Sunday, 25 September 2011

Wherever I am, the world comes after me - some thoughts on strategic retreat

I was at my desk last week on a day and at a time when I was not expecting to be. Not only that but as I sat there my phone kept ringing and showing me the numbers of people I really felt I had to answer. It was an unfolding set of circumstances which caused a feeling suddenly to well up within me that I am sure you will all have felt at one time or another - the overwhelming desire to turn off the phone, the computer, to shut the door, lock it and walk away saying "stop, stop, stop." It so happened that as this flurry of activity reached its peak a member of the congregation was sitting in my study - she was not there to see me but had simply come in to the church on another matter and, given I was about to make a cup of tea for myself, I had made her one too and also offered her the comfy chair in my study. I got on with what I needed to do but no sooner had we sat down than the phone rang again from someone who had called earlier. Shortly after that it rang once more and, as I was answering it, I was vaguely aware that my guest had idly pulled a book of Mary Oliver's poems from my shelf and proceeded to open a page at random. When I put the phone she handed me the book, without comment, open at the following poem, The Old Poets of China:

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

(From New and Selected Poems, Volume Two)

Startlingly apt, n'est-ce pas? Anyway, with her tea finished  my guest went on her way and I also managed to go, not quite as far as the mountains and their pale mist, but at least as far as the manse kitchen and back-yard.

Oliver's poem, gifted so strikingly to me by that member of the congregation, stayed with me during the rest of that day and it brought to mind a subject that has continually come up in conversations within this church - namely, the question of whether we should aspire to be a radical, activist church or a quietist one?  (I'm thinking here both of the word quietism's religious and philosophical uses)

I've never been particularly keen on either/or paradigms and, on this subject at least, it seems to me that if you want to do your activism well you have to have internalised the benefits of a more quietist practice at some time and, of course, vice versa.

On the one hand there clearly always exist in our world innumerable issues that cry out for an obvious activist response. We look at what is going on and feel, as the Psalmist imagines God feels, that "Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up . . . I will place them in the safety for which they long. [. . .] On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among the sons of men." (Psalm 12:5 & 8 RSV). As a religious community our commitment to, if no longer precisely Christian *belief*, then certainly a kind of embodied Christian practice, requires us to play our part in challenging this situation wherever it is found.

At certain times the on-the-ground situation and our own internal strength and ability are aligned in such a fashion that an obvious activist rising-up not only can occur but also has real traction which can bring about substantive changes of one kind or another. One must always be ready to move and take advantage of those moments, those alignments, when they occur. Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish maidens (Matthew 25:1-13) we heard earlier shows this admirably and also helps us see that a readiness to move - which all ten maidens have - does not necessarily coincide with the kind of care and preparation required to turn that readiness into a genuine, long-term practical response. You can be as ready to respond to the bridegroom's arrival as the next maiden but if he arrives in the dark and you don't have any oil to keep your lamps alight you are stuffed. By the time you sort yourself out the change in conditions has often been so quick that you find you are now "locked" out of the new situation simply because it developed without your input whilst you were pfaffing around looking for a supply of oil.

But, as life often reveals, there are also times when it is simply not the hour or the day, times when it is not possible to be an effective, obvious activist. Of course the range of historical moments when, for what ever reason, we find we cannot act range from those that are relatively benign to those which are exceptionally malign.

The moments lying at the malign end of the spectrum which stop us acting are the "dark times" to which Robert Pogue Harrison draws our attention. These are the times "when the world that 'comes between men' no longer gives them a meaningful stage for their speech and their actions, when reasoned discourse loses its suasion, when powerlessness rather than empowerment defines the citizen's role in the public sphere" (Robert Pogue Harrison - In "The Garden School of Epicurus" found in his book "Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition", Chicago University Press, 2008, p. 71).

