Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Emperor's New Clothes - a short circuiting of the incarnation

Jesus said: 'Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.' 

Matthew 5:17–20


'A short circuit occurs when there is a faulty connection in the network - faulty, of course, from the standpoint of the networks smooth functioning. Is not the shock of short-circuiting, therefore, one of the best metaphors for a critical reading? Is not one of the most effective critical procedures to cross wires that do not usually touch: to take a major classic (text, author, notion) and read it in a short circuiting way, through the lens of a "minor" author, text or conceptual apparatus ("minor" should be understood here in Deluze's sense: not of "lesser quality", but marginalized, disavowed by the hegemonic ideology, or dealing with a "lower", less dignified topic)? If the "minor" reference is well chosen, such a procedure can lead to insights which completely shatter and undermine our common perceptions. This is what Marx, among others, did with philosophy and religion (short-circuiting philosophical speculation through the lens of political economy, that is to say, economic speculation); this is what Freud and Nietzsche did with morality (short-circuiting the highest ethical notions through the lens of the unconscious libidinal economy). What such a reading achieves in not a "desublimation", a reduction of the higher intellectual content to its lower economic or libidinal cause; the aim of such an approach is, rather, the inherent decentering of the interpreted text, which brings to light its "unthought", disavowed presuppositions and consequences. . . . the reader should not simply have learned something new, the point is, rather, to make him or her aware of another - disturbing - side of something he or she knew all the time.'

(Slavoj Žižek in The Monstrosity of Christ,  Slavoj Žižek and John Millbank, MIT 2009 pp. vii-viii)


Last week I noted how easy it was to remain committed to certain ways of thinking because they appear to offer us coherence - they help us make sense of the world and our place in it. Our various religious and philosophical traditions bequeath us a certain way of thinking in so  silent fashion that, for the most part we do not know about it. I'm not intimating the existence of same Dan Brownesque plot here - it is simply the case that we are born into already existing ways of thinking and talking about the world which do not contain - in obvious ways at least - ways of thinking and talking about a world view outside its own.

For most of us, for most of the time, we don't notice this inherited way of thinking and its power over us but when, for whatever reason, we come to believe we have see something different, something new, we quickly discover that there are no inherited terms or conceptions that can speak of it appropriately in the new way - we are forced to use old words to do something that appears radical, shocking and, from one point of view, plain wrong. Another way of putting it is to say that if we want to communicate this new insight to our culture we are forced to short-circuit words, ideas, conventions and concepts. Jesus and the early Christian tradition were experts at such short-circuiting and I'll return to this point at the end.

But first a closer look at Hans Christian Andersen's well-known fairy tale of 1837, "The Emperor's New Clothes", will help me explain what I mean better. I'm sure you all remember the basic story:

An emperor of a prosperous city who cares more about clothes than military pursuits or entertainment hires two swindlers who promise him the finest suit of clothes from the most beautiful cloth. This cloth, they tell him, is invisible to anyone who was either stupid or unfit for his position. The Emperor cannot see the (non-existent) cloth, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing stupid; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they dress him in mime. The Emperor then goes on a procession through the capital showing off his new "clothes". During the course of the procession, a small child cries out, "the emperor is naked!" The crowd realizes the child is telling the truth. The Emperor, however, holds his head high and continues the procession.

When I first heard this as a kid, although I remember laughing and being encouraged to learn the headline lesson - that human pride can stop us from saying things that might make us appear stupid or unenlightened - I also distinctly remember being utterly puzzled by the fact that everyone in the story was SO stupid and proud that they could not say from the outset to the swindlers, "Whoa, I'm sorry chaps but this suit is non-existent." Half the fun was and is, of course, knowing that you know - after all one can always laugh a little easier really knowing you are not stupid and unfit for the job. But this realisation only reinforced my need to question how come everyone in the story was SO stupid - everyone except that is, that one child.

I only slowly discovered that the reason for my question was that the story is told to us from this side, that is to say from the point of view of a world that has developed clear terms and concepts to proclaim (or sing with Danny Kaye) "The king is in the all-together"; to say that the suit of new clothes really does not exist. But for the story to work, really work, we must have an intuitive understanding - even if we don't often consciously realise this - that there are ways of seeing the world and talking about it that are so ingrained in a culture that most people within it simply CANNOT realize that they are perpetuating falsehoods. It is very important to realise - in Hans Christian Anderson's little universe of the story - that for most of the characters the Emperor was NOT naked - he really was wearing a really existent suit of clothes that they could not see because they were either too stupid or unfit for their positions.

