Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Deus-sive-Natura - Personality but not a Person

In my last blog - On not going to church on a Sunday - I cited a 'prayer' to Nature by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 - 1713) and prefaced it with the following words:

As a poetic evocation of Nature it seems well worth reproducing here; but don't think I am taking this text literally - whatever Shaftsbury himself may have been thinking when he wrote it - because Deus-sive-Nature is absolutely not a person!"

I absolutely hold to this but have realised that, if I am going to be understood properly, I need to add an additional, very important, note. When I say that Deus-sive-Natura (God-or-Nature) is not a person I do not mean that I think 'it' is without subjectivity (and therefore personality). If I were doing this then I would simply be propounding another version of reductionist materialism. Instead, as most of you know, I'm trying to explore a non-theistic conception of divinity which holds together what Descartes blew asunder, namely matter and spirit. In other words I think (and here I'm citing Freya Mathews position expressed in For Love of Matter - A Contemporary Panspychism (State University of New York Press, 2003) that "physical reality as a whole, under both its material and nonmaterial aspects" needs to be seen "as constituting a genuine, indivisible unity" and that if this is the case (and I think it is) then we should regard Nature "as a subject, or field of subjectivity, to which the entire differentiated physical manifold is subjectively present" (ibid. p.47).

So, whilst Nature is not a person in any anthropomorphic sense, because 'it' is subjectival and 'it' can meaningfully be thought of as being a self. 'It' can, therefore, be addressed and encountered as an 'other.' Of course the trouble, to a great extent, lies in our language and so, as Mathews notes, "To personify natural phenomena may be the only way of representing the subjectivity of the world in humanly accessible terms" (ibid. p. 79) She continues:

To see the world in such terms is not necessarily simply to project human personalities into everything. It is not to envisage ethereal men and women in the sky or shadowy little homunculi in cockatoos and kookaburras and rocks. It is the attribution of personality per se, rather than specifically human personality, which is salient here. Human personality may be attributed to natural phenomena simply because human personality is the only model of personality we have. To think of thunder as the voice of a god then may not be to think of thunder as having human characteristics but rather to see it as emanating from a world with a distinctive personality, or subjectivity of its own. And to see ancestors in the cockatoos and kookaburras may not be to see the latter as inhabited by human spirits, but rather to see them as subjects whose subjectivity is no different, at bottom, from ours. So it may not really matter, from such a point of view, which particular story is told about a given nexus of natural phenomena. The purpose of the story is not to explain the phenomena, in something like causal terms. The purpose may rather enable us to encounter these phenomena, to respond to them appropriately and elicit their response. (ibid p. 80 - emphasis mine).

Sunday, 10 August 2008

On not going to church on a Sunday . . .

One thing this blog certainly isn't is a personal diary. I try to make it more of a general and public notebook (albeit necessarily offered up from a personal perspective) on ideas that might be of interest and use to others who are also trying to revision what an effective liberal secular 'religion' (though 'practical-philosophy' may be a better word) might look like in the contemporary context.

But, inevitably, one cannot keep some 'diaristic' elements out of the picture - to do that would be a conceit too far because I think it is important to make it clear to you that I'm a real person committed to trying to live a real contemporary spiritual life - consequently, it seems appropriate (now and then) to share some of the events that occur in my personal life. But this means that sometimes important connecting narratives don't appear here and, if this blog is very closely read (and I realise that for the most part it almost certainly isn't - after all it is not that important) then certain false impressions can develop in the mind of the reader. Well, in reviewing some of my recent blogs I noticed two mentions of going to church (or not) that need some out-filling.

In a blog published at the start of my sabbatical break here in Provence during June I noted that since arriving we had been attending the Reformed Church in Avignon and that they made us most welcome. Now you would be forgiven for thinking that this has continued but, as you may have noticed, my last blog concluded:

In short all this long blog is doing is recasting in the liberal context Jesus' words found in Luke 22:42: "not my will, but thine, be done." When you come face to face with Nature-or-God this is all one can do it is just that, as human beings, we can find ways to live and work with this reality and to do it joyously and creatively. Doing this together in a beautiful "Garden" (both earthy ones and those of the spirit) seems like rather an attractive idea to me. Perhaps even more attractive than going to church . . .

