Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Why wait - and what on earth for? An Advent meditation on meaning-gifting and the world pushing back



A couple of weeks ago I was cycling past a chapel in Commercial End, Swaffham Bulbeck and upon its wayside pulpit were some familiar words from the prophet Isaiah: "Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near" (55:6). (The reading was from Isaiah 55:6-13)

This verse might trigger many thoughts but, as my mind was beginning to turn towards what on earth I might speak about today I naturally heard it resonate in the context of Advent. Advent means, of course, "coming" and in the Christian calendar it refers to the birth of Christ which in the Gospel narratives is understood as nothing less than the appearance of God among or with us. That's the meaning of the Hebrew word "Emmanuel". Advent is, therefore, a time of waiting for such a shining forth of the divine.

We can begin by observing that you cannot seek out a child who has not yet been born; instead you must patiently wait and this basic, incontestable phenomenon is what I am concerned with today and it's important to hold it in mind throughout in case you think I'm drifting into mere theory.

Before I can move on from this observation I need to make another. Mark Wrathall reminds us of an important story for our North Atlantic culture in this excellent précis:

'Since Plato, philosophers of the West have proposed various conceptions of a supreme being that was the ground of existence and intelligibility of all that is. In the works of St. Augustine (and perhaps before), this metaphysical god became identified with the Judeo-Christian creator God. In modernity, however, the philosopher's foundationalist conception of God has become increasingly implausible. The decline of the metaphysical God was perhaps first noted when Pascal declared that the God of the philosophers was not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In any event, by the time that Nietzsche announced "the death of God," it was clear that something important had changed in the form of life prevailing in the West. 
Whether Nietzsche's actual diagnosis of the change is right, most contemporary thinkers agree with him that the metaphysical understanding of God is no longer believable. [. . . However] the loss of belief in a metaphysical god that is the ground of all existence and intelligibility, and even the loss of belief in a creator God who produced the heaven and the earth is not a disaster. [In fact the] absence of foundational God [can] open up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and the sacred. Thus, the death of the philosopher's God may have provided us with new and more authentic possibilities for understanding religion that we blocked by traditional metaphysical theology (or onto-theology)' (Mark W. Wrathall's introduction to "Religion after Metaphysics", Cambridge University Press 2003 p. 1).

With this train of thought in mind we can return to Isaiah's encouragement to 'Seek the Lord while he may be found, [to] call upon him while he is near.' It should be clear that if you have experienced this death of the God of the philosophers - and it is important to admit that I most certainly have - you cannot seek, let alone find, that which is not and so the Lord is not near and cannot be found.

This thought could clearly be interpreted in a profoundly pessimistic way and many people closely involved with religious communities have heard it thus. This is especially true in its liberal Christian forms, such as our own, which for many good and honourable reasons during the seventeenth and eighteenth-century, wholeheartedly adopted the god of the philosophers.

Now, though I do not deny I, too, at times, have heard Nietzsche's words in this very pessimistic way I have for the most part heard them in the positive context that Wrathall offers. Namely, that today, after the death of the God of the philosophers we may well in fact have an opportunity to open up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and to encounter the divine and the sacred.

An important thing we must now observe is that the dead god of the philosophers was a god who could be *sought* by us because "he" was in principle a universally available and knowable *object* of human knowledge. Such a god was not a god for whom you must wait but was, instead, one who was, for the most part, to be sought out in a highly active, intellectual ways. That seeking has, for the most part, come to an end.

However, the pre-philosophic God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (and for that matter Zeus and the whole Greek pantheon) were gods whom human kind could not seek out through intellectual inquiry. Instead, they were gods who came to us and in their coming shone. The gods/God shone in the deeds of the heroes, heroines and saviours and also in the presence and movements of everything in what, today, we call the "natural world." (There's a real problem with the idea of the "natural world" which I'll just have to leave aside today - but, in brief it is that such usage tends to separate us out from the world and makes nature an object of knowledge in a problematic way.)

Anyway, to encounter these kinds of gods one had no choice but to wait and in consequence one could only seek them - in the strong active sense we used to seek the god of the philosophers - we could only seek them when, in the gods' shining forth, they were clearly near and able to be found. This meant that for our pre-philosophic forebears *waiting* for an absent God had an important and positive purpose in their understanding of the divine.

