Sunday, 26 September 2010

To speak humanly from the height or from the depth of human things, that is acutest speech

Over the past two and a half years I have been trying to help us identify what might be the appropriate sources of authority for a contemporary liberal religious community which has come to distrust metaphysics. One of our sources is clearly the natural sciences. We have come to trust both its methods and its discoveries and they give us a certain kind of knowledge of the world we can imagine and experience as somehow inevitable. The other source is, I think, found in art - in the works of many writers, poets, painters, sculptors and musicians which speak to us in a way that also feels true, right and inevitable. They have, for us, a quality which means we feel they can be trusted to help us live in the world with appropriate confidence and groundedness. But in key respects the rightness - the truth even - of art is much harder to talk about than the rightness and truth of science. This address is, therefore, a preliminary reconnaissance mission over this potential second source of authority and I’d like to hang some sketchy and tentative thoughts about this source on a stanza (XIX) taken from Wallace Stevens’ poem Chocorua to its neighbor and a complete short poem called Of Modern Poetry. First the single stanza:

To say more than human things with human voice,
That cannot be; to say human things with more
Than human voice, that, also, cannot be;
To speak humanly from the height or from the depth
Of human things, that is acutest speech.

Our culture’s former desire to describe and know a transcendent reality (God) seems clearly to have been an attempt to say ‘more than human things with human voice.’ Our culture’s former desire to tell ourselves and others what our once believed in God desired (or required) us to do seems clearly to have been an attempt to say ‘human things with more than human voice.’

However, as I have noted in other addresses, the project of finding and coming to know such a transcendental reality (God) feels as if ‘it cannot be’ (at least not at this point in our history) and so we need to find another way of speaking so that we may ‘transcend without transcendence’ (Bloch) - which is another way of saying we need to find a way that lets us see things as they are but anew, under a new aspect or transfigured. Stevens gives us a way of gesturing to this in his poem The Man with the Blue Guitar when he speaks of a ‘a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.’

In Stevens’ view the acutest speech - that is to say the speech which can be for us genuinely persuasive - is that which speaks ‘humanly’ of the highest and lowest things ‘human things’.And here Stevens really is talking about things we know. The language of the natural sciences is one way we already do this kind of talking - or we at least consistently and rigorously attempt to do this in science. But what might talking about things mean in the realm of the arts - specifically in the real of poetry? Stevens’ poem Of Modern Poetry may be cited as a particularly rich example. Notice that Stevens is wholly aware of the fact that we find ourselves in an epoch in which the old certainties are gone and we now inhabit one in which we must in some way recreate the whole theatre of our being.  
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
        Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
                       It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

This poem is so rich that I simply cannot begin to do it justice in any way and I’ll almost certainly return to it because of this, today I simply focus on our pressing need to learn how to begin to speak the ‘acutest speech’ - namely that which ‘speak[s] humanly from the height or from the depth of human things’.

In this poem he says these things are (and so may say like) ‘a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman combing’. To hark back to the opening line, these are things which Stevens thinks can be sufficient. But how might they suffice? Surely merely talking to each other about ‘a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman combing’ and suchlike is hardly going to be sufficient to replace our old religious speech which was so confident it could speak of eternal immutable realities?

Well these Stevensian things will certainly fail if our new project is simply to replace our old religious language with one that could say by merely different means ‘more than human things with human voice’ or ‘human things with more than human voice.’ But, as I’ve already said, many of us, including Stevens, no longer find that way of talking at all persuasive. It is not for us acutest speech. 

So, back to the question, surely simply talking to each other about ‘a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman combing’ and suchlike is insufficient to replace our old religious speech? Well, the success of the project hinges on the ability of certain artists to say these things in a way such that they strike us with ‘sudden rightness’ in which we find a deep ‘satisfaction’ and meaning.

(NB This does not reply upon us all liking the exactly the same poems, music, pictures, novels or sculptures - it relies simply on the fact that art forms are capable of striking us with sudden rightness and bring us real satisfaction)

So what is this rightness? My guide here is Simon Critchley and his wonderful book Things Merely Are (especially Chapter 3 pp. 33-44). This is a very accessible philosophical meditation upon Stevens’ work and in it he offers four takes on what this rightness might be.

