Tuesday, 28 April 2009

“Hitch your wagon to a star” or the danger of words on holiday

As you know one of my constant tasks is to find ways to help us as liberals to reconnect with the real world but to do it in a way that is neither prosaic, possessive nor materialistic. But one of liberalisms' great enabling myths is that its words and concepts are rooted, not in transient, embodied physical forms, but in an ideal, ultimately untouchable, transcendent realm - the realm of the ‘really-real’. To be a liberal is for most of us in the West to be unconsciously and un-reflectively Platonic.

But, for many reasons, a belief in the reality of such a transcendent realm is increasingly difficult for many of us. Yet we remain wedded to this enabling myth precisely because it once enabled us to express and hope for remains profoundly attractive to the imagination. In an incredibly complex and contingent world who wouldn't want to believe in the reality of a stable, unchanging realm of universal justice, goodness, truth and beauty? The key operator here is, of course, the word universal – and I wish to stress that I'm not saying that we cannot IN CONTEXT speak and even, at times, point to things and ideas to which we can apply the concepts of justice, goodness, truth and beauty - but I am expressing an increasingly widely held doubt that there actually exists a transcendent really-real realm which securely and definitively roots these conceptions so important to the liberal world-view.

The tragedy is that even as many of us still regularly use terms such as justice, goodness, truth and beauty when we take time to reflect on them we find, as I have just suggested, that we no longer believe in the realm that once rooted them and gave them huge power and which, once-upon-a-time, helped our forbears commit to them with such deep and engaged passion. The world was changed by their passionate belief and we have benefited hugely from their fruits – primarily in the complex form of what we might call liberal secular democracy. (Not that it has been without problems, of course). But now, as we find ourselves under pressure from other world views – some of which we really don't like even though we are sometimes fearful of admitting it - this lack of deep rootedness for our most treasured concepts is disabling our secular culture and is leading us into depression. When we do meet to talk about our values and concepts the tone in which this is done often elegiac – beautiful but increasingly melancholic. When I take a look at some of my earliest addresses given from this lectern this romantic elegiac, even melancholic quality is primarily what I see. They could occasionally be quite beautiful – even if I say so myself (!) – but the trouble is I now I longer believe in the underlying assumption that gave them what power they might once have had – and allowed me to write them in the first place.

Anyway, as I have been suggesting for a couple of years now, it seems to me that for many of us the time for expressing theories about the reality of a transcendent world is over and we must get out into the world again and to see what we can see. To find ways to root our treasured values and concepts in the earth and not in heaven.

I think our basic problem lies in our language and that, if we can begin to look carefully at how language actually works and not let it, to borrow one of Wittgenstein's felicitous phrases, 'go on holiday' (PI 38) we might be in with a chance of recovering our poise, poetry and strength. What Wittgenstein meant by language 'going on holiday' was that philosophical problems only arise when we try to look for the meaning of words outside the context (the language-game) in which they are actually being used. By the time of the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein thought that the job of philosophy was therapeutic and he believed that the true philosopher treated philosophical (and I would add theological) questions rather like one treated an illness; the "illness" being the bewitchment of intelligence by language. What follows is, then, a little bit of therapy for our illness because I think we are ill. And here I’ll turn to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).

Emerson was highly influential within liberal culture both in the US and the UK and rarely did a man use language so bewitchingly and he succeeded, not only in completely bewitching many of those who read him (including me) but also himself. Indeed, his language was so bewitching one is tempted to say that almost every piece he wrote could be described as a holiday camp for words; a literary Butlins.

But, every now and then the mist clears and he writes a passage in which we see revealed how the bewitchment process begin to work and allows words pack up and go on holiday. As a culture we have tended to enshrine and honour words on holiday but entirely forgotten their day-jobs. Here is a perfect example of what I mean. It is found in a book called Society and Solitude in the chapter entitled Civilization:

"Hitch your wagon to a star".

