Sunday, 25 October 2009

The liberal sin of omission par excellence

A prolegomena 

I apologise but this will be a longish post because I need to preface Sunday's address - posted below - with something that came out of the conversation that follows immediately after I have given it and, then, in the hall over coffee and tea.

It was pointed out to me (correctly I think) that the reason right wing ideas (particularly as expressed by Nick Griffin and the British National Party - the BNP) seem to be gaining a foothold in the UK is because of the huge imbalance that now exists between the very powerful rich and the increasingly powerless poor. It's a growing group of people and one that, in the face of a lack of moral conviction and leadership from New Labour and the other mainstream parties, is inevitably leading people to consider the 'merits' of a group like the BNP.

The dreadful spectacle of someone like Fred Goodwin walking away from the mess that was RBS with a pension of £342,500pa (reduced from an initial £555,000pa) and an estimated £2.7m tax-free lump sum whilst regular workers are loosing their pensions to left and right and experiencing, if not pay freezes, then actual reductions in their wages, stuns one to silence and then begins to make one's blood boil. The continuing fact that those in financial industries (now supported by billions and billions of pounds of public money) are still claiming huge bonuses while the rest of the public continue to be squeezed financially in all kinds of ways beggars belief.

Am I angry - you bet your life.

But there is a problem. How do you get the (still) moderately comfortable middle classes to understand that there MUST be a radical shake up in our tax system to start re-balancing this situation whilst at the same time realising that this rebalancing is necessarily going to hit the pockets of many of them personally and that they have to take that hit? Very few are able to realise this must happen if we are going to secure the well-being of us all. So it should come as no surprise to see that most middle class folk prefer simply to hunker down and do nothing because they are not too badly affected at present and, anyway, maybe the bad times will eventually just pass away and we'll be back to 'normal' (a 'normal' which was about as abnormal and dysfunctional as you can imagine, but that's another story . . .). And so, in the meantime, the right slowly build their support amongst the disaffected, they win a seat here and there on a local council, they win a seat or two at the European elections, then they appear on television, then . . .. All the while the comfortable middle classes still do nothing, still hoping it will all pass.

My critical interlocutor - completely fairly - noted that THIS financial disparity between the rich and the poor is a major cause of the current mess we are in. It has to be dealt with. The criticism was that, in what follows, I was addressing a symptom rather than a cause. I partly agree but I also partly disagree because I am beginning to think that a tipping point has been reached and I still do not see the mainstream political parties acting on this need for fiscal and financial fairness in our society - the truth is that they are still in the pockets of the super-wealthy and are continuing to find ways to keep them that way whilst, at the same time, they are now looking to make cuts in the public sector, in both direct funding and wages.

If I am right and the mainstream political classes of this country are not going to act effectively on this matter then we can be assured that right-wing rhetoric will continue to persuade people to give its 'solutions' a go. Once those solutions start to gain ground and are begun to be implemented (even in minor ways) the people involved in them are no longer amenable to rational argument and those of us who want to challenge them cannot afford to think that our liberal rational counter arguments are going to be sufficient unto the day - the truth is that powerful cultural and socio-political forces will have come into play that can sweep unchecked across a society like a tsunami.

My address below - pessimistically - is predicated on thinking that we have in fact just inched into the arena of unreason - an arena liberals have traditionally failed to act well in. If we have moved into this realm then God help us. If we haven't, then maybe my 'false alarm' will at least have the practical consequence of giving those who read it an unpleasant foretaste of what might still happen if they don't get off their backsides and into the public sphere as activists committed to justice and fairness and the importance of genuine, reasoned public debate.

So, this is what I actually said on Sunday from the pulpit . . .


The liberal sin of omission par excellence

Early in the morning [Jesus] came again to the temple; all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?" This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again." 
(John 8:2-11)


In this story, a free-floating fragment traditionally placed in the gospel of John at chapter 8, we see an outcome arrived through the collective use of reason. A group of people are gathered together all of whom in general terms value the 'Jewish law'. Importantly this could easily include 'the woman taken in the act of adultery' herself. Despite this common enabling stance, there are on display different interpretations of how this law should best be enacted. On the one hand, there is a view that it should be read at a rather literalistic level and that the woman should be stoned. On the other, we see a more wholistic approach which brings one part of the law to come into dialogue with another in order to allow what Jesus thinks is the combined overall weight of the law's intention to come into play - namely forgiveness.