It is worth entertaining the thought that even the swindlers may have still thought they were making a real suit of clothes that they, too, were too stupid or unfit to see. Not possible? Then just think of the many priests and ministers who go on honestly proclaiming a God - or an understanding of God - whom they can no longer perceive or believe in and who feel this is the case because they think they are too stupid (sinful) or unfit for their position.

Anyway, absurd though it may seem to us, for the characters in the story the thought that the suit really 'did not exist' was simply not available to them. The suit was for them a really existent suit but one invisible to those who were too stupid or unfit for their position.

What the child does - a "minor" character in both the popular sense of the word and Deluze's sense of being a voice marginalized and disavowed by the prevailing culture - what the child does is short circuit things so that the smooth running of the system is compromised. Here's is how Anderson ends his story:

'But he has nothing on at all,' said a little child at last. 'Good heavens! listen to the voice of an innocent child,' said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said. 'But he has nothing on at all,' cried at last the whole people. That made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; but he thought to himself, 'Now I must bear up to the end.' And the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the train which did not exist."

So, recall now Žižek's words, ' . . . the reader should not simply have learned something new, the point is, rather, to make him or her aware of another - disturbing - side of something he or she knew all the time.'

The "minor" character of the child in his or her short circuit of the whole system brings to light, not only something new - which is that the invisible suit of clothes really DOESN'T exist - but he or she makes us aware of another, disturbing, side of something we knew all the time which is, that the king is naked but we now understand he is naked in a different way to how we once thought. There is a difference between the word and idea 'naked' when it is used to point to your stupidity and ill-fittedness to you role and when it is being used to point to the Emperor's actual, empirically verifiable nakedness.

In the light of this new understanding of the word 'naked' we can then see another disturbing thing which is that many powerful people in our world will carry using words and concepts in the old way even when the old way of using them can be shown to be, at least doubtful, if not downright wrong. That's what makes the last sentence of the story so chilling for not only did the Emperor decide to carry on to the end but 'the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the train which did not exist.' Is not much of our religious thinking and acting really only carrying a train which does not exist? It's worth some thought.

Now as I noted at the outset, Jesus was a great short-circuitor himself as was the tradition that developed under his influence - early Christianity as we have it recorded in the New Testament and various other 'apocryphal' books. He used the language of his own faith, Judaism, as did those who followed him, to do very similar things as Anderson's child. He pointed to the law to help us to understand these same things in a different, short circuited way that did not abolish but, as he and his followers saw it, fulfilled it. The old law remained but Jesus and his followers made his contemporaries aware of another - disturbing - side of this law that they knew all the time.

As we have inherited it in the four and a half centuries old Socinian/Unitarian tradition what the short circuit revealed was that the transcendental, up-there, judgemental (if just) creator and law dispenser was, in truth walking with them, amongst or within them. Jesus was to them a tangible expression of God - the word made flesh. That was the shocking, short circuit being made - that God was made man and, by extension fully part of creation and so part of us.

But as Christianity institionalised and became the religion of Empire, it quickly rowed back on the full implications of Jesus' short circuit and it stopped things dead by claiming that this incarnation was uniquely experienced in Jesus alone and then, instead of empowering the people with a sense of their innate divinity, set up systems to mediate and dispense the power such a thought brought through themselves alone.

But this deeper revolutionary seed of Jesus' short circuit was irreparably sown in the New Testament texts - the simple idea that God is best understood not to be definitively distant and an object solely of rational knowledge but to have emptied 'himself' fully into creation and so known only through lived lives. Unitarians were amongst those who continued to see the full implications of this and one of the great Unitarian theologians of the late nineteenth century James Martineau summed it up succinctly for us:

'The incarnation of Christ is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there, and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine' (cited in J. E. Carpenter James Martineau, Philip Green, London 1905, p. 404).

What I find very interesting is that this idea - of God's full incarnational implication in the world - is today in various ways being recaptured and run with very effectively by some of the most exciting and provocative modern philosophical and political thinkers on the left. It is a tragedy, therefore, that so many modern Unitarians have, in abandoning the language of Christianity, also abandoned one of the greatest contemptory tools by which they might contribute to the re-empowering all people of goodwill to struggle with genuine hope against oppression and injustice. This is especially so in an age which has made a decisive turn back to the religious.

