Sunday, 27 April 2008

Jesus and the untying of cats

You can download a pdf copy of the service talked about in this blog here or simply click on the gif files throughout this blog.

All religious traditions are decisively shaped by transient and contingent local events so, although they are all attempt to say something about what they think is the universal reality, they can only do this by using language bequeathed to them by the local and the contingent.

Some liberal religious thinkers have believed that it was possible to strip all this local and contingent stuff away and articulate a pure, universal religion. But, for all kinds of reasons (argued in detail elsewhere) I think this can be shown to be wholly mistaken because humans can only articulate ideas about universals from their particular, local and contingent bend in the river. Although there is nothing wrong with this - in fact I don't really see how it could be otherwise - the problem is how to distinguish the truly essential particularities of our own tradition from those which are truly inessential and then to go on to discern the the right time for a damned good prune and to trim things back to a simpler, less raggedy and confusing condition that speaks with reasonable (though never perfect) clarity to our own age and condition. There is a very well-known Zen Buddhist story which illustrates my point perfectly:

When the Roshi and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the Roshi ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the Roshi died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the Roshi wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.

After one has discovered the wholly contingent and non-essential reasons for tying up the cat in the first place it becomes inevitable to think about whether one might not be able to let the poor cat free and at least see what happens. Well, in preparing the evening service you have in your hands I have been engaged in what one might call a "cat release programme" for Unitarian and Free Christianity - my adopted religious tradition and the historic one of this church.

I have often observed - as have many of you - that a lot of Christianity is like the tying up of cats. Don't get me wrong, I'm not being rude and dismissive here, all I am saying is that it contains practices and beliefs that, whilst understandable once and under certain local conditions, are now no longer relevant or helpful. In fact they can cause us wholly to miss some basic points. It seems fairly clear that the basic elements of Christianity can be summed up very simply in three brief texts. They are the Sermon on the Mount which includes Lord's Prayer, Micah 6:6a, 8 and Jesus' presentation in Mark 12:29 and parr. of the two great Jewish commandments found at Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus19:18. You know the Lord's Prayer well but here, to remind you right here and now, are the others:

With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (6:6a, 8 NRSV)

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. (12:29-31 NRSV)

In terms of basic texts I really don't think that there is anything else that is essential as, every other text as beautiful as they may be, are but commentaries on these teachings. But, even in these classic simple expressions of Christianity there are also some tied up cats - namely specialist words which obscure for many people today - too many in my opinion - the key spiritual insights they were attempting to point to in the first place.

To illustrate what I mean the best example in the three texts I have cited is found at the start of the two great commandments: Hear, O Israel. Now this word is unbelievably complex to unfold. Etymologically the word means "he who has striven with God" (Gen. 32:28) and it the given to Jacob and then, symbolically, extended to his descendants - the people of Israel. So, you be tempted to think the word means the Jewish people as a whole. But in the complex processes that gave rise to Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism the Church came to believe that it was the true Israel. As we know only too well some unpleasant and utterly brutal conflicts have broke out over this. In the modern context, of course, it is a word inextricably tied to the present middle-eastern nation - a nation which has all kinds of issues connected with it, some positive but many of which remain deeply problematic. I, personally, have always taken the word's strict etymological meaning and so interpreted it to mean anyone who strives with God regardless of whether they call themselves a Jew, a Christian or anything else. (Those who know their Bible will know that both Matthew and Luke drop the word because they did not find it helpful).

I think the words 'God' and 'Lord' are equally problematic. Again I could unpack the many complex meanings of them but I'll simply note that recently I have made it clear that I think the most reasonable meaning of the words, given our current state of scientific and psychological knowledge as well as our community's historic particular commitment to the unity of God (hence the name Unitarian), is only to be found when you add Nature to it with the conjunction "or" meaning equivalence - hence God-or-Nature (Deus sive Natura). God is Nature and Nature is God - is not outside this world but is world and we are part of the same and so part of God.

The Lord's Prayer is filled with tied up cats: Father, heaven, hallowing, kingdom, heaven and earth (taken as a linked pair), evil, glory, for ever and ever. Whether I like it or not I have to engage in a fairly major act of interpretation every time I utter it. To be sure I still gain a great deal of comfort from the familiar feel the words in my mouth - its nice to know the cat's safely tied up outside as it seems it always has been - but when I come really to examine this feeling I am increasingly recognising that it is driven more by my passive emotions than any truly active ones - i.e. ones that are informed by careful thought and reflection.

Now I raise this matter because, as your minister, I am charged with the preparation and conduct of public, corporate worship that is intellectually and spiritually sound and coherent (as well as satisfying at a basic literary level). Also, following on from my point about there being no such thing as a pure universal religion cut off from all local and contingent particularities, I need to offer you worship which remains knowingly connected with its historic particular procession of faith namely (to follow the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams (1901–1994)):a religion which "looks to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation" and which has found a "decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth."

As we know, some contemporary Unitarians want to cut loose from our foundational particularity as followers of Jesus but in my opinion, although they have seen correctly some radical pruning is necessary, they have been snipping - and occasionally hacking - away in the wrong place. They shouldn't be cutting off our particularity that is Jesus but the great deal of unnecessary growth that appears above a much overlooked teaching of his.

