Sunday, 25 May 2008

Consider the birds of the air . . .

The first Sunday of my sabbatical and I'm incredibly tired! I really was close to dropping. Anyway I'm more or less stopped now. Just a few more small loose ends to tie up before we travel down to Avignon.

I'm sitting here at the breakfast table writing this having just fed the birds. Again this morning 'our' black-bird called me out to feed him his meal-worms (the picture shows him). Of course I don't think he has become my 'friend' or emotionally attached to me in any way but it is nice to have a relationship that is more than simply ignoring or avoiding each other. And here is 'our' collared dove. A very pretty bird.

I'm not sure what will appear on this blog over the next sixteen weeks as I need to run carefully through all kinds of new ideas that have been explored since I returned from Avignon last August (and which appear on this blog for those who want to take a look). These ideas really do need to be internalised better by me and I need a time of spiritual reflection and rest, too. The need for the latter is because without these abstract ideas being explored in the practical spiritual context they can easily loose purchase or traction on the world.

As the next sixteen weeks progress I'll let you know of any moderately interesting stuff going on around me or in my head. Have a wild time out there . . .

Sunday, 18 May 2008

What can be shown cannot be said

Last week I gave an address calling for liberals to reconnect with the important insight that following, with passion and commitment, a particular spiritual model or prototype is not an optional route, but a necessary element in the life of anyone who wants to develop into a genuinely free and creative spiritual human-being. I drew an analogy from my other professional career - namely the teaching of musicians who wish to play jazz. (See here).

I concluded that address with a recommendation to reconnect with the normative model or prototype that our own Unitarian and Free Christian tradition inherits - Jesus. There are other equally efficacious models - for example the Buddha, Lao Tse and, to give a modern example, spiritual leaders such as Sri Chinmoy whose members visited here last week - but for all kinds of contingent reasons own own model happens to be Jesus. However, even as I finished offering this apparently simple advice I was swiftly reminded by a member of the congregation that, as religious liberals, many of us need to jump another broad and ugly ditch first. I was, in truth, aware of it because I, too, had to jump it once - it was simply that I had forgotten how difficult it was to jump. My apologies for that.

The broad and ugly ditch is significant; it is the profound scepticism many of us have (or had) concerning the need for something like the Gospels in the first place. The often sublimated thought is that, if we just try a little harder to be more logical and rational in our thinking we will finally be able to state clear propositions about life and its meaning. In short we should not need the odd kind of texts that are the Gospels.

So we engage in philosophy (metaphysics) or science. But both these human endeavours have a big flaw which is that, though they can begin to give us a 'big picture view - and helpfully (and I think indispensably - which is why I have been exploring Spinoza) begin to map the limits of our language, world and the basic relationships that exist between us as individuals and the whole - they are unable, in the end, to reveal the meaning of any individual's life; the pressing question of what we are actually to do in life; the pressing question of actually how to live in the dirt and dust of the world. Two thinkers who came to feel this particularly strongly were Tolstoy and Wittgenstein (photo above).

Tolstoy studied for many years philosophy and scientific knowledge and came to realise that they didn't answer this basic question of the meaning of an individual's life. In consequence he fell into a dreadful despair and at one period even contemplated suicide. After much struggle - which you can read about in his short but powerful Confession - he came to the conclusion that a satisfactory answer to the question only came to those who live a life of faith. He looked to the peasants of his own time and saw that their religious faith enabled them to live with meaning, passion and courage despite their many, many vicissitudes. However, when he looked at his own life and his own wealthy, intellectual and sceptical class he found there a profound lack of any deep faith and, consequently, a profound lack of meaning.

So he took a conscious decision to return to the Russian Orthodox Church but quickly found that, for all its positive elements, he could not swallow it whole. Faith, yes, but Orthodox Christianity with all its superstitions and superfluous practices, no. So his project turned to stripping Christianity of what he saw as its wholly unnecessary aspects and began to teach, almost exclusively, the moral teachings of the Gospels.

To do this he prepared a version of them that helped people better to ascertain the practical moral heart that he thought could be found within them. That book is the Gospel in Brief. Do be clear that his version is an interpretation of the Gospel's message but I would add that, of necessity, so is every reading of them including the very conservative Christian ones that claim they are not interpreting them! For many rational and emotional reasons - none of which I have time to speak about here (but ask me if you want to know) - I find Tolstoy's general principle of interpretation sound and so have taken to using it myself.

