choose to sit in our chairs and look to the distance. My basic point is simple - there is plenty for us to do on the beach while the tide is out.

So, in the face of institutional decline, what we must do is actually quite simple. We simply have to continue to seek out what we think is the abiding essence of our faith and then attempt to present it to ourselves and others in simple and coherent ways that makes sense now. In just the same way that at low tide we sensibly put aside our dinghies, floats and water-wings and hunt out instead our kites, buckets and spades, in our faith we, too, need to be doing something similar in our church.

Our present state of knowledge lets us see that Christianity can no longer claim to be the only way of being religious or moral - it never could of course but we couldn't see that before. Its product which, in Holloway’s delightful turn of phrase, is a metaphysic rather than a Mercedes, is clearly no longer the only one on offer - nor exclusively the best. The radical liberal Christian tradition, to which we belong, has long accepted this state of affairs and early on realized that what we had to offer was something far more modest and gentle. We felt is was simply summed up in Jesus’ call to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. As Hosea Ballou (1771-1852), the great Universalist preacher, said: "We must not look for religion in creeds or formularies of human invention. We must look for it in the honest, the pious, the devotional heart; in the heart which truly loves God, loves its [sister and] brother also. The principle of love to God and goodwill is true religion."

This insight has meant that we have become reasonably comfortable in acknowledging our own tradition does not, need not, cannot, and should not occupy the whole beach. At its best this has meant we have chosen to stand aside and allow other viewpoints their rightful place alongside our own. In terms of the cross, the symbol of the Christian faith, we have deliberately but in a confident but humble spirit chosen to move it to one side.

In passing I note that on this open beach it seems to me no longer to be a question of the unity (or better meaningful co-operation) within Christianity alone but among all the world's faiths.

In a book called "Doubts and Loves" Richard Holloway, a former Bishop of Edinburgh and Gresham Professor of Divinity, reveals that he shares this view and he states his belief that modern churches should no longer present their positions as absolute but should learn simply to say to people, using another watery analogy: 'Come, try our view and see if you’d like to build your dwelling place at our bend in the river.’ Holloway is concerned, as are we, to deconstruct many mainstream Christian doctrines but, as he does this, he makes it clear that his "intention is positive; it is to craft from the Christian past a usable ethic for our own time." He presents a well-argued case for salvaging the challenge of Jesus by revealing the heart of his teachings and showing why they remain revolutionary, humane and of massive spiritual importance.

Here, on our little bend of the river, an image which I so much prefer to that of the tide and the beach, I'm simply trying to encourage us to live out a way of life that is lived in the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus. I try to encourage us to make welcome all visitors to our community and, if they like what they find, to bid them welcome to build their dwelling place amongst us. If they do not find us to be what they seek then I also hope we will lovingly assist them in seeking out another beautiful spot along the river bank. There are many, of course.

Although we now know the grand and often arrogant claims of Christianity can no longer be sustained, in our small and intimate place along God’s river with our simple rule of faith it seems to me we can still say confidently with the Psalmist "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant [places]; yea, I have a goodly heritage" (Psalm 16:6 AV). Just because we know we cannot tell all the world how it should live and believe, this does not at the same time mean we cannot live faithfully and well by the goodness, truth and beauty which we have come to know.

In the end all I am doing is to encourage each of us to place a chair at our beautiful bend of the river, look into the distance and learn by heart my friend John Morgan’s wise words which I have brought before you on a number of occasions. For me at least, they seem to say everything that need be said about how we should practice our faith whether the tide be high or low:

In the end it won’t matter how much you have, rather how much you have given. It won’t matter how much you know, but rather how much you love. And it won’t matter how much you profess to believe, but rather how deeply you live the few enduring truths you claim as ultimate. All the rest is discipline.

May this be the basis of a gentle unity between Christians and all people of faith and none.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Death - a necessary and beautiful property of abundant living

Last week I attended the funeral of Peter Lee, my wife Susanna's father. He was a remarkable man in many, many ways and someone of whom I was very fond indeed. Naturally Susanna and her mother will miss him even more that I will and so I thank you all for the messages of support you have been sending her at this time.

