Sunday, 29 November 2009

Celebrating Advent without misrepresentation, sentimentalism or parody (and a couple of recommended books)

Today we enter the season of Advent. The English word derives, of course, from the Latin 'adventus' meaning 'coming' which was itself a translation of the Greek word 'parousia' a word commonly used in reference to what became called the 'Second Coming'. Generally within the Christian tradition the season of Advent serves both as a reminder of the Jews' period of waiting for the birth of their Messiah (which, of course, the early Christians thought was Jesus himself - in Greek, remember, the word for Messiah was 'Christ') and also as the waiting that many Christians since then have experienced as they wait for the second coming of Christ at some future defined or undefined date.

So far so etymological, but what useful purpose might be served in continuing to engage with the theme of Advent for a congregation such as this which, for the most part, but perhaps not exclusively (?), not only doesn't expect any kind of literal second coming of a Messiah but which also so radically reinterprets the first so-called 'coming' such that it seems disingenuous to call it a first coming - at least in any literal sense.

The issue with the word 'coming' in this religious context is that for anyone to 'come' there has to be a 'there' from which to come and an associated divine will or desire for that someone to make the journey to 'here'.

But in the radical and skeptical liberal religious tradition to which we belong are any of us *really* able to say there exists a transcendent 'there' (heaven) from which to come and an immanent 'here' (earth) to which God (or God's representative) may arrive?

Secondly there is the matter of the divine will to do this - God's will. However, since most of us here today have theologies which stress the immanence of God then, however we individually come to interpret what the word God might mean, God is always within or among us - NOW. God is not any more present in the past and nor will God be any more present in the future. Consequently, the idea of this God coming to us in any obvious external form at a particular time in the past or the future - as fixed laws, Messiahs, or books - becomes for us a redundant idea.

In Christianity God's particular coming is, of course, perceived to be in the person of Jesus. God intentionally comes to this world in a unique and once-for-all human form to save it; God sends his only son. But for most of us here Jesus is understood as being a wholly human exemplar - even if one gifted with a highly unusual, even unique, insight into how to live most fully in relationship with the Divine.

If anything about Jesus is salvific (and I think there is) it is surely to be found in the way he modeled for us a certain human way of responding to the world. We were inspired by him to develop a way of thinking about the world such that what we call God (who for us once inhabited a place above the natural world), over time, to be better understood in naturalistic terms. That doesn't mean to say that we now see and understand all there is to be seen and understood about this natural world, but it is to say that we are no longer under the sway of fear and superstition of a supernatural principality.

St Paul, famously, of course, said something similar about principalities in Romans 8:38-39 but he left one supernatural principality in place of whom he thought we should remain fearful - namely the one 'true' God who had ousted all other lesser deities. But, as I have already noted, most of us here have developed an understanding of God as being radically present here and now, coursing through every bone and sinue of existence and this is a view which has, in truth, ousted even this last remaining transcendent God of old. We are no longer ruled by God from on high but, because we understand God to dwell wholly in Nature so we too, commingled in Nature, commingle also in God. We are no longer ruled by God and it is better to say something along the lines of we embrace and are embraced by an immanent God - the relationship is one of 'eros' rather than 'nomos', of creative, playful love not law. As Dylan Thomas once so wonderfully put it, 'the force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age'.

So Jesus, even if for us he remains the supreme human exemplar of our relationship with the divine, he no more 'chose' to be born in place, time and culture X than we did. He 'came' into the world as we did - via the green fuse that is Nature naturing.

With regard to a saviour being 'sent' by God this thought also relies upon a belief that a supernatural God intervenes in a very simplistic way in the world by deciding every last event including the placement of people in the world - some to fame and glory, some to happiness, others to grief some to save and some to be saved as well as, of course, some to damnation. So the idea of Jesus being sent to us also no longer holds our imagination in thrall.

Given all this - and more - can we genuinely celebrate the season of Advent in a fashion that doesn't utterly misrepresent or parody it? Shouldn't we just leave it to those who can still believe in the action of a supernatural principality?