In such situations it is often the case that a retreat of some kind has to be affected if there is to be any hope of later, effective, direct action - a later moment when you can bring out into the street and the workplace the light you have carefully nurtured and cultivated during your wait. But here, as we talk about this retreat and waiting it is vitally important to notice a crucial difference between a "strategic flight from reality" and an "escape from reality". As Hannah Arendt said, "Flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped" (ibid., p. 71).

As Pogue Harrison notes, when Epicurus set up his Garden Academy in Athens he:

". . . sought out the asylum of his garden without ever ceasing to acknowledge the reality from which he was taking flight. Indeed, the garden for Epicurus was a place from which and in which reality itself could be reconceived, its possibilities reimagined. Or better, it was a place where the human and social virtues that were trampled on by the so-called real world could reflourish under carefully husbanded circumstances" (ibid., p. 81).

Is this the kind of retreat the old Chinese poets mentioned by Oliver thought they were undertaking? I don't know the work of these poets so cannot comment but I do know that Oliver's retreat into the quiet places away from the reality of the human world always comes across as strategic. Many of you will remember her striking poem 'What I Have Learned So Far' in which this is made abundantly clear:

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

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

Be ignited, or be gone.

(From New and Selected Poems, Volume Two)

Nor, too, must we fail to remember that our own tradition's primary exemplar, Jesus of Nazareth, even though he also often retreated into solitude to pray he never failed to come back down the mountain into the towns and villages with a gospel of light which encouraged people to be ignited in the active work of bringing about the kingdom of God on earth (cf. Mark 1:35-38).

These are all vitally important reminders that a proper quietism always leads back to action and that action only finds its proper power and control after a disciplined period of reflection in which an individual and a community in strategic retreat reconceive and reimagine realities and possibilities.

I assemble these thoughts and bring them before you at this time because it seems to me that, although there yet remain many present opportunities for us openly to fight the good fight on our streets and in our workplaces - and I strongly encourage us to continue engage in activist ways - it also has to be said that neoliberalism's stranglehold on our public institutions and figures and its breath-taking ability to continue to brainwash citizens of western democracies into thinking that economic government based solely on the market and its ability to self-regulate is a good thing, makes this for us a dark and dangerous time. (If you are concerned about this see this recent article on neoliberalism by Stuart Hall in the Guardian). 

The difficult truth which many of you tell me about - and which I see myself - is that we are finding that in our work and in the wider public sphere we are living in a time in which reasoned discourse *has* often lost its suasion and that our roles as citizens are defined more and more by powerlessness rather than empowerment.

In the light of this last truth it seems to me to be increasingly important to talk seriously about whether, for a time, we should consciously shift our community's emphasis more towards exploring a quietist way of being-in-the-world? To take time together, in a community setting, creatively to think through and better embody the gospel of light we know we have the possibility of cultivating here. During this time, as long as we take care to ensure our thought and practice buds toward radiance and not indolence, then such a consciously quietist move could prove to be very fruitful even though it is a move being forced upon us by some very dark circumstances. We may yet be able to turn the dangers and difficulties of our time into genuine opportunities for a better world.

If we succeed in the above when the time comes to be ignited or be gone we will not only be ready to step out into the world with our light held up once more but we will also have done all we can to ensure that we have gathered in our hearts the deep resources (the spare oil) to sustain it's brightness over the long term.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

It doesn’t have to be the blue iris

Matthew 6:25-34

. . . I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.


from Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.


An enduring human desire is to look behind the scenes. One of the most beautiful expressions of this can be found in the famous ballet paintings of the 1870s by Degas (1834–1917) currently on show in London at the Royal Academy.

They were popular with his customers because, apart from their obvious, simple, visual beauty, they spoke eloquently to this desire and they made available to their owners a new perspective from which they could gain an enlarged understanding about the world of ballet that was not available to them as mere paying members of the audience. A modern expression of this desire is found in the plethora of extra-features to be found on DVDs concerned to show the "making of" such and such film.

As it does in these examples, when our desire to look behind the scenes remains this worldly - by which I mean there really is a "scene" behind which you can look - then this desire, when acted upon, can be said genuinely to increase our knowledge of a subject, be it ballet or film-making.