Remember that when Jesus introduces the Lord's Prayer in Matthew (6:9) and Luke (11:2). He suggests that we should pray after this manner or like this. Notice he does not ask us to pray exactly like this. Jesus seems here, and elsewhere, to be more concerned to teach those who were following him a pattern of prayer; indeed in all his actions he offers us a pattern of living response to the Divine presence of God in, and through, Nature and not to set himself up - nor any particular religion as absolute.

In short he is telling us here that we don't need to pray the Lord's Prayer exactly as we learnt it but to learn it in order to use it as a pattern our own prayers - to respond to God-or-Nature in the same spirit as he did, that is to say without mediator or veil and according to the knowledge of the world we possess.

So our problem with aspects of Christianity isn't solved by ditching Jesus but rather by listening to him more clearly as free and intelligent students of life. Jesus' whole life was not about throwing away his tradition - his central particularities - but about radically recasting it. To put it another way he was a cat-freer par excellence and I think that we as a liberal church meeting in the spirit of Jesus are called to do likewise - to be un-tiers of cats.

Given this thought I went back at the end of last year to our own radical liberal Christian tradition's particularities and see if I could untie a few cats. Here in a super-fast run through of the service you have before you now is what I have done. (You can download a pdf copy of the service here - please feel free to use it.)


The gathering words are a recasting of a key passage concerning liberty of religious conscience found in the preface to the Racovian Catechism of 1604. This was the culmination of the thought of the sixteenth century Polish Socinian community that marks the formal start of our particular procession of faith.

The first sentence for the lighting of a candle is by John Toland (1670-1722). Toland was an influential Irish Philosopher and was both a pantheist (he coined the word) and also a man with leanings towards the Socinian position. The second half is by the Revd Cliff Reed the current Unitarian minister in Ipswich, England.

The next text (Understand that nothing can be . . . ) is a recasting of the two great commandments of Jesus' using Spinoza's language. If God-or-Nature is all reality then God, Nature and my neighbour are the same and all deserve my total commitment and love.

Understand that nothing can be, nor be conceived without God and that whatever is, is in God. Therefore, we must love God with everything we have – our feelings, our intelligence and with all our physical and mental strength. The next most important rule is to love Nature as we love ourselves. These are the most important rules by which to live a life. Everything else said on this matter is simply a commentary upon them.

The next text (With what attitude . . .) is a recasting of the passage from Micah and again uses Spinoza's language. The point is that we have come to realise that we don't need any external revelation from a distant God but, using innate divine reason and experience, we can figure out ourselves how best to behave in the world. Notice that we walk humbly, not "with God", but "through Nature" for neither we, nor anything else, is apart from the Divine reality so all things can only move through her as lines of movement and never as discrete wholly independent beings.

With what attitude must we live in the presence of God and how do we acknowledge that we are not independent and apart from this Divine Unity? Our reason and experience tells us that we should simply try to do what is good, that is to say, to live and act justly, to love kindness and compassion, and to walk humbly through Nature.

The next text is Timothy Sprigge's recasting of the Lord's Prayer along similar Spinozistic lines. He was professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh (1979-1989), a member of St Mark's Unitarian Church and was, on occasions, called by some of his professional colleagues "Spinoza re-incarnated."

After the period of led meditation the penultimate prayer is an adaptation of another prayer by Cliff Reed. The key change I made was to ensure that we see ourselves not, as "vessels" of the divine - discrete objects to be filled - but rather as active modes of God ourselves. Key in this process of discernment is an affirmation of our commitment to follow the normative model our religious community has seen, and continues to see, in the man Jesus.

The service concludes with some words found in a number of Unitarian prayer books.

So there you have it. As to whether I have been successful in my endeavour to untie some cats is hardly for me to say - all I can say is that it satisfies me and, on a Tuesday evening, it works. I offer it to you for your own reflections. But whatever else you do after reading this address - do try some cat untying yourself but don't forget you can only untie them with confidence if you come to know why they are tied up in the first place. This sermon is NOT about abandoning the old texts but about understanding them better so that you can reveal to yourself and others why your recasting is true and clear contemporary expression of the religion of Jesus - that is to say a truly liberal liberal, relevant and empowering religion.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Darn that Dream and a trailer for the next sermon entitled "Jesus and the untying of cats . . ."

Connected with my last post here is a link to a lovely relaxed version of Darn That Dream played by the Ahmad Jamal Trio. Another track to bring a smile to one's lips at much needed moments. Full on metaphysical blogging resumes when I get Sunday's sermon up on-line. It concerns Jesus and the untying of cats . . .

Friday, 25 April 2008

The ministry of Linus and Lucy . . .

A decidedly non metaphysical blog coming up. It's been a tough day up at the hospital, it comes with the role of minister. Anyway I came home, pretty burnt out, flipped open up a beer (Greene King IPA) and put on some jazz - Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, John Coltrane with Red Garland. All good, all wonderful. Then, I don't know why, but I got the urge to listen to Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Suite. OK, to some people it's not very sublime and deep music but Guaraldi had a knack of writing music that made you smile and see that, on balance, it is good to be alive. Now I know you probably haven't got this record (or any of his others) but, if you go the Vince Guaraldi website, the opening page plays a short version of Linus and Lucy. For those of you who loved (still love) Charlie Brown it will bring a smile to your face - a good way to end any day.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

A lesson for liberal religion from one of Jazz's finest bass players - Chuck Israels

As you will be aware I am not only a minister of religion but also a professional bass player and, in my University teaching, I am constantly aware that there is often a considerable overlap between what I am trying to teach in the faculty of music and what I am trying to do from the pulpit.

