Monday, 29 November 2010

What was, must be tested - First Sunday in Advent

While [Jesus] yet talked to the people, behold, [his] mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother (Matthew 12:46-50).

One of the odd things that continues to strike me about Advent is the fact that the coming we are waiting for is behind us - i.e. it is something recounted in an ancient story. It would be remiss of me not to point out at the beginning of this address that in orthodox readings of Christianity (of course just because it bears the adjective ‘orthodox’ this doesn’t make it either right or true) this oddity is avoided by conjoining the waiting spoken of in the biblical text with a present waiting for a second-coming of Christ; it is claimed, therefore, that Advent speaks of waiting at both the beginning and end of history. However, if like me, the idea of a second-coming is simply not required of me as a necessity requires - I have to say that to me it looks, feels and I would say is, untrue - then I am left with the need to do something with the oddity and problem I have noted, namely, that the coming we are waiting for is behind us because, if it *is* all only a matter past waiting and history (in the simple sense that the Bible is very ancient) then there remains the need to as the pertinent question of why we keep returning to the Advent and Christmas stories and what might they usefully tell us about our present and our future possibilities? It seems to me that orthodox Christianity is right, in one important sense at least, which is Advent needs to speak to us about both the old waiting and our present waiting. Given that I - we? - can’t believe in the present waiting offered by Christianity, namely,  the second-coming of Christ, I think it is incumbent upon us to see if we can find a present waiting that *is* required of us as a necessity requires.

This thought brings me directly to the reading from Ernst Bloch’s remarkable book (one I would heartily recommend) ‘Atheism in Christianity’: 

Ernst Bloch – An Unheard-of Saying of Jesus': Departure-in-Full

What was, must be tested. It does not hold good of itself, however familiar, for it lies behind us.  It holds  good only so far as the Where-to continues to live before us in the thing itself. If the link binding backwards is false, it must be cut. All the more so if it was never true, but simply a shackle.

It is telling, that even the loyal Ruth did not go back the way she came; she did not turn back, but followed the path of her own free choice. And on this point Jesus' goodness itself strikes off at a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition. How small is his sense of belonging, even though he is the son of an ancient house and family. He has passed beyond it, broken with its power; no remnant of it still stands over him. The old father-ego itself comes to an end; the new-born are here with their fellows, leaving father and mother, following Jesus. "And stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brethren!' " (Matt. 12. 49). An untamed ego has burst through, has broken out of the sober nest with its authorities. Only the chosen disciples are his relatives — but closer still to all of them is the common element relating them in a no-longer oppressive bond.
 

The alien factor may of course be something quite different from mother and brethren, and it may have become alien long before Jesus. It all started quite boldly — started out from within itself; and it has "corrupted" youth.

From Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009 (original edition published 1972) pp. 71–72

In this section Bloch makes it clear that ‘what was must be tested’ and this means, in the context of today’s service, a testing of Advent and Christmas. A church service such as this, shaped with a creative and critical community of people such as you in mind, should always be a time of testing what was. But during the Advent and Christmas seasons, because the stories are so good and so beautiful, the temptation is not to be at all critical and instead just to dive uncritically, naively and sentimentally into the seductive stories themselves: Even I can hear myself say ‘Oh, Andrew, give us a break at least during one season of the year! - stop thinking, hang loose, roll with the season’s happy vibe. Just dig the beauty, man.’ But, you know, I can’t do this because, ultimately, not to think critically about these kinds of questions cuts us off from the real healing and sustaining power that remains accessible to us in our inherited religious tradition. During this increasingly difficult period in our culture’s political, social and religious history, and at the coldest time of the year, I want to ensure that our Advent and Christmas celebrations do genuinely help and strengthen us and don’t just offer merely the opportunity to engage in a bit of temporary self-medication whether of the alcoholic or the opiate kind pointed to by Marx.

Bloch suggests that one important thing we have to ascertain is whether or not the ‘Where-to’ continues to live before us in the thing itself’? Well, to answer this requires us first to answer the question of what he means by the ‘Where-to’? For Bloch it is tied up with his very specific understanding of utopia which in his eyes was not something we construct in the present as an ideal and then project it into an imagined real future but, instead, something always available to us in a variety of ideas, political and social systems and cultural artifacts although only in glimpses or through what he calls ‘traces’. The ideas, systems and cultural artifacts that have the most enduring power over us to his mind always contain two elements that, at their best, are never either/or options but always in creative dialogue and tension with each other. Bloch felt that this helped ensure that these things ‘carry within them the potential solution of that situation’ (Peter Thompson in his excellent introduction to Bloch's Atheism in Christianity, p. x).