I think that as religious liberals we can recapture the central claim of Christianity "that God became man" if we can also summon the courage to short circuit the way it has been appropriated by institutionalised Christianity.

But remember, just as the Anderson's child showed us two ways to understanding the word 'naked' (one being used to say 'I'm stupid and unworthy' and the other being used as an expression of the power of empirically driven thought to help us to a clearer understanding of the world) when I suggest we might do well to reconsider the scandalous language of the incarnation and of Christian language in general I mean this in a radically short-circuited way - a way that does not leave us feeling stupid and unworthy but rather freely empowered to commingle fully in our world as true sons and daughters of God doing justice loving kindness and walking side by side, hand in hand with God who is nothing less than our neighbour.

(In the conversation immediately following the giving of this address I was asked a question about what was the new thing I hoped to bring into the present situation given through such a short circuit of the idea of the  incarnation since it has been so thoroughly appropriated by orthodox theistic Christianity - rather than the Heglianesque/atheistic reading Zizek (and in fact I) might wish give it. In short my reply centred on how it might help modern liberals to overcome the vast skeptical distance that exists between their theories about the world and their actual being in it. I'll expand on this another time otherwise this will never get posted.) 



Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The FULL circuit of object, image, action at every point of our lives

In his 1951 essay called the 'Human Universe' the North American poet and critic Charles Olson made some insightful comments that are, I think, worth bringing to your attention as we try to figure out what we, as a church standing in the liberal Christian tradition, can be saying and doing in the contemporary world.

What follows are just my notes - I ran out of time to put them into an easy and readable form so they're in a God awful mess! But, well sometimes, you just have to wing it with what you've got and, if you're lucky, you get just enough height to miss the surrounding mountains and land on the other side. If you're unlucky . . . well you decide.


Olson thought that the "human universe is as discoverable as that other, and as definable." By the 'other' he means, of course, the universe at it is discovered and known by the various natural sciences.

But, in doing this, Olson is not putting forward another version of the old, and by now fatally flawed liberal project of constructing a quasi-scientific religious language that was thought to be able neutrally and universally to describe a world of 'spiritual facts' or 'essences'. Instead, what he hoped to re-discover was a 'way' of being in the world that can help human beings be more fully present in the world and, therefore, to attain the fullest flourishing possible. To have, as Jesus promised, life and to have it abundantly (John 10:10).

But the problem in discovering this modus operandi and making it a concrete practice is that when we come to look at the world and our place in it 'the definition is as much a part of the act as is sensation itself'. Olson noted that, in this sense,

'life is preoccupation with itself, that conjecture about it is as much of it as its coming at us, its going on. In other words, we are ourselves both the instrument of discovery and the instrument of definition.'

We must add to this difficulty (that we are implicated fully in the world) the allied one that we can only share the discovery and definition of this through language, and language, as we have been exploring over the last year, is as liable to mislead us as it is to bring us any genuine clarity. It can trap us like flies in a fly bottle.

The problem is, of course, that we in the West have consistently made the mistake of thinking language can actually describe an objective world 'out-there'. On the back of this, as a species we have gone on to develop many metaphysical systems which, in ordering the apparently available facts have given apparent coherence to the whole and, therefore, have offered us a variety of ways by which we can come to feel our own human coherence.

Now we desire coherence because, as we all know, the human-condition is such that so much of life often seems quite the opposite namely chaotic and incoherent and I'm sure I don't need to list all the fears and worries each of us has with regard to the meaning of life and our own place within the world. We desperately want truly to know how we belong to the world and what to do in it. Another way of putting it is to say we desire to know first hand an ultimate home - which is a 'place' of coherence.

Now this is what anyone comes to any church or religious body wants to discover and I take the task of helping you reach such a 'place' (home) with absolute seriousness. Because I don't want to defraud you with cheap illusions it is why I'm sometimes so hard to follow. It is also why, under the heading 'opportunity for conversation'  in the order the order of service in this church you will see the words that 'We affirm but one orthodoxy: a love of truth that is a sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it.' I cannot tell you how important that statement is for the community I hope we are building and I urge you to commit it to memory.

Anyway, given this need for coherence we are all too easily persuaded (quite understandably) into adopting one kind of metaphysical system or another - the one that seems to us the most 'reasonable', 'true' or, at least, 'the least unlikely'. One person chooses (or keeps to an inherited) Christian metaphysic, another a Buddhist, a Muslim, an Hegelian, a Spinozean, etc., etc..