But, as we know, merely by an act of the will we cannot revive the world (and world-view) of our pre-philosophic forebears (whether of so-called Pagan or Christian persuasion) because the world shows-up to us in radically different ways than it did for them. It is abundantly clear that *our* glimpse of the truth that there is a distinction to be made between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the god of the philosophers is only possible because we are in a time and place that struggles to untangle and comprehend, let alone live fully, either of these views.

Consequently, the only way *we* can proceed is by moving on from where we are today and for me to be able to gesture towards a possible way forward (towards a plausible and attractive contemporary religious faith) we must return now to the phenomenon which roots the season of Advent, namely, that you cannot seek out a child who has not yet been born; instead, you must patiently wait.

But, firstly, why, after the death of the god of the philosophers, might we be willing to take a risk on waiting for something like (and pay attention to the phrase *something like*) the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Wouldn't this at best be just a deranged folly and, at worst, a complete betrayal of our rationalist philosophical tradition? I don't think so - in fact far from it. The contemporary philosopher Iain Thomson (Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of Graduate Studies in Philosophy at the University of New Mexico) helps us see why:


Life is made most meaningful when you respond to things that are independent of you. This is a point that goes back to Kierkegaard who said that if you think all meaning comes from you then you can just take it back, you're a king without a castle, you're a sovereign of a land of nothing. There has to be something in the world that pushes back, that has some force over you or else you'll never experience anything as really mattering to you. (You can see and hear Thomson offer these words in the following very short trailer for the excellent film Being in the World.)


I have to say, though it still pains me to say it (as all genuine confessions do) that it seems to me that in adopting the God of the philosophers our liberal religious and philosophical traditions ended up by making us kings without castles, sovereigns in a land of nothing. Despite the pain of this recognition we should, however, be profoundly grateful that this same philosophical tradition has realised its mistake and affected a necessary if painful coup in heaven and ending the life of the God of the philosophers.

But in the story of the birth of the Christ-child, Emmanuel, God with us, we find a paradigmatic example of what Thomson (and the kind of contemporary philosophy somewhat misnamed as 'Continental  ) talks about - namely, that life is made most meaningful when we respond to things that are independent of us.

Having just spent four days with my wife Susanna's grandson, a year-and-a-half old toddler called Harrison, I'm acutely aware of how children remind us that there is *always* something in the world that pushes back, that has some force over us because we do not control it and which is not merely understandable as physical matter but as something living and meaning-giving - world-making.

As we gaze into a child's eyes we cannot but help experience something as really mattering to us. Harrison's life pushes back at me and that helps me see better what really matters to me and those around me and my life is, in a fundamentally important way, ordered by this pushing back. The story given to me by my culture which helps me notice this in the first place and talk about it with you in a general, corporate way is the Christmas story.

It is vitally important to see and feel, really see and feel, that we could not seek out and choose either of *these* experiences of children which order our lives, give it meaning and make things matter to us. The Christ-child of the Christmas story and Harrison's presence in my life is wholly and mysteriously gifted and, in a real sense, in first encounters I experience the truth of God's words "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways" heard by Isaiah.

We can all understand that at the most primordial level these meaning-gifting things simply come to us (as a culture and individuals within a culture) - we had to wait for them - and that they are not merely self-discovered things. They stop us being Kings without castles and sovereigns in a land of nothing, They come, they are present to, and shine for us for a while, and then they withdraw. Sometimes this process is run through in a way that can be seen by a single human being, sometimes it can only be seen by a long lived entire culture. This withdrawal includes, of course, even our once cherished conceptions of the divine.

When meaning-gifting things withdraw - as all things do - we have no choice but to await for that "something" new, that new meaning-gifting creation which shines for us and which by its light shows us clearly what things matter.

In a time, even during a whole epoch of God's death or withdrawal, we continue to need something that reminds us of the purpose of waiting for a shining forth of something meaning-gifting. We need inspiring and colourful examples that help us model good and hopeful waiting practices and the Biblical text is full of these, not least of all in the stories that run up to the birth of Christ.