The first element, the conservative, is that which supports the status quo, especially that expressed in a given society’s present power-relations and structures; it is the element that encourages us not to rock the boat and which gives us an often false sense of security that things are, really, all OK. The Advent and Christmas stories clearly also have this element in them and they have it in spades. Perhaps the most obvious public expression of this element is the fact that in our largely secular and unchurched nation church attendances rise significantly at this time.

The second element, the utopian, is very different and is always in tension with the first - it is that which points forward in some way from this moment to a better way of building, thinking and dwelling in this world and which, necessarily, always challenges the status quo. Although the conservative element in this season is very strong, so too is the utopian one which points firmly in the direction of a better way of building, thinking and dwelling in this world. Perhaps, more than at any other time of the year, many, many people catch glimpses or traces of this utopian trajectory even when it is available to them through often very conservative presentations of the stories.

So what is the ‘Where-to’ we can glimpse in the whole of the Biblical text and, particularly today, in the Advent and Christmas stories?

Firstly, he sees that the Biblical text always contains within it a strand which encourages us not to go back the way we came but, instead, to follow the path of our own free choice. He uses the example of Ruth to illustrate this but the Advent and Christmas stories too are marked by this trope - most notably in the stories found in Matthew of the Magi and Mary and Joseph. 

Secondly, and closely related to the first, Bloch then points to Jesus the central character in the Christian story. Here we touch upon Bloch’s most radical idea that, just as ‘Jesus’ goodness is closely tied to his ability to strike off at ‘a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition’ (in Jesus’ case Judaism) our own goodness is, Bloch suggests (as do I), closely tied to our ability to do something similar and strike off at a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition. Tradition for us (that is to say the members of the church where I am minister and wider British culture in general for all its secularity) is Christianity.

This may come as a surprise - even a shock for some people - but, as Bloch says elsewhere in this book: ‘There is only this point: that the Church and the Bible are not one and the same. The Bible has always been the Church’s bad conscience.’ Although this book has often been used as a cattle prod to by the powerful it is vital to recall (because it is too easily forgotten) that ‘the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is why it [the Bible] has always been suppressed or distorted, from the serpent on’ (AIC p. 13).

The Bible has always been a book in which ordinary people, those who throughout history find themselves oppressed by Church or State, can readily hear a straightforward call to freedom from oppression found most tersely expressed in Exodus (cf. Ex 5:1) “Let my people go.” A call which Bloch observes, citing the mighty 16th century radical German reformer Thomas Müntzer, ‘Rang out to all the oppressed, “without difference or distinction of race or faith.”’ This kind of world is the ‘Where-to’ that continues to live before us in the Biblical text itself and especially clearly and beautifully in the Advent and Christmas stories.

Our trajectory towards a way of building, dwelling and thinking that is concerned always to be seeking to free people from all oppressive and coercive bonds (a ‘Where-to’ of Advent appropriate for us) may well take us away from our Christian tradition at a singularly sharp angle (and it’s a trajectory that I think is required of us as a necessity requires) but I do not think that, at the same time, this also requires us to ditch the Biblical text. Far, far from it because, whenever we take it seriously in the way a thinker like Bloch insists we should, we will always be with earshot of a powerful and inspiring call to a life of radical, revolutionary action against the rich and powerful and in favour of the poor and dispossessed. In our own time and culture - as we face up to all kinds of repressive forms of religion and oppressive political and financial ideologies - such a radical call is becoming increasingly necessary.

To be sure, I hope many of us will enjoy the rest and security that so often accompanies the Advent and Christmas season but, as we enjoy this rest and security (the season's conservative element), may we never forget that they are nothing if they do not form part of a preparation for some serious, committed action to bring about the better and more just world we claim we want to see come to pass.

