Monday, 31 March 2008

The mysticism of stone

Lent to Good Friday is a season when we recall what it was like to experience a great hope collapse. Eastertide, which follows, is a season of restoration. As wise Qoheleth said, “There is a time to break down, and a time to build up” (Ecclesiastes 3:3).

I note this primarily because
over the last few weeks because I seem to have been ruthlessly iconoclastic in breaking down a central pillar of orthodox monotheism namely the idea there exists a Supreme personal Being who acts upon the world providentially. But today I want to be clear – certainly clearer than I have been up until now – what it is I am actually trying to do in breaking down this pillar. I believe that when properly understood it is instead a restoration.

I am not proclaiming that God is dead, but I am concerned to break down what seems to me to be dangerous, unhealthy and wholly idolatrous images of God which are, today, being used to underpin some very destructive and divisive forms of religion and politics. What I am trying to bring us to is an understanding, as the philosopher Paul Wienpahl succinctly put it, in which “God [properly conceived] ceases to be an object and becomes an experience.” It is an attempt to un-centre or, even, free God.

In reflecting upon this undertaking I think I can trace the beginnings of it for me from my time in Oxford. There, in my college chapel, I spent a great deal of time meditating upon a beautiful series of Burne-Jones windows showing the six days of creation. Above each of them is to be found the motto “Elargissez Dieu” (taken from Diderot) which means, “Broaden your conception of God!” But the verb élargir can also have a judicial meaning, namely the act of freeing someone who has been detained, imprisoned.

Sitting in that chapel and under those windows I prayed many times through Psalm 42:

“As a hart longs
for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?”

When, indeed? But to ask this is also to ask, in a silent way, the question the Psalmists enemies posed, “Where is God?” The temptation (especially as a student of theology) is to answer this wholly in terms of religion and doctrines to which we may individually and collectively belong and subscribe. But I quickly realized that the moment our spiritual loyalty becomes so focused this is already to begin to centre and imprison God and to set “him” (an idolatrous word itself!) up as an idol..

This is not to say, of course, that God is cannot be found in formal religion and even partially glimpsed in its doctrines, but it is to say that God’s presence in these places and things is simply because “divinity is present everywhere, heaven and earth are filled with God.” But if you take this insight seriously then it really does have some radical outplayings. and the more I contemplate this thought the more I find myself completely at one with Robinson Jeffers in believing:

.... that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.) The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation, in turning one’s affection outward toward this one God, rather than inward on one’s self, or on humanity, or on human imagination and abstractions — the world of spirits.
I think that it is our privilege and felicity to love God for his beauty, without claiming or expecting love from him. We are not important to him, but he to us.

I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe. But I would have each person realize that his contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without him
(Robinson Jeffers: A Letter to Sister Mary James Power, October 1, 1934 cited in The Wild God of the World, Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 189).

Coming to hold such a view is surely to attempt some kind of elargissement of God – to un-centre the idea of Divinity and to free it from the possibility any kind of idolatry for this kind of God cannot meaningfully be understood as an enthroned individual Supreme Being to be worshiped but experienced Divine Being itself. But is it? Well, the answer is yes only if the elargissement of God is, at the same time, applied to us, too, as it must if there is only God who is also Nature. Consequently, it is important for me to say that part of the religious discipline of this very unitarian and pantheistic way of being religious must involve an attempt to un-centre ourselves or, to use the startling and unsettling word Jeffers used in his poem Carmel Point, to unhumanise ourselves in some way

Many people have an instant and negative reaction to this word, understanding it as a call to be less than human. But this is wholly wrong. It is not to be less than human it is to be fully present in the un-centred free God as an un-centred and free human. Jeffers thought this process had to be attempted because humankind had become too self-centred and, in consequence, indifferent to what he called the “astonishing beauty of things.” In the light of this thought he called for:

“a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.... This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist.... It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy.... it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.”

This is all very well, you may say, but how might we practically, positively and usefully de-centre and unhumanise ourselves? I think, as indeed did Jeffers, that although it is impossible fully to do whilst we are alive we achieve most when we engage in a continuous and profound meditation upon nature and, as Jesus taught, to consider the individual things of nature – lilies and ravens. Spinoza memorably taught something similar – “The more we understand singular things, the more we understand God” (E5p24). Jeffers’ poetry is an astonishing record of one man who spent a life trying to do just this.

In an age of great fears and worry concerning religion, politics and the ecological and economic meltdowns that seem in the offing it seems to me that we really do need to find ways of developing the “extraordinary patience of things” and the confidence of “the rock and oceans that we were made from.”

But I do not pretend that the kind of religious attitude I am proposing we should explore is anything other than very hard to follow if only because it is profoundly unsentimental – especially concerning our own human uniqueness. It takes considerable courage to say with Jeffers that “it is our privilege and felicity to love God for his beauty, without claiming or expecting love from him” and to conclude from that that “we are not important to [God], but he to us.”

