Monday, 28 February 2011

A couple of tunes from recent gigs with Nigel Price and Trudy Kerr at the Hunter Club, Bury St Edmunds

For all you jazz fans out there. Both were fun gigs - Nigel and Trudy were not only great musicians to play with but were also a delight off the bandstand. We had a ball. The rhythm section as always is Chris Ingham on piano, Russ Morgan on drums and yours truly on bass.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Puddles and Black Bears - A meditation on earthquakes, wars and rumours of wars


Last week we saw yet another serious earthquake occur in New Zealand but, on this occasion, this natural disaster coincided with the outbreak of a number of popular revolutions against some very long-standing and nasty North-African regimes. Naturally, our hearts and, where possible, our direct support goes out to the victims of the earthquake and to those who are fighting for basic freedoms which we in the UK have come to take almost for granted. (There's a real danger lurking in our taking any freedoms for granted but I'll let that go today).

Anyway, at such times - even when we are far away from the events themselves - we are tempted to ask, as Lucretius did in the first-century BC, 'Is catastrophe meaningless? Or is it anger on someone's part, or disapproval?'. He continues:

The proud regalia of office is mocked, the fasces and battle axes,
are trampled down in the dust in a show of divine contempt.
So too with dreadful earthquakes, when cities are shaken
and walls crumble and fall, the sons of men will feel
helpless, altogether powerless, and they hate
themselves for their weakness and therefore suppose that the gods as
must feel contempt and that this is what men deserve,
for if we don't have power, it probably lies elsewhere
in the wonderful hands of the gods,immortal and wiser than we are.
(DRN, trans. Slavitt, Book 5:1084-1094)

As many of you will know, Lucretius raises these thoughts not, as Milton's memorable phrase in 'Paradise Lost' has it, in order 'to justify the ways of God to men' (Book 1:25), but, instead, to show, not only that such thoughts and fears are utterly groundless, but also that this kind of thinking has inflicted upon later generations many 'bitter groans', 'tears' and 'terrible wounds' (DRN, Slavitt, Book 5:1045-1047). Lucretius felt that it would be much better 'to live with a tranquil mind' and he felt we achieved this by 'surveying whatever one sees with a steady, clear-eyed acceptance' in which we payed careful attention to the 'outward appearance and inner workings of nature' (DRN 1.148) - in Latin: 'naturae species ratioque'.

For those who missed last week's address in which I explored something of this you need only know that by 'ratio' Lucretius meant nature's 'law or inner workings' and we can use this word to refer to how the world shows up to us (shines) when we consistently apply to it active human reasoning (which I associated with the natural and formal sciences). By 'species' Lucretius meant the 'face' or 'outward appearance' of nature and we can use this word to refer to how nature shows up for us (or shines) as human-beings who are always-already in the world not only as creatures with a dispassionate and rational faculty *but also* an emotional and poetic creatures (this I associated with the work of artists and particularly poets).

Now, in relation to the facing of a disastrous event, I know of no more perfect and accessible contemporary expression of 'naturae species ratioque' gained by 'surveying whatever one sees with a steady, clear-eyed acceptance' than Mary Oliver's poem 'Black Bear in the Orchard'. But, there is something about the easy accessibility of her poetry that can cause us to miss the truly great and liberating, though somewhat shocking gift she (and Lucretius) is offering. Namely a direct encounter with, not God, but the Sublime.  Consequently, we need first to consider something that might at first sight appear utterly disconnected from what we are talking about. It is a regular puddle of rainwater. In Book four of the DRN Lucretius at one point asks us to think of the following situation:

A puddle of water no deeper than a single finger-breadth, which lies between the stones on a paved street, offers us a view beneath the earth to a depth as vast as the high gaping mouth (hiatus) of heaven stretches above the earth, so that you seem to look down on the clouds and the heaven, and you discern bodies hidden in the sky beneath the earth, marvellously (mirande). (DRN Book 4:414-419).

Note that word marvellously (mirande) as we'll come back to that in a moment. But, firstly, the key thing to notice here is that even as you can see infinite depths in the puddle you also instantly *know* (really know) that it is an illusion. You need only bend down and wiggle your finger in the puddle immediately to dispel the image both visually, by the ripples you make, and physically, as your finger touches the hard pavement just a couple of centimetres beneath the surface.

John I. Porter points out that Lucretius offers us this image to remind us that the greatest optical illusion of all is "that presented by the world as it is perceived on a day-to-day basis" and that throughout time we have read off the world's surface all kinds of appearances - not least of all that the gods are involved in our world. One of the major purposes of Lucretius' poem is to show clearly how empirical enquiry and rational thought can correct our view of the world.

Now, this might make you think that Lucretius is trying to devalue all the surface appearances of the world and, instead, to privilege only what we can see with the eye of reason. But this is not true at all for as Porter points out a great deal hangs on that word 'marvellously' (mirande) because by using it we see that Lucretius feels the reflection of the sky in the puddle is wonderful as both 'an appearance of nature and as an index to the wondrous truths of physics' (John I. Porter, Lucretius and the Sublime in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, ed Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie, Cambridge University Press 2007, p. 173). Lucretius is simply insisting that the appearances of nature (and how we can talk about them as poets who are emotionally and imaginatively engaged in the world) can be admired and enjoyed per se so long as they are not used in a way which conflicts with what we know to be true about the world thanks to the natural and formal sciences.

