Sunday, 31 January 2010

Inevitable knowledge . . .

My text for this Sunday was such a mess of corrections that as I sit down to revise and then post it I realize I simply don't have time to tidy it up so I'll cut straight to the chase - in so far as what follows is anything so clear cut . . .
    The immediate context of the service was Holocaust Memorial Day in which we remember an event which has radically shaped us all our self-understandings but, more than any other group, that of the Jewish people.  To this end I told a story about something I often notice when teaching theology in the Jewish/Christian context.  What that was in detail need not be rehearsed here but it brought to the fore the fact that at the conservative end of the religious spectrum (for good and ill and both Jewish and Christian) people act because their faith is something that comes to them "as an inevitable knowledge" with the "force of a revelation", as a "fact that splits [them] like a scimitar."
    I, as a modern skeptical liberal (or, to use Diarmaid MacCulloch's felicitous phrase, "a critical friend of Christianity"), simply cannot share this faith with them because, for many complex reasons, that religious story simply doesn't come across to me in this fashion. In fact, for the most part, most of it strikes me as utterly implausible.
    However, the Judaeo/Christian story (and many of its practices) still carries for me (and possibly for many of you) a residual charge enabling me, on occasions, tantalizingly to sense something of the power it might formally have had. But, for all this, I have to be honest and say I don't think that, for people like me, it can be recharged as it stands and become again "as an inevitable knowledge" coming with the "force of a revelation", as a "fact that splits [me] like a scimitar."
    So the pressing need for someone like me (especially since I have a leadership role in a church) is to ascertain what does in fact come to me (and, therefore, perhaps to you) in this fashion? At this point I cited some words from a book by James C. Edwards which I continue to find hugely helpful:

'Dewey was right: in our time the problem with supernatural religion is belief. However lovely and powerful the stories of the gods and their minions for us are, there's just no way that they are "required, as a necessity requires." To say that we can't really believe in them is just to say that we aren't now forced to; they are not any more for us "inevitable knowledge." There are plausible - more plausible - alternative accounts of the phenomena upon which the supernatural has based its claims on us: in the public square, or at least in the college quad, genes now compete with gods, and win. For us full
Pathos [impressiveness], full belief, comes only with an intellectual or artistic inevitability. Having put myself to the question with all the scruple I can muster, it's only what I cannot help saying that seems genuinely true, and therefore capable of being believed and acted upon with a clean heart. That's what we admire (surely on the whole naively) as the achievement of natural science' (in The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism by James C. Edwards, p. 231).

    "Full belief, comes only with an intellectual or artistic inevitability." This strikes me as a hugely important point to ponder. The "intellectual inevitability" refers, of course, to the power the results (some assured, but many provisional) of the natural sciences have over me (us). They do persuade me in the powerful sense I explored above and can be believed and acted upon with a clean heart.
    The "artistic inevitability" refers to those things that simply seem 'true' even after one has stripped away from them (and yourself) all supernatural beliefs and also, therefore, stopped doing old fashioned metaphysics. It refers to those poems, paintings, pieces of music and people that, the moment you hear or see them, come to you with the astonishing "force of a revelation" as "facts that split you like a scimitar" and which then become in your life "as an inevitable knowledge". I can also believe in their 'truth' and act upon them with a clean heart.
    My list of things that fit into these two categories is very long and I won't rehearse them here (should you want to know my blog will give you many clues as to what they are).  To be sure in all this supernatural belief has definitively gone but left in its place is the kind of belief that does make sense to and empower someone like me who just can't believe in the old ways anymore.
    That'll do for the moment - there's more. much. much more but I just can't figure out how to say it at the moment . . .

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Life and Times of Dr George de Benneville (1703-1793)

One of the most interesting (to my mind anyway) of the eighteenth-century Universalists was George de Benneville. Here is a link to a brief internet biography about him. You will see that it cites the Life and Times of Dr George de Benneville (1703-1793) by Alfred D. Bell as the only biography. Well, for years I kept an eye out for this - nothing. Then the internet came along and the wonderful ABE Books transformed the search for second hand books - but still no luck. Then about two months ago I found it! It wasn't cheap but, after all these years, it was a must have. Anyway, in the hope that there will be others out there who would be interested in reading about this remarkable pioneer of liberal religion below is a link to a pdf scan I have just made of it. The book is long out of print and I trust I'm not infringing copyright in doing this - if I am let me know and I'll take it down - but in the interests of making George de Benneville's name known again here it is for your delectation.