The hardest thing in this kind of spirituality is to realise that “the beauty of things is sufficient” without us – though as we note this we should also note that we do form an intimate aspect of the whole and, in this sense only, are an indispensable mode of the whole. But it is key to remember that this “importance” (if this is the right word – and I’m not sure it is) is a wholly uncentred one – it exists only for the sake of the whole not for us as individuals. But, when we (if we can) embrace this thought and feel ourselves to one with God or Nature as are the hawk and the rock, then the way is truly opened up for us to “contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches.” It is important that Jeffers felt this included “moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe.”

The process I outline, that Spinoza, Jeffers and others outline, began to gain momentum on the day Copernicus realised the heliocentric nature of the universe. At that moment we understood our planet was not at the centre of the universe. As we have continued to reflect upon the world (as scientists, poets and philosophers) we have also begun to realise that neither are we humans the central and defining form of life (and here I include both the “rock” and the “hawk” i.e. not only the obviously alive things but also what we commonly perceive as non-sentient) on earth.

Not only that, with the development of transpersonal ways of thinking about our being in world, we are beginning to realise that our “own” identity is not really our "own." What makes us us is, almost paradoxically, the not-us.

Indeed this un-centring, un-centred (free) quality seems written into the very fabric of Being itself. Alas, in western forms of religion (and fundamentalist forms of it everywhere including militant atheism) this un-centred quality is so often missing. But one of the many great strengths of such an understanding of a truly free and un-centred God or Nature – of Being itself – is that it cannot be hitched to any kind of narrow fundamentalism; as the Tao Te Ching famously states, “the Tao that can be named is not the eternal name.” The God if which I am speaking cannot, really be spoken about (as such this blog is only so much hot air) but only experienced.

So I am not claiming that God is dead – all I am trying to do is to encourage you to engage in a concerted attempt at the elargissement of God (or Nature) – to expand and free your concept of God (or Nature) so that you may live fully in this beautiful (but, to some extent, indifferent) world with the “patience and confidence of the rock and ocean we were made from.” Let our faith be, again in the words of Jeffers in his poem Rock and Hawk, the “Mysticism of stone,/Which failure cannot cast down,/Nor success make proud.”

This, to my mind, is a true form of the tough liberal religion we need in today's world.

Monday, 24 March 2008

The oxygen of truth or the dephlogistication of the Resurrection . . .

Wittgenstein mused in 1930:

What inclines me even to believe in Christ’s resurrection? I play as it were with the thought. – If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like every human being. He is dead & decomposed. In that case he is a teacher, like any other & can no longer help; & and we are once more orphaned and alone. And we have to make do with wisdom & speculation. It is as though we are in a hell, where we can only dream & are shut out from heaven, roofed in as it were. But if I am to be REALLY redeemed, – I need certainty – not wisdom, dreams, speculation – and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what my heart, my soul, needs, not my speculative intellect. For my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, must be redeemed, not my abstract mind. Perhaps one may say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: it is love that believes the Resurrection. We might say Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to the Resurrection. What fights doubt is, as it were redemption. Holding fast to it must be holding fast to that belief. So this means: first be redeemed and hold tightly to your redemption (keep hold of your redemption) – then you will see that you are holding on to is this belief. So this can only come about if you no longer support yourself on this earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then everything will be different and it is ‘no wonder’ if you can then do what now you cannot do.
Ludwig Wittgenstein MS 120, 12 December 1937
Culture and Value (rev. ed.), Oxford 2006, Blackwell Publishing pp. 38-39e


Before coming obviously to my Easter theme I want to begin with something fundamental that underlies everything I am trying to do as a minister. (The first few paragraphs here own a great deal to the work of the American philosopher Paul Weinpahl as outlined in his Radical Spinoza.)

In essence what I am seeking to do here is to help you, in whatever way you can, to grasp that the world is NOT made up of discreet things existing independently but that it is, instead a Unity. This Unity is not made up of entities but IS simply Being and modes of being. So, for example, a tree is an arboreal mode of being and you and I are modes of being - human beings. Additionally we may note that actions, such as Loving can also be understood as a modes of being.

This has many profound practical and ethical ramifications. For example our understanding of our relationship with Nature changes. Instead of seeing it as a separate realm of individual things to be acted up and ruthlessly exploited we realise it is Being itself expressed in an infinite number of modes - and that it includes us. When this Unity is truly realised then we cannot but help act more diligently and compassionately towards each other and the world - sentient or, apparently, non-sentient.

All of the profound practical and ethical ramifications unfold in some way from an individual's recognition of ultimte identity with everything else - we are all modes of being of the Divine Unity. So in a real sense John Lennon got it right in "I am the Walrus" when he sang "I am you as you are he as you are me and we are all together." So too did Jesus when he prayed that we:

. . . 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 (John 17:21-23).