This is the kind of faithful Advent waiting I would like to encourage among us. It is a faithful waiting for something that is *like* the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, something that is genuinely Christ-like in appearance. Again I draw your attention to "something like".

The key thing is to find ways to wait, intelligent and alert - always looking for a glimmer of a new shining forth of meaning in our own age. The Magi's did just this kind of waiting - the glimmer they caught was the star, the light they found was the Christ-child. Their old paradigm changed to a new one.

What we will eventually see shining is, by definition, not for any of us to say. We must wait and see - and when we do see, find the courage to go.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

It's the sound - A Remembrance Sunday meditation on the sound of the Merlin engine


It's the sound.

In the case of the song by Chris Wood (see video below - lyric at the bottom of this post) that we've just heard it is, of course, the utterly distinctive sound of the Spitfire and its liquid-cooled, V-12, 27-litre Rolls-Royce Merlin piston engine. This sound is contrasted with one of another kind, 'a land of hope and glory voice an anglo-klaxon over-blown.'

It's the sound.


Chris Wood heard this second kind of sound when in 2009 the far-right British National Party used a Spitfire on its election posters. Woods wrote this song because he felt that in appropriating this symbol they had gone too far and that the Spitfire was one symbol of national identity that he wanted back. (This song is on the excellent album Handmade Life which you can get here.)

It's the sound.

What are we to do with this sound? Is it just a neutral mechanical sound or does it disclose to us something grounding, reliable and hope giving that we should carefully note, especially on this day of Remembrance?

It is possible to raise this question and, in a very limited way answer it, because when we meet together on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday there is an extraordinary collective centring on a "place" - which I am going to call a "clearing" - in which the absence of sound (in the two minutes silence we observe) is contrasted by the presence of sound in the words of this address, our prayers and in our music. Of course, in our services these two elements are always in play but only on this day do we foreground silence to the point where the absence of sound carries a weight that clearly exceeds our usual privileging of sound.

But is it the really the silence that carries the weight, that is privileged? No, once again . . .

It's the sound.

Why? Well, for there to be what we are tempted to call "real" silence, there would have to be nothing and with nothing there could be no gathering together, no remembrance because all that we have called, all that we do call, and all that we will call "real" would be absent. So, in the first instance, I want us to see that it is not the absence of sound that carries the weight, that is privileged, rather it is our recognition that as we approach "it" somehow we brought to a "clearing" where we can notice not only the appearance of sound but, in truth, the appearance of anything at all.

Within the loose religious movement called Celtic spirituality such "places" or "clearings" have evocatively been called "thin" because there we can sense more than we usually do what we have called the divine. In a moment I'll return to this idea of thinness and, at the end, say something more. But firstly we need, briefly, to consider something called "tone". In respect of sounds this concerns the quality of any sound, its timbre and manner of expression and it is clear that Woods' wants us to hear in his second sound a brash over-blown tone that is not present in the sound of the Spitfire. He wants us to experience something of greater worth and trustworthiness in the sound of the Merlin engine that is absent, or at least far, far removed from what is found in the brash "anglo-klaxon" (this is Woods' coinage) sound. Once again . . .

It's the sound.

Now I happen to agree with Woods on this - and I don't doubt that you who are gathered here do too - but I want to push this a little further and see if there might be something more substantive to his and our claim about the worth and value of the tone of a Merlin engine.

Etymology is, as we know, not present meaning but there is something very interesting and useful to be gleaned from noting the etymology of the word "tone." It is derived from the Greek word "tonos" which means, literally, the act of stretching. It is akin with the Greek word "teinein" which means "to stretch" and which, in turn, gives us our English word "thin". All this is, of course, connected with sound because to make a drum you need to stretch tightly over a sound-box a thin animal skin. Once again . . .

It's the sound.

Now we can hold together "tone" and "thinness" I can tentatively suggest why the sound of the Spitfire's Merlin engine might truly be said to be of greater worth and trustworthiness than the "anglo-klaxon" and can tell us a truth by which we can both remember and live well.

Like Chris Woods I recall the many childhood summer days when the sound of a Spitfire emerged from the background sound of life and I was always taken to the thin "place" or "clearing" where being itself emerges. The sound arose - imperceptibly at first, growled around for a while, then withdrew. In it's emerging, it's growling (shining) forth, I was taken, not precisely to the edge of the world - and I'll come back to this thought in a moment - but to the beginning or the worlding of a world. Again . . .