Alan Barnes and Harry Greene on saxophones with Chris Ingham Trio

I'll get Sunday's address posted in a couple of hours so its ready for those of you who are coming to the Wednesday Evening Conversations at the church but whilst sitting here making the necessary corrections an email came in telling me that a video had been posted on Youtube from a gig I did last week with Alan Barnes over in Bury St Edmunds. It was filmed by a parent of Harry Greene's, a young 13 year-old saxophonist who sat in for one number in the first set. Encouraging younger players is a must-do thing - after all I owe everything to the older players who let me sit in when I was just a kid - so here's a plug for a player who looks like he'll earn a rightful place on the scene. But not only that, you get a nice solo from Alan who remains one of Britain's best straight-ahead players. Chris Ingham is on the piano, Russ Morgan is on drums and, of course, yours truely on the bass. Enjoy - we did.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The right word - a Remembrance Sunday meditation

John 1:1-4 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

On Remembrance Day it is always important to find the right word to say, the one that does not offer false hope that, secondly, is not sentimental (i.e. it keeps its focus on the object of our grief and does not merely seek to address our own desires and needs) and, thirdly, the one that helps us undergo some kind of transformation. I have to say that this year I did not feel I had anything close to the right word to say. What that admission means is, I hope, a way by which this address might gesture towards the right word.

    I can most easily get to where I want to go today via some words about a true story researched and told by Norman Maclean in his book “Young Men and Fire” about the death of thirteen Forest Service Smoke-jumpers in Mann Gulch, Montana, on 5 August 1949. This event was relatively well-known in the US and whenever referred to it was nearly always described as an unnecessary catastrophe or disaster. Maclean was not prepared to let it remain that way as he tells us early on in the book: 

Although young men died like squirrels in Mann Gulch, the Mann Gulch fire could not end there, smoke drifting away and leaving terror without consolation of explanation, and controversy without lasting settlement. Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died but still “alertly erect in fear and wonder,” those who loved them forever questioning  “this unnecessary death,” and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one. This [the Mann Gulch fire] is a catastrophe we hope will not end where it began; it might go on and become a story. It will not have to be made up - that is all important to us - but we do have to know in what odd places to look for missing parts of a story about a wildfire and of course have to know a story and a wildfire when we see one. So this story is a test of its own belief - that in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs, if only we have some curiosity, training, and compassion and take care not to lie or to be sentimental (Maclean p. 37).

So for Maclean a true-story can only be told by someone who is curious, trained (i.e. with the necessary literary skills, and as we shall see with a knowledge of history and appropriate scientific knowledge), who is compassionate, who refuses to lie or become sentimental and who has the wisdom and creativity to bring them all together to show, and this is the story’s test, that “in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs”

But, as this first extract from Maclean’s book shows, in the attempt to tell any true story - especially one like the Mann Gulch fire and by implication today, the almost countless stories of those who lost their lives in war - some parts are always missing. Sometimes these missing parts are recovered by careful historical and scientific research and Maclean is tirelessly diligent in painstakingly piecing together the various surviving historical records and in learning the complex science of fire, how it spreads and how fast it can move under certain conditions. This I can assure you was no mean achievement. Of course, not every historical and scientific fact was recoverable by Maclean but enough was to close some significant gaps in the story he felt called to tell. But not all of the ‘missing parts’ of such stories are of this kind and here we touch upon the duties of story-teller who has the responsibility to “go further into the minds of his characters than is possible (or proper) for a historian”  (p. 219-220 Edwards). Maclean tells us that:

If a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian, he must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be able to accompany his characters, even into the smoke and fire, and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew. This story of the Mann Gulch fire will not end until it feels able to walk the final distance to the crosses with those who for the time being are blotted out by smoke. They were young and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them” (Maclean p. 102).

The person who desires to tell a true-story, according to this way of looking at things, is not simply one who is under the discipline of truth that the facts of history (as far as they can be recovered and ascertained) and the facts of nature (as far as our contemporary sciences know them) impose upon them, but someone who is also under the discipline of telling the truth of the characters in the story. This can only be done, Maclean suggests, by accompanying them right up until the point of their death even though, at times, he must speak of things they no longer knew and, perhaps, never could have known. James C. Edwards ponders this fact in his book The Plain Sense of Things and suggests that: 

[T]he notion of truth, certainly indispensable to a storyteller like Maclean, doesn’t require to be spelled out in terms that would satisfy Descartes or Bernard Williams. It doesn’t require an “absolute conception of reality.” There is no doubt that a physicist or a painter feels herself under the discipline of truth: whatever she is doing she must get it right, must do it right. She is not, in the first instance, in the business of satisfying herself, and she can’t change the rules in order to make her attempts at whatever she is doing more successful. She must answer to something “over there” (p. 224 Edwards).