However, (and slightly in parenthesis today) we need to be a bit careful about inappropriately over doing this. There are times when it is appropriate to distinguish and to understand finite modes of being as different from each other - otherwise we undervalue something about the diverse nature of the Divine Unity itself. Weinpahl wittily points out, for example, when opening a bank account we rely upon having an identity, however, in true loving we abandon it. It takes wisdom to know when to acknowledge distinction and when to experience more fully the underlying unity.

To repeat, all that I am trying to do as a minister is to get you to realise yourself, intuitively and intellectually, that ultimate reality is only Being and its modes - a Divine Unity - and to it you already belong and you always have and will always be.

This is my way of saying that, in so far as you can grasp this truth, you are saved and have eternal life now (I'll be more explict about exactly what I mean by this towards the end of this blog). As a finite mode of this Divine Unity what enables you to be will forever be resurrected into new life. Everything - every thought and every atom - is redeemed in the Divine Unity.

'Cosmic' though this may sound, especially when so baldy and perhaps even dogmatically stated, I needed to summarise it because it roots what comes next although it will feel, in the first instance at least, like a move from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous - but hang in there!

Last week on a great Radio 4 comedy show called The Museum of Curiosity John Lloyd and Bill Bailey met with their guests for the week: Jonathan Miller, Marcus du Sautoy and Philip Ball. The conceit of the show is simple. It is a virtual museum into which the guest can deposit anything they like - real or imaginary - after having talked, entertainingly of course, about them. John Lloyd does the interviewing and Bill Bailey - the museum's curator, provides the music and additional witty comments.

It was Philip Ball's gift to the museum that set me off this week. For those who don't know him Ball is a freelance science writer and a Consultant Editor for the respected science magazine "Nature." Anyway Ball, a chemist, wanted to deposit in this imaginary museum an imaginary element: phlogiston. Brilliant eh?!

For those who don't know in the seventeenth century it was proposed by some scientists that in all flammable materials one finds phlogiston, a colourless, odourless, tasteless and weightless substance which is given off during burning. Substances that contain phlogiston they called "Phlogisticated" and, on being burned, they were called "dephlogisticated." The burnt remains were believed to be the true material substance of the thing itself. This theory was eventually replaced by Lavoisier who revealed the true nature of combustion - oxygen.

The phlogiston theory was wrong but it was posited because, at the time, it provided a plausible answer the question of what was going on when something burned. In what consisted burning was misinterpreted but it can be seen as part of the ongoing scientific inquiry into truth. With further research and reflection a better theory was put forward, tested and found to be a better description of the facts. It is important to realise that supporters of the phlogiston theory such as Becher, Stahl and Priestley were not liars and dissemblers it is simply that, though getting some things right, they got the overall answer wrong. That's the way scientific enquiry unfolds and though those early chemists they were wrong we still honour them for the preparatory work they carried out.

It remains my contention that the Easter story we inherit, though correct in certain respects, as a whole simply doesn't get the overall answer right. What phlogiston is to chemistry the literally understood resurrection is to the philosophy I try to teach here.

Orthodox, traditional Christianity claims that when we die here on earth we do so "In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ." This position developed, of course, out of a belief in the literal truth of both the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection (although don't forget that in the earliest texts of Mark there was only an empty tomb and the Resurrection story was added later) and the well known passage by St Paul from I Corinthians 15:12-15a:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ.

But, for all kinds of reasons, like many modern people, I simply cannot believe in the physical Resurrection of the individual man Jesus. Even if I wanted so to believe I don't think it would be possible because I really do understand the world to be of a wholly different nature from that understood by the Gospel writers and St Paul. To put it bluntly I think it can clearly be shown that they were utterly mistaken and consequently their accounts of what they believed occurred are false.

However, like Becher, Stahl and Priestley, this doesn't make them liars or dissemblers, nor does it mean that in their false belief they didn't intuit something that WAS true. In other words it is not quite right simply to say that their faith was in vain, nor does it mean they deliberately misrepresented "God." In fact I think they did intuit something true about the world, it is just that they attached it to something inappropriate - to something that could not, ultimately, truly bear its weight. They attached their insight to Jesus just as Priestley et al. attached their insight to phlogiston.

During the intense final days of Jesus' life, through the arrest, the trial and the execution, through the emptiness of loss of Good Friday and Saturday they clearly thought, prayed and reflected very deeply on the matter of what on earth Jesus was teaching them.

