Sunday, 31 May 2009

Threads of Fire (a meditation for Pentecost/Whitsunday)

Today is Pentecost Sunday - Whitsunday - the day upon which our tradition records that the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples - a corporate memory which has come to mark the conscious and spiritual beginning of the Christian community.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs--in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy (Acts 2: 1-18 NRSV).

Now, whatever we may feel about this story concerning it’s empirical truth or otherwise and what it might mean, or is supposed mean, what we can say for certain is that the event it recalled was powerful enough to generate a collective religious movement capable of impassioning increasing numbers of people to preserve, spread and live a particular way of life that has continued - albeit in an almost infinite variety of forms - to this very day. A simple but vital fact we must note (even if we are a little uncomfortable about it in our sceptical age) is that without this Pentecostal impassioning of people, this local church would never have come into existence.

After such an introduction my usual procedure at this point would be to offer a thought or two about how we might practically use this story and, rather than claim to be able to find its true and fixed meaning, strongly to suggests that the story’s meaning for us is found only in its use (whether by us in such and such fashion or in another church who think differently).

However, as I reflected upon the story this week, I have been struck by something else concerning the nature of the connection we have with the earliest disciples and, therefore, this Pentecostal experience. I’ll begin by reminding you of some words by the important nineteenth-century Unitarian preacher John James Taylor (1797-1869). He said:

Neither Scripture nor the Church would be anything more to us than mere historical phenomena, without the unbroken continuity of the work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers.

For the most part our liberal churches have understood that this continuity of the work of the Spirit is that which makes us living members of the Church and enables us to appropriate, through our own personal experiences, the meaning of the promises and consolations contained in Scripture. The Spirit is, then, a central theme in our heritage which is a unique mix of radical Anabaptism and Italian late-Renaissance humanism.

When I first read this as a student I had in mind the thought that “the Spirit”, itself, could be thought of as something essential to Christianity. But this idea, that there exists something that one can point to as essential (continuous, core, unchanging) in Christianity, is an idea I’m increasingly beginning to questioning - or, perhaps better – nuancing.

A couple of weeks ago I engaged in a similar questioning when I said I was confident enough to say that I don’t think there is any such thing as the unchanging essence of Christianity that can be taught to anyone (I used the image of a city). All I thought one could say was that there is the process of learning oneself, as did Jesus, to trust that, by relating directly as individuals to that mystery which underwrites the possibility of similarity [and continuity] across constant, infinite change we can have life and have it abundantly in our own times and places. To be a Christian in this sense is not to hold a fixed theory about life but a creative way of fully being in this world (commingling with it) and alert and sensitive our own needs and contexts, compassionate about others, and also to the well-being of the whole of creation.

This made a few people quite nervous (I can see why, I assure you) and, in conversation after the address, the suggestion was strongly made by a number of people that in the two great commandments, to love God and love neighbour as ourselves, we find the simple essence of Christianity - the unbroken thread that goes back to Jesus himself. But the problem with this is that these two commands are not at all distinctively Christian and are, at best, necessary but not sufficient elements of in what consists Christianity. They are, in any case, as central to Judaism as they are to anything called Christianity. Indeed they can be seen in most versions of theism found in the world. One is, then, left with the pressing need to add additional things to these commands before one gets to something that can be called distinctively Christian. But what are those things and where do you draw a line (however indistinct and vague) between the something not being Christian and being Christian? One church tradition will say it is essential to hold to the doctrine of the Trinity, another the affirm the authority of the Papacy or some other church leader, still another will insist on the born-again experience, and yet more who will claim that the core is simply a following of the example of Jesus that entitles a person to be called a Christian. In short, there is simply no agreement to be found.

Some of the best help I have found in thinking through this matter has come from reading the mid-twentieth century Cambridge philosopher R. B. Braithwaite who suggested, and I’m inclined to agree with him, that a person is not:

. . . a professing Christian unless he both proposes to live according to Christian moral principles and (my emphasis) associates his intention with thinking of Christian stories; but he need not believe that the empirical propositions presented by the stories correspond to empirical facts (An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1955 p. 27).

What Braithwaite is suggesting is that there exists, not so much a core essence of Christianity consisting of empirically true stories with a simple set of essential core beliefs that run in unbroken line from Jesus through to us - but rather an identifiable complex, living weave of stories and reflections upon stories which leads to new intentions and new reflections upon those stories and so new interpretations, reflections and intentions etc. etc..

Here one may turn to a striking and helpful reminder offered by Wittgenstein when he noted that “the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres” (PI 67).

The fact that we can touch this thread and that it extends from ‘here’ to some ‘there’ across distance ‘n’, is so powerful that we often find ourselves still tempted to say that, therefore, there exists in this thread a single essence. Wittgenstein thinks this is to some extent playing with words and that “one might as well say: ‘Something runs through the whole thread - namely the continuous overlapping of these fibres’“ (PI 67).

But if you think about this the ‘continuous overlapping of these fibres’ is not really a thing at all, at best it is a method of proceeding that allows ‘threadness’ to appear in the world under certain specific circumstances; in this case when you are minded (for whatever reason) to take animal hair, vegetable or other fibres and twist them into something that we call a thread and use as a thread.