Anthologised to death this has come to mean that men and women should have high ideals, and great aims and hopes. Presented aphoristically it clearly suggests a human relationship with a real transcendental, heavenly realm – especially if you are (consciously or unconsciously) a Platonist. We are seduced by what it seems to SAY, if we go back to the context in which Emerson introduces the idea (in context - i.e. not on holiday) we can see how its USE gives it its meaning:

I admire still more than the saw-mill the skill which, on the seashore, makes the tides drive the wheels and grind corn, and which thus engages the assistance of the moon, like a hired hand, to grind, and wind, and pump, and saw, and split stone, and roll iron.

Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements. The forces of steam, gravity, galvanism, light, magnets, wind, fire, serve us day by day and cost us nothing.


I hope you can see that Emerson’s beautiful phrase - and it is undeniably beautiful - is, in context, given real meaning because it is still tied to the work it is supposed to be doing, which is showing how we working in and with the natural world. In the actual context of Emerson's essay 'hitch your wagon to a star' is not a bunch of words on holiday but turning a tide-mill. We are gifted with a sublime nineteenth century re-casting of Jesus' call to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air; Emerson has us consider the moon in the sky and the tides of the sea. (My problem with Emerson is that he doesn't always keep his own eye on that and forgets USE and gets wrapped up in what his words SAY. Anyway . . .)

But the danger – the bewitchment – occurs when 'hitch your wagon to a star' is allowed on holiday when we, for example, anthologise it to make it seem to SAY something (either in a real book or our heads). We are in trouble from the moment the words step off the plane somewhere on the Mediterranean coast dressed in a Hawaiian shirts and wearing shorts, sandals and shades – and we allow ourselves to begin to take them utterly out of context and to believe what they SAY utterly forgetting how they were USED back at home. It is my contention that, in precisely the same way, we liberals have allowed to go on holiday nearly all our key words, such as justice, goodness, truth and beauty. More importantly we have become exceptionally vulnerable to those who can see that this process is happening and who have started to use those same words for purposes very different to those so important to liberal, secular democracies.

What we need to do – urgently – is to try and get them home again before they run up any more huge holiday debts and liberal secularism goes bankrupt.

Now, how on earth does this relate to our own church's AGM being held today? Well, I think that our powerful contribution as a liberal religious community to the intellectual and spiritual life of the twenty-first century should be to help un-bewitch our increasingly bewitched times. For we are, everywhere, increasingly bewitched by language on holiday. Our political life is full of it, "New Labour speak", "compassionate Tory speak", our religions are disturbingly full of it too - and it's getting worse. Alas, we now even find this bewitchment creeping into science – especially in its more popular presentations. This bewitchment is present, even more dangerously, in much of our own talking to ourselves.

But if collectively we are to play this role of un-bewitching – and I recognise that you might disagree with me – clearly we need to un-bewitch ourselves first. For starters we need, for a while at least, consciously to uncouple our wagon from its star and re-hitch it to its tide-mill; we need to remind ourselves what our words are doing when they are at home so we can see what mill stones they really turn. This is particularly hard to do in the context of worship – though this address is part of that attempt – but in an AGM it is easier.

In an AGM we try to talk about real buildings and their need for real maintenance; we talk about the spending of money and our real need to replenish our funds – both financial and psychological; we try to get real volunteers to sit on a real and important church committee – our community's democratically elected governing body. If we can see that this meeting is, at its best, trying to use language that is not on holiday, THAT realisation is, itself, a very secure place to begin to re-root our liberal values, such as justice, goodness, truth and beauty, and to make them strong, powerful and relevant again. Why? Well, because in the context of an actual community we can see these words doing real work (turning real mill-stones)and not swanning about on holiday. If we can re-root the words justice, goodness, truth and beauty in the way we ACTUALLY live in the world as individual, committed members of this particular local liberal religious community then we will have begun the necessary process of un-bewitchment.

Of course, this is just the beginning of what needs to be done because when we are, ourselves, a little un-bewitched (which is to be dis-illusioned in the positive, technical sense of the word) we must then go on to help others un-bewitch and dis-illusion themselves. But one step at a time, one step at a time.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Look up from the keyboard and the bewitchment of words to the glories of Nature . . .