As an appearance, looking *down* into the void through the puddle in the pavement, we can experience a sense of awe and wonder at the vertiginous sight we behold. But that is not the only vertiginous sight we can behold for, seen with the eyes of reason which knows something of the inner laws of nature, the puddle also helps reveal to us that our world is a complex natural play of physical laws and matter which needs no involvement of the gods and this, too, brings with it another vertiginous feeling of awe and wonder. Both, together speak of what is known as 'the Sublime', namely, that sense of 'greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.'

Both Lucretius and Oliver consistently attempt to bring us before the Sublime and, with that thought in mind, we can now turn to Oliver's poem, 'Black Bear in the Orchard'.

It was a long winter.
   But the bees were mostly awake
in their perfect house,
   the workers whirling their wings
to make heat.
   Then the bear woke,

too hungry not to remember
   where the orchard was,
and the hives.
   He was not a picklock.
He was a sledge that leaned
   into their front wall and came out

the other side.
   What could the bees do?
Their stings were as nothing.
   They had planned everything
   except for this: catastrophe.

They slumped under the bear’s breath.
   They vanished into the curl of tongue.
Some had just enough time
   to think of how it might have been—
the cold easing,
   the smell of leaves and flowers

floating in,
   then the scouts going out,
then their coming back, and their dancing—
   nothing different
but what happens in our own village.
   What pity for the tiny souls

who are so hopeful, and work so diligently
   until time brings, as it does, the slap and the claw.
Someday, of course, the bear himself
   will become a bee, a honey bee, in the general mixing.
Nature, under her long green hair,
   has such unbendable rules,

and a bee is not a powerful thing, even
   when there are many,
as people, in a town or a village.
   And what, moreover, is catastrophe?
Is it a sharp sword of God,
   or just some other wild body, loving its life?

Not caring a whit, black bear
   blinks his horrible, beautiful eyes,
slicks his teeth with his fat and happy tongue,
   and saunters on.

A key thing to note at the outset is Oliver's ability to commingle 'species' and 'ratio' - the outward appearances and inner workings of nature.

So firstly 'species' - reading from the surface appearances of nature Oliver, as a poet, imagines the bees and the bear each, in their own ways, to be somewhat like us - and that is clearly an illusion for we are neither bees nor bears. On the one hand she imagines the bees thinking about their carefully constructed 'perfect' house with its sense of community, their work and industry, their ability to plan and hope, their anticipation of the coming of Spring with its smell of leaves and flowers and then, of course, their shock at the catastrophe of the bear's slap and claw. On the other hand Oliver imagines the bear's hunger on awakening, which drives its act of, not only needful destruction (after all if the bear doesn't eat he's finished) but also necessary destruction because to be a bear is not to have the precision tools of a picklock but only those big, powerful claws and they can only get at the honey - needed honey - by completely destroying the 'perfect house' of the bees.

Having given us these 'outward appearances' of nature - which we can read as wonderful illusions (remember the puddle here and following) - Oliver turns us towards nature's 'inner workings' (DRN 1.148). She does this simply by reminding us us that 'Someday, of course, the bear himself will become a bee, a honey bee, in the general mixing./Nature, under her long green hair, has such unbendable rules.'

With this thought in place Oliver can now begin to draw to a close and she does this by first asking the question that has been hovering round throughout this short poem: 'Is it the sharp word of God,/or just some other wild body, loving its life?' The weight of the poem (and Oliver's other work) suggests that Oliver thinks it is the latter which is true - as do, I suspect, most of us here. But Oliver's genius is to give us an answer, not in the form of an intellectual proposition, but in the form of a direct, vertiginous experience of the Sublime:

'Not caring a whit, black bear
   blinks his horrible, beautiful eyes,
slicks his teeth with his fat and happy tongue,
   and saunters on.

The moment Oliver makes us look into the bear's 'horrible, beautiful eyes' - like black puddles in the fabric of the universe - we come face to face not with the old interventionist and creator God or gods of old but, instead, with the Sublime - that greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.

When we are prepared to survey them with a steady, clear-eyed acceptance the current events occuring in our world eloquently reveal both horrible and beautiful aspects - the horrible in the violence and senseless loss of life; the beautiful in the love, care and courage of all who are seeking to save those who have been trapped and injured or who are fighting for basic human freedoms.

Belonging ourselves to this horrible beautiful world like the bear we, too, *must* find a way to saunter on. But, unlike the bear, we can become more like a 'picklock' and we can choose to be more careful about the way we inhabit the world that doesn't totally destroy the lives of others. And, unlike the bees, we have a way to encounter and refelct upon our experience of the Sublime - the horrible beauty of the world - and receive its gifts of wonder and awe. Gifts which, although they remind us in often frightening ways that we are not all powerful and in control, can also help encourage us to transform ourselves in wise, compassionate and mindful ways.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Naturae species ratioque: "the outward appearance and inner workings of nature"


Before I begin I think it is worth just making a couple of preliminary remarks. The first is that this address is being given in a time of great uncertainty - not only politically both here and in the Middle-East but also in terms of religious belief, especially in the West and North America. Those of us who can no longer subscribe to monotheistic metaphysics are undoubtedly seeking some kind of spiritual security amidst all this and what I have to say today is a very modest attempt to try and give us this in a fashion appropriate to our secular age.