A PDF copy of The Life and Times of Dr George de Benneville (1703-1793)

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Our life of enlightened things is sheltered by that darkness

Last week, in connection with the natural disaster of the Haiti earthquake, I suggested that there was great merit in looking at the world with loving-attention rather than looking at it as if it were a riddle to be solved. Citing James C. Edwards, I suggested that:

"From the perspective of loving attention, no story is ever over; no depths are ever fully plumbed. The world and its beings [which includes us] are a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted. Thus the sound human understanding is essentially a religious response to the Pathos [impressiveness] of existence, not a magical or superstitious one. It is a response that makes sheer acknowledgment, not control, central"
(in Ethics without Philosophy, University Press of Florida, 1989, by James C. Edwards,  p. 236).

I went on to say that approaching the world thus was not merely an act of final and hopeless surrender to brute natural facts because loving attention allows a kind of 'disclosure' to occur in which we see that the world and its constituent beings are a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted. I concluded by suggesting that such a "disclosure" can inspire at least some of us to committed loving-action in the world by offering us an enabling, enlivening and impassioning vision of natural Divinity.

However, despite my encouraging words such a picture of natural Divinity will feel to many people not as an enabling, enlivening and impassioning vision but quite the contrary. The image that often pops into people's minds at the moment one begins to picture Divinity in a naturalistic non-personal way is of unfeeling, solid, impassive rock and that is, to many people, just a plain scary idea.

It seems worthwhile then to meditate a little upon what the idea of rock might show us about the world.

Given this fear it should come as no surprise to realise that many of our artistic or poetic depictions of rock seek to set it off attractively and divertingly by the addition of something else - a verdant and fertile plain or valley, a line of trees, some beautiful Alpine flowers, a shepherd's hut, or sheep safely grazing behind carefully built and lovingly maintained stone walls.

But these diversions - though undeniably beautiful - all too easily avert our gaze from the apparently harsh, hard, unyielding and cold rock itself. We consistently (though understandably) fail to heed the prophet Isaiah's (Deutero-Isaiah) advice: "Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock [whence] ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit [whence] ye are digged" (Isa 51:1). (Isaiah thinks, of course, that Abraham is the rock but I think his choice of metaphor allows us to consider Abraham himself as being hewn from that same rock - making us all sons and daughters of Rock).

In consequence I have long admired those who have been brave enough to address the rock directly such as the poets Robinson Jeffers, to whom we shall turn in a moment and Wallace Stevens, with whom we begin.

In one of Stevens' late poems called "The Rock" there is a passage which reads: "It is not enough to cover the rock with leaves. / We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground / Or a cure of ourselves that is equal to a cure / Of the ground, a cure beyond forgetfulness" (in Collected Poems) In a beautiful and thoughtful book about Stevens'poetry caed Things Merely Are (Routledge 2005) the philosopher Simon Critchley suggests that:

"What seems to be at stake in 'The Rock' . . . is the desire to be cured of the desire for poetry - which returns to the theme of therapy and gives it an unexpected twist. This is what Stevens means by 'a cure of the ground'. That is poetry can endlessly make 'meanings of the rock', but if these meanings are nothing when set against the rock, then they are worthless, they are gaudy baubles. The cure, then, is the rock itself, 'the main of things'" (pp. 83-84).

When we encounter the Rock - whether an actual cliff face rearing-up before us or, metaphorically, in the unyielding horror of a frightening and utterly indifferent natural event such as an earthquake - we are easily tempted to deflect our gaze from it by decorating it or obscuring it from view behind foreground scenery (whether poetical, theological or philosophical). Stevens' point, amplified for us by Critchley is, not that the making of poetry and theology are necessarily bad responses, but that they fail in their purported aim of revealing meaning and beauty in human life when they cannot be set against the Rock itself. An event such as the Haiti earthquake sets all our poetic, theological and philosophical endeavours against the Rock and, in an instant, so much of it is revealed to be utterly vacuous and gaudy. The only cure for this Stevens feels exists is to be found in the Rock itself.

If we can understand the Rock (if, that is Stevens and Isaiah are right) then somehow this would be to understand something about ourselves and, when we better understand ourselves, then there is a greater chance that the things we make (poïesis), as we dwell in the world, namely our poetry, theology, buildings, science, social systems and networks, language and politics, will be better able to be set against the Rock without seeming gaudy and vacuous.