At one level the answer should be, I think, a resounding 'Yes!' The concept of a transcendent, tribal ruling God - even when it has been universalised to become the One and Only God - very dangerous (and false). The countless lives lost in countless battles over who has the best, that is to say the True, understanding or revelation of this One God and how 'he' manifests himself in the world bear bloody witness to this. So I think that as a liberal religious community I think we have a duty to continue to try and depose such a God (or conception of God) and 'his' kingdom and effect the necessary revolution that brings God permanently to earth and institute, in Gerrard Winstanley and Philip Pullman's felicitous phrase, a genuine Republic of Heaven in which all created beings and things have a vote - a vote encashed in so far as to the best of their abilities they attempt to fulfill their possible existences through eros - through the creative and playful love of life.

But alone this optimistic view of God and God's immanent relationship with the world fails to take into account our subjective experience of this re-divinised world and an immanent God and it is at this level that some concept of 'Advent' - the idea of something better 'coming' - remains vital to our well-being.

As all lovers know - no matter how strong their underlying relationship is - there are bad days in their relationship as well as good ones - days when, for a multitude of reasons, they disconnect, misunderstand each other's actions or words and so come into wrong relationship.

We know too, for example, that when we are in a buoyant mood or the contingent circumstances of our life are simply lined up in an obviously pleasant way then even the darkest, coldest and rainiest day can feel wonderful. In a depressed mood or simply living with a set of ongoing dreadful contingent circumstances even the sunniest day is felt to be dreadful.

But if our faith in the underlying rightness and completeness of our relationship with God-or-Nature is strong then this can help us to project ourselves poetically forward out of the darkness of the present temporal moment into a time in which our right relationships with each other, with God-or-Nature are restored once again.

The annual journey to the cribside of the Christ-child which we begin again today is a symbolic and poetic expression of a journey back into right relationship. But I think it is important to realise that the nativity isn't precisely about that God coming to us - God's love is always proffered it is always coming to us. Instead Advent is about us choosing (being enabled) in our dark times to dream of that love made visible in our lives (in the Christmas story in a tiny, vulnerable child) and to look to the tiniest glimmer of light we can see (the star) and say to ourselves 'I will in love and faith follow this smallest of lights' so I can again come face to face with the "light of all people" which "shines in the darkness" and which the darkness has never, nor ever will overcome (cf. John 1:4-5).

But this restoring and healing process is not available to those who are not prepared to get their shoes muddy and scuffed up by following that star to the place where, at the darkest time of the year we are assured we will glimpse again the love that sustains the whole world. I encourage us to walk the walk.

So, for all the problems of the season I continue to celebrate Advent but I do it remembering that it is we who must take the first steps to the cribside - it is we who come. But, because what we seek was always, is always, and will always be present in our world we find that along the way we are always met - often even when we are still far off - and at that moment we feel God has, indeed, come to us and we are restored; we are saved from our solipsistic selves by incarnated love - Emmanuel, God with us.


Right - a couple of books which I think are hugely important if you want concise, academically sound and readable expressions of the basic philosophy I support. One is new (and notice of a sequel to it) and one fairly recent.

The first is by Mark Johnston and is called Saving God: Religion after idolatory. Here's the blurb from the publisher's webpage (where you can also download chapter one):

In this book, Mark Johnston argues that God needs to be saved not only from the distortions of the "undergraduate atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) but, more importantly, from the idolatrous tendencies of religion itself. Each monotheistic religion has its characteristic ways of domesticating True Divinity, of taming God's demands so that they do not radically threaten our self-love and false righteousness. Turning the monotheistic critique of idolatry on the monotheisms themselves, Johnston shows that much in these traditions must be condemned as false and spiritually debilitating.

A central claim of the book is that supernaturalism is idolatry. If this is right, everything changes; we cannot place our salvation in jeopardy by tying it essentially to the supernatural cosmologies of the ancient Near East. Remarkably, Johnston rehabilitates the ideas of the Fall and of salvation within a naturalistic framework; he then presents a conception of God that both resists idolatry and is wholly consistent with the deliverances of the natural sciences.

Princeton University Press is publishing Saving God in conjunction with Johnston's forthcoming book Surviving Death, which takes up the crux of supernaturalist belief, namely, the belief in life after death.

The second is by James C. Edwards and is called The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism.  You can read sizable chunks of it on Google Books but here is the publisher's blurb to tempt you.

A challenge to Western intellectual culture that shows how one might be religious even when traditional religion has lost its credibility and authority.

