Sunday, 29 January 2012

Coyote, the parable of MetaK and the future of liberal religion

Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page): Coyote, the parable of MetaK and the future of liberal religion - 29 January 2012

Week by week I try to suggest strategies that can help us deal with the religious problem of our age that we face as early twentieth-century religious liberals in Europe and North America. But this week it struck me that I have never simply laid out in a single address what I think the religious problem of our age is and the general approach I'm taking towards it. I haven't done this because I tend to assume everyone knows what the problem is and can, therefore, see the background against which my suggestions are to be heard.

So to the problem . . .

In my opinion the best and most accessible précis of it has been made by James C. Edwards in his excellent book "The Plain Sense of Things - The fate of religion in an age of normal nihilism". In the next few paragraphs (up to the parable of MetaK) I draw heavily, and gratefully, upon some of his actual words and phrases. (In fact this book saved my ministry by giving me a way to talk about this difficult stuff within religious circles in a reasonably comprehensible way.)

The problem centres on the loss of religion's traditional power in *our* culture. This has come about because, firstly to use Nietzsche's very influential language, we have come to see and feel that *every* system of belief is only a set of values posited by the will to power in its attempt to preserve and enhance itself.

Another way of putting it is to say that: when every illuminating vocabulary (Richard Rorty's phrase) is recognised by us only to be *contingently* useful, then how can any cultural symbol retain sufficient power to check our well-documented (and contrary) human tendencies both to addictive, individualist self-magnification and to (equally addictive) totalitarian, fundamentalist rigidity?

So, to sum up, the religious problem we face is: What any more can help us to resist the temptation either to go mad with unlimited self-fashioning or to sink helplessly into an imprisoning and soothing normality?

In our European and North American culture religion was one very powerful force that offered us practical responses to these two temptations and, to some degree, was able to keep them in check. Religion offered us practices that could contain, concentrate, and transmit two key sacramental energies that were (and are) energies for limitation in the face of hubris and for transformation in the face of complacency.

The key significant problem we have in accessing these sacramental energies today is that they seem to be wholly tied up with traditional belief in the stories of the gods/God. However, even when we are within a community that continues to use religion's illuminating vocabulary (which is for us Judaeo-Christian with a strong Greco-Roman influence) most (all?) of us here will still recognise it as only being *contingently* useful. In other words we can take it or leave it and this fact alone reveals that it is a vocabulary that simply isn't sufficiently powerful enough across our culture to help check our human tendencies to addictive, individualist self-magnification and to totalitarian, fundamentalist rigidity.

This situation is what Edwards calls 'normal nihilism' and it effects us all and is the often invisible, normal background of our lives.

On our good days this normal nihilism offers us the possibility to reinvent ourselves as a Christian one day and a Buddhist the next, an ardent atheist one day and a devout new-age practitioner the next and this can feel great. On a sunny day and in good health (mental and physical) it is exhilarating to experience what feels like a great liberation from the oppressive and coercive religious strictures of former ages. We feel free to explore anything and everything and become, or so we think, truly who we are. But to maintain such a full-on peak-experience kind of freedom like this one has to succumb (or even drive oneself) in the aforementioned addictive, individualist self-magnifying way we know humanity is capable of.

I'm sure all of us can see (and feel) that this is an exhausting and not particularly healthy approach to life. Experience tells us that when we become exhausted through such activity there always follow dark times. On our dark days we begin to notice that, because we could be this or could be that (and on an on without check), nothing in this new "free" landscape shows up to us any longer as being *really* meaning-ful for us, as the thing which, for us, *really* counts and about which we *really* give a damn. This realisation opens up before us some profoundly empty and sometimes very frightening vistas. Faced with such a prospect it is no wonder that so many people are tempted to turn to totalitarian, fundamentalist rigidity as a way out of the malaise.  A totalitarian, fundamentalist rigidity that appears, of course, in both religious and secular/scientistic forms.

And that, it seems to me, is where we are. Now this might feel bad - and under one aspect it clearly is. But the same situation seen under a different aspect allows new possibilities to shine and show up to us and it is these that week by week I try to encourage us to explore. But to unfold this thought properly I need firstly to tell you a parable based on something that actually happened to me. It's the parable concerning MetaK.