In 1914 Wittgenstein was serving with the Austrian army when he discovered a small bookshop in Tarnow, a town then under Austrian rule but now in southern Poland. As the story is recounted to us by Bertrand Russell the shop had only one book: it was Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief, and that was why Wittgenstein bought it. He started reading it on September 1st 1914 and subsequently carried it with him at all times, even memorising passages by heart. He was so taken with it that he became known to his comrades as the man with the gospels and he constantly recommended the book to those in distress. Wittgenstein himself said that the book virtually kept him alive.

At this time Wittgenstein was also writing what became one of the most influential books of twentieth-century philosophy the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This book has the reputation of being a phenomenally difficult work. It is hard (and I make absolutely no pretence to have understood it in its totality) but this difficulty arises, partly, because of what the philosopher and biographer of Wittgenstein, Ray Monk, calls its "utter weirdness of style" and because "nothing before or since, in philosophy, science or literature, has been written quite like it."

Yet for all its difficulty I want to make you aware of this book's essentially simple central theme which can, I think, be incredibly helpful to those of us who really want to reconnect with some kind of religious faith but who are also painfully aware of the dangers that go along with such a move, dangers such as being asked to believe in the proverbial three impossible things before breakfast and of becoming strangely religious and even a little 'God-squaddy.'

Wittgenstein's desire is to express "the theory of what can be expressed by propositions - i.e. by language - (and which comes to the same , what can be thought) and what cannot be expressed by propositions, but only shown" - in the Tractatus he says: "What can be shown, cannot be said" (4.1212 ).

Towards the end of the Tractatus Wittgenstein says "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical" (6.522). Those things which cannot be said are ethics, aesthetics, religion, the meaning of life, logic and philosophy. Ray Monk observes that "Wittgenstein appears to believe, there are indeed truths, but none of these truths can be expressed in language; they all have to be shown, not said" (p.21).

Importantly, in a letter to von Ficker who he hoped would publish the book - though this letter can hardly have inspired confidence in the book's use - Wittgenstein wrote:

. . . the point of the book is ethical. I once wanted to give a few words in the foreword which now actually are not in it, which, however, I’ll write to you now because they might be a key for you: I wanted to write that my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one. For the Ethical is delimited from within, as it were by my book; and I’m convinced that, strictly speaking, it can ONLY be delimited in this way. In brief, I think: All of that which many are babbling I have defined in my book by remaining silent about it (Wittgenstein, Letter to Ludwig von Ficker, October or November 1919, translated by Ray Monk).

Not surprisingly von Ficker, reading that the most important part of it was defined silently, chose not publish this book. But Wittgenstein did know what he was doing. He needed to set the limits of what could be said so we could be free of illusion and have a chance to get on with the practical business of life. We see some of this in the final two, very famous, paragraphs in the Tractatus:

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.


So what of the Gospels you may be asking? Well Wittgenstein seems to have thought that although the Gospel he encountered in Tolstoy's version could not say anything about how we should live, he did believe that it could show the way to live.

In other words we may - though some don't - consider the Gospel to be the second, silent and very practical part of his book. Both Tolstoy and Wittgenstein in this matter (and whatever the many flaws and failures in their own attempts to live up to this ideal) are people who insist that, if we want to understand and experience the meaning of life we must direct ourselves us to the actual experience of living and not to any theory about it.

In consequence we may note that the anyone whose way of life is changed by a work such as the Gospel in Brief - and if anyone is interested I can direct you to Stephen Mitchell's recent and very beautiful Gospel according to Jesus which may be more congenial to our communty's taste than Tolstoy's - but I digress - anyone whose way of life is changed by a work such as the Gospel in Brief has not been convinced by logical arguments or stated matters of fact instead they have been shown the way that they should live. They now have a model and a prototype and in the following of it the meaning is shown even though it can never be said.

Those of us who like to think about religion, and as this address reveals that includes me, can find this realisation hard. But I've been saying a great deal over my eight years as your minister and I have increasingly realised that, no matter how clever and erudite it may (or may not) be - it will never be able to say much at all; indeed most of it will be, speaking Wittgensteinly, nonsense. I am, once again, forced to reveal my ultimate commitment to a mystical understanding of religion.

