Sunday, 28 February 2010

To pluck the living flower

Last week Susanna and I went to Anglesey Abbey to look at the snowdrops. We were graced with a windless, cold, sunny day which only seemed to heighten their beauty. Their presence has remained with us throughout the week.

I'm in a particularly Lucretian mood at the moment and have been  re-reading again his sublime poem "De Rerum Natura" - On the Nature of Things - as well as corresponding with a beloved old friend and teacher on the delights of Epicurean philosophy, the philosophy Lucretius adopted. Yesterday, as I was wondering what on earth to say today, he sent me a set of thoughts centering around the opening to Book 4 of De Rerum Natura in which Lucretius imagines himself walking on the Muses' mountain. You will remember that in Greek mythology the Muses were the goddesses or spirits who inspired the creation of literature and the arts. In David R. Slavitt's recent translation (which I thoroughly recommend) the passage reads:

The air is thin up here and it's hard to breathe as I pick
my way along the heights of the Muses' mountain, putting
one foot after another as carefully as I can.
No one has walked this vertiginous path before, and I feel
both fear and exhilaration, as I look round at flowers
no man has ever seen, let alone gathered to make
a chaplet for his brow. My purpose, as well, is lofty -
to free the minds of men from the bonds of their
    superstitions.



Ah, "to free the minds of men from the bonds of their superstitions". This seems to me to remain a central task of a religious community such as our own.

The snowdrops and my friend's nudge towards the opening of Book 4 of DRN arrived in my imagination at the same time as, what might at first seem like an unlikely bedfellow of a text, Karl Marx's 1844 essay "A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right". This essay contains one of the most quoted anti-religious sentences of all time, namely religion "is the opium of the people." But, when you read the sentence in context you will quickly see that Marx is not mindlessly dishing religion but saying something along these lines - religion is founded on false premises and has shaped the way people view and talk about the world. However, even such a false view of the world has enabled people to express its real suffering and to protest against it, it has been the "sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions." All these things are true but, and it is a huge "but", traditional religion has never enabled a proper cure, it has only ever masked reality from people, and so its ameliorating effect upon its adherents can meaningfully be compared with opium. Marx thought that if he could persuade people to stop taking the drug then simultaneously they could "give up their illusions about their condition" and also "a condition that requires illusions."

Does this not aim sound remarkably like Lucretius' - "My purpose, as well, is lofty - to free the minds of men from the bonds of their superstitions." This is probably not entirely coincidental because Marx's doctoral dissertation of 1841 was entitled "The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature."

The connections don't stop there. You will recall in Slavitt's translation the moment where Lucretius speaks of gathering flowers to make "a chaplet for his brow". In the rather more strict translation by W.H.D. Rouse the line reads: "I love to pluck new flowers, and to seek an illustrious chaplet for my head.

Marx concludes the opening section of his essay with a similar image designed to express something of the hope he has for humanity after it has abandoned superstitious, supernatural religion:

"Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself."

Is it too much to suggest that Marx was up there in the mountain of the Muses with Lucretius when he wrote this? I don't think so. Both Marx and Lucretius wanted us - you and me - to pluck living flowers and to do that by consciously abandoning a supernatural view of the world.

Even though religion's basic intentions (whether Greek, Roman or the Judaeo-Christianity), its cry for justice, its desire for solace and meaning, its desire to pluck flowers were absolutely real and to be taken with utmost seriousness and respect. Marx and Lucretius thought the flowers followers of religion plucked were imaginary and the pleasure they gave them was like that offered by a strong opiate which could effectively mask the pain of the chains which bound people tightly to many dysfunctional and oppressive systems of government and belief.

