Sunday, 27 March 2011

Come down, Jehovah - A Christian Atheist Meditation for Census Day

MP3 (this mp3 does not contain Chris Wood's song 'Come down, Jehovah' which is integral to this address so, before you listen to it, it's worth scrolling down this page either to hear Chris' song at the Amazon site - and perhaps buy the CD - or watch a You-tube video of him performing it).

Today we are required to fill in our census forms - a census the data of which, in case you didn't realise, is being collected and processed by Lockheed Martin UK. It includes a question about religious belief, and it is one which is framed in such a way as to create false categories not least of all because many of us today have very complex plural identities. This address is an attempt to get us thinking about such plural identities as well as how we should/might answer the census question. It also aims to show how an apparently contradictory categories can deliver something religiously coherent; a coherence that bureaucratic government simply cannot deal with.

One of the books that has had the most influence upon the way I understand Christianity (my own plural identification) is Ernst Bloch's 'Atheism in Christianity' published in 1972. When many people hear the title they are minded to think that he's just playing provocatively with words so as to sell a few books. After all. we all know, don't we?, that Atheism is not Christianity and Christianity is not Atheism? Surely they don't belong together either in a single person or on a census form?

But, with out any frivolous or merely provocative word-play, Bloch manages in the three little words of his title to give us the basic insight upon which his whole book is based.

Bloch's careful reading of the Biblical text over many years alerted him to the existence of a strong recurring narrative theme within it which speaks about God leaving his transcendent heavenly realm to walk and dwell side-by-side on earth with human kind in their efforts to achieve greater freedom and justice. Bloch notes two key stories as examples. The first is that concerning a God who sets his people free from the oppressions of Pharaoh, walks with them during their journey in the wilderness, and who eventually succeeds in guiding them to a promised land. The second is the story of Jesus who, for his followers, in his own person, brought God from heaven to dwell on earth amongst them. The story of Jesus is for Bloch a decisive moment in this narrative theme because Jesus' death on the cross also marks the final death of this transcendental God. The resurrection stories which follow are not about God rising up and going back to his transcendental realm but instead about how a new understanding of what it is to be human rises up in the communities who continue to live in ways inspired by Jesus. As Peter Thompson puts it (in his introduction to the 2009 reprint of Bloch's book) 'The mystical resurrection of Christ is . . . a sign of the material resurrection of hope. Christ functions as both the incarnation of hope in man and also the carrier of hope as *a* man' (Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009 p. xxii).

(You can find Peter Thompson's Guardian piece on Atheism in Christianity here. A seminar on the book at Birkbeck College, London can be heard as an mp3 here:
Atheism in Christianity: “Only an atheist can be a good Christian; only a Christian can be a good atheist”

It is important to note that Bloch is not blind to the fact that all of the Biblical stories (including his favoured ones) include within them many reactionary and regressive elements and he remains acutely aware of how prone human-kind is to bouts of naive theological literalism. He is also clear that the Biblical texts contains plenty of stories which keep God firmly enthroned in heaven and which can be used, and still are used, to encourage ways of being in the world which are not at all concerned with greater human freedom and justice. A recent sermon preached in the Theological Federation of this city of Cambridge revealed this only too well.

But, for Bloch, these reactionary aspects are by the by because all he is concerned to show is that there exists, deep in the heart of the foundational text of Christianity, stories whose overall 'direction of travel' is one which points away from oppressive ways of being in the world and towards ways of being which promote greater freedom and human flourishing and, to return to the title of Bloch's book, which points away from transcendence and towards immanence, in other words there is Atheism in Christianity. Of course, there are all kinds of other things in Christianity - not least of all theism! - but one tendency in it is one which points towards Atheism. Of course, this reading of Christianity irritates all kinds of people, especially conventional Atheists and Christians (and, no doubt, census data processors), because it challenges our unhelpful human tendency to want everything to fit into nice, neat and simple categories.

But Bloch won't have this and good on him and it is absolutely essential to realise that Bloch's atheism is not anti-Christian because it is a *Christian* Atheism. Neither is Bloch anti the Bible because, for him, 'There is only this point: that the Church and the Bible are not one and the same. The Bible has always been the Church’s bad conscience.' And, as Bloch reminds us, although this book has often been used as a cattle prod to by the powerful 'the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is why [the Bible] has always been suppressed or distorted, from the serpent on' (Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009, p. 13).

I was going to illustrate, using Bloch's own words, something of his compelling and moving Christian Atheist way being-in-the-world - a way I was certainly compelled to embrace. As I did this I was aware that you might easily find Bloch's way of presenting things less than compelling - even dry. However, on this occasion, I'm fortunate in having to hand the work of a British folk singer called Chris Wood one of whose best known songs is called 'Come Down Jehovah' - a song which, in only five beautiful and moving minutes, shows what a real, embodied, faithful way of being Christian Atheism can be. It is important to say, that Chris Wood has never used these two words as a description of his own position and so I hope he will not be too offended by me seeing his song in the way I do. However I don't think he will be too annoyed because in his own biography he tells us that he started out as a choirboy and tells us that 'much of his music bears the influence of those years spent with the likes of Bach, Handel, Gibbons and Boyce'. Indeed his most recent album, 'Handmade Life', he describes as 'church music with drums.' Anyway, 'Come down, Jehovah' has, rightly in my opinion, been called an Atheist spiritual and in it you will see how, by embracing, rather than rejecting the language and tropes of Christianity, it is possible to articulate a faithful way of being human that offers us a new and creative way of understanding and using our Christian inheritance.

Here is a link to Amazon where you can hear the song as a taster to Chris Wood's second album, 'Trespasser'.

And here's the whole song on YouTube in all its glory:

Come down, come down from your mountain, Jehovah,
My neck is terribly stiff.
Hitch up your robes and your raiments, Jehovah,
Climb down to the foot of your cliff.
And drink from the stream that was always beneath you,
Drink from our wonderful font.
'Cause paradise is right here on earth, Jehovah,
What more could we possibly want?

Come down and talk amongst friends, Jehovah,
Come down and sit at your ease.
Walk through the woods and the valleys, Jehovah,
Sail upon glistening seas.
Pass on what you've learnt to the children, Jehovah,
And listen to what they have to say.
They say, 'Paradise is right here on earth, Jehovah,
Not tomorrow, but right now, today.

And Devil come up from your fiery furnace,
Come up and show us your face.
There's nothing you can teach us of evil or hatred,
We don't have right here in this place.
There is nothing so evil as man in his mischief,
Nothing so lost or insane.
And bring your demons up, too, so we'll know it's not you,
But it's us who must carry the blame.
It's us who must live with the shame. 

Come down, come down from your mountain, Jehovah,
Come down and be with us here.
Heaven and hell and the life ever after,
It's such a beguiling idea.
But our spell on this earth is much richer, Jehovah,
Richer than you'll ever know.
When it comes time to leave it behind,
We just close our eyes and let go.
If we've done our best we'll be ready for a rest,
We just close our eyes and let go.

As I said at the beginning I offer this meditation because, from today, we can fill in our census forms in which you will find a question asking about your religion. There are many reasons why this question is problematic and worse than useless but I'll leave them aside today because it's a done deal - it's there and, by law, you have to fill the form in. Mercifully this question is a voluntary one but, should you choose to answer it, the categories on offer are: No religion, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Any Other (with a box to fill out what it is).

So what to do? Our own General Assembly is encouraging people connected with our churches to put down 'Unitarian' in the final box. But, should you choose to do this, you need to be aware that the census people (Lockheed Martin UK) will simply include you in the overall Christian category because 'Unitarian' is just a bureaucratic abbreviation of our full title - 'Unitarian and Free Christian.' True there will be some footnoted figures about the number of times 'Unitarian' was put down but we already know that, there are fewer than four-thousand, so I fail to see what good it will do. However, if you wish to do this, by all means go ahead.

Myself, in the past, I've simply ticked the Christian box because those of you who know me know that I'm no fan of denominations and, anyway, I think most of us really have understood that we are very much in a post-denominational, even post-religious age (by we I mean the kind of people that would attend a church such as this - I'm aware religion, and perhaps even denominations seem to be coming back with avengence). If we are to survive as a local, liberal religious body our future affiliations will have to be post-denominational too. I'm pleased that the current make-up of this congregation reflects this situation with many people amongst us who remain members of other Christian denominations other than our own and are, indeed, training for ministry within them. It also includes many non-theists and Atheists too - as well as people with different plural identities to my own, for example, there are a couple of folk here who will be putting down Buddhist-Christian.

But, as my address reveals, whilst for me ticking the Christian box is still not untrue, neither is it true, at least in the way that my Christian tick will be understood by most other people and, perhaps more importantly, when the final statistics are published, by those who will use my Christian tick to claim, for example, that we should be allowing faith schools or that, as a society, we should pay more attention to churches who are, say, anti-gay. All of whom, don't forget, want to contribute to the Big Society by offering replacement services to those public ones which have been, or are about to be, cut. Remember - this census will be used to help frame and shape Government policies and faith adherence is, once again, regrettably, part of the British political scene.

As I see it I have two choices - and I'd be interested to know what are yours. The first is to put 'Christian Atheist' in the 'other' box. But I doubt that this will be understood by Lockheed Martin UK - are they really going to see that I am using 'Christian' as an adjective and not as a noun? If they don't, will they count me as a Christian or an Atheist? - neither of which (alone) is true. Or will they just discount my entry as plainly mad or just a mistake?

The second thing I can do is, of course, not to answer it at all. On balance, it is this option that I have chosen.

In the end, the only record I want of my religion is what we do here together in this community, as Chris Wood sung, as we  talk amongst friends and work out how to do our *human* best. And then, when it comes time to leave it all behind, to just close my eyes and let go - but confident that if we do the work, heaven is here, amongst us, right here, right now.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Answer


As one of my favourite song-writers, Loudon Wainwright puts it:

It's been a hard day on the planet
How much is it all worth?
It's getting harder to understand it
Things are tough all over on earth.

Well, it's not just been a hard day of course, but a hard few weeks in which we have seen continued unrest and violence in North Africa and the Persian Gulf, the earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan and, in the latter, of course, the appalling tsunami and ongoing nuclear incident.

All this, as we are aware, is going on against a developing unsettled political, financial and cultural situation here in the UK and Europe and, in one way or another - unless you are deliberately doing that very popular head-in-the-sand thing, we are all feeling that it's getting 'harder to understand it' and are asking how much is it all worth? At such unsettled and disturbing times many, naturally, start again to seek answers to 'the problems of life'. There will be plenty of churches and religions in the coming years that will serve up a variety of proscriptive, hard and simple answers - believe A, B and C and all will be well. But, here at least, we know that much, most even, of what is and will be on offer is of no more use than snake-oil.

So, what answer is on offer here - what would help us both feel we could say we understood the world and, even as we face so many hard things, we could also live with a measure equanimity and even occasional joy?

It would be nice for me - certainly a weight off my shoulders - to be able to point you to a ready-made collectively agreed answer liberal but that simply doesn't exist amongst us here or more widely within our General Assembly nor amongst liberal churches as a whole. So, with all due apologies, all I can do is offer you an outline of the answer that strikes me as being true. There are a million ways I might present it but, to keep it brief, I'll hang it on Robinson Jeffers' poem 'The Answer'.

Then what is the answer? Not to be deluded by dreams. 
To know that great civilisations have broken down into violence,
      and their tyrants come, many times before. 
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
     the least ugly faction; these evils are essential. 
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
     and not wish for evil; and not be duped 
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
     not be fulfilled. 
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
     the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand 
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
     and his history ... for contemplation or in fact ... 
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
     the greatest beauty is 
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
     of the universe. Love that, not man 
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
     or drown in despair when his days darken. 

So now let's walk through it. What does Jeffers see as the answer?

Jeffers begins simply enough by saying, it is not 'to be deluded by dreams.' OK, but there are dreams and dreams - and so he turns immediately to clarifying what kind of dreams we must not be deluded by.

Jeffers tells us that great civilisations have broken down into violence, and that their tyrants have come, many times before. The dream to avoid is, then, of harbouring any thought that any human civilisation is a permanent fixture in the scheme of things. Although this is a generally accepted truth that most of us have no problem acknowledging - after all Shelly's 'Ozymandias' has gone into our cultural canon - Jeffers wants us to realise that this is, of course, true of our own civilization right here, right now and it's clearly overdue (in Chris Woods' memorable phrase) for a grand correction to commence.

Jeffers continues to unfold this thought by saying that 'When open violence appears' we are 'to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction'. Here he reminds us that although we must, really must, try our hardest to avoid violence if we cannot do this in honourable ways then we have to choose the least ugly faction for to do otherwise would be to commit an existential betrayal too deep to countenance. Jeffers remains clear, however, that violence remains for human-kind an evil even as it seems to be an essential - if highly regrettable - aspect of our species.

But, Jeffers feels that even as we acknowledge this essential evil, this does not mean at the same time that we as individuals and small communities need to embrace it as central, and he is clear that at a more primal level it is possible for us to 'keep [our] own integrity and to 'be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil.' But for Jeffers this way of being is highly localised and it flourishes best and most widely when we don't tie it to fixed and monolithic human ideologies concerning what might be the best kind of civilisation. So he wants us to be absolutely clear that our integrity, mercy and incorruptibility is intimately related to our ability 'not be duped / By dreams of universal justice or happiness' because, he says, 'these dreams will not be fulfilled.' Why? Well, remember these words are being presented in the light of his opening lines which makes it clear he thinks that even if we were to succeed in creating the utopian civilisation we dreamt of, it, too, will in time, break down into violence and out of it tyrants will come.

Now to many people all this seems an utterly bleak and painfully circular vision. You act on a good utopian vision and try to build a new society or civilisation upon it, but, says Jeffers (and history), it will inevitably fall back into violence and repression. In the inevitable fight that follows someone else will be forced to pick the least ugly faction with its new dreams and, if they win and succeed in creating a new society it, too, will in time, break down once more into violence and out of it tyrants will come. (Remember, even Emerson, that most optimistic of writers, once said that: 'The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation.')

But that's not the end of it for Jeffers thinks we that this bleak vision is only certain to occur in so far as we continue to subscribe to the myth of the centrality of humankind and its insatiable desire to civilise the world - that is to say to make it conform merely to human dreams. (People may be interested in following this link to the Dark Mountain Project which is concerned to articulate this more clearly. I've joined recently joined this grassroots network myself).

Jeffers begins to challenge this myth by introducing a theme which runs throughout his work namely, that 'however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful.' But be careful to remember, as I have been showing you over the last couple of weeks, that Jeffers' understanding of beauty runs right up to the very edge of the abyss that is the Sublime - that greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation. Because Jeffers' vision is born out of being prepared to survey whatever one sees with a steady, clear-eyed acceptance his understanding of in what consists beauty is no easy one.

One of the things he sees with his steady and clear-eyed gaze is that 'A severed hand / Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history ... for contemplation or in fact ... Often appears atrociously ugly.'

Jeffers is pushing us hard to see how an exclusive human frame of reference, one which lies behind so many of our activities especially the creation of civilisations, severs us from the earth and stars and our history and makes us appear often atrociously ugly.

Civilisation severs us from the earth because it has all too often made us think of the earth as something other than us, some 'thing' which we can master and use as mere resource and upon which we think we can walk when, instead, it is the dark, mysterious matter out of which we come, within which we are indissolubly commingled, and *through* which we move.

Civilisation severs us from the stars because it has all too often made us think of them as revolving around us at the centre of the universe rather than as mutually interdependent brother and sister worlds whose dust is our dust, whose earth is our earth.

Civilisation severs us from history because it makes us think that it is possible in one fell swoop to create the New Jerusalem - to become some new ideal race and civilisation without first doing the hard work of uncentering ourselves and dispelling the myth of civilisation. As Jeffers says in another poem, Carmel Point, 'We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; / We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from.'

Jeffers thought we began to live a wise, unhuman, uncivilised life when we succeed in concentrating on what he calls 'Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things'. It is only by diving deeply into this wholeness that we can begin to find a real, primal 'integrity' in which we can touch 'the divine beauty of the universe' - a beauty which is there even when we are not.

The answer, then, for Jeffers, is to love this Sublime beauty, this organic wholeness and 'not man / Apart from [this]' because, if we do not, we will continue to 'share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.'

The first ten years of this century seem to me to be riddled through with countless pitiful confusions and in so many ways I see our days darken.

But, for all that, again and again, when I take time to notice the organic wholeness of life and things I see nothing but divine beauty.

This spring, more than any I have experienced before, the beauty about which I have just spoken has hit the core of my being. I know it will be there whatever we stupid and thoughtless creatures do and, in that beauty, I know I can rest as confident as the rock and ocean I was made from. I know I can go on in hope and a measure of joy even as the waves crash in and the crazy warmongers (whether our own or others) fight yet more stupid wars.

Just hold on to Jeffers' answer - that integrity is beauty and that he greatest beauty is organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of things. Love this and not the man apart from it. So live and be joyful even in these darkening days.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Vision at the point of breakthrough and breakdown - a meditation following the Japanese tsunami


Over the past few weeks I have been encouraging us to think about the Sublime. I have been doing this because I think a reconnection with the Sublime can provide the energy for liberal forms of religion that we have lost as, both individually and collectively, we continue to find the idea of a supernatural interventionist God - even a loving - less and less compelling. Our sense of what we might meaningfully call the divine is becoming a more and more down-to-earth.

The Sublime is, I argue, that wholly natural expression of this which simply shows - instantly and without any intellectual work as God once did - the fragility and beauty of human-life and, additionally, why we must gather together in loving communities to support each other in the always difficult task of creating meaningful and fully flourishing lives. Because I think the Sublime shows this clearly and naturally it effectively sidesteps the insurmountable difficulties most liberals have with belief. You have to believe in God for God to be a powerful energy for you, but you don't have to believe in the Sublime to touch its life-giving energy because it shows itself to us clearly. But what it clearly shows is, of course, is not precisely some identifiable 'thing' at all but simply the 'greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.' As such, in a special non-theistic way, it seems worthy of what we might call a kind of worship. It is a non-theistic sense of the divine.

I am pleased that many of you have appreciated what I have been trying to say, but it is a measure of the difficulties I face in trying to talk about the Sublime in the safe and comfortable environment that is Cambridge, that a few folk strongly express their feeling that I am simply talking utter nonsense and merely playing cleverly with words.

I don't think I am, but I want to acknowledge something very real that may lie at the back of such criticism. It may reflect a recognition of the danger that an intellectually-minded rational church tradition such as our own - and someone like me - is always susceptible to, namely, that we can neglect life for books. As the environmental ethicist Philip Cafaro noted, it is a feature of our post-modern age that we all too easily 'divorce texts from lived contexts and set them up as their own realities' (Thoreau's Living Ethics, University of Georgia Press 2004, p. 4) and he continues by noting that, 'this cuts the scholar off from the world, himself and his fellow men, in one fell swoop [and that] even the greatest books can play the role of cereal box reading in our lives, lulling rather than stimulating thought. At bottom,' he concludes, this time-passing stems from laziness and a distrust or fear of life' ( ibid., p.7).

But this is precisely why I am encouraging you to look at poets and writers like Lucretius, Wallace Stevens, Robinson Jeffers, Mary Oliver and Henry David Thoreau - because their writing is always concerned to push us back into the world and to survey whatever we see with a steady, clear-eyed acceptance. It is also why I am particularly desirous to encourage you to consider the philosophies of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy and Heidegger because they, too, want to push us back into a real and direct encounter with the world and survey it with a steady, clear-eyed acceptance. All of these writers want to shake us from our laziness and stop us fearing life - and so do I.

So I strongly refute the charge that I'm merely playing with words.

It has to be admitted, however, that the difficulty I have just outlined remains and in this week's address, constrained as it is by the form our services take (which we could change, of course) I would simply have offered you some more words from the aforementioned writers in the hope that they may help you do what *you* need to be more fully in the world. But this week I don't really need to appeal to any readings about the Sublime - clever of otherwise - because all I have to do is remind you of the images we will all have seen of the Japanese earthquake and the awful tsunami which followed.

Last week I introduced you to Albert Gelpi’s description of the Sublime which we will revisit now but, this time, as I go through it, I will remind us of some of the real things we have seen. (It comes, remember, from Albert Gelpi’s introduction to The Wild God of the World – An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford University Press 2003, p.13).

So Gelpi said:

'. . . the physical conformation and psychological affect of the sublime landscape dwarfs the physical presence of the beholder so overwhelmingly that he or she feels psychologically reduced to the point of annihilation or absorption into the awesomeness of what he or she beholds.' I think this opening sentence pretty much speaks for itself. Every second of all we beheld on Friday showed this. All of us experienced - even thousands of miles away in the safety of our Cambridge homes - the overwhelming and awesome nature of that wave with its power utterly to annihilate and absorb a human being.

He continues: 'Characteristic features of the sublime include vastness of scale that suggests infinity.' Here I cannot but think of the pictures of wave after wave coming out of the clear horizon merging with the sky itself. (After the service one member of the congregation reminded us all of Hokusai's 'Wave' a painting which should strike us as an expression of the Sublime but which has often been appropriated - wrongly perhaps - as being beautiful).

Another characteristic he says are ' . . . jagged and broken lines' and I think here of the footage of the miles and miles of broken railway lines and the countless distorted and twisted roadways which had fractured leaving deep crevices into which people, cars and buildings had collapsed. I think, too, of the jagged and broken edges of the waves as they struck obstacle after obstacle.

Other characteristics were the '. . . extremes of soaring heights and dizzying declivities.' Here I think of the frightening footage taken from outside in the street which showed soaring skyscrapers rocking from side to side and also of footage taken from the inside of those same buildings in which we looked dizzyingly down into the gaping declivities between the swaying buildings, a nightmarish abyss into which the person filming might fall at any moment.

Another characteristic were the '. . . intense contrasts of brightness and dark.' Here I think of the bright, light fields of crops which we saw being remorselessly eaten-up by the speeding dark and muddy churned-up water of the tsunami. Within this contrast there was also another, that of the bright flames of burning whole buildings being swept along faster than people could drive their cars.

Gelpi continues: '. . . the light either blinding or obscured by cloud over a harsh and dreadful landscape in which the irresistible energies of earth and wind, fire and water surge and collide.' Here I cannot but think of the bright and burning fireballs from the oil-refinery and the black clouds of smoke spreading over the harsh and dreadful landscape below us as 'we' watched from the helicopter above. In these images we saw, really saw, irresistible energies of earth and wind, fire and water surge and collide. We may yet still see more such images if one of the damaged nuclear reactors explodes in a catastrophic way.

Gelpi says of this that 'the human response [to this] is a volatile mixture of ecstasy and terror: exaltation at the limits of human endurance and comprehension, vision at the point of breakthrough and breakdown. The beholder at this pivotal and precipitous moment of epiphany is at once thrilled and threatened by the erasure of his frailty in the transcendental Other.' I cannot but agree with every word he says here and, even at the safe distance of thousands of miles, seeing all that I saw I felt myself to be experiencing some kind of pivotal and precipitous moment of epiphany in which I was incredibly aware of being both thrilled and threatened by the erasure of human frailty in the transcendental Other.

Can we, today, really say Gelpi's words about the Sublime are merely clever ones - disconnected from the real world? I don't think so. I think it is clear that his words are true words. I'm sure most of you felt them to be true but, today, thanks to modern telecommunications, the truth of what is meant by the Sublime has crashed directly through the safe walls of our Cambridge homes and punched us in the core of our being. We have seen - really seen - how powerless is human-kind in relation to the awesome power of nature and this is now a global memory and it may have served to join us closer together than we were only a week ago. (This is particularly important as we seek to create a global awareness of the dangers of climate change.)

It is important to acknowledge that what we all saw on Friday was not beautiful - how could it be? Instantly, as we saw that wave smash its way across the landscape we all knew how dreadful this was. We knew, instantly, what kind of horrors people would be experiencing and will continue to experience in the coming weeks, months and years.

But I think most of us here know, really know, that neither was what we saw evil. In the earthquake and the tsunami there was present no divine agency and no wilful God (judgemental or loving) was at work. No, the earth simply moving, ever so slightly, her sublime, wild body.

But we cannot remain in direct daily contact with the Sublime at this kind of level and intensity - it is too much, way too much for human-kind to endure for any length of time. The Sublime is super-human (though not super-natural) and because we are human it is to the human world that we must return. We have to respond to this event in a way that is both free and creative and which does not fall into either nihilistic despair nor into fantasy, denial and forgetfulness. Importantly it must be a response which keeps alive in our whole way of being-in-the-world the knowledge of our intimate comminglement in the Sublime natural order of things.

To conclude I have to return here to some cited words to illustrate the real work that is to be done and with them I will finish. Gary Snyder - the poet, ecologist, eco-warrior and Buddhist -offers this thought in his book 'The Practice of the Wild':

'To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are – painful, impermanent, open, imperfect – and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us. For in a fixed universe there would be no freedom. With that freedom we improve the campsite, teach children, oust tyrants. The world is nature, and in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the process and essence of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence' (Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild found in The Gary Snyder Reader, Counterpoint Washington D.C. 1999, p. 168).

The Sublime event we saw in Japan is the condition of our human freedom and for that we must be grateful. May our brothers and sisters there find a way beautifully to order once again the impermanence so as to improve the campsite (the place they live), teach their children, and oust tyrants. But more than that, may all of us around the world who also witnessed the tsunami roll in do likewise, for it is clear that our own campsites need improving, our own children are poorly taught, and there remain too many tyrants in our midst.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The beautiful and the sublime - on the possibility of being eaten by a vulture and the good energy that might release for liberal religion


We are a small liberal church in a dwindling denomination and, living this reality daily as I must, I have on a number of occasions quipped from this lectern that one of our problems is that we simply don't have a doctrine of judgement and hell that can frighten people to come to church every week come-what-may. When the sun shines and beckons us to the river or seaside, or it is rainy and cold and our bed's warmth is just too seductive to leave it behind, we all know that our mortal souls will not burn in hell for eternity for choosing to do these other lovely things instead.

Our churches have often responded to this reality by stressing other draws and charms. My favourite, probably apocryphal, is of a church which put on its noticeboard the memorable line: "No hell and seat cushions" - I use a version of this here from time to time: "No hell and good heating". I'm still working on the seat cushions and, when I get them for every seat in the church, I expect nothing less than a full-scale religious revival . . . well, maybe not. Other things we have tried in our periodic attempts to persuade people to come is to stress somewhat general issues concerning the human need for community, social justice, intellectual stimulation or just plain entertainment. But, alas, these draws have not - except in very limited ways - reversed our decline.

Given this in my eleven years of ministry a question has continually nagged away at me, namely, is there available to liberals an appropriate enlivening and inspiring energy/experience that would persuade us of the need regularly to attend a religious/spiritual community?

Well, for all the reasons I have been exploring with you over the past few years it seems highly unlikely that we will find such an energy via any kind of revived traditional liberal-monotheism. Why? Well, even if we could revive in our liberal circles a strong belief in God would be in a loving God and a loving God is precisely the kind of God who is going to forgive you when you go to the river or seaside or stay tucked up in your warm bed. A loving God just isn't a scary enough driver for us. Also a loving God becomes increasingly hard to believe in when bad things happen like earthquakes and unbelievably destructive and cruel human conflicts. We found this out to our cost after the horrors of the First World War to which we had effective response - in fact our decline can be dated from around this time.

So no, a revival of an old-style liberal-monotheism seems - to me anyway - to be hopeless dream. But all is not lost because this definitively frees us up to turn whole-heartedly to another way-of-being-in-the-world that our tradition has consistently, if not always properly or fully, explored. It is the turn to nature which has been played out within our congregations in a number of intertwined and overlapping ways. Firstly, there is a pantheist tendency which says that Nature is God; a key figure here is, of course, Spinoza who framed this in the phrase Deus-sive-Natura (God-or-Nature) where the sive (or) is one of equivalence. (I begin every service using this 'name'). Secondly, there is a transcendentalist tendency which takes nature as a symbol of God; a key figure here is, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thirdly, there is a tendency which sees nature as sufficient and not requiring the God/the gods at all except as helpful, poetic and therapeutic expressions of the human encounter with nature; a key figure here is, of course, Lucretius but, since this is the tendency I find myself drawn to, I cite also the writers I have been introducing to you over the past few years, namely Mary Oliver, Wallace Stevens, Robinson Jeffers and Henry David Thoreau. Though each of these tendencies are different I think it is possible that all these ways of rooting our lives in nature can rub shoulders one with another in a community such as our own.

But, as I have just said, our turn to nature (or God in, or God as a symbol of nature) was not always properly or fully explored and this was because in liberal circles often far too much emphasis was laid upon the *beauty* of nature. Our opening hymn 'For the beauty of the earth' is a classic example of this tendency in full flight. Now I'm not saying, of course, that we shouldn't celebrate natural beauty but rather, that without constantly relating beauty to the sublime it can have no real meaning or power. When we take time to look closely at how humanity as a whole has reflected upon its experience of nature we consistently find it to be Janus-faced - i.e bearing a double-countenance. In his introduction to the work of the poet Robinson Jeffers, Albert Gelpi, eloquently shows us the difference between these two faces:

'The beautiful refers to the landscape whose physical conformation and psychological affect welcomes, responds to, and nurtures the human. It is characterised by a modest scale that accommodates the human presence, regularity and symmetry of elements, smoothly curving lines, gentle gradations of height and depth, steady light and harmonious shades of colour. The cooperative participation of the human transforms the beautiful into the pastoral: sun irradiating a fertile and cultivated landscape dotted with family farms, divine beneficence manifest in reflections of the heavens above in the rivers and lakes below. Beautiful nature reveals the divine as the maternal ground, the source and sustenance and resting place of life.
    By contrast, the physical conformation and psychological affect of the sublime landscape dwarfs the physical presence of the beholder so overwhelmingly that he or she feels psychologically reduced to the point of annihilation or absorption into the awesomeness of what he or she beholds. Characteristic features of the sublime include vastness of scale that suggests infinity, jagged and broken lines, extremes of soaring heights and dizzying declivities, intense contrasts of brightness and dark, the light either blinding or obscured by cloud over a harsh and dreadful landscape in which the irresistible energies of earth and wind, fire and water surge and collide. The sublime reveals the patriarchal visage of Yahweh behind and through the material cloud, and the human response is a volatile mixture of ecstasy and terror: exaltation at the limits of human endurance and comprehension, vision at the point of breakthrough and breakdown. The beholder at this pivotal and precipitous moment of epiphany is at once thrilled and threatened by the erasure of his frailty in the transcendental Other'
(From Albert Gelpi’s introduction to The Wild God of the World – An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford University Press 2003, p.13).

Gelpi concludes this helpful passage by pointing out that we have always had a number of options available to us at this pivotal and precipitous moment. In the first instance we can 'go over the edge of the abyss or pull back and seek the comfort and consolation of human company in [a] pastoral refuge.' Over the last century liberal religion has tended to take one of these two options so, on the one hand, seeing nature's abysmal inner workings rather than finding the monotheistic God of old many have gone despairingly over the edge and given up all positive expressions of religion in favour of an empty nihilism; on the other hand, seeing the abyss others have withdrawn at high-speed and chosen instead to cocoon themselves in, it has to be said, delusional expressions of romantic, empty and shallow beauty.

However, Gelpi also points to another possible response which Jeffers adopted and which I think a revitalised liberal church must also consciously adopt; namely to 'continue to test our human limits against the sublime [but] without going too far'. Jeffers' disciplined way of ensuring that he doesn't (and we don't) go too far was through his poetry and, even as he takes himself and us to the edge of the abyss where we glimpse nature's awesome and sublime inner-workings he always ties this precipitous moment to a recognition of great beauty and ongoing life. I particularly chose the following poem of his to illustrate this because it connects so closely with Mary Oliver's poem we looked at last week, 'Black bear in the orchard'. There we glimpsed the awesome sublime in the moment we looked into the bear's horrible beautiful eyes as it enjoys the honey gained only through the utter destruction of the hive; here we glimpse it in the eyes of a vulture swooping down out of the sky upon us as we lie resting on the ground.


I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture
    wheeling high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit
    I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer. I
    could see the naked red head between the great wings
Beak downward staring. I said, "My dear bird, we are wasting
    time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you." But how
    beautiful he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in
    the sea-light over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that
    beak and become part of him, to share those wings and
    those eyes –
What a sublime end of one's body, what and enskyment; what
    a life after death.

Jeffers, faced with his 'annihilation or absorption into the awesomeness of what he beholds', into nature herself, does not fall into nihilistic despair nor does he retreat into a vacuous empty-headed paean of praise to beauty - instead he is brought (and tries to brings us) into the fullest and most abundant, vibrant living. In such a life he felt we 'may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things' by making our own lives and environment 'beautiful, so far as [our] power reaches.' Importantly for Jeffers this beauty included 'moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity' even though, as he noted, 'it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe.'

But Jeffers is always careful to hold this 'moral beauty' up against the sublime power of nature and he reminds us that we must always 'realize that [our] contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without [us].' (Robinson Jeffers: A Letter to Sister Mary James Power, October 1, 1934 cited in The Wild God of the World, Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 189).

Perhaps because these words appear in a letter he wrote to a religious, called Sister Mary James Power who wrote a book on Emily Dickinson, Jeffers slightly pulls his punch here for it is clear he really means the 'sublimity of things is sufficient without us' not the 'beauty of things is sufficient without us.'

And here I can conclude, for I think this encounter with sublime, with awesome and indifferent nature, is, potentially at least, a replacement of the driving energy liberal-religion has lost but which today it so badly needs. It is an energy which can appropriately frighten us back into a community - it is appropriate because the sublime really is frightening unlike the fears created by our many old superstitions - which knows that, although the summer days by the river and sea and the warmth of our beds will pass and the vulture will settle upon our bodies, it is only by gathering together in a creative, compassionate and mindful community that we can do the real work of creating for ourselves and each other a world full of meaning and natural and moral beauty.