Firstly he observes that the dark metaphysical activity of the poet is presented to us under the form of a musician. Lest Stevens be misunderstood at this point the ‘dark metaphysical activity’ of the poet is to help us transcend without transcendence - it is not the kind of metaphysical activity of old. So, in musical language, we may say this rightness is about sensing a harmony between us and the world which Critchley calls ‘emotional attunement’ (p. 39). So, think of, for example the skating man. When presented to us in a certain way (in this poem starkly, suddenly and tersely), our imagination is moved to consider the movement of body and mind over ice and it strikes us as being harmonious, satisfying and meaningful. Even if when we are not skaters ourselves we can imagine what it is like to be like a skilled skater and in harmony with both ourselves and the environment. Imagining this feels like, to jump back to the musical metaphor, singing ‘a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.’ This might help us sense why the painting by Henry Raeburn called The Skating Minister remains so popular (the picture at the top of this blog).

The second point Critchley makes is that this way of speaking relies upon sudden rightness which he helpfully calls an ‘arresting expression’ (p. 39). This clearly resonates with the musical imagry used in this poem and I’m sure we are all aware of this kind of thing when, for us, we hear just the right note or chord and are caught up in the sudden rightness of what we hear. Again we might say, this is ‘a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.’ But notice that any arresting expression relies on it being transitory and ending, ultimately, in silence. If it stayed eternally present it would cease to be arresting and quickly become merely an irritating noise.

Thirdly there is the way such rightness springs from ‘the dark’ - from the unknown and unknowable dark ‘material’ that makes possible anything at all. The rightness is felt when a chord is struck, or a word is said that momentarily lights up the world. In that light or clearing in the ‘darkness’, we can see and experience a harmony between us and the things of the world. It’s not precisely that the world changes in these moments (or that we change the world) because for Stevens things remain what they once were - but suddenly, in the clearing, we can not only see the world differently but also we can see that we can see the world differently. That’s a horrible grammatical construction so just recall Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit here. You can see either a duck or a rabbit and, although at no point can you see a Dubbit or Rabbuck you can ‘see’ that you can see it as a duck or rabbit. See below.

Lastly there is simply sound itself - whether it comes from the guitar or is the spoken word - and we will all know that there are some words/sounds which are for us simply right. Words which, as Critchley says, ‘in passing rightness produce in us an experience of deja vu or temps perdue.’ In a wonderful piece of rightness the three town names he cites as examples are all ones I know and have myself enjoyed as simply sound and so I cite them here as also being my own examples: ‘Letchworth Garden City’, ‘Fingeringhoe’ and ‘Biggleswade’.

When art speaks of things as they are and, simultaneously, offers us ways to see them under a new aspect or transfigured, at those moments I think we begin to speak humanly from the height or from the depth of human things and in so doing we also begin to speak in an acute, religious way that is appropriate to our age. In the work of poets like Stevens (and I would add Mary Oliver and Robert Frost) we are tantalisingly gifted with a language which is able to speak of transcendence without transcending - gives us ‘a tune beyond us, yet ourselves’. This kind of language, hard though it may be to speak at first, is, I think powerful enough to re-enchant and root our world even as we stand in the shadow of the death of God.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Phases of faith - the creation of a genuinely pluralistic, secular Commonwealth.

I must begin this piece with an important caveat. As I make here a protest against some important claims made by the Pope during his visit and against some current practices of Roman Catholicism I also want to make it absolutely clear that there is much, a great deal in fact, that I admire in individual Roman Catholics and the Roman Catholic tradition as a whole and from them I have learnt much that I consider of great and enduring value. I both work with Roman Catholics in my professional inter-faith work and the American side of my family is Roman Catholic, indeed my uncle of whom I was very fond was a Roman Catholic priest in Bethpage, New York. With that caveat I hope clearly made I’ll begin . . .

Later on today Pope Benedict XVI will beatify John Henry Newman. John Henry was, as I am sure you know, once a priest of the Church of England but who in 1845, after his famous (or infamous depending on your standpoint) Tract 90 entitled Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-Nine Articles published in 1841, left to become one of Britain’s most famous and influential Roman Catholic converts. Later, of course, he became a Cardinal and now, one-hundred and twenty years and one miracle later, is seemingly heading towards his eventual canonisation and sainthood.

However, it is not precisely John Henry nor his beatification that I want us to consider today but a general thought concerning the appropriate place religion might have in the present phase our culture is passing. It has arisen as I have reacquainted myself with some of the work of John Henry’s (henceforth JH)  younger brother Francis William (1805–1897) (henceforth FW - his portrait above). It is particularly worth doing for us because there exists a genuine Unitarian connection here for, in 1840, FW became Professor of Latin in Manchester New College in London, the famous Unitarian seminary which was the parent of Manchester, now Harris Manchester College, Oxford - the college where many Unitarian ministers have studied and trained including myself and our minister emeritus, Frank Walker.