But we must be careful in using the image of a thread in our consideration of our relationship with Jesus and the disciples because the ‘thread’ we are considering here is not a physical one confined to the present temporal sphere but a spiritual one which we are imagining stretches back across time and space and through innumerable individual minds, hands and cultures.
But surely the most we can say we inherit across the centuries from the earliest Christians is this odd collection of disparate, contradictory stories that comprise our Bible plus a sincere desire to use them to weave a good and abundant life; one of the threads in this complex fabric is the bright orange flame coloured thread, that is the Pentecost story. But we can only weave it as we find in our here and now; we cannot weave the bright orange flame coloured thread of our forbears; that has gone and is irrecoverable.

Another way of putting this is that I don’t think we inherit any essence of thread or an actual at all, only the possibility of making ‘threadness’ real in our present lives.

Hearing what I have just said you might be tempted to say, aha, the essence of Christianity is found in this ‘possibility of threadness’ which flows out of Being itself. But, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago it was Hegel who noted that “this mere Being, as it is mere abstraction, is therefore the absolutely negative: which, in a similarly immediate aspect, is just Nothing” (Hegel’s Science of Logic trans. A. V. Miller: London, George Allen & Unwin, 1969, Part VII Nothing §87). Hegel is claiming that whenever we take away the particularity or concreteness of our actual experience and this actual world we are left with only Being which ‘is’ Nothing. It is wrong, therefore, to think of Being as a fixed, stable, unchanging essence because Being alone is nothing. And here I can return to something I pointed out in my address about the Ascension (reusing an image borrowed from the poet David Slavitt's translation of Virgil's Georgics) “It is all particularity - as in grammar”, and to be a Christian “is to conjugate irregular verbs. Beyond the rules, you must learn the brute words themselves by rote and with stern hunger for schoolmaster.”

Everything is particularity and so I do not think we (can) inherit an essence of Christianity but only the possibility of spinning something new and alive in the here and now and that possibility is only enacted on in so far as we are filled with the spirit actually to do it – in this way we are touched with a unique Pentecostal spirit that bears a family resemblance to that talked about in Acts but which is uniquely of our own time and place.

What kind of Christian fabric that inspires us actually to weave is inevitably going to be unique to us, but it is vital to understand that this is not to claim that it is, per se, better or purer that other Christian fabrics – and it is certainly not (as our forebears believed was possible) to articulate a perfect, essential form of Christianity. No, it is simply “to live according to Christian moral principles and to continue to associate our intention with thinking of Christian stories.”

Cliff Reed, the Unitarian and Free Christian minister in Ipswich, has written some words which lays before us the kind of Christian fabric that, inspired by the Pentecostal spirit of our own age, I think we are trying to weaving today:

We are the Christians who move on,
leaving behind what cannot be retained:
the creeds written to cement a long dead empire;
the justification for slavery, genocide and witch-burning; the refusal to hear other people’s truth;
an idolised book, a man diminished to a god.

We leave these behind and move on,
not in arrogance, not unaware of tradition’s worth, not creating new bigotries as bad as the old ones,
or so we hope!

We move on,
carrying with us the free and timeless heart of Jesus,
faithful to what was said and done in love for liberty by him, by those who follow him, by those who give his spirit voice and flesh in every time and place.

We are the Christians who move on,
leaving even the name behind, maybe,
a name that Jesus never knew.

We are the Christians who move on,
Seeking and sharing the divine heart in everyone,
as Jesus did.

For an ICUU Executive Committee meeting,
Weston, MA, April 2002

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Rebop at the Bell, Clare - a live recording for the BBC

Rebop is playing at The Bell in Clare on Sunday 31st May 2009 and is being recorded for BBC Radio Suffolk.

Here's the club's spiel . . .

Jazznights presents the best in modern jazz in The Cavendish Suite at the The Bell, Market Hill, Clare, Suffolk, CO10 8NN, a beautiful half timbered coaching inn dating back to the 16 century, situated in the heart of Constable Country. There is a special rate of £45 per room for those wishing to stay over for the night (excludes bank holiday weekends) and excellent food is available - order at the downstairs bar and it can be delivered to your table. If you wish to reserve seating for the jazz call 01787 237653 and your table will be held up to 8.00pm. Email, check Admission £7. Doors open 7.30pm. Music 8.00-10.30pm.

In the photo here (taken at a gig in the church last year), left to right is: Chris Ingham (piano); me (double bass); Kevin Flanagan (alto sax); Roger Odell (drums); Paul Higgs (trumpet); Colin Watling (tenor sax).

See you there . . .

Sunday, 24 May 2009

On abandoning money or giving it with your whole living - a meditation on the British MPs expenses debacle

This week money and, particularly, its role in public life has been much to the fore and for reasons too obvious to rehearse here. (For non-UK readers please click on this link). There is much one might say on this matter and, for the most part, many of things sounded to me either hopelessly moralistic or simply tautologous. But not all. One thing that does need to be said is that we are all part of the culture which has allowed such a situation to develop and so, today, rather than point and rail against individuals, it seems more fruitful to consider something that might have practical personal use for those of us gathered here today so we can, ourselves, contribute to a real and sustained process of reform.

It is about setting an example (a model) before ourselves believing that in the long run, by adopting and living it, we may help to share this example with others. The normative model of the religious tradition to which I belong is, of course, Jesus.

Musing upon this matter during the week a pertinent phrase of Henry David Thoreau's came back to me. In the opening chapter of "Walden" (p. 119), as he reflects on giving money to the poor, he notes "If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them."