The second thing to note is that this address is closely related to last week's which used Stevens' poem 'Anecdote of a jar'. I took that poem as a kind of blueprint of what I think we need to be doing to create the kind of religion or spirituality we need. Today I offer a specific grounded example and the jar, the thing from the margin of our culture that we need to bring to centre is, I take it here, Lucretius' 'De Rerum Natura'.

Lastly I want to connect the theme of this address with an excellent recent BBC Radio 4 Point of View given by Alain de Botton on teaching of the humanities in British Universities. The text of this can be found here; the podcast can be found here.

So, off we go . . .

READINGS: De Rerum Natura Book 1.1-28 & Book 3:1-30 (The out of copyright texts which follow are translated by William Ellery Leonard. My preferred modern English version is the lovely one made by David R. Slavitt - which we used in the service.)

Book 1.1-28

     Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
     Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
     Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
     And fruitful lands--for all of living things
     Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
     Through thee are risen to visit the great sun--
     Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
     Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
     For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
     For thee waters of the unvexed deep
     Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
     Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
     For soon as comes the springtime face of day,
     And procreant gales blow from the West unbarred,
     First fowls of air, smit to the heart by thee,
     Foretoken thy approach, O thou Divine,
     And leap the wild herds round the happy fields
     Or swim the bounding torrents. Thus amain,
     Seized with the spell, all creatures follow thee
     Whithersoever thou walkest forth to lead,
     And thence through seas and mountains and swift streams,
     Through leafy homes of birds and greening plains,
     Kindling the lure of love in every breast,
     Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
     Kind after kind. And since 'tis thou alone
     Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
     Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
     Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
     Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
     Which I presume on Nature to compose
     For Memmius mine, whom thou hast willed to be
     Peerless in every grace at every hour--
     Wherefore indeed, Divine one, give my words
     Immortal charm.

Book 3:1-30

     O thou who first uplifted in such dark
     So clear a torch aloft, who first shed light
     Upon the profitable ends of man,
     O thee I follow, glory of the Greeks,
     And set my footsteps squarely planted now
     Even in the impress and the marks of thine--
     Less like one eager to dispute the palm,
     More as one craving out of very love
     That I may copy thee!--for how should swallow
     Contend with swans or what compare could be
     In a race between young kids with tumbling legs
     And the strong might of the horse? Our father thou,
     And finder-out of truth, and thou to us
     Suppliest a father's precepts; and from out
     Those scriven leaves of thine, renowned soul
     (Like bees that sip of all in flowery wolds),
     We feed upon thy golden sayings all--
     Golden, and ever worthiest endless life.
     For soon as ever thy planning thought that sprang
     From god-like mind begins its loud proclaim
     Of nature's courses, terrors of the brain
     Asunder flee, the ramparts of the world
     Dispart away, and through the void entire
     I see the movements of the universe.
     Rises to vision the majesty of gods,
     And their abodes of everlasting calm
     Which neither wind may shake nor rain-cloud splash,
     Nor snow, congealed by sharp frosts, may harm
     With its white downfall: ever, unclouded sky
     O'er roofs, and laughs with far-diffused light.
     And nature gives to them their all, nor aught
     May ever pluck their peace of mind away.
     But nowhere to my vision rise no more
     The vaults of Acheron, though the broad earth
     Bars me no more from gazing down o'er all
     Which under our feet is going on below
     Along the void. O, here in these affairs
     Some new divine delight and trembling awe
     Takes hold through me, that thus by power of thine
     Nature, so plain and manifest at last,
     Hath been on every side laid bare to man!

(The full text is available here)

On Thursday Susanna and I went to the gardens at Anglesey Abbey to enjoy the winter garden's transfiguration into a spring one with the glorious appearance of the snowdrops and the budding into bloom of many of its trees and plants (see the picture at the top of this blog). After our walk was over, and as we sat having a cup of tea on the veranda of the cafe, I read once again the two readings you have just heard. And though for the past four years I've constantly had in my knapsack a copy of the De Rerum Natura of the Roman poet Lucretius, it is at this time of year that I take an especial joy in reading his words about Venus' life-giving approach and Epicurus' ability as a teacher who valued so highly empirical observation of the natural world.

I return again and again to Lucretius, not simply for the beauty of his poetry, but because I am increasingly convinced that he offers us a sort of religious language - though perhaps spiritual language would be better - that is ideally suited to our secular and scientific age and culture.

I can begin to show you why I think this so by introducing you to a central idea that Lucretius repeats four times during his long poem (cf. 1.148, 2.61, 3.93, 6.41). Lucretius desired to offer us in poetic form the basic teachings of the third-century Greek rational philosopher Epicurus. These teachings are summed up in what is known as the Tetrapharmakos - the four-part cure:

God should not concern us.
Death is not to be feared.
What is good is easy to obtain.
What is bad is easily avoided.

Following Epicurus, Lucretius firmly believed that human fears and misconceptions about themselves, the gods and the world would be dispelled, 'not by the sun's rays or the bright shafts of day' but by the 'outward appearance and inner workings of nature' (1.148). His poem, the 'De Rerum Natura' or 'On the Nature of Things', was an attempt to do just this.