We begin with the limited, if still wonderful and in it's own terms, fulfilling, perspective of someone sitting in the audience. After this experience, should we choose or if we are given the opportunity, we can look behind the scenes and, in so doing, we have access another perspective upon the world in which we see revealed some of the hard work and technical know-how required to produce an apparently easy and seamless production of a ballet or a film. Perhaps, at a later date, we may choose to learn how to dance or operate a camera and these activities will add a further "behind the scenes" perspective.

It seems reasonable to say that this kind of activity "deepens" our understanding of ballet or film-making and allows us meaningfully to say that we have moved towards a "truer" estimation of our subject than we had whilst we were sitting in the audience blithely unaware of what was required to make this ballet or this film possible.

However, whenever we let the phrase "behind the scenes" to go on holiday and try to use it in situations radically different from the ones in which it was doing some real work as it was in the case of Degas and in the making of a "behind the scenes" documentary we get into all kinds of difficulties. It was first packed off on holiday in the religious sphere some two-thousand-four-hundred years ago by Plato in his famous allegory of the cave found in Book Seven of "The Republic" - a story which is framed in a theatrical fashion where there is a scene to get behind.

In this dialogue Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived their entire lives chained to the wall of a cave facing a blank wall. All they can see are the shadows projected onto this wall by people and things passing in front of a fire which lies behind them. Plato suggested that these shadows were as close as the prisoners got to viewing reality and he saw the philosopher as someone who had been freed from the cave and who was now able to see "behind the scenes". This imagined view he thought revealed the true Forms of reality rather than merely the shadows he had formally seen whilst a prisoner. In short, Plato believed that only knowledge of the Forms constituted real knowledge and, from that day to this, this world has been thought of as mere appearance needing the support of a more real, behind the scenes world.

What we need to notice about the "behind the scenes" idea in Degas' hands or those of a documentary film-maker is that they are not trying to show us another world. What they are concerned to do, as I noted earlier, is *really* show us behind the scenes and, in so doing, show us the *same* world we see whilst sitting in the audience but to help us see it *differently*. They desire to show us other perspectives which, when they are added up, we may meaningfully say that we have moved towards a "truer" estimation of the world. We don't thereby have access to an absolute picture, an only picture, but we do have access to an increasingly enlarged understanding that we can meaningfully call fuller and more complete set of pictures closer to something we may meaningfully call true.

But much religion in the West after Plato developed a belief that it was showing another world behind the scenes that was/is somehow more complete and true than our own and it's stories and practices have become been understood to be about this other world and designed to help a person see it and to enter into it.

Here we can return to our reading from Matthew connected with prayer in which Jesus asks us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, a consideration of which he tells us should encourage us to see that, if we first "strive . . . for the kingdom of God and his righteousness" then the things we really need will be given to us. It won't put an end to all our troubles but it will help us live better today.

Now when we read this, not least of all because of the mention of "your heavenly father" and the "kingdom of God" we are predisposed to follow Plato and imagine that in this story Jesus' real focus is not upon this world but that other, behind-the-scenes heavenly world. This predisposition is so strong we are apt forget to take him at his word and to think that the birds of the air and the lilies of the field are merely metaphors for something else, to think that his words are merely on holiday. But in this story the words are *not* on holiday for they are tightly tied to a particular way of being-in-the-world which trusts in, and is thankful for, what this world naturally offers us all regardless of human wealth and rank. You might disagree with the desirability or efficacy of such a way of being-in-the-world but that is besides the point for Jesus is clearly talking about living in this world not another and he uses the illustration of the birds and the lilies to ground it in this world.

It is this grounded, embodied prayerful trust and thankfulness that is being spoken of when Jesus speaks about "the kingdom of God and his righteousness". Jesus prayerful attitude to life - which was summed up for us in the Lord's Prayer - is the practice by which he feels this kingdom and righteousness is to be made tangible here and now in *this* world.