I offer these thoughts because our two minutes of remembering inevitably will have been coloured by the many stories, poems, plays, films and pictures about war that we have been told or shown during our lives. Consequently, it should be a matter of concern to us whether the creators of these works were not only under the discipline Edwards points to but also whether they succeeded in any way in telling the truth.

But, although it seems relatively clear, if always difficult, about how we might measure the truth or otherwise of certain historical and technical facts it is less clear how we measure the truth of the stories which our story-tellers tell about those who can no longer speak for themselves. How can we be sure what they have written is true?

Well, here we encounter a key dilemma of our skeptical age. Once upon a time the measure we used - or at least invoked - was God. All our stories were, ultimately and in principle, measured against the immutable godhead; the truth will out, if not in this world, then at the final judgement (measuring) when all our story-telling (true and untrue) would be shown for what it was.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God - and, naturally, since the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it in the end there will also be God’s measure - the Word. The Word was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. It seems inconceivable to us that such a making would not involve a measuring of some sort and one of the tasks of religion and philosophy was to make available to people a tool which people felt confident used the same units of divine measurement as did God. Religion and philosophy made this measuring tool available by the creation of a series of complex moral and ethical canons - the primary one for our culture being, of course, the Bible. The word canon meaning, as you will be aware, “measuring line, rule”.

But we live in an age where the reality of God/the gods, of a platonic real, the Word, or of a final day of judgement are, for increasing numbers of us, little more than metaphors and for the most part they are no longer, in any literal sense, felt to be true at all. Even if we have a strong desire, or even inclination, to believe in the reality of this transcendent measure our culture no longer puts it before us as required as necessity requires - we know that there are other equally plausible, if not more plausible alternatives available to us. The single trustworthy measuring tool seems just to have disappeared from our world.

But has it? From where I am standing I don’t think it has. I can gesture towards what I mean only by reference to the passage from the Gospel of John we have already heard and I begin by saying I still want strongly to affirm that in the beginning was the Word and that the Word remains and will always for us remain a valid measurement of truth. But what I want to challenge head on and with all the strength I possess is the idea that there is only THE single Word.

All we have ever had to measure the truth of a human life and death are the words of our stories - whether they are passed to us in texts now deemed sacred or in novels, poems, plays, musicals, operas or films - and we still have these stories, these words. But in our age we know that we are caught between, on the one hand, our acknowledgement that it is required as a necessity requires for us only to speak those words we really feel to be true and, on the other, the radical freedom (and always present need) to try again, to listen better, to see better, to face the facts of history and nature more directly that we have done so far. As James C. Edwards eloquently puts it: 

However good and true a poem may be, there is always call for more such poems. . . . There is, after all, the right word to speak, the one properly required for this sentence (if only I can hear it), but it is the world properly required only for this sentence, not for the next or the next. It is the right word, the only right word; but it is not the Word of the Lord, nor of any of the Philosophical Fathers (p. 234 Edwards).

And so, today, I will conclude by saying that for us, today, there can be for us no final true form of words, no novel, no poem, no prayer, no film, no sermon that will ever be a sufficient, finally true measure of the countless lives lost in human conflicts throughout history. All we can genuinely hope for is that on occasions we find the true and right and true word for this moment, a true word which, without distorting the facts, helps us to discover  that “in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs”.

As long as we always remember to answer to something “over there” and we do not fall prey to the temptation of merely satisfying ourselves with shallow, sentimental words or merely change the rules that form the disciplined call to truth-telling in order to make our attempts at creating meaning more successful then, even when what is “over there” is as horrific as human warfare and conflict, then there is genuine reason to hope that the deaths of all those who have fallen in war will inspire us to create a human story that, forever, stills our need to kill and which can gently and unsentimentally shepherd us into an ever growing culture of peace. 

This address - certainly its central insight - draws almost wholly on the inspiring book by James C. Edwards The Plain Sense of Things. Should readers find something of help in this address the thanks really need to go to James Edwards. Whatever you think of this address I'd recommend his book unequivocally.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

New El Ten Eleven album - It's Still Like a Secret

Just what you've all been waiting for - no, not my next impenetrable and largely inconsequential (in the grand scheme of things anyway) Sunday address - but the release today of the new album by El Ten Eleven entitled It's Still Like a Secret.