At best all I can say to you as your minister is also merely a ladder that, once climbed, must be thrown away. If any of you want to find meaning in your own life buy a copy of the Gospels and start living the lessons shown there.

Since nothing can truly be said about this latter matter I'll simply stop talking and pass into silence.

Friday, 16 May 2008

No Image - No Passion or how practising rock and roll moves in the mirror taught me the value of imitation

When I was a kid and learning to play the double-bass and bass-guitar one of life's great past-times was to stand in front of mum's full-length dress mirror practising my rock and roll and jazz moves. I was, of course, trying to imitate my heroes - Paul McCartney of the Beatles, Jack Bruce of Cream, Paul Chambers with John Coltrane's Quartet, Charlie Haden with Ornette Coleman, Scott LaFaro and Chuck Israels with Bill Evans. However, growing up as I did in a generally protestant culture, no matter how much fun I had doing this, I was left with a sense of profound guilt that, somehow, I was merely engaging in the sin of vanity.

This rather icky remembrance lay quietly sublimated for years until I began to become active in liberal religious circles some eighteen years ago when it began to emerge again, not as embarrassing thing from my past but, instead, as a useful way of critiquing some of the practices and attitudes I was discovering had developed there.

Here I need to note that liberal religion as a whole bought heavily into an important tenet of twentieth-century high-modernist culture which was the equation of the good with the new. In our own Unitarian and Free Christian tradition this was often translated into a belief that we were all about moving beyond Christianity to some unspecified and inchoate new universal world religion; the prevailing belief which came to develop was that we were a religious body absolutely free to encourage truly individual new open faiths from scratch without any reference to what was thought to be the restricting baggage of the past.

When I first encountered this attitude - very early on in my involvement in liberal religion - I must confess I was surprised; so surprised, in fact, that I thought I must have misidentified what was going on. Three years at Oxford and eight years of full time ministry here in Cambridge has taught me otherwise because I now realise that the rhetorical power of claiming to be a religious body absolutely free to create truly individual new open faiths from scratch without any reference to the restricting baggage of the past is so incredibly seductive and, on the surface, such an undeniably exciting prospect, that many people really have bought into this view big time.

Now there is an age old adage that 'unanswered questions are far less dangerous than unquestioned answers' and the answer I have just outlined - that one can have a radically open religion completely free from the 'baggage' of the past - is one of liberal religion's great and dangerous unquestioned ones. Now I don't normally deliver things quite so strongly - for I really do believe that each of us has to work out the answers to the big questions of life ourselves - but occasionally my role demands (especially when it is based on good research and experience) that I state quite clearly, like the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson's story, when the King is walking about in the all-together.

I don't know that I would have been able to figure out how to frame this little boy's cry had I not remained a professional musician still playing regularly and also teaching on the music faculty at Anglia Ruskin University. It is my work in jazz-education that has finally enabled me to articulate a critique of this state of affairs and I'll begin with the opening couple of paragraphs from an essay by the great American jazz double-bassist Chuck Israels which summarise the experience of many of us working in this field:

Over the years, as I have assumed the role of "Jazz Educator", both within and outside of "institutions of higher learning" [. . .] I have learned to ask [of students] a revealing question. "Who is your favourite musician?" It is remarkable that more often than not, I get no clear answer. There is sometimes a period of uncomfortable silence broken by occasional throat clearing noises, while the prospective student searches for a name or perhaps tries to guess what name might create the most effective impression. Sometimes an embarrassed silence yields nothing and occasionally there is an equally uncommitted claim to have listened to and liked "everything".

Yet every year there is one such student, standing before me, claiming to want to play jazz but knowing absolutely nothing about the music or claiming to love it all but unable to point to any specific example of the music. What is going on? Well Israels believes (and I agree with him) that the student is probably motivated by the 'idea of the potential pleasures of performing with and for other people, with the attendant rewards of attention and shared activity.' These are, he notes

. . . worthwhile values and have served as a part of the motivation of many artists. But this is a broad image which is insufficiently concrete to serve as a focus for attainment. There is no clear place to begin and the mentor is reduced to helping the applicant to find something to love. Get a model. Find a prototype. Without this there is no image and no passion.

