Monday, 26 December 2011

'Look, that is what I mean by God' - A Christmas Day meditation

In the year I graduated (2000) from theological college and became a minister in Cambridge, the National Gallery in London held an exhibition curated by Neil MacGregor called 'Seeing Salvation' illustrating the ways Jesus has been represented in western art. I saw there many wondrous things but the work to which I have returned again and again in the intervening twelve years is "The Nativity at Night" an Early Netherlandish painting of about 1490 by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. It is believed that it was painted for private devotional use and that the empty space by the crib-side in the central foreground is there so you can yourself join the holy family, assorted angels and ox and donkey in pondering the Christ-child.

(You can view a high-quality photo of this painting and zoom in to see detail at the National Gallery's excellent website. Just click on this hyper-link) 

Everytime I have sat in that empty space in front of the actual painting or, of course, more often in front of the reproduction I have of it, I am aware that Geertgen is saying to me, 'Look, that is what I mean by God.'

But for someone like me who has grown to maturity in a secular, religiously skeptical and hyper-rationalist culture I've often recognised that I've never been entirely sure what to do with or make of this claim. Given my Christian upbringing I've always been hugely sympathetic and drawn towards an engagement with this claim but it's always been hard. In fact I would say it's been the hardest project I've ever undertaken. But, just as I intuitively felt it was worth persevering against all the difficulties and odds to learn how to become a jazz musician some similar feeling has continued to allow me to trust Jesus' promise that if I ask well it shall be given to me; that if I continue to seek I will find; that if I continue to knock the door will be opened unto me (Matthew 7:7-8).

However, for all this, a couple of years ago I had to admit that, for the most part, I didn't feel I'd ever really got close to what Geertgen (and, of course, the Christian tradition as a whole) was and is pointing at. Yes, there is always a child to be found in the crib, you can see him there in the picture and hear about him in the gospels just as I can, but somehow I felt that, in the deep way I sense Geertgen painted his picture and thus made his claim, in truth I have always found the crib empty. I remember well the poignant and actually quite painful moment when I understood myself as the protagonist in R. S. Thomas' poem "Lost Christmas":

He is alone, it is Christmas.
Up the hill go three trees, the three kings.
There is a star also
Over the dark manger. But where is the Child?

Pity him. He has come far
Like the trees, matching their patience
With his. But the mind was before
Him on the long road. The manger is empty.

Someone from my cultural background seems, perhaps, doomed to repeat this journey up the long road to an empty crib because I really don't want to let go of my mind, not least of all because I've been taught that through its actions I will find an (perhaps the) assured way by which I will gain knowledge of all that is good, true and beautiful.

I will not, need not, go into the details but over the two years a sustained reflection upon both what it is to be a jazz musician and always already to be experiencing the world as a kind of skeptical Christian have disclosed to me that it is simply not true that the mind alone need ever go before me in my attempts better to encounter the world. (In fact it's rarely the case that one ever does this but one certainly thinks so!)

I realise that it is possible to proceed to the crib with my looking going before me allow my thinking, my mind, to stand a little behind - and a little more relaxed and chilled. (I have in view here something like the activity pointed to in §66 of Wittgenstein's 'Philosophical Investigations' where he says 'don't think, but look!') The result is that I feel tantalisingly close (in the way one can sense warmth from an, as yet unseen, source of heat) to what it is that old Geertgen was pointing at when he made his painting for me to sit in front of - that source of hope (warmth) that is signified by the shining Christ-child.

I feel I can best help you see what I have seen, or at least glimpsed (sensed), by reminding you of a vital distinction our culture nearly always blurs - that there is a world of difference between being and beings. One very simple way of seeing the difference between them is to consider a genus and we'll start with beings.

A genus is, of course, a class, kind, or group marked by common characteristics or by one common characteristic. So we can explain, with real clarity and definiteness, the genus animal by pointing to, say, that ox and that donkey in the painting. Once I've done this for someone they'll be able to go out into the world and recognise all oxes and donkeys whenever they see them, even when there are quite marked differences in, say, colour and size.