As we look at the story we must not miss the fact that the 'scribes and Pharisees' desire to test Jesus but, again importantly, the test relates to how well and (therefore) how reasonably Jesus can interpret that same law. The test is not merely ad hoc and arbitrary and so, once again, we may note that the broad features (rules) of the game are agreed upon by the protagonists in this story. Jesus' human reasoning is what wins the day NOT Jesus' personality or presumed divine status.

Turning to the woman - it may be that she held a rather literalistic view of the law and so was doubly surprised by the outcome - a surprise which helped deepen her own desire to sin again no more. It may be that she believed, along with Jesus, that the law should not be followed literally and her desire not to sin again was simply deepened by the hope that Jesus could bring to the fore a more compassionate way of being Jewish than that showed by the scribes and Pharisees; she encountered a way of being Jewish that she could affirm. Of course, she may not have given a damn either way and gone off chuckling at the foolishness of the whole event. We don't know but that  doesn't matter for here we are not concerned with who is 'objectively' right or wrong - apart from the fact that I'm not sure this is an achievable aim, and anyway we simply don't have enough information about the proximate causes of this event; instead I simply wish to reiterate that we DO know that the proximate causes of this event were brought together within a group of people committed to working through the matter reasonably.

Also, unusually, we see a process illustrated that is vitally important to any reasoned debate, namely, thinking. In one of the most touching and human moments in the whole of the gospels we see him pause twice, once to give himself a chance to reflect on the matter in hand, once to allow his interlocutors to do likewise.

Now none of this means that any one of the protagonists cannot choose to kick over this particular board game and go rogue and start playing another game. In fact, because we know how the gospel story proceeds we can see that this is precisely what happens. In the gospel of John the dialogue about Barabbas is very long so I choose here to offer you the story as we have it in the gospel according to Luke:


Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him; neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him; I will therefore chastise him and release him." But they all cried out together, "Away with this man, and release to us Barab'bas" a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city, and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus; but they shouted out, "Crucify, crucify him!" A third time he said to them, "Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no crime deserving death; I will therefore chastise him and release him." But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 
(Luke 23:13-22)

Here we see an outcome arrived at through a process that does not rely so much upon the use of reason. Even so reason has its place and we see it displayed by Pilate in his interrogation of Jesus. This time two games are clearly in play, namely Jewish and Roman law. We don't see fully worked through arguments but Pilate finds Jesus not guilty under both laws and his reasoned arguments leads him to the reasonable conclusion: "Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him; I will therefore chastise him and release him."

But as this story unfolds here there is no space given for reflection upon the arguments and the story's frenetic pace at this point is driven by a previously decided outcome expressed immediately by the crowd who cry "Crucify him!". Pilate continues (it seems) to apply reason but fails again and, as we know, the loud cries that Jesus should be crucified eventually prevailed. Reason no longer has anything like the upper hand.

If the Pilate of the story can be accused of anything it is of simply failing to see that the game had changed from a genuine process of legal reasoning to a head to head fight in which the loudest/most powerful physical position is going to win. However, it is not at all clear that Pilate did not see this was the case. Pilate may have also decided - along with the protagonists in the crowd - that Jesus needed to be executed and that decision may have been arrived at reasonably - i.e. it could reasonably be claimed that if Jesus was not executed then an uprising of some sort would ensue. If this were the case then Pilate's continued use of legal reasoning is merely a rhetorical device to allow him to claim a certain kind of innocence. The point being that although in this particular story there is a veneer of reason its use IN THIS SITUATION is clearly futile and redundant. The mob and the previously made political decision to execute Jesus has definitively trumped the further use of reason.

Now why am I rehearsing these two stories with you? Well, because this week we saw the extremely unpleasant spectacle of seeing a British fascist given prime-time TV space on the argument that his ideas must be brought into reasoned debate within mainstream politics and culture.

I would, perhaps (but only perhaps) - I would, perhaps, think this might be a good idea if our current mainstream political culture were strong and functioning well, i.e. reasonably. But this is highly questionable at the moment. We can all see that the levels of spin and straightforward misinformation are very high and many of us have begun to distrust our political culture. I'll spare you my own list at this point . . .

Now, into this already rather dysfunctional mêlée we at great risk are starting to invite smart operators like the BNP into the mainstream - smart, that is, only with regard to their proven ability to tap into the increasingly powerful forces of unreason and frustration that are present in our contemporary society. (Also, that the programme was clearly structured to be a ganging up on Nick Griffen played into Griffin's hands and revealed to me that we are have entered an arena of unreason.)