One of my constant mantras in the latter is the desperate need for religious liberals to get spiritually disciplined - carefully to follow a coherent path and tradition and not to be frightened by becoming an apprentice in the school of a religious master such as Jesus. Really to try and imitate them - not so that you remain for ever a mere pale copy of them - but so that you can, in the first instance, get a real grip on how to be a genuinely free religious person in the world. But, alas, all too often this approach is written off as being too prescriptive, too restrictive of a person's freedom to improvise their own spirituality.

In an attempt to give folk a feel of what I might mean from a non-religious perspective here is a link to an interesting essay entitled An Unpopular Perspective in Jazz Education by Chuck Israels (see picture above) - who played bass with, amongst others, the pianist Bill Evans - in which he explores a similar question in musical terms.

I and my colleagues constantly come across students who claim that they want to play jazz and improvise but who, it turns out, have never listened to any players or records. They know nothing about the actual music and have only the vaguest idea of what it is about - generally hung on a false idea of in what consists freedom to improvise. But, as Israels notes without a model or a prototype "there is no image and no passion." Israels continues:

This acquisition of personal prototypes is an essential first step in the learning process. Without it, there is no foundation on which to build technique. A student can only be helped to learn to emulate an art for which the student has a clearly held image. Attempts to assimilate a more abstract process of technical practice without a sufficiently ingrained model are likely to prove frustrating, if not futile. Imitation is primary. The more highly developed the model and the more exact the imitation, the more successful will be the results.

And what are the more successful results? You've guessed it, true freedom within the limitations that are imposed on every human being whether you are seeking to be a good bass-player or a genuinely free religious person.

Amen, brother Chuck.

So, dear Chuck (if you ever read this, which is highly unlikely), thanks for the great and inspiring playing over the years. You were one of my models and it payed off well . . .

Here is a link to a video of Chuck Israels playing with Bill Evans

It is worth following the links to the other tracks from the same session.

One of the bands I play with, Rebop, has a concert in the Church the Cambridge church on May 2nd . . .

REBOP plays Miles Davis on Friday 2nd May, 7.30pm, at Unitarian Church, Emmanuel Road, Cambridge, CB1 1JW.
Tickets £10 (£8 concessions) - Advance booking 01359 253659

A special presentation of the music of Miles Davis from 1958-59, the period when the trumpeter’s six-piece line-up featured both Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane. With great attention to arrangement detail, Cambridge’s own jazz repertory orchestra Rebop performs two albums in their entirety - the exciting Milestones and the seminal Kind Of Blue. Featuring Paul Higgs (trumpet), Kevin Flanagan (alto sax), Colin Watling (tenor), Chris Ingham (piano), Andrew Brown (bass), Roger Odell (drums).

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

On cottages, decay, barns, fire, Mt. Olympus and the moon – or the future of the liberal church . . .

Jesus said: When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming; and so it happens.’ And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? (Luke 12:54–57 RSV)


The American Unitarian minister and theologian George Kimmich Beach begins his insightful 1995 essay entitled The Covenant of Spiritual Freedom with the following words:

The twentieth century is the age of the crisis of liberal democracy. The prospect of our liberal faith is intimately bound up with that crisis. We face this one question in many guises: Is freedom the right of individuals to think and to do as they please, or is it the human capacity to respond creatively to the possibilities and limits of human existence? (p. 99 of Redeeming the Time).

This crisis continues unabated into the profoundly uncertain and unsettling times of the twenty-first century and we, as an independent liberal religious community, are particularly called to articulate and model a workable and coherent solution to it.

Whilst it is clear that such times reveal to us key fundamental faults in our ways of thinking and life we must not forget that they are also times of unrivalled opportunity. They are, potentially at least, refulgent with possibility because the same fractures that open up and threaten the stability of our societies and institutions are the same as those that let in much needed light long excluded by design or, most often alas, simply by accident. This thought remains for me most memorably expressed by Edmund Waller (1606–1687) in the last verse in his Divine Poems written at the very end of his own life:

The soul’s dark cottage, batter’d and decay’d,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made;

Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their eternal home:

Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,

That stand upon the threshold of the new.

Not unimportantly underneath this verse is a short quotation from Virgil’s Fifth Eclogue (line 56) ‘Miratur limen Olympi’ – literally meaning ‘he gazes with wonder at the threshold of Olympus.’ Mt. Olympus being, of course, the home of the principal Greek gods. In the editions that I own of the Eclogues ‘Olympus’ is translated as “Heaven’s gate.”

The Poet Masahide (1657–1732), wrote perhaps the most famous and terse poem about such things (trans. Lucien Stryk):

Barn’s burnt down –

I can see the moon.

The message of these two poems is simple, the cottage and the barn may well offer shelter and a place for storage but, left for too long and allowed to get too big and apparently permanent (only apparently of course), they also begin block from view things as large, vital and timeless to us as the moon and Mt. Olympus both of which stand, symbolically of course, for a central guiding vision in the life of the poet that has become obscured to them over the course of time.