With the obvious exception of the good sense one shows in abandoning our money to a violent mugger if it can help us get away - this seems to be capable of extension to all other normal, non-coercive, financial exchanges.

We must remember as we consider this that money and its exchange is always a highly contextual and relational activity and that the exchange itself (regardless of any obvious monetary value involved) will, depending on a variety of factors, always have a certain kind of *intrinsic* positive or negative value. However, because the language of value in our popular culture has become so tied to coin we can sometimes find it quite hard to tease out the difference between monetary value (the cash-value of X) on the one hand and the value that is expressed in the relations of exchange on the other.

It is this latter value - the value of the relations involved in exchange - that I wish to concentrate upon today.

In Cambridge the most recent example of the value of relations in exchange and its devaluation that I have seen is found in the town-centre Sainsbury's store. They used to have a 'baskets-only' set of tills, about six of them, at which the queues move a little quicker than those at the normal tills. Never buying huge amounts at one time Susanna and I generally used these baskets-only tills. A couple of months ago - during the Easter vac when the students were away and the store was less busy than during term time - they put in six automated tills. The argument being that they would be more efficient at peak times (whatever that word means in their minds). But one of the things I value about any kind of shopping is the human encounter involved. I'm not pretending that through this encounter I get to know the check-out staff as friends but our acknowledgements of each other have become deeper and more meaningful over the years. A real human connection is made and, as when see each other about town we acknowledge each as individual, valued people. That is how societies form, develop and deepen – we are creating and sustaining society. In that personal encounter shopping I feel I am not merely abandoning money to Sainsbury's and, in return, they are not merely abandoning goods to me. Those wretched tills feel to me like symbols of abandonment - I just abandon my money to this noisy flashing box and this noisy flashing box abandons goods to me. Sod that - I now queue for silly amounts of time because I insist on spending myself in some way as I part with my money and I insist on a reciprocal spending from Sainsburys in the form of an engagement with one of their representatives - namely the check-out staff.

Now it seems to me that this thought relates to the recent expense scandal in at least two ways. Firstly, a system had been allowed to develop which allowed public money essentially to be abandoned to MPs. Secondly, some MPs who have been caught taking inappropriate advantage of this laissez faire machinery are being allowed to abandon the same money back to this system. In many cases there seems to be no real deep apology or regret shown in the exchange – it is simply abandoning ill-gotten money back to the system in the hope that this meaningless act will be sufficient penance to ‘balance the books.’

In a way the system of expenses resembles the noisy flashing boxes in Sainsbury's - because there is no obvious human engagement in the process of exchange. Whenever you can persuade yourself that nothing of moral human value is at risk, i.e. there is just indifferent abandonment going on, then it is quite disturbing to discover what many human beings will allow themselves to do.

But the possibility for these kinds of impersonal and indifferent exchanges are disturbingly common in our culture and so it should come as little or no surprise to us that it has effected those in Parliament. As a way of exploring what we might do about this, in a moment, I'm going to cite a story about Jesus but, as I wrote this, I realise that such a move can, itself, sometimes be an example of abandonment. I have noticed that in many Christian contexts - liberal and conservative - citing Jesus and the demands Christian religion (as understood by that church) can really be an excuse not to do anything about the situation oneself – the preacher simply abandons the story to his or her hearers in the hope that that is sufficient! Soren Kierkegaard, that fierce and often admirable Christian philosopher (though, overall, I have to say that I think Kierkegaard’s huge either/or moments are false dichotomies. Anyway . . .) once uncomfortably reminded his hearers:

"When Christianity came into the world, it did not need to call attention (even though it did so) to the fact that it was contrary to human nature and human understanding, for the world discovered that easily enough. But now that we are on intimate terms with Christianity, we must awaken the collision. The possibility of offence must again be preached to life. Only the possibility of offence (the antidote to the apologists’ sleeping potion) is able to waken those who have fallen asleep, is able to break the spell so that Christianity is itself again.
Woe to him, therefore, who preaches Christianity without the possibility of offence. Woe to the person who smoothly, flirtatiously, commendingly, convincingly preaches some soft, sweet something which is supposed to be Christianity!" (Works of Love: Some Christian Reflections in the Form of Discourses, trans. Howard and Edna Hong, preface R. Gregor Smith. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library. New York: Harper & Row, 1962, pp. 199–200).

No, in the example we are about to hear there is no abandonment and it is not at all a mere ‘soft, sweet something.’ In the Gospel according to Mark is found the brief but powerful story of the widows mite (Mark 12:41-44 NRSV):

"And [Jesus] he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, "Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living."

Her whole way of being in the world– her whole living – should, indeed, offend our easy, self-satisfied expense driven culture. This is a tough story to contemplate even when this "whole living" is simply understood (it’s usual interpretation) to be equivalent to "all her money" - i.e. not just a small percentage of her savings like the rich. However, taken in the context of the whole Gospel, it really seems that Jesus is alerting us to how this woman really is engaged in giving her whole life in this act and that, therefore, it is not really a matter of percentage of wealth given in this (or any other) exchange that counts but instead something to do with the particular attitude held in the giving; this is the gift which Jesus accepts. The widow was, to use Thoreau's phrase, truly "spending herself" with the money she gave; in no sense was she abandoning anything - her money or herself.
The challenge we have in this modern society is how we (you and me) might reconnect our moral and ethical selves with our money see anew that our money's value is always tied up in how it is used. If we continue to separate our moral and ethical selves from money it is inevitable something like the present scandal will occur again and again. Money, on its own (though there is, of course, no such thing for money only makes sense in a society), has never been the problem even though it has been cited as the root of all evil. But remember what was actually said by St Paul:

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains" (I Timothy 6:10).