"The Plain Sense of Things is a wonderfully learned book that has much to teach us about Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Thoreau, and Stevens. But it is more than that because it includes passages of philosophical reflection that surpass in profundity and clarity some of the famous works it interprets. The book's central question is what it means to accept fully and acknowledge honestly the contingency of whatever there is. James Edwards somehow manages to address this question thoughtfully and intelligibly without resorting to the cant, posturing, and hubris one so often finds these days in other writers who concern themselves with 'nihilism' or 'the death of God.'"- Jeffrey Stout, Princeton University

"This is a book of wisdom that mines the fading of our past religious convictions to show how they might provide a way to go on in what Edwards wonderfully calls 'normal nihilism.'"- Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University

What could it mean to be religious in a world where religion no longer retains its former authority? Posing this question for his fellow Western intellectuals who inhabit just such a world, James C. Edwards investigates the loss of religion's traditional power in a culture characterized by what he calls "normal nihilism"-a situation in which one's commitment to a particular set of values is all one really has, and in which traditional religion is only a means of interpretation used to preserve what one most cares about. Recognizing the important historical role of religion in making us the people we are, he seeks to establish a viable understanding of religion without traditional beliefs and within the context of contemporary skepticism.

The Plain Sense of Things is a book more interested in the power of religion than in its truth, and in what happens to that power when the claims to truth slacken their grip.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

And much cattle . . . In memoriam John Davis.

The main subject of this address, which I shall get to in a moment, is the fulfillment of a long overdue promise. It is, alas, as you will hear, now eternally overdue.

Three weeks ago my Old Testament and Hebrew tutor at Oxford, Father John Davis, died and two weeks ago I read from Ecclesiastes at his Requiem Mass in Oxford - the primary text through which he taught me Hebrew. He instilled in me both a great love and respect for the Old Testament and his way of tying in its stories and lessons to life, real life, made us friends too. Not surprisingly his death and the unexpected honour of reading a lesson at his funeral has led me to think about the years he was my tutor.

Although I was at Harris Manchester College my first year of lectures and seminars in Biblical studies was held at the Anglo-Catholic seminary St Stephen's House - popularly known as Staggers. I went there for the following two years my New Testament Studies and Christian Ethics. They were, in their own way, sublimely and, occasionally, dysfunctionally mad but in my continuing study of the OT with Father John my second and third years took on an genuinely eccentric and old-fashioned Oxford flavour. I used to walk to from college, down St Aldates by Tom Tower at Christ's and then on to the Abingdon Road and out to New Hinksey where, next to the parish church of St John the Evangelist was Father John's rectory. There, at 11 o'clock on a Tuesday in the main dining room at the back of the house we would sit down at the table with a Hebrew Bible, the enormous, but utterly indispensable, Hebrew lexicon by Brown, Driver and Briggs and St John the cat who liked to curl up on the table by us. There we would read through the text and, every once in a while, glance through the window over the lake in the old quarry to the fields and ridge beyond. This view was the scene of Arnold's famous poem 'The Scholar Gypsy' (of c. 1854). At my first lesson, Father John pointed to the ridge and recited from memory:

'And once, in winter, on the causeway chill 
Where home through flooded fields foot travellers go,
Have I not passed thee on the wooden bridge
Wrapt in thy cloak and battling with the snow,
Thy face towards Hinksey and its wintry ridge?
And thou hast climbed the hill
And gained the white brow of the Cumnor range,
Turned once to watch, while thick the snowflakes fall,
The line of festal light in Christ Church hall - 
Then sought thy home in some sequestered grange.' 

Later that Michaelmas term as I walked to New Hinksey for my lesson it began to snow and, ahead of me, I saw the ridge with its wintry face - perfect.

At mid-day, the lesson always ended with what became part of my weekly liturgy. Father John would close the Hebrew bible, rise creakily from his chair and say to me 'A gin and aspirin dear boy?' I only ever replied 'yes' and after a little more conversation would, at 12.30, would begin to make my way contentedly, but rather unsteadily, back to college for lunch.

