Monday, 31 January 2011

The gospel of light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.

Mary Oliver

Last week I talked about how things shine and how, through their shining, we can discover, directly and without any existential doubt, the things about which we already care and also find ourselves always-already-in a world filled to the brim with deep meaning and connection. Today, using the example of Mary Oliver's poem 'What I Have Learned So Far' I'll continue to explore something of what this might mean for our own lives as we seek a meaningful way of being religious in an age and secular culture which finds it difficult to subscribe to the religious certainties of old.

So, here is Oliver's poem:

    Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
    not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
    looking into the shining world? Because, properly
    attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
    Can one be passionate about the just, the
    ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
    to no labor in its cause? I don't think so.

    All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
    story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
    Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
    light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.

    Be ignited, or be gone.

            (From New and Selected Poems, Volume Two)

As you can see, Mary Oliver also believes that the world shines. Her regular ritual of sitting on a hillside, commingled in the world of the hillside allows her to *discover* how things shine and have meaning for her, just as the various things involved in my morning tea ritual, about which I spoke last week, shine and have meaning for me. Remember here that I am using the word 'ritual' as a contrast to 'routine' in which a ritual is a meaningful celebration of what it is to be-human-in-the-world and not merely a generic performance of a function.

One way of summing up both Mary Oliver's sitting on the hillside and my own drinking of tea of a morning is to say that they are meditations of a mindful kind.

Now, because I think meditation is a key practice which can help us leave behind the old idea of a transcendent God and to see the meaning of our life in the shining things of this world, not surprisingly I want this address to be an encouragement encouraging all of us to meditate more. But, in modern Western culture, there is a problem with the way we have generally come to understand in what consists meditation and so, in order properly to sow the seed I wish to see grow (and to do it with a reasonable chance it will bring forth good fruit) firstly, I need to ensure the seed falls upon good soil and not among thorns.

Our modern culture has, for all sorts of reasons, come to understand meditation primarily as an inward, private and somehow "pure" affair, wholly free (potentially at least) from the distortions of time, culture and place and which, it is claimed, gives us access to a core, universal spirituality. Importantly it also often tends to hold that meditation is weighted towards helping us experiencing only the kinds of shining we would call delightful. But, as Ernst Bloch noted there is a very real danger connected with this kind of inward turn:

"Someone goes into himself. He thinks that will heal him. But if he stays in there too long no one will notice. He will end up trampling around on himself"
(Atheism in Christianity p. xii).

One reason why this inward, solipsistic and, ultimately, self-destructive move may have occurred is because of the culturally influential Authorised Version of the Bible in which we read that Jesus taught us that the kingdom of Heaven (primarily understood as an eternal state of delight) is 'within' us. This 'within' is, in my opinion at least, the major, choking thorn that we have to try and cut down. It's certainly one that has ensnared me for years.

And when [Jesus] was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you
(Luke 17:20-21).

We can lay the axe at the root of this thorn by reminding ourselves that the Greek word 'entos', which gets translated in the AV as 'within' and, as the Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon notes you will discover that 'entos' refers to "a position within an area determined by other objects and distributed among such objects."

Now it is this mention of objects that I find so suggestive because objects - that is to say things - are clearly *in* the world. So the first thing I want to say is that this suggests Jesus may well have been gesturing towards the idea that the kingdom of heaven is to be found, not in some inner, abstract delightful state of mind nor in some Platonic world beyond, accessible only by introversion, but always-already distributed among the things of the world and that this kingdom is to be discovered by going out of oneself into the world.

It is vital to remember that on each occasion we read about Jesus retiring into some solitary place, there to pray or meditate, the result is always for him a deepening involvement in *this* world either to teach or heal. So, for example we read in the Gospel according to Mark:

And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed. And Simon and they that were with him followed after him. And when they had found him, they said unto him, All [men] seek for thee. And he said unto them, Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth
(Mark 1:35-37).

In passing, but importantly, I think we can legitimately suggest Jesus practised some kind of mindful meditation as well as prayer because of his constant teaching to look outwards and consider the delights of the natural world, whether the lilies of the field, birds of the air (Matthew 6 and Luke 12) or the skies in the morning or evening (cf Matthew 16:2-3 and Luke 12:56). We may point also to the pull into the world which Jesus feels because of less delightful things which cause havoc in our world, namely poverty, disease, injustice and hypocrisy.    

This same is also true of Mary Oliver and we can see her lay great emphasis on the way she has learnt that meditation always results in her experiencing a strong pull out of herself and ever more deeply into the world. Please notice that she, like Jesus, makes it clear that this pull into the world is as strongly felt when she is amongst the things that bring her delight as it is when she is amongst the darker things that bring havoc. As Oliver says and Jesus shows, delight is (or should be) as much a suggestion for us to act in the world as is havoc and it is a call always to labour for maintenance and growth of the delightful shining things we perceive to be just, ideal, sublime, and holy.

Oliver's next lines subtly gesture towards the thought that, in truth, we are always-already-in-the-world among things and that no-thing can ever step outside the world - even when our language and cultural training tempts us to think this is possible.