A potential discrepancy, n'est pas? Well, not if you fill in the unexpressed diaristic narrative that is lying behind all my recent talk about "Garden Academies" and "Garden Congregationalism." For the fact is that, the week after this first of these blogs was posted Susanna and I just haven't been to church (and it has nothing directly to do with the church in Avignon who still seem to me to be very nice people). The first time it was simply because we were delayed on our journey into Avignon. The second time it was because Susanna and I didn't have time for breakfast that morning and so went instead to the Festival des Glaces on the Rue de la Republique. Then the third week came and, on that occasion, we actively decided not to go. At that point I realised that I really ought to take a look rather more closely at this phenomenon. I do it publicly today (Sunday) because I am in Avignon as usual and, though the opportunity was present, I didn't go to church again. It seems the time to come clean! (Not 'we' because Susanna is, alas, in the USA for at least two weeks sorting out the affairs of her sister who has had a serious brain haemorrhage and who remains seriously ill in hospital. It's a pretty bleak situation.)

Perhaps the first thing to note is that this absence from church-going has occurred against the back-drop of the sad fracas within the Church of England (my birthright communion) - a story which I have been following via the web whilst here in France. Although I know there are many delightful, good and sincere people within this church the whole affair simply served to reminded me of why I so dislike institutional forms of religion. There are plenty of other examples but this is a current and very present one.

The second thing to note is to stress that I really am persuaded by Spinoza's basic philosophical position that God-is-Nature (Deus-sive-Natura) and also of the usefulness of the idea that a renewed and effective liberal religious community may be possible if it can changes its self-understanding and organisation from being church towards being a garden.

The third thing to note is that after coffee at the Festival des Glaces Susanna and I (and just me this morning of course) have taken to wending our way up to the gardens on the top of the high promontory in Avignon called the Rocher des Doms (the picture in this post was taken there). There, amidst people reading and walking, children playing, and over-looking the magnificent scenery (the city, the Rhone, Chateauxneuf du Pape, Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles) we have been renewed and restored. Up high in the gentle breeze that so often blows there one experiences directly the commingling with God-or-Nature that church services so often promise but so rarely achieve.

Well, as I sat there this morning with these thoughts to the forefront of my mind I remembered a prayer written by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 - 1713) and published in Part III, section 1 of The Moralist (the fifth Tract in the Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times). Only recently I was reminded of this passage by a friend of mine Victor Nuovo. As a poetic evocation of Nature it seems well worth reproducing here; but don't think I am taking this text literally - whatever Shaftsbury himself may have been thinking when he wrote it - because Deus-sive-Nature is absolutely not a person! The speaker is standing on a hilltop at sunrise:

O glorious nature! Supremely fair and sovereignly good! All-loving and all-lovely, all-divine! Whose looks are so becoming and of such infinite grace, whose study brings such wisdom and whose contemplation such delight, whose every single work affords an ampler scene and is a nobler spectacle than all which every art presented! - O might nature! Wise substitute of Providence! Empowered creatress! Or thou empowering deity, supreme creator! Thee I invoke and thee alone adore. To thee this solitude, this place, these rural meditations are sacred while thus inspired with harmony of thought, though unconfined by words and in loose numbers, I sing of nature's order in created beings and celebrate the beauties which resolve in thee, the source and principle of all beauty and perfection.

Thy being is boundless, unsearchable, impenetrable. In thy immensity all thought is lost, fancy gives over its flight and wearied imagination spends itself in vain, finding no coast nor limit of this ocean, nor, in the widest tract through which it soars, one point yet nearer the circumference than the first centre whence it parted. - Thus having oft essayed, thus sallied forth into the wide expanse, when I return again within myself, struck with the sense of this so narrow being and of the fullness of that immense one, I dare no more behold the amazing depths nor sound the abyss of deity.-

Yet since by thee, O sovereign mind, I have been formed such as I am, intelligent and rational, since the peculiar dignity of my nature is to know and contemplate thee, permit that with due freedom I exert those faculties with which thou has adorned me. Bear with my venturous and bold approach. And since nor vain curiosity, nor fond conceit, nor love of aught save thee alone inspires me with such thoughts as these, be thou my assistant and guide me in this pursuit, while I venture thus to tread the labyrinth of wide nature and endeavour to trace thee in thy works ... (Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times ed. Lawrence Klein, Cambridge University Press, 1999 p. 298-99).

Anyway, over the past couple of months I have begun to realise how much I really don't like going to church, I mean REALLY don't like it. "Horror of horrors" some of you may be uttering. "But, he's a minister of religion, what's he going to do? Quit?" Well no, I don't think I need to do this - far too melodramatic! Why? Well, because it seems to me perfectly possible that a liberal religious community needn't remain a church and that it could be transfigured and become itself a garden. (Here you really do need to read the last few blogs to begin to sense what I might mean by this).