In 1850 he published Phases of Faith or Passages from the History of my Creed which was a religious autobiography telling of his journey from a conventional Calvinism to what he thought was a ‘pure theism’. It is an explicit counter-blast to his brother’s move into Roman Catholicism - there was absolutely no love lost between them! In the context of the Pope’s present visit and speeches I want to address a single point arising simply out of the title of this volume, Phases of Faith. I do this in the fashion I do - i.e. in a very critical way - because he is here as a head of state (it is not merely a pastoral visit) and he has expressed his thoughts on how we should structure our national, secular, civic society. (What would we be saying if, say, Nicholas Sarkozy had come over here on a visit and done something similar . . .)

The title Phases of Faith alerts us to what should be a rather obvious truth, namely, that faith is not static but has phases. As I have been re-reading bits of both the Newman brothers’ work and the current speeches made by the Pope’s during this visit I have been musing upon the fact that phases of faith applies as much to wider culture as it does to individuals.

We need to begin by observing that both FW and JH were part of the same wider culture and the phase through which it was going in the mid- to late-nineteenth century and, although FW and JH may have disagreed violently on many things they were, in effect, working together on the same project - ascertaining the best way to know God and, therefore, how humanity might better know how to behave in a truly moral/ethical fashion. It was in that context reasonable to argue in the way they did in part because there existed a commonly held belief that the universal foundation called God existed. As many of you will be aware God’s existence was at this time increasingly being challenged but, and this is vital to realise, it was being challenged using very similar concepts and patterns of argumentation as those being used by believers - they disbelieved in the same God in which the theists believed.

But, as should be obvious to us all, the present phase of our Western culture is not the same as that through which it was passing during the lifetime of the Newman brothers. What could meaningfully be described as a reasonable way to proceed need not be deemed so today. The Newman brothers’ own highly charged debate in the mid-1800s contributed a great deal to the development our current pluralistic cultural phase. The Pope’s speeches need to be heard in this modern context even though he wants to hark back to the nineteenth century in the beatification of JH.

As the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor, himself a Roman Catholic, has observed in a variety of influential books, although until a couple of hundred years ago the common viewpoint of the West was essentially Christian in which almost no-one could consider a viewpoint without God today we now live in a society in which believing in God is simply one option of many and, consequently, multiple viewpoints are now, not only conceivable to most people, but also often known and visible to them. In our culture this plurality has become a cultural norm and such norms help us decide how to make appropriate and reasonable ethical/moral decisions.. We are not be happy or comfortable with all the possible options out there but we can also see that they exist and are followed, for the most part, by people we feel (and can see are) generally to be of goodwill and this inevitably shapes our understanding of in what consists reasonableness when debating matters relating to religion. This realisation is especially important when it comes to debates about what kind influence religion may be considered legitimate and reasonable in matters which concern wider civic society.

What this means - amongst many other things - is that the cultural common ground which allowed the Newman brothers to fight a meaningful and reasonable (if sometimes undignified) fight in the mid-nineteenth century no longer present today.  

The recognition of radical plurality (and I would add radical contingency) as a norm means that it has become difficult for our wider civic society to ground with any real confidence a phrase I quietly used a few lines back - ‘people of goodwill.’ In this new cultural phase how do we (late twentieth-, early twenty-first century Westerners) decide, with any confidence, in what consists the good so we can point to another person and say they are, or are not, a person of goodwill? How can we decide with confidence that an action is good or bad.

This, my friends, is the multi-Trillion Dollar question of the age and the Pope - and, therefore, the Roman Catholic Church - has, like all of us, whether we are believers in God or not, run head-long into this problem. I think this is one aspect of our contemporary culture about which we really can say we are all in it together.

(NB: In most of my other addresses I am simply trying to articulate what might be an appropriate response to this question within our liberal Christian community - a community which knows it is post-metapahysical, post-theological and, in an important way, post-Christian. Here, I’m making a wider secular political point.)

In the high-profile speech he gave yesterday to politicians, diplomats, academics and business leaders at Westminster Hall he addressed this pressing question directly:

‘By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy’ (p. 1-2).

On this point at least I agree with him. However, he goes on and makes what I think is a deeply problematic claim. Here is what I think is the key paragraph in his adress to politicians, diplomats, academics and business leaders:

‘The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization. Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.'