So she begins this by saying 'all summations have a beginning' which seems to me to gesture towards the thought that all apparently self-contained wholes rely upon some 'beginning' external to it but which is, itself, also always-already-in-the-world. If we are minded to take seriously the Christian myth that Jesus is the incarnation of God - and I am minded to take it seriously - then this myth is a way of decisively bringing even God always-already-into-the-world and, therefore, dependent upon the grace of the shining things outside us but which are still always-already-in-the-world.

The next few lines build on this thought. 'All effect has a story' she says and here I suggest that Oliver is gesturing to the thought that even our most apparently abstract ideas, such as God as an uncaused cause, is something that, in truth, can only arise in an already existing grounded, ongoing, unfolding story about how we as humans take a stand on what it is to be in the world.

Then she notes, 'All kindness begins with the sown seed' which, similarly, suggests all goodness - whether we label it human, divine or merely providential - is also reliant upon some prior 'goodness' that was always-already sown in the world and which we try to pass on through our stories, generation after generation, and which, if we wish to see such kindness continue to grow amongst us, we must from time to time remove invasive and choking thorns.

Lastly, she says that all thought - even though our language tempts us into thinking it is an inward thing - is, in truth, always budding 'toward radiance'. In other words what we like to think of as 'inner' is always-already out in the world budding towards radiance. I am increasingly taking Jesus well known saying about light as it appears in Luke as a particularly felicitous expression of this thought:

No man, when he hath lighted a candle, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth [it] under a bed; but setteth [it] on a candlestick, that they which enter in may see the light. For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither [any thing] hid, that shall not be known and come abroad
(Luke 8:16-17)

Nothing is secret because there is no secret, hidden inner world and every thing, in the instant it becomes, is always-already budding toward radiance and for those who have entered into the world everything always shines out like a candle on a candlestick.

And then we approach directly what she has learnt so far: 'The gospel of light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.'

As Jesus said, all those 'which enter in may see the light' may see this budding towards radiance and it seems to me that we can only enter into the world (of which both Jesus and Oliver speaks) and see the shining of all things when we take care daily to practise a life shaped by mindful meditation.

The pressing question for us is whether we are willing to enter in and see this? And then whether, in response we allow ourselves to 'be ignited' - to become ourselves the light of the world. Make no mistake the stakes are high for to refuse this call towards radiance is to be gone. Far better, surely, to be ignited.

    Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
    not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
    looking into the shining world? Because, properly
    attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
    Can one be passionate about the just, the
    ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
    to no labor in its cause? I don't think so.

    All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
    story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
    Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
    light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.

    Be ignited, or be gone.

             (From New and Selected Poems, Volume Two)

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The shining of morning tea


In the dark days of winter it is all too easy to find oneself in very low spirits. The many obvious reasons for this need not, I'm sure, be listed but something important related to this should be noted. It is that many of us here today will feel, to greater or lesser degrees, that the religious and metaphysical certainties of the past no longer have an inescapably compelling hold over us and so no longer help us satisfactorily to answer that perennial question we ask at these moments: "What is the point of it all?"

Now the major reason we seek out a religious community of any description is to help us answer this question in some way. Not, I hope, in a solely intellectual and abstract manner but in such a fashion that the answer is made manifest by the way-we-are-in-the-world so that, as Jesus taught, somehow we shine:  

"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16).

But, as I have just noted, the traditional religious and metaphysical answers (revolving around a monotheistic conception of God) are for us no longer sufficient unto the day. So as a religious community seeking an appropriate way to be religious in a secular age what are we to do about this?

Without going into it at all deeply today - and I'll try slowly to expand upon what I mean in the coming weeks I think that, although a static monotheistic conception of God is unsalvageable, we can rescue something religiously relevant to our own secular age and understanding by appropriately adopting aspects of the dynamic and pluralistic Homeric understanding of the gods and the associated moods of wonder and gratitude. As some of you know I've been exploring these moods in various ways during Advent, Christmas and Epiphany under the heading of 'loving regard' or 'loving attention'. (Or as last week with Lew Welch's poem 'Theology' and in particular the line 'all the wonder of all the planets striking all your only mind.'

As a merest hint about what I mean one may helpfully cite Nietzsche here:

"Oh, those [Homeric] Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial - out of profundity"
(The Gay Science - Preface 4 cited in Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 p.  164).

Related to this is a pressing need for us to perceive as Ishmael did in Melville's Moby Dick:

". . . that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country" (Moby Dick NCE p. 323 cited in Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 p.  163).

(Here I should note my great indebtedness for these thoughts, not only to the work of James C. Edwards, but now also Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrence Kelly and their newly published book "All Things Shining".)

Anyway, during this dark and low time of year I simply offer a single down-to-earth (superficial in Nietzsche's sense) and I hope helpful thought that can contribute both to the brightening of your mood and to kick-starting the kind of profoundly secular religious project I think is for us required as a necessity requires.

Picking up on something suggested by Melville's words I concentrate upon the domain that centres upon my kitchen table at which, each morning, I drink my first mug of tea of the day.