Now think of this story - in fact the whole of the Gospels as the performance of Jesus' life - a performance that we can see as paying members of an audience, just as we can see a performance of a ballet or a film. Is there a genuine "behind the scenes" view available to us of this performance that isn't like Plato's cave but is like Degas' paintings or a "making-of" documentary? Yes, I think there is and Mary Oliver offers it.

Like Jesus she, too, looks at a flower of the field - in this case a beautiful iris rather than a lily - and then offers us the following:

from Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

We look at a ballet performance and it looks to us as if the dancers can defy gravity with ease. Degas really shows us behind the scenes and makes visible the discipline and hard work that is required to pull off this performance. Degas also does not shy away from hinting at the darker elements both of  backstage  life and in the objectification of the dancers - most notably in the sculpture "La Petite Danseuse".

We look at a film, let's say Hitchcock's "Psycho", and especially its shower scene - one of the best known in movie history. But behind the scene documentaries by Bouzereau and Galluzzo reveal that although this scene only lasts 3 minutes and is a presentation which, despite its horror, seems instantaneous and done with ease actually took seven days, seventy-seven camera angles and fifty cuts to create. Like Degas they show us the discipline and hard work that is required to pull off this performance.

Mary Oliver does something similar for the act of prayer. She shows that behind acts of prayer that seem to be calling on another world and are dependent on a specific focus, words and beliefs there is to be seen - and experienced - a different perspective. Her poem is, therefore, literally a miniature behind the scenes "making-of" documentary about prayer. She shows us the discipline and hard work required to pray. As she does this she reveals that focus needn't be a beautiful iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, a few small stones or, by extension the birds of the air, the lilies of the field or an image of a heavenly Father - the point, she shows, is simply to cultivate "attention". The consequent patching together of a few words, whatever they are, is simply a response to what is seen when we attend. Then she reveals what is, I think, her key, behind-the scenes insight saying that so done this prayer *is* a doorway but one through which we are not ushered into another world but one through which we experience a different perspective on *this* world - a world of thanks and space in which we are called to be attentive to a voice other than our own. Not a voice from another world, of course, but a voice from this world that, because of the noise of our personal existence, hitherto we had failed to hear. It is in this space that we become aware of the voice of an "other" and it is only when we become aware of this other that genuine love and compassion becomes possible - can be called forth from us.

And the point of my observations today? Well, in an age and culture such as our own which has lost, rightly in my opinion, a belief in another world, we could also loose the healing practice of prayer because it is too easy to think it is tied to another world. Oliver concisely and beautifully shows us otherwise - its the practice of cultivating attention.

Thanks to Degas we see the ballet from another perspective and we understand this world better. Thanks to "making-of" documentaries we understand film from another perspective and we understand this world better. Thanks to Mary Oliver we can understand the practice of prayer from another perspective and we understand this world better.

The promise of a better life we seek in religion and in its practice of prayer is available, not elsewhere and not in belief in another world but here and now, in this world - indeed it is clear religion does not need another world. Today we have studied Mary Oliver's "making-of" documentary about prayer. When you leave here should you choose as you watch the performance of life, and better attend to its unfolding, you can listen for the voice of the "other" and enter through the doorway with prayerful thanks into this world experienced differently, more broadly, more deeply, more truly.

Monday, 12 September 2011

"…how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster…" - On the need not to talk about 9/11

Before I begin I want you to be aware that throughout I use the terms "9/11" and the "11th September 2001" to refer to different things. At no point do I use them synonymously.

I tried very hard to resist the pressure to speak today about "9/11" but as you all know there was no escape from it this week thanks to the many hours and countless column inches devoted to it in the media. To this one must add the plain and simple truth that for many reasons the events of that day influenced me profoundly and contributed to a major change of emphasis in my own personal political, religious and emotional way of being-in-the-world. Given these factors not to say something today about "9/11" seemed, in the end, to be odd and counter-productive.