But both poems attest to another very significant problem namely, that we are all too forced into a re-contemplation of the moon or Mt. Olympus – our guiding underlying visions – not because of our own innate wisdom and foresight, but because we are impelled to do so by contingent and sometimes distressing circumstances. So impeding death forced Waller to see Olympus through the cracks opening up in his “cottage”, and catastrophic fire forced Masahide to see the moon above the burnt out smoking remains of his barn. It takes great wisdom, foresight and courage to recognise that if we are truly to reconnect with some fundamental things in life we may have to pull down our own cottages and barns before age or fire gets them.

I want you to observe that lying behind all of this is the truth that all cottages will eventually fall; all barns will eventually burn down. Nothing lasts for ever including churches and religious communities such as us. But I believe that we, as a local community, can address this ongoing crisis in our culture and the continued demise of liberal churches well, and make the necessary changes to our structures without, ourselves, being thrown into homelessness, panic and distress by decrepitude or fire.

Part of my role as minister to this church is to spend a great deal of time looking at and contemplating the state of religion and spirituality in our own age and country. On the basis of this reflection, as Jesus taught, I am prepared to judge myself what is right, and it seems to me that the way most people have been “doing” liberal religion for at least the last century is fatally flawed and that it has obscured from view the vision that should be empowering us as liberals in the present age.

The cottage and barn we began to build from the sixteenth century had as its central design concept the idea that there must be within our communities freedom of thought in the pursuit of truth – whether that truth was labelled scientific, historical or religious. It was a design concept that flourished beyond all expectations especially when it was adopted by most European nation states and then the USA to develop in what we now call liberal democracy. But this soaring edifice slowly began to obscure the almost paradoxical fact that one can only learn what true human freedom means against the background of the limitations of human existence. In the beginning we understood this but for all kinds of reasons (none of which I will examine here – that has and continues to be done in other addresses) we began to mistake freedom to mean “the right of individuals to think and to do as they please.” Our present society and the liberal churches are at present crippled by confusion on this point. We need to relearn what individual freedom means in a true liberal society and church.

We begin by realizing that perhaps the most significant human limitation is, as Beach observes, that for us “freedom is only meaningful within a framework of purposeful action.” In other words we are not free from anything but only truly free when we are for something larger than our own self-interest.

In order to keep ourselves free and able to work for something we have to find ways to work with others in this task who can support us and whom we, in turn, also support. To do this properly we have to enter freely into covenants with each other. And, here we meet that paradox again, for when we covenant freely with each other to ensure our continued freedom of thought in the pursuit of truth and the freedom of others to do the same, we are no longer free to do just what we like. In liberal contexts - again as Beach observes - it is clear that freedom and necessity meet in what Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464) called the “coincidence of opposites.” Our liberal freedom consists in the voluntary giving up of freedom within the context of covenanted communities.

So we are left with what feels to many the inconvenient truth that to be truly free as an individual to pursue truth we must ensure the freedom to do the same of an ever larger community and, to do that properly, we have to limit our personal freedom through the continuous process of covenanting. (It’s like marriage of course.)

In a society that seems today wholly unable to negotiate such covenants, our clear duty is to model such a society right here and right now. One of the best contemporary covenants that I know was written by George Kimmich Beach:

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We covenant: We freely commit ourselves to high and holy aims, aims that transcend us, aims of the Spirit. Not in freedom from obligations to others, but in freedom to enter into common endeavours for the common good. Not in freedom from the nourishing roots of our faith in ancient ages, but in freedom to give fresh interpretation to ancient symbols and stories. Not in freedom from being called to aims that surpass us, but in the freedom that springs from knowing that “we've caught a moving train” (Johnny Ray Youngblood), and, together, we're on our way.

We covenant in spiritual freedom. We find at the centre of our faith an energizing mainspring, a drive for meaning and dignity implanted in every soul in every land—the wonder of being alive and awakened to life, the grace of beginning anew. Not in the self-enclosing isolation of the self, but in the quest for a more inclusive covenant. Not in narrow-mindedness or in mean-spirited debunking of things cherished by others, but in listening for the spirit of life and truth wherever it arises. Not in fearfulness that life runs out and nothing can be done, but in the courage to turn every crisis of life into an opportunity for growth and spiritual depth.

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We seek a better world where all peoples can flourish, sharing in the resources of planet Earth and sustaining her natural ecology, a new humanity within the covenant of being. Not closing our eyes to the awesome tasks that stand before us, but committing ourselves to labour tirelessly for the physical, moral, and spiritual well-being of all. Not despairing of the human prospect, but affirming hope, and the sacredness of the image in which we are made. Not stonyhearted when we are called to make a new beginning, nor giving up when our need is to persevere, but affirming our quest for wholeness and holiness.

If, as a church, we are truly going to encourage and develop the human capacity to respond creatively to the possibilities and limits of human existence rather than continue to support a dysfunctional liberal culture that believes individuals can think and to do as they please we need to become much more than a few, admittedly interesting, but ultimately disparate liberally minded people who gather once a week (or less) for a couple of hours in a building that remains closed most of the time. That just ain’t gonna change us in the ways it should, and it sure as hell won’t change the world in the way it needs to change if it is going to survive the next century.

We desperately need to frame a covenant with each other that resembles Beach’s suggestion. In so doing we must also figure out ways to become a liberal community church that doesn’t just have a single minister and a couple of services a week but one which is open seven days a week and which sees everybody as involved in ministry – a ministry led church rather than a minister led one. We also need to be a church which uses its own premises to help people be together in community whilst engaging critically with spiritual, religious, philosophical, theological, scientific, historical and ecological questions. I’m talking about the creation of a genuinely liberal version of the dreadfully narrow, exclusive and judgemental Christian Institutes and so-called Community Churches (only 'so-called' because so many people are excluded from them) that are springing up at present.