During one lesson - for what reason I cannot now remember, Father John decided we would take a look at the end of the book of Jonah. You will, I'm sure, remember that at the very end of the story God decides not to destroy Nineveh - the city Jonah had been asked by God to warn to change their ways or face destruction. The city heeded Jonah's warning. Good n'est pas? Well not for Jonah because such a turn about is bad news for a prophet - you predict armageddon and God chooses instead mercy and compassion; man, it just makes you look like a rubbish prophet. So Jonah goes off to the east of the city in the mother of all huffs and builds there a little shelter to sulk. Seeing this tantrum God at first helps Jonah by causing a gourd bush to grow up beside him offering him additional shade from the burning sun. Jonah was very happy about this. But, next morning, God put a worm into the gourd and, when the sun came up, the bush withered. At the same time God prepared 'a vehement east wind' and this, along with the burning sun, caused Jonah to faint. On regaining consciousness for a moment Jonah expresses a wish to die saying '[It is] better for me to die than to live.' Then God said to Jonah:

Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, [even] unto death. Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and [also] much cattle? (Jonah 4:9-11)

It's a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful book and Father John excitedly turned to me and said, "Now what do you think is meant by those last words UBEHEMAH RABBAH" ("and much cattle")? Before I got a chance to answer, Father John closed the Bible, rose from his chair, uttered the magic words, 'A gin and aspirin dear boy?' and disappeared into the kitchen. When he came back with the appropriate aqua vitae he said, 'Dear boy, why not write a little sermonette someday on the text when you're out there in the sticks?' I promised him I would. I never did, until now that is.


Many of us can, today, no longer believe in the reality of a certain kind of God; the literal reality, that is, of an actually existing supernatural being who transcends us utterly and who intervenes providentially in our world - saving cities and destroying gourds though, mostly, vice versa. The God of whom Jonah speaks is simply no longer our God. As James C. Edwards notes, as a culture we have inexorably traveled a journey of faith that has moved us from such a literal conception of a providential God through to a Platonic idealism in which ultimate reality became that of the ideal forms, Plato's great contribution to western thought. From there we moved, again inexorably, on to the skeptical thought of Descartes who replaced the ideal forms as the basis of reality with 'cogito ergo sum' - i.e. the only reality we could know for sure was, not God, not the ideal forms but only ourselves as 'thinking things'. The gods and the Forms 'pass[ed] into being mere representations upon the ground of ego-consciousness' . Then, after Nietzsche, we (in western Europe and North America at least) entered a time in which we came to see that our own views of the world as an individual 'thinking thing' was not some accurate, ultimately trustworthy mirror-image (impression) of reality itself but, instead, a creation of our own will (to power). Consequently we have been left, not with 'indubitably true beliefs' but values. What is often more disturbing is that our values can be seen to be in competition with other values that contradict our own (cf. James C. Edwards in chapter one of his 'The Plain Sense of Things').

Charles Taylor (the Canadian philosopher and practicing Roman Catholic) in his recent book 'A Secular Age' (Harvard University Press 2007) tells us what he thinks is 'typical of the modern condition':

'We live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and anxiety' (p. 11).

Both Father John and I, in our own ways, often talked to each other about this condition of doubt and anxiety because it was - and is - a condition that seems to preclude saying anything usefully definitive about what on earth UBEHEMAH RABBAH means.

But, putting this problem aside for a moment today's sermonette could be unfolded in a dozen directions. Here are just the headlines of two of them - those I might write if I were merely in my default sermon writing mode:

Given my own thought through philosophical position on this matter, I would first make it clear that I interpret what the word 'God' means in a Spinozistic way and would go on to point out that we can, therefore, take UBEHEMAH RABBAH to be an insight into how such a God includes in 'his' purview all creatures, not just humans. Given this view of God I might also preach an associated sermonette which argues that the words UBEHEMAH RABBAH begin to point away from a human-centric view of the world to a more wholistic view which includes and intrinsically values all things. I would use the text to promote a generally pan(en)theistic interpretation of Christianity that owes more to the thought of Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Nietszche and Wittgenstein than it does to any 'proper' orthodox Christian theology. It is, of course, what I always do and, since many of you attend regularly, presumably you continue to come because this more or less resonates with your own views about the world. In doing this I am explicit in claiming that this way of understanding Christianity is at least as equally and, in many cases actually more, fruitful than other ways of interpreting the Christian tradition.

But - and this is what I REALLY want to say today - what I might have said in any of these imagined sermonettes on UBEHEMAH RABBAH can no longer, and perhaps for us never can again, have the status of 'indubitably true beliefs' - they can only be expressions of my and I hope our values which have been shaped by the spiritual and intellectual journey I outlined earlier.

This is a vital point to understand.