It's the sound.

And it's a sound that today, as an adult, remains as capable of taking me to this "clearing" as it did when I was a child. Only three years ago in late-July I was lying quietly on my back in a secluded sunny glade on Fulbourn Fen when from the quiet of the day with its continuous background sounds of wind, leaves and birds suddenly, again at first almost imperceptibly, there emerged that sound. As it rose to it's growling peak, across the small patch of blue sky above me the Battle of Britain Memorial flight - six Merlin's in the form of a Spitfire, a Hurricane and a Lancaster - flew over. My glimpse of them lasted, of course, only a few seconds leaving the sound slowly withdrew into the background leaving just the present ambient sounds of the wind, the leaves and the birds.

It's the sound.

I'm not, of course, claiming here that this (or any other) sound can exist alone as pure sound. That is clearly nonsense for the sound we are exploring is that, and only that, produced by certain aircraft powered by Merlin engines and it is intimately tied up with an historical event - a brutal world war and the story of a particular people over whose heads the Merlin engine flew.

But for the Merlin engine sound to be itself most truly as this sound any interpretations associated with it must, I think, also be capable of gesturing towards this same "clearing" that is disclosed in the sound - this place at which being and its possibilities are gifted to us, this "clearing" in which we all arise at birth, where we all live for a time, and in which we will all withdraw at our death.

It's this insight that I think Chris Woods has got tentative hold of in his song 'Spitfires'. When Woods interprets the sound we see him speak of six things. Peace (for the Spitfire is an historical warplane not a present one), of the valuing of creative design (the draughtsman's pen), of equality in work which can bring that design forth (the girl's hand upon the lathe - ordinary men and women), of a community's stories and songs (Workers' Playtime) a pragmatic getting on with things (an oily rag or two) and, lastly, freedom from oppression and violence ('hanging a little fascist out to dry' - a line whose tone is the jaunty 'we're not afraid of you' fashion. It most certainly does not carry with it bellicose overtones). In the song all of these things are gathered together and ordered by the sound.

Peace, in the form of the sound of a warplane that no longer kills stands, then, as a reminder of war and, as such, can speak to us powerfully of a way of living that desires that all beings may arise, flourish and fulfil their possibilities before withdrawing again. In a peaceful community which is alert to this arising sound, this being present for a while sound, and this withdrawing sound, all the other things of which Woods sings are bound together and the sound is, in the words of Richard Polt, 'capable of bringing us home to ourselves' showing us 'how to dwell together amid things, making us perceive our own existence as something fresh and strange' (Heidegger: An Introduction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 136). You see . . .

It's the sound.

But, although this sound can shed a certain light on our being (the way we wish to live together and be able to go on) - and so can be said to reveal something - the revealing power of the Merlin's sound is always bound-up with its mysterious arising, growling around and withdrawal and, in its withdrawing, we are momentarily ushered into a "clearing" where we are aware we have come face to face with something deeply mysterious about our world. A mystery that is bound up with the fact that we are given life at all, that there is something and not nothing. It is in this "clearing" that we can most powerfully remember all lives lived and lives still to be lived because our world begins here.

But the "anglo-klaxon" interpretation of the sound doesn't gift us with such open possibilities of flourishing. It tells us from the start in an attenuated impoverished way what's what and what always should be what - it drowns out the complex sound of life and its manifold flourishing and replaces it with a deafening monotone - it tries to convince us that the sound of the Spitfire is fixed and ever-present. In short, it lies about the sound and it's own talking about the sound and never ushers us to a "clearing" where we confront the mystery of life - it never gifts.

The anglo-klaxon appropriation of the sound of the Merlin engine closes us off from the mystery of life and tries to make us believe that we are self-contained and self-sufficient; Chris Woods' appropriation of the sound in the song instead opens us up to the deep mystery of life (that there is something and not nothing) and discloses to us that we are gifted with life in a wholly mysterious way.

Is this why the sound of the Merlin engine has had such a special place in this country? Is it also a place where we can "root" the phenomenon of the increasing popularity of the two-minutes silence on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday?