So I have a question for anyone out there who cares to pick it up. What difference would it make to you (and the wider liberal religious movement) if, when we woke up on Sunday morning and set off for our chosen religious community we understood ourselves to be going to a living garden to participate in its (and our) care (cura) and not to church? I would venture to suggest that only something like this attitude could constitute the beginnings of the proper worship of Deus-sive-Natura (God-or-Nature). As I often note, didn't Jesus did teach us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field? Surely it is about time for us to start doing this in all aspects of our lives including our worship and communities. I think that given the current ecological crisis facing us we'd be stupid not to.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Garden Congregationalism

My last blog elicited a pertinent question from Stephen Lingwood:

What exactly do you mean by avoiding strengthening formal institutional religion? Are you arguing for Congregationalism against strengthening national structures? I'm never completely sure when a "community" becomes an "institution."

Please realise that what follows is not in any sense a definitive answer to this question (and thanks for asking it) but part of one I, myself, am struggling to articulate. It is proving far from easy but I think I'm getting a grip on it by now (hence my slight revamp of this blog making the headline issue clearer). Anyway I'll begin by saying that, yes, I am arguing for a continuance of a radical Congregationalism but I need to add to this a huge caveat which is the basic subject of this reply.

One further quick note. I'm not suggesting any radical institutional boulversement in what follows (God knows there has been enough of that) but, in the first instance simply to encourage a subtle change of perspective. I'm hoping that, if it were to result in any "revolutionary" change then it will be simply the kind of change that occurs when you suddenly see something clearly for the first time. I'm hoping it will be an "Aha!" moment for folk. Right.

Congregationalist polity can (though not necessarily) serve to encourage both liberal and conservative communities to see themselves as the still centre of religious authority and so, without reference to wider contexts, able completely to shape their communities according their own current personal prejudices (beliefs). The trouble with this polity is that it has a tendency to develop in rather sectarian ways - indeed the history of Protestantism shows an endless proliferation of conventicles and sects with each group becoming increasingly and dangerously self-referential as it closes down its boundaries.

Not surprisingly non-Congregationalist traditions readily point to this fault and use it to justify their commitment to some kind of institutional authority (Presbyterian, Episcopal or whatever). Theo Hobson points to this move being made within the CofE.

Now I accept that this aspect of Congregational polity is deeply problematic and am fairly convinced that some kind of shared "underlying" authority is required to check its tendency to drift towards sectarianism and self-referentialism and so maintain a sense of responsibility and accountability to wider meshworks of belonging (there is a ecosophical sub-text here). For a long while I chased what now increasingly seems to me to be the red herring hinted at above namely, that of trying to create (rebuild?) some kind of institutional form of liberal Christianity. (This was, of course, Martineau's aim with his Free Christian Union and, to some extent, it remains the aim of many within the modern Unitarian movement - and I'm not just referring to Unitarian Christians.)

But I now feel that even a very liberal religious institution would be, in the end, just another version of every other kind of institutional Christianity. It would simply happen to be one with which I (and perhaps you) might have greater sympathy than, say, the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church.

So, if we wish effectively to challenge the increasing illiberalism of our age and to the "toughen" up liberal religion as a whole (including liberal Christianity as a subset of this) without going down the institutional route we have to find another model which, whilst allowing us to keep our local congregational independence (with all its distinct local flavours), also provides all of us with the right kind of "authority" that will keep our local communities from becoming closed and painfully self-referential and prejudiced - an authoritative meshwork.

This mention of "meshwork" brings me back to God and, in a moment, I'm going to use the word again and try to show how "God" might indeed be thought of as telling us, or at least offering us clear indications of, how to behave in the world but I do this by tying the word inseparably - a la Spinoza - to Nature. What I'm offering up here is a wholly naturalised, non-personal and non-theistic understanding of divinity. Some may simply believe this is just another form of atheism and, if it is, then so be it, but I think it is possible to show this to be a genuinely religious middle way lying between Theism and Atheism. In doing this I am hopeful that it might become possible to articulate a conception of divinity that is capable of becoming increasingly free from individual human perspectives but without, at the same time, articulating a concept of "God" that ignores and diminishes the importance (to us) of limited human perspectives.

Here I come to the idea I have been kicking around for a while which is to suggest that it might be helpful for local liberal religious communities to start thinking of themselves, not in terms of being churches, but as gardens daily shaped and maintained by the local community on their particular bend of the river and which are designed continually to draw each person in the garden out of ourselves and into conversation and a goodly life both with others and reality as a whole (not as they would merely like others and reality to be but as they are actually encountered).