But, because we have been taught to value so highly rational thought, we can easily be duped into thinking it always works in all situations and that our public debates will always proceed a la the woman caught in the act of adultery. But that thought is itself unreasonable. History reveals only too clearly that there have been many moments that resemble Pilate's attempt at placating the mob.

I am extremely concerned that we on the liberal, centre and left end of the political spectrum don't suddenly find ourselves in the position of Pilate who might genuinely, but utterly misguidedly, continue to try to apply reason in the face of an unreasonable and violent ideology and then, when he inevitably looses the argument, decides that his naive and politically stupid avoidance of the real issue at hand allows him, at least in Matthew's account, to wash his hands and claim "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves" (Matthew 27:24).

There are times when even we have to stop relying 100% on reasoned debate and, on the basis of defending the long term future of the public use of reason, we have to intervene to stop something. Fascism is utterly unreasonable and it can only lead to violence for violence is built into it in a high level way that is not the case with almost every other political viewpoint - and it must be stopped.

I'm going to conclude with a call to arms but, before I do that, I'm going to preface it with one comment. As modern liberals we are aware that we cannot ever know absolutely that our analysis of the situation is correct - whether my fears are justified or merely delusional (I refer you back to my little prolegomena) but it is worth remembering that sometimes it is permissible (even rational) at times to act 'as if it were true'. Now I recommend we must act as if what I am about to say is true because if we do nothing by the time we do find out for sure it will be too late.

So, make no mistake if we do not begin to take a clear public stand against Griffin and the BNP then be assured there will be violence and death and in its wake we will not be entitled to wash our hands and claim innocence. So let us, like the woman taken in adultery, leave here passionately committed to sinning no more - not sins of commission (such as adultery) but the sin most often committed by liberals - the chief sin of omission, namely that of failing to act early enough. The brutalities in Europe during the twentieth-century bears witness enough to the truth of this.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Think Global, Act Local - another look

While [Jesus] was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy; and when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and besought him, 'Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.' And he stretched out his hand, and touched him, saying, 'I will; be clean.' And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one; but 'go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.' (Luke 5:12-14)


The phrase, "Think Global, Act Local", has been attributed to Sir Patrick Geddes (October 2, 1854 - 1932). Geddes was a Scottish biologist who was also known for some innovative work in both urban planning and education. Although the exact phrase never appears in his works in his 1915 book, "Cities in Evolution," we find the following:

'Local character' is thus no mere accidental old-world quaintness, as its mimics think and say. It is attained only in course of adequate grasp and treatment of the whole environment, and in active sympathy with the essential and characteristic life of the place concerned. Each place has a true personality; and with this shows some unique elements - a personality too much asleep it may be, but which it is the task of a planner, as master artist to awaken. And only he can do this who is in love and at home with his subject - truly in love and fully at home - the love in which high intuition supplements knowledge, and arouses his own fullest intensity of expression (p. 397).  

Since then, of course, this phrase has gone on to become a well-known slogan amongst environmentalists. But it has also become a slogan amongst those who would describe themselves as being 'liberal' in their spirituality. I deliberately use the word spirituality because it has come to signal their dislike of traditional forms of religion. But I think the slogan, fully thought through, actually undermines some of the key assumptions of certain kinds of liberal spirituality. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek makes a very powerful point about this:

'. . .when today's New Age ideologists insist on the distinction between religion and spirituality (they perceive themselves as spiritual, not part of any organised religion), they (often not so) silently impose a 'pure' procedure of Zen-like spiritual meditation as the "whiteness" of religion. The idea is that all religions presuppose, rely on, exploit, manipulate, etc., the same core of mystical experience, and that it is only "pure" forms of meditation like Zen Buddhism that exemplify this core directly, by-passing institutional and dogmatic mediations. Spiritual meditation, in its abstraction from institutionalised religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today's global capitalism' (The Monstrosity of Christ pp-27-28).

I think he is right and that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, much modern western so-called 'liberal' spirituality is far from being liberal and in fact silently colludes (although it is true this is often unknowingly) with some of the worst aspects of global capitalism.