In Latin, 'aspect and law of nature', is expressed as 'naturae species ratioque' and by 'ratio' it seems that Lucretius meant nature's 'law or inner workings' and he uses it to refer to how the world shows up to us (shines) when we consistently apply active human reasoning to it - i.e. the dispassionate and rational aspect of our being.

By 'species', it seems that Lucretius was gesturing towards the 'face' or 'outward appearance' of nature - i.e. how nature shows up for us (or shines) as human-beings who are always-already in the world not only as creatures with a dispassionate and rational faculty but also an emotional and poetic ones. As human beings we are emotionally involved in the world and not just distant, dispassionate spectators.

Now Lucretius' phrase, 'naturae species ratioque' seems to me to tie in very strongly with something the contemporary philosopher James C. Edwards has noticed and which I have brought before you on other occasions, namely, that for us 'full belief (pathos - impressiveness) comes only with an intellectual or artistic inevitability'(The Plain Sense of Things p. 231).

What Edwards means by this is that although we have lost faith in our old monotheistic metaphysics we find, thankfully, that we are still thoroughly persuaded by, and can say we *believe* strongly in, the truth of two other things. The first is the rightness, the truth of the disciplined methods employed by the natural and formal sciences. The second is the rightness, the truth of the various disciplined methods employed by creative artists whether they be poets, musicians, painters, writers, actors, dancers, sculptors, cooks, carpenters, gardeners, flower-arrangers or sports men and women.

I'm sure all this is fairly uncontentious and that we all know - deeply - that science *has* revealed to us countless true and trustworthy things about our world. Today, innumerable aspects of our world are built upon this knowledge. We may question - indeed should question - whether at times we are deploying this knowledge appropriately and wisely, but the truth of the methods of science seems to have for us the inevitable, shining quality that a belief in god once had.

We also know - deeply - that creative artists have also revealed to us true and trustworthy things about the world. We don't, of course, always respond to and like the same things these artists reveal or produce (and in what precisely consists the perfect meal, home run, picture, piece of music or flower arrangement is different for every one of us) but, man, we know it when we encounter it. That whoosing-up of joy or the shiver up the spine, the feeling we experience, the shining we see is just, well, just right, just true. We know we can trust the rightness of a piece of music, a piece of beautifully made furniture or meal in a way similar to how we know we can trust the rightness of science.

Now Lucretius is remarkable in speaking to this trust so perfectly and compellingly from a distance of over two-thousand years. He achieves this by poetically associating two characters with 'species' and 'ratio' and so Venus becomes to 'species' what Epicurus becomes to 'ratio'. As Jeffrey M. Duban notes:

"Species is the realm of observable process and appearance governed by Venus. As such, it elicits an emotional response and sense of involvement which we associate with the workings of Venus and of poetry. [That's why our first reading was from the opening of Book 1]. Ratio is the realm of hidden process and reality governed by Epicurus. As such, it requires empirical observation and the sense of detachment which we associate with the philosophy of Epicurus as with all scientific inquiry" (Venus, Epicurus and Naturae Species Ratioque, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 103, No. 2 Summer, 1982, pp. 165-177). [That's why our second reading was from the opening of Book 3].

First lets look at 'ratio' - connected for us, and Lucretius, with all scientific enquiry. As Durban notes, 'it is the realm of hidden process and reality governed by Epicurus.' By this Durban means that for Lucretius and, potentially for us, Epicurus stands as a poetic model, an exemplar - a reminder - of how properly to go about this scientific inquiry which 'requires empirical observation and the sense of detachment which we associate with the philosophy of Epicurus as with all scientific inquiry'. In much of the poem Lucretius is encouraging us to adopt this approach by presenting to us colourful, detailed and memorable reminders of the world drawn from his careful, detached observations of it and which he uses to show us with increasing clarity, that the gods neither created the world nor intervene in it and so, in turn, Lucretius reveals the sufficiency of nature. He persuasively shows us that we need not to fear god nor death and that we should trust only in nature and her extraordinary processes. In other words under the titles 'ratio' and 'Epicurus', Lucretius is offering us a way to talk beautifully and persuasively about one of the things that in our own age strikes us as intellectually inevitable - namely the natural sciences.

Let's turn now to 'species'. As Durban notes this is 'the realm of observable process and appearance governed by Venus.' By this Durban means that for Lucretius and, potentially for us, Venus stands as a poetic model, an exemplar - a reminder - of how we may talk about and explore our emotional responses to, and sense of deep involvement - comminglement - in the natural world. This kind of talk 'we associate with the workings of Venus and of poetry.' Lucretius, as a poet, belongs, of course, to this realm of Venus and his poem was intended to offer us - under the titles of 'species' and 'Venus' a way to talk beautifully and persuasively, not only about the natural and formal sciences, but also about another of the things that in our own age strikes us as intellectually inevitable - namely the work of creative artists. But please note that, as a poet in the realm of Venus, his primary aim is to persuade us of the calming rational truths revealed by Epicurus.

Durban sums all this up by stating that: 'As Epicurus was a creator of ideas, Lucretius is a creator of poetry. The two, working together, recreate mankind . . . (thus performing) a task like Venus' of fertilization.'

Of course, the 'mankind' - the humanity - Epicurus and Lucretius hoped to recreate didn't last as long as they hoped because Christianity came along and became the religion of the Roman Empire. But I have hopes - a belief even - that Epicurus and Lucretius didn't fail in their attempt at fertilising our culture in preparation for a later blossoming - a late Lucretian spring, if you like.