For starters, note that he thinks that there exist ‘objective norms’ and it should come as no surprise that he believes these match Roman Catholic ones. He also claims that these ‘objective norms’ (for which remember also to read ‘Roman Catholic norms’) are accessible to reason detached from Christian revelation - that’s what he means when he uses the rare and obscure latinate English verb ‘to prescind’ which I admit I had to look up.

‘Well sir’, this makes me ask, ‘if that is the case, then what need of your, or any other, specific religion?’ Naturally, he goes on to tell us.

He tells us that ‘the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.

In other words he is saying that, although secular reason can identify these ‘objective norms’, his religion is there (and of special Divine worth) because it alone can purify our faulty use of this natural reason. This means he is saying something like that, although secularists are able to use the tool of reason they are really rather naive and somewhat unskilled users of it - often using it improperly and so coming to build faulty constructions that are not quite what they could or should be; they are a bit jerry-built and rickety. However, he, as an experienced, wise and gentle Father with his cohort of co-teachers is someone who can come along and show us how to use reason properly. It feels to me like someone saying, ‘There, there, nearly - now let me show you how to do it the right way.’

He clearly holds that he and his faith are there as a necessary correctives at every point (other speeches and encyclicals can be cited at this point to show this but I’ll refrain now in the interests of brevity - if you want examples, ask). Of course the Pope makes a big play about the world of reason and world of faith working hand in hand but remember, in the case of reason, he has already told us, only he and the church really has a pure understanding of it and, surprise, surprise, in his hands it reveals the truth of his faith and, by implication, the ultimate untruth of other viewpoints - especially, of course, the secular one.

This seems to me to be an utterly unreasonable and extraordinary claim to make in the current phase of our culture and, to be frank, I’m disturbed by it and I protest - as loudly as this address and its form as a blog will allow me. I want to reiterate that this is not just simply a religious matter but one touching on our nation’s attempt to create an inclusive pluralistic secular society in which religion has a place but not a privileged place. This is so because it seems clear to me that far from having a pure understanding of reason which can ‘shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles’ in some very significant respects the Roman Catholic Church is far from an expression of pure truth, light and reason and I cite in passing their stance and actions concerning human sexuality, women priests, birth control and the abuse of children in their care. I think it is abundantly clear that secular reason can on on these matters offer up some wise thoughts.

Our culture is in a phase such that I no longer think it is reasonable to claim that Roman Catholicism - or actually religion as a whole - has any intrinsically special way to access the (capital T) Truth of our world. In fact, our culture is in such a phase that many in it think it highly unlikely that such a capital T truth can meaningfully be said to exist in the first place let alone infallibly accessed by one church or even a dozen churches or religion.

Once upon a time the Newman brothers and their religious debate was central to our culture - a culture essentially religious, essentially Christian. Their debate played its part in changing our society into the pluralistic secular one we have now and so their argument, which still has a place, must take its humble (and admittedly reduced) place alongside members of a larger ‘senate’. This ‘senate’ is radically plural and complex, yes, but there is a chance we can make it one which will strongly commit to following an ongoing process of dialogue in which we will always be learning from each other and, in the process go on to create a genuinely pluralistic, secular Commonwealth.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

As for ceremony, already the leaves have swirled over, the wind has spoken

We have just been through a week in which we have seen yet further examples of the deeply problematic nature of religion - especially in its monotheistic varieties. True, not all such religion is (or individual religious people are) so problematic, but this week's events, as well as, of course, their proximate cause, namely the horrific day of September 11th 2001, have made me hang my head in despair and ask, like many others, whether the world really wouldn't be better off without it at all.

I think this despair feels particularly painful when, like me, although you simply no longer believe in the God that is claimed to stand behind the believers engaged in this unbelievably stupid and dangerous spat you also still feel that religion - at least as we (late-twentieth, early twenty-first century westerners) have understood it - has bequeathed us two useful, even vital, sacramental energies. Energies that would be lost in any thoughtless abandonment of old-style metaphysical religion.

The first energy is that which can limit us in the face of hubris; the second is one which can transform us in the face of complacency (Edwards p. ix). We know, of course, that traditional expressions of religion haven't always used these energies - we all know examples when religion's hubris and/or its complacency has seemingly been infinite - but they have always paid lip-service to them and, in its foundational figures, it has revealed them at work positively in the world.