Click here to hear the tracks on Soundcloud and below is an extract from a documentary about the road-testing the stuff from the new album.


 

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Song for Autumn

This address is another pass over the fertile ground mapped out by James C. Edwards in his The Plain Sense of Things  (Penn State Press 1996) in which he says for us (i.e. late twentieth and early twenty-first century Western European and North American intellectuals) that “full Pathos, full belief, comes only with intellectual or artistic inevitability” (p. 231). This address concentrates on what for me feels true in the poetry of Mary Oliver - for me she speaks with an artistic inevitability - but, as I offer this to you I also point towards the need for this artistic inevitability to go hand-in-hand with an intellectual inevitability, primarily that provided by the natural sciences.

As my thoughts turned this week towards the need to write today’s address I had on my desk two what seemed to be completely unrelated texts. The first was a verse from Proverbs 4:23 “Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Behüte dein Herz mit allem Fleiß; denn daraus geht das Leben - Luther Bibel). This was before me because I was reading about Heidegger’s relationship to his house in Frieburg and his hut in the Alps and this verse was inscribed above the front door of his Frieberg house. The second was a poem by Mary Oliver entitled “Song for Autumn” (in New and Selected Poems Vol. 2):

In the deep fall
don’t you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.


The chance meeting of these two texts caused me to reconsider in a particular way the old, old human problem that is concerned to understand what is the relationship between our mind and body, between us and the other contents of the world.

The difference between our mind and our heart forms one part of this question and, for many years, there has been a strong tendency within our culture to make a pretty clear distinction between them, with, on the one hand, the heart being understood as simply a bio-mechanical pump on the one hand and, on the other, the mind being understood as the biological ‘seat’ of our thinking, reasoning, perceiving, willing, and feeling self.

But as a World Service programme illustrated last week there is an increasing body of empirical research which is suggesting that we are not quite right in saying the heart is merely a pump but instead can also be said to contribute to what we call thinking - an activity formerly, for we moderns, reserved for our minds.

Now I simply don’t have the knowledge to talk about this current research in an informed technical way but in the first instance I’m minded to take this suggestion very seriously. Why? Well, for starters, if from childhood you grew up with the Biblical text constantly in your imagination as I did, then the connection between the heart and thinking was never really absent. In Genesis we read the rather dark and bleak claim that “And GOD saw that the wickedness of man [was] great in the earth, and [that] every imagination of the thoughts of his heart [was] only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) whilst, more positively, when speaking of God the Psalmist says “The counsel of the LORD stands for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11).

But, despite their often great beauty and wisdom. the contents of the Bible are, of course, far from having the only or final word on any matter. We need to bring to them everything else that has made us who we are and which gifts us with the possibility of framing any vision at all. They include not only what we might call unmediated direct personal experiences of the world but also the ripest fruits of both our reasoned and poetic thinking. For me one of the most ripest and succulent fruits is a way of thinking about the world, not as something from which we are separated and over which we triumphantly walk, but rather as an interdependent whole in which we are indissolubly commingled - in which we are more a line of creative movement than a discrete thinking thing (res cogitans).  In the way necessity has required that I see the world, to turn to the list found in Oliver’s poem, leaves, earth, air, trees, moss, stone, birds, golden rod and ‘everlastings’, snow, fox, fire and firewood are not only to be thought of as discrete things set apart one from another and us but commingled things - lines of living movement like us. In this I cannot but help always to have on my lips the ancient saying that “all things in the world are one, and one is all in all things.”

But, if all things can be imagined to be commingled in the radical way I have suggested then I am also required to imagine as “an inevitable knowledge, required as a necessity requires” that it is not just a matter of God or the gods and humans having thoughts of their hearts but of all other things having them too. This in part is, surely, what Mary Oliver is attempting to do in her poem “Song for Autumn”.

Recall how she imagines the leaves thinking “how comfortable it will be to touch the earth instead of the nothingness of air and the endless freshets of wind?” and then the trees thinking of “the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep inside their bodies?”

Her list continues with other ways she sees the world signaling a movement towards the ways of winter, the goldenrod’s whispered goodbye to summer, the perennial pea’s crowning “with the first tuffets of snow” (I take her to mean here the lathyrus latifolius - but perhaps she is referring to a distant mountain?), the pond’s freezing over which allows the fox to begin its winter routes impossible in summer and in so doing revealing, in its footprints, the blue shadows of deep frozen water beneath.

