Thursday, 25 December 2008

Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart

This, or something very like it, will be this happy morn's address. A very happy Christmas to you all.

For those of us who have become profoundly sceptical about the historicity and ultimate worth of the Christmas stories one of the simplest ways to enter fully and creatively into the spirit of the day is to remember that they (and indeed most religious stories) were not written to tell us anything factual about the world. It really is important to realise this and to understand that they are, in no way, pseudo-scientific in their aims. Instead they were written because their authors had experienced 'certain conditions in which their minds were set in motion' (Michael McGhee: Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice CUP 2000, p. 124) which, to quote William James from his 'Varieties of Religious Experience', allowed 'something [to] well up in the inner reaches of their consciousness' (William James quoted by McGhee p. 17). The authors then tried to communicate this whole experience to us through means of 'aesthetic ideas and images'; in other words they 'gave us an approximation of this experience and, in so doing, gave it the semblance of objective reality' (McGhee p. 119).

The trouble is that it is has always been so easy to lose the sense of semblance and to allow one's thinking and pondering about these aesthetic ideas and images to degenerate into a form of naive theological realism. A necessary element of our spiritual practice must be, then, to renew and cultivate our 'sense of semblance' by trying to recover, through quiet reflection and meditation, something of the conditions in which the minds of stories' writers were set 'in motion towards the idea of a corresponding inner state' (McGhee p.126). I'm aware that this might sound a little obscure so, very briefly, I'll turn to a well known poetic example from the beginning of Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey':

. . . once again
do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs
that on a wild secluded scene impress
thoughts of a more deep seclusion.

Michael McGhee insightfully observes that the point:

. . . is not that the steep and lofty cliffs should stimulate the idea of a more deep seclusion than the greatest that can be imagined' but that 'the scenery speaks for, is correspondent with, the possibility of a state of mind and it is that which, if it achieves reality, becomes the object of further comparison . . . It beckons towards deeper experience which in turn resonates with the words: indeed we discover the source of the resonance that beckoned' (p. 126 - his emphasis)

We may use McGhee's train of thought in a similar way in relation to the Christmas story. What presents itself to us and what the authors hope will set our minds in motion are, not secluded 'steep and lofty cliffs', but a new-born child. What stimulates them is not a deeper seclusion than that which they have hitherto known or imagined but a deeper and infinitely larger life present before them in the life of a human being.

The question that always remains, for the reader of Wordsworth's poem as much as for the reader of the Christmas stories, is whether or not the words continue to resonate in similar fashion with us, remain capable of setting our minds in motion and stimulating such an idea and which, in turn, can help us in some way move towards an ever deeper experience of the source of that resonance?

Now I simply cannot answer this question for you - just as I cannot answer the question of whether the steep and lofty cliffs around Tintern Abbey will do as Wordsworth hoped.

But, because both my personal experience and that of the Christian tradition as a whole (that is when and wherever it has not descended into a naive theological literalism) continues to find it helpful to the deepening and fulfilling of human life, what I can do is encourage you of the value of attending to these stories meditatively simply seeing what possible, but previously unimaginable, enlarged states of mind come into view. In a moment we will hear our Christmas Day reading from Luke 2 and at the end of it we will hear that, after all her experiences surrounding the birth of her son Jesus, Mary simply keeps them all and ponders them in her heart (Lu 2:19). I think Mary's response is key and if we wish to enter the story appropriately we need to understand that we, too, must simply keep these things and and ponder them ourselves.

What this will mean for you will only be answerable to the extent that you allow your own mind to resonate with it as you seek - not any formal institutional religious answers - but the very source of that resonance itself which is nothing less than the deepest experience of life any of us can hope to achieve.

Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Christmas Eve Communion Service & Tanabe Hajime's philosophy of Zangedo

A couple of my earlier posts have begun to explore a way of philosophical and theological repentance (Zangedo) presented by the Japanese philosopher Tanabe Hajime - a major philosopher of the Kyoto School. The Kyoto School is a group of 20th century Japanese philosophers who developed original systems of thought by creatively drawing on the intellectual and spiritual traditions of East Asia, those of Mahâyâna Buddhism in particular, as well as on the methods and content of Western philosophy.

You can find them here and here.