I think there is good evidence to show that it was always something to do with our ultimate identity with God-or-Nature - we were all "his" sons and daughters, God's kingdom was amongst or within us, we were all one with the Father and Jesus, - everything taught us this the ravens, the sparrows, the foxes and the lilies. Can you imagine what a redeeming revelation of this nature would do to you in the depths of such despair and fear? Suddenly realising this unity, this identity with everything, may we not conjecture (though it is impossible to know for sure - for me as much as for any bible believing conservative evangelical) that the disciples momentarily saw through the window - the icon - of Jesus to a vision that somehow nothing, no-thing, is lost - no thought nor any atom - and they understood that everything which dies is always reshaped and made anew? To a vision in which everything is redeemed by the creative Divine power that enables all things to be and which endlessly and creatively reshapes itself according to its own necessary and immutable laws?

Of course you may argue that this is as speculative - perhaps more so - than any traditional Christian understanding of things. But is it really? It is worth noting that some kind of radical underlying unity may be real is not simply being asserted by "head-in-the-clouds" mystics like me across all the world's religious traditions but is also being considered in all kinds of scientific circles including those concerned with ecological issues and quantum mechanics. Time and, on the scientific side good research, and on the religious side, good living, will tell. As Jesus wisely taught: "By their fruits ye shall know them."

So let me be absolutely clear - I think Jesus really did die and decompose in the grave like every other human being who has died before, and since. I also believe that he can be for us only a teacher and, because we cannot meet with him face to face to discuss faith, belief and praxis right here and now, despite the records of his often sublime teaching, it is true he can no longer help us.

For those of us who grew up within Christianity - like Wittgenstein who I am following here - and who were taught that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity and so also God - this realisation can make us feel terribly orphaned and alone and, being presented with, let alone coming to this view oneself, can - and often does - make some people feel that life is like a hell in which, suddenly we are shut out from heaven.

But whenever we intuit and experience directly the Divine Unity we are doing, I think, what Wittgenstein is asking us to do when he memorably says to us to 'suspend ourselves from heaven.' From that eternal perspective - though it is to some degree it transcends all perspectives - then of course everything is different.

So, yes, Jesus died but God-or-Nature itself is always being born anew. The Divine Unity is beyond all final death and when we recognise that we participate in this Divine Unity then we, too, know something of this eternal life. Though we know we, like Jesus, will die one day in another way we are truly resurrected to a new kind of life once we have glimpsed everything under the form of eternity. It is no wonder that with this view in our hearts we can begin to do what we couldn't before which is to live fully in this world as true sons and daughters of God.

Happy Easter.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Betraying Jesus - Adjectively or Verbally considered?

This blog considers Palm Sunday a time when we remember in particular Jesus' entry into the city of Jerusalem where he is welcomed by cheering and, apparently, supportive crowds. As we know this welcome and support lasted but a very short time and, when the time for real support was needed, the members of that same crowd were nowhere to be found.

Reflections on this subject generally concentrate upon the betrayal of Jesus and relate that betrayal in some way to our own present day actions. This approach has many merits and I certainly think we benefit from the reminder of what it means to be a member of a cheering crowd or even a self-proclaimed disciple only to discover ourselves at a later time betraying the same noble cause we once claimed we supported.

As I was preparing this piece I began to be aware that the word "betraying" could be understood verbally or adjectivally. Verbally, of course, it relates to the crowd, the disciples and us, we who are actively betraying whatever it is we saw or see in Jesus. But notice that it could equally relate, adjectivally, to Jesus himself and I began to ask what might we learn if we spend a moment thinking of Jesus as doing the betraying - Jesus the betrayer?

Hands will somewhere be raised at this point with a cry that something so dreadful could be suggested. But from many perspectives that is exactly what Jesus was - a betrayer and a very dangerous one at that. To certain kinds of religious thought then, and now, Jesus' understanding of in what consisted true religion was, and remains, a betrayal of a tradition which, the Hebrew scriptures (along with most other scriptures) imagined stretched back to the creation of the world itself.

Not surprisingly Jesus' teaching and actions which challenged the universal efficacy of key elements of his birth-right faith created an anger in some of them that knew no bounds. Although we don't know how events really unfolded what we do know is that, ultimately, it resulted in Jesus' arrest and execution.

Now it is common at this point to insert another adjective before Jesus' name - "innocent." But was Jesus innocent? One may argue that he was innocent of some of the immediate political charges brought against him but, as we do this, we must also ask the question that exercised the religious and Roman authorities of the time: if Jesus had been allowed to continue to preach his message of the Kingdom of God is it not easily possible to imagine the overturning things far more substantial than money changers' tables? The authorities did imagine such consequences and so they engaged in some "pre-emptive action." The New Testament story tells us that in this they had the support of many people in the city. Jesus was, they believed, guilty of betraying his own religion and of undermining Roman rule.

Such a view is, perhaps, hard for us to grasp primarily because we judge the Roman and Jewish authorities on the basis of our own culture's normative belief in the over-riding goodness and innocence of Jesus. Given this it is all too easy to forget to consider the other side of the Easter story.