Flowers can teach us many things - consider the lilies of the field Jesus taught us - and it seems to me that one of them is to offer us glimpses of how we might begin to experience the joyous freedom of living in this natural world free from the fear of oppressive gods and religious institutions. So freed we can be deeply grateful for Nature's life giving potential but without ever feeling that she is a brutal, domineering and oppressive god whom we should fear and whom we should seek to ameliorate by offering up endless sacrifices and intercessory prayers. On this matter the Czech writer Karel Capek wrote:

While nature (or God) can be ruthlessly cruel towards the solicitations of human care, as every farmer or gardener knows, its cruelty is in fact only a temporary suspension of its otherwise reliable generosity. (The ever-present threat of such suspension is what keeps human care both anxious and humble in its relations to nature.) Fortunately for the creatures of the earth, nature by and large tends to fulfill its obligations and promises. And fortunately for the gardener, there is enough of Eden in the mortal earth that despite the vagaries of the weather, the miracle of life erupts and blossoms year after year. Thus, even in January, "without the gardener having suspected or having done anything, crocuses and snowdrops have pricked through the soil" (quoted in Harrison, Robert Pogue, Gardens - An essay on the Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008, p. 28).

Considering the snowdrops of the field can, if we are disciplined and mindful in our looking, begin to free us from chains of superstition and repressive religion and Marx and Lucretius thought the discipline of such a world view was to be had in some way by engaging in and with the natural sciences. But it seems to me that Marx wasn't quite as hip or wise as Lucretius. Marxist philosophy has often thought that religion was understood only to be an instrument of mystification, error and domination and they simplistically contrasted this with the truth of science. In general Marxists have failed to see that religion (and many other cultural constructs), though clearly at times continuing to act as an instrument of mystification, error and domination, also often expressed helpful, liberating utopian ideals and anticipations of a better world which, in turn, have helped us see deficiencies in our world and human organisations and to clarify what should be fought for to bring about a better future. The one Marxist thinker who most fully realised this was Ernst Bloch - and I recommend his work to you.


Lucretius' genuius, on the other hand, was to see that the language of traditional religion and the gods could continue to be used when it allowed us to express beautifully and with attractive rhetorical power our anticipations of a better world just as long as we were careful not to fall back into a naive supernaturalism. (On the importance of poetry and rhetoric see here - especicially my citation of a 1938 review by Michael Roberts). All this was summed up for me by my beloved friend and teacher only yesterday in an email to me on this subject:
   
". . . the gods are reborn by means of Lucretius' poetic discourse, not to tyranny over us, but they do awaken us to the sacred precincts of nature where we may gather and sing hymns of praise, and they allow the spirit to soar as it seeks poetic expression to fundamental truth, which is free of religion."


This thought brings me to Mary Oliver's poem "Moccasin Flowers" (Volume 1 and Volume 2 of her New and Selected Poems cam be found here) - indeed my friend had recently reminded me of her fine body of work. In the following poem, with which I conclude, she succeeds in singing a hymn of praise which can help our spirit soar and which also gives us a poetic expression fundamental truth which is entirely free of supernatural religion. As we struggle to move forward into a new way of being religious (really the subject matter of my entire blog) I think her words, and those of Lucretius (and to a lesser extent Marx) show us a glimpse of a path we might follow. To be sure it is somewhat vertiginous and we will have to tread it with both fear and exhilaration but the prize is worth it - our minds freed from the bonds of superstitions.

Moccasin Flowers
Mary Oliver

All my life,
so far,
I have loved
more than one thing,

including the mossy hooves
of dreams, including'
the spongy litter
under the tall trees.

In spring
the moccasin flowers
reach for the crackling
lick of the sun

and burn down. Sometimes,
in the shadows,
I see the hazy eyes,
the lamb-lips

of oblivion,
its deep drowse,
and I can imagine a new nothing
in the universe,

the matted leaves splitting
open, revealing
the black planks
of the stairs.