To show why this is the case I'll begin by noting Geddes' point about 'local character' being intimately related to the whole and that, to understand the 'local' one must have some 'adequate grasp and treatment of the whole environment'. But notice that Geddes doesn't say anything about the 'local' being superseded by the 'whole'; rather for him the local and the whole are related in 'active sympathy.' He seems to be saying that local character is not an accidental feature of reality but a necessary one and, therefore, also a necessary aspect of the whole. In other words if you strip away the local you do not thereby reveal the "true" world in its pristine "white" form - you are left with nothing.

Now, for Geddes, the task of the master planner/artist is to awaken in people an awareness of the 'personality of place' - a personality that is born out of this active sympathy between the local and the whole.

OK, but why have I chosen the reading from Luke we heard a moment ago? Well it has to do with how the story has often been interpreted in 'liberal' religious circles. Forget the truth or otherwise of the miracle performed in the story and concentrate on the fact that Jesus asks the leper to go and show himself to the priest, and make an offering for his cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to the people. Now why might Jesus, who is so concerned to reveal to his hearers a way of being religious in the world that is not wholly dependent upon human institutions, law and priestly mediation, say this?

Well, in a very recent modern Christian scholarly commentary (Oxford Bible Commentary) the authors write that we should understand Jesus as pointing "the leper into a way of observing the law but from a position of one who already transcends it."

Here we see the commentator make a move so typical of 'liberal' spirituality which is to claim that behind the distorted and flawed laws and practices of our extant local/regional religions - in this case Judaism - there lies a superior, purer, "true", globally relevant, transcendent religion and, more to the point, one which we can, thanks to Jesus, now see. Once you buy into this view it quickly becomes possible to believe that the leper and those like him who go to the temple (or synagogue, church, mosque whatever), although they are not doing something wholly wrong, you implicitly come to understand them as being benighted in comparison to yourself, you who can see the whole.

Holding such a view also has the pleasant side-effect (although it is only pleasant for holders of this view) of seeming to offer a way of keeping you out of the contingent muck and dirt of local religious life by pointing to a spirituality that is beyond nasty particularities realities such as law and other local practices. How wonderful, n'est pas, a spirituality that allows us to stay clean nice, white, untainted, pure and utterly uncommitted to the contingent realities of our world. Many modern spiritualities play on this and use the colour white and a loaded 'plainness' to sell their products.

But, if I am right, why is this particular form of universalism so hard to challenge in liberal circles? Well, I think that the lure of there being some pure transcendent "white" spirituality lies in the hope it seems to give that everything can be understood to be bound together in a meaningful, transcendent whole. Such a thought remains attractive to us at this time because we know the world needs to develop a sense of wholeness, a sense of being an interdependent unity. We also now know that we must develop not only a sense of our interdependence with other humans but the whole of creation for the world (as a whole) is not human centred. The ecological disaster we seem to be facing makes this desire for some sense of underlying wholeness even stronger in us.

But, if we are going to promulgate a feeling that such a underlying wholeness is real (or at least a meaningfully useful creative fiction) then we have to ensure that we keep this feeling absolutely rooted in local particularities with all the problems and messiness that this brings. The trick I think we have to pull off as a community that is trying to revise and reform what we mean by the word 'liberal' is that which I think Jesus managed to pull of in his own time and place and which was explored by Patrick Geddes in the apparently quite different context of town planning.

Jesus was a master planner and artist who had an adequate grasp and treatment (and note that an adequate grasp and treatment is not necessarily a complete grasp and treatment) of the whole environment and one who also knew that this was only meaningful insofar he could encourage in himself and others an 'active sympathy' with the essential and characteristic life of place and time - namely his own region and its cities, towns and villages and religion. His genius was to be able, through his life and teaching, to help awaken the personality of his own place and time and to help individuals to experience the whole just where they were - through that local 'personality'. As Geddes beautifully notes, this kind of thing is only possible to someone who 'is in love and at home with his subject - truly in love and fully at home - the love in which high intuition supplements knowledge, and arouses his own fullest intensity of expression' and the available evidence suggests that Jesus was just such a man in love and fully at home in this world: the kingdom of heaven being within or amongst us. (That Christianity later tried to make Jesus' home a transcendent place is besides the point).