As is often the case the Monty Python team in "The Life of Brian" pointed brilliantly to some of the ambiguities of the story that many modern-day Christians would quite like to forget. In this case I refer to scene 9 when Reg, during a rant against the Romans, asks: "What have the Romans ever done for us?" I'm sure you remember the replies: well the aqueduct, sanitation, roads. Reg responds: "Well, yeah. Obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct, and the roads . . ." The replies continue to come: irrigation, medicine, education, wine, baths, safety in the streets. Reg, exasperated says: "All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?" Do you recall the final reply? It was the startling "Brought peace?"

To many of your average first century Joes and Josephines Jesus, if he were left to continue his self-proclaimed mission, was going to upset a sizeable apple cart. What might follow was the collapse of a certain kind of peace and security. Things maybe a little tough and unfair under the Romans but let's not forget the sanitation, the medicine, education etc. . . And don't get me wrong, such things are important considerations and we kid ourselves when we try to ignore them. (Not incidentally it is the provision of such material things that helps Hamas to be so popular.) The Python team point to the material things we can see and experience and, as such, they will for many always carry more weight for many people than abstract ideals concerning truth, freedom and justice.

Now, in saying all this, I'm not suggesting that Jesus wasn't right to have challenged the society and religion of his day. No, it's just that today I want to do do something else, namely, to point to the truth that whenever we decide to support one cause and not another this action is, from certain perspectives, going to be seen as a betrayal.

The label of betrayer - or at the very least a dangerous trouble-maker - is always easier to pick up by those who are are of prophetic inclination. Why? Well it is because the underlying corruption and dreadfulness of any given political or religious situation is, by definition, obvious to the prophet way before it becomes visible to the majority of people. What kind of prophet merely states the bleedin' obvious? No, the prophet always speaks when it is still possible for most people to think everything is all right and will continue to be all right if one just doesn't rock the boat. It was true in first-century Palestine, it was true in Vienna in the early part of the twentieth century, it was true in Germany in the late twenties and early thirties. It is true today - and worryingly so in my opinion.

The prophet's calling has another layer of difficulty to add to it; that is the danger that they may prove to be a false prophet. But one can be a false - or perhaps failed prophet - for at least two reasons. The first is that the prophet is simply deluded. End of story. The world is littered with such prophets - religious and political.

The second is that the prophet is actually right in their general critique but, because of the effectiveness of their prophetic campaign - by accident or design - people change their ways and so avoid the prophet's predicted disaster or unrest. Jonah was such a prophet. Remember he was told by God to go to Nineveh and proclaim the city's imminent destruction if the populace didn't change their evil ways. And you know what, they went and changed their ways and the city was not destroyed. Jonah's prediction didn't come true and Jonah became a false prophet. He was not, personally, too pleased by this outcome.

So the pressing question always before every society - and especially one such as our own which has been for so long comfortable and superficially stable - is how do we judge whether a prophet amongst us - whether a religious or purely political one - is to be followed or denied? How do we decide whether they are in truth a great hero or a betrayer? How do we decide, when the inevitable angry response comes from the authorities (which always naturally prefer the status quo to a period of social ferment, change and, alas, even violence) whether we continue to support our prophet and hero or to decide that they are, in fact, to be abandoned?

The fact is, if you are not of prophetic inclination - or simply don't and/or cannot understand all the facts and issues of a given situation - how can we discern, at the outset, whether the prophet is true or false? What can we do? Well, Thomas Jefferson, the third US President helps us in this matter. I have pointed to this text but it bears repeating every now and then. In a letter to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787 Jefferson wrote:

[Y]ou must lay aside all prejudice on both sides and neither believe nor reject anything, because other persons, or descriptions of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but the uprightness of the decision.

So, as you stand in whatever crowd waving your palm frond in support of Prophet X it is vitally important that you have taken steps to ensure that you are there for upright reasons. If you continue to support them or, later, choose later to betray them are you still acting uprightly and fully using your reason?

However, with the best will in the world, and however carefully and uprightly you choose, someone, or some group of people, will cast you as a betrayer. There is no escape from this. We might wish with all our hearts for trouble free and clear choices that result only in praise but they simply don't exist and we must never forget this. Nor is there any truly innocent choice because a real choice will always be made using reason to weigh ALL the available information and that means we will have engaged our moral faculties and that is not an innocent activity.

Time often, of course, better reveals what may have been the "right" or "wrong" decision and we will all be judged by the courts of later ages and by people with more information and insight than we could have had at the time. (It is worth remembering the import of the otherwise glib phrase "time will tell.") But even so we must still act and choose and one way or another we will be seen as guilty and as betrayers. That is what we see starkly revealed when we consider Palm Sunday. No life truly and fully lived can be wholly innocent and free from betrayal and accusations of of the same.