I have good reason to say this because Lucretius' poem - despite its clear challenge to all traditional monotheistic thinking - has slowly been making its way back from the margins of our culture since its rediscovery in 1417. In the first instance the poem was often read simply because people were impressed by the astonishing beauty of the writing - Venus surely cast her spell here. However, with the emergence of atomist ideas during the seventeenth-century Lucretius increasingly came to be read for his proto-scientific ideas which were seen as being prophetically ahead of their time - Epicurus' and ratio surely played its part here.

This slow journey back into our culture from the margins has been likened by my mentor and close friend, the philosopher Victor Nuovo, to the Trojan Horse that was pulled into the city of Troy by its unsuspecting inhabitants. It's a good image (though given last week's sermon perhaps it should be a Trojan jar!) and it seems to me that the time is ripe for the ideas contained within it to come tumbling out to recapture, in a poetic way, our own age. 

This is because Lucretius still offers us a coherent, beautiful and compelling poetic vision that speaks directly to our present need for intellectual and artistic inevitability. It also resonates powerfully with our increasing feeling that, in the words of Durban, the fullest comprehension of nature requires the marriage of both detached empirical comprehension *and* an involved emotional response.

I simply know of no better description than this of the kind of spirituality we need at beginning of the twenty-first century and Lucretius gives us the poetic, emotionally sensitive language to do it and to do it well.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Evolution Sunday - Anecdote of a Jar

This Sunday marks the sixth annual Evolution Weekend the ongoing goal of which is, as it's founder the biologist Michael Zimmerman notes, "to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic, and to show that religion and science are not adversaries. Rather, they look at the natural world from quite different perspectives and ask, and answer, different questions." It is a project I'm am very pleased to be supporting once again.

Now although Zimmerman's statement seems to us to be a fairly straightforward and uncontroversial statement, in truth, so much is hidden within it that it is worth taking the time to take a closer look. When we do we see, I think, something not only of general interest but also something which can help us bring about a much needed change in the way we look at, see, and live in the world.

Mention of 'the world' brings us to a topic that is often explored on this day namely its creation and when we hear this we tend straight-away to think that this must be to talk about the creation of all the material stuff out of which our world is made. But today I'm not interested in rehearsing any of the standard issues and controversies relating to creation and creationism. Instead, I want to look at another way in which the world is created for us and which is at least as important to us as living, breathing human-beings as is the physical/material creation that usually gets talked about. It is the creation of the world of practices into which we are thrown from birth and which always-already shapes our being-in-the-world and how we may, as we discover new scientific information about the world, create new worlds of practices more consonant with our changed understanding and knowledge.

But that this kind of creation has occurred is hard to see simply because, as a common way of putting it goes, we are rather like fish who, swimming in water, simply do not notice it is there.

But we are different from fish in that we do have the capacity to notice we are shaped by our environment - both physical and cultural - and that once we notice this we can, to some extent, change our world - or at least how we see, understand and live in our world. This means that, in principle at least, that though at times in our history we get trapped and damaged by old world-views we can find ways to access new and potentially more flourishing visions through which we may better fulfil our human potential. Key to this is the development of at least two interconnected things.

The first, is to develop ways by which we might take care regularly to notice the water through which we are currently swimming. Here, some kind of mindfulness practice is vital and that's something we try to do in the evening service. Perhaps, we should be doing it in the morning too . . .

The second, is then to find modest practical responses to what we have seen so that we may actually help slowly to transform our view of the world and, together, begin to create a new, more healthy one that we feel would be appropriate to let recede into the background and become, by degrees, simply the new clear and healthy water through which we swim.

A homely glimpse of kind of thing we need to be doing can be found in Wallace Stevens' poem 'Anecdote of a Jar.' What follows is, of course, simply my reading of the poem - assisted by the work of Dreyfus and Kelly in 'All Things Shining' - and it is important to remember that other people have understood the poem differently.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was grey and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee. 

So let's look closely at what might be going on. First of all you need to remember that Stevens' seems to want to show us what the process of creating a new world *looks* like, i.e. not a creation of a new physical world but simply a new world of practices.

Stevens' genius is in seeing a number of things. The first is that he saw we can't use something so new that it makes absolutely no sense to us. So, for example, if he had decided to place on that Tennessee hill a 'schrubel-fink-hurt-mandelikon' (I've just made that up of course!) we'd all shake our heads in frustrated puzzlement at this nonsense no-thing - that is if we could recognise a 'schrubel-fink-hurt-mandelikon' in the first place! If we did this then we'd just be written off as a madman and women.

The second thing he saw was that neither could we place upon the hill something that has too much current meaning for us in our culture. So, for example, if he had placed a church upon that hill in Tennessee it would have brought with it far, far, too much of the old world to affect the kind of radical change he wants to show us we can bring about. Such things must now be edged to the margins.

Stevens' seems to have seen that, instead, we need to use something which we still recognise in our culture but which is for us, at present, marginal, surprising and odd. However, for all that, it is important that the resonances which the idea/object carries with it are ones we think should be more valued and central than they are in our own present culture. We now know Stevens chooses a jar. Now why he might have made that apparently odd choice we'll get to in a moment. In all likelihood the jar was a screw-top preserving-jar made by a company called 'Dominion', a fact which allows a felicitous pun to be made which we'll come to in a moment.