Inevitably, whenever someone dies whom we loved or deeply respected, as we all know, a profound sense of loss appears. Sometimes, in that dark place, we can feel terribly cheated by this or even come to feel that it was some kind of justified or unjustified punishment.

This feeling runs deep through the human psyche sometimes regardless of our usual expressed beliefs. A friend of mine saw it happen to his mother who had no belief at all in the reality of God - however defined - and so certainly not a belief in a God who acts upon the world in supernatural ways. (In preparation for the latter part of this piece I have to say neither do I - I believe in God but in a way very different to that presented by traditional theism or that which is denied by traditional atheism - we'll come to that in a moment.) Anyway, when her husband of many years died she said to her son in a moment of intense grief and pain, "What have I done to deserve this?" After calming her down and getting her a cup of tea he pointed out to her that since she didn't believe in a supernatural God feeling and saying what she did didn't really make sense. And yet she, and I suspect most of us, we feel similar things that run counter to our intellectual beliefs.

The funeral of my father-in-law and this psychological observation naturally caused me to think a little more about these matters during the week and, since there is a chance my reflections might prove useful to someone reading this, I simply offer them up for your consideration. But this confluence of events and ideas also gives me the chance to reveal an important aspect of the underlying philosophical structure that holds up our own particular four-hundred year old liberal Christian tradition.

The religious tradition I and this local church represents is one which seeks only to teach and practise the religion of Jesus and not the religion about him. But, like all great teachers, precisely what Jesus meant by his teachings - whether words or deeds - is not clear in any absolute or definitive way. All we can legitimately say is that generation upon generation of our forebears have found them to be efficacious gateways to inspiring and practical insights into the matter of how to have life and have it more abundantly. That is why we return to them again and again. But, for that abundant life truly to be had, there must be a constant and endless rediscovery, unfolding, interpretation and then living out of those same teachings and examples by every new generation of individuals and communities which gather, as we do, in his name and Spirit. In consequence, some teachings which we understood one way under former a understanding suddenly seems to say something different or more nuanced to us under our present understanding. And this also means that tomorrow, believing that there is always more light and truth to break through from God's word, we acknowledge that our understanding is likely change again. That's the spiritual discipline on offer here - a way of life not a doctrine.

At this point I can return to the subject with which this address began, namely, the death of a loved one and one possible response to it. I'll hang my basic point around our biblical reading from John 18:1-11.

One of the striking things about Jesus was his ability to acknowledge, understand and live in the light of the idea that God's will is sovereign. As he notes here, "the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?" (John 18:1-11). We remind ourselves of this important insight each week, of course, in the prayer Jesus taught us: "Thy will done, on earth as it is in heaven."

But this kind of language - poetic and figurative as it is - can easily be given a status that it shouldn't. We need to recall that Jesus (like all great religious teachers) used language to help us to experience directly a deep spiritual insight rather than express some formal truth about the world. So, even as we continue to use in this church the language of "Father" and of the "Father's will", we are not thereby restricting our freedom to interpret this language in new ways as long as it accords with our present understanding of truth and what we believe to be the spirit of Jesus' basic religious insight that God is One and that all people and all creation, along with Jesus, are one in God. In the chapter preceding our reading remember Jesus' extraordinary words: "And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me" (17:22-23). The fundamental consequence of this insight into unity is that there is no God outside Nature; God is not, therefore, supernatural but instead the very epitome of the natural.

The "Father's will", in this understanding at least, is really better thought of, not as personal volition at all, but as simply the glorious, complex and wonderful laws of Nature. But, as we do this, we need not abandon the poetic and anthropomorphic language of God as long as we are careful not to be overly seduced by it. Remember, the language is there to help us to grasp the insight that we are one in God; the language itself is, in the end, not the point of the exercise.

(Excursus - The Rabbi's had a phrase which helped them make people aware that they were using poetic and anthropomorphic language - it was "as if it were possible." So I am simply saying that "if it were possible for God to be a person then the picture of him as a good and loving father would be a good one." Once the underlying point to be made by such an illustration is grasped then the picture must be let go.)