Another poet who has meditated upon Rock in this fashion is Robinson Jeffers. Before I offer my concluding words we need to hear/read his poem "Oh, Lovely Rock". (The poem can be found in both The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers and The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers both published by Stanford University Press)

We stayed the night in the pathless gorge of Ventana Creek,
        up in the east fork.
The rock walls and the mountain ridges hung forest on forest
        above our heads, maple and redwood,
Laurel, oak, madrone, up to the high and slender Santa Lucian
        firs that stare up the cataracts
Of slid-rock to the star-color precipices.

We lay on gravel and
        kept a little camp-fire for warmth.
Past midnight only two or three coals glowed red in the cooling
        darkness; I laid a clutch of dead bay leaves
On the ember ends and felted dry sticks across them and lay
        down again. The revived flame
Lighted my sleeping son's face and his companion's and the ver-
        tical face of the great gorge wall
Across the stream. Light leaves overhead danced in the fire's
        breath, tree trunks were seen: it was the rock wall
That fascinated my eyes and mind. Nothing strange: light-gray
        diorite with two or three slanting seams in it,
Smooth polished by the endless attrition of slides and floods; no
        fern or lichen, pure naked rock . . . as if I were
seeing rock for the first time. as if I were seeing through the
        flame-lit surface into the real and bodily
And living rock. Nothing strange . . . I cannot
Tell you how strange: the silent passion, the deep nobility and
        childlike loveliness: this fate going on
Outside our fates. It is here in the mountain like a grave smiling
        child. I shall die and my boys
Will live and die, our world will go on through it's rapid agonies
        of change and discovery; this age will die,
And wolves have howled in the snow around a new Bethlehem:
        this rock will be here grave, earnest, not passive: the energies
That are its atoms will still be bearing the whole mountain above:
        and I, many packed centuries ago,
Felt its intense reality with love and wonder, this lonely rock.

Approaching the world with loving-attention rather than as a riddle to be solved enables us to see through the Rock as it has often been presented to us by our culture because a feature of such love, to cite James C. Stewart, "is that it never literalises any perception; love is always ready to go deeper, to see through what it has already seen" (Edwards p. 236). Jeffers' love and wonder enabled him to feel that he had gone deeper and seen through what he has seen to what he calls the Rock's "intense reality" which, though "grave" and "earnest" is not at the same time "passive" for he sees in it "the energies / That are its atoms" - energies which are sufficient to bear up a whole mountain for millennia.

All this language is circling around what for me is a beautiful intuition that the Rock, the Earth is a "serving bearer" - it holds everything up, not just mountains but all sentient life and everything non-sentient (which has it's own kind of life). Without the so-called "brute" matter that is the Rock, the Earth or the "dark physis" - from which everything is hewn - nothing is made, not we ourselves, nor our poetry, theology, language, societies etc. etc.. As James C. Edwards beautifully sums up:

"If there were no darkness that surges and rises out of itself, no earth, then there would be nothing to emerge into the light of our conceptions, nothing to demand that light, however flickering. Our life of enlightened things is sheltered by that darkness" (The Plain Sense of Things, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997, p. 169).

When we are faced again with what we will always be tempted to call brute, unfeeling "dark" natural facts or events it will, in my opinion, be worth remembering that "our life of enlightened things is sheltered by that darkness". This "darkness" - encountered so tangibly in the Rock - is what allows our very conceptions of goodness, truth, beauty and love to exist and to light up, if for only a moment, something of the deep, ultimately unfathomable mystery of being an existence.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Not a riddle to be solved . . . the Haiti earthquake

Like many of you I have been following the increasingly terrible news about the earthquake in Haiti. Clearly, when confronted by such events, the first thing to do is simply to act in some practical way to help and I'm sure many of us will contribute to the current Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal. But in the immediate aftermath we naturally begin to reflect upon the event in philosophical and theological ways. We must be grateful that our reflections today are not occurring in extremis. We shall return to action at the conclusion.

It is not, of course, only our own age that has undertaken such a reflection. In the Stoic Seneca's (c. 4 BC-AD 65) ninety-first letter he memorably reflects upon how he thinks we should respond to the terrible fire that completely destroyed Lyons sometime in the 60s of the common era. We think, too, of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake which sent the whole of Europe into a profound period of reflection upon the possible meanings of such horrific events. Remember that Voltaire's (1694-1778) famous novel "Candide" was written in part as a response to this earthquake in which many were struggling to see how is could be possible that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds". Many people thought it had to be the best of "all possible worlds" because, of course, an omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God had made it. In more recent times , for example, the huge Tsunami triggered another round of such reflection across the world.