That this is so obviously a helpful way to think in many situations means that it is incredibly tempting to think that when Geertgen points to the Christ-child and says 'Look, that is what I mean by God' he is doing something similar - i.e., he is making some claim that God is like this little being only writ unimaginably large. And here we have before us mapped out a route (the long uphill road) to the pervasive idea that God is a necessary, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal, immutable, self-existent, self-sufficient and infinite being, nothing less than the highest genus of which we are but a very dim shadow. It's certainly how we have come to understand the words of the writer of Genesis that we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).

However, for all kinds of reasons, some of which I have explored with you in other addresses, this philosophical understanding of God which for centuries has underpinned our whole culture (and which includes most forms of Christianity) has become implausible. In short this God of the philosophers - in which our mind most assuredly goes before us - is dead. If Geertgen is pointing to such an ultimate being when he says "Look, that is what I mean by God" then it is no wonder that year after year people like me find the crib empty.

But what if Geertgen were trying to point at something else? What if he were trying to point at *being* rather than beings or, in the case of Jesus, one special ultimate being? As I said earlier there is a world of difference between being and beings.

Think back to my illustration of the ox and the donkey - I point to them and the genus is revealed to you clearly and definitely. Leaving this building - should you have come in not knowing anything about oxes and donkeys - you'll be able to go out and easily recognise individual examples of the genus when and wherever you encounter them.

However, As Magda King notes, to explain the concept of *being* we would in vain point to an ox or donkey and say "Look, that is what I mean by *is*" (in King's illustration she uses the examples of a horse and the sun but it's true, of course, about any being or entity to which we can point). This simple but striking example reveals how very mysterious to us is the most basic thing in our world - that things are, that there is anything at all.

So my question this Christmas Day is what happens if you sit in front of this painting and imagine that Geertgen is trying to get us to notice the extraordinary mystery of being itself? The extraordinary possibility that underlies our whole world and which freely gifts us everything - which allows anything to show up to us in the world and to shine for us with meaning and worth - just as in Geertgen's painting the Christ-child shines and lights up a whole new world of possibilities. The new world of possibilities which Geertgen sees lit up by the Christ-child is, amongst other things, a world in which there is disclosed a new style of being, a new way of being-in-the-world which can now speak and act out of an understanding of God/the divine as something self-emptying, self-giving, prepared to make itself known not as the gods of old obsessed with power, dominion and violence over all but as a creative, unfolding event; the lived, vulnerable  life of loving service in which are blessed the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those persecuted for righteousness' sake (Matthew 5:1-12).

There is so much more I would like to say about this, so much more I feel that needs to be said, but it's simply beyond my ability at this moment in time and always will be because it's about living abundantly and authentically the life you are gifted with in the most compassionate and charitable (i.e. caritas - love) way possible. It's about a life in which we never ARE (a being) but are always BECOMING (an ongoing event).

In the end all I think we should do this happy and joyous morn is to see this new style of being continuing to appear in our world and then, like Mary, keep all those things and ponder them in our hearts (Luke 2:19) so we might see what shows up in its light, in the shining light of this child - a light Geertgen so magnificently and movingly depicts.

But what I can say this morning, and with it I'll conclude, is that for me I sense that the crib is longer empty and I am called to point at the Christ-child and say 'Look, that is what I mean by God.'

Happy Christmas.


The piece of music I played immediately after giving this address was by the pianist Nils Frahm called "Less" from his wonderful new album "Felt". It seemed an appropriate piece to ponder the Christ-child in Geertgen's painting. You'll have to play it through decent speakers as there are some wonderful (necessary) low frequencies.