Make no mistake about it, our own age is a veritable time of Palm Sundays for all sorts of reasons - religious, political, environmental - and the story remains a parable of great relevance for the present. The key thing is to choose well and uprightly using the only oracle given us by heaven - reason. And surely it is about time that those of us who call ourselves liberals realise this and begin to start speaking out prophetically on the major issues that concern us. We cannot be nice and innocent forever - that, surely would be to betray our own cause and we can't blame anybody else for that but ourselves.

Let those with ears hear . . .

Saturday, 8 March 2008

"If God is too great for us to truly understand, what is the point of all the conjecture about him/her/It?"

h sofia has left a comment on my last blog which raises a very important question. Thanks for the prod. The question is "If God is too great for us to truly understand, what is the point of all the conjecture about him/her/It?" h sofia concludes by noting - and at times I have concluded likewise myself - "I just don't get it."

All I can do here is offer a couple of reasons why I consider this kind of conjecture to be, in fact, useful.

In the current religious and political climate I'm very concerned to articulate the point that if we can in some way KNOW that God (or Nature) is too great for us to truly understand as a whole (and, as we shall see, know that God is not personal) then we have a powerful counter to the kinds of religion that claim they do know, absolutely, what God wants human beings to do.

Conservative or fundamentalist religions are very keen to offer us extensive lists of what they think God wants which, whilst clearly including things most people would accept as good all too often (nearly always?) include other aggressive and, to my mind, very dangerous and unhealthy things. The call to violence against others for being of another faith, sexuality, gender, colour or race is the most obvious. By doing the kind of theology I am encouraging, although I don't think we'll be able to stop human violence we might be able to help remove one of its key drivers - or perhaps better, excuses. We may not be able to know God (or Nature) in toto but we can come to know that God is not a person and "up there" providentially directing human beings to do X or Y.

Here you need to remember I'm with Spinoza in thinking that God is Nature (Deus sive Natura) and so God can, in certain ways, be known by us. Indeed it seems true that nature is the only thing human beings can really claim to know anything about.

The corollary of this is that by coming to know the natural world better we come to know God better - as Spinoza said "the more we understand particular [or singular] things, the more do we understand God" (Bk 5 Prop. 24). We come to that knowledge primarily through a reflection and meditation upon the results of the natural sciences. In passing, but of vital importance, we need to note that its results are most convincing because they can be verified by us as a community - i.e. they are not simply personal preferences. True, we have to interpret those results, but our interpretation is at least based upon something that is more than just the imaginative preferences of humankind.

The scientific project is helping us see that, for all the clear individuality of particular things, nothing can meaningfully be pulled apart or understood in isolation from anything else. We are slowly being brought to the thought that there is a high degree of probability of an underlying, if often veiled, unity of the whole. And, importantly, that this unity is nothing like a person.

Now this "unity of all things" clearly cannot be known in toto by any of the whole's "parts" (or better "modes" - every individual thing is, in Spinoza's terminology, a mode of God or Nature). The whole as the whole is necessarily veiled to its transient "modes." But an individual (a transient mode) can come to know the reality of the underlying unity which makes its very "individuality" possible; so a person can come to see particular things under the form of eternity; they can come to understand in what consists their own participation in God or Nature. George Santayana (the Spanish-American philosopher) put this thought beautifully in his introduction to Spinoza's "Ethics". I use this a lot in funeral services and replace man with woman when needed. Feel free to do likewise:

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 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.

I quite understand that all this may seem to be so much more pointless hot-air but even this apparently abstract conjecture has a powerful practical ethical spin-off (which is, after all, why Spinoza called his great book The Ethics). As Cliff Reed (the Unitarian minister in Ipswich, UK) has written:

. . . 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.

I hope this offers a few ideas to think on - it is intended to be no more than that. All I'm really interested in is articulating a religious philosophy that helps people know that they belong and fit in the universe and that so does everything else. The consequence being, I hope, a recognition that we should try to walk lightly and joyfully upon the earth and to treat everything in it with genuine love and compassion. Jesus taught us nothing less . . .

Friday, 7 March 2008

Some housekeeping . . .

Re-reading and reconsidering some of my recent blogs I think two bits house-keeping are in order - just to ensure I'm not completely misunderstood.

The first concerns my admission that I don't believe in a personal God. I wish to balance this with a clear statement that, in my opinion, we can still benefit greatly from using the language which speaks of God (or Nature) poetically and metaphorically as being "personal." The second concerns what I mean when I say we should be keeping dangerous providential conceptions of God as far away from our civic legal processes as is possible.