On the other hand I still felt a very strong desire not to talk about the matter. By this I do not mean I wished merely to ignore "9/11" but I did want to find a way to make it clear that I was actively *not* talking about it and to freight this act with useful meaning.

To help me explain why I feel the need to do this I want to introduce a distinction between "9/11" and the "11th September 2001". Thanks to an ongoing post-hoc analysis "9/11" is now the name, a proper noun, which refers to the increasingly complex story or stories that have grown up in the shadow of the events of the "11th September 2001". This is not to say that this process is a bad thing and, at its best and when it is not merely trying to create politically expedient myths (expedient either for the USA, its allies or its enemies - real or invented), the process of turning the catastrophe into a story can help all of us find understanding, healing and acceptance.

In a book called "Young Men and Fire" the author Norman Maclean (best known for his story "A River Runs Through It") tried to do this about the death of thirteen Forest Service Smoke-jumpers in Mann Gulch, Montana, on 5 August 1949. The book was a product of his strong belief that "in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs" and he felt that "if only we have some curiosity, training, and compassion and take care [also] not to lie or to be sentimental" (Maclean p. 37) then we could reveal these same shapes and designs which allowed the living to remember creatively and unsentimentally and, thereby, learn how to continue to live better and more hopefully in the days to come.

Maclean felt that:

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

It strikes me that what is true of the young men who died in Mann Gulch remains true of the nearly 3,000 men and women who died on the 11th September 2001. However, I fear that the story of the whole - that is to say the story called "9/11" - has largely been co-opted by our culture for less than honourable and healing ends.

Anyway, if you want to hear about "9/11" then I simply refer you to the many politicians and cultural commentators whose words you have heard this week and will be hearing more of during the coming days, weeks and years.

But today I want to draw your attention to the day the "11th September 2001" which in a key, even fundamental respect was a day like any other. I want to do this because I think it is important to make visible a general background without which we can all too easily develop a dangerous sense of human power and control - the same sense of power and control that made possible both the events of "9/11" and which continue to cause conflict around the world. Perhaps more importantly I want to do it so that when I conclude we can simply rest silently together in non-partisan human solidarity with those who died.

But how to show you this background, this "11th September 2001", when every memory, every picture, every piece of footage, every witness' story of the day is by now so coloured by "9/11"? I admit that it is hard and I'm not sure I can do it but even if I succeed in giving you the briefest and most fleeting glimpse of it today then this will be sufficient.

I can only hope to do this via the picture and article that helped me catch a glimpse of it. The picture, by the senior Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker, shows a group of New Yorkers sitting chatting in the sun in a park in Brooklyn whilst behind them, across the East River, is rising the cloud of smoke and dust that marks the place where the Twin Towers stood only a short time before. The article is about the picture and was written last week by the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones. 

Probably wisely, Hoepker did not feel it was appropriate to publish his photo in 2001 and it was only in 2006 that it appeared in a book and not surprisingly it quickly became a cause of controversy. As Jones tells us:

'The critic and columnist Frank Rich wrote about it in the New York Times. He saw in this undeniably troubling picture an allegory of America's failure to learn any deep lessons from that tragic day, to change or reform as a nation: "The young people in Mr Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American."'

However, as Jones notes,

'Rich's view of the picture was instantly disputed. Walter Sipser, identifying himself as the guy in shades at the right of the picture, said he and his girlfriend, apparently sunbathing on a wall, were in fact "in a profound state of shock and disbelief". Hoepker, they both complained, had photographed them without permission in a way that misrepresented their feelings and behaviour.'

If nothing else this reveals the important truth that one cannot photograph a feeling. But another important thing of which Jones reminds us is that this was the only photograph taken that day which seems 'to assert the art of the photographer'.

Jones notes that

' . . . among hundreds of devastating pictures, by amateurs as well as professionals, that horrify and transfix us because they record the details of a crime that outstripped imagination – even Osama bin Laden dared not expect such a result – this one stands out as a more ironic, distanced, and therefore artful, image. Perhaps the real reason Hoepker sat on it at the time was because it would be egotistical to assert his own cunning as an artist in the midst of mass slaughter.'