So where might that leave us in our search for a more abundant life? Well, in the face of any sadness concerning the loss to us of any good we can be helped by reflecting that there was no way it could always have been kept. This idea is expressed wonderfully well in one of my favourite Zen stories and it is one which resonates with the image of the cup Jesus used. It involves the teacher who insisted on using a very fine and expensive glass to drink out of day after day. One day a student said to him, "Aren't you afraid of breaking such a valuable glass?" The teacher smiled and then held up the glass up to the light and letting it sparkle beautifully. Then he turned to his student and said, "I know this glass is already broken, that is why I spend time enjoying it." As with this glass so with us and our loved ones.

We may express this insight in rather more philosophical language by saying that ALL a thing's properties are necessary for what it to be what it is. The philosopher Paul Wienpahl adds this further insightful example:

Change one of a things' properties and you change the thing. A given woman is not merely a woman. She is THIS woman, differing in all these enormously varied ways from that woman. Every single thing about her, every property, no matter how seemingly insignificant, distinguishes her from the other. To know her, then, is to overlook nothing about her (Radical Spinoza, New York: SUNY 1979, p. 66).

So to know another and to know ourselves, is to overlook nothing about us including our death. Consequently death can be seen to be a key element in having a unique life and having it more abundantly.

At traditional funerals you will hear read some other words of Jesus' from the Gospel of John: "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? (John 11:25-26).

Well, because it seems to me that the basic insight Jesus had was of the ultimate unity of God and Nature, as I come to share that insight more deeply, I find myself answering "Yes, this I believe." For one slowly comes to see that all earthly death and dying is reborn - resurrected to use Jesus' word - in the deeper understanding that our own transient lives are always part of the eternal life or, better still, the very being of God. It seems to me that those who achieve this insight really do have life and have it more abundantly - even eternally. But, importantly, they have it in the present - the eternal now - this is not a future state but a present reality.

All of what I have said explains, I hope, why I tend to use at funerals, not these words of Jesus which, without some considerable unfolding such as I have given today are, it seems to me, liable to considerable and unhelpful misunderstanding, but instead words by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana in which he tries to express how Spinoza understood the matter. They sum up well what I have been trying to say today and give us, I believe, a deep spiritual and rational hope of a certain kind of eternal life in the face of all earthly death. It is an insight that helps me, at least, to have life and have it more abundantly. Naturally I acknowledge that this understanding is not a sufficiently comforting vision of eternal life for many people but it is the only one that I have and, therefore, the only one I can honestly offer you. I have to say that for me it seems beautiful and reasonable and so I commend to you for further reflection:

When a man’s life is over, it remains true that he has lived; it remains true that he has been one sort of man and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history that bit has its unfading and its perpetual function and effect. A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him. And knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the moment of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is part forever in the infinite context of facts [existence].

-o0o-

In the context of a funeral I change the last "fact" to "existence" and change, when necessary, "man" to "woman." Here is a fuller quotation from George Santayana’s (1863-1952) preface to Spinoza's Ethics and De intellectus emendatione, published by J. M. Dent & Sons in 1910

NOTHING, ACCORDING TO Spinoza, is eternal in its duration. The tide of evolution carries everything before it, thoughts no less than bodies, and persons no less than nations. Yet all things are eternal in their status, as truth is. The place that an event fills in history is its inalienable place; the character that an act or a feeling possesses in passing is its inalienable character. Now, the human mind is not merely animal, not merely absorbed in the felt transition from one state of life to another. It is partly synthetic, intellectual, contemplative, able to look before and after and to see fleeting things at once in their mutual relations, or, as Spinoza expressed it, under the form of eternity.

To see things under the form of eternity is to see them in their historic and moral truth, not as they seemed when they passed, but as they remain when they are over. When a man's life is over, it remains true that he has lived; it remains true that he has been one sort of man, and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history that bit has its unfading colour and its perpetual function and effect. A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him, and knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the movement of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is a part forever of the infinite context of facts.

This sort of immortality belongs passively to everything; but to the intellectual part of man it belongs actively also, because, in so far as it knows the eternity of truth, and is absorbed in it, the mind lives in that eternity. In caring only for the eternal, it has ceased to care for that part of itself which can die.