Anyway Jesus was one of those teachers who could see that there are always local ways of affirming the reality of the whole and that it is through the local that we act on this vision and give thanks. The leper's Jewish faith was the only language he had in which to say thank-you and it was and will forever be a perfectly adequate way of doing this. If you are English, you say 'thank-you' if you are German it is 'Danke schön', 'Merci' if you are French. The point is that there is no ur-word for 'thank-you.' You have to say thank-you in the only way you can. That doesn't mean one cannot crticise or modify the local - Jesus was certainly critical and desirous of change - but it is to say the local cannot be replaced by the universal.

So, contrary to the modern commentary I cited earlier, I don't think that Jesus sent the leper into the temple and encouraged him into fulfilling the requirements of the Jewish law of the time just because the poor chap was incapable of seeing the bigger universal picture but because Jesus knew that it is only through a proper love of the local can any of us touch, sense and commingle with the universal - the whole - God.

It seems to me that in this passage from Luke we see Jesus giving us a perfect example of thinking globally (of God the Father - ultimate reality) and acting locally (going to the Jewish Temple to give thanks) within his own time and age. I recommend we go and do likewise. We have to fall in love again with the local and learn to be at home in the particularities of our own time and place. This is especially so within churches that like to see themselves as liberal and it is why I encourage, in this congregation at least, a living relationship with its local historic Unitarian Christian faith. The promise is that whenever we take time to woo and court the local the active sympathy (love) that begins to grow is nothing less than the very door to the kingdom of Heaven.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Love is the Answer

It's been one of those days - a good gig last night with Rebop but it was a late, late night and so today I've been very tired as I've ground my way through dozens of emails, taught some bass and theology. About hour ago I realised that I had got a bit low (and cold). So I made a cup of tea and decided to check out the new Barbara Streisand album 'Love is the Answer' on Spotify. O yes, O yes - do check it out. It quite lifted my mood. A great jazz quartet accompanies her (incl. Diana Krall) and the string arrangements are sublime (mostly by Johnny Mandel). And Babs? Well, wonderful.

It will be too romantic for some but it's what I needed this afternoon. And now? Back to work I guess . . .

Here's the BBC Music Review

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Eternity glimpsed in a railway station wall

From: T. Rhondda-Williams' The Working Faith of a Liberal Theologian (London: Williams & Norgate,1914, pp. 107-110):

There are many people, and they are not the least worthy among us, who never feel any living intense realization of the presence of God with them in life. They may be serious people, in the best sense, scrupulous in the last degree in matters of personal character, enthusiastic in uplifting social service, responsive to high calls of duty, tender also and compassionate and helpful, yet they are without the vivid, intense sense of His presence. [. . .] John Masefield’s poem on the “Everlasting Mercy” pictures a similar case, and we know that such pictures do correspond to facts. Saul Kane was a fighter, a drunkard, and many other things that were bad. He is described in his debauched revels and wild orgies, and it is in a filthy drinking-place, with rude, rough companions, he finds himself one night, when a Quaker lady, who wrought for the souls of those degraded men, came in. Kane insulted her, and was curious to see how she would take the insult.

“Saul Kane,” she said, “when next you drink, 
Do me the gentleness to think
That every drop of drink accursed
Makes Christ within you die of thirst;
That every dirty word you say,
Is one more flint upon His way,
Another thorn about His head,
Another mock by where He tread,
Another nail, another cross,
All that you are is that Christ’s loss.”

The appeal made is to a Christ in the man, and the plea is that the actual man was a loss to the Christ in his own soul. Emerson says: “What we call man, the eating, drinking, planting, counting man, does not, as we know him, represent himself, but misrepresents himself. Him we do not respect, but the soul whose organ he is, would he but let it appear, through his action, would make our knees to bend. When it breathes through his intellect it is genius ; when it breathes through his will it is virtue ; when it flows through his affection it is love. . . . All reform aims in some one particular to let the soul have its way through us; in other words, to engage us to obey.” What Emerson here calls the “soul” the Quaker lady calls “Christ.” The appeal to Saul Kane went home, and led to the great change known as conversion. This is how he describes the result:

I did not think, I did not strive, 
The deep peace burnt my me alive; 
The bolted door had broken in, I knew that I had done with sin;
I knew that Christ had given me birth, 
To brother all the souls on earth, 
And every bird, and every beast,
Should share the crumbs broke at the feast.
Oh, glory of the lighted mind,
How dead I’ve been, how dumb, how blind ! The station brook, to my new eyes, Was babbling out of Paradise;  
the waters rushing from the rain 
Were singing “Christ has risen again.” 
I thought all earthly creatures knelt 
From rapture of the joy I felt.
The narrow station wall’s brick ledge, 
The wild hop withering in the hedge, 
The lights in huntsman’s upper story, 
Were parts of an Eternal glory :
Were God’s Eternal garden flowers—
I stood in bliss at this for hours.