And it is true that these systems do offer their adherents a feeling of coherence. As Olson notes, we are often so 'astonished' that we 'can triumph over [our] own incoherence' through these systems that we stick with our chosen solution through thick and thin and we 'go at a day again happy' we at least make 'a little sense'.

Very few of us are prepared to examine very closely our chosen solutions because, to some degree or another, they do make us happy, they do make us make sense to ourselves. Why would we want to ditch them? Well surely - if we are truly committed to the one orthodoxy of this church then if we come for one reason or another to be sure that our coherence is built on sand and not upon rock surely, surely, we would want to revise our thinking?

It seems to me that Wittgenstein's therapeutic non-metaphysical philosophy does just this because it shows that the way we mostly USE our philosophical and religious language is fatally flawed.

Another way of putting it is that the compass we have been using for centuries to direct our spiritual hopes and exploration and engagement with the world has been shown to be faulty. Over the past year I have been, with varying degrees of success, gently trying to show this. It's a disturbing discovery I'll admit.

I realise that some of you do not agree with me on this point but, given that I'm charged by you to be your minister and lead you safely into a genuine 'home-land' my job is to say to you absolutely clearly I think the liberal religious compass is broken and, given that I'm genuinely interested in actually getting to where we want to go and not go on pretending we know where we are and what we are doing I can do nothing other than say, 'Whoa, let's stop. Guys, sorry to tell you this but, collectively speaking, religious liberals are mostly lost.'

Now some people will interpret this admission as despair but really such an admission is not at all desperate. In truth it is entirely sensible and rational to state it. The compass is broken; we're lost; let's stop and see if we can fix it (cf. Philosophy and Real Politics, R. Geuss, p. 8).

(NB. Pretty much all my work over the last year has been trying to land, as gently as possible, this unpleasant 'punch'. Only when as a community we can really see how language can't do what we thought it could do can we hope to get it to do what it actually can.) 

However, what I find hugely comforting (and true) about Olson's words is, not only do they make it clear that he felt likewise - albeit not in an obviously religious context - but also that he thought we could fix the compass and he, like Wittgenstein, thought we had a chance of doing this by examining, firstly, 'the present condition of the language'. That is why I will continue to encourage us to look very, very closely at how we use our language.

But in the process of fixing of the compass - if I'm not being too previous in claiming that the compass I'm now using is at least working better than it was, we quickly discover another problem. This is that we come to see that all the religious words we once used to help guide us to our destination no longer contain the information we once thought they did; words like, 'God', 'the kingdom of Heaven', 'salvation', 'union', 'redemption', 'goodness', 'truth', 'beauty' etc. etc. need to be recalibrated with the readings of the repaired compass.

So how do we ensure that we can do that recalibration and figure out what direction we need to head?

Well, for me this is where Olson's genius is revealed - in offering a possible way of recalibrating those words. Olson points - somewhat sloppily it is to be admitted - to Heisenberg's discovery that when it came to certain pairs of physical properties - such as position and momentum - so, the more precisely one of them is known, the less precisely we know the other. Olson thinks that something similar is the case in the human universe when we try to measure human life; when we try to precisely measure only one aspect of human life other aspects become imprecisely known. The similarity between a particle's wholeness and human wholeness is that they are both moving, journeying things commingling with everything around them. So Olson says "There is only one thing you can do about kinetic, re-enact it." [The kinetic energy of an object is the extra energy which it possesses due to its motion.] He continues:

'Which is why the man said, he who possesses rhythm possesses the universe. And why art is the only twin life has - its only valid metaphysic. Art does not seek to describe but to enact. And if man is  once more to possess intent in his life, he has to comprehend his own process as intact, from outside, by way of his skin, in, and by his own powers of conversion, out again.'

The repaired/recalibrated compass points 'in' to this world - not out of it. The words we use don't separate us from the world but are ways of deepening our involvement - commingling with - the world.

Olson is careful in his own poetry to show us what he means by this - show us because it is really impossible to say this (and why this post is a bloody awful mess) - the bewitching power of language is so great.