It's the sound.

Before I finish I feel it is very important to say clearly that we need not experience this thin "place" or "clearing" to which the sound of the Merlin takes us as a boundary between two worlds - our own and the divine. It is important because, as I said in the introduction to the Lamentations of Jeremiah (which we sang earlier) our age has lost a sense of the sacred and we need to regain it. However, we cannot re-appropriate or revive Jeremiah's world-view and (theistic) understanding of the divine but must, instead, seek a disclosure of the sacred that can be gifted by our own world. In our own time and place it doesn't feel right to say we are "surrounded" by (or "grounded in") another silent world - what one medieval mystic called the 'cloud of unknowing' in which we discover God as a pure entity. All I can honestly say is that for me the "clearing" is the place and time where in my life I experience God not as another kind of being but simply as the giftedness of being that always discloses to us a world. In the kind of "clearing" opened up by the sound of the Merlin engine the world always and only begins - the arising, growling around (shining) and withdrawing of the Merlin's sound does not lead us to another world but always reintroduces us to the mystery and creative possibilities of *this* one. What better remembrance can there be than one which always brings us to the beginning - to life and to light?

It's the sound . . . (click on this link to hear the sound of a Supermarine Spitfire Mk2a).

(The address concluded by playing this sound and its fading into the ambient sound of singing birds).

*****

Spitfires by Chris Woods
(From A Handmade Life)

Sometimes in our Kentish summer we still see spitfires in the sky - it's the sound.

We run outside to catch a glimpse as they go growling by - it's the sound.

There goes another England, sacrifice and derring do and a victory roll or two.

From the drawing board to the hand of the factory girl upon the lathe - it's the sound.

It's ordinary men and women with an ordinary part to play.

'Cause theirs was a gritty England, 'Workers'Playtime' got them through and an oily rag or two.

But sometimes I hear the story told in a voice that's not my own - it's the sound.

It's a land of hope and glory voice an anglo-klaxon over-blown - it's the sound.

Because theirs is another England, it hides behind the red, white and blue - 'Rule Britannia'? No thank-you.

Because when I hear them merlin engines in the white days of July - it's the sound.

They sing the song of how they hung a little fascist out to dry.


Thursday, 10 November 2011

At last - the freedom of the open road!

After a cold followed by a chest infection and all while with a fair bit of work to do has meant that I haven't been out on the bicycle for nearly four weeks. That's ridiculous (and not good) so when I woke up today on my day off and saw that there was going to be no rain and perhaps even some sunshine I made a sandwich, a flask of tea, unstabled the Pashley Guv'nor and set out into the fens. A wonderful autumn day it turned out to be. Here are a few photos.

Going north out of Cambridge - the Cam on the left, Stourbridge Common on the right 

Looking across Stourbridge Common

Crossing the road to Fen Ditton along the A1033

One of the entrances to the park at Bottisham Hall

The same entrance with me (looking well washed-out) and the Pashley Guv'nor

Looking south over White Fen on the Lodes Way

Looking north-west up Swaffham Bulbeck Lode

Pylons crossing White Fen

Sun on an oak tree on White Fen

Sunday, 6 November 2011

What else, on earth, is the church for? - A statement of support offered to the OccupyLSX protesters

As I mentioned last week five members and attenders of the Memorial Church (Unitarian) in Cambridge went down to show our support for the OccupyLSX protesters at St. Paul's. In the photo, left to right, are Sonja Klinsky, Irish Sirmons, Ryan Sirmons (United Church of Christ [USA] ministry student on placement this year at the Memorial Church), Claire Henderson Davis and myself.

Claire Henderson Davis prepared a personal statement which she gave to both the BBC and to the protesters themselves. Claire and I also had a very brief interview with the BBC about her statement and the general situation as it then was. The footage was not used but we hardly expected it would! Still we are glad to have been able to show our support to the protesters and we were very kindly welcomed by them. The situation has, of course, considerably improved since last Sunday as the Cathedral and the City of London Corporation have now withdrawn their immediate threat of eviction but I think Claire's words remain powerful and I recommend them to you. If you are minded to come we'll meet, as usual, for our conversation in the church hall behind the church on Emmanuel Road Cambridge at 7.30 for 8pm to talk about the issues Claire raised.