The primary religious question that comes up in our own European and North American culture at these times has never been more succinctly and powerfully put than by Voltaire's contemporary, David Hume (1711-1776) in his summary of what he called Epicurus's "little riddle":
"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"

It should come as no surprise to hear exactly this argument played out during the week on a number of radio programmes and in the papers. But if we continue to insist on placing horrific natural disasters side by side with simplistic expressions of the reality the word "God" might refer to then, inevitably, such riddles arise which seem to require answers.

But we don't necessarily need to accept the world-view which gives rise to these kinds of riddles and invests them with such bewitching power. We can begin to look at and respond to the world in a different way and my tentative comments today centre around the word "riddle."

It appears that, in 1942, John Maynard Keynes made some comments which were recorded by the mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson who is famous for his work in quantum field theory, solid-state physics, and nuclear engineering. Apparently Keynes said:

"Why do I call Newton a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it *as a riddle*, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thoughts to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood . . ." (cited in Ethics without Philosophy by James C. Edwards,  p. 235).

It is hard to over-emphasize how deeply this picture of how we come to understand the world has rooted itself in European and North American culture and it has encouraged us all, since birth, to think almost exclusively that the appropriate way to proceed in all human endeavours is to "understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term" (ibid p. 235). This may be summed up by saying that we have often seen the world as a riddle, and our responsibility is, somehow, to solve it (ibid p. 235). We have also too often allowed ourselves to think that our moral and ethical responsibilities in this matter can be resolved by involvement in a religion that is also concerned to solve this riddle.

But is this world (with or without God) actually best thought of, and lived in, as if it were a technical riddle to be solved? Perhaps some people will always think it is but it is clear that one can approach the world very differently.

Instead we can, for example, begin to approach the world with an attitude of loving regard. As Edwards notes, "a feature of [such]love is that it never literalises any perception; love is always ready to go deeper, to see through what it has already seen" (ibid p. 236). He goes on to say:

"From the perspective of loving attention, no story is ever over; no depths are ever fully plumbed. The world and its beings [which includes us] are a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted. Thus the sound human understanding is essentially a religious response to the Pathos [impressiveness] of existence, not a magical or superstitious one. It is a response that makes sheer acknowledgment, not control, central" (ibid p. 236).

Looking at the world with loving-regard we do not find an answer to a riddle but, if Edwards is right - and I'm inclined to agree with him - we are, instead, brought face to face with sheer acknowledgment. But such an acknowledgment is not merely an act of final and hopeless surrender to some brute, static, natural fact for remember in what Edwards thinks this acknowledgment consists: namely that the world so regarded offers us a kind of 'disclosure' that it and its constituent beings are a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted.

Even if you only catch a glimpse of what it is Edwards is (and I am) trying to show that will be enough to place you on the uncomfortable and frightening boundary between, on the one hand, the safe world of detached theories (which can only see the world as a series of riddles - of a technical kind - to be solved) and, on the other, the world of engagement and service in which you might be fully incarnated in Nature open to the risks of life, its miracle and its infinite depth.

It is really only in people who allow the momentum of their loving-regard to carry them over into incarnated, Christ-like loving service in the Natural world that we can begin to see at work what we have for centuries called 'God'. In their loving-regard for, and their selfless service to the 'other', all theological and philosophical riddles simply seem to dissolve.

None of what I have just said (written) makes what has happened and is happening in Haiti any better or less horrific. However, what I have just offered you might contribute to changing the way we respond to such events.

We can choose to continue to face them holding to a world-view which thinks it can *only* understand the world by pulling it apart, analyzing and cataloging it, and by splitting it into the Natural and the Divine, the sacred and the secular. But when the world presents herself to us in events such as the earthquake in Haiti alongside the horror there also rears up enervating and debilitating riddles that make Nature merely blind and brute and which destroys any enlivening and inspiring conception of Divinity. Holding to such a view we can still act but it becomes the heroic if utterly admirable action of the hopeless.

On the other hand we can face these same events in a way that tends to keep Nature and the Divine, the sacred and the secular together. If we do this then the consequences of an earthquake present themselves, not as a dreadful riddle to be solved, but as a call to respond to all those people caught up in the aftermath with loving-regard and service and to push on lovingly into the infinite depths of existence itself.