So let's take a poet. In Olson's mind (and mine) a true poet does not describe the world but only commingles with it, takes it in through her senses and, by her own powers of conversion creates a poem and the poem then 'made' is not precisely an independent thing capable by analysis of being understood fully but only a property of the poet's enacted life. Remember Olson's point about Heisenberg - to measure or analyse the poem as an independent thing is not to get to the heart of the matter. Merely to measure one of its properties is to blur other properties - we don't understand the whole that includes the poet and the poem, the subject and the object.

So true poets don't seek to describe the world instead they are people who can show us how to be fully at home in the world - they contribute to the restoration of the human house. Their life is commingled with the world so that object, image and action are in their lives not pulled apart.

We may say similar things too about other kinds of artists and their work and we may also say it about the great spiritual leaders. The work they produce is never really an independent thing attempting to describe an external world - no matter what it may look like - no their work is only an enaction of life itself - kinetic. As Olson suggests - there is only one thing you can do about kinetic, re-enact it. And here we are back at a point I have made a number of time with relation to our own church's basic spiritual discipline. In our case the kinetic is glimpsed in the life of Jesus. We can only share the fruits of such an abundant life by re-enacting it. We don't in doing this become carbon copies of Jesus - but simply more fully ourselves.

Now that's the terribly difficult trick we have to perform as religious liberals - to reconnect as artists the FULL circuit of object, image, action at every point of our lives.

So everybody clear about that???!!!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Words and Transgressions 5 - Fallacy of the Pickwickian Senses

Jesus said: Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn. But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply Yes or No; anything more than this comes from evil (Matthew 5:33-37).

I left you a couple of months ago having explored four of five fallacies of language that the psychiatrist, and former student and friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein Maurice O'Connor Drury identified in his essay "Words and Transgressions." Today, to complete that series, we'll consider the fifth which he calls the fallacy of the 'Pickwickian senses'.

We'll begin to address this by noting that in our reading we heard Jesus encouraging us to say what we mean and to do this in as simple, clear and honest a way as possible. But it is all too easy to assume that this means one can achieve clarity using words that are, at all times, absolutely clear, unambiguous and unchanging in their meaning. But all of us know that all our words are embedded in a complex nexus of contexts and so even an apparently simple 'yes' can in certain circumstances really mean no and a 'no' yes and, of course, all shades in between. If this is the case with the apparently simple and apparently unequivocal words 'yes' and 'no' when it comes to many of the words more obviously associated with religion then the scale of the problem we face becomes evident - indeed lack of clarity seems endemic. Why? Well because within any cultural tradition enormous amounts of freight is carried by our words; some of those elements we find valuable and helpful and others unpleasant and problematic.

One long held liberal dream was to be able to develop a religious language in which the words used clearly and unambiguously meant what they said - a sort of pseudo-scientific religious language. For those interested this points back to the first of Drury's fallacies, that of the fallacy of the Alchemists. But, as we saw then, religious language doesn't work like that and its meaning and clarity - and therefore real bite and traction on the world - is available only to those who take the time to understand HOW religious language is USED to speak, not only to the faithful, but to the wider world.

To speak meaningfully to a particular gathered religious community and to have a hope in hell's chance of communicating that community's insights and hopes with the wider world the words they use must have REAL currency internally and externally. There has to exist some kind of real 'exchange rate'. It is in negotiating the differences in meaning between internal and external use of words that we can talk meaningfully with each other across our human divisions.

Now, at this point I can turn directly to what Drury called the Pickwickian fallacy. He derives the name from the first chapter of Dickins' novel 'The Pickwick Papers':

The name was taken from a famous scene which took place one evening at the Pickwick Club. Mr Blotton had the temerity to call Mr Pickwick a humbug. This was the occasion for some heated words between various members, and order was only restored to the meeting when the chairman suggested to Mr Blotton that he had only used the term 'humbug' in a purely Pickwickian sense, and not with its usual connotation. Mr Blotton agreed that he had the highest regard for the honourable member Mr Pickwick and only described him as humbug in a purely Pickwickian sense. After this explanation Mr Pickwick said he was completely satisfied with his friend's explanation and that he had used certain terms of abuse during the incident in a purely Pickwickian sense also. Peace was restored once more to the meeting (Drury p. 19)

This is, of course, presented to us as a comic incident and it is intended to make us laugh. On the surface it is a story which lampoons the obsessive desire of the English when in their clubs and in social situations generally try to avoid saying anything which might be taken as impolite. As every non-English person knows this can make the English (and I can say this because I am English) painfully difficult to deal with - they never seems to say what they mean. However, what makes Dicken's description work and, therefore, funny, is the important truth that context and knowledge of that context is vital to any understanding of what anyone is trying to say when they use certain words and not others.