On the first matter I want to stress the point I made last week that we are creatures who have imaginations. In consequence it is valuable, educational (and let's not forget, entertaining) to be able to personify human ideas, values and relationships - this allows us to create books, films, poems and songs. Also, because, as Spinoza says at the start of The Ethics (1 prop. 15), "Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be, nor be conceived without God" what we understand as personality must necessarily be part of the whole. Consequently, God (or Nature) cannot be LESS than personal. But, because at the same time God (or Nature) is so much more than this tiny fragment of reality that includes personality, ultimately, it makes no sense to continue to claim that God (or Nature) is really anything like a person at all. All personalistic and anthropomorhic ideas of God are, in the end, simply inadequate. Meister Eckhart had a lot of wise things to say about this . . .

Anyway, my basic point here is that as long as it is used very carefully, traditional religious language need not be ruled out of court.

My second point concerns what I mean when I say "we should be keeping dangerous providential conceptions of God as far away from our civic legal processes as is possible."

I do NOT mean that individual people and communities who believe in a providential personalistic God should be kept out of the civic sphere and stopped from contributing to society's ongoing debate about how we should govern ourselves. They must have a voice along with the rest of us and I will certainly continue to ensure that is the case.

What I DO mean, however, is that in my opinion in the United Kingdom the possibility of everyone having a voice - theists, atheists, agnostics and all the rest - is best ensured by not allowing the concept of a providential God to become, in any way, a central, governing concept in our law making. It is in this sense that I consider myself a staunch defender of a secular society.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

A couple of video links for you to watch over a nice cup of tea and a biscuit . . .

Here you will find Steven Nadler giving a brief presentation on Spinoza and his relevance for us today. Nadler has written the definitive modern biography of Spinoza and I can thoroughly recommend it. His guide to The Ethics is also very good and accessible.

Part One (9 mins)

Part Two (10 mins)

And here is a link to Alain de Botton's programme on Epicurus

Lastly, I am acutely aware that I mention tea in my list of interests but that I haven't written about it yet. Well I do love tea with a passion. In fact a key moment in Unitarian Christian history occurred in Manchester during the gifting of a tea set - really! It's called the Manchester Socinian Controversy and ran between 1825 and 1844. More on that another time. However, for your delectation here are two tea links:

A nice cup of tea and a sit down

The Book of Tea by Okakuru Kakuzo (1863-1913)

An Epicurean spring spin on the Dursley-Pederson

I took a lovely Epicurean spin on the Dursley Pederson on Monday out to Fulbourn Fen. Stunning weather wonderfully restorative - especially after the last two Sundays during which I have made it abundantly clear that I really don't believe in a providential God. Trust me, that's a strain on a minister of religion . . . To some this is close to atheism - in fact some claim it is atheism - though I am inclined not to agree with them. Surely Deus sive Natura is best thought of as being Divine? It's the mystical pan(en)theist in me coming out. Anyway, here we have the perennial argument about whether Spinoza's "God" can really still be called such without dissembling? Any thoughts?

Whatever the answer you choose to give to this question Deus sive Natura was in her finest dress on Monday and, for that I give thanks.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Mother Love All The Way Down

In recent weeks I have been clarifying what I mean when I use the word God in this blog. I have become acutely aware that when I use it loosely and generally it can sound to a first time visitor - and even to regular visitors - as if I am are talking about the same God that is believed in and worshipped in orthodox churches and, for that matter within Islam or Judaism. This impression can be added to by the fact that I nearly always choose to illustrate what I have to say from the Judaeo-Christian tradition - the one after all to which I belong and, for all my study of other religions, the only one I can only really claim to know. Consequently I can, and sometimes do, sound to many people, although liberal, also quite orthodox and conservative. However, those who really know me know that it far from the case.

I begin by pointing to the chief clarification I have been making in the last couple of months or so which is to stress that when I speak of God - and I'm not in anyway demanding that you think likewise - I refer to the kind of God described by Spinoza. Namely a conception which is non-providential, non-interventionist and which is best understood as also being Nature. Most importantly God or Nature (Deus sive Natura) is NOT personal. You cannot talk with, pray to, or influence by prayer, rational argument or lobbying such a God. You will not meet such a God wandering about in the Garden of Eden, through the deserts of the Middle East, the countryside of India nor in England's green and pleasant land. It is vital to conclude this incomplete list by noting that neither does this God write books, holy or otherwise. In short I'm absolutely with Einstein who, in a letter to Murray W. Gross (26 April 1947), who had written to Einstein on behalf of his grandfather who was a Talmudic scholar, wrote:

It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropomorphic concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near to those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem - the most important of all human problems.

At this point I can begin to move towards a theme more obviously connected with Mothering Sunday and I'll take my initial cue from Einstein's point about treating "values and moral obligations as a purely human problem" and as "the most important of all human problems."

To be human is to engage with the world not only as rationalist philosophers and scientists, but also as poets and musicians. We think and we feel.