I was in a meeting in which the failure of liberal religion was being discussed. One contributor, let us call them X, announced that one major problem was the religious language we used - it put people off. X pointed on this occasion to our continued use of the word "worship". X claimed that it carried too much baggage and, since in X's mind, "worship" could be described as being an affirmation of a knowledge of something above the everyday, X had coined a new, and what they thought was baggage-free word, MetaK - made up of the Greek word "meta" meaning "after" or "beyond" and the letter K standing for "knowledge". So, "beyond knowledge." (Of course to be able to construct this new word some Greek baggage is required but we'll let that pass . . .). Anyway X suggested that we really should replace the word "worship" on our noticeboards and literature with MetaK - the congregation of the Such and Such Church meets for MetaK at 10.30am and 6.30pm.

I objected - not so much to X's underlying concern, which I appreciate - but to the solution. I pointed out that putting the word MetaK on our noticeboards wouldn't help because no one would really know what it meant - even those with some Greek. X replied that we would explain it to them (assuming, of course anyone hung around long enough to wait for an explanation). I asked X what they would say and they replied that they would tell any inquirer that it was something *like* worship!

The trouble is, of course, that the word MetaK has absolutely no purchase in our culture, whilst worship has, possibly, too much.

Now, given the nature of a church such as this it seems to me that my role, my calling (and I hope your role and calling) is to find ways to inhabit the border-lands between these two extremes. Between, on the one hand, a Greco-Judaeo-Christian vocabulary that still has real purchase upon our culture as a whole but which is often experienced having a too oppressive purchase and, on the other, the wilder eccentricities that come about when people try to create a syncretic pluralist post-religious religion from scratch whose vocabularies have, for the most part, no purchase at all upon our wider culture.

This is deliberately to inhabit a wilderness or borderland between worlds where, to survive and flourish, one must be a kind of trickster character like the Coyote of the Native Americans. (Coyote has sometimes been compared to Prometheus who, like Coyote, stole fire from the gods and gifted to humankind.)

Trickster figures cut surprisingly and confusingly across traditional boundaries and, as they do this, they carry meanings back and forth between worlds and, in this activity, they create the *conditions* where something new and culturally powerful can begin to show up and shine for a whole culture - just like fire - and illuminate new possibilities for living.

The religious project I'm trying to unfold here is something like this. I'm trying to create the kind of space where a new possibility for being religious shows up that allows the sacramental energies of religion (it's fire) to be released from the oppressive grip of the gods/God of old and to allowed to light up a new way of being religious after religion.

It is to begin an attempt to populate the borderland beyond the current fruitless either/or paradigms of our culture; beyond the sterile atheism/theism and religious/secular debates to a truly post-modern place that allows us to be in the world in a radically open-ended way liberal religious way but which does not, at the same time, succumb to our hubristic temptations nor to the empty nihilistic feelings that can come upon us.

Something like religion is required here but it is something that hasn't yet shown up to us - that's what we need to work on and that is what I am working on. (That's why I read the passage from Matthew 11:7-11 earlier because  it seems to me John and Jesus were doing this in their own way). We have no choice but to keep using the old language because, if we don't, we can't even begin to articulate or gesture broadly towards the new thing and that's the point about the parable of MetaK. What new word/concept - the new fire - shows up cannot be prejudged by us and nor can we be sure it will even show up but that's the risk of a project such as this. It seems a risk worth taking because our present situation doesn't seem that great, does it?

I need to add at this point that this is a project which is more about waiting, looking and slow preparation than it is about overt activity which tries to create the new world too quickly and which comes up only with things like MetaK - for more on waiting see my post Why wait - and what on earth for? An Advent meditation on meaning-gifting and the world pushing back.

But anyway, and as some of us know only too well, like Coyote, this doesn't always make us friends. The philosopher Iain Thomson observes (whose introduction to his recent excellent book Heidegger, Art and Postmodernity suggested to me the image of populating borderlands and where he meets his own, real, coyote) this is always to risk running afoul of our culture's many border patrols who are after people who have "dared to cross their arbitrary lines in the sand."