St Paul goes on to call upon people to "shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness." Money can be an agent for this kind of life but only when it is not abandoned – i.e. when it forms part of the positive relation building enterprise we seek to participate in as members of a church such as this.

So, as we try our best to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness at all times, right now, this is particularly worth practising whenever we open our purses, cheque-books or use our credit/debit cards, and especially at the end of each month when we have to file our own expenses claims.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The Ascension - and something about irregular verbs

Today is the Sunday where the story of Jesus' Ascension into heaven is often explored (Click here if you want to read my address from last year which is connected in key ways with this one). Although I'm not at all sure that this odd story tells us anything useful and empirically verifiable about the nature of the world I remain convinced that, in the way we in this community use it, much meaning can be found.

Again Wittgenstein can be helpful to us here:

"Christianity is not based upon a historical truth, but presents us with a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not believe this report with the belief that is appropriate to a historical report, - but rather: believe, through thick and thin and you can only do this as an outcome of a life. *Here you have a message! - don't treat it as you would another historical message!* Make a *quite different* place for it in your life. - There is no paradox about that!" (Culture & Value 37e 8-9/12/1937)

So, today, as with all our other Christian stories, I'm trying to make a quite different place for the Ascension in our lives by being absolutely clear at the outset that I take it, not as an historical account, but a story which is encouraging us to enter into a certain way of life, the meaning and efficacy of which we can believe through thick and thin. I do it because I firmly believe that engaging in such a way of life (and Christianity is but one possible way and simply the one we inherit by being on this bend of the river and not another) we may, as Jesus promised, have life and have it more abundantly. By being careful to make a different, which is also to say 'special', place for it I hope we may begin to reintegrate ourselves into whole beings. I'm simply trying to take St Paul's advice that we should to do things decently and in good order (I Cor. 14:40).

Now, without sneaking under the door any surreptitious metaphysical points - remember I'm increasingly of the opinion that, like scripture, metaphysical statements don't really tell us anything meaningful about the world apart from the use that is made of them - we seem to experience the world in two distinct ways.

On the one hand we can have those sublime moments when we enter what feels to be like a unity beyond rational comprehension - what I called a couple of weeks ago "that mysterious active totality in which we participate and commingle". Many Christians have talked about this as entering into unity with God - the beatific vision after which we can say with St Paul that, although before the experience we saw as "in a glass darkly", now we have seen God, in some fashion, "face to face" (I Cor. 13:12). I'm very fond of Margaret Fuller's folksy way of putting it - it is that state of mind in which we can say loudly and with passion that we "trust the universe!". However, over-indulged in and forced, such peak experiences can make us pretty blissed out, useless, utterly disconnected from the realities of everyday life.

On the other hand we most often experience the world in a far from unitary fashion - it becomes to us simply one of infinite variety and particularities. At its worst this experience can be damagingly confusing and chaotic; the peace and wholeness (the same word in Hebrew and Arabic) we experienced in our occasional visions of unity is lost and we feel fragmented, apart and disconnected - only now the disconnection is with any sense of coherence and cohesion.

Traditional religions - including our own - have always seen the peak experience as helpful and useful but they have also always sought to bring it back to the everyday world. They have understood that, for the leading of a truly balanced and integrated life, one must learn to move effortlessly between these two perceptions of reality. On the one hand it means learning to accepting the beatific vision of an underlying unity as a graceful gift of God's when it comes but, at the same time, not fetishising it in the world of things. On the other hand, it also means accepting the richness and diversity of things but without fetishising them to the point where there can be no access to any unitary aspect and, therefore, also to any sense there might be meaning to life as a whole.

So, you might now be asking what on earth has all this to do with the Ascension? Well, I think one way we may use the story is to help us identify and practice crossing between the two ways of viewing the world – of commingling and reintegrating what we call heaven and earth

Here is the story as it is found in Acts 1:1–11 (NRSV):

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

If you look closely at it you will notice that it has an ending which is, in its own terms, very puzzling. "Jesus will come again in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" - well, surely that would be a very good reason to keep looking! You wouldn't want to miss that would you?

Might not the angels of the story be saying to the disciples something like: "Look, chaps, the reality you know as Jesus is now commingled in both the unitary nature of reality - with God in heaven – and also in the world of things, with you in your daily work, in the breaking of bread and wherever two or three of you are gathered together. Just get used to it, get back to your daily work!”

But that is where it gets difficult and the only way I can show what I want to show here is by turning to a passage in Virgil's first Georgic - from his famous series of poems about farming. This might look like a non-sequitur but stay with me for a moment. Early in the text (l.50-52) Virgil writes (C. D. Lewis' trans.):

"But plough not an unknown plain: First you must learn the winds and changeable ways of its weather, the land's peculiar cultivation and character."