It turns out that Father John's question to me "Now what do you think is meant by those last words UBEHEMAH RABBAH?" cannot be answered in the way he and I, and our respective traditions, once thought it could. To pretend otherwise is to retreat into utter delusion. Today I have not pulled or disguised this in any way and this is because I want to point clearly to our generation's hardest religious challenge - and therefore this church's hardest challenge - namely, how to be meaningfully religious (and in my/our case Christian) in an age, to quote James C. Edwards again, in which the traditional 'claims to truth [have] slacken[ed] their grip.' My whole work as you minister week by week is to try and figure out a workable answer to that challenge.

I'm not sure if this sermonette is precisely what Father John had in mind when he asked me to preach on 'and much cattle' - it may have sent him off in search of an early gin and tonic - but it is the only one I could muster today.

I shall miss him as I shall miss his critique of these words. Requiescat in pace.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Living stones or dead stones - Remembrance Sunday

The address was preceded with a story I have used many times before and is taken from 'Life is a Miracle' by Wendell Berry (2000, Washington DC, Counterpoint Press pp. 151-152)

My grandson, who is four years old, is now following his father and me over some of the same countryside that I followed my father and grandfather over. When his time comes, my grandson will choose as he must, but so far all of us have been farmers. I know from my grandfather that when he was a child he too followed his father in this way, hearing and seeing, not knowing yet that the most essential part of his education had begun. And so in this familiar spectacle of a small boy tagging along behind his father across the fields, we are part of a long procession, five generations of which I have seen, issuing out of generations lost to memory, going back, for all I now, across previous landscapes and the whole history of farming. Who knows the meaning, the cultural significance, and the practical value of this rural family’s generational procession across its native landscape? The answer is not so simple as the question: No one person ever will know all the answer. My grandson certainly does not know it. And my son does not, though he has positioned himself to learn some of it, should he be so blessed. I am the one who (to some extent) knows, though I know also that I cannot tell it to anyone living. I am in the middle now between my grandfather and my father, who are alive in my memory, and my son and my grandson, who are alive in my sight. If my son, after thirty more years have passed, has the good pleasure of seeing his own child and grandchild in that procession, then he will know something like what I now know. This living procession through time and place is the record by which such knowledge survives and is conveyed. When the procession ends, so does the knowledge 


In his sixty-fifth sonnet Shakespeare asks what possible chance of survival has beauty 'whose action is no stronger than a flower' when even rocks and steel are, by time, decayed. His answer is none unless 'in black ink my love may still shine bright' - in other words for him it survives in poetry.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

David West - in his wonderful but, alas, now out of print book on 'The Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius' - saw that poetry, monuments and flowers also come together in Lucretius' refutation of the idea that there were great wars before the Trojan war and that brave men lived before Agamemnon:

'. . . if there has been no first birth-time for earth and heaven, and they have been always everlasting, why have the poets not also sung other things beyond the Theban War and the ruin of Troy? Into what place have so many deeds of men so often fallen, and nowhere flower implanted in eternal monuments of fame? But, as I think, the world is young and new, and it is not long since its beginning. (De Rerum Natura 5.324ff, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, rev. by Martin Ferguson Smith, Harvard University Press, 1992)

West points to this text because he wants to draw our attention a particular word in the underlying latin text whose meaning, in translation, is often obscured. The word is 'insita' - which means grafted and West goes on to say:

'When men erect monuments they are grafting their deeds on to a durable stock, the eternal monuments of fame, in this case poetry. This is full of poetry, including the juxtaposition of stone and flower, the fragility of fame and flower, the seeming durability of monuments, the immortality of poetry, and man's elaborate operations to procure immortality for himself. All these pathetic [in the sense of evoking or expressing pity, sympathy] sensations and meditations are floating through the Shakespeare and the Lucretius, and in the Lucretius the literal force of the word 'insita' is essential to it all. It is because they were never grafted that the prepoetic achievements of man are not in flower but have fallen to the ground. The translators offer 'enshrined in glory', 'set glorious', 'gravées', and 'blühn sie nich fort'. This is murder' (pp. 2-3).

Drawing on West's insight my point today is simple - the things we, as individuals and as a culture wish (or need?) to remember will be always come to be forgotten when we try to enshrine them only in terms of external glory by, for instance, carving them in stone upon memorials. The only true and lasting memorials - the ones that have a real affect upon our culture are those which are engrafted in us as living people. True memory is a living thing and, like all living things it must be nurtured if it is to produce abundant fruits and flowers - fruits and flowers which in the case of Remembrance Sunday must surely be a deeper understanding of the human condition and the creation of a lasting, creative and perpetual peace.