As part of that inter-religious encounter on Christmas Eve, as usual, we will be having a short service of communion at the Cambridge Church at 6.30. The themes of a communion service resonate naturally with Tanabe Hajime's philosophy of Zangedo. The service also takes a major part of its inspiration from a service developed by the Universalist group of ministers called the Humiliati formed during late 1940's. Anyway, over the past few weeks I have been preparing a service which makes these resonances more explicit. For those minded to take or look (or even use it themselves) go to the following links for pdf copies of both the COMMUNION SERVICE and the outline ORDER OF SERVICE.

Comments always welcome.

A Happy Christmas to you all.

PS. I should get the Christmas Day blog up late Christmas Eve.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Questions for the Religious Journey - finding your own path

Click on the link below to find out details of a new series of conversations I'm holding in January, February and March. I'll try to precis the conversation that unfolds on the day itself so there is a record of that to read and, even if you cannot be there in person, please do feel free to read the book on your own and post comments.

Questions for the Religious Journey - finding your own path

Saturday, 20 December 2008

“Today and in the near future, there are two alternatives: fundamentalism or interreligious dialogue” - The Dalai Lama

As readers of this blog will know I am very concerned to explore how one might continue to be intimately and creatively related to the Christian tradition but without at the same time remaining wedded to what many of us see as increasingly problematic institutional forms of it; problematic both in social and political as well as philosophical and theological terms.

Clearly one helpful thing would be to reframe our understanding of what it means to 'be a Christian' and, inevitably that process today involves some kind of real inter-religious dialogue. This blog (which is all my Sunday addresses are - it is simply that I present them in person each Sunday morning) tries to map out various way by which we might achieve this reframing and, in some cases, to report and reflect on how we are already doing it.

Well, because it is the Christmas carol and readings service this Sunday and I am relieved of address writing duties, instead of giving you my thoughts on the matter I'll take this opportunity to point you to what seems to me a very interesting and valuable piece of writing connected with this 'reframing' by James W. Heisig entitled Christianity Today - The Transition to Disestablishment. Hesig is Director of the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture. You need to scroll down this pdf copy of Inter-Religio to find the article.

Have a very happy Christmas and, if you can, please do join us on Christmas Eve at 6.30 for our communion service and/or on Christmas morning at 10.30. For those of you who can't get here I'll try and get my Christmas Day blog up on Christmas Eve in case anyone is minded to read it on the day itself.

P.S. The picture is of my own Zafu in my study. Regular readers of this blog will know that I nicked a photo of my friend Kev's Zafu for an earlier post because I forgot my camera that day and couldn't take one of my own. He noticed. So, now I'm putting right a very, very minor sin . . .

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Zangedo - another look at John the Baptist's call to repentance in the light of Tanabe Hajime's philosophy

For many of us today, the story of John the Baptist may seem utterly irrelevant. But I think his character still speaks very strongly and usefully to us and, to illustrate this, I would like to pick up on two themes from the story of his appearance in the wilderness - a story usually told during the season of Advent - and I do this for some very pressing and practical reasons.

The first is that of wilderness; the second, that of the need to repent (zange - metanoia) and to proclaiming a baptism for the renewal of the forgiveness of sin.

First of all it seems to me vitally important to observe that John the Baptist appears in the wilderness and not in the midst of a city. A city is, after all, a symbol of living within the horizons of our inherited rules and conceptions about what human life and society should be like and even when we rebel against these inherited rules and conceptions we still reveal that we are framed by them in some way. And so we move along already known and named routes to destinations broadly predetermined, either consciously by ourselves in advance or, unconsciously, simply by the necessary limitations imposed on us due to our current levels of insight and knowledge.

However, true wilderness is, by definition, an environment without such rules, routes, names and destinations. For anything truly to be called wilderness it must, in key respects, remain to us radically unknown and unknowable.