I repeatedly find the same behaviour occurring in liberal religious circles. People come to check out a liberal church tradition such as this motivated by the many worthwhile ideal potential gains such a community offers - including, I hope, wisdom, religious insight, community and a certain sense of mental and spiritual stability as well as an exciting openness to all kinds of ways of being spiritual - but this general feeling alone is such a broad image that it is always utterly 'insufficient to serve as a focus for attainment.' If an individual church leaves things at this point there is simply no clear place to begin.

So as mentor - whether as a music teacher or minister - my role is often reduced to helping people to find something to love, to get a model and find a prototype. In the case of my music students I simply have to send them away to go and listen to something - anything - and, when they have found something they actually like, to come back to me and we can begin the task of copying that model and of figuring out how and that player is playing the things he does. To the disappointment of many of them this turns out to be hard work which takes, I'm afraid, years to complete. If you haven't got a role model about whose playing you are very excited you have 'no image and no passion' and the task quickly becomes too great. That student will either give up or, if they keep playing, will drift around at the general level of wanting all the fruits of being a jazz player with none of the require work and they turn out to be directionless players with nosubstantial grip on anything real. At best they will be mediocre players.

I'm sure you can see what's coming next and perhaps, like some of my students some of you won't like it too much, but merely desiring the fruits of a liberal religion without at the same time seriously seeking to follow a religious exemplar means you will never get a real grip on what you need to be doing in the life of the spirit. Everything will remain terribly unfocussed and unfulfilling. There will be no attainment and progression.

Now my role as minister of a particular radical and liberal Christian tradition is to present you with a model and a prototype and his name is, of course Jesus. I'm absolutely explicit about this. As I say this naturally I affirm that there are other models as equally as good as Jesus but, since this is a Christian church in the radical Christian tradition our corporate normative model and exemplar is and will remain Jesus.

But as I say this remember I'm not some born-again evangelical conservative Christian but, primarily, a jazz-musician - don't let the minister tag get you be confused (Reverend, smeverend). So when I insist my music students adopt a role model and to get passionate about that musician's playing I'm not trying to turn them into mere lifeless unthinking copies of their heroes, no, my ultimate intention is that once they themselves have a grip on this thing called jazz then, and only then, are they able to realise the pleasures of performing with and for other people and to experience the attendant rewards of attention and shared activity. I really do desire to get them closer to the freedom and belonging they desired when they expressed it at a very general and unfocussed level at the beginning of their study.

Likewise when I insist that we remain a community of individuals whose normative model is Jesus for my ultimate intention is not to turn us into unthinking Christians, no, my ultimate intention is that once we ourselves have a grip on this thing called a religious response to life then, and only then, are we able truly to realise the pleasures and freedoms of a liberal religious community and move closer to the freedom and belonging we desired when we expressed it at a very general and unfocussed level at the beginning of our membership of this community. This is the practice of the religion of Jesus and not the religion about Jesus.

You see I'm not actually asking anyone to buy into any particular obscure theological doctrines in this act of following Jesus - not at all - this is an absolutely straightforward and pragmatic project concerned to help people to live truly liberal religious lives. All I'm trying to do is show you how you can get a basic grip on the world so that you can meaningfully and with intention and direction improvise your way creatively and loving through the complex "chord-changes" that make up the world.

To conclude I'll return now to my opening story as one illustration of what I mean. When I am conducting or, as today, partaking in, a communion service I am not engaging in some complex piece of impossible to believe theological mumbo-jumbo, all I am doing is standing in front of my mother's full length dress mirror practising, not my rock and roll moves, but my spiritual ones. I am there because such an imitation helps me experience what it means to be together around a table sharing bread and wine and that this is a good model of living in community; I am there because it helps me directly sense that Jesus' commitment to the cause of true openness, love and justice, even unto death, is what every individual in any decent society should do. I am not there out of vanity but because I know, I really do know, that where there is no following of a prototype or model there is no image and no passion for what one must do to have life and have it abundantly.

As a musician I shamelessly and passionately tried to copy my heroes but you know what? - I don't sound precisely like any of them - I sound like me, a pretty good bass player who has a real grip on how to be a jazz musician. As a religious person I have shamelessly tried to copy Jesus and the many good and faithful men and women who have followed him. And you know what? I don't hold the same beliefs as them nor live and pray quite like them but like me - which, despite my many shortcomings (and there are many) is, I hope you will agree, not too bad a person trying to live a decent and committed liberal religious life. I'm not perfect but then who is? Ours is a religious way that helps us become better human-beings over a whole lifetime; it is not a quick fix religion that brings instant salvation (of course, no such religion really exists, despite the claims of many).