The genuine member of a Garden Academy cannot only be loyal to their particular garden come what may (as one needs to to be if one is a genuine member of this or that institutional church) but only loyal to God-or-Nature which allows their own particular local garden (and, indeed all gardens) to exist in the first place. It is to be loyal to "something" shared (though it is not one thing amongst other things but reality itself) that in "its" self-expression is radically diverse ("it" allows, as we know, an infinite variety of gardens to flourish). Incidentally, the early twentieth century philosopher Josiah Royce expressed something of this in his philosophy of loyalty (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philsophy article on Royce includes a section on this should you be interested).

Now, the best gardeners, although they seek to create a local ordering of God-or-Nature in their gardens, do not attempt at the same time seek to dominate Her but seek only to allow the garden to reveal to themselves and others aspects of reality that might otherwise be obscured to us when we encounter Her in "the wild." In other words, although no two gardens are alike and consequently reveal much about the personal likes and dislikes (prejudices) of the gardeners involved (this is, of course, a form of Congregationalism) no successful garden/er can pretend to truly be in control of the basic "material" of their project - whether we are talking about, soil, quality of seed, sun or rain - ultimately, if you follow Spinoza, all this "material" is, of course, understood to be but various modes of God-or-Nature. It is vitally important in this account to realise that this "material" (God-or-Nature) is not personal and so cannot be understood to judge anyone or any action morally, however, it can "judge" in the sense that when any gardener consistently goes against the grain by doing stupid things then their project will fail and will be shown to be "wrong." To reiterate, 'wrong', not in a judgemental moral sense, but simply because it is revealed that this particular gardener shows that they neither know how the "material" works nor understands the limitations of their own tools and the true and limited extent of their own capacities for local ordering.

An example from the story of the Garden of Eden will suffice to show what I mean here (I take it from Deleuze's book "Spinoza - Practical Philosophy). In traditional readings of the story when "God" tells Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil saying, if they do, they will die (Gen 2:16-17) God is perceived to have forbidden the eating of the tree's fruit for certain moral reasons concerned with good and evil. But what if we simply read the story as an illustration that God-or-Nature - via practical experience - reveals to us that we simply shouldn't eat some things because they are poisonous to us? We are now in the more useful and helpful realm of information concerning what is a practical good and a practical bad rather than in the realm of moral good or evil - always a problem for traditional religion. As Deleuze puts it:

Hence good and bad have a primary, objective meaning, but one that is relative and partial: that which agrees with our nature or does not agree with it. And consequently, good and bad have a secondary meaning, which is subjective and modal, qualifying two types, two modes of man's existence. That individual will be called good (or free, or rational, or strong) who strives, in so far as he is capable, to organise his encounters, to join with whatever agrees with his nature, to combine his relations with relations that are compatible with his, and thereby to increase his power. For goodness is a matter of dynamism, power and the composition of powers. That individual will be called bad (or servile, or weak, or foolish) who lives haphazardly, who is content to undergo the effects of his encounters, but wails and accuses every time the effect undergone does not agree with him but reveals his own impotence. For by lending oneself in this way to whatever encounter in whatever circumstance, believing that with a lot of violence or a little guile, one will always be able to extricate oneself, how can one fail to have more bad encounters than good? How can one keep from destroying oneself through guilt, and others through resentment, spreading one's own powerlessness and enslavement everywhere, one's own sickness, indigestions, and poisons? In the end, one is unable even to encounter oneself (Deleuze, Gilles: "Spinoza - Practical Philosophy", City Lights, 1988, San Francisco pp. 22-23).

To be a successful gardener helping to create a thriving good local Garden Academy one must develop a profound understanding and acceptance of the fact that one's own local (Congregational) ordering of God-or-Nature is, of necessity, only possible because because of a complex commingling within ever wider contexts (ranging from one's local neighbourhood and continuing up to God-or-Nature). (In passing, I have recently published a paper on the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians in which I suggest that Capek began to articulate just such a theology).

Now, it seems to me that such a Spinozistic understanding of God-or-Nature provides local liberal communities with a genuinely shared liberal conception of authority (a wholly naturalised one of course) which is simply not amenable to persuasion or coercion by humankind ("it" is after all the world as she is and not as we would will it). It is a conception of "God" that requires us to work with it - collaboratively. One beautiful model representing how we work with God-or-Nature is in the shaping of a good garden. But, remember, no individual garden can ever be truly self-contained and self-referential - it is always a commingled entity and, though discrete in its own way it is not, of necessity, disconnected from its wider environment(s).