But why would anyone risk walking beyond the ordered city limits out into the wilderness beyond where all the apparent landmarks and securities of civilised life are instantly lost? Well, here we begin to draw close to addressing the matter of repentance because in every individual’s life there come moments when they are forced humbly to admit that they do not know everything, that they are not in control, and that they are in desperate need of change. Most importantly, and disturbingly, it is to acknowledge that they cannot effect the change themselves precisely because of the limitations of their own current state of knowledge and understanding. It is no surprise that this state of mind is often described as like being in a wilderness. It is at this point that I want to take us back to some words of the Japanese philosopher Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962 - a major philosopher of the Kyoto School) which I introduced to you a couple of weeks ago in which he describes his experience of being forced to acknowledge that he did not know all that he needed to know to be a worthy philosopher and that the solution to this distress was not in his power:

'At that moment something astonishing happened. In the midst of my distress I let go and surrendered myself humbly to my own inability. I was suddenly brought to new insight! My penitent confession - metanoiesis (zange) - unexpectedly threw me back on my own interiority and away from things external. There was no longer any question of my teaching and correcting others under the circumstances - I who could not deliver myself to do the correct thing' (quoted in Michael McGhee: Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice CUP 2000, p.11).

Writing about this passage (which comes from Tanabe Hajime's book Philosophy as Metanoetics) you will recall that the British philosopher Colin McGhee emphasised it was not so much that Hajime 'decided that he should do one thing or the other: the point is that he no longer had to make a decision'. As Tanabe Hajime says:

'It is no longer I who pursue philosophy, but rather zange (metanoiesis) that thinks through me. In my practice of metanoesis, it is metanoesis itself that is seeking its own revelation' (ibid. p. 11).

Remember that the crucial point to grasp here is that his new insight comes only after he had absolutely given up - it did not come because of his 'self-power' (jiriki) but only because of an 'Other-power' (tariki). Again Hajime notes:

'This Other-power brings about a conversion in me that heads along a path hitherto unknown to me . . . This is what I am calling metanoetics', the philosophy of Other-power' (ibid. p. 11).

It is at this crucial moment of letting go that necessary space is created for something Other, something new and saving to come over the horizons of our limited thoughts and enter into our frame of reference in a fashion that, on further reflection - enables us to make use of it - i.e. to have our ways of thinking and acting in the world irreversibly changed.

Traditionally, of course, this Other-power (tariki) is called God and although I, personally, am not averse to calling this Other-power (tariki) God the term tariki or Other-power might usefully be employed by those who struggle with traditional concepts of God.

But notice something else too, which is that although the new insight which only comes about in the wilderness is not in one's self-power (jiriki), the Other-power (tariki) which came, could only come in so far are as you had enough self-power (jiriki) truly to admit your inability in the first place! This is another way of saying Other-power and self-power are interdependently related - which, again to use traditional religious language, is to suggest that we not only can meet God in the wilderness but also commingle and become, in some sense, one with God.

But, even though we can rationally explore this process of repentance in the wilderness and encourage ourselves to trust to its ultimate efficacy in itself this is utterly insufficient because it would still be to trust only in our self-power and, therefore, to remain restricted by the limitations of our current ways of thinking.

No! The only way by which we may taste the fruits of this union with Other-power (tariki), with God, is via a real experience of being thrown into wilderness accompanied by a genuine act of repentance in which we truly acknowledge our limitations and failures and then humbly to wait and see what comes. (I am reminded at this point of a well known Zen story about an overful cup).

John the Baptist and his most famous follower, Jesus of Nazareth, were two such people who trusted to this process and in so doing found a new closeness with God and, as a result, discover a new and better way of being in the world which helped them to challenge and modify, in some remarkably effective ways, prevailing ways of thought that, in their own time, were threatening the well-being of society. They needed help badly but they discovered an effective way to access it by entering into a dynamic yin-yang like process in which Other-power (tariki) and self-power (jiriki)were enabled mutually and continuously to inform each other allowing the universal a way to enter the world of particulars, and the particulars to speak eloquently and truthfully of the universal.

Now, you might now be asking what consequences this has for us as liberal religious people today? Well, it actually seems to me to be quite simple although a little bit disturbing to contemplate - especially since we are prone to privilege theorising about faith over actually living it. The plain truth is that in so many areas of our lives, economically, ecologically and spiritually, we are discovering that we are deep in the . . . - well you know what we are deep in and getting deeper into by the year. Many of us are beginning to recognise that the solutions which are being put forward to the problems of our age - including many of our own solutions - are merely disguised reworkings of old and bankrupt paradigms. But of course they are! they cannot possibly change until we begin again to engage in a disciplined process of changing ourselves (zangedo) and so humbly opening ourselves up once again to a real experience of God/Other-power (tariki).