To help us discern what might be good and lasting human values and moral obligations, we often give those same values and moral obligations faces and personalities. We make them into characters in plays, poems, songs, novels and films. For example, in ancient Israel "wisdom" became personified as a woman, Lady Wisdom. In Greece and Rome "wisdom" was Athena and Minerva respectively.

In Christianity this idea of personification was, or course, expressed most fully in the figure of Christ - a personification not just of one virtue but all of them and, as such, for many Christians Christ became, not just a personification of God - of all ultimate values - but God himself. Of course God has had many guises and personifications and, for the most part within our culture, it has been in the form of an absolute ruler and judge set apart from mere mortals. But one of Jesus' great gifts to us was to change this picture and to offer us a personification that felt much closer to us, namely a loving Father. Now, as should be obvious, I really don't think this picture that Jesus offered us is really-real but I do feel what he taught can be seen as a useful rhetorical tool which helped us to explore, in a particular way, the human problem of values and moral obligations.

In the time and culture Jesus lived his personification of God as a Father was useful, radical and creative. But over the centuries it has become problematical. The personification has become fixed and there are millions of people who really think God is a person and a male one at that. Such a dogmatic and one dimensional personification of God has done unimaginable damage, not only to the human imagination, but also to countless real women. In the face of that the temptation is always to ditch the idea of personification altogether. But, if we did that, we would be left with just the philosophy and science, even though the truths they reveal are genuinely profound and awe inspiring. Remember my point that we are also poets and musicians; even Lucretius (1st Century CE), a clearly materialistic and non-theistic philosopher, felt the need to begin his epic poem De Rerum Natura with a paean to a God - in his case Venus, a personification of the creative power of Nature (C. H. Sissons' trans.):

Mother of all the Romans, moreover, everyone's pleasure,
Comfortable Venus: everything under the stars
- The sea that carries ships as well as the earth that bears
crops -
Is full of you: every living thing is conceived
By your methods and so comes into the daylight.

With Lucretius' "comfortable Venus" in mind, the need for and value of poetic language in our exploration of human problem of values and moral obligations, and the fact that it is Mothering Sunday, I'm going to suggest that there is today a rich harvest to be gained by more regularly personifying God or Nature as a mother rather than as a father. Remember as I do this that I don't think the personification of God or Nature as mother rather than father is any more real - all I am saying is that in our present age it seems more amenable and appropriate to our needs as human beings. Once again I am indebted to by friend and teacher Victor Nuovo for the following illustration.

He invites us to consider the love of a mother for her sucking child. and also the image of God or Nature as mother. He suggests that "if God is truth, then, since mother love is a truer image of love, we perhaps ought to embrace it." Indeed, Victor believes it better "expresses the whole meaning of our existence" and I am inclined to agree with him. In connection with this he tells us about something that recently happened to him:

Some weeks ago, I was loading a cart to carry my recycling down the driveway. It looked like rain, so I though it advisable to cover it with a tarpaulin, to keep the paper from becoming rain-soaked and hard to handle. The tarpaulin lay rolled up beside the cart, where it had been for some weeks. When I unravelled it, I discovered that a mother mouse had made her nest in it; there she was nursing her brood. She was terrified as were her nurslings, whose eyes had yet to open. They clung to her teats not, in this instance, to suckle, but because they found security there. She tried to cover them with her body. They were as one being. It was a beautiful sight, and yet heartbreaking. I had absolute power over them. I could have killed them, and perhaps I should have. But I could not. Instead, I set them gently on a flat shovel, and carried them to the edge of the yard and set them down in some undergrowth. Once there, the faithful mother mouse moved away, her nurslings still clinging to her breasts, and found shelter. Oh how I wished that I might make all beings in the world safe! But I am not the king of love, or a faithful shepherd. And there is no such power. There is only mother love all the way down.

Victor observes that the aim of a mother's love is "to nurture to maturity a free human being (or, indeed, an adventurous mouse!), the perfection of the life that was conceived in her womb and carried there."

In an ideal world a mother's love and suckling "is the beginning of a child’s engagement with the world, the first moment in the adventure of learning, the awakening of the mind, perhaps its first act, a prelude to finding one’s way in the world."

Victor then asks the all important question of "Where does this love come from?" His answer is "that it is in the nature of things to love in this way." And he goes on to say that, although we cannot all be mothers "we can all learn to love like this, tenderly, faithfully, steadfastly, in a way that nourishes, that gives life, that comforts, that seeks to set free, as though we were all mothers to each other."

Although the God in which I believe is not personal - is not really a father or a mother in any of the senses we understand those words - an emergent quality of such a God is, in living creatures, this astonishing thing we know as mothering love - it is graven on the hands of Nature itself. We would do well to observe this fact and, as Victor suggests, encourage it through all the realms of human activity.

Let there be mother love all the way down.