But all my life - sofar -
I have loved best
how the flowers rise
and open, how

the pink lungs of their bodies
enter the fore of the world
and stand there shining
and willing--the one

thing they can do before
they shuffle forward
into the floor of darkness, they
become the trees.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Poetically contemplating Venus . . . or some further thoughts on a non-theistic, naturalistic religion

This Sunday I do not have to give an address as Jackie Metcalfe (a member of the congregation and committee) is to take the service - thanks Jackie. You can read what she said here. This break in the unrelenting need to write a weekly address gives me the opportunity to write and post this brief blog which picks up on some themes I explored back in in 2008 whilst on sabbatical in Avignon - namely, what might a liberal Christian church do after liberalism, Christianity and church that is meaningfully connected (consistent) with its procession through the ages but which is, at the same, time not trapped by an imagined requirement to maintain an identity with its past?
    Here I’m just going to put down a very few notes before lunch as much as a reminder to myself as to anyone else.
    I'm inclined to agree with James C. Edwards that, luckily, we “still have available to us, practices that can contain, concentrate and transmit the sacramental energies - energies for limitation in the face of hubris and for transformation in the face of complacency - that used to be bound up in the stories of the gods.” (Preface p. ix) To this end I have taken, and will continue to take, advice and ideas about how to proceed in this project from the most famous modern bête-noirs of theistic religion Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. To their number I must now add the names of Paul Wienpahl and James C. Edwards.
    But, as much as I admire them, what none of the above did (in their published writings at least) was to try to put their thoughts into a shape that would lead directly to the development of some sort of practice within an extant religious community. To be fair, or course, they never claimed to be doing anything other than simply laying down some of the absolutely essential groundwork required for anyone minded (stupid or stubborn enough) to attempt such a project in *these* times and for those of *us* who find the thinking of these philosophers akin to what we might call (after Edwards) “inevitable knowledge”; knowledge that seems to us as inevitable as a belief in an interventionist and omni-omni-God might have once been. Well, one thing I do know is that I am stupid and stubborn - that much is not in doubt. What is in doubt is whether I have the intellectual and spiritual wherewithal and the right kind of gentle, persistent strength to see such a project through, if not to completion, then at least to a secure beginning. I can't answer that here  . . .
    Anyway, with this now for us “inevitable” world-view (and I quite understand there are other ways of being than that which is inevitable for the “us” to which I belong and to which you may also belong) I continue to look around for practical examples that might help us (and me personally as a struggling contemporary minister of religion) at least to begin to imagine what a modern non-theistic, secular, naturalist religion might look like on the ground.
    The practical examples that, to my mind, “fit” best of all seem to me to be those offered up by the Stoics and the Epicureans and my own preference remains with the latter. Naturally, therefore, I am much taken by Lucretius' glorious poem “De Rerum Natura” (On the Nature of Things). Incidentally, I'm not alone in this kind of thinking within wider Unitarian thought - witness Jefferson.
    But, of course, one can't “make” such a religion just like that. It has to grow out of a group of people (in a cultural context) who begin to experience together an “inevitable knowledge” that drives them to build such a naturalistic, non-theistic religious community. If the project is to succeed it has to have an internal (inevitable) drive that is as compelling as those which helped created the great theistic-religions.
    So - I put out into the blogosphere once again these nascent thoughts and wait to see if anything comes back. In the meantime (because I realise that there might be no responses forthcoming) I'll go back to Epicurus and Lucretius and a meditation on the natural world (poetically framed after Lucretius' proem as Venus) to keep me sane.
    Those who know me personally and regular readers of this blog might wonder here about my commitment to Jesus and the liberal Christian tradition - especially in its Unitarian form. Well, don't forget Jefferson's example above, but also please remember it is a tradition that has always tried to be “open to new light and truth” and that basic stance has always led it to critique “traditional” or “orthodox” Christianity. One well trodden path through the Judaeo-Christian tradition is via Spinoza (as you know a much cited model of mine) and that has allowed to develop a thoroughly naturalistic articulation of divinity as God-or-Nature (Deus-sive-Natura). As I have mntioned a number of time in the pulpit and in this blog I can no longer follow Jesus with regard to God - what was “inevitable knowledge” for him is not for me. But that doesn't negate the value of his actions as a human being or everything he had to say. Here a reminder of Wittgenstein's is in order (in Culture and Value):