So to all you liberals out there: for crying out loud get a model, find a prototype because without it there really is no image and no passion. If we are really serious about reconstructing a powerful, passionate and committed liberal religion then I recommend you start by copying Jesus. You'll be amazed at what it can do to help you . . .

Saturday, 10 May 2008

In Memorium - a funeral address for Clive King, family man, botanist, musician and organist of the Memorial Church (Unitarian) for fifty-two years

Whether as a husband to Margaret, father to Helen and Robert, father-in-law to Graham and Tatiana, grandfather to Morgan, Marcus, Ewan and Ethan or as a friend or professional colleague, Clive's presence in all our lives will be missed beyond measure and I simply cannot do justice to everything that we could say about him so today I shall not even try. I trust that Clive's memorial service, to be held sometime in September, will provide the best opportunity for the widest range of remembrances and thanksgivings which will do true justice to his enormous range of talents as a family man, a musician and as a botanist.

Instead I briefly want to share with you something of Clive's own hopeful and uplifting reflections on life that he shared with me in the last few weeks of his own. I trust it will help and encourage all of us in the coming months and years to reflect well upon the mystery of life ourselves. I'll begin with some of the most famous words in Henry David Thoreau's book of 1845, Walden, which Clive was reading during the last few weeks, in which he recounts his two year stay in Walden Woods. He tells us:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived.
(Walden, Ch. 4, Where I lived, and what I lived for)

Because we both shared a love for Thoreau it is perhaps not surprising that more than a few of our conversations centred around themes raised in Walden - particularly that which you have just heard. Clive always seemed to me to be a living embodiment of the person who has truly understood what Thoreau was asking us to do which was really to look at life, to reflect long and well upon it and then look again; always to look again. By so doing an abundant life can be lived.

For Thoreau the main real and symbolic field of inquiry were the woods. For Clive, of course, it was the Cambridge University Botanic Garden in which he worked and thought daily. On one of my last visits to see Clive he told me this Thoreauesque story.

When he first came to work at the Botanic Garden he decided to try to get his hand in by identifying some plant or another and, to this end, went out, took a cutting at random, and brought it back to his desk for some study. To his great surprise and puzzlement he discovered that the specimen he had in his hand did not conform to any text book description of the plant he thought he had picked. A mystery indeed. Perhaps he had been fortunate in so quickly making some small discovery in his new field of inquiry? But Clive had an intuitive understanding that neither his own present answer to this puzzle, nor the text book's apparent failure to help, were sufficient and above question and so, rather than build castles in the air, he got up from his desk once more, went out into the garden to take another look at the real living and growing plant. He discovered that, purely by chance, he had picked the only flower on the whole plant that deviated from the norm. One lesson learnt. But that isn't where the story finishes - nor does it properly display where Clive's wisdom began - because he went on to tell me that what he really learnt from this was always to take second look, even when you got the answer you expected the first time around.

In our short eight year acquaintance and, I hope friendship as organist and minister, I came to see that what ultimately counted for him was not really to be found in his own answers to things (though he gently and eloquently offered some very fine ones in all the areas of his life), nor in the answers of some text book or other authority (no matter how good or well respected it was) but in the unfolding complex answers to life found in Nature herself - creative answers that are available to all who take the time to go out and humbly meet her in person and who remained ever open to new light and truth. This openness is, of course, not only an essential virtue for the true scientist but also one for the true spiritual seeker - and Clive was always both.

But, even as Clive remained genuinely open to the refulgent complexity of God-or-Nature he did not then go on to make the mistake made by many people of liberal inclination, namely that of being open in a sloppy, unfocused and ultimately uncommitted way. Not at all, for he knew intimately that truly to live - even with such an open-heart and spirit - the human-condition is such that there are times when one must commit to something long term and to decide to do one thing, or to take one course of action, and not another. His life-long loving commitment to his family clearly revealed his ability to achieve this difficult balancing act with true grace and integrity. His life as a respected author for Cambridge University Press revealed it too, for the time always came when the text must be finalised and sent to the printers. His life as a musician also revealed this for the day of the concert always came when the piece had to be played one way and not another. His fifty-two years of commitment to the Memorial Church, the home of Cambridge's liberal Unitarian and Free Christian community, for over fifty-years was yet another example.