As you know, I continually worry about the failure of contempoirary liberal democracies to get engaged, down and dirty in the world in the way more conservative religious and political ideologies seem to be able to do. I find that this is also often true with regard to remembering in the liberal democracies. It is simply not sufficient to devolve our remembrances to stone memorials that we visit once a year (if that). If our memory of the horrific wars is to become a truly transformative experience and so to bear real healthy and creative fruit we must endeavour to graft the memories onto our very being and the way by which human kind has best done this is through the remembered and oft rehearesed story or poem.

The phrase that 'in back ink my love may shine' is liable to be misunderstood unless you realise that the black ink in which Shakespeare wrote his poem is a poetic image itself and only an epiphenomenon of his actual composition of the poem out of the very stuff of his life - the beauty that he saw in another became in this transformative process his beauty and by extension - in so far as we make the poem part of us - we too can come to share that beauty. Memory is a living procession and, as the poet and theologian Wendell Berry noted, when the procession ends so too does the knowledge.

Although the language might, at first, be puzzling and off-putting (especially if you have been confused and hurt by overly literlistic and conservative forms of Christianity) what you are about to read (hear) is an early Christian author expressing this realisation and trying to encourage in his readers (hearers) an understanding of the importance of maintaining a community of memory and hope. Remember that here, like us today, they are remembering a particular human beauty (in this case Jesus), a violent death (his crucifixion) and the possibility that through this remembering they may share in a transformative process which can bring them all to a more abundant life (1 Peter 2:1-5):

'Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation - if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.'

Belonging to such a living procession of people is what counts - and we need to realise that our remembering will not work if the attempt to remember is made only through external things such as carved stone. That will wear away with time, However, as living stones belonging to such a living procession we truly remember and are, thereby, helped to learn and become transformed as a people. That is why our being here today together is so important. Here and now, the beauty (the best) that was in the hearts of all who have died in conflict can truly flower again amongst us - a people dedicated to cessation of war.

It is only insofar as this procession remains alive in us as living stones that we can ever truly say:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

ADDENDUM (Monday 9th November 2009)

Reviewing this address I realize that it could be thought I am, in truth, saying no more than that memory can only last as long as the human procession that nourished it. It is possible that such processions - even the longest lasting - will eventually come to an end. Indeed we may hazard a (reasonable) guess that what humankind has forgotten may infinitely 'outweigh' what has been remembered; in some respects (though not all) that this is so might be seen as a good thing.

Anyway, I certainly acknowledge that from a purely human perspective even the longest procession may be easily be conceived of as having an end.

However, at the back of my claim in this address is an intuition that when we talk about God in a Spinozistic way we find a way to articulate a rational conception of immortality, in other words, we can show the possibility of there being a truly immortal procession to which EVERYTHING belongs. The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana summed up Spinoza's thought on this matter beautifully and I offer it to you again (for you'll find the ideas in this passage, in whole and in part, scattered throughout my writings):

To see things under the form of eternity is to see them in their historic and moral truth, not as they seemed when they passed, but as they remain when they are over. When a man’s life is over, it remains true that he has lived; it remains true that he has been one sort of man and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history that bit has its unfading and its perpetual function and effect. A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him. And knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the moment of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is part forever in the infinite context of [existence.]

Friday, 6 November 2009

Anabaptist Prayer Books

Some readers of this blog will be aware that I wrote a liberal Christian prayer book with an American Unitarian minister called John Morgan. It is called Daybreak and Eventide (you can also get this book direct from the Unitarian Christian Association) and was influenced by prayer patterns developed by the Anabaptists. (You can download it here). The early Unitarians (the Polish Brethren) being a unique mix of late Renaissance Italian humanism and ideas shared with many Anabaptists. In the Polish Brethren's case this mix resulted in the development of a sort of rational mysticism.

Anyway, in a recent search for prayer resources I stumbled across two recent Anabaptist volumes that were for a time available in pdf form to help the editors hone them. Both have now been published and I recommend them. I think they are both excellent.