But this sort of immortality is ideal only. He who, while he lives, lives in the eternal, does not live longer for that reason. Duration has merely dropped from his view; he is not aware of or anxious about it; and death, without losing its reality, has lost its sting. The sublimation of his interest rescues him, so far as it goes, from the mortality which he accepts and surveys.

The animals are mortal without knowing it, and doubtless presume, in their folly, that they will live for ever. Man alone knows that he must die; but that very knowledge raises him, in a sense, above mortality, by making him a sharer in the vision of eternal truth. He becomes the spectator of his own tragedy; he sympathises so much with the fury of the storm that he has not ears left for the shipwrecked sailor, though that sailor were his own soul. The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who have loved it.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Epiphany - Guard the Mysteries! Constantly reveal Them!

The True Rebel never advertises it,
He prefers his joy to Missionary Work.

Church is Bureaucracy,
no more interesting than any Post Office.

Religion is Revelation:
all the Wonder of all the Planets striking
all your Only Mind

Guard the Mysteries!
Constantly reveal Them!

So wrote Lew Welch in a poem entitled Theology published in 1969.
I've been reading him again over this Christmas period and it struck me that this poem says something of great worth to us, particularly on the Feast of the Epiphany.

The word 'epiphany', remember, comes from the Greek 'epiphaneia' which means 'manifestation' and in the western tradition the festival commemorates what is understood as being "the first manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles" (represented by the Magi) and also "the manifestation of his divinity" (as it occurred at his Baptism in the Jordan River and at his first miracle at Cana in Galilee).

If we take the poem stanza by stanza I hope you'll see what I mean.

The True Rebel never advertises it,
He prefers his joy to Missionary Work.

In the story of the Magi's visit to Bethlehem I am always struck by how these men seem not to have been driven by any missionary zeal at all, in fact far from it, because the story relies upon them being of an entirely different faith to that held by Mary, Joseph and Jesus. They are Zoroastrians. So what do they come for? Kahlil Gibran (in Jesus the Son of Man) imagined them saying to Mary - for we do not know what they might have actually 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." They give their gifts and depart; they sought nothing for themselves and offered no missionary speeches; they only came in joy to see for themselves this thing that had come to pass. All true religious communities seek the same - they seek not to convert people by missionary work to their own position but only seek to help individuals to see joy and truth directly and so be able wisely to choose the manner of their own living, loving and worship.

Church is Bureaucracy,
no more interesting than any Post Office.

Well, off the back of the Magi's experiences and those of others who encountered Jesus as a child, as a man and, through memory, as a revered teacher and exemplar, came many things - including the complex set of institutions we know as the Christian Church (capital C). Although I remain profoundly suspicious of the many institutional aspects of religion I'm not wholly indisposed to them - after all my income is derived from the generosity of this small institution which you, in your various ways, support. It seems to me that some kind of organised structuring of community is a good and, on the whole, a necessary thing. But - and it is an important but - the Church (as institution) is not the point of faith and religion; it is only, at best, a practical aide which can help facilitate a direct experience of the Divine and which can then help us act better and more practically in the world through collective endeavour.
Lew Welch's point is not that the Church is without use but that we should treat it as no more (and by implication no less than) interesting as the Post Office. The Post Office and the Church are both useful and should be valued as such but neither are, in themselves, the objects of life itself.

Welch is reminding us that we, who choose to engage with a community that has and maintains buildings and pays a minister, although we need to undertake this work seriously we must not, at the same time, see our ultimate interest as residing in them; we must not confuse Church as institution with the 'real work that is to be done.' In the next stanza Lew Welch turns to this real work.

Religion is Revelation:
all the Wonder of all the Planets striking
all your Only Mind

Essentially Welch is saying that Religion (true Religion) is direct insight into, or intuition of, the universe in which all illusory subject and object relations disappear. As the great early nineteenth-century liberal theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) put it in his On Religion - Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799):

I entreat you to become familiar with this concept: intuition of the universe. [. . .] Only the drive to intuit, if it is orientated to the infinite, places the mind in unlimited freedom; only religion saves it from the most ignominious fetters of opinion and desire. Everything that exists is necessary for religion, and everything that can be is for it a true indispensable image of the infinite; it is just a question of finding the point from which one’s relationship to the infinite can be discovered (Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp 24 & 28-29).