So now Stevens does this very odd thing indeed - he places the jar on a hill in Tennessee. Tennessee I take to be an expression of the realm of our existent everyday culture and practices. The placing of the jar in this context (this world of everyday practices - Tennessee) way makes us notice - or perhaps better, creates in us a way of seeing this landscape in a new way. The jar gathers the whole landscape in a new way - it makes the slovenly wilderness surround that hill and, lo, it is suddenly ordered differently.

I think Steven's use of the pejorative adjective 'slovenly' is important. Alone, 'wilderness', often carries with it a strong sense of something positive, natural, untainted pure and uplifting. But by adding the adjective 'slovenly' to it Stevens' seems to succeed in articulating the condition many of us feel our modern culture to be in, i.e. a somewhat disordered cultural landscape of isolation, disorder and anomie and, what is worse, one which we have come to feel has often been created by our own slovenly lack of care and engagement.

So, the placing of the jar firstly reveals for us (and allows us to talk about) the condition we are in. But that is, thankfully, only the beginning of the process for the jar, now standing there, 'tall and of a port in air', begins a gathering up of the disordered, slovenly wildness and, in the light of the jar, a new order of understanding begins to appear. I take 'a port of air' to speak of the calm ordered air inside the jar as opposed to the wild and unpredictable winds that surround it on the hilltop. The jar functions, therefore, as a port in the air just as a coastal port functions in relation to the open and rough sea. It is, therefore, a strong symbol of new calm and order that has, importantly Stevens and us, no old metaphysical baggage and, because of this the jar is 'grey and bare'.

Anyway - in the light of this new grey and bare symbol of order and calm taken from the margins of our culture and now placed in a central position - the slovenly wilderness 'rises up' in our eyes with a new meaning, role and purpose and is no longer wild nor slovenly - we begin to see the world and its ordering differently, under a new aspect. This 'new' understanding also begins to spread out into the wider world - it 'sprawls around' Stevens' says because, as we know, the process of a wider cultural re-ordering is always a one which can take many centuries fully to play out.

This re-ordering Stevens now says 'takes dominion everywhere.' The pun is, it seems, upon the name of the jar itself and it is a very felicitous one because it resonates with an aspect of our language that still seems essential to us as human beings, namely 'god' language. Here's what I mean.

Stevens' concludes his poem by noting that the jar "did not give of bird or bush,/Like nothing else in Tennessee." I take this to mean that Stevens can see that the jar, so oddly brought in from the margins and suddenly placed at the centre of our world, becomes something not quite like other natural things in the world, like birds and bushes. Standing there, gray and bare, it does not speak to us - does not give - in the same way that beings like birds or bushes do. In a rather Heideggarian and non-religious sense the jar becomes a placeholder for that mysterious groundless creativity we have been used to call god and, in 'god' language, such a god has dominion over the whole world (as does a new paradigm).

To conclude - remember Stevens' jar is not itself that which will gather a new world, instead it simply stands as a sort of blueprint of what we need to do to help bring about a new world. The question for us as a contemporary liberal religious community that knows the old ways and old God of monotheism no longer works, is what is the thing or things we might bring in from the margins of our culture and make central so as to gather up our world differently and more healthily? What might be for us the jar? What might be for us the 'god' that takes dominion everywhere and which can properly replace our old bankrupt concepts of God?


Additional things noted by people in the period of conversation which immediately follows the address and the musical offering:

1. The need to ensure that with any ordering there remains some space for mystery.

2. Tennessee is mountainous so putting the jar on a *hill* is to put something odd in an odd place that most Tennesseans would not even notice as some kind of upland.

3. It was humorously noted that the Dominion jar (at least the one in the picture on the order of service) was made in Canada - what might it mean to place a Canadian jar on a US hill!.

4. It is like any landscape painting - when you notice a person in a landscape that pulls the picture together.

5. A couple of people just hated the poem and, in so far as they felt they understood it, thought it was wrong-headed.

6. I had the lid on but one person thought that this made it too closed. I had in mind something Heidegger said in his Der Spiegel interview about needing a god to save us. Such a god - it seems to me - needed to be imperturbable like Epicurus' understanding of the gods (that's why I had the lid on) but, at the same time, had to be able to be seen through, transparent (again, like Epicurus' gods - who could not in a physical way causally effect the world), so that our view of the natural world could clearly be seen for what it is (that's why I took it to be a glass jar).

7. Lastly one person reminded us that the famous Scopes trial took place in Tennessee in 1925 when a high school biology teacher, John Scopes, was accused of violating the state's Butler Act that made it unlawful to teach evolution. This trial took place, of course, two years after the publication of Harmonium, the collection in which 'Anecdote of a Jar' was published. However, this unexpected resonance with a famous event concerned with the theory of evolution and its often unwelcome reception in religious circles, seemed an appropriate place to pause.

So, lots of thoughts that just carried on being expressed for another hour over coffee.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

To us, it's an obscure shift of tax law. To the City, it's the heist of the century

George Monbiot has just written this piece (link below) for the Guardian and on his own site you can find it with full references. Please do read it as it highlights some of the truly disturbing things the present Con-Dem government is doing behind our backs in the midst of the current financial crisis. Am I angry - you bet I am. We most certainly are not, as Cameron keeps suggesting, "in this together."