Click on this link to read Claire's statement in pdf form.




Saturday, 5 November 2011

One procession - countless lines of becoming

Readings: Joshua 24:1-13 and from Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry

(Counterpoint Press, Washington DC 2000,  pp. 151-152)

My grandson, who is four years old, is now following his father and me over some of the same countryside that I followed my father and grandfather over. When his time comes, my grandson will choose as he must, but so far all of us have been farmers. I know from my grandfather that when he was a child he too followed his father in this way, hearing and seeing, not knowing yet that the most essential part of his education had begun. And so in this familiar spectacle of a small boy tagging along behind his father across the fields, we are part of a long procession, five generations of which I have seen, issuing out of generations lost to memory, going back, for all I now, across previous landscapes and the whole history of farming. Who knows the meaning, the cultural significance, and the practical value of this rural family’s generational procession across its native landscape? The answer is not so simple as the question: No one person ever will know all the answer. My grandson certainly does not know it. And my son does not, though he has positioned himself to learn some of it, should he be so blessed. I am the one who (to some extent) knows, though I know also that I cannot tell it to anyone living. I am in the middle now between my grandfather and my father, who are alive in my memory, and my son and my grandson, who are alive in my sight. If my son, after thirty more years have passed, has the good pleasure of seeing his own child and grandchild in that procession, then he will know something like what I now know. This living procession through time and place is the record by which such knowledge survives and is conveyed. When the procession ends, so does the knowledge. 

*****

Back in June I introduced you to an idea from the British anthropologist Tim Ingold who said that:

'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 universe] and producer [of the world], traces paths of the world's becoming in the very course of contributing to it's ongoing renewal' ("Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description" p. 12).

This morning I want to bring Ingold's idea together with Wendell Berry's words about procession that we heard in our reading. Berry's words have long seemed to be important and I’ve explored them a little with you before.

They are important because they speak to the key insight that the very possibility of us knowing anything about our world and our place in it is grounded or rooted in always-already being in a procession of some sort or another. It is this procession, of family, church and wider culture and cultures that gifts us a world of intelligibility - a world in which things make sense, have use, worth and  value. As Berry realises this 'living procession through time and place *is* the record by which such knowledge survives and is conveyed' and 'when the procession ends, so does the knowledge.'

This is why I think that having a clear sense not only of knowing (which is a kind of abstract knowledge about the matter) what it is to belong to a tradition but also an actual confident living or embodiment of a tradition (an embodied knowledge) - in our case a contemporary expression of liberal Christianity, is essential. Of course, I know only too well that tradition is often used simply as an anchor to hold us still when we could, and perhaps should, be moving but we must remember that it is also the only thing that gifts us with references (language) that help us orientate within and creatively deal with the world and bring about changes that we can experience as meaningful and healthy.

But one problem with the word "tradition" is that it seems to imply a wholly static unity and/or shape - something way too fixed. But this is not actually the case because any tradition is in truth an incredibly complex living process which weaves together all our own lines of becoming in a way that is always capable of creating and foregrounding radically new patterns.

In a moment I'm going to use a well known Biblical story to unfold this thought a little further but before we get there we need to be alert to a potential problem with Berry’s image. It is so easy to place in our imaginations Berry's characters one behind the other in a neat line – Berry’s son and grandson walking behind and, before him, once in fact and now in memory, his own father and grandfather. Here we have a version of tradition understood as overly ordered and simple.

But, as any of you who have gone on such family-esque walks will know, for the most part, it is formed of a wildly chaotic gaggle of interweaving lines. Now bunched up, now spread out, now broken up, now regrouped and all stages in-between. Someone notices this and not that, another stops to look at that but passes this by, all before regrouping later in the day in the kitchen for a cup of tea and some cake to recount the day's procession.

I’m quite convinced that Berry is aware of this complexity and his writing as a whole clearly suggest this is the case. The point we need to be clear about is that consciously to be part of a genuine living procession is to be able to notice (from time to time) the ebb and flow, the different speeds and different things noticed by the procession's members, the pushes and the pulls and to see how, despite this, you are still able meaningfully to say your family, your church, your culture *has* traced a certain "single" procession across the landscape.