Over the past week - if you've been following this blog and the comments - a lot of words have been written (all helpful - thanks to my interlocutors) but the result is that now my head hurts. But just thirty seconds away is the park (Christ's Pieces) where my head always hurts less and that's where I'm heading right now (I might take a gin and tonic). Here is a picture of the Cambridge church from across the park taken yesterday - it's just like that today. It's glorious, utterly glorious and I'm very lucky to live here.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Boy these splinters go deep . . .

This morning I took Susanna (my wife) out into the Fens for lunch so we could have a few hours together out of Cambridge. I haven't seen her for a few days (nor much over the past few months) as she has been with her family the other side of London. We ate, talked, fed the ducks and read (Lucretius) and, in some moments of silence I jotted down a few thoughts following on from my last two blogs. It was lovely and restful for Susanna and Lucretius together form a very calming brew.

When I got home I read a couple of the comments that had come in to my last post and, since there seems to be some connection, continuity and even answering in what I wrote, here are those notes - again for better of worse. They at least have the benefit of being spoken from an authentic place (that doesn't make them right, of course . . .).

One of the things I realise is that the riddle of life is not going to be solved by religious language. If I, a Wittgensteinian fly, is going to get out of the fly bottle then I need to be careful to keep assembling reminders of this fact.

What is clear is that religious words which are thought to be capable of rooting supposedly absolutely true metaphysical statements about the nature of the world all too often also encourage people to do dreadful things to themselves, each other and creation as a whole - thinking they do those things for the glory of God. Think of Lucretius' example of the sacrifice of Iphigenia in De Rerum Natura (1:80-101) in which Agamemnon horrifically sacrifices his daughter precisely to gain the good will of the gods.

Given this very human tendency it seems insufficient for me to have been a certain kind of believing Christian, to have lost one's faith in the existence of God, and then simply move on to found, de novo, some new, rational atheistic quasi-religion. It seems to me better that one should stay where one is and have the courage to keep the death of the idea God before one at all times. Why? Well, as Lucretius goes on to remind us immediately after the tale of Iphigenia's sacrifice, without such a constant meditation on the nature of things (that is to say the natural world without the interference of the gods/God) we remain all too easily "overborne by the terrific utterances of priests" who are able to "invent" dreams for us "enough to upset the principles of life and to confound all [our] fortunes with fear."

This last musing reminds me somewhat of the teaching given by Línjì Yìxuán (pictured above and who is famous for using a fly-wisk - an accidental but thought provoking link with Wittgenstein's philosophical aim of getting the fly out of the fly bottle) that "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha; if you meet the patriarchs, kill the patriarchs; if you meet an Arhat, kill the Arhat; if you meet your parents, kill your parents . . . in this way, you attain liberation." I stand to be corrected by someone who knows the Chan tradition properly but I understand this teaching to be an aid to helping adherents realise that they are themselves Buddhas, patriarchs, Arhats etc.. It was offered to help avoid the problem that always develops when a person (or a whole culture or religion) starts falsely to objectify and externalise these figures and, then even worse, go on to revere and even worship them.

Killing God or, to drop fully into the mythical language of the Christian story, saying that, somehow, not only Jesus died on the cross but also God (understood in its classic theistic form of a necessary, omniscient, omnipresent, all perfect being) might prove to be the point at which Christianity could get out of the fly bottle and begin to flourish once again, fully alive to this wholly natural world with all its great beauties, possibilities and problems. The resurrection understood this way - that is to say the new kind of life after the death of God - is something I think I can understand.

More painful consequences of those splinters . . .

If you are coming to this blog for the first time or haven't read the address HERE then it is worth doing so first otherwise what follows won't make the best sense it could. Even then it's just a quick, although I hope, considered reply to stuff I'm working through. It's an interim response and needs to be taken that way Right . . .

This last address/blog attracted some of the most positive responses after the service to any I have ever given - surprising, given the subject matter. I also received a few replies to the blog posting and a couple of them deserve replies which I offer here.

I'll start with the negative, but ultimately helpful (to me at least) criticism from an anonymous reader (don't be shy) who wrote:

"Christian atheism? What an absolute contradiction in terms. If your belief in God is so reduced, how do you justify retaining the title of Minister of a (historically Christian) church? There's being a liberal Christian and then there comes a point when you are being something else. And observers wonder why Unitarianism has lost its way?"