At first sight it perhaps seems the oddest of things to claim to see eternity in a station wall but when I first read Masefield’s words from “The Everlasting Mercy” (1911) I was utterly captivated by his use of the ledge of a railway station wall to point to God’s Eternal glory!

Odd it may be but to me, because this image is intimately connected with a very personal childhood memory, I instantly got Masefield's point. My grandparents lived in North Walsham in Norfolk and when we used to visit them my father, a great lover of steam engines, would use the opportunity to take us all on a visit to the North Norfolk Railway in Sheringham. I remember one gloriously early hot summer day peering over a hot brick wall at Weybourne (one of the stations on the line) and breathing in the smell of a stationary steam-engine and then glorying in the visceral experience of its departure. Then, in the silence that followed the train's departure, I remember becoming intensely aware of the heat and the smell of the brick wall itself, the moss and other tiny plants, and the thousands of tiny red spiders that were running about over its surface. I also remember distinctly the song of skylarks slowly and sweetly emerging as the train departed (rather like the violins appear out of the cacophony at the end of the third movement of Charles Ives' 'Three Places in New England'). The only way to describe this feeling is to say that I sensed an intimate interconnectedness with the whole and, recalling the theologian who is the wellspring of liberal Christian theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, experienced a direct unmediated intuition of the universe - unmediated, that is, through any particular extant religion, its officials (i.e. priests etc.) or its language. How long this 'moment' actually lasted I do not know (it could not have been more than a minute or so) but I can enter it still.

Yet for all the comfort and beauty brought to the human soul by such ecstatic memories it should not be forgotten that they are very easy to misuse. In a recent book “Revisioning Transpersonal Theory – A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality” (New York, SUNY Press 2002 p. 15) the transpersonal psychologist Jorge N. Ferrer writes:

'The two greatest challenges faced today by many spiritual seekers are arguably the danger of narcissism and the failure to integrate spiritual experiences into their everyday life. An inadequate assimilation of spiritual energies often leads to subtle forms of self-absorption and inflation, as well as to an increased, and often insatiable, thirst for spiritual experiences.'

We need to heed Ferrar's point because after such experiences it is oh so tempting and easy to disappear into a narcissistic enjoyment of them that fails to relate to and transfigure the quotidian realities of life. We may - many do - spend the rest of our lives trying to recreate the vision and/or experience instead of living out its lessons. As Rhondda-Williams wisely notes in a passage immediately following the one cited above:

'A great inflow of Divine power may bring such to man such peace and light and joy as Saul Kane felt, and indeed be to him the true beginning of a new life. But it is only the beginning, the battle is not over. Dull days will follow, times of gloom will come, the brick ledge will be a brick ledge once more, nor will the wild hop always look like one of God’s eternal flowers, nor the station brook always a babble of Paradise; Saul Kane may yet be heard to ask: “Where is the blessedness I knew/When first I saw the Lord?" In any case there is a long course of discipline in front of him before the intellect, the senses, and the will are subdued to the obedience of Christ' (p. 112).

Liberal religion has been very good at affirming the value of an individual's peak experiences because it has learnt the value of being open to unmediated experiences of God or the Divine - they are expressions of human freedom and of the uniqueness of each individual life. But what it has been appallingly bad at is creating life-long disciplined practices which then help us as individuals to weave these peak experiences not only into our personal, private daily lives but also into our shared, community lives.

It is only when this is being done that, as individuals and as communities, we can begin to survive and even flourish in the dull and gloomy days that inevitably come to us all.

This is why I continue so highly to value following the Christian story year after year because it helps us in symbolic form constantly to be weaving together the ups, the peak experiences of life (expressed in words such as 'transfiguration' and of 'unity' with God) with life's many downs (expressed in words such as the 'trial' and the 'crucifixion').