We desperately, and I mean desperately, need to tear down our conception of a liberal church that meets only on a Sunday and go on to build something like a university or institute of liberal religion – and good lord doesn’t the world need it? And are we not smack dab in the middle of the right city to do it?

Whatever you think about this I idea I feel absolutely certain that if we stay as we are – just a bumbling along liberal Sunday church – then our decay and collapse is inevitable, we will even deserve to be razed to the ground. If, however, we take the many opportunities that are before us my bet is that we’ll get see the moon and Mt. Olympus once more and without having our church collapse of old age or burn down.

As to whether I am right in this prognosis it only as a covenanted congregation that we will be able truly to judge the signs of the times and come to some firm conclusions about what is the right course of action.

Monday, 14 April 2008

The Earth - A Common Treasury for All

In the Common Lectionary one of the readings appointed for last Sunday was from Acts 2:42–47 (RSV):

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

This, along with Acts 4:32–37 is taken as a foundational text for those who believe that to follow Jesus’ religious insight properly involves adopting some kind of egalitarian co-operative organisation of community. Importantly, though in parenthesis today, it is important to realise that to follow Jesus properly doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a Christian in any conventional sense. I’m a walking example of that!

Anyway, this text – with its emphasis on holding all things in common – profoundly influenced many of those involved in the English Revolution perhaps, most notably, Gerrard Winstanley (1609–1676). In his True Levellers Standard Advanced of 1649 Winstanley argued that the new government should ensure that all the land was to be as it was in the beginning and that, therefore, we should

. . . work in righteousness, and lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich and Poor, That every one that is born in the land, may be fed by the Earth his Mother that brought him forth, according to the Reason that rules in the Creation.

It was a vision which was concerned with justice in this world. To be sure people like Winstanley had beliefs about what occurred after one died but they were of secondary concern. He really did believe in life before death. On this matter Winstanley also memorably wrote:

[Priests] lay claim to heaven after they are dead, and yet they require their heaven in this world too, and grumble mightily against the people that will not give them a large temporal maintenance. And yet they tell the poor people that they must be content with their poverty, and they shall have their heaven hereafter. But why may we not have our heaven here (that is, a comfortable livelihood in the earth) and heaven hereafter too, as well as you? ... While men are gazing up to heaven, imagining after a happiness or fearing a hell after they are dead, their eyes are put out, that they not see what is their birthrights, and what is to be done by them here on earth while they are living (Sabine, G. H., The Works of Gerrard Winstanely, 1941, pp. 409, 569).

It is well known that the author Philip Pullman (1946– ) in his masterful Dark Materials Trilogy has expressed similar ideas, most notably centred around his wonderfully provocative phrase the republic of heaven. In a recent interview he said:

The kingdom of heaven promised us certain things: it promised us happiness and a sense of purpose and a sense of having a place in the universe, of having a role and a destiny that were noble and splendid; and so we were connected to things. We were not alienated. But now that, for me anyway, the King is dead, I find that I still need these things that heaven promised, and I’m not willing to live without them. I don’t think I will continue to live after I’m dead, so if I am to achieve these things I must try to bring them about – and encourage other people to bring them about – on earth, in a republic in which we are all free and equal – and responsible – citizens.

These hopes and visions of a common earth from the first, seventeenth and twenty-first centuries have been particularly in my mind this week as I have continued to follow the distressing reports of the many food riots that are breaking out across our planet. It is painfully clear that neither the Apostles’, Winstanley’s, nor Pullman’s hopes seems to be coming to pass.

One thing revealed by these riots is that for many people the earth is no way seen by those with real political and economic power as a common treasury at all. No republic of heaven on earth is being envisioned here. Why? Well, it is because the earth is primarily being used to feed and sustain the lifestyles of those of us in the industrialised (or industrialising) world, and the prevalent philosophical and economic paradigm which drives these societies is, as the philosopher Freya Mathews’ notes, a radically materialist (in both this word's philosophical and popular senses) extractive profit-driven ideology that is obsessed with ideas of progress, a certain kind of liberal polity and an ethos of consumerism that is developing into an international regime of colonialism.

We could, of course, try to redress the dreadful imbalances we see around the world wholly within this prevailing ideological paradigm – say through international talks like the present Dohar round – but many of us are concluding that if we are really going to change anything we are going to have to affect a far more radical change that will, that must, turn our world-view upside down – particularly our western consumerist and materialist world-view. This phrase, not coincidentally, also comes once from Acts (17:6): when the enemies of the early Christians hauled some of them before the rulers of the city of Thessalonica they cried “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also.”

And what is this upside-down turning? Here I should state quite clearly that don’t think it is going to come about through a restored and revitalized version of Christianity – though I think we can (and given the very particular journey of faith made by Unitarians we should) maintain a real and loving connection with Jesus’ life and teaching. No, instead what I think is required is nothing less than the deliberate and self-conscious dethronement of humankind and the restoration to sovereign status of Nature so that we can listen to her and let her tell us how better to live with each other and with her – how she can truly become, once more, a common treasury for all – not just humans mind you but everything in the world, animal, vegetable and mineral. Also I do not mean Nature becomes just a treasury of goods but also a treasury of meaning and value. Now, as I say this don’t forget that when I speak of Nature – following my beloved Spinoza – I speak also of God; Deus sive Nature – God-or-Nature. So this revolution I, and others, am calling for is essentially the re-divinisation of nature so as to challenge, at the most fundamental level possible, the brutal extractive profit-driven materialism of our age.