All of this - and so much more - reveals to me that Clive was committed to life with all its complexities and wonders and that he had found, as he came to the end of his own life that, like Thoreau, he had lived. But he knew, as I hope we all know, that a true commitment to life, if it is not to be dangerously sentimental, involves a mature acceptance of death and its mysterious relationship to life.

Here, too, I found Clive able to balance perfectly both an genuine openness on the one hand, and a willingness gently to commit to a personal position or viewpoint on the other. I found this out because in the last couple of weeks of his life Clive was quizzing me quite hard about the philosopher Spinoza - those of you who know me know that I speak about him often. Clive was genuinely eager to hear more about his thought and so we spent quite some time on his philosophy. Since we had also been talking about death he asked me what Spinoza thought about it and I read him a short passage written by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana summing up Spinoza's conclusion and with it I shall conclude this briefest of tributes for they speak so well of Clive. After I finished reading it he was very quiet for a few moments and then he said, "Yes, I think I can go along with that."

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 [existence.]

Amen.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Rebop at the Memorial Church

Rebop at the Memorial Church (Unitarian) on 2nd May. Left to right: Chris Ingham (piano); me (double bass); Kevin Flanagan (alto sax); Roger Odell (drums); Paul Higgs (trumpet); Colin Watling (tenor sax).

Monday, 5 May 2008

The Feast of the Ascension or a Commingling in the Weather World?

Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension when, forty days after Easter, those who hold to a traditional Christian faith claim that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven from whence he will later return.

This was a festival that, for whatever reason, never really impacted upon me as a child so my discovery, in my late teens, of the Anglo-Catholic shrine at Walsingham in the county of Norfolk felt all the more odd and even amusing for there, sticking out of a hole in the ceiling of a side chapel, are to be seen the soles of Jesus' feet, the last and not very glamorous sight of him as he disappeared into a heaven located somewhere above earth. You can, if you look closely, find many similar depictions in our churches, especially in stained-glass windows.

Today the story is for many of us almost impossible to accept as being in anyway factually true. This is partly, though by no means wholly, because anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of contemporary cosmology knows that the idea of anyone ascending up into heaven makes no sense as there is no absolute up nor down in the universe. I leave aside today the additional matter of the unlikely existence of a place that we could meaningfully call heaven.

My thoughts today centre on the problematic concept of 'up' and its inseparable twin 'down.' Related to this are, of course, ideas of earth and heaven (or sky). The key problem for me is that these words -- in their quotidian senses -- have a tendency to make us think of heaven and earth, of earth and sky as somehow being radically divided and, therefore, different and divided realms of existence.

So in the Ascension story as traditionally interpreted the discrete, individual Jesus -- God himself no less -- walks upon a discrete, individual place, earth and, having redeemed it (although really only some parts of it) by his own unique sacrifice, ascends, bodily, to another discrete, individual place -- heaven -- that hovers somewhere above the earth. From there he sends down a rather more tenuous individual -- the Holy Spirit (also God himself) -- to live on earth to continue his former work in discrete individual human beings belonging to a discrete corporate body, namely the Christian Church. From heaven the 'glorified' Jesus continues to look down upon this earth observing all things until, at some still unspecified time, he will return as he went, to judge the living and the dead.

I am well aware that this brutally truncated and schematised version of the story doesn't do justice to the immense sophistication of Christian thought on this matter but all the sophistication in the world cannot hide its underlying claim that there exists divided realms of both space and morality; a claim which, I have to say, I find neither healthy, helpful nor true.

Now, as most of you will be well aware I am strongly encouraging us to consider a Spinozistic philosophy that is pantheistic and panpsychic in outlook which holds there is only one reality, God-or-Nature, and expresses a belief that we, and all things, are in fact modes of this single reality. It is important to realise that this is a philosophy which does not deny that from the perspective of any apparently individual thing there exists other apparently individual things which can be considered to be 'above' or 'below' it, or some reality we call earth and sky, but, as it acknowledges this limited perspectival reality, it goes on strongly to claim that the whole forms one continuous realm -- an interdependent and interpenetrating Divine unity. In other words -- though they are not quite yet the words I will come use by the end of this address -- the 'earthly' realm 'below' our feet is the same as the 'heavenly' realm, the sky, which is 'above' our heads.

