Thursday, 28 February 2008

Consider the ravens and the lilies . . . Dispensing with providential conceptions of God

Here I'm going to tie together a few loose ends from a couple of earlier blogs. This tidying up has been occasioned by one of the profoundly worrying implications of the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech and his "World at One" interview of last week.

I refer to the fact that he seems to be inviting into the public civil sphere religious beliefs that do not, in fact cannot, acknowledge that it is possible to lead a good, civil and ethical life without any reference to God or religion. To recap, very briefly, remember at one point he stressed , "nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well."

This turn of phrase suggests that he believes there already exists a shared set of moral criteria amongst people who are in their "right minds" which can be brought to bear on Shariah Law in order to decide what parts of it could, or could not, be accepted by other reasonable comprehensive doctrines - such as one held by, say, an atheist.

So, hiding in the Archbishop of Canterbury's words, is something orthodox religion finds very disturbing indeed. We may believe in God and have religious beliefs but they are in no sense necessary for the creation of a just and civil society.

Alas, orthodox theism cannot by its own logic admit such a thing. For orthodox theism believes that God has spoken definitively to human kind through various texts, infallible prophets, divine messengers or, in the case of Christianity, by himself in human form. We only know how to behave morally and ethically because God has intervened providentially in human affairs to let us know. "He" is believed to offer rewards to those who follow his "revealed" laws and to punish those who do not. He does this through interventions in nature (thereby, rather ironically, breaking his own natural laws - naughty!) or through human representatives and institutions who dispense religious justice.

Now, as I have noted on many occasions, I simply don't believe in such a God any more. Rather I believe in a God who is also Nature, something expressed well by my friend and teacher Victor Nuovo. It is a God who is

. . . impersonal and inexhaustibly productive; it is being itself generating itself in an infinite variety of ways. The natural world is everywhere an expression of intelligence, which is a divine attribute, and rational beings, like you and I, when nature’s gift of curiosity awakens in us, discover in nature manifold wonders that cause us to regard it as something properly to be called divine.

Such a God simply doesn't intervene providentially and certainly doesn't (in fact cannot) break Nature's laws because God is Nature. To break Nature's laws would be to strike at the heart of God's own Being. Importantly morality comes to be understood as being an emergent quality of the Natural world and we may consider it one of her most extraordinary and beautiful fruits. A person who holds the view I have comes to understand that, whatever they thought in the past, as an intimate part of Nature, they help shape and develop the law as new insights are had and as contingent circumstances dictate. As parliamentary democracy has arisen amongst us the process is now undertaken by all of us through our elected representatives.

In such a theology God is understood as being present in our law making and moral life but it is the ever-present and sustaining Spirit of Life itself and not as moral law giver, providential judge and consequent personal dispenser of justice.

But we have a problem which in the present situation I think we really do have a duty to address head-on. It arises from the fact that we still use the word God in our worship and that what we mean by it is not what is meant by orthodox theism.

Back in November I read from an interesting book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett called "Breaking the Spell - Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" (Allen Lane, London 2006 pp. 208-210). The following point deserves a repeat performance:

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 or insist on finding something in contemporary physics or chemistry to identify as . 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 sing requires continuity of nomenclature, that 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 "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.

I'm slowly coming to the opinion that one of our most pressing duties is to begin to let the side down - by which I mean let down the side of orthodox theism - and that we must move, to use a parliamentary analogy, elsewhere in the chamber, Not to the opposition benches mind - the atheist camp - but to a more honest independent position where we can speak more clearly about how we think a certain kind of belief in God can healthily and creatively inform the secular public civil sphere.

I think we do have to begin to speak up about the threat from militant theistic religions which refuse to acknowledge that humanity makes and develops its moral laws and that proper science best reveals natural laws.

We also need to speak up against militant atheism which seeks to exclude any realm of human experience that is not covered by a narrow materialistic and reductionist understanding of the scientific endeavour.