Freya Mathews – and you are going to be hearing more of her thinking for a while because she really does hit nail after nail upon the head with such clarity, grace and love – begins her book For the Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism (SUNY Press NY, 2003) with the following expression of this:

It is sometimes said of those individuals in modern societies who are supremely well-placed to achieve personal fulfillment that they have “the world at their feet.” They stand like a sovereign in command of the entire order of things, and all things are ready to do their bidding. Their desires will be gratified, their will done. The banner of their fame will light up the sky. This book is about and entirely different form of fulfillment, one which finds us not in command of the world, but kneeling tenderly at its feet, awaiting its command, trying to divine its will. From this point of view, the world is our sovereign, our solace, our beloved, and we are its people. Our desire is for it, and this desire is, for us, the banner that fills the sky. It is also the banner under which we march, for love of the world is not the only raison d’etre that sustains us, but a cause that will unite us against the contemporary economic invasion of this sacred ground (p.1).

If we want to begin – and I mean really begin – to set right the injustices we are seeing in our world over food and resources then we need radically to change our attitude towards the world and move from one of exploitation and extraction to that of deep devotion and intimate involvement.

We have to begin to affect this revolution with a change in our daily lives in all their ordinariness. We must begin by giving prayerful thanks, at every opportunity for everything; our food and water; the sunlight and the rain; the winds and the snow. We should say grace at table, give thanks when we take a bath or drink some water. We must connect with the people and places that have grown our food and understand that the purchase of goods is not merely to engage in a financial exchange but also – and primarily I think – an exchange of meaning, an profound encounter with reality itself; an experience that is the meaning of life itself. Layman P’ang (740–808) memorably wrote of what this feels like (quoted in Stephen Mitchell’s excellent The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, New York: Harper Perennial, 1989):

My daily affairs are quite ordinary;
but I’m in total harmony with them.
I don’t hold onto anything, don’t reject anything;
Nowhere an obstacle or conflict.
Who cares about wealth and honour?
Even the poorest thing shines.
My miraculous power and spiritual activity:
Drawing water and carrying wood.

It means, as I explored in a sermon during October 2007 entitled The Trouble with Surfaces (drawing on the work of the anthropologist Tim Ingold) that we begin to understand that we move through the world not across it; that we do not ‘simply occupy the world’ but ‘inhabit it’; and, lastly that it is as ‘lines of movement’ that as beings we ‘are instantiated in the world’ – in other words we are not discreet individuals but woven into the warp and weft of Nature-or-God.

The future of our planet – this common treasury (of goods and ultimate meaning) for all (ALL remember!) – will only be ensured if, as Mathew’s hopes, we can ensure that all of our activities are “laced with love of world” and when every activity “care[s] about itself as an expression of the unfolding of world.”

I can do no better than to conclude with Mathew’s own words (Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a recovery of Culture, SUNY Press NY, 2005 pp. 20–21):

. . . when each activity is no longer simply utilitarian in intent, daily activities will be transformed into a gift of celebration and thanks, intimately attuned in their form to the particularities of the situations in which they are performed. As a result the whole of life will assume an aspect that has in modern societies become the exclusive province of “art”: the practical and the functional will incorporate a dimension of address expressed through poetic, decorative, musical, performative and ritual elements. Although cultures premised on panpsychism may not be affluent in material terms, they will be affectively rich, votary in tenor and abundant in graces.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Freya Mathews - "For the love of matter: A contemporary panpsychism" & "Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a recovery of culture"

I have just been reading two of Freya Matthews' books. A REAL delight - I found myself mumbling out loud at regular intervals "Yes!"and "Marvellous!" She writes with absolute clarity, beauty and grace. If this blog makes any sense to you - or you wish that it did! - do check Mathews' work out for she expresses a lot of what I am trying to explore far more clearly and perspicaciously than I have so far. Extracts from both books can be checked out on Google Books at the links below.

Here are a couple of reviews of For the love of matter: A contemporary panpsychism

"For Love of Matter is a complex work that offers us insights into how an ecological and philosophical worldview can make possible a life of trust and fulfillment for all.” — Environmental Values

"The most important thing about this book is that it is an attempt to develop, in a modern ecological and psychoanalytically sophisticated context, a new version of very ancient and often now disparaged views of the world. The kind of materialist philosophy the author describes and attacks remains dominant and largely unquestioned. She questions it, in a philosophically informed and thought-provoking way." — Clare Palmer, University of Lancaster

"This book is well written, well argued, and important. Its main thesis is philosophically bold, novel, and grand. Mathews draws on relevant scholarship and scientific theory in ways that are helpful to both describing and differentiating her position from historical scholars." — Karen J. Warren, Macalester College

Here are a couple of reviews of Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a recovery of culture:

"There is probably no other topic in environmental thinking that is more important. The attempt to uncover both the origins of our misplaced environmental sentiments while offering a shining alternative is crucial for clear environmental thinking. The writing is crisp and clear, the argumentation is sound, and the content is brilliantly provocative." — Michael P. Nelson, coauthor of American Indian Environmental Ethics: An Ojibwa Case Study