But ten years on it is precisely this artistic distance that counts and which helps us glimpse something that is most certainly not the egotistical cunning of an artist. This "something" is, paradoxically, the strange closeness to the "11th September 2011" the picture affords us.

Jones begins to help us to see/feel this by reminding us of the famous Renaissance painting by Pieter Bruegel, "The Fall of Icarus", in which he depicts a peasant ploughing also seemingly untroubled on as Icarus falls into the sea to his death. This painting along with W. H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" which references it 'captures something that is true of all historical moments: life does not stop dead because a battle or an act of terror is happening nearby'.

"Musee des Beaux Arts" 

About suffering they were never wrong, 
The Old Masters; how well, they understood 
Its human position; how it takes place 
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; 
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting 
For the miraculous birth, there always must be 
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating 
On a pond at the edge of the wood: 
They never forgot 
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course 
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot 
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse 
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. 
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away 
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may 
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, 
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone 
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green 
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen 
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, 
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Hoepker's picture shows us this same truth in the visual imagery of our own age, an age in which most of us are not ploughmen but men and women whose daily work includes the possibility of taking a break in the sun by a river with friends. Like the Breughel's ploughman, as Jones says, 'The people in this photograph cannot help being alive, and showing it.'

Hoepker's and Breughel's picture and Auden's and Jones' words shockingly (if artfully) remind us that we live in a world that in its immediate and constant unfolding is beyond simple static human knowing and to be living is to be beyond the possibility of stopping before any event, fact or thing with our minds filled with a complete knowledge of what is going on and to pose in a way our future selves/generations might deem appropriate. To be sure after the event we can always analyse, interpret, create healing stories or dangerous myths about these events, facts and things (and these will say something meaningful to us) but we must never forget that all these activities are always undertaken against a general background of radical not-knowing and against a knowledge that despite this we cannot help but being alive and showing it. Is this not what was shown by all of us on the "11th September 2001" in some way or another?

"9/11" tries, understandably, to explain, to regain some power and control over the events. This, inevitably, distances us from the 3,000 people who died for they most certainly did not understand, they did not have any power or control.

However, the "11th September 2001" - made accessible by the Hoepker's photo and its artistic distance - brings us, paradoxically, closer to those 3,000 people and the utter incomprehension, powerlessness and horror they felt. An incomprehension, powerlessness and horror that we, too, felt.

Anyway, with these thoughts in mind it now behoves us to consider what we are to do as we stop now to remember and pay respect to the dead.

Are we to remember "9/11" or the "11th September 2001"?

Are we to remember what our culture tells us the day meant or are we here to remember and stand in solidarity with the ordinary men and women who were doing ordinary things and in which we also acknowledge a basic aspect of the human condition that we cannot help being alive and showing it - even in the face of death?


As we break our silence let our memorial of that day be a healthy and healing knowledge that whatever befalls us we cannot help being alive and showing it and may we always ensure that this showing is one which encourages us, not to acts of violence and hate but those of compassion and forgiveness.


Sunday, 4 September 2011

"I will be what I will be" - seeking home (Heimat)

In living as in knowing, be
Intent upon the purest way;
When gale and current push you, pull you,
Yet they’ll never overrule you;
Compass and pole-star, chronometer
And sun and moon you’ll read the better,
With quiet joy, in your own fashion
Will reach the proper destination.
Especially if you don’t despair
Because the course is circular:
A circumnavigator, hail
The harbour whence you first set sail.

J. W. von Goethe (trans. Michael Hamburger in Goethe: Poems and Epigrams, Anvil Press, London 1983)

Perhaps simply because of its final stanza, this epigram of Goethe's came back into my mind on the train last week as Susanna and I made our way back home from a stay in France. Of course, in this piece Goethe is not speaking about a return from a summer vacation such as the one we had been on but of the kind of spiritual return he thought each human soul could make during the course of its whole life. Anyway, Goethe's lines - with which I am going to disagree - provided me with the impetus for today's address - an address which picks up on themes I was exploring with you during June and July.