I acknowledge that this is a difficult middle way to walk but we must do it if it truly seems to us more true and reasonable than other ways. I also acknowledge that what I am saying may be, to some, a little unsettling but we are in a time of really extraordinary change and we have to acknowledge that we, too, will be changed. For example we have to be absolutely clear we are using language metaphorically and figuratively as we still do in some of our prayers - notably the Lord's Prayer. We must not mislead.

Yet, for all my unsettling suggestions, something does remain relatively secure, namely the basic and exemplary model of life we inherit from the man Jesus.

It is worth recalling to mind his strikingly simple and powerful request that his followers should:

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Luke 12:24-27).

It is vital to note that Jesus did not say consider God or even religion. It is clear he believed if his followers observed the world as it was and with a truly reflective and inquiring spirit it was possible to draw certain true conclusions about God and Nature and, on the basis of that knowledge, to live better lives. Better, not just in terms of knowledge, but in terms of lives that were increasingly moral and just.

I'm not going to unfold it now but I think it can be shown that our understanding and development of in what consists the moral life flows from such observations. Not in any simple way, mind you, for we learn as much from a critical engagement with the distressing aspects of nature as we do from the obviously cosy and comfortable aspects. My basic point is that our moral law emerges from our experience of and place in Nature, it is not given from on high and recorded in infallible texts and doctrines.

I venture to suggest that our religious practice needs to move boldly away from understanding God as providential and personal and increasingly come to focus on the contemplation of Deus sive Natura - God as Nature and Nature as God. A contemplation that is both spiritual and scientific and which can be summed up as as clarion call to acknowledge the wonder of Nature. I share with John Ray (1627-1705), the seventeenth-century naturalist the belief that there is for a free human being "no occupation more worthy and delightful than to contemplate the bounteous works of nature and honour the infinite wisdom and goodness of God" (from the Preface to Catalogus Planta circa Cantabrigiam nascentium 1600). In other words - consider the ravens and the lilies . . .

C'est suffit. Let's our religion be no more nor any less than this and in our engagements with the public civic sphere may we begin to play a strong but gentle role in keeping dangerous providential conceptions of God as far away from our civic legal processes as is possible.


Friday, 15 February 2008

With the people and against God of orthodox religion - Some reflections on the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech 'Civil and Religious Law in England

This has been a difficult piece to prepare because the issues involved are both complicated and exceptionally subtle. Also, because we are living in an age when there is very poor understanding, not only about the nature of religion, but also about the kind of liberal secular democracies we are, there now exist significant opportunities for serious, in fact very serious misunderstandings to arise. The Archbishop of Canterbury's speech and radio interview this week has led to one such serious set of misunderstandings that may prove to have done some serious damage to the social, political and religious situation in this country.

I'm going to consider three elements of the furore to unfold this. The first is to note what he actually said in the major speech entitled Civil and Religious Law in England: a religious perspective given at the Royal Courts of Justice on Thursday. The second is to note what most people - including myself I would add - interpreted him as saying on the World at One immediately preceding his speech. The third is a closer examination of the transcript of that same interview to better understand what he actually said in that interview.

So to what he actually said in his major speech. The Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture is a complicated academic piece (though perhaps unnecessarily complicated) and, if you have time I encourage you to go and read it. You will quickly realise as you go through the piece that its home is the seminar room or lecture hall where it is delivered to people conversant with the complex ideas of law, jurisprudence and theology or philosophy - Islamic, Christian and secular - and who can and are prepared to tease out some important subtleties. These subtleties then go on to inform further reflections, papers and meetings.

Now at this point I am not going to say whether I agree or disagree with the Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture - not because I'm some spineless liberal who's not prepared to make up their mind - but because to respond properly and honestly to a complex paper such as this requires a great deal more research and thinking on my part. That, my friends is, after all, the point of such a paper. As an occasional academic myself I value intensely the opportunity to present and experience difficult and controversial ideas in an environment that is prepared to think, deeply and carefully, and to do this on a basis of good knowledge and research and not mere prejudice.