And then, as the autumn wind blows we find ourselves by a campfire or, perhaps, by a fire in a grate or stove the wood shifts in that distinctive, soft and subtle way that she senses is saying to us, “I must be on my way” - as we, too, are on our way into winter. These commingled things call upon us to reflect upon both our mortality - the leaves willingly, longingly returning to their roots - and also new possibilities still to break forth from our lives - the birds nesting inside the trees as ideas and thoughts nest in us to be pondered upon, nurtured and brought to later birth.

I think it is clear that Oliver’s poem is undeniably evocative of the beauties of autumn but, if this were its only quality, then it would be merely a decorative and rather sentimental text. But Oliver is a much more profound poet than that.

As I have observed elsewhere she is someone who writes very much from the perspective of someone who understands themselves to be commingled in nature - she does not write from the perspective of a distanced, outside observer. It is important to realise that she is not concerned to describe the things of the world, rather she is feeling, and helping us to feel, an intimate part of it and, as her thinking line of movement crosses the lines of movements that are the leaves, earth, air, trees, moss, stone, birds, golden rod and everlastings, snow, fox, fire and firewood it seems legitimate (to me at least), at the moment of intersection, at that set of momentary co-ordinates to say (and know and feel) that these things in relationship with us can be said to have thoughts. They can be said to think because at the co-ordinates that is this poem and us reading it there is no separation - we are called to bring our line of movement to intersect with hers and the particular collection of things she connects together in this and hr other poems. Her purpose is not precisely to persuade us that this commingling is possible but to show us in a poetic way such that (as long as it moves hand in hand with our developing knowledge of the world as we encounter it through scientific endeavour) we come to accept it, quite naturally, as a necessity requires. It is to live fully as if the world were one and always to act out of a profound respect of that interdependent commingling.

In terms of our current language use I want to say here today - though not, of course, in an absolute, dogmatic and final way - that the language of “the thinking heart” seems to be a good way of gesturing to this way of being in the world expressed by Mary Oliver. She gives us, if you are minded to follow Heidegger here, a body of work which strongly suggests this comminglement is the primordial way of being-in-the-world. In this sense Mary Oliver’s work is an example of, not explaining, but showing what it might mean “to guard our hearts with all diligence” and it is to be done because it connects us directly to something we might be minded to call the “springs of life.” 

But we live in a world of different aspects (even as the facts of the world remain unchanged) and this primordial way of looking at the world is not the only one available to us. The scientific world-view, harking back to my opening comment, is the other chief way we encounter and understand our world. Science, though it has many unitary tendencies and aspects itself, has developed for the most part by analysing our world it into ever smaller constituent elements - revealing the ‘thingy-ness’ of our world. So, as above, in terms of our current language use I want to say here today - though again not in an absolute, dogmatic and final way - that the language of “the thinking mind” seems to be a good way of gesturing to this way of being in the world.

These two aspects can inappropriately be hijacked by over-zealous advocates. On the one hand there are many mystics (whether of traditional or new-age kinds) who want to claim that the commingled, wholistic way of seeing and experiencing the world is the only true way to be-in-the-world. On the other hand, there are many scientific-rationalists who are minded to say about this way of thinking (to rehearse an old joke) that this mystical wholism begins in ‘mist’ and ends in ‘schism’ and can go on to claim that the true way to view the world is as a dispassionate scientific observer who looks at the world from ‘outside’

But both ways of encountering the world are, surely, not only possible but required. To me they are both required as a necessity requires. One person who realised this and expressed it well and with some humour was the great physicist Richard Feynman. In “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” he tells us the following story (you can also see him tell the story on YouTube):

I have a friend who's an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don't agree with. He'll hold up a flower and say, "Look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. But then he'll say, "I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull." I think he's kind of nutty. [...] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.

A religious community such as our own should, I think, be careful to be quite clear that for us full belief requires both intellectual (the thinking mind) and artistic (the thinking heart) inevitability and that only a life which values them both is sufficient for our time, place and culture. Neither is, of course, absolutely separate from each other and they, too, commingle; both inform, correct and inspire the other even as they continue to have their different realms and can reveal different aspects of our extraordinary world.