Now I am not quite suggesting that, like some latter day John the Baptist, I take you all down to the river to be baptised, en masse, for the renewal of the forgiveness of sin but I am suggesting that individually and as a community we do need to begin to place at the centre of our religious practice a disciplined but creative and ultimately positive way of repentance or zangedo as Tanabe suggested - a process by which we may slowly clear out old habits and world views and allow something not entirely our own to come into view and transform us. It would, of course, require us to begin to privilege a more meditative and experiential way of being together - i.e. there would be fewer words (mea culpa, mea maxima culpa . . .).

I cannot, of course, tell you what the consequences of engaging in zangedo will be for you or the world because any new vision is, by definition beyond the knowledge of any of us - at least until we have practiced zangedo.

The promise is simple, however, that in doing it we will be opened up to new insights by which we might live a more abundant life. Sure it's risky but finding ways to challenge the prevailing ways of thinking in any society (and our own heads) is always risky but, it seems to me, it is even riskier to carry on in the way we have been.

So my Advent message to you today is simple - no more or less than John the Baptist, Jesus and Tanabe have given in their own times and cultures: "Repent, for a better way of living in the world is at hand."

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

A liberal stands up for Jesus - and a few others

Last week I introduced an Advent theme, namely, the urgent need for religious liberals to stop prevaricating and to step out into the world, to get down and dirty and once again learn how to live and act in it with hope and confidence. But I am acutely aware that our post-enlightenment culture has, for a long time, encouraged us to live at a dangerously sceptical distance from the world and this, in turn, has meant that our lives often have the feel of being more observed and theoretical than actually lived. Life for the religious liberal has come to resemble merely a theoretical model - always on the drawing board but never quite put into prototype form and actually sent out in the world to be tested. As our reading of At the Smithville Methodist Church by Stephen Dunn eloquently showed we have developed crippling fears particularly about our own community's prototype - Jesus of Nazareth - who used to help us learn how we, as human-beings, might live fully and passionately in the world.

To become fully human we need human exemplars to follow who can help us frame and ground our potentialities. As I noted in an address I gave earlier this year my work in jazz-education has enabled me to articulate this matter. Of great help was the following comment by the American jazz double-bassist Chuck Israels which summarised 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 nearly 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 who is 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 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 know from experience that people who come to check out a liberal church tradition such as this are motivated by the many worthwhile ideal potential gains they feel such a community should offer - they include 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 canvas that, alone, it is wholly 'insufficient to serve as a focus for attainment.' If an individual church allows people to remain at this general level there is simply no clear place to begin to learn how to be religious liberally.

So as mentor - whether as a music teacher or minister - my role is often reduced to helping people find something to love, to get a model and find a prototype. In the case of my music students I 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 begin the real task of imitating that model and of figuring out how and that player is playing the things he or she does. To the disappointment of many of them this turns out to be hard work which takes, I'm afraid, years to complete. But, if you haven't got a role model about whose playing you are very excited then you will have 'no image and no passion' and this huge task quickly becomes too great to see through to the end. 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 without doing any of the required foundational work and, in consequence, they turn out to be directionless players with no substantial grip on anything real about the music. At best they will be mediocre players at worst they will experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure. Another solution some try to use is to start to believe that the good players have some magic about them - had magic dust sprinkled on them at birth - that they don't have. (It is, of course, the same excuse which, in the minds of many, turns Jesus from being a great human teacher into God.)

The same is true in religious circles - including liberal religion - and merely desiring the fruits of a liberal religion without, at the same time, seriously seeking to follow the religious prototype or model of that faith in action means you will never get a real grip on what you need to be doing in any religious life. Everything will remain terribly unfocussed and unfulfilling; there will be no attainment and no progression. At best you will be mediocre in the matter of living, at worst you will experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure to live the abundant life which Jesus promised could be ours. Well it is that or you turn him into God and let yourself off the hook . . .

It is true, of course, that there are other models or prototypes one might follow other than Jesus but I am not making here some covert claim for his uniqueness and value over all other great religious teachers - I, too, have a number of other figures who continue to hold my loyalty, primarily Lao Tse, Spinoza, Epicurus and Lucretius. No, my point is much more prosaic and practical than that - it is simply that historically Jesus just happens to be our particular family of faith's trusted primary model.