Well, the reason for this description (that deliberately uses the surprising conjunction of terms to provoke thought) is that this way of thinking is born out of a particular faith context (i.e. Christianity) by people who find it hugely valuable and something they would, on balance, like to see survive and flourish in the world rather than be lost. So it's not just some abstract, deracinated intellectualised atheism (like much of the current atheism) but one prompted by Christians who take their story seriously but who also acknowledge that it is continuing to come into ever greater tension with what we think the discoveries made by the natural sciences are telling us about the world. In key areas the natural sciences seem to have trumped certain claims of Christianity, one of which is the objective existence of God, another being the veracity of the resurrection. What choice does one have if the results of the natural sciences are, broadly, accepted and yet one still desires to remain loyal to Jesus?

Anyway, the basic point is that it is an atheistic position rooted in a person's highly valued Christian practices and stories. Jesus life - especially since it ended with those words recorded in Mark "my God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46) - seems to demand from us a reflection on the loss of God to us. The resurrection stories were one way of dealing with this loss. But, for the Christian atheist - who has to take these stories seriously too - the natural sciences suggest (and pretty much prove in this case) that the resurrection of the dead is just vanishingly unlikely to be true. The philosophy of Wittgenstein (especially post-1953 with the publication of the Philosophical Investigations his second great work) was a huge influence on Christian atheists because it helped show why, although Gospels can say nothing about the world, they can show us something about how to live in this complex world. (In a way one can trace Wittgenstein's thinking here back to Tolstoy's "Confession" - but that's another story). We can regain the resurrection stories - even when they no longer tell us anything true about the world - when we see that they show us something true about the world.

So, as one's belief that the Gospels tell us anything about the world disappears, there can return a faith that the Gospels show us how to live in the world returns. One looses a metaphysics of the cross but gains a profound physical return to the physical, wholly natural world - to the physical quality of the cross - hence the title of my piece. I justify continuing to call myself a Christian minister because I still take what the story shows us seriously enough to get splinters in my hand - to be a Christian is not, to me, at all connected with a theoretical, abstract metaphysical set of beliefs. In that sense what I am doing is wholly continuous with the historic Christian church even though clearly it is not be identical with it. If, however, belief is thought to be a sine qua none of being a Christian then, clearly I am not one; if, however, it is faith that the Christian narrative shows us how to live by following that showing - then I'm a Christian. What else would it make sense to call me?

Interestingly - to move to 'Anons' final question about Unitarianism having lost its way - the way of thinking explored very briefly in my address/blog is an train of thought which primarily came out of orthodox Christianity and in my piece I cite two key figures in that movement, namely, Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran pastor and modern saint to many Christian denominations) and van Buren (an Episcopalian priest). It seems unlikely that Christian atheism could ever have come from Unitarianism (at least in its more modern forms) because collectively it doesn't really doesn't 'do' Christianity (or any other extant religion) with enough single-minded passion to even consider making such a move in the first place.

This latter point brings me to Yewtree's request to address one of my own points directly. Here is that point again:

"There is also a good and strong reason for engaging in this kind of ecumenical gathering – despite my disbelief – that does not, alas, exist with regard to engagement with the current institutional structures of the British Unitarian movement, one of whose ministers I, nominally at least, am."


Whenever I engage with Christians in ecumenical gatherings such as the Good Friday 'Act of Witness' I am aware that (for the most part) I am meeting people who take their faith and its consequent practice with the utmost seriousness (and not without humour either). One engages in encounters that have real bite - there is something to talk about that matters and which expresses, to borrow Paul Tillich's term, their ultimate concern.