My question - developing in various ways since 9/11- is how might we continue to access these sacramental energies without resorting to the language of the gods/God with which they were once so indissolubly linked? In short, what religion might look like after religion - after God? I know this is a risky and controversial thing to do from *within* religion but the philosophical, cultural and political circumstances are such that I cannot see how one can really avoid the matter. Anyway on a weekend so dominated by dysfunctional ways of being religious that I, and probably most of you, can simply no longer support - indeed that we find positively repulsive - addressing this question seems to be a potentially positive and constructive response.

Now, if you are looking for a glimpses of what religion after religion might look like then there are many philosophers. writers, musicians and poets who offer them up either deliberately or by accident. I have a long list of people whose work I'm looking at but rapidly edging to the top is the truly astonishing poet Mary Oliver.

In the middle of this week's madness I, thankfully, lighted upon a poem of hers which at first you may think has nothing to do with my subject so far but which I think does. It's called "Encounter":

I lift the small brown mouse
Out of the path and hold him.
He has no more to say,
No lilt of feet to run on.
He's cold, still soft, but idle.
As though he were a stone
I launch him from my hand;
His body falls away
Into the shadowed wood
Where the crackling leaves rain down,
Where the year is mostly over.
"Poor creature," I might say,
But what's the use of that.
The clock in him is broken.
And as for ceremony,
Already the leaves have swirled
Over, the wind has spoken.
(Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems Vol 1)

So, remember, what I think I can see expressed in this poem - at least as I read it in the immediate context of the past week - are those two energies: one which limits us in the face of hubris and a second which can transform us in the face of complacency but also recall that I'm looking for access to them without resorting to the old language of the gods/God. Before I continue it is vital to realise that, like all good poems, 'Encounter' resists any attempts at definitive interpretation, I have simply looked more closely at this one because it seems to express both these energies well. Let's take them in turn.

The energy that challenges our hubris is revealed through the poem in a number of ways. The first is through the example of the poet herself in the mindful and alert way she walks through the world observing the many things that presence before her. She does not charge *across* the world thinking she has some privileged status above it but moves *within* the world carefully, mindfully and lovingly. The poet exemplifies a profound lack of hubris and in so doing she presents us with a model of being that is powerful enough to make us desirous of following her in the sense that we simply feel it would be good to be like that ourselves. There is no extrinsic reason for this feeling (i.e. no order from the gods/God on high), rather we simply see a way of being in the world that speaks, for us (late twentieth, early twenty-first century Westerners), with real authority. We see in the poet an example that is somewhat like what it seems the crowds saw in Jesus, someone who 'taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes' (Matthew 7:29).

I think the energy is also revealed by alerting us to the transitory quality of life, not only for the small brown mouse but also, in a gently implied way, for us. In the image of the broken clock we get a further image which reminds us that there is something intrinsic about individual expressions of life that breaks in time and which cannot be rewound or fixed - not by human craftsmanship nor, in the absence of the gods/God of old, even by divine craftsmanship. The world is the way it is and this must simply be acknowledged - the clock here *is* broken. Years of language use tied up with the imagined perfection of the gods/God may tempt us to utter words like "poor creature", implying  something has gone wrong - something which is only made right in heaven or the world beyond - but today I think for us (and I only speak of us) such words are increasingly feeling futile and/or use-less. However, although the words "poor creature" and the like no longer seem to attach to anything meaningful - merely free-spinning wheels which connect to nothing - there is clearly still the need for us to express some appropriate identifiable response to life and, therefore death. Here I can begin to turn to the second energy, that can transform us in the face of complacency.

It is clear that the first energy, that which jumps on our hubris, can cause us to become complacent about our ability to change anything at all, to do anything positive, lasting and meaningful ourselves. But, just as the old religious language could speak of God who challenged our hubris as being like a caring father who can go on to help us to loving, positive action within human limitations, after God it is I think possible to find something similar.

Again it seems to me that the poet reveals this herself with great natural authority. Notice that we see her acting as *part* of the world - not *apart* from the world. Her recognition of this co-working and co-mingling empowers her to respond in ways that don't require the construction of elaborate theologies or artificial religious practices - it is enough to notice that we are in the world and, in response, to speak of this in a poem or a spontaneous act and, therefore, to pass the encouragement on to others - us - to do something similar.

Her response (in addition to the poem) is, as we see, to pick up the brown mouse, observe its present state (and so her own present state) with a mindful detachment - a position inherently compassionate. Her throwing of the mouse into the forest is not one of disgust, despair or disrespect but is a co-working and co-mingling in the 'same' process that is gestured to through the image of the wind swirling the leaves over the dead mouse, a process which is the mouse's return (all life's return) to the dark mysterious matter of the world - a dark mysterious matter that will, in some way, at some time, presence again in the clearing that is this world whether as the material element of a fungus, a tree, a worm, a bird, a deer or as another poet who will see a dead mouse and respond to it in their own way with mindful compassion.