In such loving service none of our old riddles are solved but it seems there is good evidence that some kind of  'answer' to life is found (it is an 'answer' only insofar as it remains a deed and not a theory) and we are enabled to go on again trying our hardest to improve, not only our own lot, but that of all people.

The horror remains before us all, and unimaginably so for all those in Haiti. My heart goes out to them and my love is sent - as will some of my money - and it goes, not because their plight presents me with an unanswerable riddle (the consequences of which I must assuage) but because I trust implicitly in those people who, by their commitment to loving-regard, will incarnate a Divine yet wholly natural love in the heart of our world.

"We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us - and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (I John 3:16-20 NRSV).

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Gold, frankincense, myrrh, a teapot, some broken crockery and some old cabbage - assembling reminders for Epiphany

In 1934 Stanley Spencer produced the first of what have been called his 'sex paintings' entitled "The Lovers" or "The Dustman." They have been called 'sex paintings', not because they portray the sexual act in any obvious way, but because in them we see Spencer using his sexual feelings to explore certain religious and spiritual themes.

At about the time he was producing these paintings Spencer had returned to live in his birth-place, the Berkshire village of Cookham, in an attempt to reconnect with some of his childhood experiences - epiphanies which he called his "Cookham-feelings".

Although Spencer's picture is one exploring the idea of the resurrection - the Dustman being the resurrected person returning to the joy of his wife, neighbours and colleagues - the fact that his friends and colleagues have come to him and his wife to "see this thing which has come to pass" and that, in so doing, they have brought three gifts of a teapot, an item of broken crockery and old cabbage (apparently taken out of the collected rubbish itself), seems to offer me a strong echo of the season of Epiphany. This English word derives from a Greek one (epiphainein) meaning "to manifest", or "to display" and the majority Christian tradition holds that what was being made manifest was Christ's status as the incarnation of God and this display was first seen by the Gentiles (i.e. the non-Jews) in the form of the Astrologer priests - the Magi, or three wise men - who brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Because of my role as a chaplain and teacher in a wide variety of theological circles I continue to find the story resonant and useful (it connects with my real life in some way) but what happens if the way you look or frame the world causes you to doubt, not only the historical veracity of this story, but also the theological?

(NB: it's worth remembering here that if it is clearly problematic to literalise the story and accept its veracity (and others) on this basis, it is also problematic to reject it on the same literal grounds).

Given this it can be easy for this story to become a free-spinning wheel that no longer connects 'behind the scenes' (so to speak) with any useful piece of the machinery of your actual life. At this time of year many of us spin this wheel simply because we have a folk memory (often hopelessly romanticised) that turning it used to do something very useful for us. Even though it hasn't worked for a while we continue to say to ourselves that maybe it might this time - as we say, hope springs eternal - and so we give it a spin - just in case, just in case.

But merely continuing to spin the wheel in this 'hopeful' fashion won't help at all because the complex Christian 'mechanism' that lay behind the still shiny and attractive casing is (in you, at least) either rusted solid or not working because there are so many broken connections. If you really want that wheel to do anything useful again you have to find ways to open up access panels here and there, crawl inside and undertake, not merely a little lubricating - for the situation is far worse than this will cure - but some serious rebuilding. I think Spencer's painting helps us unstick things and/or make a few initial, trial reconnections. I can't guarantee you will reconnect the wheel but you won't know if you don't try.

Excursus: ALL I am doing in what follows is placing beside the traditional Epiphany story (broken for many) an object of comparison. I AM NOT, please do realise this, I AM NOT seeking to replace one interpretation with another - that would be very much to engage in old style metaphysics which I think are wrong. The immediate aim is simply to help us see how we see the Epiphany story so we can better see it for what it is (a picture of the world) and then be free to use it appropriately without making the mistake of thinking that it is a literal representation of the world.

So assuming Spencer's picture does contain some echoes of the Christian Epiphany then it behoves us to look at the major differences that exist between the Biblical epiphany scene and Spencer's.

The first difference we can see is that we are in the Berkshire village of Cookham in front of a middle-class semi with a nice garden and some topiary; we are not in Bethlehem in a poor inn or stable.

The second is that the figures who seem to be standing in for Mary and Christ (Virgin and incarnation of God) have been transformed into an erotically intertwined and passionate married couple.