When I wake up - whether on a dark winter morning or a bright summer one and whether my mood is good or low - my first activity is to go down into the kitchen to make tea. Firstly I fill the shiny silver kettle from the Franke mixer tap on the sink (a wonderful piece of Swiss engineering) and turn it on to boil. I then get my favourite mug (a large blue and white TG Green Cornishware mug) and inside it I pop a strainer. Then, from the shelf above, I take down my old cream tin tea-caddy (from Jacksons of Piccadilly), open it up and pull out the little aluminium spoon made by Messmer Tee in Frankfurt-am-Main Germany (which Susanna and I found in Wells-next-the Sea) and put one-and-a-half spoonfuls of fairly-traded tea into my cup. (This often encourages me to consider the tea-pickers and growers and whether they are receiving a fair reward for their work as well as the open question about the cost of transporting this tea around the world to the well-being of the planet). Immediately the kettle boils I pour the still boiling water onto the tea and then sit down at the little wooden kitchen table for five minutes and look out of the glass back door into the back-yard at the birds feeding on the bird-table and the statues of Venus and the Buddha who, gracefully and calmly, are greeting the light. After five minutes I take the strainer from my mug, get some fresh semi-skimmed milk (organic) from the fridge and add it to the tea along with a small teaspoon of fairly-traded golden-granulated sugar (it makes me consider similar questions as the ones I noted above about tea). I sit back at the kitchen table and, looking out into the back yard once again, take my first refreshing sip, savouring the bittersweet mix - it is almost always a shining moment - i.e. it shines out like a city on a hill and calls me, without mediator or veil, into life.

Now, it is important to notice that none of the things I have mentioned in this domain are reducible merely to generic forms. Everything here is storied and woven into my life. So, for example, something incalculable would be lost if I were to use in this domain a polystyrene cup instead of my blue and white TG Green mug. I should add here that in another time and place a polystyrene cup may well also be for me a storied thing - but not here, not in this domain. Anyway here, this mug which Susanna bought for me when we got married was purchased because she knew it shone strongly for me drawing out memories of childhood summer holidays with my grandparents in a little chalet-type hut at Mundesley on the North Norfolk coast. This mug not only shines with that memory but now also with the memory of Susanna's care and concern for me. The point here is to see that in this domain my mug is not merely a *resource* that could be replaced by a generic form of cup. If my mug were to be broken it would have to be replaced with something which was capable of drawing out its own appropriate associated meanings connected with this domain - I don't know, another mug with other stories or, of course, a new mug which, for whatever reason, had a shining quality when I saw it on sale. As Dreyfus and Kelly point out the moment I begin simply to treat the cup in this domain as mere resource I would also be beginning to treat myself as mere resource too (cf. ATS p. 217).

It is important that the mug is not something that just disappears into the background so that I don't notice it. Of course, I don't always notice everything about every thing used in this domain all the time - I'd never finish making my tea if I did that! - but the point is in the context of this domain everything in it is all capable of standing out like a city on a hill, of shining and, in shining, revealing to me the meaning and worth of life.

Over the years I have only slowly come to understand that making my tea each morning is a ritual not a routine - by which I mean it is a meaningful celebration of what it is to be-in-the-world and not merely a generic and meaningless performance of a function (ATS p. 219).

Now it is vital to observe that I don't, and have never needed to, figure out and *decide* what it is in this ritual, this domain, that helps me see what I care about (i.e. the things here which give my life real meaning). The point is rather that in practising this ritual (and others - including, for example, the conducting of this service) I continually *discover* through the shining of the things in it things about which I already care (ATS p. 216). They shine, I notice them and I simply know I care about them - about this there is no existential doubt - and consequently I find myself fully and directly in the world and, more importantly in a world full of meaning and connections.

For me, in this ritual, each morning I am simply and immediately grasped by these shining things and they pick me up strongly like a wave picks up a surfer and I am nearly always thrilled in small, but infinitely meaningful ways by this ride. But, as every surfer knows, every wave you riding will eventually break upon the shore and will no longer be able to hold you up. But I know, next morning I can, if I'm disciplined enough to regularly to practise this ritual - and I am, I can position myself so as to ride another such wave whenever it crests.

As I draw to close, a final point to observe from this is that in my tea ritual I discover not 'the' point of it all but single points of it all. My life of meaning is made up of the countless moments when I pay attention to the way things shine and I attune myself to their presence. Then we find, indeed, that divinity is present everywhere but not rooted outside or behind the world, but on the surface, in all the shining of things, places and domains.

It is not often that you will hear this in a church but I think the cure, not only for our temporary winter blues but also the deeper existential blues of existence, is to be found in lowering our sights, being more superficial and by acknowledging the local shining deities, - the genius loci - that is to say the living 'spirits' of things, places and domains, here and now.

You and all shining things are the light of the world. So don't hide, go look, go shine. 