Seen from a certain perspective the Christian narrative is not a story which, to be appreciated, must be imposed upon us, crushing and diminishing our own individual stories, but rather a model of how to lead integrated, whole lives; see thus it need not be understood solely as a religion but also as a practical discipline of developing wholeness in ourselves.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Riprap at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas - Hey Ruth - here you go

Just a quick post to let you know that one of the bands I'm in - Riprap - is playing in the Cambridge Festival of Ideas at the end of this month. Here's the gen:

Hey Ruth - here you go
30th October 2009
Time of event: 19:30 - 22:00
Anglia Ruskin University
No booking required

A collaboration of text and music by Cambridge linked artists of both disciplines, featuring the poets Ruth Padel and Malcolm Guite. The music will be composed and performed the Riprap Collective, consisting of Kevin Flanagan, Dave Gordon, Andy Brown and Russ Morgan. "The Riprap collective can take you back and forth across the porous borderland between music and poetry, contemporary poets inspiring new grooves whilst the music give the poets back their voice with a clean new music in it." Organiser: Kevin Flannagan.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Harvest - Step out onto the planet

This week is both our Harvest festival and today's address takes another look at a poem I considered a couple of years ago in relation to the idea of in what consists the real fruits of Harvest.

To begin, here is the poem, written by the beat poet Lew Welch called "Step out on to the planet" from his 1964 collection "Hermit Poems" (here is a link to an mp3 of Welch reading it):

Step out onto the planet.
Draw a circle a hundred feet round.
Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody's ever really seen
How many can you find?

An obvious way of drawing a harvest theme from this would be to explore something about harvest being things freely given by simple existence alone; the harvest being those three hundred things.

But our culture's continued consumerist obsessions - credit crunch notwithstanding - it is perhaps inevitable our eyes are often taken off the ball and it becomes all too easy to equate harvest with product - the 300 things. But is the 300 things (no matter how wonderful they are) the real point of this poem - is it really the harvest to which Lew Welch points?

The philosopher Roger Scruton (NB being on the left politically it should come as no surprise that Scruton is not one of my favourite philosophers but - hey, one should take a look out of one's usual milieu now and then) in a recent book called 'Culture Counts - Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged' to my mind rightly reminds us of Aristotle's exploration of work and leisure in the 'Nicomachean Ethics' (1177b). The question Aristotle asked was: what purpose is served by all the work we do in our lives - in other words what is our work's real harvest? Aristotle does not, of course, challenge the idea that we must work for the obvious fruits of the harvest - namely our food and other basic creature comforts - but for him that is not the end of it.

The important point in all this is that for Aristotle contemplation - true leisure - is its own reward. I think you will agree that our story for the children about the fisherman and the businessman illustrated this beautifully and humorously. Anyway, as Scruton observes, because all our plans and projects come to rest in this state of contemplation, this is why we are at rest in leisure: 'This, we are apt to say, is the point of it all, what we worked for, the goal to which our labour was a means' (ibid. p.17).

Consequently, to return to Lew Welch's poem I think it is fair to suggest that for Welch the true harvest is not precisely the 300 things at all, but rather the time and opportunity to draw opportunity the circle one hundred feet around and the leisure to look for and contemplate the '300' things. When you read Lew Welch's letters written at the same time this becomes apparent - for he wrote his Hermit Poems (the collection in which this one appears) in a Cabin in the Trinity Alps in California  (search for Forks of Salmon, CA 96031, in Google Earth).

Alas, today, we inhabit a culture which thinks the true harvest - and therefore our true rest - is to be found in the three hundred 'must have' things - whether that be fishing fleets and money for the businessman in our story or, to quote one of my favourite songwriters Donald Fagan of Steely Dan fame: 'the Audi TT, the house on the Vineyard, the house on the Gulf Coast, the comfey Eames chair and the '54 Strat'

Before I continue I need to point out an easy and common mistake to make which is to confuse contemplation with distraction. As Scruton points out it is perfectly possible to switch off from work without switching on to any higher purpose but, since contemplation is an active state in which we reconnect with all that makes life meaningful, switching off or being merely distracted is not contemplation and so not true leisure. In Scruton's opinion - and indeed mine - distraction is 'more and more the normal position of people when their work is set aside' (ibid. p. 19) and he points, convincingly to much popular culture in particular much of the output from television and the pop music industry.

So, lets bring all this round to us as 21st century people living in an industrialised western culture that is in the midst of a serious economic crisis and ask ourselves why are we working - many of us for ludicrously long hours - and for what end? Are we not living in an age that is rapidly loosing its collective sight sight of the real purpose of life, life's true harvest? I think the answer is yes and so that leaves us with the very practical question about how we should respond and we might renew our culture?