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


    Jesus' solutions were his and mine are mine; Jesus was where he was and I am where I am and many things which struck him as inevitable do not strike me so. Who I am owes an immeasurable debt to Jesus and the Christian tradition - and that I am not about to forget or deny - it's just that my conclusions (what actually seems to me “inevitable knowledge” about the world) don't match up to anything one could call meaningfully theistic/supernatural. But also please remember - what I'm trying to articulate in my thinking and writings not precisely some some new "old-style" metaphysics but a practical (and theraputic) way of dwelling poetically on the earth with what is for us (me) now the "inevitable knowledge" of the radically contingent, non-supernaturalist nature of the world.

    Perhaps anti-climactically I'll stop here as it is lunch-time and I need to print up tomorrow's orders of service, sort out the hymns and music etc. etc.. - in the absence of some coherent close I'll simply paste below a few links to some earlier posts I made made during my sabbatical when the pressure of preaching in church was not upon me and I could, like today, express a few off-piste Epicurean thoughts . . .

Deus-sive-Natura - Personality but not a Person

On not going to church on a Sunday . . .

Garden Congregationalism

"If you quarrel with all your sense-perceptions you will have nothing to refer to in judging even those sense-perceptions which you claim are false."

Some more thoughts on Garden Academies

Garden Academies

PS. The picture of me at the top of this blog gazing up at Venus was taken  yesterday at Anglesey Abbey
just outside Cambridge when Susanna and I went to see the snowdrops. A beautiful day and a wonderful visit.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Stand and face me, my love, and scatter the grace in your eyes