On Friday I received a brief letter forwarded to me as one of Chaplains of the University of Cambridge. It was written by Professor John Bell who is Chair of the Council of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. In Professor Bells' opinion the Archbishop of Canterbury "is engaging with a long-standing body of mainstream legal and socio-political writing that has been reflecting on models of social pluralism in relation to religion. [. . .] The work has been in the public domain for over 10 years." He concludes by saying that he thinks that "the political reaction has more of a 'yuk' factor than a serious reflection on the issues." I am, at this stage, inclined to agree with Professor Bell BUT only on the matter of what this academic paper says.

To my second point which is what most people - including myself remember - heard the ABC or interpreted him as saying on the World at One interview that immediately preceded his speech.

Clearly something, or someone, persuaded the Archbishop of Canterbury that the broad subject of his speech needed to be made public at the same time he gave the full text and he chose to give the country his précis of it on the World at One. What he seems to have failed to realise was that the context was different and he was speaking to people who, in general, simply would not know the complex background out of which he was speaking. He also seems to have forgotten that this is a exceptionally sensitive time time - sensitive in general cultural, religious and political senses in age still struggling with, amongst other things, the continued fall out from the Rushdie affair, 9/11 and 7/7.

In this febrile atmosphere - and I can assure you that it is probably far worse than you imagine - to explain himself in the way he did was, well to put it charitably, extremely ill-advised.

So, there I am, there we all are, sitting down for a bowl of soup and sandwich, not entirely switched on and up to full intellectual speed and we hear that, right at the top of the interview that he feels the application of Shariah in certain circumstances is 'unavoidable' if we want to achieve social cohesion in this country and take seriously peoples' religion. He went on to say, amongst other things that the UK has to "face up to the fact" that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system; that Muslims should not have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty"; that "an approach to law which simply said - there's one law for everybody - I think that's a bit of a danger"; that he thinks it's "a bit of a danger" to argue "there's one law for everybody"; that "what we don't want [. . .], is I think, a stand-off, where the law squares up to people's religious consciences."

My jaw hit the floor. When the interview had finished I just sat there thinking what the hell has just happened. Remember I work in the multi-faith field both in chaplaincy and as a teacher. Since I'm teaching a Home Office funded course on Citizenship and Interfaith at the end of the month all I could see was anger and confusion this would and, it seems has, brought to the surface. Now, if my default modus operandi had been furious passion rather than silent reflective melancholia I'd have been writing phoning and blogging there and then. Hundreds of thousand did and the media has been filled with comment - nearly all of it fiercely critical.

But instead I just sat at my desk on Thursday and Friday, I have to say actually quite depressed - and I listened a couple more times to the interview, started to plough my way through the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech and, later, also the transcript of the interview. If you do that you begin to notice some other very important points about the Archbishop of Canterbury's underlying thinking.

The Archbishop's interview implies that it is a form of secular fundamentalism to insist on one secular civil law for one secular civil society. But this suggestion itself reveals an important truth - which the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn't seem to have acknowledged - namely that we don't actually need religion for us to be civil - civil, that is, in all of the senses of that word. To list them as they are found in Webster's Dictionary; relating to citizens of or relating to the state or its citizenry; being adequate in courtesy and politeness; of, relating to, or based on civil law; relating to private rights and to remedies sought by action or suit distinct from criminal proceedings established by law; of, relating to, or involving the general public, their activities, needs, or ways, or civic affairs as distinguished from special (as military or religious) affairs.

So I repeat, his words show that we simply don't need religion (in any of its forms) to be civil. However, that does not mean at the same time that if one does have a religion one cannot also be civil. I'm a kind of Christian - though God knows it's an increasingly odd kind - but I trust I am also civil. I know Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists who are also civil. I know atheists and humanists who are civil. In order for me to be able to say this with conviction - and I do say it with conviction - there has to be between us a sense that there exists an "overlapping consensus" capable of being rationally supported by a plurality of "reasonable comprehensive doctrines." For those of you who know don't this kind of language it is taken straight from the most significant liberal political philosopher of the twentieth and early twenty-first century, John Rawls.