A postscript. My friend and colleague Jochen Dallas (a Lutheran pastor) sent me a card in which he included some words from one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's meditations on Christmas that seem worth adding here:

We are talking about the birth of a child, not the revolutionary act of a strong man, not the breathtaking discovery of a sage, not the pious act of a saint. It really goes above all understanding: What kings and statesmen, philosophers and artists, founders of religions and moral teachers vainly strive for, now comes about through a new born child.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

. . . a little red-winged bird, shining like a burning bush, singing like a scripture verse, everything is holy now - Third Sunday in Advent

Readings: Luke 1:26-35 and Peter Mayer's song Holy Now (- Youtube video below from the album Million Year Mind)

Since at the end of this address and the whole service Pete Shepherd and I will play some jazz I'll start with an oft-quoted jazz claim which is that, when you reach a certain level of competence, in an improvisation there are no wrong notes to play. Joe Magnarelli, a contemporary hard-bop trumpeter, said this: 'I think a wrong note is when you give up on that note. When you give up on it then it’s wrong but, because there’s no wrong notes, really, there’s no wrong notes.'

He means that, in the hands of a mature, experienced player, if you commit to a note in the right way it can always be made to work, somehow. (None of this means every player achieves absolute success here - even the greatest.)

But, as my own jazz students display only too well, when they begin to learn how to play the world is full of wrong notes. Armed with the hopeful maxim that there are no wrong notes they pick up their instruments, play a phrase over a chord, only for it immediately to resound with handfuls of wince-making wrong notes. But, they puzzle, if it is true that there are no wrong notes how come they produce such a painful cacophony? That there is no instant access to this freedom is a painful discovery to make - more painful even than the playing of wrong notes.

And so, for those who are determined to push on to the promised freedom, the difficult but necessary process now begins as, with them, I start to lay-out certain structures of the language of jazz that, when understood and embodied by a player, begins to indicate to them in what might consist the possibility that there might be such a thing as the rightness of wrong notes.

This 'in what consists the possibility of the rightness of wrong notes' I take to be analogous to the oft made liberal religious claim that it is possible to understand that 'every thing is holy now.' But in order to unfold this thought in a meaningful way I need to ground my comments in our reading from the Gospel of Luke which is known as "the Annunciation".

The trajectory of the whole Christian narrative, when understood as something radically open-ended and unfolding, is one which clearly moves from heaven to earth. It is important to see that our present-day secular, pluralistic, post-denominational and post-Christendom society, and our particular religious and political challenges in it, can be understood to be part of this open-ended and unfolding narrative. As I suggested last week I think we are always being unwound (Verwindung) into our present world - a process which contains (as Gianni Vattimo notes) no sense of loosing a connection with a past that, not only still has much to say to us, but which actually makes it possible in the first place for us to live in and reflect upon a world that shows up to us as intelligible and containing meaning and worth.

This earthward, self-giving trajectory of the Divine is first glimpsed by our culture in the creation stories of the Old Testament but it begins to reach a particular focus in the New Testament stories of Advent when Mary is told by the angel that she will conceive and become the mother of Jesus, the Son of God. In Matthew, of course, this trajectory is explicitly named as earthward when it is proclaimed that one of the titles by which Jesus is to be known is 'Emmanuel' which, in Hebrew, means 'God with us'. As the Gospel narratives unfold through to the crucifixion and resurrection we find a growing sense that the community which arose and flourished afterwards, to use St Paul's wonderful phrase, now understands itself as 'the body of Christ' - i.e. humans were now, themselves, sons and daughters of God (Romans 7:4, I Corinthians 10:16 and 12:27, Ephesians 4:12). In this embodied idea the beach-head into this world was affected and, in the two great commandments so stressed by Jesus, namely to love God and neighbour, the community begins also to understand that we find God in our neighbour - in the other who is different from us. As our secular culture has grown and added to its world-view powerful scientific paradigms, the world has increasingly begun to show up to us in a way which means we can no longer separate anything out of the whole. Everything is our neighbour, our brother and sister.

In consequence, we may say that this Christian trajectory, is the process by which our secular North Atlantic cultures have come both to feel and try to live the possibility that YES!, somehow, everything can be understood as holy - things, animals, plants and people. This liberating insight lies, of course, at the heart of what a church such as this considers to be its Gospel.

But this wonderful Gospel, which expands the conception of the holy to the whole world, is one that we know easily turns into something very different indeed. And we are all familiar with the problematic and destructive dynamic which means that whenever the value and worth of everything becomes simply the same as everything else we discover that it is increasingly difficult to decide what is of particular relevance to us in the world. It is all too easy to find that it no longer matters to us whether we choose this thing or that thing because, well, in terms of worth and meaning, they are simply the same. We can quickly begin to inhabit a world in which nothing in particular (no thing nor any way of life) shines out and shows up to us as particularly worthwhile and worth living for.

So how can we, as a liberal religious community, both keep alive the Gospel that everything is holy without at the same time loosing a sense of what particularly counts for us as life and meaning-givingly holy?

As a minister one thing is clear, namely, that it is wholly insufficient merely to proclaim either to ourselves or to the wider world that "everything is holy now" without, at the same time, living ourselves and offering to others a coherent religious practice that allows such an insight to be shown by us in our words and deeds and, therefore, passed on to those who chose to follow us.

As a jazz musician it seems to me that here we find very little - perhaps no - difference to my need to show my jazz students that there are no wrong notes by insisting they practice arpeggios, scales and phrases in which some notes show up as right and others as wrong. This practice is, of course, the key thing.

By the same token if you truly desire the freedom that the trajectory of the Gospel promises (at least the Gospel as I have outlined it here) namely, that everything is holy, then it seems to me that one has no choice but to commit to practising something specific (analogous to arpeggios, scales and phrases) in which some things will shine as being more holy than others which, in a church standing in the liberal Christian tradition such as this, is to engage in certain practices like an ongoing prayerful meditation upon the Biblical narratives and their relationship to our contemporary world, taking part in church services such as this one, the evening meditation service or our occasional communion services (the next of which is on Christmas Eve) or in our ongoing series of Wednesday evening conversations.

With this point in mind I can conclude by turning directly to Peter Mayer's song 'Holy Now' which we heard earlier.

It seems to me that the particular brilliance of Mayer's lyric is found in that it shows this freeing process at work. Everything is, as he says, holy now, but notice how he shows what this means by keying 'everything' to the fact that certain particular things have shown up for us in the context of our meaning giving Christian narrative as being especially holy, in the case of this song bread, wine and water. The song encapsulates the matter in the lines found in the final verse when he sees

. . . a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head

The little red-winged bird (a symbol of 'everything') is now recognisable and expressible as holy only because it is possible to say that it shines LIKE a burning bush, or that it sings LIKE a scripture verse.

The burning bush and the scripture verse when they are rooted in a lived religious context are precisely the kinds of things that help us see in what consists the holiness of this little bird and, by extension, all the other things in the world. It's the same process that, in jazz, allows an experienced player, to reveal in what consists the rightness of wrong notes.

But when we play jazz, we don't play all the notes all the time and we do not live in a blissed out world of total right-note-ness but in a world which allows first this note, now this one to show up and shine as the right one, here and now. How notes are right in the jazz waltz we'll play in a moment is different from the way the notes will show up as right in the ballad we'll play at the end.

Likewise, when we are living fully a religious life we don't live in a blissed out world of total everything-is-holy-now but in a world which allows first this bird, now this flower to show up and shine as the right one, here and now.

In both cases, in music and religion, this possibility for every note being the right one or everything being holy is keyed to a practice in which certain things show up as especially right and holy.

When we practise our practices like this the miracle is that we find we are no longer living in a world half-there, a world that's merely Heaven's second rate hand me down, but right in the heart of the kingdom of Heaven, right here right now.

Keeping as especially holy, Sundays and other days and times when we celebrate events such as Mary's Annunciation and the birth of her child, Emmanuel, God with us, are precisely the keys which gives our North Atlantic culture access this kingdom and its liberating law of love which enables the possibility that, in its own (right) time and place, everything in this miracle of a world can come to shine for us as holy.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Steep and lofty cliffs and a dumb-struck priest - Second Sunday in Advent

One of the stories that is told at this time of year has always puzzled me, primarily because I never knew what to do with it. It's the story we heard earlier of the priest Zechariah being struck dumb in the temple by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:5–24; 59–64).

At least as I was taught the story it was primarily to be understood as an example of piqued, divine power - Zechariah doesn't believe God's messenger so, taking umbrage, God uses his power to teach the poor man a lesson for his lack of trust by shutting him up until he realises the error of his ways. It's an unattractive reading and is one that I've long left aside as unhelpful.

I've come to feel that a more fruitful way of entering this story can be found when you take the position that its author had noticed something resonate in their own imagination which, in turn, helped them notice something important about what it is to be a human being in the world. In penning his story Luke was, perhaps then, simply trying to help his readers notice the same thing, i.e. this resonance. We may suggest that Luke attempted this by giving this resonance a semblance of objective reality - in this case the story of Zechariah being struck dumb in the temple. The apparently literal descriptive elements of Luke's story are, though a necessary part of its telling (after all it's what makes it *this* story and not another) these literal descriptive elements are not precisely the *point* of the story.

Some of you will recall that I've tried to illustrate this thought before by using as an example some lines from the beginning of William Wordsworth's poem 'Tintern Abbey'. I'm very indebted to the British philosopher Michael McGhee for this helpful insight.

. . . once again
do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs
that on a wild secluded scene impress
thoughts of a more deep seclusion.

The important thing to see is that Wordsworth is not writing a poem the point of which is a mere description of the so-called real physical facts of 'steep and lofty cliffs' in a 'secluded scene' but, instead, offering us a poem in which these things somehow correspond to, or resonate with, a state of mind he is experiencing - those 'thoughts of a more deep seclusion'. Wordsworth's hope is that, if he is successful, then his readers' minds and imaginations will also experience this resonance and there will be a correspondence between author, reader and, of course, the steep and lofty cliff in a secluded scene. The consequence of this is a possibility that there can arise amongst us a new collective reality which helps us continue to encounter the ever-changing and unfolding world as meaningful and intelligible.

Now it may be the case that Luke's story had some basis in actual historical facts that could be described in fashion similar to steep and lofty cliffs - i.e. once upon a time, a priest somewhere did tarry in a temple and come out dumb and later, on regaining his voice, speak of an angel of the Lord and give his child an unexpected name. You can clearly describe all these things but if this description - this semblance of reality - is all you see then this would be to miss the point which is to feel the resonances that it set up in the author's imagination and which he wanted to share with his readers.

Alas, it is has always been far too easy to lose this sense of semblance and to allow our thinking and pondering about these kinds of stories and all kinds of other aesthetic ideas and images to degenerate into a form of naive theological realism.

When we do succumb to this temptation we can end up with so pretty problematic literalistic readings and I'm sure I do not need to rehearse a list of them here.

Before we move on we must be clear about one important thing. There is, however, no way we can ever know for sure that what might resonate in our imaginations today is the same thing that resonated in the imagination of the author - whether it be Wordsworth or Luke. It wasn't possible in any assured way amongst their contemporaries but to us, two centuries or two millennia later, it should be clear that both of these authors' worlds are radically different from our own. The physical things they describe - steep and lofty cliffs, seclusion, a ruined abbey, a temple, a priest, an angel - were all woven together in quite different, networks of belonging and understanding about the nature of the world than that we have today.

In short I think it is pointless to worry about whether the resonances we may feel today about either the poem or Luke's story are the same as those felt by Wordsworth, Luke and their contemporaries.

At this point we'll leave Wordsworth and concentrate upon this particular Advent story of Luke's and ask is there something to be seen in this story which sets up a resonance in us such that we might be taught a lesson useful to our own age and circumstances?

I think the answer is 'Yes' and that it's related to the fact that we seem to be in an age and culture which feels like it is on the cusp in many many ways.

The present financial and political crisis is one looming example of this - we feel that we are on the cusp of desperately needing new financial and political structures to order our society. Another example is the beginnings of a feeling that we are on the cusp of a needing a new scientific paradigm to order our understanding of the physical world. Lastly, there has been what is for many the surprising return of religion to the sphere of public discourse and it's happened in a way that makes us all feel we are in desperate need for a paradigm shift in our personal and corporate understandings of religious faith and praxis.

Feeling "on the cusp" makes many (perhaps most) of us somewhat anxious. We'd either like the old ways to remain and return to a certain stability or, if we are a little more adventurous, we are impatient to get things over with and rush into the new paradigm, the new world-view, way or style of being now.

I think most of us have a sense that many of the old world-views really aren't cutting it and that in important ways they are broken and need to be revisited and re-imagined. But the perennial truth of the matter is that first glimpses of every new way or style of being in the world always appears in our own present time, within our present world-views. This means that we are forced to try to talk about new political, financial, scientific and religious paradigms using the languages of the old because that's all we have.

From time to time, however, at those moments when we intimate most strongly what the new paradigm might be like we find to our frustration, and perhaps horror, that we run out of all adequate words. We find ourselves reduced either to silence or to its noisy, verbal equivalence which is to begin to talk in strange and incomprehensible tongues as we try to force our old language almost to breaking point.

We have to try to do if we are to help those who have no glimpse of the new paradigm glimpse it themselves so as to gain a sense of why we feel it is so important - we have no choice but to do this with language they, and we, already know. We find that we are only slowly unwound from within our tradition/language into a new understanding. (Jonathan Lear explores a similar thought in his book Radical Hope about the Crow Indian tribe.)

Now, if we turn to look at old Zechariah is not his situation something like our own and does it not resonate with us and our present condition?

There he is, a senior figure in his field and completely embedded in a particular world of ancient and well-tried practices but in a time of great ferment and change. It seems not unreasonable to imagine that the circumstances in his world forced him to spend time thinking through the problems and issues of his day and, like us, was finding things to be a little rickety, a little "on the cusp". Alone in the sanctuary of the Lord he would certainly have the space and quiet to think deeply on these matters and to imagine a different way and style of being in the world. We may imagine, too, that it is likely that in such a place of contemplation - a kind of laboratory - that he could have experienced a powerful vision of a new way or style of belonging - given by Luke in his story the form of the angel Gabriel. That vision suddenly showed up the world to him in a new light. Seeing such a vision so suddenly is it any wonder that he was rendered speechless? His old words and old practices just couldn't do the new vision justice.

All he could do, in his silence or perhaps at other times in some garbled attempts at coherent speech, was bear public witness to the fact that the world could, given the right conditions, begin to show up differently to others too. But, as is appropriate to the theme of Advent, any new collective adoption of a new way or style of being requires some kind of patient waiting.

Nine months later his wife Elizabeth finally bears a child. In the Christian narrative this child is, of course, not himself the new way but just part of the unwinding into it. At the child's circumcision family and friends - living firmly in the old paradigm - want to call the child Zechariah after its father. After all Zechariah and his role represented the old ways at their best so why should his child not be given such a venerable name? But no, Elizabeth, who as the child's mother has been an intimate part of the emergence into the world of this new paradigm, knows the new name, it is to be "John". All present turn to Zechariah, they give him something to write upon and he writes "His name is John." Immediately his lips are freed, somehow, everyone present  is given something of the new way of talking about the world that was impossible but a short time before.

It seems to me that today we are so like Zechariah in so many ways. The resonance is, I think, palpable.

We see before us a timely reminder that change into a new style of being, a new language, is always a process of slow unwinding that proceeds one word at a time. Like a child a new language, a new style of being, is never given to us fully formed, it grows and, like all growing things, we have to be patient not only for its birth but also about its growth and development.

It doesn't matter, as I've already said, that we cannot know whether this is the resonance Luke felt and wanted to pass on to us. We only need be thankful that the universe - which includes texts like this - seems to be able to gift us an infinite number of ways of speaking and being. As our opening hymn said in traditional language: "The Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his word."

Friday, 2 December 2011

Someone has just asked how can I, reasonably and conscientiously, remain a self-avowed Christian and Unitarian minister when I have basically embraced atheism? - An answer . . .

A few days ago an anonymous author posted a question on my last blog entry Why wait - and what on earth for? An Advent meditation on meaning-gifting and the world pushing back:

Anonymous said...
It's probably been said a dozen times before on here, but how can you reasonably and conscientiously remain a self-avowed Christian and Unitarian minister when you have basically embraced atheism? I'm sure you have a very intellectual, flowery answer but if you no longer experience the call of God - and have adopted a kind of humanism - then you should perhaps walk that path rather than try grafting it to the Christian path.

Anon. is right in thinking that this question has been explored before on this blog (not least of all here) but it seems worthwhile, to me at least, to take another pass over the matter. I'm grateful for the opportunity, not least of all because it's helpful to keep revisiting these difficult issues. So, here we go . . .

Dear Anon,

You begin by asking how I can "reasonably and conscientiously remain a self-avowed Christian and Unitarian minister" when I have "basically embraced atheism?"

Well, the absolutely essential thing to note is I have embraced the recognition that the *God of the philosophers* is dead. My atheism relates, therefore, to this God and not, as my last address clearly states, the God who is *something like* the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I'll return to this thought later on.

You then move to an intimation that I "no longer experience the call of God". Well, this is not the case and a little bit of autobiography is now required to show this.

My own call to ministry reached the point where I had to respond to it in 1987 (on the 23rd October to be precise in a house, appropriately perhaps, a few hundred yards from the Angel of Islington underground station). I experienced an overwhelming presence of something that I felt was best called God and, given my life-long involvement in the Church (Anglican), this led me to write in my prayer book that "I vow this day to follow our Lord Jesus Christ." My entire life, since that day, has been an attempt, both intellectually and in terms of an embodied, practical religious response, to understand what on earth this meant.

The embodied, practical response was a fairly straightforward return to regular church-going and Christian community. Firstly, in an Anglican context (and I nearly began to train for the priesthood in 1991) and then in the more explicitly liberal Christian context that I found at the Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House under their (alas soon to retire) minister Cliff Reed. I began to train for the  Unitarian and Free Christian ministry (though it is fair to say that  I am more the latter than the former) at Oxford in 1997. I graduated in 2000 and that same year accepted the call to become the minister at the Memorial Church in Cambridge where I am still.

The intellectual response to my experience was and is, however, somewhat more convoluted. Naturally, I began to study within the prevailing intellectual paradigm of our own culture and so began a philosophical inquiry into the nature of God - unknowingly to me at the time, this inquiry concerned, of course, the God of the philosophers. I delved into all kinds philosophy and philosophical theology and eventually latched on to the British and American Idealists (notably F. H. Bradley and Josiah Royce) whom I studied in great depth whilst I was at Oxford. This interest slowly developed into a passion for Spinoza upon whose philosophy I began increasingly to base my own living, preaching and teaching. The first few years of my ministry (2000-2007/8) show the mark of this clearly. (The prayer-book I wrote at this time probably represents the high-water mark of this approach).

However, continuing my study, thinking and living I found that there were key aspects in this Idealist approach which did not seem to stack up well and I began to hear the creaking of the structure - when I began to see actual cracks I admit to experiencing some considerable concern (distress even). In this distress (I'll call it that) I re-read Tolstoy's "Confession" that I'd come across back in school and was profoundly struck by his situation which wasn't that different from my own. I hunted out his Gospel in Brief and immediately found a message and practical response that helped me. I also quickly discovered that Wittgenstein had found this book profoundly helpful and I determined to go back and look at his thought properly. Whilst at Oxford my logic tutor had introduced me to Wittgenstein's work but I was so wildly metaphysical at the time I hadn't paid much attention to it. Now I did and was amazed and delighted, but also confused, by what I read because it cut away the possibility for all the metaphysical assumptions that had come to be so central to my understanding of in what God consisted and, of course, the God to whose call I was still trying to respond. Matters got significantly "worse" when I started to read James C. Edwards' wonderful book "The Plain Sense of Things: the fate of religion in an age of normal nihilism".