In liberal circles, however, because there is so often such a huge, sceptical gap between any theory 'about the world' a person may hold and that same person's instantiated 'way of being' in the world one quickly encounters an almost impassable barrier set up in the way of real encounter because nothing is presented upon which one can get any real traction; rubber never hits the road. Everything substantive - in faith terms - is lost in innumerable caveats and equivocations. Having inhabited such liberal circles for many years I know this intimately and this current address is simply part of a long term attempt to find a way for liberals of Christian inclination to close that sceptical gap and, to jump to the other image used above, to get the rubber of our own wheels back on the road. If it helps get any other liberals' wheels back on the road (whether in a Christian or another context) all the better.

(In passing I do wish to note that within liberal circles there are individuals whose rubber absolutely hits the road - you know who you are - but because there has been no COLLECTIVE institutional debate in the UK about how and why (and even IF) the rubber of liberal, pluralistic religious community can hit the road, the present institutional structures of British Unitarianism simply cannot be engaged with in any satisfactory fashion. In my opinion it is why fewer and fewer people are joining it and why it is continuing to haemorrhage members in alarming numbers.)

So, yes, I think I am an atheist and it is my 'theory about the world' (and it's a pretty good one based as it is upon the natural sciences which seem to have revealed, and continue to reveal, real things about the world). This theory has been shown to connect meaningfully with the real world - the natural sciences have shown us how to be in the world in a remarkably tangible successful way - though this has, of course, also thrown up its own problems. In short I can say that I believe, not in God, but in the natural world (revealed by the natural sciences - and also thinkers such as Epicurus and Lucretius). But, as I say and live this faith I also feel, to remake the point Wittgenstein makes in his Tractatus: " . . . that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life still have not been touched at all. Of course, there is then no question left, and just this is the answer" (§6.52).

One solution to these problems of life still seem to me to be found in following Jesus, in being in some way a Christian, and this is another aspect of my 'way of being in the world'. This religious way is wholly unchosen by me (it comes by the utterly contingent set of conditions that threw me into this time, place and culture - that pressed me into service to carry the cross) and, although it is one I often wish I could abandon it just keeps claiming me. Even as daily I say to myself, "my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me", that damned cross keeps putting splinters in my fingers and calling me back into a damnably inconvenient discipleship of Jesus. Well, God may have 'forsaken' us (or rather a certain idea of God has forsaken us) - or to cite Bonhoeffer again, the God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34)! We stand continually in the presence of God who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis - but I do have a profound faith that Nature hasn't and, indeed can't, nor has the example of Jesus.

Not sure I've said all this well enough but it's time to press that 'publish post' button and be damned . . .

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Why getting splinters in your hand is better than doing metaphysics

(Remember that the context in which I offer this address is to find ways for us, as religious liberals, to engage fully in the world, fully in our faith and doing that in a wholly secular age.)

Those of you who know me know well know that, although I retain a profound love and respect for the person Jesus, for a long time I have not been able to believe in the truth of Christian metaphysics. Like many people I have realised that Jesus, his followers and those who later came to found the Christian faith necessarily understood the world in a way very different from us. As Paul van Buren wrote back in 1963, "Whatever ancient man may have thought about the supernatural, few men are able today to ascribe 'reality' to it as they would to the things, people or relationships which matter to them. Our inherited language of the supernatural has . . . . died 'the death of a thousand qualifications' (The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, van Buren p. 4) and he goes on to note that the "scientific revolution . . . . has given us another, empirical, way of thinking and of seeing the world. That which cannot be conceived in terms of man and the world explored by the natural sciences is simply without interest because it is not 'real'. . . . We can no longer pretend that the Gospel can give us information about 'how things are' in the world" (van Buren p. 5).

As someone who has grown up in an active liberal Christian family environment and a broadly speaking Christian culture and, especially as someone, who has become a liberal Christian minister my problem has always been how, in Bonhoeffer's felicitous phrase, I might be a 'Christian in a world come of age' and to do it without being disingenuous and in a way that does not demand from me a sacrificium intellectus (van Buren p. 5). It is a hugely difficult question to address anyway, but particularly from inside a religious tradition, and it has rarely been better posed than by the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished, and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion (Feuerbach!). For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible eliminated. . . . Honesty demands that we recognise that we must live in the world as if there were no God. And this is just what we do recognise - before God! God himself drives us to this realisation. - God makes us know that we must live as men who can get along without Him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34)! We stand continually in the presence of God who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis (Letters and Papers from Prison SCM, London 1971, p. 360).