As I looked with some horror on the religious craziness of the week, I found great solace in Oliver's response to the death of the brown mouse. The poet's actions didn't build up a set of expressible beliefs (even though my words might suggest that) nor texts and practices which can be used to terrorize each other, damn each other to hell and encourage people to descend into a spiral of violence that threatens everyone. All she did was access two powerful energies that gave gentle and deep, local meaning to her life and, through the poem, to us. There may be no sacred text here, no external formalised ceremony but there is a sense of meaning, there is a sense of the divine. In short there is religion but of a kind we have yet fully to realise in our corporate life.

To conclude with a thought I have explored more fully (though by no means completely) in earlier posts - what would our religion look like if it involved, not going to church, but walking in a garden? Could we make our going to church more like walking in a garden.

At the end of a week like this surely this is worth a moment's consideration?

Monday, 6 September 2010

El Ten Eleven

As most readers of this blog know, by profession I am a jazz musician and this fact is worth keeping in mind as you read what you find in other posts on this site - I've may have ended up (by some crazy route) becoming a minister of religion who is passionate about philosophy but I'll always be an improvising musician first and foremost.

These few words are here as a preface to this post encouraging you to check out a contemporary post-rock band called El Ten Eleven. I came across them this week because they provide much of the music on a wonderful film called Helvetica, which a good friend of mine, Graham, brought over with him when he came to stay with us for a few days mid-week. (The band is named after the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar - the picture above on their first album is, however, a Boeing 727 - but then you all knew that didn't you . . .) 

Post-rock, by the way, is described in Wikipedia as "a musical genre characterized by the use of instruments commonly associated with rock music, but using rhythms, harmonies, melodies, timbres, and chord progressions not traditionally found in rock." That's about right I think - though by no means the whole story.

What has so struck me - and had me listening over and over again to their three albums so far - is the MOOD, the TONE, the ATTITUDE of the music. It just seems to be the right "soundtrack" for these post-everything times - post-metaphysics, post-modern, post-God, post-Christianity and post-Christendom. These "post" labels can clearly be over done but in so many ways they gesture to something that feels true - at least to me.

Now you might be tempted to think that the MOOD, the TONE, the ATTITUDE I am talking about is going to be somehow bleak and miserable but the clarity and openness of the music seems to me to gesture towards the kind of open-clearing I refer to in my previous post. A joyous aural resonance with Dogen-zenji's observation that “every activity is a flashing into the vast phenomenal world. Each existence is another expression of the quality of being itself” (Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Weatherhill, Boston 2009, p. 104).

Maybe I'm just deluded in this but that's what I feel when I'm listening to their music whilst just watching the world pass by. Wonderful, really wonderful, and I'm filled with a sense of hope that doesn't rely upon anything other than the sufficiency of this world, of Nature herself.

God knows what the band (or you) will make of this post - but whatever they think I'm really just saying thanks for some great music.

Go on, treat yourself . . .

El Ten Eleven (2005)
Every Direction Is North (2007)
The Promises Are Being Videotaped (2008)

Imagine a clearing into which the light pours

First an admission of a huge debt. Over the past two years I have been profoundly impressed and influenced by the work of James C. Edwards. Indeed, during this vacation I re-read his The Plain Sense of Things  (Penn State Press 1996) upon which this post draws heavily. Of course I take full responsibility for how I use his work and my project as the minister of this particular church in Cambridge is not his and he should not be blamed or implicated in what I write. I am not a philosopher myself and admit that I am bound to have misunderstood him at many key points. Having said that I really do think he offers people like me (and maybe you!) a way to live authentically (and religiously) in the light of the demise of the persuasiveness of traditional religion.I do recommend you check him out.