So, to return to your first question (at last you may exclaim!) - yes, congregationalism but of a garden variety. And, in reply to your second question, I think a community becomes an institution when it starts to define itself self-referentially and begins to loose sight of its necessary commingling with the whole of reality - God-or-Nature. In short all this long blog is doing is recasting in the liberal context Jesus' words found in Luke 22:42: "not my will, but thine, be done." When you come face to face with Nature-or-God this is all one can do it is just that as human beings we can find ways to live and work with this reality and to do it joyously and creatively. Doing this together in a beautiful "Garden" (both earthy ones and those of the spirit) seems like rather an attractive idea to me. Perhaps even more attractive than going to church . . .

Monday, 4 August 2008

Institutional religion is not very compatible with liberalism . . . It is addicted to some degree of authoritarianism, legalism.

Just a quick blog to direct you to an interesting article by Theo Hobson in today's Guardian Newspaper. (I find that he is always worth reading even when I disagree with him). I was born and raised an Anglican and, therefore, despite my own move into rather more radical forms of liberal Christianity, though it is fair to say that I'm increasingly disinclined to label it thus, I have continued to be disturbed to observe the Church's continuing collapse. But this post isn't going to be an example of schadenfreude because I think Hobson's basic conclusion is massively relevant to the problems my own adopted liberal religious institution/s is facing - we need to listen to him. Hobson notes:

. . . institutional religion is not very compatible with liberalism, at the end of the day. It is addicted to some degree of authoritarianism, legalism. The Church of England concealed this, for centuries - thanks to its cultural establishment it was a fairly liberal Christian institution. But that era's over. It now follows the logic of Roman Catholicism - liberalism is a threat to unity.

And he concludes:

So a fairly stark choice has emerged: stay within Anglicanism, and be part of its post-liberal realignment. Or seek a new sort of Christian culture, accepting of liberalism, free of the old power-itch. Leave the ruins of Christendom behind, and build afresh, on new foundations.

The reason for pointing you to Hobson's blog is because it echoes a point I have been making, reasonably consistently, over the past year, which is to suggest that if we want to be true to basic liberal religious impulse of the Unitarian tradition's unique mix of rational Christian humanism and radical and mystical Anabaptism (first articulated by the sixteenth century Polish Socianian community) then we must absolutely avoid strengthening any kind of formal institutional religion. Genuinely to follow Jesus surely requires nothing less from any of our communities.

Alas, it has proved very tempting to all the various groups in the now incredibly diverse world of contemporary Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christianity to think that by strengthening our institutions we will find the answer both to our own slow decline and also our hoped for renaissance of a liberal, radical and reasonable spirituality. I feel confident enough now to say that I don't think it is. We have to let such ideas go and we should publically model this letting go so that others can see how to do it and so come to experience themselves the kind of open-hearted and inquiring faith Jesus promised every person could have.

It's dammned hard to do though - I should know, having many times been an institutional activist. So, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Anyway, all these thoughts have reminded me of the "mission and vision statement" of the Congregational Church in Middlebury, Veromont, one of my friends helped draft. I conclude with them because they still seem to me to point those of us who want to remain connected with Christianity (albeit a genuinely rational, radical and open-hearted Christianity) in something like the right direction:

We are a community that seeks to live by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth that we love God with our whole heart and mind and that we love our neighbour as ourselves. In this spirit, we affirm universal and unconditional equality and acceptance of all. We affirm but one orthodoxy: a love of truth that is a sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it. With our whole heart, we desire to promote, among ourselves and in the world, compassion, justice, and peace, for such is the Kingdom of God.


Our Mission is to live as Jesus taught, loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves.


Therefore, looking to the future with hope, our church community will be defined by all of these characteristics:

The life of Jesus of Nazareth will be the standard for all that we do individually and collectively.

We will reflect continuing growth in our understanding of our place in the world and our responsibility in it.

Children and Youth will be central to the life of our church and will be unconditionally accepted in it.

Our search for truth and a sustaining faith in God will be evident.

Communal worship in many forms will be vital to church life as will our support and encouragement for each other in our individual spiritual journeys.

Education in the ways of Jesus of Nazareth will be an essential and exciting part of our programs for children, youth, and adults.

We will be active and responsible stewards of Earth.

We will be practicing radical hospitality and welcoming all with unconditional equality and acceptance.
We will be caring with compassion for our church family and neighbours near and far.

We will be working for justice and peace among all people. We will be committing our time, our treasure and our talents to fulfill this vision for our church.