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The True Rebel never advertises it, he prefers his joy to Missionary Work - or walking a little further with the Magi

Lew Welch fishing
A few people who find it hard to get here each week have recently asked whether I could record the sermon and put it up as an mp3. Well, here it is - link below this paragraph. Let me know if it is helpful and/or horrible - maybe both! - and if I should continue to do it. OK - on we go. The injury I refer to at the beginning of the address is a fairly big cut to my forehead sustained when I smashed my head against the arm of the sofa looking for Tolstoy's 'Gospel in Brief' which I thought had fallen behind it . . . 


The True Rebel never advertises it,
He prefers his joy to Missionary Work.

Church is Bureaucracy,
no more interesting than any Post Office.

Religion is Revelation:
all the Wonder of all the Planets striking
all your Only Mind

Guard the Mysteries!

Constantly reveal Them!

On Epiphany Sunday three years ago I introduced you to this poem by the beat-poet Lew Welch which, for various reasons, I recently re-read. It seems not inappropriate to take another look at it again in connection with the season of Epiphany. Although there are similar themes between the two addresses it's far from being the address as I gave in January 2008. As before I'll take it stanza by stanza. Also, deliberately echoing Philip Pullman's important caveat printed on the cover of his most recent book 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ': THIS IS A STORY.

The True Rebel never advertises it,
He prefers his joy to Missionary Work.

It seems not to be out of character to suggest that there must have been something of the rebel in each of the Magis. After all, they were prepared to leave behind them important secure roles in their own societies as astrologer priests and to undertake a risky road-trip (something the Beat Poet Welch would certainly have appreciated) simply to see what they might see in this thing that had come to pass in Bethlehem and to let themselves be open to the possibilities for new insight and understanding it might afford them. Yet the story nowhere suggests they, themselves, were interested in advertising their rebelliousness instead, and touchingly I think, Matthew only tells us of their joy and desire to acknowledge the worth in the child they came to see. You will remember that vv. 10-11 of chapter 2 reads:

When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

It seems also worthy of note that, despite the fact they are Zoroastrian priests, they do not seem to have been at all driven by any missionary zeal at all - they are not out to tell the world about themselves but only to open themselves up to the possibility that the world might be able to say something of note to them. Their quiet, hidden rebelliousness seems to consist in this abandonment of the usual priestly way of proceeding; they may have known lots of stuff and been given authority by their tradition but, like Socrates a few centuries earlier, at heart they seem to have understood that only true wisdom is in knowing you know very little indeed and so must, at all times, remain radically open to the possibilities of life.

Church is Bureaucracy,
no more interesting than any Post Office.

People who, like the Magi and (at times) Lew Welch, manifest such a joyous attitude and who value radical openness to future possibility are, naturally, going to be highly suspicious of all things bureaucratic - (that's their rebelliousness) As many of us know to our cost churches, that is to say religion, all too often become painfully bureaucratic.

But Welch's stanza is not totally dismissing the potential importance of church but making a rather more subtle point and he does this by using the example of the Post Office. You need to know that Welch was a great letter writer and his collected letters in two volumes entitled 'I Remain' are a very moving account of what it is to be a poet struggling with both inner personal demons and the indifference of his own society to his work and vision. His letters were central in his life and they helped him work through difficult questions about life, to trial some of his poetry, and they allowed him to be supported, often quite beautifully, by his friends. In other words Welch knew he needed the Post Office to facilitate this creative, life-giving exchange. But even as he knew how important the Post Office was to him he also knew that it was not, in itself, the centre of his interest.

It reminds us that in the same way this church (as an institution) must never become for us the centre of our interest instead it must be the opportunities it offers to us of ongoing dialogue and community. But, and what a huge but it is, if this church in its institutional form is not supported by us we begin to close down these same opportunities for dialogue and community. It should be clear to us all that if we value these opportunities but don't come to the church for months and months on end or chip in regularly to the coffers, one day you may well turn up here to find it closed and boarded up or, perhaps even worse, turned into a Wetherspoons. It would, by the way, make a very good Wetherspoons - like a number of other churches I know.

My mention of Wetherspoons - a secular business - is a reminder that the problem I've just noted exists across our society. If we are not careful then pretty soon all our Post Offices will be banks and our community centres shopping outlets.

Religion is Revelation:
all the Wonder of all the Planets striking
all your Only Mind

It seems to me that here Welch is gesturing to the importance of being directly and fully in the world, open to the wonder of it all and to greet it, like the Magi, rejoicing exceedingly with great joy and finding in it something of great worth and meaning - something worthy of their worship. This is not an analytic rational encounter with the world - important though that is - but the kind of wonder which, when later like Mary we ponder upon it, helps us find ways to go deeper and to see through what has already been seen. For James C. Edwards this is, as I reminded us on Christmas Day, to approach the world with the attitude that it is a riddle to be solved, but instead with an attitude of what he calls 'loving attention'. As Edwards notes:

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

We may imagine something like this 'sound understanding is being practised at the moment the Magi kneel by the cribside.

Lastly, Welch concludes his poem with what might at first seem to be some contradictory advice.

Guard the Mysteries!
Constantly reveal Them!