Since stumbling across it in my early twenties Goethe's epigram has often comforted me. It said that, as long as I remained intent upon following the purest way - that is to say to hold fast to the good, true and the beautiful - I would be capable of navigating myself back to the eternal safe harbour from whence I first set sail; a harbour that goes by many names though it mattered not whether I called it God, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Absolute or Deus-sive-natura.

My Christian upbringing naturally gifted me with the strong belief that this harbour existed and I was taught (via its literature and various religious and philosophical teachings  such as Goethe's epigram) that I could access a recollection of this divine, perfect home or harbour - and this, in turn, would not only give me the skills to read compass, chronometer, pole-star, sun and moon to help navigate my way back to my home harbour but also gift me an associated quiet joy and confidence.

This idea of a divine, home harbour has, of course, been a key idea within our European and North American religious cultures and, upon entering the ministry, it was made clear to me that one of my roles was to find ways by which I might jog the memories of this home in those whom I served so that together, in quiet joy and confidence, we might all make our way back to the harbour from whence we had once set sail.

Perhaps this story is true but as I sped through the French countryside last week contemplating Goethe's lines I was forced to admit that as I have continued on my own journey through life I have become less and less convinced that I am a circumnavigator returning to a previously known port and now when I look down to read compass, chronometer or up, to read pole-star, sun and moon, the only measurements I find I can read off them these days are ones that suggest, not a circular, but a complex linear and open-ended course of travel.

To help you see what I mean it is perhaps helpful to begin by thinking about recollection and memory - what Plato called 'anamnesis'. Ernst Bloch reminds us that:

'The [Platonic] doctrine of anamnesis claims that we have knowledge only because we formerly knew. But then there could be no fundamentally new knowledge . . . Anamnesis provides the reassuring evidence of complete similarity . . . Anamnesis has an element of attenuation [that is to say a narrowing or closing down] about it, [which] makes everything a gigantic déjà vu' (cited in 'Ernst Bloch' by Vincent Geoghegan, Routledge 1996 p. 37).

But, to me at least, life has begun to show up as much more creative, sophisticated and alive to new possibility than would be the case if it were merely a gigantic déjà vu. Just before going away for the summer I spoke to you about this in an address called 'Tracing paths of the world's becoming' in which I cited the anthropologist Tim Ingold (Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, Routledge 2011). He said, you will remember:

'To be sentient . . . 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.'

And also 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).

I'm aware that some people will react strongly against this thought if only because this view seems to remove any possibility of there being a safe homeland or harbour of the spirit which we can attain after the exhausting experience that is the journey of life.

But even with this change of perspective from closed and restricted circumnavigation to the freedom of open-ended 'travel-towards' it is possible to maintain a strong sense of a home, or a safe port to which we are travelling even though it must be one quite unlike that which Goethe - and most of Christianity - envisioned. But to have a hope of attaining this different harbour we need first to break the chains that harness us, rather like an ox, to a circular grindstone in which our life, work and even death really no more than an movement in an endless circle.

We can perhaps best begin to hammer and chisel through the chains that bind by tackling head on the belief that "I am" or that "we are". As Peter Thompson says in his introduction to Bloch's "Atheism in Christianity":

'The "Am" which will exist at the end of the process is not the one who sets off on the journey in the first place, but the one who arrives at his genesis at the end of the journey. In the process of becoming, Nietzsche and Bloch contend, one becomes an "Am" which is not yet visible, not yet complete, nor even conceivable. As Arthur Rimbaud puts it in another context, "Je suis un Autre" (I *is* someone else)' (Peter Thompson's introduction to Ernst Bloch's "Atheism in Christianity", Verso Books, London 2009, p. xiii).