Liberal secular democracies - and in fact a church such as this one - are underpinned by this kind of philosophy. Why? Well, it seems clear that the kind of liberal secular democratic societies we have (or can happily envision) inevitably allow for the development within themselves of a variety of doctrines and views which can be expressed in a variety of what are called "reasonable comprehensive doctrines." What our liberal societies have consistently sought to develop is an "overlapping consensus" in which there is a real and substantive reasonable agreement on a political and civil conception of justice that can be found to be reasonable to supporters of any "reasonable comprehensive doctrine".

What is vitally important to realise is that in what consists this "overlapping consensus" is not in itself dependent upon having a religious belief of any kind. It cannot - because the "overlapping consensus" requires a humanist's or atheist's "reasonable comprehensive doctrine" to overlap in significant ways with, say that of a Muslim or a Christian.

When we look calmly at the Archbishop's words in the interview he reveals that he thinks this is the case too. Remember at one point he stressed that, "nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well."

Here we can see that he believes there already exists a shared set of moral criteria - in other words an overlapping consensus - amongst people who are in their "right minds" (his description remember not mine). This shared moral criteria is, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury to be brought to bear on Shariah Law in order to decide what parts of it could, or could not, be accepted by other reasonably comprehensive doctrines - such as one held by, say, an atheist. Consequently any aspect of Shariah law that could be made part of the "overlapping consensus" would adopted by all "reasonable comprehensive doctrines" because it was felt to be an expression of some already shared criteria that has been accepted as reasonable.

So, hiding in the Archbishop of Canterbury's words, is something orthodox religion finds very disturbing indeed. It is an admission that we don't need God, nor any religious beliefs at all, to develop a just and civil society. We may believe in God and have religious beliefs but they are in no sense necessary for the creation of a just and civil society.

Now everything would be fine and dandy if this overlapping consensus were not beginning to break down. But it is and, for all kinds of complex reasons, many of the comprehensive beliefs in the world today are far from reasonable; I include here beliefs developing within our own country including certain secular positions.

Only now do I dare to move, in any shape or form, to Shariah Law itself. The kind of Islamic faith that the Archbishop of Canterbury is clearly thinking about in his speech is one that, like him, has realised (or at least tacitly admitted) that you don't need God, nor any religious beliefs at all, to develop a just and civil society. It is an Islam which, like his own Christianity, is "reasonable." Such an Islam does exist and its understanding of Shariah Law would certainly, in fact already does in certain cases, belong to a secular society's "overlapping consensus." But orthodox Islam, like orthodox Christianity, cannot accept the idea that we don't need God or religion in order to govern our lives in a truly moral and civil way.

The well thought-of and liberal Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr said the following about Shari'ah:

In the Islamic perspective, Divine Law is to be implemented to regulate society and the actions of its members rather than society and the actions of its members rather than society dictating what laws should be. The injunctions of Divine Law are permanent, but the principles can also be applied to new circumstances as they arise. But the basic thesis is one of trying to make the human order conform to the Divine norm, not vice-versa (The Heart of Islam, Harper Collins, San Francisco 2002 pp. 117-118).

Now, which ever way you spin this, it is at this point that the same problem always emerges and it is connected to the fact that Western secular law is understood as consisting in (and again these are Nasr's words):

. . . ever-changing regulations devised and designed by society to be made and discarded as circumstances dictate. And with the rise of parliamentary democracy, these laws came to be made and abrogated by the representatives of the people (ibid p. 116).

Nasr goes on to observe:

Within the context of such a background, it is easy to see why the understanding of the Islamic, and more generally the Semitic, concept of law, which is associated with the Will of God and is meant to determine society rather than be determined by it, poses such a problem for modern Westerners (ibid p. 116).

A problem indeed and it is this fact, my friends, that lies at the heart of all this mess and potential nightmare. Do we as democratic reasonable people devise and dictate the law of this land or does God - which really means those internally appointed representatives who thinkthey and their tradition alone knows perfectly what God wishes for humankind?