Now, I am aware that some amongst our number may seek to resist the message of this address because they believe it would tie them down, unduly restrict them. But a model only ties and represses when it becomes a fixed dogma, a dead theory to be slavishly repeated without variation and creativity. But that is not a true model. The true model can only free because it is precisely in the process of modelling oneself on something tangible that you are helped into the real world to test and experience it yourself. The conception of following Jesus I have in mind is much more like the exciting and fruitful relationship I continue to have with my musical heroes. It was only by copying them that I learnt how to move from an idea or theory about how to play jazz to playing jazz. I don't sound precisely like any of them but without them I could not be free to be me, Andrew Brown, jazz musician.

However, once personally freed you cannot then simply bequeath others who follow you (such as our children) - with no cost - your freedom. You also have to offer them real models to follow themselves and attach them to wonderful stories. In music I offer up Miles Davis and the wonderful story of the Birth of the Cool, Round about Midnight, Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, John Coltrane and the wonderful story of A Love Supreme and Ascension, the Beatles and the wonderful story of their transition from Please Please Me to Sgt Pepper and beyond, The Kinks from You really Got Me to Autumn Almanac. In this pulpit I offer you a variety of models to learn to love but primarily I hold fast to offering up Jesus and, at this time of year, the wonderful story of Christmas.

The tragedy of institutional Christianity was to turn Jesus from a startling and inspiring human model into a dead dogmatical held metaphysical theory about the world. Standing up for that kind of Jesus - with its associated slavish support of the institutions that support these theories - is something I, too, am profoundly uncomfortable about.

But the genius of our liberal tradition was to see that when Jesus was followed, as a true human exemplar, Jesus inspired and enabled a person to begin experience, not a pale imitation of Jesus' life nor that of some religious institution, whether the Temple or the Church, but their own life in all its fullness - the only life any of us can experience.

The truth is we don't have to become crippled with worry about affirming Jesus as a model because, when followed with imagination, intelligence, wisdom and some real anarchic rebelliousness, his example still provides us with a practical method of entering fully into the world beyond all theories and beyond all religions. We, too, can still stand up for Jesus but for us, if we do it properly and consistently, then this is simply to help every man and woman to stand up in their own ways as truly free sons and daughters of God and together to improvise a better future for the whole world.

-o0o-

In case it is of any help to anybody reading this blog the texts I use to help me follow Jesus as a teacher remain, of course, the four canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but, even with many years of studying them in both a faith context and in an academic environment, they remain, even in modern translations, incredibly difficult to read and understand, let alone follow. So I find it very helpful to use on a daily basis - they always sit in my knapsack - a couple of edited and re-presented versions of the Gospels that take some quite drastic decisions on what a Gospel according to Jesus should contain. They are Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief (which has interesting connections with Wittgenstein) and Stephen Mitchell's The Gospel According to Jesus.

This approach will send some faithful Christians (including some liberals) and scholars into paroxysms of despair saying that this is simply to make the Gospels resemble to my own views about the world rather than keep it close to anything historic Christianity has taught. Perhaps - but to read any text is to interpret it and make some decisions about what is in it worthy of being followed and what is not. Tolstoy and Mitchell make interpretations that are simply amenable to my own. It seems to me that as long as you keep the canonical texts in mind as you read and use these other edited texts you will be critically engaging with the tradition as much as any other person - it is just that you will also be clear about your commitment to becoming an independent thinker about what Jesus was actually trying to teach.

In the end, as I argue in this blog in general, that is to do nothing other than what the first disciples did, namely increasingly to become alive to their own possibilities as human beings commingled in a world eternally suffused with the Divine.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Prepare by all means, but only as a prelude to an actual journey - First Sunday in Advent

Like last week this is an address which looks radically different from its initial form but, this time, the immediate cause of the change was not so much brought about by a turn to one's inner consciousness and allowing a broader view to come over our limited horizons, but by the brutal events that took place in Mumbai this week; events that occurred very much within the narrowest of present human horizons. I don't intend to linger for too long on this subject as I only want to address the general question that exercises many of us when we see such horrific events, namely, 'What can we or I do to help, if anything?'

The second thread in today's address is the modest, but nevertheless real, spiritual and practical revival that seems to be beginning to take place within this congregation.

The third thread is that today we enter the season of Advent, the time of the expectant waiting and preparation for the birth of Jesus and the start of a new Christian Year.