However, I have to say that I find it bloody difficult to take this kind of thinking and present it in a community context in a way that is accessible and genuinely helpful. Do I succeed? - well, rarely if ever (and here I must thank my congregation for their patience with me). I get too complicated and haven't (yet) figured out how to do what needs to be done either eloquently or with simple ease. Yet the task of developing a religious response after religion, after metaphysics and after God seems to me to be one that must be attempted and that's what's going on here in this very small local liberal Christian church. Ho hum . . . Anyway, here's an expansion of what I offered folk this morning at the service:

Some Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come. His answer was, “The Kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen. No one will say, “Look, here it is!’ or, “There it is!’; because the Kingdom of God is within you.” Then he said to the disciples, “The time will come when you will wish you could see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. There will be those who will say to you, “Look, over there!’ or, “Look, over here!’ But don’t go out looking for it. As the lightning flashes across the sky and lights it up from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.  (Luke 17:20-24, GNB)

One of the most powerful guiding images of the intellectual and spiritual life in the West has been light. Of course it is a guiding image also found in other cultures but for us (i.e. late twentieth, early-twenty-first century Westerners) the light came generally come to be understood as illuminating the things of the world – where there is light, or when we (knowing subjects) find ways to access light, we can then see the more world clearly and truly.

This image of light has shaped our religious (and actually also our non-religious) understandings of in what consists salvation – that is to say how we achieve a sense of meaning, harmony and belonging to God and/or Nature. Light, whether expressed as Christ or reason (or whatever) has been understood by us as key in securing this essential salvific knowledge. Knowing the nature of reality we would not only know the true nature of things (itself a great boon) but also what to do and what is good, true and beautiful.

Outside the Bible the locus classicus of this image is for us, of course, Plato’s Republic (Book 7) in which he offers us his famous metaphors of the cave and the sun. Last week I was practicing my Chi Kung - or Zhan zhuang  站桩) – which is a kind of standing meditation – in the yard out the back when I found myself in the middle of this metaphor. I was facing a wall upon which the sun, which was behind me, was projecting shadows of gently moving trees. I don’t think I would have particularly have noticed this projected image (over and above its gentle, calming ambient quality) had not a squirrel suddenly jumped from branch to branch and then onto and along the other wall behind me. Standing there I became mindfully aware that our culture had a story which, once upon a time, was able to deliver over to us something that we might call an assured knowing of the nature of all reality.

Of course, with regard to this present world the metaphor remains powerful and still very much able to deliver. After all you and I both assuredly know that, were I to turn around from the shadowy  pictures on the wall, I would be able to see, directly, what we are tempted to call a clearer, more real or more perfect picture of trees and squirrels. If you like, the shadowy promise can be ‘cashed’ by simply turning around to see the gold of ‘real’ trees and squirrels.

But I say that our culture was once upon a time able to deliver over to me something that we might call an assured knowing of all reality because this story was also supposed to offer us assurance that this present world – which we often felt to be shadowy, confused and apparently imperfect in so many ways – was grounded, underwritten and given meaning and genuine substance by another transcendent clear, coherent and perfect world. Thanks to light – whether Christ/God or reason – we were assured that somehow (in prayer or the practice of the empirical sciences) we were able to “turn around” and see this more perfect more real world of God and/or Nature – we could ‘cash’ this shadowy world for the pure gold of Heaven, the really real world.

But the power of this metaphor relied upon the idea that reality included human minds were able to receive accurate representations of the world out there. External reality was understood to impress itself upon the mind rather like a seal is able to impress its image upon soft wax. The impression the mind receives is not the original but there was – when you believed this picture of reality – a very precise and accurate relationship between the world and my mind’s representation of it.

True, our mind’s impression of reality may, at times, be somewhat shadowy but, we needn’t worry because it will always be possible to check and correct this shadowy impression through accurate data whether the data of science or of faith). Incidentally this is why belonging to the right church was and still sometimes is so important – after all you wanted to be assured that church X or Y had access to the right set of data.

It should be clear that this metaphor was, in addition to being a great support for religion (especially rational religion inspired by the Enlightenment as the Unitarians most assuredly were) it was a powerful metaphor for science.

The trouble is that for a number of reasons, both scientific and philosophical, we late twentieth and early twenty-first-century Westerners have slowly been discovering that we can nowhere produce the original of the world to be able to encash this metaphor at any level other than the everyday and commonsensical. After Nietzsche in philosophy and after Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg et. al. in scientific circles it became increasingly apparent that there is no way we can observe the world from outside – there is no view-from-nowhere. In all kinds of ways we have begun to understand that we always-already-are-in-the-world and have discovered that it is not possible to separate us as knowing subjects (soft wax) from the world of things (seals).  Everywhere it is tempting to say we are left with only shadows and soft wax – mere impressions.

We have realised that we can only actually experience what we have called impressions of the world and so we are only able to check their veracity with further impressions and check those impressions by even more impressions. It should be clear that the metaphors of seals and soft wax, real things and shadows that allows us to use the word impressions in the first place eventually breaks down if you can never really find things which make could make these impressions.