Having set the scene a little I'll turn here to a story of something that happened to me on Good Friday. Despite my significant metaphysical concerns, on balance (though that balance is always precarious and I remain acutely aware that it may change) I have decided every year of my ministry that more is to be gained by participating in the ecumenical Good Friday "Act of Witness" than by absenting myself.

(NB - If you want to know precisely why do please ask. There is also a good and strong reason for engaging in this kind of ecumenical gathering – despite my disbelief – that does not, alas, exist with regard to engagement with the current institutional structures of the British Unitarian movement, one of whose ministers I, nominally at least, am.)


One of my closest Christian colleagues in Cambridge is Jochen Dallas - the pastor of the German Lutheran church here - and this year he invited me to give one of the readings. (Jochen is, to me at least, a shining example of Christianity at its best and I am pivileged to know him and to have learnt from his example of Christian discipleship.) I agreed and so, in my clerical collar (which I rarely wear), I duly arrived in the the Market Square at the appointed time. Though acutely discomfited as always (I'm sure that, like Peter, I would have denied that I knew Christ three times) - I sang the hymns, read the reading, joined in the prayers. I can cope with it (just) because these things are, primarily, intellectual activities and, like many liberals, I have become very skilled at being able to distance myself intellectually from them. You have heard from me this example before; standing beneath the cross is rather like standing at the edge of the swimming pool and discussing the theory and physics of swimming and water etc. but never actually getting into the pool oneself. It's swimming without getting wet which - in truth - is not swimming at all! It really is, when you think about it, a terribly sorry compromise. However, that's how things have mostly been for liberal Christians for many years and one might as well just 'fess up.

Because many people had other Good Friday services to attend, at the end of the service there a swift dispersion of those gathered. However, I lingered, partly because I got to talking with two people from the Methodist Church whom I had not seen for a while but, primarily, because I had invited Jochen and his curate, Melanie, to join Susanna and me for coffee and hot cross buns at the Manse and I need to wait for them to gather themselves together. Little did I know but the wait meant I was to be pushed, quite unexpectedly, into the swimming pool.

As I stood chatting a verger from St Edward's (a nearby church) came up to us and remained us that we had to return the cross to the church for their own service. It's quite a heavy thing and, since I was one of the few fit young people still present I was pressed into service - along with Melanie - and told to carry the cross back to the church.

Oh dear! This was more than just an intellectual idea I could distance myself from. This was getting wet - or rather getting my hands dirty in a real, physical and tangible way. Importantly I was pressed into this service against my will; not because I am unwilling to led a hand to carry something heavy for someone else but because this was carrying, not a neutral load like some shopping or a sack of potatoes, but the cross damn it - the most physical, tangible, symbol of the Christian faith you can imagine. As Melanie and I picked up the cross I could not but help recall the following story from the Gospels:

"And when they had mocked [Jesus], they stripped him of the purple cloak, and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him. And they compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyre'ne, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross" (Mark 15:20-21).

To a Friday shopper I can only have looked like a model committed, believing Christian but, as you know, that's not precisely the case. But, as I carried the cross I thought long and hard about Simon of Cyre'ne and reflected that we know absolutely nothing about him. Perhaps he believed implicitly in Jesus and his message and his later status as a Christian saint is deserved but it is equally likely that he was simply one of the many who, then as now, were honestly seeking a way into a more fulfilled and complete life and who was curious to see this man who proclaimed he could help him to it. We simply don't know but, either way, Simon's life would have been radically changed from that moment - the memory of that day would unlikely be forgotten in a hurry - and, importantly, for the most part, his involvement in events had nothing to do with his intellectual attitude and choices except, perhaps, his decision to be in Jerusalem and that street, on that day and at that time. And maybe even then the rational choice to go there was nothing to do with Jesus at all but simply a meeting with a client at number 27 to sell him some goods from his home country of Libya in North Africa.