We may turn to a very brief poem by another extraordinary poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), to help us explore this final thought a little more:

Tell the truth but tell it slant, Success in circuit lies; Too bright for mind’s infirm intent, Is truth’s sublime surmise. Like lightning to children eased, Through revelation kind; The truth must dazzle gradually, Or every man be blind.

It seems to me that Matthew's telling of the story of the Magi, even as we may be sure he is trying to show or reveal to us something important about the world, he does this by always keeping something back, guarding it, and he does this by revealing things, not head on, but slant.

Here I think it is important to notice that the mystery of the world - for the Magi and for Matthew and Lew Welch - is that things are always capable of giving us more than they are - which is to say, as I said earlier, that no story is ever over, no depths are ever fully plumbed and that the world and its beings remain a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted.

What Welch's poem and the story of the Magi seem to be gesturing to us is that the truth of our world and our place in it - one of the things I presume we come here to find out - is always elusive, it is never fixed, it is always alive and capable of change and growth right up until the point we leave the banquet of life to allow another guest to take their place at the table of life. We are helped to see that the perennial question about who we are, the 'I am', is not fixed and, (as Peter Thompson observes) 'The "Am" which will exist at the end of the process is not the one who sets off on the journey in the first place, but the one who arrives at his genesis AT THE END of the journey' (Introduction to Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009, p. xiii. By clicking on this link readers interested in this book can hear a panel discussion about it recently held at Birkbeck College.) We are not yet - we are always becoming. In this lies our freedom to live and love which releases our hearts from captivity.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Epiphany - An alliance, holy or not, of the calculable and the incalculable

Die heiligen drei Könige  - Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

In Eastern traditions of Christianity Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Jesus and, in the Western traditions, the visit of the Magi is remembered. As a feast (i.e. the stories with some very specific theological interpretations as to their meanings attached to them) the Epiphany is first recorded as being celebrated in 361 CE. In both traditions the basic intention of the feast is understood to highlight God's revelation of the divine-self to human-beings through Jesus and, as the Church continued to develop, this was expanded in various ways so as to speak of this same revelation in other times, places and ways. A central Biblical image for this revelation is, of course, light: so we have the well-known ideas that 'the light' is not overcome by darkness; that the windows of heaven are open; that the fruit of light is goodness.

Both traditions have theologically understood the divine-self or light as a revelation or breaking *in* of a supernatural power from a realm different from our everyday world. This relates, of course, to the Christian understanding of the previous two church seasons, namely Advent (when this something is awaited) and Christmas (the moment when this something actually breaks in). Epiphany is the symbolic moment when human-kind recognises that this supernatural breaking in has occurred and the faithful, like the Magi (I'll stick to the Magi today because we are in the West), are to come and adore it. For the believer this is, then, a time when they are simply required, in faith, to bow down before this supernatural power, this Glory of God whose light gives humanity its meaning and worth.

In our present increasingly complex culture this is a story which is often thought to be in conflict with another way by which humanity has come feel it knows the true meaning of the world, namely, via the slow, incremental work of the natural sciences - empirical knowledge is the slowly enlarging pool of light that is lighting up the world. Following on from this idea it is tempting to suggest that whilst the Magi ground their understanding of the world on faith, scientists ground their understanding of the world on empirical knowledge.

In various ways and settings this bi-polar set up has encouraged our culture to promote the often unpleasant (if sometimes shallowly amusing) spectacle of a fight in which in one corner are the theists who, having been excluded from Western public culture and politics for years, are now coming out fighting against what they see as technocracies, sterile democracies, faithless scientism and value-free liberality. In the other corner are the atheists who, shocked at the revival of religion, are coming out fighting against what they see as muddle-headedness, dogmatism and irrationality, theocracies and fundamentalist regimes and movements. The Blair/Hitchen's encounter at the end of last year being the most recent high-profile example of this.

As Peter Thompson observes in his excellent introduction to Ernst Bloch's "Atheism in Christianity":

"We seem to be trapped in a dualistic but essentially static way of thinking about the relationship between religion and science. As Derrida and Vattimo put it. 'We are constantly trying to think the interconnectedness, albeit otherwise, of knowledge and faith, technoscience and religious belief, calculation and the sacrosanct. In the process, however, we have not ceased to encounter the alliance, holy or not, of the calculable and the incalculable" (Introduction to Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009, p. x).(By clicking on this link readers interested in this book can hear a panel discussion about it recently held at Birkbeck College.)

It seems to me that this recognition that we 'have not ceased to encounter the alliance, holy or not, of the calculable and the incalculable' is an insight which can help us begin to find a way out of the pointless and unedifying either/or battle I've just outlined - a battle that is culturally deadening and potentially suicidal. It is culturally deadening because "the dualistic sterility of the "either/or" position" simply "disables our critical faculties and our ability to recognise that the contradictions within a situation carry within them the potential solution of that situation." (ibid. p. x) It becomes suicidal if these battles continue to help set up increasingly violent conflicts between a supposedly Godless set of secular powers on the one hand (those who, it is assumed, live solely by calculation) and, on the other, supposedly God-inspired religious powers (those who, it is assumed, live solely by revealed faith) on the other.