In the face of this realisation to carrying on using the language of “impressions of the world” in the light of this realisation can be very misleading. As Wittgenstein wittily realised it becomes as futile as buying several copies of the same newspaper in order to verify the accuracy of its front-page headlines! (See Philosophical Investigations para. 265).

Now this might seem – indeed has been felt to be by many (especially in religious circles) – a reason for despair. What is there of real worth and meaning if we are left with only shadows, soft wax and impressions of impressions. But that is only true if we continue to use a metaphor that has been shown to be an inadequate one.

We need to change the metaphor in some way and that includes how we use light. Since our Christian tradition relies strongly upon images of light – witness our reading – I think we would do well to have a rethink about how to use this image in ways that do not run counter to our present understanding of the world.

What follows is but one suggestion that I think we might usefully think about. It’s not easy to take in because it doesn’t lend itself to words and explanation of the kind we have been used to. Also this relates to an address I gave earlier this year which a number of you found helpful.

The word 'light' in German is (das) Licht but Licht also means 'clear'. From it we get the word die Lichtung which means a ‘clearing’. Heidegger noticed this and he used to gesture towards another way we live with (use) the image of light (and also, therefore, clearing). Here’s James C. Edwards’ concise illustration of Heidegger’s thought:

‘Think, as the German word Lichtung happily encourages, of a bright and open space in the evergreen forest. Into the clearing the light pours, and in that gathered light one can see emerge the animals and plants that are at home there. “But light never first creates openness. Rather, light presupposes openness.” Without the light there could be no seeing, but without first the clearing there could be no confluence of light to make that seeing possible. And now think of that clearing as an event rather than as an enduring feature of the landscape; hear the word “clearing” as a gerund  rather than as a noun. In that clearing-event whatever appears, appears. The clearing (clear-ing) gathers the light in virtue of which whatever is seen – the thing – can be seen for what it is’  (James C. Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things, Penn State Press 1996, p. 181).

For those minded to follow this thought up there are powerful resonances here with Zen Buddhist thinking. As Shunryu Suzuki reminds us Dogen-zenji once said “every activity is a flashing into the vast phenomenal world. Each existence is another expression of the quality of being itself” (Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Weatherhill, Boston 2009, p. 104).

And, later in the same chapter Shunryu Suzuki says the following (his reference to body or mind points to the dualistic world view of subjects/objects that I want here to tackle head-on):

“Because you think you have body or mind, you have lonely feelings, but when you realise everything is just a flashing into the vast universe, you become very strong, and your existence becomes very meaningful” (ibid. p. 107)

The mention of “everything is just a flashing into the vast universe” strongly resonates for me with Jesus’ image of lightning flashing across the sky lighting up everything from one side to the other.

But what I am trying to gesture towards here cannot be known but only done. The light/clearing is not an object of knowledge but an event that includes you and everything else flashing into the vast universe.

I have to say that the old Enlightenment paradigm of light (still useful in certain areas of human life) informs the practice of giving sermons – the preacher is supposed (hoped) to have the right date set which has been lit up by the Gospel/Christ/God and this data and the same light is brought before you so you, too, can see the truth owhich will make you free and assure your salvation. The idea, the Word will save – knowledge of God/Nature is sufficient.

But we (again the caveat of late twentieth and twenty-first century Westerners must be added) – we now feel assured (thanks to contemporary science and philosophical heritage post-Nietzsche) that the world is very different from how we once thought it was – there is no world out there that can simply be known in itself.

What is required for us to ‘know’ the world now is (or so it seems to me and many others) for us to engage in some kind of sustained, disciplined, embodied mindful practice. Mindfulness Meditation, Chi Kung - or Zhan zhuang  站桩) and Sitting Meditation are my own preferred practices – there are others of course. (In the evening service in Cambridge we have a mindfulness meditation).

So, these days, I am minded to use the metaphor as Christ being the light of the world as an encouraging expression of this embodied practice in which a person reveals him or herself (and therefore all beings) to be a light/clearing that is “a flashing into the vast universe” and which makes it possible for anything at all to appear.

So we may say in the end that that there is another world but it is not the transcendent world of old (the one that we used to think grounded and rooted our own shadowy one) but this world perceived differently. That other world is here and now and cannot be pointed to – were the language not be so prone to misinterpretation I would be tempted to say it deserves the name the kingdom of God/Heaven.