Unless the Church (or for that matter any other religious body of whatever stripe) helps us achieve, or at least help us to position ourselves better to "find the point from which one’s relationship to the infinite can be discovered" - then ditch it right now. That includes this church and me as its minister. Really - I mean it.

Welch then concludes his poem with some apparently contradictory advice:

Guard the Mysteries!
Constantly reveal Them!

We may turn to another poet, Emily Dickenson (1830-1886), to help us resolve this:

Tell the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies;
Too bright for mind’s infirm intent,
Is truth’s sublime surmise.

Like lightning to children eased,

Through revelation kind;

The truth must dazzle gradually,
Or every man be blind.

Welch's last stanza reveals the idea that any individual makes a terrible mistake if they try to experience all the mysteries at once. Good churches and spiritual teachers (which includes Welch himself of course) know that their purpose is to guard the mysteries - i.e. to reveal them 'slant' and slowly to the genuine seeker of truth so that they don't go and blow their minds and blind themselves by the truth which they are not yet quite ready to see in all its fullness (and I ought to add that this includes me). As Dickenson wisely notes "The truth must dazzle gradually,/Or every man be blind." A responsible religion, church or teacher must, therefore, guard the mysteries yet, through careful measured exposition, also ensure that they are constantly revealing them.

The practical consequence of all this is that I - as the minister and teacher - have to ensure that we do two things simultaneously. Firstly, I have to ensure that we continue to honour, maintain and above all live our own particular Unitarian Christianity which is precisely one such religious discipline which allows a measured guarding and revealing of the mysteries without which this church has nothing of value to offer anyone. But, secondly and almost paradoxically, simultaneously I have to make it clear - generally in quieter more intimate moments although today I'm allowing a public glimpse of what I actually teach though even this glimpse is liable to be misunderstood and distorted - that ultimately this same Unitarian Christian tradition is of no consequence at all, absolutely none.

In short all I am trying to encourage in anyone who chooses to come here - and remember I have no missionary desires in this, if you come you come, if you go you go - is to adopt and practise a particular position that paradoxically enables you to understand God or Nature, the Divine Unity, as NO position; no subject, no object no Christian, no Muslim, no Jew, no Buddhist nor Hindu; no atheist and no theist. The American philosopher Paul Wienpahl, whom I mentioned on Christmas day, makes this interesting observation in his 1956 essay An Unorthodox Lecture:

These are cryptic statements of the revolt against idealism, a revolt which is a search for reality outside thought. As I see it, the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself. (Tautologies are, after all, true.) If you wish to persist by asking what reality is; that is, what is really, the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing. To see this is to be a man without a position. To get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian. I am a man without a position. I do not have the philosophic position that there are no positions or theories or standpoints. (There obviously are.) I am not a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist. I am simply a man without a position, and this should open the door to detachment.

I'm very much with Wienpahl on this, that "the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself" and any religious tradition worth its salt is only ultimately concerned to help its adherents experience this reality itself and not its own transient and wholly incomplete expression of that reality.

To conclude we may return directly to the epiphany because reality in itself is what the Magi sought and, to my mind what they found as they looked down at the Christ-child. But they only found it and recognised it on that particular day because of their long, slow preparatory journey during which the mysteries were slowly unfolded to them. The edge of the manger was, for them, the point from which their relationship to the infinite was discovered.

All I am here to do is to encourage you to take the same long road and to take your time and choose well your companions, that is to say your church and teachers. I am here to help you make sure they are, in fact, helping you encounter truth even though it be slowly and 'slant.' Remember, if they are doing their job well, they do this, not to keep you from the truth, but so that you may find it by not being blinded too early in your journey and wandering off lost, into the desert.

I can do no better than to leave you with Welch's words once more. To me at least he was truly one of the Wise Men and his poetry was a wonderful gift to us all:

The True Rebel never advertises it,
He prefers his joy to Missionary Work.


Church is Bureaucracy,
no more interesting than any Post Office.


Religion is Revelation:

all the Wonder of all the Planets striking
all your Only Mind


Guard the Mysteries!

Constantly reveal Them!