It is wise advice. You may have to hand general unifying texts about agriculture which tell you how to till this type of land and that type of land, you may even have many years of farming experience in another place but this is never sufficient if you are to be successful farmer. You must always recce this land actually before you. Before you begin you must make efforts to know it in its contexts, i.e. with its seasonal patterns of wind, rain, sun and snow.

David Slavitt, in his extraordinary 1972 trans. of Virgil's poem (which he freely admits is also a kind of commentary upon it) he offers us the lines we have just heard as follows:

All knowledge is hard won;
a farmer must know his field, its soil, its weather,
and from years of trial and error he learns which land
grapes thrive upon, which will produce corn
better or earlier so he can beat the market's
glut. A week, a weekend can make the difference
between comfort and bare survival, survival and loss.
It is all particularity -- as in grammar:
to farm is to conjugate irregular verbs.
Beyond the rules, you must learn the brute words themselves
by rote and with stern hunger for schoolmaster." (p.94)

The ‘language’ of unity, in which we try to articulating to each other in this world that simple unifying connectivity we sense courses through everything, is formed rather like regular verbs are formed. Once you know the basic rule the rest is easy. However one can get over confident and hopelessly carried away by this fact. Standing in front of the complex world but still rapt in the beatific vision we are (and I am) sometimes tempted simply to say (along with George de Benneville): "The inner Spirit makes us feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things."

But, in our world of particulars, where "a week, a weekend can make the difference between comfort and bare survival, survival and loss", this kind of statement is really utterly insufficient unto the day.

The language we must use to negotiate meaningfully the world of diversity, difference and particularity, is much more complicated and nuanced than the easy but comforting ‘regular’, universally applicable language of unity; everyday language is formed rather like irregular verbs are formed. Knowledge of how to live in this bit of the universe, and not that, is always hard won.

It seems to me that stories like the Ascension are vital because most of us need to be commanded by angels and schoolmaster to go back to the world after our occasional glimpses of the calm, regular ease of unity because no one wants the grinding hassle of learning irregular verbs. "Why can't we have a language, a life, a religion that is thoroughly regular - an Esperantoesque way of being!" we cry; but fortunately that is not how it is. Nature - the angel and schoolmaster - always calls us back to the schoolroom of life where wisdom and knowledge is hard won.

However, once learnt, the hard earned knowledge of irregularity opens us up to a richness impossible to any simple universal law driven life, language and religion. The Christian stories help us to live on this bend of the river because Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules. They just are! Which can, I know be frustrating but, hey, that's the deal.

Anyway the Ascension story clearly concludes by sending the disciples back to this world. It seems to me that one authentic way of using the Ascension story is, therefore, to encourage us to get back into the world but, since Jesus also said “the kingdom of Heaven is within (or among) us” to undertake such a descent is also to make some kind of ascent. Now if that isn’t irregular use of language I don’t know what is! But to understand this use of the language (the story), to get its particular crop to grow in your heart, you just have to learn it, in situ, in your own life of faith. I wish it were otherwise but, alas, such knowledge is always hard won and I would be failing in my duty as a Christian teacher (albeit on odd one) if I were not to insist that you can only learn the irregular verb that is the Christian faith (and, of course, any other faith) word by word, story by story, act by loving act across a whole lifetime.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

New series of conversations to begin on Wednesday 20th May

Just to alert you to the fact that a new series of open conversations will be held at the Memorial Church (Unitarian) in Cambridge between Wednesday 20th May until Wednesday 1 July inclusive.

They provide an opportunity to talk further about the theme of the previous Sunday's address (found on this site - the picture on the right is one of me making notes for it in the church garden this morning) or, of course, anything else that strikes us as relevant.

They begin at 7.30pm when we gather and have some tea and coffee and then conversation itself starts at 8pm and runs through until 9.30pm. For those so minded we often finish up by going down to the Clarendon Arms for a quick drink.

No prior preparation is required but it wouldn't be a bad idea to read the address first.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Another unorthodox lecture - or what on earth is the minister up to?

This post arises out of a question a few of you have been asking me, namely, what on earth is the thing that holds together all I'm talking about at the moment? Having written this and delivered it (and received mostly positive feedback - as well as a few 'I'm not so sure' responses) I realise how related my solution is to one that the American philosopher Paul Wienpahl began to outline in his 1956 piece entitled "Unorthodox Lecture". It's not long and I do recommend you take time to look at it. Following this lecture he went on to properly to study Zen and write two valuable books about it. He also wrote a wonderful book on Spinoza called "Radical Spinoza". Following Wienpahl some of the way one of my own solutions has been to take up a mindfulness meditation practice but, for all kinds of reasons, in the end I, personally, find myself compelled to stay within the Christian tradition. But, as I hope this post clearly reveals, the kind of Christian one ends up being is to be, in Wienpahl's phrase' "a man without a position." But, as he makes clear, this is not to be without direction, it is to be who you are in the place and time you find yourself - a position which, in the end, can really dispense with all artificial labels such as 'Christianity'. What one is left with is the simple fact of one's particularity, of having to live, breathe, and solve the problem of life, right here and now:

"When one says that he is a man without a position, does this mean that he is without direction? Perhaps. But this is misleading. For it means too that I have a direction and that direction is my own. It will come from within rather than being imposed from without. It means that I will guide it, I will give my life its form. And consciously too. Which seems to be hoisting one by one's bootstraps, but is not. It is just difficult."
So it's a funny and difficult kind of 'Christianity' that I'm trying to articulate; to get a glimpse of what that might be you'll just have to read on.