To conclude on a personal note, I realise that, on the one hand, for many atheists and humanists this means I'm just too Christian, just too conventionally religious and, on the other hand, for many Christians and those who are traditionally theisticaly inclined, I realise this means I'm just too much of an atheist and a humanist. But my post-religious calling (and again I hope yours) is to remain a kind of religious ducking and diving trickster because I am absolutely convinced that unless we can all become Coyote-like creatures of the borderlands, creatures who are at once both very traditional and also radical and wild enough to cross our culture's many borders, we will neither be able to let a new illuminating vocabulary that has wide cultural implications show up nor find a way to release the sacramental energies our own age and culture requires to resist the temptation either to go mad with unlimited self-fashioning or to sink helplessly into an imprisoning and soothing normality. Surely the risk of this latter fate coming to pass makes the risk I am suggesting worth taking.

I realise that I and a few other religious and philosophical outlaws - you know who you are - may fail in our ducking and diving and eventually get caught and shot up by those cultural border patrols but, as Shane (played by Alan Ladd) says in one of my favourite westerns, "A man has to be what he is" - it's taken me a while to figure out what that is but it's something like Coyote. Why not join me?

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Task of the Minister - some Universalist advice from Robert Cummins in 1947

Robert Cummins
As I mentioned in a post last week my ministerial review is due next month and this has been a helpful time for me to reflect on both my own ministry and, of course, the kind of ministry experienced by this particular liberal church.

Well, as part of that reflection I pulled off my shelf a photocopy of a book that my ministry tutor at Harris Manchester College, the Revd Peter Hewis, lent me whilst I was training for the ministry entitled, Parish Practice in Universalist Chuches. This was written by Robert Cummins (1897-1982) who has been described as “the modern architect of organized Universalism”. On the fly-leaf Cummin has written an inscription dated May 2, 1947 to the British Universalist and Unitarian minister Arthur W. Peacock which says it was given to a "fellow minister, co-worker, valued friend".

Peter Hewis lent me this book because it seemed to him to mirror many of my own reasons for going into ministry, not least of in the short chapter entitled "The Minister - His Task." As I re-read it this evening it struck me as not only still relevant but still quite beautifully written and I make available here a pdf scan of it - just click on the link below. You'll have to do your own gender inclusive reading  (remember this is 1947) but his words are clearly applicable to men and woman alike.

The Minister - His Task by Robert Cummins

Thursday, 26 January 2012

A late January spin into the fens on the Dursley-Pederson

Eyes shut with the DP on White Fen
For various reasons I haven't been able to get out much on the bike this month and, to be frank, I was going completely shack-simple. Alas, when I got up this morning (my day off) things didn't look great, rain and grey, grey and rain. To ameliorate the situation I made tea and poached eggs on toast, had a long bath and listened to Mike Oldfield's "Hergest Ridge" which, for some reason, has been back in my mind over the past few days - I must have last listened to it twenty-odd years ago. To my mind it is still a strangely splendid record though it's undoubtedly un-hip to admit liking it.

Anyway, after all that pfaffing around, enough time had elapsed for the day to take a turn for the better and I seized the moment. I made a flask of tea, took a pork-pie from the fridge (which Susanna had thoughtfully bought for me yesterday on the off-chance the weather would be fine), a banana and my map, dusted-off the Dursley-Pederson and headed on out to Quy, Bottisham, the Swaffham Bulbeck and Burwell and then back into Cambridge along the Lodes Way. The photos are all from the Lodes Way section on the way home. A splendid spin. At Burwell I met an interesting chap called Mike who told me he was on the steering-committee of the Lodes Way and who was interested in all things bicycling and clearly had a few interesting machines himself and he gamely took up my offer to have a quick go on the Dursley-Pederson. Just a very small thank-you to him and all those who've opened up this lovely route for us all. If you haven't been on it yet (and can get there!) do try it out.

Despite there being rain showers all around I managed to miss them all but, as you will see below, I benefited from them at a pleasant and dry distance.  