On reflection it seems to me that these apparently disparate threads are all, at a very important practical level, intimately woven together.

The feeling of despair and powerlessness is common when ever we see the kind of violence witnessed in Mumbai this week and our hearts can only go out to all those caught up in something so terrible. But it also seems that an increasing number of influential policy makers are fearful that something similar will happen in their own countries - including, of course, the UK. To be perfectly blunt about it I think that they are probably right. However, where I want strongly to disagree with our leaders is in what consists the appropriate response to such a threat. As all of us will be aware there has been a very worrying shift towards what is being called 'tough' legislation which essentially involves the clamping down on some of our very hard-won civil liberties. But it has always seemed to me that the only lastingly effective way to face down such violent crazies is by clearly revealing to them through our own individual lives and the institutions and communities that make up our civil society that they can never win. If we can genuinely show that we are not scared or intimidated by their actions then we will, eventually, prevail against the perpetrators of brutal violence. However, if we respond in the wrong way by making our society less civil and by becoming more narrowly defined and barracked against the wider world then we have accorded the extremists a power that far outstrips what is actually the case. But, to do this, civil society needs a certain confidence and that is clearly lacking at this time.

Consequently it seems to me that our liberal democratic societies' lack of confidence is more to be worried about than anything a bunch of psychotic terrorists can do - no matter how well trained and armed. Now this lack of confidence is something we can address and, in addressing it, we do the only thing that can help both ourselves as well as providing appropriate help and support to our bruised, hurting and fearful brothers and sisters across the globe.

Here I can turn to my second thread, namely, the modest revival we seem to be beginning to experience here in the Memorial Church. You may think that a general revival of concern about the care of our buildings, the appearance the church and the notice boards and the preparation of small scale new initiatives such as the restarting of our evening conversations, a university centred series of lecture-conversations and a series of lunch-time gigs to open up our church mid-week to meet and greet our neighbours, as well as more informal coffee mornings in people's houses is utterly insufficient to the task of facing down terrorists but, I assure you, this is not the case.

This is because the only effective long-term weapon against the extremist and terroristic mindset is the creation and upholding of genuinely open-minded and open-ended civil society. Our duty is to model what that actually looks amongst a people of faith committed both to the values of openness of thought and, out of that, also to show our willingness to confess our past failings and so change and adapt as our human knowledge and, we hope, our wisdom improves.

I'm going to return to our local church's response in a moment but first I need to turn to a consideration of Advent.

Advent is, as you know, a time of preparation and expectant waiting for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day - a day which launches the complex set of journeys which, collectively, became known as Christianity. But within many traditions of Christianity (including our own liberal one) this season has become symbolic not of the preparations for a real journey to be undertaken in the very near future but of the dangerous liberal tendency to prevaricate endlessly.

The first brake on our setting off is a lingering sense that the solution to our many human problems is somehow wholly external to us (I'm not denying here the reality of what Tanabe Hajime calls 'other-power' but simply observing we consciously encounter that 'other-power' only when we get disciplined and make some moves ourselves). For the orthodox Christian believer, of course, the external solution is believed to be coming from God in the form of the Messiah, namely, Christ. As Christ was born unto us two millennia ago so he will return again at some still unspecified point to judge the living and the dead. Alas, attractive as this idea might once have been (and to many it still is), it is a promise that has not come to pass for two thousand years and I, personally, can only be radically sceptical about the possibility it could be true in any literal fashion. Needless to say there are many who share my scepticism.

But, you may say, there is no such brake on liberals for don't most of them/us treat the Advent story simply as a metaphor? True enough, and it is clear that many liberals certainly don't expect an actual return of Christ. However, I have increasingly noticed that turning too easily to metaphor is often simply a way of hiding the fact that one has really bought into the modish and sloppy relativism of our age. This relativistic attitude has encouraged us to become increasingly inclined to wait and let things go in every which way - just to see what comes up. After all, if our story and everybody else's is just a metaphor, and none of them is really real and no better, no truer nor more false than any other, then why stake a strong claim for any of them - even ones own? Surely it is better simply to let things go and see what turns up?