The editors' website is to be found here:

[Additional note, August 2012: Since this post I, along with a German Lutheran pastor, colleague and friend used this book every week for a time of shared prayer, very much in the spirit of the books' old German epigraph: "Allen und jeden Christen welcher Religion sie seyen unpartheyisch fast nützlich." Since the time of this post I have also used these volumes daily in my own prayers.]

Another useful source of prayers and readings people might find helpful can be accessed by signing up to an email distribution list of Daily Texts from the Moravian Church.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Bowls not Pitchers: Limitation and True Human Freedom - a sermon based on George Kimmich Beech’s essay "The Covenant of Spiritual Freedom"

(All the quotes from George Kimmich Beach are taken from Walter P. Hertz, 'Redeeming Time', Skinner House Books, Boston, 1999, pp. 99-105)

The picture is of a pot made by one of my friends Jane Perryman who is married to my friend and colleague the jazz saxophonist and composer, Kevin Flanagan

Over the past few weeks a number of people have asked me to offer again the following address - or at least the central substance of it - because it outlines in what is, for a modern liberal Christian minister (especially me!), a surprisingly straightforward and simple expression of what I think we are as a faith community. It is appropriate to give it today because today is Reformation Sunday. In churches from the Lutheran tradition and also the Reformed tradition (which is our own) it is celebrated on this Sunday because it is the one nearest to the 31 October, the date in 1517 upon which Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenburg thus sparking the Reformation. A Reformation in which, of course, our own Unitarian forebears played a major role. But, firstly, I think this address benefits from a brief introduction putting it into the context of the last three years. 

Some of my more complex and philosophically inclined addresses given during this time, particularly those relating to how I think we should be using religious language here i.e. a la Wittgenstein, have been designed to face up squarely to the many legitimate intellectual concerns thrown up by our modern very skeptical and secular age. Concerns that, again and again, I see stop many people from committing to any religious tradition - let alone our particular form of liberal Christianity.

Now I realise that some of you reading this don't have, and never have had, such concerns and objections, but my long enagement in the area of religion and its role in the public place has shown me that the kinds of people who might otherwise be attracted to the liberal religious project we are undertaking here do hold such objections. If we are going to grow and develop and have a chance of flourishing in the future as a contemporary and relevant expression of the Christian tradtion we have to make it clear at every opportunity what we are doing when we use Christian language. 

In a nutshell, as your minister, I'm trying to use it to 'show' something about how we might be fully alive and engaged in the world - I do not, I repeat, I do not use Christian language in a quasi-scientific way to promote a particular doctrinal theory about the world. I hope that the end result will be that we increasingly become a church that knows metaphorical religious language is exceptionally helpful and can show more clearly how to live than the quasi-scientific religious language used by conservative religious groups. This task is, alas, very hard to do but I make no apologies for attempting it. However, today I am in a simpler but, inevitably, more assertive mode. So, off we go. 


One of the great truths of life is that true human freedom is not located in the freedom to do anything we want but, instead, in the ability to work and live fully and creatively within the necessary limitations of existence. We are only truly free when we come to understand that we are what we are who we are because of, and not in spite of, our limitations. Knowledge of this is genuinely liberating. I could point you to a central concern of Spinoza's, namely, his "intellectual love of God." But, today I'll refrain from that . . .

This insight applies, of course, not only to individuals but also to religious communities and it means that I can challenge a popular and dangerous myth that a liberal church such as this is a place where you can believe whatever you want.

Despite what many people think, to be in this liberal church is not to be free to believe whatever you like. No! there are certain clear and distinct limits to our confession. These limits exist because our Unitarian and Free Christian tradition has been in the making for just over four-hundred and fifty years and, over that time, it has developed a particular shape and purpose – a shape and purpose which, whilst it necessarily limits us in certain ways, also gives to those who adopt it a framework by which they may work towards true freedom. This doesn't rule out other ways of gaining freedom (whether Chritian or otherwise) but it is to say that we do have a basic religious shape that can help an individual develop a genuinely free and full life. It is that which we seek to offer week by week.