Rainbow at Burwell looking north 1
Rainbow at Burwell looking north 2

Looking south-west across Burwell Fen 1

Looking south-west across Burwell Fen 2

Looking south-west across Burwell Fen 3
Looking north-west across Tubney Fen

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Particularity and universal love, a hard won fruit - A meditation inspired by Virgil and George de Benneville

18th Century illustration of the Georgics
Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page): Particularity and universal love, a hard won fruit - A meditation inspired by Virgil and George de Benneville - 22 January 2012

Reading:  John 17:17-26

David R. Slavitt's translation of Virgil's opening poem of his series of 'Georgics' offers up an image that I'd like to use today to help bring out an issue about unity that is always arising in one form or another within liberal religious circles. But firstly, here is C. D. Lewis' fairly straightforward translation of Virgil's Latin lines:

'But plough not an unknown plain: First you must learn the winds and changeable ways of its weather, the land's peculiar cultivation and character' (l.50-52).

Virgil is reminding his readers that, although they may have available (in books or in our memory) general unifying rules about agriculture which tell them how to get the best out of the type of land which lies before them these rules are, alone, never sufficient if they wish the land to be truly productive. Virgil is saying that they must always take the time to come to know intimately the land which they are intending to cultivate and that, before they begin to plough, they must make every effort to learn this landscape's unique particularity, i.e. it's orientation, its geology and all these things and many more in their relationships with the local seasonal patterns of wind, rain, sun and snow.

Slavitt's powerful 1972 translation brings something else out from Virgil's insight by using an image drawn from the structure of language:

All knowledge is hard won;
a farmer must know his field, its soil, its weather,
and from years of trial and error he learns which land
grapes thrive upon, which will produce corn
better or earlier so he can beat the market's
glut. A week, a weekend can make the difference
between comfort and bare survival, survival and loss.
It is all particularity - as in grammar:
to farm is to conjugate irregular verbs.
Beyond the rules, you must learn the brute words themselves
by rote and with stern hunger for schoolmaster. (p.94)

It always forcibly strikes me that the image of farming, of cultivating land, is one which can easily also stand for the cultivation of ourselves and that, therefore, we may also think of the cultivation of our lives as like conjugating irregular verbs.

Here I'd need to emphasis the point (because it seems to me of such great importance) that what it is to be a person is always-already to be within horizons (i.e. within a particular cultural landscape) 'which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others, and others beside us such as other cultures' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9). Connecting this insight to Virgil's line of thought, this would mean that, although we may be able to articulate a few, more or less, universal rules about what it is to live anywhere and anytime if we wish to live in a way that bears appropriate and abundant fruit in *this* landscape, this is only possible in so far as we take true account of local particularities. Such a true - meaning-ful - account can only be taken by someone who has learned these things by rote by living in that same landscape. Learning 'by rote' means, as I have just noted, learning 'by heart' and when we learn something by heart we make it part of our very being - so to say we are coming to 'know' a landscape becomes also to say we are coming better to 'know' ourselves.

Virgil/Slavitt's point about particularity came back into my mind this week because after last week's address a question was posted on my blog which caused me to revisit the work and life-story of one of my great heroes, George de Benneville. (Albert D. Bell's biography, The Life and Times of Dr George de Benneville, can be downloaded here.)

Born in England three hundred and nine years ago to French Huguenot refugees, de Benneville (1703-1793) was one of the earliest Universalists to make it to America and to plant there the seeds of a very particular, extraordinary tolerant and open-hearted form of Christianity. This way of being in the world was open-hearted, not only to an incredible variety of other Christian groups - Pennsylvania was full of groups fleeing religious persecution in Europe - but also to the world-view and ways of the Native American Indians and other religious traditions, including in de Benneville's case Islam which he had encountered in his early life at sea. (An account of this latter encounter can be read in Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of Dr. George de Benneville which you can download here).

Some of de Benneville's inspiring words lie on the opening page of a prayer-book I wrote in 2007 with the American Unitarian Universalist minister John Morgan which, for me, still sum-up (though, of course, very much in contemporary post-modern key) what I try to do in my role as your minister:

'Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular. . . . Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception. . . . The Inner Spirit makes men feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things.'