The fact is that the most useful and powerful words - by which I mean those that really have the power to speak to and change both ourselves and our wider culture - are those which have both Pickwickian senses and broader, general and a more diffuse nexus of popular meanings. The interplay between these various meanings is precisely what can help us clarify what we and others are really trying to say. As I have just noted when you loose one sense or the other the ability to communicate in the most widely effective sense is lost.

But amongst many liberal religionists there remains the very real temptation to avoid the constant hard and disciplined work that is required to untangle and clarify the religious words they use by short circuiting the whole process and one way of doing this is to invent new and supposedly baggage free terms to stand for what it is they are saying. But when you try to create these new baggage-free words something truly bizarre and distancing emerges. What I'm about to tell you really did happen in a liberal church meeting I attended a few years ago.

It was claimed that one of the things that put people off from coming to our churches was the word 'worship'. The claim was that, although they knew, in a Pickwickian sense, what they meant by the word worship, non-members didn't. The person speaking claimed that what was needed was a new word which avoided this and, to this end, they suggested putting on their noticeboards, not that they met for 'worship' at time 'n', but that they met for "Metak". My jaw hit the floor and I expressed my utter disbelief only quickly to discover this was no joke. We were informed, as I recall, that the word was a combination of meta (meaning above) and the letter 'k' referring to, I think, knowledge. The proposer of this scheme thought that this, in a dash, would make the aims of their liberal church clearer and baggage free to those whom they hoped to address.

But, of course, this is nonsense for although the new word 'Metak' clearly had no cultural baggage, for precisely the same reason it also had no bite or traction on people in the wider world. From outside the community a person could only look at the word 'Metak' on their noticeboard and ask themselves whether this group of people meant by 'Metak' something like worship? Standing in front of their noticeboard one would have only been able to stare at this culturally empty word that for you lifted nothing - except perhaps, as it did for me, one's heart-rate and blood-pressure!

This church tradition still describes itself as 'Christian' precisely because it is a word that can legitimately and creatively be used in both Pickwickian and popular senses. It is a word that lets anyone who comes into this church community quickly get a basic meaningful and secure handle on what we are basically trying to do - namely to encourage us to follow Jesus' example in our living our lives through the love of God and neighbour (and I'm going to come back to the word God in a moment). In doing this we affirm that Christian language can still help us to articulate genuine human hope, to encourage in us a continued revolution against oppressive status quos, and still help us articulate the belief that humanity can do a lot better than we are at present doing and that we can all become better and more just people. Those basic aims are, we hope, encouraged amongst ourselves and as we go out into the world as individuals or representatives of this liberal Christian community we then dialogue with and SHOW to the wider world what we think being a liberal Christian means. It means we can be liberal in a disciplined strong and coherent fashion.

Now, one of the most important Pickwickian senses in which, as the minister of this church, I use the word 'Christian' is that I don't think it is at all necessary to tie the practical spiritual discipline of following Jesus' human example to a particular theistic/metaphysical belief. Although many people who attend this church can, and do, combine this practical spiritual discipline with a belief in a traditional theistic conception of God, many of us don't and so we also count amongst our number more than a few agnostics and atheists. You see it is not just the word 'Christian' that can fruitfully and legitimately explored in Pickwickian and popular contexts but also the word 'God'. In the coming months I'll try to show why it is perfectly consistent for both theists and atheists to commit to a kind of practical Christianity. Now this is a particularly important to do because one of the most dangerous fault lines in contemporary Western culture is to be found between the liberal atheists, agnostics and liberal religionists who, if they could start working together creatively, could make a truly effective stand against militant religion and also militant atheism.

I think that a religious community like this could contribute in no small way to the creative healing of this fracture and go on to create the kind of secular, religionless Christianity that Dietrich Bonhoeffer tantalising glimpsed in a Nazi jail in 1945. As I say this remember 'religionless' does not mean proceeding without meaningful spiritual practices - it simply means a spirituality that doesn't need wildly top-heavy church superstructures and hierarchies to impose its will upon all and sundry.

So - in this very Pickwickian way - may we in the coming continue to encourage in each other the desire to strengthen our liberal Christian witness so as to develop genuine courage and strength which, in turn can help us challenge the many illiberal and unjust forces that continue to stalk our society.