The third is that the various other assembled visitors - wise men and shepherds who have come to see this thing which has come to pass - have been transformed into an assorted bunch of other dustmen and women who bear gifts, not of gold, frankincense and myrrh but, instead, a teapot, an item of broken crockery and old cabbage.

So taking these three in order the first suggests to me the thought that to experience any kind of epiphany we are not required to picture some foreign, distant "holy land" and that they are available "now and in England". The past, present and future "holy land" can be thought of, not as another country, but always potentially our own.

The second - the "thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us" - suggests to me that here it is not the arrival on earth of a single Jesus-sized window onto a transcendent divine reality - but an ability to encounter divinity through intertwined and interpenetrating things - sexual pun is intended - in tangible, flesh and blood local situations.

The third, the fact that the traditional gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh offered up to "this thing which has come to pass" have been changed into a teapot, an item of broken crockery and old cabbage suggests to me to consider whether the symbolism of the new gifts that might be appropriate to our encounter of divinity through real intertwined and interpenetrating things might also have changed.

Just to remind you: gold was understood as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of priesthood, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death or, alternatively, gold symbolizing virtue, frankincense symbolizing prayer, and myrrh symbolizing suffering).

What then do might our new gifts symbolise - new gifts, remember, that we have got from the bin? Might our act of pulling them out of the bin be speaking of the need to rescue and re-evaluate certain things we have thrown away.

Perhaps we may see the teapot as a symbol of the desire to restore the ritual of taking time to make a fresh pot of tea to share with the hard-working dustman and all men and women who give their lives in serving others? Is the rescuing of the broken crockery - in my mind a favourite mug - a symbol of the thought that we should offer ourselves up in this ritual tea-ceremony despite our own many flaws and fractures - acknowledging that we are limited, mortal beings? And the old cabbage? Well, it's not as difficult as you might imagine. In our increasingly ecologically aware age (I hope) perhaps it can symbolise our desire that, in our living, we waste nothing and, when something really is too far gone for continued human use, we seek to return it with love to the world - composting and recycling rather than throwing everything into land-fill sites which continue to pollute and damage the earth and water for generations.

I don't know - but then I don't need to - all I'm really drawing your attention to today is the vital need to check now and then whether the various religious wheels we turn in this church - such as Epiphany - do in fact continue to connect with our real lives and, if we find that they don't, to encourage us to see what re-connections we might choose make. But I don't think that this can be done by encouraging you merely to develop your own private languages concerning what these festivals mean. There are very good indications - which I won't rehearse here - that the very idea of a private language is, in fact, nonsense. No, if we are again usefully to celebrate festivals like Epiphany then we need to ensure that we do the repair work together and develop a collective interpretation of the story. Remember here that the repair work consists in holding up objects of comparison and NOT in merely replacing an old picture with a new. The aim is, not to get rid of our old picture, but to see that it is a picture - it is a way of seeing. And seeing that we cannot but see the world in these ways is a vitally important component of true human freedom.

So, all I've attempted today is to build a temporary working scale-model of an Epiphany in which, when we turn its little wheel on the outside of the box, we can see there is a connection with a desire to offer radical hospitality and service to an interprenetrating natural world (considered to be sufficient and divine in itself) and which is kept healthy by acting in it with love in the use and reuse of her natural resources.

It seems to me like a pretty good and useful little model. Try turning the handle - you might like it. But don't forget to then go on to compare it with the Christian story of the Epiphany and see if anything has worked loose and/or reconnects. The point is to help us to see our seeing of Epiphany and, by extension, all our other pictures and stories about the world.


In the service there is the opportunity to respond immediately to the address and one member of the congregation (Nathan) made this point. Because, in the Spencer painting, we have inherited no firm collective idea about how the gifts of a teapot, some broken crockery and a bit of old cabbage might connect to the dustman and his wife, we are forced to look and think about possible connections. However, when we look at the gifts being given in the traditional Epiphany pictures because we have been told, from the age of three, that they refer to kingship, priesthood and death, we just accept (or reject) this and ask no further questions. Spencer's odd gifts help us to look again at the traditional gifts and ask if there are other possible connections to be made. We are encouraged to look and see for ourselves what may be seen rather than merely accept the inherited picture.