But they are not easy to understand in the way I think de Benneville understood them and over the years I have come to realise how often these words are heard as referring to the existence of an actual universalist religion of a decidedly Platonist kind - i.e. that behind the transient accidental accretions of time and culture their lies a single unifying pure religion waiting to be uncovered by us and which might eventually be practiced by an extant, enlightened church community - usually, it is hoped, our own.

This religious idea has been, and continues to be, very influential in the way many have tried to develop a form of inclusive, tolerant liberal religion in our own time and culture. But the trouble has always been that in order to achieve this in ways that won't snag, scratch or cause problems or cause any kind of offense or dislike in *anyone* at all, all the particular, craggy, sharp, difficult (and it is believed, accidental) bits of any extant religious tradition must first be filed-off in order to leave behind them only smooth, regular, safe, universally acceptable and accessible essences. These essences, it is hoped, can be held together, unproblematically, in a new, single, universal religion.

But every attempt to create such an essential universally inclusive liberal religion has failed because, by definition, it cannot recognise the central importance of the particular craggyness of our actual lives and of our actual, existing living religious traditions.

Looking at De Benneville's own life it seems clear that he realised that such a smoothing out and reduction to imagined essences was not the most fruitful and abundant way to achieve, either for himself or others, the desired tolerance and openness in religion and society as a whole. It did not express for de Benneville a proper liberal approach to religion because it failed to take into account the particular and abundant fruits that come about precisely because of local, sometimes very craggy conditions.

In a very real way he was one of the first religious people really to live the modern maxim, 'Think global, act local.' Since we've been looking a lot at the local it's time to turn to de Benneville's global thinking. What is he trying to say through his expression of universalism?

John Morgan reminds us that De Benneville believed that God, whom he called the 'Sovereign Good,' took different forms at different times, but these forms were each a part of the universal truth that all creation would be restored - i.e. in God's totality nothing will be lost or deemed fruitless. De Benneville also wrote that 'Our faith is essentially the combined faith of all Christians' and that 'as no church is pure in all things, so none can be found that does not contain some truth. Glorious truths are found in every church and religion under the sun. And this glorious chain of truths . . . we believe will someday unite all of them into one form of love.' Passages like the one we heard from the Gospel of John (John 17:17-26) some of the key particular echoes, linguistic resources and messages from others that so resonated with Universalists like de Benneville's.

But de Benneville's claim needs to be heard aright. When he says 'Our faith is essentially the combined faith of all Christians' he *does not* mean *his* faith, that his community's faith is actually this thing, but instead it is his faith that *in combination* every church (i.e. all Christian groups including his own) and in all religions under the sun there existed a glorious chain of truth that is capable of uniting everyone. This uniting chain of truth was for de Benneville God and this God was love. De Benneville knew that love is active relational, familial and that, at its best, love unites a family, not by insisting it's members follow only universal rules but by taking account the unique local particularities of it's members and then finding ways to bring these local particulars out in fruitful and abundant ways - for the individual and the whole family.

Therefore, genuine religious liberty and tolerance arises for de Benneville, not through the creation of a universal religion to which everyone can belong, but by finding a way through dialogue by which each local, particular group (whether Christian or not) can begin see and touch in it's own particularity the great chain of love he saw. In short de Benneville's liberalism is rooted in encouraging us to recognise across religious boundaries 'family resemblances'. His point was, I think, something like that which was pointed to by Wittgenstein, namely, that things which may be thought to be connected by one essential common feature may in fact be connected by a series of overlapping similarities, *where no one feature is common to all.* So, although chess, football or children playing freely with a ball in the park can instantly be seen by us as all being games we can never reduce them to something we might call a universal or essential game. As with chess, football and children playing freely in the park so, too, with religion.

De Benneville's universalism is found in his consistent willingness to go out into the world and preach that there existed this family resemblance of divine love and to help every particular community, of whatever kind, to see this themselves, to see itself as a link (or as our final hymn says, a gem) in the glorious chain of truth that is a unity in divine love. The ultimate aim being the possibility that we can all say to each other and mean: 'We need not think alike to love alike.'