In short perhaps we should modify the proverb with which we began and say loudly and clearly:  “Keep your heart and mind with all diligence, for from them both flow the springs of life.”

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Approaching the Zen Mind

Over on Monkey Mind (one of my favourite blogs) James Ishmael Ford has posted notice of a film which he says is a pretty good overview of the Japanese approach to Zen. If you go to the link below James has kindly posted the film (which is on YouTube) in six installments.

Approaching the Zen Mind

As he says, it's a pretty good way to spend an hour of your time. Maybe it will encourage a few of you to try sitting meditation.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Be afraid, be very afraid - a liberal meditates on Halloween

This Sunday saw the celebration of Halloween. For those unfamiliar with its history here is how the Encyclopaedia Britannica sums it up:

In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic festival of Samhain eve was observed on October 31, at the end of summer. This date was also the eve of the new year in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times and was the occasion for one of the ancient fire festivals when huge bonfires were set on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits. The date was connected with the return of herds from pasture, and laws and land tenures were renewed. The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day, and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favourable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes. These pagan observances influenced the Christian festival of All Hallow's (that is to say All Saints) Eve.


Halloween is viewed by many of us today as either as an evening of more-or-less harmless fun or as a generally minor irritation to the smooth running of a regular evening. But as a contemporary event with real theological/philosophical/social importance to our liberal secular culture, well, no. But I think an examination of Halloween reveals something of great importance about which we should be, as I say at the end of this address, and entirely in keeping with the Halloween theme,”afraid, very afraid.”

In his most recent work A Secular Age Charles Taylor notes that pre-modern societies included in their make up a complementary "play of structure and anti-structure, code and anti-code" and that this "either takes the form of the code's being momentarily suspended or transgressed; or else . . . the code itself allows for a counter principle to the dominant source of power; it opens the space for a complimentary 'power of the weak'" (Charles Taylor: A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts 2007 (pp. 48-49). He goes on to note that it is "as though there were a felt need to complement the structure of power with its opposite." (ibid. p. 49).

Here Taylor is pointing to the simple fact that the pressure of such codes needs to be relaxed from time to time if only to enable us to let off steam now and then. I'm sure all of us would understand the straightforward psychological need for this. But Taylor quickly points to another aspect which is that, were the code "relentlessly applied", it would drain us of all energy and that "the code needs to recapture some of the untamed force of the contrary principle." In other words structures and codes valued by a society were interdependently related to their opposites.

So, to turn to Halloween, it's celebration in pre-modern Western European cultures seems to fit into Taylor’s idea of an existence of a code, structure, anti-code and anti-structure; for those cultures God's good world really did suddenly become filled with bad ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds. Satan was perceived to be a real leader of a real anti-structure to heaven (i.e. hell) and he and his minions were going to have their day, or rather their night. Strange though it might seem to us today the temporary, yet subjectively real presence of a dark anti-code and anti-structure in people's lives, served not to over turn or truly to threaten God's code and structure but, instead, to reinvigorate and strengthen it. All Hallow's Eve and its reign of darkness could, it seems, be said to have helped people commit deeply to God’s code and structure and understand why the structure should be upheld by their society.

Of course, this code, structure, anti-code and anti-structure also presented significant barriers to societal change and I, for one, am very glad that it was challenged and, for the most part, overturned in our own cultural context. Exploring this is, perhaps, for another address another day but what I will say here is that the old way of viewing the world was challenged and that challenge opened up our culture to the ways we now view the world.

Given this you might be tempted to say that surely nowadays Halloween is simply to do with having a bit of fun - the letting off of steam bit of the equation - with only the merest fictitious frisson of the dark side? After all as a culture for the most part we don't any longer believe in ghosts, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, let alone the idea that Prince of Darkness and his minions would really be carousing through our communities on a certain night of the year. Such beliefs are not for us (a la Wallace Stevens) “necessary knowledge, required as a necessity requires.” As Taylor observes, in our modern secular context "anti-structure is no longer recognised at the level of the whole society, and in relation to its official, political-jural structure" (ibid. p. 50).

The chief reason this is so is because, from the seventeenth century onwards, western philosophy and science became increasingly concerned to develop universal perspectives and from them to derive ideal codes by which the greatest number of people - ideally all people - might live. In other words as a Western European and North Atlantic culture we began to seek a world view that contained everything and which, intentionally, left no real possibility (nor need) for an anti-code and anti-structure to keep things in balance.