Bloch thought that this and other powerful insights was to be found hiding subversively (and still undischarged) in the Biblical text and he encouraged people to use its stories and myths

'. . . to search for a historical world which can be liberated from its own limitations . . . and which will allow us to pass out of passive and anamnetic circularity into active potentiality' (Peter Thompson's introduction to Ernst Bloch's "Atheism in Christianity", Verso Books, London 2009, p. xiv).

A key story/myth to which Bloch returned again and again is found in Exodus 3. The chapter begins with God speaking to Moses from out of the burning bush saying that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God then continues:

Exodus 3:7-15

In our English Bibles "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" (Hebrew: אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה‎) is generally translated as "I Am that I Am" and it is a name of God which has powerfully contributed to the thought that God's perfection is static - that He is the unchanging harbour from whence we set sail and to which we have hopes we may return. But the tense of the Hebrew, as the Rabbi and Biblical scholar W. Gunther Plaut points out, 'is not clear; it could mean "I am" or "I will be" (or "I shall be")' (W. Gunther Plaut, "The Torah: A modern commentary", Union of Hebrew Congregations, New York 1981, p. 405).

Bloch wholeheartedly embraces the latter translation of "I will be what I will be" and in so doing begins to unfold a conception of God as change and process rather than timeless and unchanging. He felt that this name - "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" - introduced a way of thinking which 'posits no hereafter or "above", but rather a possible "before-us"' (cited in 'Ernst Bloch' by Vincent Geoghegan, Routledge 1996 p. 85).

Because in Bloch's reading of the Judaeo-Christian myth, God, like us, is always becoming, God no longer lords it "above" us but now walks "with" us on the same journey of becoming - an Exodus from circular captivity to a creative, plural and open-ended freedom. This walking-with-us-liberating kind of God is, of course, most powerfully depicted in our inherited myths and stories in the person of Jesus. The myth of the Resurrection is vital in this story because it is the point at which the baton of divinity is finally passed over to us and we all become part of this divine becoming. In the traditional language of Romans (12:5) it is when 'we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.' It is to say, as Nathan did last week in his address last week, that we can say 'God is in us' and that, therefore, we must 'Live Him'.

This insight is what allows Bloch to say rather strikingly that "Humanity lives everywhere still in pre-history" and that "each and everything is waiting for the creation of a just world." This thought allows him to introduce into play a new conception of in what consists our harbour or home:

'The true Genesis is not at the beginning, but at the end, and it will only start to come about when society and existence become radical, i.e. take themselves by their own roots. The root of history, however, is the labouring, creative human, engaged in reshaping and overcoming given conditions. Once [a person] has grasped this in himself and that which is his, without alienation and based in real democracy, so there will arise in the world something that shines into everyone's childhood, but where no one has yet been: Heimat [home]' (cited in Ernst Bloch, "Atheism in Christianity", Verso Books, London 2009, p. xix).

Coming back to the UK after its shocking summer riots and as we face still more social, financial, political and religious instability Bloch's insight serves to remind me, at least, that we are not trapped in some endlessly repeating circle but always gifted with the possibility of creating better ways of being-in-the-world than the ones we have present to us today or have had in the past. In every moment in which we know 'God is in us' and we 'Live Him', acting on the real open-ended possibilities that always lie before us, we experience not only true human freedom but also a genuine foretaste of the home (Heimat) we have not yet reached but which has always shone into everyone's childhood.

Our contemporary society is trapped in all kind of grinding and burdensome circular ways of being (I'm thinking here particularly of the insanities that are neo-liberalism and fundamentalist religion) and we need to awake to the fact that we are the chained oxen who helping to driving them. However, we know things can be better for we still have within the myths and stories of our childhood undischarged visions and foretastes of what a better world could be. But this home (Heimat) is NOT in the past it lies ready-to-hand but latent in the present (no one has been there yet) and continually cries out to us to be released into the world.

God said "I will be what I will be" and he went forth into the world to set his people free. As "God is in us" and in so far as we then "Live Him" and work for this freedom we are saying "We will be what we will be" and will have begun to set our chisels against the chains to free ourselves to travel home.