One or two of you have asked what on earth it is I think I am doing! Well this address is a summary of that. I'll start with an observation of Wittgenstein's who was concerned to show that any language was, in an important fashion, complete. He did this in the Philosophical Investigations by likening language to a city:

". . . ask yourself whether our language is complete; - whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses" (PI 18).

Before I go on I need to place before you another thought of Wittgenstein's (In Culture and Value):

"If anyone should think he has solved the problem of life & feels like telling himself everything is quite easy now, he need only tell himself, in order to
see that he is wrong, that there must have been a time when this "solution" had not been discovered; but it must have been possible to live then too and the solution which has now been discovered appears in relation to how things were then like an accident" (CV 6c).

The solution to the problem of life mentioned here is not to be thought of as some set of propositions about the world allied to a set of particular ritual practices but, instead, the simple fact that it has always been possible for people to find ways of leading the most fulfilling life possible for them and in the most fulfilled way with the world in which they find themselves. This doesn't make all solutions the same or, to our (or any) point of view, equally attractive or good, but it is clear that people across time and cultures have always found solutions to the problem of life and they have done it in the ghetto, on desert islands, in prisons, in wars just as they have done it in times of peace, security and plenty and amongst supportive friends. People have also failed to find solutions in all these conditions, of course.

It seems to me that any religious tradition (or language of religion) - but I refer only to Christianity here - bears some resemblance to a city. It is clear that forms of Christianity earlier than our own were sufficient to solve the problems of life. In fact it should be obvious to us all (though how easily we forget) that earlier and very different forms of Judaism were also sufficient to solve the problems of life; remember Jesus was a Jew (and never a Christian) and it was clearly possible for him to live! Indeed this process continues back to the beginning of human consciousness; we know that it was possible for our forbears to live then too. Some tantalising remnants of their solutions seem to have come down to us in the form of their, to us, mysterious artefacts, buildings, barrows and mounds.

So, with these two thoughts in mind, let us now imagine ourselves living and working in London - a city I lived in for a year in the late 80s - and let us also hold in mind William Shakespeare.

Both Shakespeare and I were inhabitants of London. It was a complete city for both of us. We crossed it regularly on the way to work, Shakespeare to theatres, me to gigs, and both of us travelled to the homes of friends and colleagues. We would have shared knowledge of many London streets and their names and both us, at times, travelled on them to go out of the city, say to Stratford-upon-Avon. Of course, where the city ended and ran out into the countryside was in a different place for both of us but London remained for us both a complete (though not completed) city. In both cases in that complete city the problem of life needed to be, and sometimes was, solved by us. It was possible to live then as it is to live now.

Yet in both of our cases - for all the continuities and overlaps - to live in London of the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century is a very different thing to living in the city in the late twentieth-century. When we talk about the contemporary city (though my knowledge of it is really twenty years out of date) and our life in it which includes attempts to solve the problem of life, we must use very different directions and descriptions to those used by Shakespeare because if we didn't we simply wouldn't get around. We have, today, cars, buses, tube-trains, taxis, bicycles and rickshaws to help us traverse the city. New buildings, roadways, bridges, sub-ways and footpaths have been built and, as we negotiate these new routes, suburbs and technologies we converse with people from all over the world whose own culture, mental landscape and language, brings wholly new comminglings, words and insights. But, still, the problem of life has to be solved in this modern city as it was in Shakespeare’s' but now it must be done in a new landscape and context, a new, if related language-city.

We should observe that Shakespeare, were we able to resurrect him, could not get into a taxi and, in his own language (with its many subtle nuances shaped wholly by his own time and utterly unrecoverable by us) and give directions to the driver cross the city using his sixteenth century street map. If he wants to cross the city of which we are both inhabitants he will have to negotiate the multitude of "new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses" and no amount of romantic longing is going to bring back to life the city of Shakespeare's memory.

To be sure some aspects of the old cityscape are still there - actually there - and Shakespeare could visit them but other aspects of the cityscape are not. Some - if not many – of its features are forgotten by the city's present day inhabitants; others remain alive only in the memory of some or are accessible, to a far lesser degree, by taking the time to visit the city's museums and by referring to old documents, maps, prints and paintings.

So with our inheritance of the city of Christianity. Much of it has simply been raised to the ground or to make way for new developments and also extended in new suburbs. Some old things are no longer there; many new things are. Many things about the old city remain only in the memory of some or are accessible after visiting it’s ‘museums’ - the Bible is major repository for these memories but there are also many ancient works of Christian spirituality which survive too. Some of Christianity’s early landmarks still stand and, for us, the Lord's Prayer is perhaps the pre-eminent example. It may be an oddity in the new language ‘city-scape’ of this church but only an insensitive ignoramus would consider knocking down such a rare and ancient-building without the most pressing of reasons.

But it is vital to remember that we don't inherit from the past such buildings/prayers utterly unchanged. How we actually USE this old building/prayer in our new city is going to be very different from the way it was used in the old. Think of how old ecclesiastical buildings sometimes become museums, art centres, mosques and temples, and cafes. Sometimes, although they remain religious buildings, they are inhabited by modern people living in modern contexts.