This reminded me of a joke:

      A minister was talking to the children during a church service before they left for Sunday School. On this particular Sunday, he was using squirrels for a lesson on being industrious. He started out by saying, "I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is." The children nodded eagerly. "This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause) . . ." No hands went up. "And it is grey (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause) . . .". The children were looking at each other, but still no hands were raised. "And it jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited (pause) . . .". Finally, one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The minister breathed a sigh of relief. "Well," said the boy, "I know the answer must be Jesus . . . but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!"

Must the answer be kingship, priesthood and death . . .

Monday, 4 January 2010

A nota bene to my last post

The "seeing" that I am referring to is really a "doing" it is an act) - a practical way back into the world; trustingly to be commingled in it in an *immediate* way (without dividing the world into subject-object); about reinhabiting reality. It is the insight I think dear Spinoza was pointing us towards, as well as what Paul Wienpahl was trying to do. It is also what I sense Thoreau was trying to show us in Walden.

The picture in this post is one of Herbert Wendell Gleason's photos of Walden Pond.

St John the Divine, Isaiah, ducks and rabbits - or an odd, but important, way of seeing the world

This is a considerably expanded version of the address I gave on Sunday in church.

Revelation 21:1-6a (RSV)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end."


When I first explored this passage from Revelation - the set new year reading this year in churches which use the Lectionary - I took a generally negative stance towards it and argued that, in the realm of practical and everyday human politics, the dream of a perfect human society being delivered by God complete from on high was, not only implausible, but also potentially very dangerous.

I pointed instead to my prefered vision of the "coming" of the kingdom found in Isaiah where a voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain" (40:3-4 RSV). I felt that here we encountered a more plausible image of how the kingdom of God might be brought about i.e. by encouraging us to engage in incremental human change.

But, of course, there is no need to take any Biblical text one-dimensionally and so where I earlier took these two passages to refer to the realm of public politics and society it is also perfectly legitimate to think of them in relation to inner states of being. In this setting I've increasingly come to the conclusion that St John the Divine's vision may be more apt than Isaiah's. Here's what I mean . . .

I inherit, like many of us, a Cartesian world-view shaped by the methods of the natural sciences. From this point of view knowledge is mostly understood as something slowly and incrementally acquired; individual facts are collected about the world and then a variety of theories are proposed which attempt to show how these many disparate facts might coherently hang together. As new facts are discovered new theories are proposed which try to take them into account. The ultimate aim being the achievement of a fuller, more rounded and complete description of the world. This has been a stunningly successful project. If you are deeply rooted in the Protestant rational dissenting tradition that gave birth, not only to this particular church, but also to key aspects of the modern scientific secular world-view itself, then it can be tempting beyond belief to adopt a similar way of approaching self-knowledge. Bewitched by this "scientific picture" self-knowledge also comes to be thought of as something that can be slowly and incrementally acquired. I'm sure you can see that Isaiah's vision fits very well with this outlook.

The problem has proved to be that adopting scientific or quasi-scientific methods (bewitched by a "scientific picture") doesn't turn out to be appropriate to the work of acquiring "self-knowledge" - which can also be described as the project of understanding how to become a fulfilled and flourishing (happy) human being - to have life, as Jesus taught, and have it abundantly. As the American philosopher,  Stanley Cavell, realised self-knowledge does not have anything to do with the acquisition of facts about oneself:

"The more one learns, so to speak, the hang of oneself, and mounts one's problems, the less one is able to say what one has learned; not because you have *forgotten* what it was, but because nothing you said would seem like an answer or a solution: there is no longer any question or problem which your words would match. You have reached a conviction, but not about a proposition; and a consistency, but not in a theory. You are different, what you recognise as problems are different, your world is different" (cited in Ethics without Philosophy - James C. Edwards p. 135).

The point of all the foregoing is to make it clear that our desire for self-knowledge - surely one of the reasons for coming to a church - *cannot* be fulfilled through the collection of more facts or theories about the world but only by bringing about a radical change in our sensibilities so that we come to *see* the same world differently.

What is odd about such radical changes in the way we *see* the world is that they arrive, not incrementally but suddenly. The world appeared one way last night but this morning, somehow, everything has changed. Think of how, although one can know in a factual way that one is mortal, a direct personal brush with death suddenly changes your general sensibility towards this fact. You begin to live differently because you see life differently.