I have been deeply surprised at how profoundly effected I was by the experience of carrying that cross but not, perhaps, in the way you might imagine. For starters it is important to note that it has made no effect whatsoever on my intellectual beliefs about the metaphysical claims of Christianity which I still think are false. The God in which I believe - in so far as it makes sense to call a God who doesn't exist a God - is the same God of which Bonhoeffer spoke "who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis".

No, what changed was that I had a real, conscious and visceral encounter with the only thing modern secular men and women can believe and honestly say they can know something, namely Nature (which we know through the natural sciences and consequent human analysis of and reflection upon the results). It was the rough wood which left splinters in my hand and memory of the cross' weight that took me into the heart of the Christian story in a way that is – as a secular human being – impossible for me via belief in God (a God metaphysically articulated that is).

You see the kind of religious faith I am seeking and, perhaps this is true of you too, is not really one to do with beliefs at all - certainly not metaphysical beliefs. It is to do with finding a way of living in this world, the secular world of the twenty-first century, which is to say a world without God. But it is also to live in this world in a fashion which recognises that there exists a strange 'more to this than meets the eye' quality about it – and to recognise that (to cite the Roman Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain) things (the material stuff of the world) always give more than they have (take, for example, a painting – we can know ingreat detail the chemical structure of the paint, the paper etc. etc. yet from these ‘pragmata’ extraordinarily a picture of something more is shown to us). And here I end up being thrown back on some word’s of Wittgenstein’s and I can think of no better way to point to what happened to me on Good Friday than with some of the final paragraphs of his Tractatus:

§6.52 We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life still have not been touched at all. Of course, there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.

§6.521 The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem (is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)

§6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

(Trans. Pears and McGuinness 1961)

In the end I don't know if any of this makes any sense - in a way it can't because what I am trying to say cannot be said – it can only be made manifest by living in this world without metaphysics and by getting splinters in your hands, by taking up, in some way as did Jesus and Simon of Cyre'ne, the cross – that is to say a life of service and love in this world without God (my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?). Alas, my friends, that is a very uncomfortable and unpleasant thing to do especially if you are an intellectually driven liberal, like me, who would prefer to live in the abstract real of ideas that I can never really touch or be touched by – unlike that rough, splinter giving wood of Good Friday. This is why, in retrospect I am happy to have been pushed against my will into life, like Simon of Cyrene and why, in a way, I'm trying to push you too.


PS - re-reading this the following morning to put up a copy on the website of the church in Cambridge which called me to be their minister some ten years ago, I realised the following link to the wikipedia article on Christian Atheism might be for some interesting and helpful to read. You will see that wikipedia has some issues with the article and it is worth viewing the talk page as they suggest.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

A spring spin into the Fens







































A lovely sunny day encouraged my to get out on the bike in the afternoon for a forty-mile spin to the Five Miles From Anywhere No Hurry Inn. Splendid. Here are some photos.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

One Step Backward Taken - the theraputic value of fear

The week before I took a break to move I gave an address on a poem by Robert Frost called One Step Backward Taken. My computer died and took the file with it. Fortunately I had a hard copy and, re-reading it, it seems to me worth offering you a pdf of it. You can find it here.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

A blog about my other blog . . . go figure

On the other blog I have - which is dedicated to the series of conversations I encourage at the church at which I am minister has had an interesting series of conments that are not unrelated to stuff I post here. So, the absence of a blog here (Susanna and I are still surrounded by boxes), this surrogate blog might be of interest to readers of this one.

Ah, the new technology, what interesting things it cause us to do.

Other news just in. I've been asked to do some more teaching for the Woolf Institute with the Metropolitan Police and have also been asked to convene a group within the East of England Faiths Council to explore some of the underlying philosophical/theological questions that often get bypassed in the pressing rush to manage a great number of practical projects. This ties in with a project I have going to set up a secular institute in Cambridge which will look at the role of religion in the public space. This is a long term project - so don't hold your breath for immediate news - but I'm getting some interesting positive responses from various people in academia and government. So, we'll see . . .

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Little boxes, medium sized boxes and large boxes

We've just moved house and are amid boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes . . . when I get out from under them (the week after Easter) I'll resume . . . à tout à l’heure.