I could go on to nuance this much much more but I'm sure you have my basic point. We still live in this city of Christianity but it is a city radically different from that known by earlier generations and it is one that has always been in the process of change. Yet there must be something common to them all – after all without that sure London could not still be London, Christianity still be Christianity? To paraphrase W here (he was talking about games but I am inserting the many Londons and Christianities there have been over the centuries):

"Don't say 'There must be something common, or they would not all be called [London or Christianity] - but look and see whether there is anything in common to all. - For, if you look at them all [all the Londons and all the Christianities] you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! (PI 66 - his emphasis).”

I have a profound faith that there *IS* a meaningful similarity, a complex relationship, between earlier forms of Christianity and what I am trying to articulate here. I think it is the 'same' city - or rather a similar city.

My job, as a contemporary minister of the Gospel - is to have faith in the similarity between the solutions to the problem of life Jesus and his earliest followers proposed and the ones we must articulate now in the early twenty-first century. I believe there is a continuity with the past but NOT an identity. The two (and the many forms in between - it's a continuum) will necessarily share some similarities, stories, words, names and landmarks but they will be similarities in always radically changing contexts. The twenty-first century AD is not the first-century AD.

Following Wittgenstein's advice to look at what is the case - rather than thinking in abstract philosophical terms -(and actually Jesus' too – think of those lilies and birds) I feel confident enough to say that I don’t think there is any such thing as the unchanging essence of Christianity that can be taught to anyone (as someone like Von Harnack thought). All there is is learning yourself, as did Jesus, to trust that, by relating directly as individuals to that mystery which underwrites the possibility of similarity across constant infinite change and which we call God, we can have life and have it abundantly in our own times and places. To be a Christian in this sense is not to hold a fixed theory about life but a creative way of being fully in this world, alert and sensitive our own needs and contexts, and compassionate about others, and also to the well-being of the whole of creation. [This stuff relates to some earlier thoughts I have offered you on the subject of following a model. You can find one example here.]

I'm seeking to follow Jesus' advice to be like the "scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (Matthew 13:52) and to constantly remind you (and myself) that "no one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made and that neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved" (Matthew 9:16-17).

In short, I'm simply trying to help us all, as individuals, answer the problem of life in our own life in this present language city (and the contemporary city of Cambridge) now, with all its streets and buildings (old and new), with its suburbs of science, other religions, contemporary art, music, literature, dance and film, with its own conflicts, doubts and great achievements.

That's all I'm trying to do. Whether I'm doing it well or with any success is, of course, an entirely different question . . .

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Honey on the rim of the cup

It is important to note that I wrote this against the backdrop of the very real possibility of a global flu pandemic. Although, thankfully, it now looks as if the strain concerned is fairly mild and not as virulent as was first thought, we are not out of the woods yet - and, even if we are, a catastrophic pandemic will always remain a real threat. Contemplating the results of such an event raised the truly difficult question in my mind of what I could honestly say to myself, and in public, as a minister of religion in the event of many hundreds of thousands - possibly millions - of deaths globally. What I say here is just some of my thinking through this question - don't take it as definitve. If the reflections here are helpful, great. If not . . . well, so be it.


We inherit our language about God from Jesus and, therefore, from the complex of Christian traditions which followed out of which my own church tradition was, of course, born. It is a language which suggests to us that God should be considered as a person and that this person relates to this world like a loving Father relates to his rather wayward offspring. Importantly, this language suggests to us that our world should be understood as being central to God's creation and concerns.

But one of the many things that has indelibly marked our own time and context is our discovery of the vastness of the universe and the fact that the human species and our planet is not, in any way, central. What we have discovered suggests, increasingly strongly, - and, for me, decisively - that the universe was not created for our benefit and that, in the words of J. H. Holmes, although the universe cannot be considered hostile neither can it be considered friendly; in truth it seems "simply indifferent." Although this is in some ways a very modern world-view in truth it is really a re-discovery because Epicurus posited just such a view in the third century BC - a view offered to us again three centuries later in the sublime and beautiful verse of Lucretius in his De Rerum Natura - "On the Nature of Things."

For many people this world-view has been dreadfully hard to assimilate and has made and continues to make them profoundly unhappy and the two questions which rear their still deeply disturbing heads here are, where then is the meaning of life and what about the nature and even existence of God? For those of us who value many of the insights of religion and religious language, a huge tension is set up; our hearts may yearn to say "Yes!" to some personified conception of God but the world, and our contemporary way of talking about the world, seems to say "No!" to such an idea.

I'm increasingly concerned that if we don't take time carefully to address this matter and better integrate our language of science, spirituality and religion then we risk encouraging a growing disorder in our consciousness which allows our lives to be dominated by what the contemporary psychologist Mihaly Cikszentmihalyi calls 'psychic entropy.' Such a state is not a good place from which deal with everyday difficulties let alone respond to a catastrophic event such as a pandemic.

So is there a way by which we might integrate personified language about God with our contemporary impersonal language about Nature? Well, it seems to me that today this can only occur if our language about God can be generated meaningfully and coherently from a conscious and mindful meditation upon the natural world.

If we are prepared to entertain the idea that the word "God" might for us - most coherently be applied to the whole universe (that mysterious active totality in which we participate and commingle) then, although the universe cannot be considered to be itself a person, in the emergence of consciousness we see that personality emerges within it, in the emergence of countless species of animals we observe, for example, that mothering and fathering emerge within it too. Consequently, we may go on to suggest that this allows us to say that the whole should be not be considered as less than the personal nor less than mother or father and, that we CAN say something about God - or better the Divine - through the language of personality, creaturely mothering and fathering. Therefore, at times, it seems to me not only possible, but also coherent and useful to use the language of personification.