As I conclude it is important for you to to know that although as your minister I believe in God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength it is in a God who is also Nature, as my friend Victor Nuovo said, this is a God who is:

. . . impersonal and inexhaustibly productive; it is being itself generating itself in an infinite variety of ways. The natural world is everywhere an expression of intelligence, which is a divine attribute, and rational beings, like you and I, when nature’s gift of curiosity awakens in us, discover in nature manifold wonders that cause us to regard it as something properly to be called divine.

Consequently, in the end if I have to choose and, alas, if the overlapping consensus fails then I may well have to choose, I assure you I will be standing with the people and firmly against God of orthodox religion.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff - embracing the essence and the particular

Every now and then it is worth going back to first principles as a reminder of what's going on here. I'm going to do this in two ways today. The first is to offer a reminder in a few short paragraphs the very simple underlying message I consistently preach each week. The second is to show why I don't then just stick to this simple message itself and so avoid getting on occasions somewhat more specific and complex.

So to the first matter. I try to the best of my ability to be an honest follower of our forebears in presenting "Christianity in its most simple and intelligible form." Over the past few years I have realised that this statement needs a slight modification because there are clearly a number of good and legitimate ways this might be done; so really my strap-line these days reads "Christianity in one of its most simple and intelligible forms" - as many of you know this is hung round the attempt to try and follow Jesus' teachings rather than the incredibly complex hierarchical institutional religion that sprung up around him.

I will start by quoting James Luther Adams, the great Unitarian Christian theologian of the late twentieth century who summed up the ideal by saying:

The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth (Neither mere morality nor mere God in An Examined Faith p. 307).

The "power" that is living is, of course, called amongst us "God" but importantly, as the name "Unitarian" suggests, it is a God who is understood as being somehow One. Remember this is not merely some abstract and speculative theological notion but one which has very real practical ramifications relating to how we then go on to understand our ethical and ecological responsibilities. As Cliff Reed wrote in an essay "Affirming Oneness - The Unitarian Basis":

. . . the God of whom we say, 'God is One’, is the heart, soul, spirit, process and nature of the universe itself, manifest in all Creation and not least in human love and personality. . . . [and] because God is One, Creation is one. Because Creation is one, humanity is one. Because humanity is one, my neighbour and I are one. And, indeed, each of us is one integrated whole participating in one infinitely greater yet still integrated whole.

Now this is affirmed for two reasons. The first is wholly intuitive and, likely as not, the people who come and stay here are going to be those who truly FEEL this Divine Unity to be the "really-real" with all their heart, soul and mind. They will be those for whom the universe as a whole evokes wonder and awe and they will probably resonate strongly with the words of the eighteenth century physician and universalist George de Benneville (1703-1793) that, "The inner spirit makes us feel that behind every appearance of diversity, there is an interdependent unity of all things."

The second reason our tradition affirms this Divine Unity is because it seems to have been Jesus' basic religious insight. We take this insight as normative because, as J. L. Adams said, Jesus' living posture and gestures are for our community the decisive response to God's desire to be made lovingly and concretely real in our world. [Editorial note added 6th March 2007 - Sloppy use of the word "desire" by me here. God, not being personal, really doesn't desire anything. What I am really refering to is something necessary about God or Nature such as - and see blog above on "Mother Love All the Way Down" - mothering amongst sentient creatures. This is all connected with Spinoza's idea of the "conatus" - the striving to persevere in being.] There are others, of course - we would not want to deny that - but for us the decisive response is seen in Jesus. His basic insight expressed most beautifully by the author of John's Gospel (17:20-23) where Jesus prays:

I ask not only on behalf of these [i.e. those present in the room on that day], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word [i.e. us], that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (NRSV).

In passing I flag up strongly the fact that this belief in God, the Divine Unity is, as I have said, born out of love, wonder, awe and respect for the whole universe as it is. In consequence I get more than irritated when contemporary atheists, such as Michel Onfray, say that the religious impulse "stems from fear, misgiving, unease, inability to look death in the face, the feeling that something is lacking and distress that human life is finite: the primary components of angst" (in The Case Against Atheism) Hmmm - not true Monsieur Onfray, not true.