Given that today is Valentine's Day it really would be churlish to say the least if I were not to take as my theme "love". But "love" is a problematic theme because it is so easy to over simplify it. In religious circles this process nearly always begins and ends by citing 1 John 4:16 that "Since God is love, he who resides in love resides in God, and God resides in him" (trans. Willis Barnstone) and then leaving matters there as if that were sufficient.
    I don't doubt that most of us here respond in a generally positive way to this idea but in the face of such a claim I, at least, am always left with the practical question I learnt from Lenin - namely "Who? Whom?" which is to say "Who does what to whom for whose benefit?". From my seat in the congregation this translates into: "OK Mr. Preacher Man, you say 'God is love', but what kind of God, showing what kind of love to whom?" I know, and you know, that over its long history Christianity (and every other religion of course) has believed in some pretty unpleasant kinds of gods who have dispensed some pretty unpleasant kinds of love. So, "No, Mr Preacher Man, merely citing 'God is love' will not do - tell me more."
    But merely telling you more about "love" - analysing it more accurately - won't, I think, really help. In his "Confessions" St Augustine asks "What . . . is time? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not." What is true of time seems to me to be true of "love". On the occasions I have tried better to describe and define it the more I'm forced to admit that down that route, at least, "I know not what is this thing called love"
    So today I'm not going to try and tell you something more but rather I'm going to share a 'telling' that encourages us to be alert to 'showings' of love which can for us serve as useful reminders and helpful objects of comparison in the task of coming better to know what love is. If we can do this regularly and together at least we will be better able to sense when we have come into the presence of love - a presencing which causes us to say to each other "Look, love!" and to respond when we agree we can see it there saying simply "Yes! I see". In this context such exchanges can have for us (who can no longer hold metaphysical religious beliefs) what I have called elsewhere (after James C. Edwards' example) the power of "inevitable knowledge" (I spoke a little about that a couple of weeks ago). Such a knowledge can encourage in us a change of attitude to the world and with this comes an improved chance that we will better learn how to show and receive love ourselves.
    It does seem to me that the closest thing to a definition of love we can get to is by sharing with each other expressions of love that we have gathered together as reminders and objects of comparison. So we can, together and in conversation over the years say things like - "Well we have come to feel that A, B and C show 'love' but let us also notice that, say, A is not like B but somewhat closer to C. These comparisons help us to see love in D, E, F and G and out beyond the twenty-six letters of the alphabet into the countless different expressions of love that are possible in our world. Together they help us see more quickly when it is that love begins to reveal its presence.
    No single expression of love can stand on its own as a final definition of love (not even Christ's) because as human-beings, and no matter how perfect we are, are only ever able to map small areas of love's presencing - a presence that is always moving, alive, beyond definition, and always deeper and larger than anything we can imagine, let alone capture in our aesthetic ideas and images - that is to say those poems, stories, songs, pictures and music that are our reminders of love and objects of comparison. For all their beauty and value alone the best they can do is give us approximations of what Love is.
    To paraphrase the philosopher Michael McGhee (in his "Transformations of Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice", CUP, 2000) the expressions of love we see before us in our collection 'speak for, are correspondent with, the possibility of a state of mind and it is *that* which, if it achieves reality, becomes the object of further comparison . . . It beckons towards deeper experience which in turn resonates with the words: indeed we discover the source of the resonance that beckoned' (p. 126).
    But notice McGhee's caveat here - it is only *if* this possible state of mind expressed in the various reminders that form our collection achieves reality that we are pointed towards the source of the resonance itself. In the end our collection of reminders and objects of comparison about love are only worth anything in so far as they actually transform us and achieve reality in our own lives so our own actions and deeds join the collection of reminders and our lives can come to be for others "objects" of comparison. As an earlier verse in 1 John puts it: "My little children, let's not love in word or tongue, but in deeds and in our truth" (1 John 3:18 trans. Willis Barnstone). Love is not something to be defined but lived and experienced. It's a look, see, remember, act, compare, reflect, look, see, remember, act compare process. If you don't engage in it you won't know love - neither in word or speech, nor truth an action. 
    Now, lying hidden behind my attempt at showing something about love is this thought: if "God is love" then, grammatically we open ourselves open to the possibility of saying that "love is God". As long as we ensure that we keep this as an approximation and don't slip into a naive theological realism and make any one of our collected reminders and objects of comparison of "love" literally God, then the reminders we are gathering about love may possibly also serve as useful reminders of what we might be trying to say when we speak of God - in whom we live, move and have our being.
    With this thought I'll make my final gesture today. It helps to be reminded that love seems connected with "being" itself and it seems helpful to suggest that love can only be expressed and recognised in so far as "being" itself "remains open to the full appropriateness of its nature." Here are some words of the translator and philosopher Albert Hofstader which seem suggestive to me:

"To think being, Heidegger says, means to respond to the appeal of its presence, in a response that stems from and releases itself toward the appeal. But this means to exist as a human being in an authentic relationship as mortal to other mortals, to earth and sky, to the divinities present or absent, to things and plants and animals; it means, to let each of these be - to let it presence in openness, in the full appropriateness of its nature - and to hold oneself open to its being, recognising it and responding to it appropriately in one's own being, the way in which one goes on, lives; and then, perhaps, in this ongoing life one may hear the call of the language that speaks of the being of all these beings and responds to it in a mortal language that speaks of what it hears (Albert Hofstader's introduction to 'Poetry Language and Thought' by Martin Heidegger).

    On this Valentine's Day one way we may overhear and be reminded of the language that "speaks of being to all beings and responds to it in a mortal language that speaks of what it hears" is in witnessing love given and received between two people. Sensing the presence of love they may say to each other as Sappho once beautifully said:

"Stand and face me, my love,
and scatter the grace in your eyes"

(Sappho, Fragment 138 - trans. Willis Barnstone)

May the glimpses of love that we see together and gather as reminders be kept in our hearts so that love's grace may be scattered continually amongst us all.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

An achievable perfection - some lessons from lichen . . .