What it is that we offer is best introduced via a parable told by George Kimmich Beach, a contemporary Unitarian Christian theologian:

'. . . as a potter you form a lump of clay, you make many decisions, exercising your freedom both consciously and instinctively, to one end, a finished ceramic. [. . .] The original decision in pottery making is not unlike the original decision in faith: once a direction is set, soon it will be too late to change your mind. Choosing a bowl excludes a pitcher. Now choices are being made within an ever narrowing range; necessity is closing in on the maker. But this is the miracle of creation: a reversal is also in progress, for the embrace of necessity gives birth to a greater freedom. With each new choice, new, more refined choices arise; creative freedom I growing exponentially. [. . .] The perfect end to the exercise of freedom is perfect necessity. We think: This bowl, or this life, can only be what it must be!'

Key decisions were made by our forebears which were followed by those who came later and who made ever more refined choices and so, today, we are what we are, a particular Unitarian and Free Christian community. That is to be one kind of religious community and not another – in the language of the parable it is to be a bowl not a pitcher. In our four-and-a-half centuries long shaping certain key dimensions have defined our particular shape and they were drawn, primarily but not exclusively, from our normative text the Bible.

The first is a commitment to an insight and feeling that what we call 'God' somehow holds everything together - is, even, somehow meaningfully the whole of creation. As one of our eighteenth-century forebears, George de Benneville, said: 'The inner spirit makes us feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things.' It is this basic insight that caused us to be dubbed with the name of Unitarians. (In passing, but importantly, this doesn't definitively rule out a person holding Trinitarian understandings of God belong to our number because there are ways of understanding the Trinity that say something very similar to this).

The second is our continued commitment to the values of the prophets of ancient Israel, namely, justice faithfulness, steadfast love, mercy, truthfulness, goodwill and peace. This was summed up in the book attributed to the 6th century BCE prophet Micah (6:6,8):

'With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?'

The third is our continued commitment to and love of the person and teachings of Jesus as our central paradigm of how to respond as a human being to these prophetic values. A response which Jesus summed up in his call to love God and our to love neighbour like ourselves.

The fourth is our commitment to the use of reason in matters of religion. This we also found in the Biblical texts (mostly via St Paul) but it was amplified and clarified for us in our rediscovery during the Renaissance of the great thinkers of Greek and Roman antiquity and which was further developed and refined by us during the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Now I argure - very strongly - that everything else we do with our tradition – with this thing that is Unitarian and Free Christian tradition and not something else, which is a bowl and not a pitcher – THIS constitutes our freedom. But what we are NOT free to do is to abandon them. These commitments are what have constituted us as a distinct people and which have given us a coherent and practical framework to encourage in ourselves and others (even when they believe differently from us) the fullest possible human flourishing. Thesefour basic commitments are, of course, what drove all our social, political and inter-faith work and enabled us to say collectively that "we need to not think alike to love alike".

Reconnecting with these shaping forces and therefore our community's particular shape (as a bowl and not a pitcher) reminds us, a George Kimmich Beach notes, that we are 'heirs of a noble tradition of liberal concern for civic values, social justice, and peace'. Now the cry is often made by modern secularists and members of our own communities that this heritage is (now) wholly secular but, in truth, our tradition bears witness to the fact that this heritage is rooted in a theological affirmation, namely, 'the dignity and sanctity of every person as a bearer of the image of God.'

George Kimmich Beach goes on to say that:

'We must understand ourselves as engaged in [this] historic mission. We must believe that history is the story of freedom, agonized by the global struggle for justice. Or else our salt has lost its savour and may as well be cast out.'

Too many modern liberal churches are failing to understand this and are betraying the tradition by reducing 'freedom' to 'personal preference' and to a 'do your own thing' attitude. They are confusing 'liberal' with 'lax' and are adopting an ideology of freedom from shared obligations. Such a view is in danger of turning the liberal church into something that is no more than a refuge from 'orthodoxy' and no more than a club for 'our kind of people, a mono-culture of the like-minded.'

My task as your minister is to encourage us strongly to resist this kind of sloppy, ill-disciplined and lax religion. It is to encourage in us a desire continually to be affirming the profound values which makes us one kind of religious community and not another.

So, to conclude. If we find ourselves called (in any way) by the liberal tradition expressed here we are no longer be free to believe whatever we want. We are only free to believe 'what we must and to do what we must in order to fulfil our human vocation' - a vocation which is nothing less than a calling to help create a larger and more flourishing humanity.

To lightly paraphrase the great early nineteenth-century American Universalist ChristianJohn Murray, we must once again:

'Go out into the highways and byways of our world and give the people, blanketed with decaying and crumbling faiths and philosophies, something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them, not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.'