We'll, as is almost always the case, we must start with ourselves. We each need, in our own ways to go out and draw that circle and contemplate on what one sees and finds and through them understand and experience an active and contemplative reconnection with God or Nature - the goal of life itself. In this state of contemplation we begin to practice mindful, purposeful purposelessness. And this mindful purposeful purposelessness brings me to my next practical point and to one of the major points of Scruton's book. Because this goal of life is effectively hidden behind the allure of the 300 things we only begin to learn about the deep purposes of life when we have the means to communicate it to ourselves and to others around us. This is primarily done through what Scruton calls 'high culture' which he describes as: 'the accumulation of art, literature, and humane reflection that has stood the "test of time" and established a continuing tradition of reference and allusion among educated people' (ibid. p.2).

(Excursus: what I mean by 'high culture' is going to much more inclusive than that envisioned by Scruton - after all remember that by profession I'm a rock and jazz musician! Anyway, in the conversation in the church immediately after the address what the words 'high culture' might mean and how it is created was a very hot topic. One of those present pointed out that much of what we call high culture today was 'low culture' at one time, i.e. Shakespeare's plays, and that it was a high culture heavily weighted towards the likes of a mostly male intellectual and financially well-off elite. Yes, indeed - a vital point I did not come close to making. But out of this we did broadly seem to agree on the value of us supporting the constant re-creation of a shared canon of literature/art/music/science that helped us all critically and imaginatively engage with the world and each other so that mere passing opinion - personal or popular - couldn't trump every argument concerning how our community might try to encourage in ourselves helpful ideas of in what consists the good, the true, and the beautiful. One doesn't, of course, need to believe, as did Plato, that the good, true and the beautiful were fixed and eternally immutable for these ideas still to be able to shape our life together in very practical and down to earth ways by using these words in more relative and contingent ways. Any further thoughts?)

So to return to the address as I gave it . . .

It is this precisely such a culture which enables us to explore and experience in community profound depths of meaning in our lives (and I like to think that this church is trying to be one forum in which this occurs). Culture - high culture that is not the merely distracting as so much of popular culture is is absolutely necessary to developing the ability to contemplate and so engage in true leisure which is, as Aristotle said, the true fruit or collective harvest of all our hard work as human beings. This is precisely what Lew Welch's poem pointed me to as I hope it did for you. The problem is that because high culture doesn't offer any immediately obvious practical measurable outcomes (at least in old-style capitalist economic terms) our present day prosaic and deeply philistine educational experts have successively got rid of subjects that have been proven to help us to achieve true contemplation and leisure. They have stolen the harvest and I'm increasingly angry about it. So we loose philosophy and literature departments as philosophy and poetry is deemed pointless, no one learns ancient Greek and Latin anymore because no government department uses them and it doesn't help you order car parts, music departments are constantly under threat unless they provide eduction for so-called 'actual' jobs in the popular music industry - industry being the key word for them. In all this talk of high culture the sciences can sometime be missed out but it seems to me that they too must be included especially when they are in their creative 'blue-sky' modes.

But, as many of us know these activities are often now deemed unnecessary, mere ornaments on the fringes of the so-called 'real' world. Education must be overtly practical they say. But to what end? To more money making, more business deals? Viewed in this context we suddenly realise that many modern day educationalists are simply behaving like the businessman in our children's story who has utterly lost sight of the real purpose of life.

So today I call you to some acts of rebellion - some kicking over of tables in the temple so to speak - and ask you to consider teaching our children (and ourselves I should add) to be latter day Socratees, we must encourage them to read and write poetry, to explore Shakespeare, to learn Greek and Latin, to paint a landscape or simply watch the clouds whilst chewing grass, we must teach them to play music for the simple joy of playing music, to learn a love of numbers that is more than merely a route to balancing one's books at the end of the month. We might even teach them to fish. Why mention fishing you may ask. Well it is because Isaac Walton, the author of that sublime book The Complete Angler (1653), took some words from I Thess. 4:11 as the final words of the book and as his personal motto: 'study to be quiet' (see the photo on at the top of this blog from Winchester Cathedral).

All in all I think we should be encouraging us to plant and then collect a harvest that does not physically exploit our planet but, rather, helps the planet and ourselves (her children) to take a quiet rest and heal ourselves.

Go on - I dare you - step out onto the planet and draw a circle a hundred feet round . . .