"Mathews is a first rate thinker thinking the original thoughts we need to look at culture critically in the face of human and ecological disasters. The author's ideas of being native, of becoming votary, of this kind of engagement in history and technology, attentiveness, grace, living locally, and wisdom are important insights that are well expressed. The reader feels included on a journey where these insights are occurring naturally and being evidenced before one's eyes." — Glen A. Mazis, author of Earthbodies: Rediscovering Our Planetary Senses

Here is a review essay by Kate Rigby:
Minding (about) Matter: On the Eros and Anguish of Earthly Encounter. A review essay engaging with Freya Mathews' two recent titles: For Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism and Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture

Friday, 11 April 2008

The kindness of gravity

Over the past few weeks my blogs have been exploring what to some may seem head in the clouds stuff but, today, whilst not wholly loosing the metaphysical aspect (for I think we, as liberal religionists, really do need to sharpen up our metaphysics and make them more persuasive to ourselves as much as anyone else), I want to ground our thoughts a little in something more obviously practical – namely kindness. But, before I do that, I want to note at the outset one reason why I think kindness needs to placed against a backdrop of a carefully thought out metaphysics. It is because I want to avoid any cloying sentimental understanding of this way of acting in the world which fatally diminishes its real power. The kindness about which I wish to talk today is a tough kindness that has no place for unnecessary flounces or frills. In short I want to speak of a kindness that I think can be argued is best understood as unfolded out of God-or-Nature’s very being – that is to say from Being itself, the Supreme Identity, the Divine Unity, the Godhead, Brahman where Brahman is infinite Being, infinite Consciousness and infinite Bliss sat-cit-ananda (listen to Wayne Teasdale on the earlier post). Like the mothering I spoke of a few weeks ago – I want to suggest that human kindness is an emergent feature of God-or-Nature.

For those of you who have missed the last few addresses (available here on the blog of course) the key point to note is that I have been arguing we should openly adopt the idea that God-or-Nature is utterly beyond our conceptions of in what we normally think consists personality because it is a wholly non-egoic, individuated way of being – it is Pure Being. In short I have been suggesting that the God in which many of us believe, or do not believe in, is not personal in the way we have imagined he, she or it to be. I want to be absolutely clear that the kindness of which I am talking is rooted in a theology that, to paraphrase Alastair Campbell, doesn’t do personal God. Consequently, the kindness of God-or-Nature cannot be a sentimental nor a sloppy emotional variety but something we might call ‘disinterested’ where the word ‘disinterested’ is about disinterest in any kind of personal gain to be had from the act of being kind. This was taught most succinctly and memorably in the Bhagavad Gita (2:47) when it is noted that we only have the right to our works and not the results of our work.

So, having pointed at kindness from the metaphysical end of things – hopelessly incompletely of course – I’ll turn to a consideration of it from the human end and try to point us back to God-or-Nature from there.

My thoughts on this matter began with a rereading of the poet Allen Ginsberg’s Footnote to Howl. The whole of Howl – including its Footnote – was profoundly influential on me as it, not only introduced me to the Beat Poets themselves, but a reading of it – and my own jaw awed reaction to it – secured me my first job after leaving school working for a Poetry Bookshop in Colchester Arts Centre with a wonderfully crazed British beat poet called John Row. Anyway, the poem’s final line – the only one which I quote today – sums up the intent of the whole poem well and I encourage you to go to follow this link to it. BUT, as I say this, I also feel obliged to give a warning that those of you who are easily shocked by overt use of sexual imagery expressed in a way that, shall we say, doesn’t fit at all in the context of conventional polite public worship (or blogs) should proceed with extreme caution. If you are shocked by such things you won’t like Howl nor its Footnote and you will find it offensive. Although I admit it is often a shocking work, it was one of Ginsberg’s intentions, I personally don’t think it is offensive. It would be a pity if you decide not read it but, there you go, you are all adults capable of deciding yourselves what you should read and what not. Anyway today, in deference to polite conventions you are only going to get the final line of this great poem:

Holy is the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul.

What I think Ginsburg means by this – indeed is implicit in the whole poem –is that, despite all the complex horrors, difficulties, problems and also ecstatic transient and morally ambiguous beauties of human existence with its infinite and seemingly endless fractured ‘thingy-ness’, there continues to shine through human beings (particularly certain individuals such as Christ or Buddha) an “extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul” that, when we see it, can seem to us, mired as we are in this problematic world, something more than one would naturally expect. Such human kindness feels “not of this world” – it truly feels supernatural, extra brilliant and intelligent.

But just because it feels “not of this world” this does not necessarily mean it is above or beyond the natural – supernatural in its strict technical sense – but it can be understood as somehow proceeding, unfolding out of the hidden infinite depths of Nature or God. “Not of this world” can be taken to mean “not of the world as we have commonly or conventionally seen it.” By way of illustration we may consider gravity.

The force that keeps the planets revolving around the sun was once thought to be “not of this world” – it was God’s supernatural intervening hand that supported the heavens in their motion – but the great Isaac Newton in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, of 1687 described to the world his theory of universal gravitation and the three laws of motion.