Though working through this book's implications was somewhat traumatic I was also thrilled that Edwards was able to unpick for me the metaphysical mess of our age and culture and simultaneously introduce me, in an accessible and very practical way, to the work of Heidegger - a philosopher whose work had seemed utterly impenetrable when I'd first come across it one very cold winter in 1984 whilst I was a music student snowed into a house just outside Colchester and "Being and Time" was, I kid you not, the only book ready to hand! Anyway, Edwards sent me back to this book and also Heidegger's later work with  passionate urgency.

The first thing that all this did for me was definitively kill off the God of the philosophers - or rather help me accept that this God was dead. I do not pretend that this was anything other than a profoundly difficult time for me and it took me to a place and time that your question (perhaps) imagines me as being in. But Mark Wrathall's words that I quoted in last week's address kept coming back to me:

. . . 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).'

I began to realise that I experienced this as true. As far as the metaphysical discourse about God was concerned, whenever I used it's language and assumptions, I found I could now be nothing other than an atheist. I felt - and still feel - that it is important to be absolutely clear and explicit about this. However, the phenomenon of my religious experience (that I mention above) - the experience that called me into the world in a radically changed way - remained very real and, not only that but it also began to deepen and feel increasingly authentic. As I say, I don't claim to be back with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but it is to be back with something *like* that God, or that kind of understanding of the divine. Last Sunday's address was but one small attempt to try and explore this in the context of Advent and waiting.

A helpful guide through all this has been Gianni Vattimo who feels - and I strongly resonate with his thought - that his "discovery of the substantial link between the history of Christian revelation and the history of nihilism means nothing more and nothing less than a confirmation of the validity of Heidegger's discourse on the end of metaphysics" ("Credere di Credere", Eng. trans. "Belief",  p.40). I find his ideas concerning (so-called) weak thought and ethics very helpful - especially it's tendency towards a non-violent and democratic ethics centred on I Corinthians 13.

Perhaps the best description of where I find myself today is summed up beautifully and succinctly by Vattimo in his brief and touchingly personal book called "Credere di Credere" (Eng. trans. "Belief"):

'I am aware that I have a preference for Nietzsche and Heidegger in part (or perhaps above all) because, over against other philosophical projects that I have come across, their thesis, based on a given interpretation of their work, seems to be above all in harmony with a specifically Christian religious substratum that has remained a living part of me. Moreover, that it has become present again is due at least in part due to the fact that, having distanced myself from the Christian inheritance (or so I believed), it was above all with the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger that I spent my time and in their light that I lived and interpreted my existential condition in late-modernity. In short: I have begun to take Christianity seriously again because I have constructed a philosophy inspired by Nietzsche and Heidegger, and have interpreted my experience in the contemporary world in the light of it; yet in all probability I constructed my philosophy with a preference for these authors precisely because I started with the Christian inheritance, which I have found again, though, in reality, I had never abandoned it' (p.33). 

Sixteenth-century Polish Socinian medallion depicting Jesus
This last point allows me to conclude (for the moment at least) with your feeling that I am somehow attempting to "graft" what you call my "humanism" to the "Christian path." In truth I find that my path remains a Christian one and one that find I have never abandoned. Early in life I had a profound experience of something like the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and I responded to it in a wholly Christian fashion by vowing to be a follower of Christ. That path has had moments of profound doubt ("My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me" - Ps 22:1 and Matt. 27:46) and has led me to all kinds of unexpected places, people and ideas. It has led me, too, even to deny my Christianity many more times than Peter ever did (Matt. 26:75). And, in the dark shadow of the death of the God of the philosophers, I even believed at times that I had abandoned (lost) this path. But, as I hope my inadequate words above show (though I am acutely aware that they may be too flowery for your liking) on coming to a place and a time where the cock-crowing (Matt. 26:75) that is the work of Heidegger et. al. can be heard, I am awakened to a realisation that I have never abandoned my Christian inheritance. Far, far from it - I find I am still responding as faithfully as I can to my initial call into the Christian ministry and my discipleship of Christ.

I realise this response will simply irritate the hell out of many kinds of atheists, humanists and Christians in countless ways but, as Luther is reputed to have said: "Hier stehe Ich; Ich kann nicht anders".

I hope this helps somehow.