However, as we use these personifications I think we need always to be acutely alert - privately and publicly - to that fact that God/Nature and the universe is infinitely more than our human categories of personhood, mothering and fathering can contain and that it often unfolds in ways that will always be described, from our necessarily limited and parochial viewpoint as utterly impersonal, un-motherly and un-fatherly. Flu bugs are a good example - as they flourish many millions of us can be struck down. But, unhumanise (Robinson Jeffers) your perspective for a moment (and to unhumanise is not to dehumanise) and one can easily imagine, could flu bugs think and reflect upon the world as we do, that they would be very grateful to a God who appeared to them fatherly in providing them with daily bread, namely you and me!

The flu bug is,then, not to be hated and judged evil (though we would be wise to avoid it if we can) but also understood as a kind of son or daughter of God – of Nature. It, too, has its place. What is true of the flu bug is true of all the other threats to continued human existence that the universe throws our way - whether in the form of earthquakes, volcanoes, asteroids, exploding stars or mosquitoes. It is true, too, of all those things which we perceive to be gifts – flowers, music, blue skies and calm seas.

So, when we personify the Divine, we would be wise to heed Lucretius here - "Let the poets call the earth whatever they like, the Mother of Gods, even, so long as they don't believe it or expect their hearers and readers to take what they say to heart" (David Slavitt p. 74 translating De Rerum Natura Bk II 658-660).

But, when we are alert to the danger and limitations of ascribing personality to the Divine, then we are truly freed to explore the encouraging, connecting and educational uses such language gives us and to do it in a way that doesn't run counter to our knowledge gained via the natural sciences. Lucretius didn't abandon his naturalistic view of the world when he saw there was a real usefulness in personifying the active, creative aspect of the Nature as Venus. But, as he did this, he also saw this needed to be balanced by personifying the destructive side of Nature as Mars.

"Make it happen that war interrupts its savage work on land and sea, for this [Venus] would be within your power and you can bring to mortals that peace we long for as Mars, who is mighty in warfare and rules over bloody deeds, adores you, will lay his head in your lap, defenceless, utterly vanquished and altogether undone by love's unhealable wound. Gazing upward at you, his neck stretched back, his eyes feeding upon your beauty as, breathless with adoration, he listens while you let fall from those luscious lips your coaxing that for your sake, sweet lady, he allow the Romans peace . . ." (Bk I Slavitt p. 3).

We are not, or course, expected to believe literally what Lucretius says (he has made that clear) here but, unlike most authors, he doesn't hide from us his true intentions in using such poetic images of the gods and, from the outset, he explicitly shows us the USE to which he puts them – namely to restore us to true health by helping us "discover the world and how it is made, and come to a better understanding of the true nature of things":

"What I am writing about, after all, is of very high importance as I proceed to loosen the ligatures of religion. The subject is also demanding of the clarity only the Muses' grace can give - which doesn't seem, after all, out of place. Think of how doctors will give young patients bitter concoctions but first touching the rim of the cup with a drop of honey to try to beguile the lips and the tongue so that the child may drink down the nasty juice of the wormwood or whatever, deluded but not betrayed, for the motive is to do him good and restore him to health" (Bk I Slavitt p. 40).

Centuries before our own time Lucretius, following Epicurus, saw clearly that we are not the centre of the world and that any idea of God/the gods which suggested he/she/they looked after us in a special - fatherly or motherly - creaturely way was false. That is always going to be a bitter draft to drink. But they also recognised the real value of helping us to take this ultimately healthy draft by using the honey of language about the gods.

Lucretius encourages us to see the great power in imitating the gods/God in ways that help us bring happiness, not only to ourselves but to those around us. We could imitate the violent example of Mars – of that is no doubt (many have done and continue to do so) but Lucretius encourages us to commit to acting in the world Venus and shows how love's unhealable wound can bring peace to the world. We are shown a way of being in the world that is capable of redeeming it. Such a redeeming concept of love is, in a different and, alas, often obscured way, to be found in the person of Christ – our own central expression of God and the one I encourage us to imitate.

If something like the flu pandemic kicks off badly and many, many people die we, as individuals can face it, not with a vain hope that an external God will intervene and save us or by believing that this same God has benighted us because of our evils; neither need we face it with hate and fear, but simply by redeeming the situation through love's unhealable wound by serving, with love, in a Christ-like (or Venus-like) way those amongst us who are ill, or who have lost loved ones, and bringing to them a genuine hope for a resurrection of life, an ever new spring. But, as we prepare for the worst, let us not forget that such a redeeming, fathering and mothering love is as relevant in the good times as in the bad; there is always reason to incarnate God in our own lives of loving service.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Raid. Kills Bugs Dead.

A long standing claim is that Lew Welch (my favourite beat poet) wrote the well known advertising slogan "Raid. Kills Bugs Dead." Who knows, but in an idle moment of surfing I found that someone had posted the original 1956 TV advert. So, for no reason other than it offers an eccentric beat poetry footnote here it is. Enjoy - if enjoy is the right word!

I'll try again to get last Sunday's address up tomorrow while I write this coming Sunday's one . . .