Whatever Newton may himself have thought this ultimately showed, it showed those of us who have followed him that gravitation is absolutely of this world and not at all supernatural.
Whoah, you may well be asking now, OK, but what has gravity to do with kindness?

Well, how might we define true kindness? Is it not something or someone that unconditionally helps something or someone else to grow more fully into the potential that thing has as that thing? Is kindness not to help something to be most fully what it can be? Understood this way might not gravitation itself be understood to be a type of divine disinterested kindness – a process that allows planets more fully to be themselves as planets?

But gravity doesn’t just affect planets it keeps us (and apples and everything else) on the ground (it allows ground to be ground too!) and so helps us to flourish more fully as human beings. Fully to be a human being is to be affected by gravity (one human affect is to be a being affected by gravity). But gravity is not, in my opinion, properly understood as a mere physical force for it also helps us frame something ethical or moral, namely what it really means to go the extra mile to help someone – to need, or even to show in the first place, kindness. If there were no gravity, going the extra mile, perhaps carrying the person themselves or their bags, would expend hardly any energy. We’d hardly notice it as an extra mile. Gravity ensures that our travelling the extra mile costs us something – energy and time – it enables the very act of human kindness itself. In fact I think that, thought of properly, gravity is itself a kind of divine kindness. Gravity is utterly selfless after all. It does its stuff without expecting any reward in turn. In fact how often are we ungrateful for it – only last Saturday I stupidly cursed gravity as I lugged my double-bass, amp and music across town. But without gravity’s presence I couldn’t exist and flourish as a human being; I couldn’t play music and the people who came to listen and the building in which they heard the concert wouldn’t exist. The kindness of the man who carried my amp the last half a mile couldn’t have been shown and the kindness of the woman who held a couple of doors open for me would not have been displayed.

But, to get to this utter selfless kindness – Jesus, and many other religious teachers, have realised that you have to do something rather counter intuitive. You have to use your own self to move to the not-self and one way to do this is through the practise of compassion. Jesus’ teachings on compassion are summed up in three of his beatitudes:

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:7–9 NRSV).

In fact we may sum up the teaching of these three verses up by saying “it is a blessing to be compassionate; you will receive compassion.” Jesus, in teaching this is asking us to show more than just pity, he is encouraging us to empathise utterly with those we meet; to attempt to feel another’s passion or pain and help them to their full potential through some kind of identification with them. Remember that compassion means feeling with – literally to suffer with.

When we do this – when we really feel with another being – we begin to understand that the other is in so many ways like ourselves and it is here that the usefulness of having worked out a decent unitarian metaphysics kick in. What we feel, through compassion, namely the radical similarity of the other, we can also begin to articulate abstractly because we have a philosophical/theological language which can state that, at the deepest level, nothing is disconnected from anything else – not us from our neighbours, nor from Nature, nor from God. We both feel and understand that our neighbour is us, is Nature, is God. The practice of compassion and the doing of metaphysics combined help us feel and know ourselves better as intimate parts of this whole. At that point utter kindness may be experienced though it is remains phenomenally hard to achieve. This is why, when we see it, feel it or are the receivers of it can feel supernatural extra brilliant and intelligent as Ginsburg noted.

Every religious tradition – that is if it is any good and not merely an egoistic feel-good programme – is designed to develop and refine in us the same kind of selfless kindness that is displayed by gravity (which is, of course, nothing less than a mode of God or Nature itself). As Wayne Teasdale, the Roman Catholic lay-monk beautifully put it:

Every saint of every faith tradition espouses it and indeed actualises [utter kindness] in his or her life. If you want to know with immediate and tangible recognition what God is like, examine kindness in yourself and others. It is your own deepest inner nature. It only has to be revealed (The Mystic Hours, New World Library, 2004 Novato CA, Reading no. 4).

May we examine well and reveal.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

The Supreme Identity

A book I often use in the evening services I conduct on Tuesdays is called The Mystic Hours by Wayne Teasdale (photo on left). It is a beautiful book and suits well the meditative quality of the service. Anyway with my new broadband connection I can now easily watch the plethora of videos that are now available online and have just come across Wayne Teasdale talking intelligently and entertainingly about The Supreme Identity with Ken Wilber. I thought some of you might find it enjoyable too so here is a link to it:

Brother Wayne Teasdale - The Supreme Identity

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Some Pantheistic and Spinozistic links

Just a quick post, in part, to point you to The Internet Archive because the books I am about to mention are available there. This really is a wonderful resource for all kinds of reasons as you will see if you take a spin by it yourself.

However, this particular post was occasioned by reading J.Allanson Picton's work Pantheism and its significance (1905). It echoes - how ridiculous! - I mean I have been echoing much of what Picton says. If you are interested take a quick look, especially at Chapter Three (Modern Pantheism) and the Afterword.

Another of his books which looks like it might be worth taking a look at (I've yet to read it but am about to start) is called The religion of the universe (1904). In it are a couple of chapters obviously dealing with how Pantheism might relate to Christianity - of interest to me naturally, because I wish to maintain a real connectedness with the Judaeo-Christian tradition, at least in its liberal forms.

He also published a Handbook to the Ethics on Spinoza's great book. Again it may well be worth a look - I'll certainly have a peek at it.

But whatever else you do, do take a look round the site. The Radio Archive is great, there are ephemeral films and even music. My wife and I are currently listening to the 1950s BBC serial Journey into Space. A delight . . .