To us, it's an obscure shift of tax law. To the City, it's the heist of the century

Sunday, 6 February 2011

To give thanks to God ( or Zeus), or not?


Much of this week has been taken up with a pastoral matter that would be wrong to discuss here in detail - especially as these addresses are posted on my blog and now also as an mp3. But what I can say is that events played out in a fashion that enabled one person safely to make their way home many thousands of miles away (let's call them A) and a second (a relative of A's), to make some important preparations for their own immanent death. The initial way I met A, and then the way my existing set of contacts and previously arranged appointments for the week enabled the situation to unfold in a way meant, on at least three shining occasions, that I had to express out loud (both for myself and for those I was with) amazement at what had just occurred. Let's stand in the presence one of those shining moments.

The wholly natural and intuitive language that I 'use' in such a situation is, perhaps not surprisingly given my role as a minister of religion, religious and the most basic form it takes is, as you might expect: "Thank God". It is important to remember that when I utter the words "Thank God" they are sounded without a beat between what I am tempted to call my thought/feeling on the one hand and, on the other, the appearance of the words themselves. In fact to say I 'used' these words is really misleading because I would go so far as to say that my thoughts/feelings and the words themselves are really the same thing and *cannot* be separated out - my 'thought-feeling-words' is the way I both experience and express what it was to be in the world at that time and place and doing the things I was. (It's a speech-act). The way things were showing up for me and A was 'miracle-like' in that we both experienced, in a very heightened way, the feeling of being, as Dreyfus and Kelly note ( Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 p.  68) the 'target' of a statistically unlikely set of circumstances in which things were happening which were clearly 'outside' our own control. Part of the meaning we found in these events was, of course, centred on the way a section of path was 'suddenly illuminated' before us which we felt might just 'lead' us out of the present nightmare and to a better place and time - in other words we felt a sustaining hope was grace-fully appearing in our lives. Note that here the language is all, necessarily, of a kind related to the subjective sense of being cared for - we were the 'target' of these events, things were happening 'outside' our control, a path was illuminated by something 'other' than our own light, and, in hope and grace, we found ourselves being 'led' along a path not of our own making.

Now, during one of the occasions during the unfolding of this story when A and I - and a number of times also Susanna - had time to sit down to eat and to talk about these things our conversation naturally - naturally that is for our culture - moved towards more abstract matters of belief and to what we really 'meant' by giving thanks to God. As you will hear in a moment I think this move is a real distraction but we'll hold this point back for a moment.

A initially assumed that, because I was a minister of religion, by saying "Thank God" for what had happened I must mean that the statistically unlikely set of circumstances we had just experienced was the result of some kind of direct intervention by God. But those of you who know me know I really cannot believe in such a God. A significant enduring problem with our inherited monotheistic conception of God she was assuming I held, is that this God has to be, amongst other things, omni-benevolent - all good. The problem with this is, well, OK, on this occasion, God may well have just saved you from utter catastrophe but why the hell did he put you in that cruel and dangerous situation in the first place? Such a God is clearly morally repellent and, even if such a God did exist (which I'm sure he doesn't), I would be fighting against him side-by-side with the rebel angels and I said as much.

In the end it turned out that neither of us did in fact believe in such a God and, after the event and in the calm of the dinner-table, we both wanted strongly to back-away from such the thought that such an interventionist monotheistic God was involved in the events we experienced. But the significant problem with this kind of post-event conversation in which we back-away from the use of religious language is that, (especially if you do this after every occasion you have thanked God) in the end it begins to create in us a feeling of foolishness, distaste even, about using God-language in the first place and, as our worry increases and our angst becomes crippling, we slowly find ourselves unable to express spontaneously, out loud and together our wonder and gratitude. We slowly become more and more religiously and spiritually voiceless and disconnected from ourselves as beings-in-the-world.

The problem is that, superficially, the two examples I have just given seem to represent very different and contradictory beliefs and to require, therefore, some kind of choice between the two. The first example, in which I said thanks to God, seems to imply a belief in a single supernatural interventionist Deity and locates the answer to the question of 'what really matters' in this single God. The second example, using words like "luck" or "coincidence", seems to imply a world without such a God which is radically contingent and which is, therefore, basically a world in which nothing really matters.

Our culture, for many complicated reasons, finds it very important indeed to know which of these two possible interpretations is right. It wants to know what really matter - what eternally and universally matters.

But the desire to know what eternally and universally matters - i.e. which one is right and which one is wrong - is, as Dreyfus and Kelly note, to hear the question of what *matters* as being about metaphysics: the question seems to be asking: Is there or is there not an entity - like the Judeo-Christian God, for example - who is the source [of everything lining up in the way it did for me]? ( Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 p.  70). If the answer is no then it seems we must choose a world in which nothing really matters and that it was just luck or chance which meant things played out the way they did.

But, again as Dreyfus and Kelly note, this metaphysical version of the question is really a terrible distraction and, as far as I'm concerned to continue to be so distracted is really not helping us to live a deeper, more abundant, meaningful life in our secular age - it doesn't help us deal with how we-are-in-the-world.

The question that really matters is not whether God is or is not, or was, or was not, the causal agent in the events I experienced "but whether gratitude was an appropriate response" to what happened to us (cf.  Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 p. 71). I really cannot stress this strongly enough and in a second I'll repeat this point to drive it home.