And this is why I am such a big fan of the Bible, our tradition's central, normative text that tells our religious culture's foundational story of its journey across the landscape during a certain period of its history. But it does this by preserving an incredibly complex weave of traces. When you read it as a whole, as a single book, it preserves the complexity of a chaotic but creative family walk across a landscape. From time to time there have been - and still are attempts to - produce books with titles like "The Unity of . . ." - now fill in the gaps, the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses), the Old Testament, the New Testament - whatever. But as anyone who has read all the books that make up the whole text will know this is, thankfully, not possible. The most obvious illustration of this that you will be familiar with is to remind you that we have four gospels, not one, and that the four of them, though they cohere in many places and senses, trace very different lines of becoming to each other. As I have occasionally reminded you - there is even a clear line of becoming that one can trace through the texts which leads in a clearly atheist direction (cf. my address on Christianity in Atheism and the work of Ernst Bloch). But neither this line, nor any other single trace or line of becoming, can speak meaningfully about the whole procession.

Today I'd like to bring before you the story that helped me see this. It is a story which attempts to recount the most famous procession in the Bible, namely the Israelite people's journey which begins in the land beyond the Euphrates, continues for a time in slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh and then, after further wanderings in the wilderness, brings them to a time of temporary freedom in the Promised Land across the River Jordan.

In the Book of Joshua, just before his death Joshua delivers a farewell address to the Israelites (23–24) to sum up his people's story so far and to make it as grand and impressive as possible. Make no mistake - this is a greatest hits moment and, like all greatest hits albums you'd be mad to leave off it one of your most famous Number Ones. Now I don't think the author of Joshua was mad so I'm excluding that possibility but, my question to you (and to him were I able to question him), is why on earth did you leave out . . .

Well, did you spot the missing "Number One"?

Well, it is only what has become central to our understanding of in what consists basic human morality - namely the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, the ten commandments! It would be harder to imagine a more important event to omit. It's like releasing a Queen Greatest Hits album without having Bohemian Rhapsody on it only on a globally important cultural scale.

My point is not flippant because, as I said a moment ago, you'd be mad to leave off a Greatest Hits album your biggest Number One and I said that I didn't think the writer was mad. No, the rather more striking and helpful conclusion - one that fits the evidence - is that here is a trace, a line of becoming, that simply never had a grand moment of law giving upon a mountain.

I'm too much a product of Christian Humanist and Enlightenment culture not to be interested in what may or may not have been the actual historical events that underlie the complex religious story we inherit and this story hints at the possibility that the giving of the law on Mount Sinai is a creative and wonderful fiction.

But for me, on this occasion at least, this isn't really the most important thing I want to bring before you. What is more interesting today is the glimpse we catch here of the moment when the redactors or editors of the Biblical text as we have it today were - to return to an earlier image - at the end of a day's walk around the kitchen table with tea and cake and trying to tell a story from out of their own records of a single procession. They thankfully let through their hands - and its by far from being the only place on the OT and in the NT remember the Gospels - a reminder that there always were contested versions of what happened on the most famous part of their family's procession across the landscape.

By accident more than by design we have a veritable gaggle of a book. Design would, we know, have liked to tell of a single procession, a single line, a single story and to have imposed upon later history a rigid conception of 'tradition'. It has certainly been tried and there always remains the danger of further attempts.

In our own liberal tradition we have also been tempted to do something similar with the text/s by producing many edited shorter versions only containing the bits we thought were good/right/true - Thomas Jefferson's Bible is one good example as is the early twentieth century publication by the Lindsey Press of the "Golden Treasury of the Bible." We did this because we, too, wanted a simple, single true story - a clear single procession from the "creation" to us.

But this is to fail to see how life (tradition) always actually unfolds and it is to fail to see that by accident we have been gifted with a text that, when we keep it together in its gaggly contradictory completeness and take time to notice this it can remind us, again and again of the countless paths of becoming that make up our (and any) procession. We should keep it close to hand and in our minds precisely because it does *not* cohere and is contradictory. The roots of our liberal approach to life are grounded in this kind of understanding of the Biblical text and when we recognise this it remains a powerful tool for us in our task of promoting understanding between different traditions and beliefs.