But as much as we may desire it none of us can start in the middle with an already formed synthesis between two apparently contradictory poles, we always have to be moving towards new synthesised positions from one position or another. On balance, I have to say I start with the strongest of sympathies for the scientific position and, though I am acutely aware that science has its own very real problems and can be rather too hubristic at times for my liking, I value highly the fact that it contains within its own self-understanding a remarkable readiness continually to critique and reassess its current positions and findings. It has developed a disciplined way either of working through apparent contradictions to new enlarged understandings or, when it is failing to make much headway it is prepared to remain alert to the fact that there is a problem and that, although it doesn't yet quite know how to proceed, it will keep thinking about and working away at the matter in hand.

But religion - especially in its traditional monotheistic dogmatic forms - clearly isn't at all good at this kind of self-critique and reassessment because in some way it believes (according to its own logic) that it has already had access to (or at least a real glimpse of) the ultimate truth of the world - it has seen in revelation the light, the supernatural all-perfect power that is God. Consequently, I increasingly feel, especially at this moment in time, that there are more dangerous limitations and problems with religion than there are with science. A great deal of religion really does, I think, need to be challenged and one of my duties, especially as an insider myself as a minister of religion, is continually to be prepared to make this challenge so we may end up with some kind of religious way of life related to Christianity that is rather more healthy, vigorous and constructive than we have at the moment.

It is, however, all too easy to succumb to the temptation to undertake this critique by rushing at the obvious limitations of religion armed only with reason in the hope that by its supposedly "pure" light the fantasy of religion will defeated. But in our culture the evidence is piling up that this is a doomed project. Charging in like this puts up religion's defences and simply encourages it to dig in. Also - in the visceral adrenaline fuelled excitement of the charge and subsequent frustrating fray - one is in danger of feeling (wrongly) that you, the warrior of reason, already have the final answer.

No! The only way to overcome the limitations of religion is to find within religion itself its own dualistic contradictions and encouraging it to work them through into new understandings and new possibilities. As Ernst Bloch said:

"The question here is not of giving the death-blow to fantasy as such, but of destroying and saving the myth in a single dialectical process, by shedding light upon it. What is really swept away is real superstition" (ibid. p. x).

Here we may return to the story of the Magi and shed light upon something going on there that we haven't, perhaps, noticed before and which is swept clear (I hope) from real superstition.

Rather than being a story about how we come to know truth by a direct encounter with a supernatural revelation of truth (which is to be opposed in some way to knowing truth via the achievements of the natural sciences) it seems to me to be a story which speaks rather beautifully of the basic human condition in which we are constantly encountering the alliance, holy or not, of the calculable and the incalculable. It is a story about how, when both are kept together in dialogue it becomes possible to find, live and work our way into a new and enlarged understandings about, and relationships with, the world. Here's how I see it - at least as I write these words on Saturday afternoon.

We can begin by noting that, as astrologers, the Magis were proto-scientific in their outlook. This is simply to say that a central part of the method by which they tried to understand and relate to the world was to engage in careful empirical observation and then to follow it up with complex calculations which, in turn, began to help them predict the movement of the heavens and so their own movement through the world (helping with navigation, the prediction of tides, rainy seasons etc. etc.). The results of their empirical calculations (understood in their own culturally contingent ways) encouraged them to undertake a journey, the destination of which they were able to calculate, namely, the Bethlehem stable in which Jesus was born.

But that is only a third of the story. The second third is that the various experiences they had during the long journey generated by their calculations were always going to be incalculable - they simply could not know whom they were going to meet nor what was going to happen to them.

(In the address at this point I told folk of two people I know who, independently of each other, had calculated to the last degree their driving and hitch-hiking trips across Europe during the 1970s. One of them picked the other up on the road, they fell in love and then got married. Neither of them ended up where they had calculated they would but both of them ended up, thanks in part to the incalculable element of life, in a place perfect for them both.)

In what seems to me to be a stroke of great genius (perhaps unconscious genius) Matthew withholds the final third of the story which is, of course, the kinds of human-beings the Magi became as a result of the meeting between the calculable and incalculable, particularly in the way the story unfolds, at the crib side. All Matthew tells us is that the Magi worship Jesus (i.e. they recognise in him in something worthy or honourable - what that something might be I suggest in the conclusion of this address in a moment), they give their gifts and then, "being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way." That's it - we hear no more of them.

The story can stand for us as a reminder that true openness to the future is not possible if you are only prepared to trust and act upon the calculable and that neither is this openness to the future possible if you are only prepared to trust and act upon the incalculable.

It's hard for me to imagine a better, more beautiful and unsuperstitious story to gesture towards the radical openness to future possibility and change that is always and all the time made possible by the natural alliance, holy or not, of the calculable and the incalculable. So when at Christmas and the Epiphany we sing 'O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord' may we not understand the Christ-child as being symbolic of this ever-present intersection of the calculable and the incalculable which always draws us in genuine hope towards new possibilities, new insights, new life.