As Taylor notes:

The idea that a code need leave no space for the principal that contradicts it, that there need be no limit to its enforcement, which is the spirit of totalitarianism, is not just one of the consequences of the eclipse of anti-structure in modernity. That is certainly true. But it is also the case that the temptation to put into effect a code which brooks no limit came first. Yielding to this temptation is what helped to bring modern secularity, in all its senses, into being (ibid. p. 51).


Let me clarify this point of Taylor’s. Modern secular culture is founded on its yielding (not always consciously) to the temptation to brook no limit to its own absolute principles. It may have used and, indeed, continues to use the language of inclusivity and diversity as it has grown and developed but, because it has come to believe (as a necessity requires) that outside it's own ideal forms and principles, there really is likely to be nothing you could meaningfully call supernatural (i.e. beyond the natural), it has become, in a technical sense, a certain kind of totalitarian world-view.

But, as we know from other historical examples, every sustained attempt to suppress absolutely divergent voices leads, eventually, to some kind of societal break-down or even revolution. Fortunately our culture realised this and it attempted to address this problem by encouraging anti-codes and anti-structures to move into into what has been called the domain of the private. Taylor notes:

The private/public distinction, and the wide area of negative freedom, is the equivalent zone in these societies to the festivals of reversal in their predecessors. It is here, on our own, among friends and family, or in voluntary associations, that we can 'drop out', throw off our coded rules, think and feel with our whole being, and find various intense forms of community. Without this zone, life in modern society would be unlivable (ibid. 52).


For at least a couple of centuries this strategy worked remarkably well but, increasingly, the dangers of this private/public distinction are revealing themselves all over the place and it is this that concerns me today. Although this very modern private space for anti-structure offered and still offers undreamed of creative and liberating possibilities it has also brought with it "hitherto unexperienced dangers of isolation and loss of meaning" - dangers which we just didn’t see coming.

These hitherto unexperienced dangers are not just playing out in the discrete lives of individuals but also now more widely because it is vital to realise that it is in this very modern private fantasy space that the new violent religious fundamentalisms are enabled to grow and strengthen and as well as other countless problematic activities and lifestyles.

As they grow some of these neo-anti-codes and structures, are coming to believe that they can themselves replace in toto prevailing secular codes and structures - violent radical Islam being but one obvious recent contemporary example.

But, as I hope you can see,  such neo-anti-codes and structures are not really functioning in our wider culture as genuine anti-codes and structures which are, in some way, in meaningful balance with their opposites because, dangerously, they are tempted to see themselves as perfect codes that also need no moral boundaries and so also brook no anti-structure. As Taylor sums up, they are "anti-structures to end all anti-structures" and that their dreams, if carried through, will turn into a "nightmare". This is, surely, a good reason for we moderns to be afraid, be very afraid.

Now I simply don’t have a society-wide response to this fear - which I’m minded to think is real and not imagined - but I do think that the default reactive and unreflective position of our governments in Europe and North America is not at all helpful. In their fear they seem to be responding in ways which only encourage the growth of "anti-structures to end all anti-structures" and, by default, their ‘clamp-down’ security driven responses serves only to strengthen themselves in ways that seem to me to be dysfunctional and repressive, ways that are increasingly impacting negatively upon us all. 

What we can do, however, is use the fear I have outlined in a more therapeutic, reflective fashion.  Those of us who, as a necessity requires, can no longer believe in the pre-modern modern world-view that allowed a creative "play of structure and anti-structure, code and anti-code" to work in the first place certainly need to start having a conversation about how we might help create a modern-secular society which has at its heart a its own way of balancing creatively the play of many competing beliefs and lifestyles without yielding once again to the temptation to brook no limit to its own absolute principles. That is, I know, a long and difficult conversation to have but we avoid it at our peril.

So to conclude, because we believe, as a necessity requires, that there are NO evil spirits loosed from the dark regions below the earth who are threatening the rule of a transcendent God residing in heaven above, the Halloween we will experience tonight holds for us no theological/metaphysical fears at all. However, Halloween should, in its post-theological shadowy form, cause us to look very anxiously over our shoulders for a socio-political monster at least as scary as anything our forebears could imagine. Somehow we have to pluck up courage to meet this monster in its various guises and find some way to talk with it and, in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies as ourselves, even genuinely to befriend it.