For another example of how the seeing of facts which remain the same can suddenly alter we may take a look at Wittgenstein's famous (if borrowed) "duck-rabbit" (Philosophical Investigations Part II, §xi) printed at the top of this blog. When you first look you see it only as a "duck" but then, lo!, it suddenly (even if it takes a while on the first occasion!) changes to a "rabbit". Once you can see both and flip between them - where formally you could see only one - you realise that something about you has changed. But notice it is not that you now know more hard facts about the world (after all the picture remains the same) or facts about your self it is simply that the world - or at least this funny little drawing - is seen by you differently. Your *sensibility* has altered "before your own eyes"; this popular colloquialism - "before your own eyes" will become important in a moment so hold on to it.

Anyway, it should be obvious that this sudden "arrival" of a new way of seeing the world is much more like St John the Divine's vision of a new heaven and a new earth suddenly coming down from out of the sky than it is like Isaiah's.

OK, all well and good, but this leaves us with the rather important question of what kind of radical change in the way in which we see the world is to be encouraged - or more honestly what kind of change am I, as a minister of religion working within the Christian tradition, trying to encourage in others (and myself of course)? I'll remain with the "duck-rabbit" to help me. But please remember this is just a simple teaching aid to help you to a sudden change in the way you see the complex world because seeing the complex world is infinitely more complicated than seeing a simple picture that reveals itself alternately as a "duck" or "rabbit". So, let's stick with the relatively simple for the moment!

Traditionally, of course, many (most?) of the world's religions have sought to encourage potential adherents to experience such a sudden radical change - to undergo the life-changing experience called conversion. But, if they succeed in this aim they also (often silently) seek definitively to replace a person's former view of the world with the new one. So, if my religion's way of looking at the world reveals "duck" and I find that you claim it reveals "rabbit", then I am likely to want to get you to see "duck" and, at the same time, to persuade you that seeing a "rabbit" is, not only false (at best a mere illusion) but also morally wrong and, in important ways, deleterious to your ultimate well-being and/or salvation.

But I'm trying to encourage us to SEE THAT we see that the picture can be seen as either a "duck" or a "rabbit" but without, as I do this, seducing you into thinking I am making a claim that we can see "through" this kind of seeing to an underlying  universal and essential picture of ducks and rabbits. Even with this new kind of seeing it is important that I get you to realise that we cannot escape seeing it as EITHER a "duck" or a "rabbit" - we are NOT enabled to see what we might call a "dubbit" from a position sub species aeternitatis ("from the perspective of the eternal"). 

I want to effect a sudden change in us - in the first instance at least - so that (before our very own eyes) we are enabled to "see something about seeing itself" rather than worry about what it is that we see at any particular moment. Only then, can I move honestly to my next point: replace either the word "duck" or "rabbit" with the word "Christianity" and you might just suddenly catch a glimpse of the very unusual kind of "Christianity" it is I am encouraging us to practice here. This is not a crude relativism because I am encouraging us to life fully out of our ways of seeing the world but being more honest and clear about our ways of seeing the world - seeing that we are seeing the world in a certain way.

Enough! That will have to do, utterly inadequate as it is to my task . . .

One of my philosophical heroes, Paul Wienpahl, said the following which so resonates with what I am trying to say today that I'll must begin to draw to a close with them:

". . . I have grown tired of thinking and the rational. This is not to say that thinking and the rational can be found to be unimportant. It is rather to say that something else slips in. I feel the need for control, and, hence, for the rational and reasonable, as strongly as ever. But from investigation I have gone to reflection, — from the river to the pool, from the clear and clean to the turgid and opaque. The way is not easy and perhaps I should not have selected it for myself."

I'm acutely aware that what I am saying will simply seem to many of you to be dreadfully turgid and opaque, but I have offered you these words at the beginning of a new year because I really do think that if a modern, meaningful form of Christianity (in fact any traditional world-view) is to survive and flourish in this coming century then this apparently odd way of seeing the world needs to become much more commonplace throughout the human species. Why? Well, I'll just offer two of many reasons.

Firstly, people are less likely to engage in religiously or philosophically derived violence if they can be helped to see that, without changing the world in anyway at all, their beloved "duck" can also appear as a "rabbit" but without going on to create new false imperialist universalist religions which claim to be able to see behind "ducks" and "rabbits" a truer "dubbit."

Secondly, because anyone who suddenly sees this, instantly experiences something (if only fleetingly at first) of that state in which our attachment to desire for things, people or theories about the world is overcome and, at last, they take their first breaths of the abundant life Jesus and many other great religious sages such as the Buddha promised could be ours.

That we all move a little closer to this more peaceful and abundant life is my new year wish for us all.