One of Jesus' most problematic, difficult and even impossible calls found in the Gospel according to Matthew is that "to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). I want to look at this because I think it is a teaching that can cause many of us beat ourselves up and leave us feeling utterly inadequate to the task at hand - namely living the good life. We can never come close to what we imagine this perfection is like and so will always feel like we never even really got going. Perhaps Luke thought similarly because in his Gospel he changed the teaching to the slightly more achievable - though still very difficult - "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).
    Today I hope to show us another way of understanding the teaching that, though itself still difficult, is not only possible to achieve but, when done properly, even likely to be achieved.
    The reason Jesus' teaching appears to us impossible to achieve is for the most part because God's perfection is, by definition (one we made), beyond human grasp. We have tended to arrive at a conception of in what God's perfection consists by taking what we think are the best human characteristics/feelings and then expanding them out to infinity; we placed God's perfection infinitely beyond us at the start of the process and then, insanely, went on to encourage ourselves to try to match it. Madness.
    But it seems that Jesus didn't think in this fashion and was, himself, much more interested in how he might offer his hearers a practical way to live, ever more appropriately and fully, as human-beings commingled in the world rather than setting us off on a path that we could never complete.
    Given this thought we might, therefore, choose to take the teaching merely to be a circumlocution for the much more reasonable and achievable "do the best you can folks" or to enjoin, as Luke did, the practice of mercy. However, this doesn't really seem to do justice to the teaching, after all any call to 'perfection' seems to be about something more than simply doing our best - good though that is.
    Here it helps to consider towards what our English adjective 'perfect' might be gesturing. In the NT/Christian scriptures text it is a translation of the Greek word 'telios' which also carries with it the idea of 'completeness' and so is connected with the idea of what we have come to call the 'goal' or 'fulfillment' of life. Consequently we may also say it gestures towards the idea of being 'full-grown' or of achieving a state of 'maturity' and 'wholeness'. As many of you know Jesus' mother tongue was Aramaic and Hebrew, not Greek, so it is worth knowing that a similar range of meanings appears in the Hebrew of the OT/Hebrew scriptures. So, in Psalm 19:7 when we read that "the law of the LORD is perfect" the English word 'perfect' translates 'tamim' which gestures towards ideas of 'completeness', 'wholeness', 'healthfulness', 'having integrity' and being 'entirely in accord with truth and fact'. As we have been wisely reminded a number of times, etymology is not current meaning bu these connections seem to me to be suggestive.
    Maybe Jesus was himself gesturing not towards what he thought was God's 'perfection' but, instead, towards our own possible 'perfection' as human-beings within the perfection of God. Just as God achieves perfection as the kind of thing God is (or might be) so too, he thinks, we may we achieve perfection as the kind of things we are (or might be).
    The trouble with Jesus' teaching as we receive it seems to me, therefore, to be twofold. On the one hand we begin with a misconception about towards what the word 'perfection' gestures and, on the other, we get thoroughly thrown off the track by the unnecessary comparison with God.
    So, as we proceed let us keep to the forefront of our imagination the nexus of meanings lying behind the word 'perfection' - namely, 'wholeness', 'completeness', 'healthfulness', 'integrity'. 'goal', 'fulfillment', 'full-grown' and 'maturity' - and, secondly, let us pick an object of comparison other than God to help us understand what might have been the kind of perfection towards which Jesus was gesturing.
    Before continuing I want to note that Jesus encouraged us in our attempt to understand our place in the world through a consideration of the natural world and he summed this up by speaking of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. I take this approach very seriously and choose as an object of comparison today (I have chosen it before) - if not quite a lily then at least another natural biological thing - lichen. (There are not many sermons on the subject of lichen . . .)
    Now lichen (the name given to the group of some 15,000 thallophytic plants) is very interesting object of comapison because 'it' is a symbiotic association of algae (usually green) and fungi (mostly Ascomycetes and Basidiomycetes).
    What is important in this illustration is that, although it is not at all certain when exactly fungi and algae began for the first time to form lichens, it does appear to have been after they had achieved a certain kind of 'fulfillment' and 'maturity' as separate things. In other words in what consists the perfection of algae freely growing in a pond is different from in what consists its perfection in a symbiotic relationship with fungi. The same is true, of course, for the fungi.
    This means that the 'perfection' of algae and fungi is different when they are growing 'independently' to that perfection they display when growing symbiotically. The former does not trump nor displace the latter - nor vice versa.
    In comparison to lichen a human-being is an unimaginably more complex mix of things that, potentially and in different contexts, could and probably have reached wholly different 'independent' kinds of 'perfection'. So, for example, 70% of our bodies are made up as water. What is the perfection of water? To be the sea or a river, to be rain, cloud or snow, to be a cool glass of water in summer, of the chief component of a lovely cup of tea or ourselves? It depends! Don’t forget that water is itself made up of hydrogen and oxygen. So the same questions over what might be the possible perfect flourishing of hydrogen and oxygen as 'independent.'
    To be a human-being – for the short three-score years and ten we are such an meshwork of things that form something we can identify as a human-being – is to be ourselves a society of things seeking their own 'perfection' in a way not wholly different from which occurs in lichen.
    In other words our 'perfection' as an individual human-being is already a complex interplay of elements and forms also seeking 'perfection'. As the translator Robert Hurley, in his introduction to Gilles Deleuze’s book Spinoza - Practical Philosophy (San Francisco: City Lights Books) wondered, perhaps we should consider ourselves not as individuals at all but rather as "a territory" or a "set of boundaries" - we being a 'place' or 'clearing' where all these things that make us who we are come to light.
    This complexity and interdependence is, of course, not just within ourselves but extends out infinitely beyond us. As Deleuze himself says in the final chapter of his book:

"Every point has its counterpoints: the plant and the rain, the spider and the fly. So an animal, a thing, is never separable from its relations with the world. The interior is only a selected exterior, and the exterior, a projected interior. The speed or slowness of metabolisms, perceptions, actions and reactions link together to constitute a particular individual in the world."


    If, like me (after Spinoza), you are inclined only to use the word 'God' to refer to God-as-somehow-being-Nature and Nature-as-somehow-being-God, then from where I stand God's 'perfection' - that is to say God's 'completeness', 'wholeness', 'healthfulness', 'integrity' etc. - is already intimately related to the possibility of my own 'perfection' as the kind of being I am.
    Understood in this fashion Jesus' call 'to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect' is a call to be perfectly you - not him or her, not the boy or girl next door, but always perfectly who you are and where you are with the materials, equipment and tools of life you have ready-to-hand.
    The result is sometimes (perhaps for the most part) something that wider society values. But it is equally possible that the result can be something wider general society simply doesn't 'get'. I can think of no better way of showing you what I mean here than via Burton Watson's translation of a story about the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu who lived around the 4th century BCE:

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, "I have a big tree named ailanthus. Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them!"
    Chuang Tzu said, "Maybe you've never seen a wildcat or a weasel. It crouches down and hides, watching for something to come along. It leaps and races east and west, not hesitating to go high or low-until it falls into the trap and dies in the net. Then again there's the yak, big as a cloud covering the sky. It certainly knows how to be big, though it doesn't know how to catch rats. Now you have this big tree and you're distressed because it's useless. Why don't you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it. If there's no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?"


Here I may draw to a close by pointing - gesturing - towards what it is we try to do here in this church.
    We bear the name Unitarian because this is a church which belongs to a non-dogmatic tradition which has always gestured towards a wider unity - that tries to express an intuition that "All things are from the Whole and from the Whole all things." (see Chapter 3 p. 15 - p. 21 of the pdf - of John Toland's Pantheisticon)
    And because of this intuition, variety and diversity is intuited as being an expression of the perfection of the Whole and not something about which we must be frightened of feel we must suppress. We celebrate and welcome this variety and diversity and our religious community's simple task is to try to encourage in each other the achievement of the perfection of our own kind whether that turns out to be straight timber or the sort that offers shade by the road side. There's room for both and much, much more besides.