At the centre of the events of last week as they showed up for us all it was clear - beyond all shadow of existential doubt - that gratitude *was* the only appropriate response and the way we embody this in our culture is to say "Thank God". As our second reading showed (printed at the end of this post), in Homeric times we would have embodied this by thanking an appropriate god from the Pantheon - for Odysseus those thanks were offered to Athena and matters could simply be left there. But for our culture which has got hung up on the distracting idea that religious language says something metaphysical we can't leave it there - we have to go on and say something theological about what this *means* - to say something about something else which lies behind events. The only way we can, like Odysseus, simply leave our expressions of gratitude as they burst forth without further unhelpful analysis, is if we can begin to learn that the question that really matters in religion is, to repeat, not whether God is or is not, or was, or was not, the causal agent in the events I experienced "but whether gratitude is an appropriate response" to what has happened to us (cf. Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 p.  71).

Now what name or names our culture may come to 'use' in the future as an appropriate shared public expression of gratitude I simply do not know but what I can say is that one cannot artificially decide - in the abstract or de novo - what those words are to be. (The need for a *shared public expression* of gratitude is a hugely vital aspect of what I am saying but today I'll just pass over it.) Whatever language we might end up using it has to be one that is, somehow, already part of our own culture and shared.

One possible line of development is to find contemporary ways of shifting our religious language of gratitude away from monotheistic expressions to pluralistic ones which speak, not of God, but of the gods. Here we may draw meaningfully on our inherited Greek culture. The chief benefit of this would be that we needn't get caught up in kind of bind the language of gratitude a single omni-benevolent God seems to require of us - remember my earlier illustration when I noted that, OK, on this occasion, God may well have just saved you from utter catastrophe but why the hell did he put you in that cruel and dangerous situation in the first place?

Instead we may, slowly, be able to find ways to express and share together the feeling gratitude in ways mirror the real complexity of life in a material world in which things have meaning and show up and shine for us in all kinds of bright and dark ways.

So, in the middle of last week's event, as things fell seemingly miraculously in place perhaps I should have said, "Zeus' work". Later, as we all found ourselves in safety and warmth around the kitchen table next door, perhaps we should raised a toast and said "Hestia's work". As A flew high into the sky on silver wings and headed back homeward perhaps Susanna and I should, in gratitude, have simply said "Hermes' work". And lastly, as this address seemed to write itself perhaps I should have finished by saying, "Apollo's work". One thing is for sure it's entire contents were gifted to me and in no way can be considered to be wholly my own and for that gift I am grateful and I must give thanks, and why not to Apollo?

Maybe one day something like this will happen, maybe we can begin quietly to invite the Olympian gods - or at least the language of the Olympian gods - back into our corporate religious life to help us better express our gratitude in a way that doesn't tempt us to carry on in our old metaphysical nonsensical ways. Maybe there is another language waiting for us just around the corner I don't know. But publicly - as a shared language of gratitude - to thank Zeus, Hestia, Hermes and Apollo in our churches would, frankly, be a bit odd and mannered.

So for now - though perhaps not forever - thanking God is sufficient and for last week's events I do, indeed, give thanks to God.


To UNDERSTAND BETTER the Greek sense of the sacred, let us consider an example in which it seems natural to Homer to invoke the presence of the gods. In a representative scene toward the end of the Odyssey, the suitors throw a host of spears at Odysseus from pointblank range. Homer describes the event:

“Again six suitors cast their shafts with force; but each shot missed its mark — Athena's work”

The idea here is that it must not have seemed merely arbitrary or fortunate to Odysseus that these enemy spears missed their mark. It must have seemed to him, rather, that there was some meaning or purpose in this fact, that he was being cared for in the event. Homer's way of expressing this is to insist that the spears missed Odysseus because Athena was protecting him from the enemy attack.

There is something one can retrieve from this description and something one cannot. Obviously we cannot believe that some supernatural entity named Athena actually caused the spears to turn aside. Even if we replace Athena with the Judeo-Christian God, our secular age typically rebels at the thought (though some, of course, will admit this possibility). But whatever the precise metaphysical and theological facts, let us focus on the phenomenology of the situation. Imagine yourself, for the moment, in Odysseus's place. Six of your enemies have amassed before you at close range; each picks up a spear and together they hurl them at you all at once. You are prepared, as the great warrior always is, to die a heroic death in the following instant. Indeed, it looks inevitable. But instead:

"One spearhead struck the sturdy hall's doorpost, and one, the tightly-fitted door itself; two other ash-wood shafts, tipped with stout bronze, just struck the wall. And though two shafts drew close, they leveled nothing more than glancing blows."

What relief, what amazement, what gratitude one must feel! And can it possibly have been blind chance? By any natural measure, it must seem to Odysseus, things should have gone the other way. One experiences this—or at least Homer's character experienced it—not just as mere luck or good fortune, but as an event that tells him he is well cared for. Athena's work indeed.

ALTHOUGH WE ARE NOT likely to attribute events like this to the work of a god, there is nevertheless something familiar in Odysseus's way of experiencing the situation. Those who escape natural disasters or other dangerous situations, for example, often do feel that it was not a mere accident that they were saved. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult — when one is the target of a statistically unlikely  event — to feel otherwise.

(Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 pp. 67-68)