Anyway, as we try to live out of this wonder and belief we also publicly proclaim a love of truth - in fact this love of truth is our ONLY orthodoxy. The theologian John MacQuarrie (not a Unitarian himself) reminds us that this means our understanding of religion must be a reasonable one; one that involves no "sacrificium intellectus, no flagrant contradictions, no violation of natural reason, no conflict with what we believe about the world on scientific or common-sense grounds" [Twentieth Century Religious Thought, London 1989 SCM, p. 449].

All of the above explains why our own local church's covenant is "in the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus we unite for the worship of God and the service of humankind."

And that's it. This essential position will not change unless our love of truth really reveals to us that this basic faith position is, in fact, wholly unfounded.

But, to use a turn of phrase borrowed from Wittgenstein, the truth of a religious position can really only be shown and not said. Although I am going to continue "saying" things below I hope they help show something . . .

I can now begin to move to my second point today which is to show why I don't then just stick to this simple message itself and so avoid getting, on occasions, somewhat more specific and complex.

The first thing to note is that like most religious liberals, what I am doing here is seeking to help those who come live a simple faith - one that we might call "essential." But, alas, the moment such a simple, essential Christianity connects with the real contingent world phenomenal complexity ensues. Just think about it; what love of God and love of neighbour actually means when we are with our families and friends is going to be radically different from what it looks like when we encounter a homeless person on our streets, a violent drunk or drug addict, a crazed religious fundamentalist or a brutal dictatorship. The plain fact of the matter is, as the insightful writer of the comic "American Splendor", Harvey Pekar, noted: "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff."

This inconvenient truth is what makes many liberals - especially religious liberals - more than a little frightened of the particular, the point where, so to speak, the rubber hits the road. This is known in the trade as the "scandal of the particular." When our ideal religion connects with the real world we quickly discover that we nearly always need to get a lot more specific and detailed. Let me illustrate this with a story I have myself only just heard. It is told by an episcopal priest from Alabama, the Revd James Creasy:

It seems there was a small town preacher in the Pacific NW who had to confront a particular unethical practice in his community. If you recall, the principle industry of the Pacific NW was for many years Logging; and that is how most of his parishioners earned a living. You may not know, though, how the operation was carried out in the early years of this century when our story takes place. Trees would be cut dawn, placed in a river, and allowed to drift to the sawmill downstream. Now there wasn't much supervision of the logs as they travelled down the river, so the way loggers kept up with their logs was to brand them on the end with their own personal mark. This way when a log arrived at the sawmill their account could be credited accordingly.

Now it came to our preacher's attention that some of his parishioners had discovered an easy way to increase their profits. Some loggers would drag logs out of the river somewhere between the logging site and the sawmill, saw the brand off the log and, then put their own brand on the log. When our preacher friend got wind of this practice he felt compelled to address it in a sermon. He decided the best approach would be to remind folks of the Ten Commandments. After the sermon, on the way out of church, everyone told him what a fine sermon it was, that he truly was inspired. Well this pleased him to no end, but as the weeks passed he discovered that the practice of cutting off the ends of the logs was continuing. He realized that he hadn't been specific enough in his sermon, so he decided to be more direct. The following Sunday he chose as his text the eighth commandment, "You shall not steal."

Again the congregation reacted favourably to his fine sermon, and they told him so on the way out of church. But again no one took what he said very seriously, and the theft of the logs continued. So realized he was going to have to stop beating around the bush and call a spade a spade. The resulting sermon was entitled "Thou shalt not cut off the end of thy neighbours log."

Not long after that our the preacher found himself looking for another job.

Because just exactly how the basic teachings of Jesus, and the norms and values we then derive from them, are to be played out in the real world is never absolutely clear it can be damnably hard and challenging to figure out how to live and respond. And that my friends is why, more than occasionally, I say things that are, shall we say, a little more complex and which, perhaps, induce puzzlement or even discomfort - though I also hope they, occasionally, help clarify things too.

In the light of the complexity of the real world I return to my opening point and say this is why I think a very stripped down and very simple version of Christianity remains in order. Given that things are going to get pretty complex anyway one might as well start things off simply and insist in the first place only on following a simple religion whose outlook "is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth."