Sunday, 26 June 2011

Tracing paths of the world's becoming


A couple of weeks ago I explored an aspect of Jesus' well-known story in which he said that although foxes had holes, and birds of the air had nests; the Son of man - i.e. Jesus himself, had nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58-59, cf. Matthew 8:19-20). I found it helpful then, and today, to add Tolstoy's unfolding of the teaching:

'And a certain man said to Jesus, "I will follow you no matter where you go." At this Jesus said to him, "There is nowhere to follow me. I have no home, no place where I could live. Only animals have lairs and dens, but man is at home anywhere that he can live by the spirit' (Leo Tolstoy - trans. Dustin Condren, The Gospel in Brief, Harper Perennial, 2011, p.66).

I was particularly struck by the fact that, for Tolstoy, to follow Jesus is not to follow him along a definable path - let's call this "Christianity" (though, of course, Jesus would never have called it this) - to an already pre-determined idea of a dwelling "place" - let's call this the "right" church with the "right" beliefs and practices - but instead a call to a way of being-in-the-world that is radically open to the creative, open-ended potentialities of the world as it is actually showing up to you, right here and now and then to develop a strong sense that living consciously and fully in such dynamic environment (in Tolstoy's language it is to be within the will of the father - though it is clear he doesn't think of the 'father' as would a traditional theist) is to find yourself always-already in your real home. The perception of this dynamic environment doesn't, of course, rely upon pursuing a literal, physical itinerancy but of being able to roam, in the spirit, freely through the world's constant unfolding - whatever that is.

Jesus' story and Tolstoy's this kind of take on it came back into my mind because I began to hear it spoken woven in with the first of the anthropologist Tim Ingold's essays in his new book "Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description" which I mentioned to you last week. In it he points us towards the work of the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty one of whose conclusions was:

"that since the living body [i.e. you and me] is primordially stitched into the fabric of the world, our perception of the world is no more, and no less, than the world's perception of itself - in and through us. This is just another way of saying that the world is sentient" (p. 12).

Ingold feels that, as Merleau-Ponty implied, it is, therefore, impossible to be sentient in an insentient world. An insentient world being one which is thought just to be made up of made up of, mostly, inanimate material things with "rigid, external surfaces" (p. 12). Ingold continues:

"To be sentient, to the contrary, is to open up to a world, to yield to its embrace, and to resonate in one's inner being to its illuminations and reverberations. Bathed in light, submerged in sound and rapt in feeling, the sentient body, at once both perceiver [of the world] and producer [of things in the world], traces paths of the world's becoming in the very course of contributing to it's ongoing renewal."

To be this kind of person is to be a wayfarer at home in an endlessly unfolding world, it is to become consciously aware that, in tracing paths of the world's becoming we can be helped to think of ourselves, not as discrete individuals with our own "rigid, external surfaces" placed amongst other individuals, animate and inanimate, but instead to understand ourselves as "a line of becoming." This thought might - indeed I think should - be extended to institutions. They also should not think of themselves as having "rigid, external surfaces"

However, here I have to add a further thought, because when we hear used the verb "becoming" we tend immediately to attach it to some kind of end point. Clifford Geertz, another anthropologist, once famously summed this thought up by saying, beginning "with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life" each of us is supposed to "end in the end having lived only one" (cited in Ingold p. 3). But this idea, that life is "a movement towards terminal closure: a gradual filling up of capacities and shutting down of possibilities" (Ingold p. 3), is one that Ingold and, at least as I understand them, Jesus and Tolstoy want strongly to challenge.

They all want to replace the idea that life or the life-process is ends driven with, " . . . a recognition of life's capacity continually to overtake the destinations that are thrown up in its course. Ingold continues that:

"It is of the essence of life that it does not begin here or end there, or connect to a point of origin with a final destination, but rather that it keeps on going, finding a way through the myriad of things that form, persist and break up in its currents. Life, in short, is a movement of opening, not of closure" (Ingold p. 3-4).

Now it seems to me that this thought, that life is a movement of opening, not of closure, is something to which we must pay a great deal of attention because it may help us deal effectively with one of the great problems of our age. It seems clear to me that we are living in a confused and increasingly despondent culture and time. Because so much of our culture's self-identity had become wrapped up with the idea of inevitable material scientific, economic and social progress, we were all moving along what we thought was a predetermined path to sunny uplands in which all would live in material comfort and happiness, the failure of this to come to pass has really rocked us. In each of these areas - science, the economy and society - things haven't played out at all as we were led to expect and the feeling of cultural let-down is palpable. Our culture's primary map of the world - that is to say the structure we have used for well over a century to give our lives meaning and purpose - seems slowly but surely to have been very wrongly drawn.

So what to do? Well, we could choose simply to wallow in despair. Many are and it's certainly a popular response. A connected response is to slip into various forms of nihilism - basically giving in to a thoughtless and destructive hedonism. Another response is to impose on the situation old, supposed, solutions  - a version one is to harken back to what are falsely perceived to be earlier religious or political certainties.

On the other hand we could choose to acknowledge that our culture's map was wrong in some fundamental ways. It is a truism but admitting that your map is wrong and that you are lost is the first important step to finding out where you are.

Admitting that our old map was wrong cannot stop the grand correction that is coming closer by the day and which will clearly bring with it many difficult decisions and hardships for us all. But such an admission can open us up to the possibility of seeing a world of meaning and belonging that doesn't rely on ends-driven wholly material views of the world and our life in it. If we can see this different world of meaning and belonging then we might not only be helped to get through the next difficult decade or so, but we might find that as individuals and as a people we have become healthier and wiser in the process.

So now I can return to Tolstoy's reading of Jesus teaching and also Ingold's various insights.

The chief thing I think we need to do is to ditch completely any religious, philosophical and political model that claims it knows absolutely and beforehand where it is you, me, we should be going.

We need to locate our sense of belonging and, therefore, our sense of worth and meaning, not in fixed ends - the holes of foxes and the nests of birds - but in paths of the world's becoming. As individuals and as a church community we have to begin to understand ourselves and "lines of becoming" rather than continuing to see ourselves as discrete, disconnected things.

We have to sense how we play our part in contributing to the world's ongoing renewal - which is simply to say that we learn to recognise that we are part of life which "does not begin here or end there, or connect to a point of origin with a final destination" but which instead "keeps on going, finding a way through the myriad of things that form, persist and break up in its currents.

We have to begin to teach people - that includes ourselves - to see that life "is a movement of opening, not closure."

I can bring these thoughts to a temporary pause - after what I have said it should be clear we cannot here have a closure or an end - by bringing into the picture the image of a marriage. Our final hymn today is a marriage hymn and here is why I have chosen it ('We come, dear Lord, to celebrate - by John L. Bell).

Taken together Jesus, Tolstoy and Ingold's words suggest to me that the kind of religion we need today is one that helps us commit to the world - not a commitment to a already fixed, final, knowable end found along an already clearly defined path - but in a committed relationship with the world that is akin to a marriage. In such a relationship with the world there is the same kind of embracing and a shared sense of illumination and reverberation. In such a relationship to the world with the world we commit to intertwined lines of becoming. It is to be at home in this relationship wherever and however we are and to see throughout that the life we share is a movement of opening and not closure.

This is the kind of following of Jesus I hope a church like this can encourage. It is not to become a Christian (or any other extant form of formal religion) - to hunker down in holes and nests - but to become a bride or groom of unfolding life.


Friday, 24 June 2011

Wondering what to do with your evening?

Wondering what to do with your evening? Well, why not sit back with a glass of beer and watch this short film on cycling in the Netherlands in the 1950s. Really life couldn't get much better . . .

And when you've watched that here's a classic from the British cycling scene in 1955.

And just one more, I promise . . .

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Unanswered questions are far less dangerous than unquestioned answers - A Unitarian reconsideration of the Trinity


At the start of my ministry in this church in 2000 I found myself putting up a poster in our noticeboard which read: 'Unanswered questions are far less dangerous than unquestioned answers.' But if you take this piece of advice seriously, and I do, then it is vital to remember, not only to speak it to others - asking them to review their own unquestioned answers, but also to speak it to yourself. One of our own church tradition's unquestioned answers relates to our historic foundation as a Unitarian Church. As most of you will know, from the earliest days of the Reformation, our forbears began openly to challenge certain negative consequences that they felt came from the doctrine of the Trinity which, from the fourth-century onwards, had become central to most Christian self-definitions. Not least of all they wanted to preserve the humanity of Christ. In 325 the First Council of Nicaea established the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy and the classic statement of it was produced at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

It has to be said that the doctrine uses complex and abstract language that many of us here find, not only unattractive, but also unhelpful and irrelevant and I'll return to this thought in a moment (I want to add that this is not to deny that in other Christian contexts the language still feels attractive, helpful and relevant - it is just not the case here). Here is Samuel Well's mercifully short summary of the doctrine:

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is that there is one God, who exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three persons together share the one divine nature. They are equal, co-eternal and omnipotent. They are distinct from one another: the Father has no source, the son is born of the substance of the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father (or from the Father and the Son). Though distinct, the three persons cannot be divided from one another in being or operation (Samuel Wells in Bowden, John ed., 'The Encyclopedia of Christianity', Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005 p. 1207).

Firstly, I want to observe that once we'd become labelled - willingly or not - as a Unitarian Church, a tendency quickly developed and entrenched itself in which its members unthinkingly accepted the idea that we are definitively not Trinitarian - not like 'them over there'. In consequence, a dangerously impenetrable barrier goes up, Berlin Wall like, between ourselves and our other Christian brothers and sisters. But, perhaps more importantly it also stopped us from re-examining the human experience out of which the idea first arose and, therefore, to loose touch with an important human experience about the world and our comminglement in it.

To help you see what I mean I turn to some words by the anthropologist Tim Ingold found in the introduction to his new book of essays entitled: "Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description". Ingold asks:

'Why do we acknowledge only our textural sources [in our work/books] but not the ground we walk, the ever-changing skies, mountains and rivers, rocks and trees, the houses we inhabit and the tools we use, not to mention the innumerable companions, both non-human animals and fellow humans, with which and with whom we share our lives? They are constantly inspiring us, challenging us, telling us things. If our aim is to read the world, as I believe it ought to be, then the purpose of written texts should be to enrich our reading so that we might be better advised by , and responsive to, what the world is telling us.'

This strongly resonated with my own understanding of the way Jesus seemed to express his own way of being-in-the-world. Despite the fact that he seems to have known the written texts of his faith exceptionally well, and was not above citing them from time to time, the weight of his teaching primarily fell upon an encouragement to look closely at the world - to see what it was telling him. Perhaps most memorable is the moment when he spoke of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field (see Matthew 6:26-34).

One purpose of his teaching was to help us see in a very direct way that we cannot lengthen our lives by even one hour. This was not, it must be stressed, merely a piece of fatalistic teaching but instead one deeply tied into a way of creatively acknowledging that we are not all-powerful *independent* beings but creatures who are *interdependently related* to each other and the world and, importantly, to the very source of life itself - that which, each of us with our own different understandings, give the name God.

Here we find on display an expression of a basic human experience in which we constantly find ourselves switching between experiencing the world as an incredibly diverse collection of individual things - birds and flowers - but which, through them, in certain sublime moments, we also suddenly experience the world as a unified, interdependent whole. A classic expression of this is found in William Blake's notebook, known as the 'Pickering Manuscript' in a poem entitled 'Auguries of Innocence':

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

This very human experience is why, week by week, we begin all our services with an acknowledgement of this comminglement by lighting the candle on our communion table with the words: 'Divinity is present everywhere, the whole world is filled with God, but in certain places and at certain times we feel a specialty of presence. May this be such a place and such a time.'

What I want to get you to see at this point is that Jesus was a man who modelled for us way of looking at the world and, in order to be better advised by, and responsive to, what the world was telling him, to try to read it well by using judiciously the texts of his own age. The texts did not define for him the experience but did help him find the language to talk about what he felt it might be saying to him and those around him. I want us to see at this point the *process* he employed more than any particular answers he came to.

It seems not unreasonable to suggest that the Gospels were made by people who simply wanted to pass on a record of this process in action. To create for themselves and their communities a startling reminder of how to be in the world, of how to look at and respond to the world such that we could hear it speak to us. Alas, as the centuries unfolded and these reminders became written down and turned into Holy Scripture (a terrible fate to overcome any text) we began to listen only to the texts and we forgot to listen to the world and our culture (especially in its theological/philosophical thinking) slowly moved in the problematic direction alluded to by Timothy Ingold, i.e. away from experience, away from what the world might be telling us and towards abstract texts.

Of course, from time to time, there have been many who have baulked at this move and who have encouraged us to return to a consideration of direct human experience of the world, especially important here were the mystics of both Catholic and Protestant varieties. One of our own tradition's ministers, Sidney Spencer, who was a fine and well-respected writer on the mystical traditions of the world's faiths, published an essay in 1955 entitled 'Unitarians and the Trinity' in which he tried to bring us (i.e. those in Unitarian contexts) back to the world of experience which led to the use by the first Christians of the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Here is how he concludes that essay and, remember, he is talking to us:

'Like the early Christians, we are led to experience God in three different ways. To us, as to them, God is, first, the Source of being, everlasting, transcendent, yet close to our hearts, the universal Father in whom we live and move and have our being. To us, as to Jesus, God is Father in the sense that we share His Life and seek to do His Will. Jesus leads us to see God as the eternal Love who has made us for Himself. But, secondly, we see that Love, not only as a besetting Presence above and beyond us: we see it coming to dwell among us, entering into human life, revealing itself in human souls. The Church has emphasised the revelation of God in the life and death of Jesus. And it is true that, because of the fullness of his love, Jesus is the great revealer 'the Son in whom we see the Father's glory'. Yet that sonship is not a thing apart. Wherever life is enriched and redeemed by the spirit of self-giving love, there we see God dwelling among us, revealing Himself to our eyes. We experience God as Father in His eternal Presence: we experience Him as Son in His revelation in human souls; and, finally, we experience Him as Spirit in His indwelling Life in our hearts 'as the sustaining, quickening Energy underlying and inspiring all our efforts after goodness and truth and beauty. 

The Trinity has its real value, not as a literal truth, not as a definition of the eternal nature of God, but as a symbol, suggesting the quality 'manifold, yet unified' of our experience. The traditional doctrine serves today to darken counsel rather than to bring us light. It implies a clear-cut distinction, which cannot be sustained, between the different aspects of the divine. It is well that we should think of God as transcendent, as incarnate, as indwelling. But it is essential, if we are to lay hold of the vital meaning of these truths, to bring them closely together. It is God, the Father of our spirits, the Height and Depth of being, who is within us, whose glory shines through the life of Christ-like souls. It is the infinite Power and Love of God which is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, ever waiting to penetrate and possess us and to lift us into union with Himself'

(Sidney Spencer, The Deep Things of God, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1955, p. 44-45).

Because I hope we can see the truth of this experience, that is to say, we *know* in a deeply embodied way that individual things and people can bring with them a specialty of presence that speaks powerfully of an underlying unity, I also hope we can see the truth that is being gestured towards in the language of the Trinity. In our community's central paradigmatic figure, Jesus of Nazareth, we did not and *do not* see an abstract theological doctrine drawn from written texts but only the world speaking to us about how an individual human can express a specialty of God's presence. But that's not where it must end, in a mere theory, for having seen this specialty of presence, we are called by it to live likewise. As the Catholic mystic Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) is reputed to have said:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no feet but yours, no hands but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion
of Christ is to look out on a hurting world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless all now.

May we do likewise.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The unfulfilled dream - a link to a piece by David E. Bumbaugh

Readers of this blog may be interested in the following piece by David E. Bumbaugh as it addresses in the North American context some of the concerns I have with the way Unitarian communities have developed in the last fifty years.
The unfulfilled dream - We neglected the Universalist challenge of restating our core convictions in contemporary terms.

On another subject. I didn't preach last Sunday as I was finishing the research and finalising preparations for a course on 'End-of-life issues in Islam and Judaism' with my colleague Claire Henderson Davis which we delivered on Wednesday at the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead in association with the Royal Free Hospital. I'm glad to say the day went very well indeed.

However, we are fortunate to have in the congregation Ryan Sirmons who is currently training for the ministry of the United Church of Christ and he offered us an excellent address which you can find at his own blog. See link below - thanks Ryan.

Pentecost Meditation on Panentheism and Naming

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Riprap - live performances

Riprap - Dave, Andy, Kev
Recently I have posted some live recordings from a recent Riprap gig in Cambridge. Kevin has just uploaded another called 'Song' so below for all you jazz fans are all those so far posted.

Kevin Flanagan (saxes); Dave Gordon (piano); Russ Morgan (drums); myself (double-bass)

Greenland - by Dave Gordon

The Beck - by Kevin Flanagan

Cuba Cafe - by Kevin Flanagan

Song - by Kevin Flanagan

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Is the earlier always the purer, the better? Strawberry Fields Forever and the Gospel in Brief

No MP3 this week folks. Sorry about that but the nature of the address, with it's many musical illustrations, made it impossible to record in a meaningful way.


In 1931 Wittgenstein wrote in his notebook,

Tolstoy: the meaning (importance) of something lies in its being something everyone can understand. That is both true and false. What makes the object hard to understand - if it's significant, important - is not that you have to be instructed in abstruse matters in order to understand it, but the antithesis between understanding the object and what most people *want* to see. Because of this precisely what is most obvious may be what is most difficult to understand. It is not a difficulty for the intellect but one for the will that has to be overcome (MS 112 221: 22.11.1931, CV 25e).

The reason I cite this passage today is because, as I mentioned last week, I am at the moment re-reading Tolstoy's 'Gospel in Brief' (GiB) in a new, and what I think is a wonderful translation by Dustin Condren.

This book was profoundly influential upon my own thinking and religious practice because it remains the only interpretation of Jesus' teachings that I have been able to follow and live with a clean heart and conscience. I responded to it's message directly because, to pick up on Wittgenstein's note, it seemed to me to reveal 'something everyone can understand', something which required no knowledge of abstruse matters. Indeed, since I first got hold of a copy back in the mid-nineties I have always carried it with me in my bag and I turn to it again and again and, to be honest, I find it speaks to me more authoritatively and meaningfully than do the four canonical Gospels themselves.

Now, given that Tolstoy's GiB seems to me to reveal something important that 'everyone can understand', and which that requires no knowledge of abstruse matters, you might legitimately be wondering why I have so infrequently spoken of this book's message preferring, instead, to speak more often of Wittgenstein, a man whose philosophy, it has to be admitted, is something not everyone can understand and which does seem to require knowledge of abstruse matters.

Well, here's why and - though it is not the main point of this address - I hope what follows will simultaneously encourage you both to take a look at the GiB and also to make you a little more kindly disposed to Wittgenstein.

As I said, when I first read the GiB, I found a book whose religious message resonated profoundly with me. In the immediate act of reading, its message shone for me as obvious, true and spiritually enlivening. But a short time after every reading - especially whenever I considered using the text as a central example in one of my own addresses - a nagging doubt would re-enter my mind that this was 'just an interpretation'. What I really *wanted* - i.e. what my culture told me I *wanted* and using the word *want* in the way Wittgenstein does - was to be able to dispense with, not only Tolstoy's interpretation but also the interpretation of the Gospel writers themselves and, with the aid of modern Biblical scholarship, I wanted somehow to get back to an underlying truth - the 'real' Jesus of history. I (and my culture) has long imagined that to stand in front of him - if it were possible - I would assuredly be in the presence of actual truth. But, whenever I take time to add up all the knowledge and insights brought by Biblical scholarship about the historical Jesus I have to admit that what I find is, though often intriguing and suggestive, as a whole message, roughly drawn, ill-formed, crudely expressed and, in some cases, irrelevant and even mistaken. I find in this still developing historical picture nothing that offers me a faith actually to live by.

But in most of our Western European Christian traditions this feeling that earlier is better, more truthful, less corrupt is incredibly strong indeed - not least of all because of the divine status accorded to Jesus (wrongly from the perspective of the tradition in which this church stands - though I think there are a lot of good ways to use 'trinitarian' language - here's a link to an address I wrote on the subject) . So strong is this that, even when I felt to the core of my being that in the GiB I was encountering a religious orientation to the world that was obvious and true - the very thing which I was looking for - because I, which is also to say my cultural inheritance, *wanted* to see something else the obviousness of the GiB became for me, as Wittgenstein says, 'what is most difficult to understand.'

Consequently, for the whole of my eleven year long ministry I have been embarrassed - profoundly ashamed even - to admit in public that I find the GiB to be for me a more persuasive, attractive and helpful indication of how to orientate myself in the world than the four canonical Gospels.

I have to say that my intellect has no difficulty here at all  and this is why Wittgenstein's work is so important because he helps me, us, to see that the difficulty is not an intellectual one by what our culture *wants* or *wills* us to see. In this case in matters of religion related to Jesus it is to *want* to see that the earlier is always better, truer, purer. To overcome this is a problem of the *will* and it is a matter of great personal concern to me that I overcome this if I am ever to going to respond honestly to what seems really obvious to me so I can, in turn, be honest with you and, perhaps now and then, even a little easier and obvious to understand.

But for this to occur I need to be sure that you, too, don't get also caught up with what our culture tells us we *want* to see. Without overcoming this, that which is obvious and something everyone can understand, will remain incredibly hard for any of us to see. But how to show this? Well, as you will have realised, I'm going to try to do it through The Beatles.

On the 17th February 1967 the Beatles released the single 'Strawberry Fields Forever' a song inspired by John Lennon's childhood memories of playing in the garden of a Salvation Army house named "Strawberry Field" near his home. It represents a defining moment in pop music because it opened up possibilities for it which showed, as the critic Ian MacDonald said that, 'given sufficient invention, [it] could result in unprecedented sound-images' and offer us 'moods and textures' which formally had only 'been the province of classical music.' MacDonald goes on to say that:

'Heard for what it is - a sort of technologically evolved folk music - Strawberry Fields Forever shows expression of a high order. While there are countless contemporary composers capable of music vastly more sophisticated in form and technique, few if any are capable of displaying feeling and fantasy so direct, spontaneous, and original' (Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head, Fourth Estate, 1995, p. 175).

But we won't start with this single as it was released. Instead, let's go back to the song's inception. We can do this because we are fortunate that there exist recordings of almost every stage of the song's genesis, from Lennon's original demos to the final version you'll hear at the end.

Lennon began to piece the song together on his acoustic guitar whilst in Spain filming 'How I Won The War' during September 1966. MacDonald suggests that Lennon:

' . . . seems to have lost and rediscovered his artistic voice, passing through an interim phase of creative inarticulacy reflected in the halting, childlike quality of his lyric. The music, too, shows Lennon at his most somnambulistic, moving uncertainly through thoughts and tones like a momentarily blinded man feeling for something familiar' (ibid p. 173).

Here's a short medley of the demos John made when he finally got back to the UK. In it you will hear all the things MacDonald pointed out - not least of all that Lennon was like a 'momentarily blinded man feeling for something familiar'.

This 'feeling for something familiar' continued in the studio. For the first three days the Beatles worked on a band version. Here's 'Take 1'.

By 'Take 7' they had got down a fine version - described by one of their close associates as 'magnificent'. Any other group would have been happy to leave it here.

As good as this version was Lennon wasn't happy, and after leaving the track for a week he approached their producer and musical collaborator, George Martin, and got him to agree to start again only this time with an arrangement using trumpets and cellos over a very dense rhythm track. But Lennon still wasn't satisfied and another week later he told George Martin that he wanted to splice the first part of the original version onto the second part of the new one. Now, because the two takes were recorded in different keys and at different speeds George Martin 'venture[d] mildly that this was impossible' but Lennon insisted. MacDonald continues:

'By sheer fluke, it happened that the difference in tempi between the two takes was in nearly exact ratio to the difference in their keys. By varispeeding the two takes to approximately the same tempo, Martin and his engineer Geoff Emerick pulled off one of the most effective edits in pop, detectable only in a change of ambience (at 1:00). This swoop from the airiness of the first chorus/verse into something more shadowy, serious, and urgent was what Lennon had been groping for all along, yet ultimately it had to be achieved through controlled accident' (ibid p. 174).

In a moment we'll hear the song as it went into pop music history but firstly I'll conclude with the basic religious/spiritual message of this address.

I take this story of the creation of Strawberry Fields Forever as being analogous to my experience of the GiB. The GiB feels to me somewhat like the final version of Strawberry Fields Forever, Lennon's demos are the 'historical Jesus' and the first takes are the Gospels as we have inherited them in the New Testament.

In the same way that I do not dismiss the earlier versions of Strawberry Fields Forever, I most certainly do not dismiss the sketchily drawn historical figure we discover through Biblical scholarship and nor do I dismiss the four Gospels - they are themselves clearly 'magnificent' - just like take 7. But, again and again, for me they are not quite on the money and in them I encounter Jesus and those first authors very much as people 'moving uncertainly through thoughts and tones like momentarily blinded men feeling for something familiar' just like Lennon. Many of the key truths and insights are present but they just don't quite come together for me in a truly satisfying and inspiring way. For me, however, in his GiB Tolstoy succeeds by fearlessly taking those initial truths and insights by foregrounding some and amplifying them in importance, whilst placing other elements in a less obvious view, by editing out some things and adding other, entirely new elements and, lastly, by trusting as did Lennon to the extraordinary possibilities that are thrown up by chance.

But, I realise that the GiB won't be to everyone's liking here. So it is important to extend my illustration to suggest that I think we, as a whole community, need to see ourselves as being something like the Gospel in Brief (and, therefore, something like the master take of Strawberry Fields Forever). We need to make of ourselves a Gospel, respecting the historical Jesus we can only vaguely glimpse and certainly enjoying the 'magnificent' take on his teaching and example that are the canonical Gospels, but not satisfied until we can make them into a new and wholly unexpected 'song' - that expresses satisfyingly and persuasively for us in our own age and time the indefinable truth that we have only partially glimpsed in the historical Jesus and the Gospels.

But whatever else you take away from this address please remain wary, very wary, of believing that in religion earlier versions of our Christian story are assuredly purer and better than ones told closer to our own day. It's what our culture wills us to *want* but it is precisely this which continues to stop us from seeing the obvious - namely that there is always a new, fuller and richer song waiting for us to sing.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

An early summer spin on the Dursley-Pederson out along Fleam Dyke and back along the Roman Road

Yesterday I took the Dursley-Pederson out for a spin to Fulbourn Fen, along Fleam Dyke and then back into Cambridge along the Roman Road. There is a group called 'Friends of the Roman Road and Fleam Dyke' from whose website you can get information about these two wonderful ancient monuments. Anyway it was a marvellous day ride and walk. Here are a few photos:

Clearing in Fulbourn Fen - a great place for a packed lunch

The Dursley-Pederson
Looking back along Fleam Dyke (north-west) towards Fulbourn