Happy Epiphany to you all.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

An hypothesis to live by

Alain Badiou
Two things always strike me at this time of year. The first is the mad, dysfunctional spending that goes on even as most consumers know they are burdened by increasingly unsustainable personal debt and this year also facing the very present danger of loosing their jobs or, at the very least, loosing the basic kinds of social and economic security they once thought they had.

The second is that the Advent and Christmas season is a powerful reminder of how strongly I remain committed to the explicit use of Biblical language and ideas and remain faithful to what we might call the extended Christian event explored in the New Testament texts and that of the Radical Reformation of the sixteenth-century. Given that, as many of you know, I do not subscribe to the old orthodox metaphysical claims of Christianity, as I reflect upon this in the cold light of the New Year this can, and often does, make me somewhat uncomfortable and makes me question again what it is I think I am doing.

As I pondered these things in the run-up to the New Year I began to realise how intimately these things are connected. To show why, necessarily involves some consideration of recent left-wing political thinking with which, I am aware, some of you may not be personally sympathetic. Acknowledging this I offer two lines of defence.

The first is that, as I said above, this church stands in the radical-Reformation tradition, a left-wing movement which was always politically and religiously concerned about the emancipation of humanity, desired justice for the poor and dispossessed and also that their well-being and possibility of full flourishing (spiritual and material) was also ensured. Recall here our reading from the Epistle of James (Chapter 2 vv. 1-7) - a key text.

Additionally, and of huge import it seems to me, our church's historical commitment to an hypothesis which affirmed the humanity of Christ can be taken as the beginnings of a radical and developing protest against the conception of an absent all-powerful transcendent God enthroned in heaven in favour of an egalitarian earthly kingdom (even republic) of heaven in which God becomes man; what we once called God is now understood definitively, and irreversibly, to dwell amongst us in some way. Two thinkers who have followed this basic Christian hypothesis through in an atheistic fashion that I, personally, am taking with increasing seriousness are Ernst Bloch and Slavov Žižek. (I feel it's only right and proper to make it absolutely clear here that this is *not* to go in the direction followed by either contemporary pluralistic Unitarian/Universalism or even classic Unitarian Christianity.)

The second thing I'll add in my defence is that I have discovered in my recent reading that, in the light of the complete failure of the attempts in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries to set up and sustain just socialist and communist societies, the questions currently being asked by some thinkers on the Left strongly resemble the kinds of questions we are being forced to ask in the liberal religious circles we mostly inhabit.

These two things make me feel justified in taking the risk of citing one particular left-wing philosopher, Alain Badiou, so openly today from this lectern. Please bear with me; as our final hymn says 'help this prophet to be bold'.

(At the very end of this post is a note about this hymn - both its full, original content and its extraordinary author. I didn't mention any of this in the 'live' giving of this address as it would have been too much of a diversion. But it is an example of silent liberal re-writings which seem to me deliberately to obscure our church's very radical roots. It's not that I think we should be slavish about clinging to all our earlier ideas and expressions but what worries me is the pretence that they never existed in the first place. The end result is that we simply do not really understand how we are who we are and we fail to see that our communities were created by people who were completely committed to a great idea - something I'm now going to speak about.)

Since the financial crash of 2008 and the consequent attempts to save the whole sorry show by pouring into the banks trillions of pounds, euros and dollars whilst, at the same time, beginning to inflict increasing financial pain and distress upon the poorest in our societies (and all whilst continuing to reward and protect those who contributed so much to this catastrophe) I have spent a great deal of time and effort revisiting my shelf of my once well-thumbed Marx, Gramsci, Bloch and Lenin as well as reading some of the new thinking in this area - particularly Žižek, Eagleton and Badiou.

Thinking about possible alternative approaches has to be done when you discover that you really can no longer believe that the way we are carrying on is working. Given this I, like everyone else, am forced to ask, well, 'What is to be done?' But, before one can even get to the possibility of any kind of actual 'doing', one has to have been captivated by an enabling and inspiring hypothesis.

However, one of the most effective strategies of late-capitalism has been to remove from the field of play all alternative hypotheses that are capable of challenging it. It has done this for the most part by silently seducing the members of its societies (us) into believing that, despite its faults, on balance it is the best of all the possible models on offer. Alternative hypotheses are neutered by making them matters wholly of private concern. It says to us, 'if you must hold such a hypothesis you must only hold it as a sort of eccentric hobby to be kept, mostly, well out of sight.' 

It goes without saying that those of us who have benefited most from the system's increasingly global development (and there are, of course, many people in the world who have not only never benefited from it but who have, in fact, suffered at its hands) are highly predisposed unquestioningly to buy into this approach. After all there is no doubt that this system has given us pretty comfortable lives and many wonderful things - and I am not being ironic here, I really mean this. It should come as no surprise that none of us who have this comfort and these things like to think about loosing them. Late-capitalism's hold over us all is, therefore, not precisely ideological but rather material. This factor, and many others, simply reinforces in us the feeling that we must fix *this* system thereby protecting the basic status quo - if we only keep calm and carry on, all will be well. This general way of proceeding has led supporters of the system to claim in various ways that it has, thereby, been bringing about an 'end of ideologies' - a claim which has also run alongside another that there was also 'an end of history'.