And boy have we let things go. As a civil society we have been easily seduced into an unconscious commitment, not only to unregulated free financial markets but also to unregulated free-markets in our spiritual and religious life. We have discovered that we, too, are waiting, not for some tardy Messiah, but for another equally unlikely saviour, namely, that if we do nothing eventually everything will work out OK, find a natural peaceful level and all will be well and all manner of thing shall be well. The present state of our world reveals how unlikely to come about is that scenario - at least as unlikely as the traditional one. Either way, in both cases, humankind is often just waiting for something external to come to its aid.

(An important brief discursus needs to be added here. As my regular readers or hearers will know I have recently been exploring the philosophy of 'letting-the-world-be' following the thought of Freya Mathews - here and here. Mathews' panpsychist conception is born out of according the 'other' - whether a person or apparently inanimate thing - a real subjectivity. This means one can engage in genuine dialogue with all the things that make up the world. You allow the world to converse with you and, out of that process of letting it be what it is (i.e. without projecting on to it innapropriate ideas and ideals) a new, shared position or solution arises. The letting things go I am talking about in this present blog is one born out of a profound disinterest in any real engagement with the diverse things of world. It is a 'you have your view and I have mine' approach that, in the end, devalues not only the worth of an other's viewpoint but also one's own - and that's a bad and dangerous way of being in the world.)

The second break is put on by the fact that our inherited religious map (if it is still being followed) has shrunk from a contemplation of the eternal and the infinite to the dangerously small size of a year or even less. Now I don't know about you but it hardly seems like yesterday that I was preparing for Christmas. Oh, I'm in a waiting season again am I?! OK, I'll put off doing anything for a little while longer. This is what James Luther Adams once called the 'provincialism of the present' and those of us involved in modern forms of liberal religion will be aware how incredibly provincial it can be.

Now it should be obvious that this general approach suits the liberal sceptical mindset very well. It has certainly suited mine and I'm as guilty as the next liberal for my prevarications. We/I know we don't really know all that we would like to know, we/I know the world is terribly complicated and we can't properly untangle it so let's just wait a little longer and see what 'comes-out-in-the-wash'. It's not really up to you and me and shouldn't be up to us because we know so little - and so we endlessly prevaricate. After a while this becomes not genuine preparation and waiting at all but in truth the only way that we act in the world.

But, of course, the story we tell during Advent, Christmas and beyond doesn't have this prevaricating quality at all. The Magi, after their period of preparation, do in fact set off - they head out into the wilderness to follow that star. Jesus, after his own periods of preparation (and his time in the womb may be taken as one such period as much as his time in the wilderness), begins a journey that leads, eventually, to the cross. The disciples, after their preparation, which includes the loss of their beloved master, begin their own journeys of faith as they spread their own very different understandings of who Jesus was and what his life meant. Yes, there is plenty of preparation in the Christian story that is worth recalling and meditating upon, but it always results in a risky journey actually being undertaken without a clear end point in sight. In passing, but very importantly, remember not to be seduced by the Bible's rhetorical form which makes it look like everything was really known from the beginning. Nonsense. No one knew precisely what would happen to them - and that includes Jesus who was a human-being like us, even if one uncommonly aware of reality of the Divine.

This brings me back to this liberal church. As a liberal religious movement we have been preparing a long time, at least since the end of the First World War when liberal theology received a nearly fatal blow. That is too long a time and it simply won't do any more because we don't really have the luxury of any more time.

Our own culture and nation is in a mess and so too is our home planet; just waiting around to see how things come out in the wash is no longer a sufficient nor a morally acceptable position to hold.

So please get involved in the new initiatives that are beginning here - even if you are not quite sure they're exactly right or that they'll work perfectly. The chances are we'll get things wrong many times. It doesn't matter, we'll do better the second time. Encourage your friends, neighbours and colleagues to take a look at what we are trying to do - point them to the blog, the website, get them along to the conversations that are starting again next year. Get yourself along to them too. Make no mistake what is at stake is not just the future of this local church but wider civil-society in which we live. And, if you can't get involved with this church (for whatever reason) then seek out another liberal voluntary association which has similar aims.

If we really don't want the kind of people who committed the atrocities in Mumbai last week to dominate our society then we must - not should - we must support liberal communities such as this one.

Even though it is Advent my message to you this year is that now is the time to stop waiting, to stop preparing and to risk making a journey in faith that what we have to offer the world, flawed though it will always be, is infinitely better than the vision of any extremist.