The trouble with the way I have just described things is that, although it says that which is 'below' is the same as that which is 'above', it still implies the existence of some sort a gap between them; a nether region, a type of empty space in which the winds blow and the weather happens.

But is it really empty? Of course not! The clue is in the wind and weather because, considered rightly they don't happen in some empty space they are this realm. To use a manner of speaking with which I hope you are becoming familiar, it is helpful to think of them not as nouns but verbally as windly-, or weatherly-being. What is particularly wonderful about windly- or weatherly-being unlike other more apparently solid ways of being such as, say, human-being or stonely-being, is that we can see -- or better feel and understand, for we cannot see the wind with our eyes -- that the wind and the weather are not discrete entities in any way closed in on themselves. Their 'boundaries' -- that is to say the point at which they begin and cease to be be a certain kind of wind and a certain kind of weather -- is not at all clear. Each state of windly and weatherly-being flows imperceptibly into another. In other words there exists no absolute boundary between different states. Even when this windly- and weatherly-being meets head-on a more obviously solid and distinct way of being, such as a rock or a person, the process still does not stop. The wind and rain will always be 'penetrating' the rock; the wind and rain is always 'entering' our humanly-being in a variety of ways and not only physically, but also emotionally and psychologically. As anyone who has walked for any length of time in the open air will know, the currents of the air and the weather effect the currents and weather of our humanly-being. The anthropologist Tim Ingold points us to a wonderful thought of the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who wrote:

As I contemplate the blue of the sky I am not set over against as an acosmic subject; ... I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, ... I am the sky itself as it is drawn together and unified, ...my consciousness is saturated with this limitless blue (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.), S19-S38, 2007 p. S.28).

So we must ask just exactly where does windy- and weatherly-being stop and stonely-being and humanly-being begin? Stop and think about it for a moment. . . . I don't know about you but, try as I like, I cannot find any break, any real space between any of these things. I find that I am, indeed, the sky itself, this stone, this wind -- not because I am precisely the sky, the stone and the wind, but because we are all commingling in the unbroken continuity that is Being itself.

I am stating the reality of the commingling of all things not merely because of a purely personal experience but because it is expressed by the mystics from all traditions and, increasingly, because something similar seems to be being suggested by those working in the new physics.

Yet we all know how easily we turned away from this way of experiencing and, therefore, understanding the world. As Ingold notes "a habit of thought . . . leads us to suppose that the world is inhabited by entities that are already closed in upon themselves [and] prevents us from seeing that life can be anything other than an interior property of things" (ibid. S. 31). However, he goes on to say that,

Conceived as the creative potential of a world-in-formation . . . life is not in things; rather, things are in life, caught up in a current of continual generation. The recognition that all of existence is suspended in such a current underlies the ontological commitments of many of the peoples credited, in classical anthropological literature, with cosmologies of ‘animism’. According to a long-established convention, animism is a system of beliefs that imputes life or spirit to things that are truly inert. But this convention is doubly misleading. For one thing, animism is not a system of beliefs about world but a way of being in the world, characterized by openness rather than closure -- that is, by sensitivity and responsiveness to an environment that is always in flux. For another thing, it is not a matter of putting life into things but of restoring those things to the movements that gave rise to them (ibid. S. 31).

Our own liberal Christian tradition has consistently claimed that the religion of Jesus was more a way of life than it was a set of formal beliefs about the world and doesn't this resonate with Ingold's words?

In the light of his thoughts may we not also creatively reinterpret the story we are considering today to be general one about the commingling of all humankind (and all other 'things' of course) in God-or-Nature rather than the ascension a divine Jesus up to Father? Thought of in this fashion this problematic festival -- recast as a commingling rather than an ascension -- might actually help us better express our desire for "openness rather than closure"; might help us to respond with sensitivity to an "environment always in flux." It may also help us reconnect with an historic task of our liberal religious community, namely the desire to bring about the restoration of all things -- ourselves included -- "to the movements that gave rise to them"? It's a way of intelligently recasting our former understanding of, and commitment to, what we used to call universal salvation and in a wider, ecological, context.

So may we, in our own liberal lives and communities, increasingly come to experience this commingling of all the realms of existence and understand that "life is not in things; rather, things are in life, caught up in a current of continual generation."