But, as the global financial crisis unfolded, many of us on the inside of the system have now caught a glimpse of something very disturbing about it and as Alain Badiou suggests:

'We can now see quite clearly that the only reality behind their so-called "end [of ideologies]" is "Save the banks"' (The Communist Hypothesis, Verso Press 2009, p. 99).

This leads me to concur with Badiou that now:

'Nothing could be more important than rediscovering the passion for ideas, or than contrasting the world as it is with a general hypothesis, with the certainty that we can create a very different order of things. We will contrast the wicked spectacle of capitalism with the real of peoples, with the lives of people and the movement of ideas. The theme of the emancipation of humanity has lost none of its power' (The Communist Hypothesis, Verso Press 2009, pp. 99-100).

Now, remember I began this address with a point about my continued use of Biblical language and how I can sometimes be somewhat embarrassed by this. Well, Badiou is acutely aware of something similar in his own circles. This is because he has to communicate to others his preferred hypothesis and to do this he only has his inherited language of Communism. As he does this he is painfully aware that the attempts to instantiate the Communist hypothesis during the last two centuries ultimately failed but, he says:

'[W]e have to try to retain the words of our language, even though we no longer dare to say them out loud. In '68, these were the words that were used by everyone. Now they tell us: "The world has changed, so you can no longer use those words, and you know it was the language of illusions and terror." "Oh yes, we can! And we must!" The problem [of our world/society] is still there, and that means that we must be able to pronounce these words. It is up to us to criticise them and give them a new meaning. We must be able to go on saying "people", "workers", "abolition of private property", and so on, without being considered has-beens. We have to discuss these words in our own field, in our own camp. We have to put an end to the linguistic terrorism that delivers us into the hands of our enemies. Giving up on the language issue, and accepting the terror that subjectively forbids us to pronounce words that offend dominant sensibilities, is an intolerable form of oppression' (The Communist Hypothesis, Verso Press 2009, pp. 64-65).

Now, whatever you think about Badiou's Communist hypothesis I hope you will be able see how the foregoing issues relate to us in the present situation as a church standing in a radical-Reformation tradition.  

As we meet today at the beginning of a New Year and consider the mindless and self-destructive shopping madness going on but a few hundred yards from this church we are all aware how unsustainable is this way of proceeding and we know something has to be done - for the sake of humanity and the planet in general. (Of course, even if the political and social will for change doesn't win out we will, in the end, all be forced by natural forces radically to change our ways anyway.)

The thing that we are to do must, surely, be related to our tradition's founding events and general hypothesis which has stated, amongst other things, that no one has the right to lord it over us or has the right to bag and barn up for themselves the fruits of the earth and our labour. Where and whenever this unjust behaviour is occurring we have had the vision and courage, in the past at least, to be prepared to help turn the world upside down (cf. Acts 17:6-8) certain that we can create a very different order of things.

And we, too, - especially in post-modern liberal religious circles - are constantly told that 'the world has changed' and that, therefore we can no longer use our inherited religious language because Christianity - even the kind of radical Christianity we have espoused - is clearly the language of 'illusions and terror'. But as Badiou points out it is up to us to criticise these words and give them a new and relevant meaning - primarily because our particular Christian hypothesis which uses those words still has the power to offend the dominant sensibilities that are presently doing so much damage to our world and its peoples; the dominant sensibilities I have in mind are global capitalism and all dogmatic institutional expressions of religion, particularly Christianity, which have all too often eagerly supported such unjust systems. Because of this, and despite my embarrassment, I think it is vital to continue to insist on using the 'offensive' radical Biblical language of, for example, liberation, grace, incarnation, resurrection, the body of Christ, universal salvation and the like (again, see Bloch and Žižek on these things).

As Badiou puts it with regard to the communist hypothesis, and to which I would add the radical Christian hypothesis I've pointed to above:

'[I]n a nutshell: we have to be bold enough to have an idea. A great idea. We have to convince ourselves that there is nothing ridiculous or criminal about having a great idea. [. . .] Too many people now think that there is no alternative to living for oneself, for one's own interests. Let us have the courage to cut ourselves off from such people. [. . .] I am a philosopher, so let me tell you something that has been said again and again since Plato's day. It is very simple. I am telling you as a philosopher that we have to live with an idea, and that what deserves to be called real politics [and I would add real religion] begins with that conviction' (The Communist Hypothesis, Verso Press 2009, pp. 66-67).

If we abandon our conviction and fidelity to our own foundational events and basic hypothesis - our great idea - it seems to me that we will have begun to believe that the unjust and destructive madness we are seeing in our contemporary societies is our future and that we are powerless to create a very different order of things.

But I, for one, refuse to abandon such a protest. "Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott helfe mir. Amen." - "Here I stand; I can do none other, so help me God. Amen."

Here is the original lyric of the hymn mentioned above.
Here is a link to some information and articles by the author - Louisa Bevington.