This community here in Cambridge, founded in 1904 with it's own liberal Christian particularity displayed in its covenant and in the shape and content of our services, has consistently attempted to live out this same truth and it is because of this that we are still respected and valued in this city by other Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Pagans. It is, for instance, why we were the hosts last summer of the recent city-wide inter-faith service as our city showed its solidarity against the proto-fascist English Defence League. It is why we are able to play a full role in the city's ecumenical bodies.

But this particularity has never been easy to achieve, nor to maintain and to be this kind of community is, as both Virgil and de Benneville reminds us, very 'hard won.' It's hard won because it's all about particularity and to be the unique liberal community and we need the patience to learn to conjugate irregular verbs by learning the brute words of our own tradition by rote and with stern hunger for schoolmaster.

But remember the key message of hope - and what makes the task worthwhile - is that the schoolmaster is understood  to be nothing less than God understood as always unfolding relational, divine love. It is why as your minister I continue to encourage us to heed de Benneville's call to preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.


The Everlasting Gospel by Paul Siegvolck, the pseudonym of George Klein-Nicolai, which was of such huge influence on de Benneville and other's of his generation can be found at Scott Wells' blog here.

Scott Wells also maintains a website with a variety of historical Universalist material online.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Enlisted by birth, environment and choice, under Jesus' banner - a liberal Christian thought from 1923 by J. Cyril Flower, minister of the Cambridge Memorial Church (Unitarian)

J. Cyril Flower
This afternoon I took some time to re-read some of the things written by J. Cyril Flower who was minister of the Memorial Church (Unitarian) between 1922 and 1931 - the same church where I am minister.

I was doing this because my ministerial review is due next month and this has been a helpful time for me to reflect on both my own ministry and, of course, the kind of ministry experienced by this particular liberal church.

As I have mentioned a couple of times in recent sermons this activity seems to me important because in our own age, we can see clearly that our understanding of in what consists for us reality, our world, is always 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others, and others beside us such as other cultures' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9).

As I have been before, I was struck and encouraged by his words which conclude a chapter simply entitled "Jesus" in a 1923 book entitled "Aspects of Modern Unitarianism", not least of all because I find that I don't really seem to feel any different from him about the matter. I might not have used the martial metaphor he does at one point and nor do I think that I precisely share his metaphysics, but the echo and spirit of his words are still creatively resonating in my own ministry. Anyway, here are Flower's words (which you'll find on p. 105 at the link above):

I confess that I find the laborious attempt to define what is called the "place" of Jesus, or any other great prophet of God, altogether unedifying. It is enough if we follow the light when and where we see it, in whose hands soever be the torch. When I am in Switzerland, worshipping God in the splendour of the snowy mountains, it is of no interest to me that, in India or America, there may be snow-clad mountains which are a few hundred feet loftier. If I am in Switzerland, let me breathe in the beauty of its mountain grandeur, and expand my soul in contemplation of the present symbols of the Infinite and the Eternal: he who is among the Rocky Mountains or in India can do nothing more, and should do nothing less. We live in an atmosphere and a civilization whose best characteristics  are steeped in the influence of Jesus. We are enlisted by birth, environment and choice, under his banner. There are other captains in the one great army of God; but he is ours, and we shall promote the success of the divine campaign for the kingdom of heaven, not by gossiping about the particular features, demeanour, or apparel of the various captains - but by lovingly and faithfully following our own; for all genuine religions are allies, and not enemies. The prophets of God are many, but God is one; and that under whatever banner India, China, England, Palestine may move forward, they may be led by their accepted captain, courageous, faithful, loving their brothers and honouring their leader, to God, should be the aspiration and the prayer of all who are disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.     

Monday, 16 January 2012

An unexpected post concerning another way of thinking about Universal Salvation . . .

A good friend of mine - RyS - posted some good and helpful questions (his always are) in connection with my last post. I tried to put my reply there but Blogger tells me my reply has too many characters in it. Me go on too long? . . . Never . . .

Anyway, as I wrote this reply this morning I realised RyS' words pushed me to talk about Universal Salvation - not something I've done in a long, long time. The photo at the head of this post is of the grave slab of my own great Universalist hero - George de Benneville (1703-1793). A couple of years ago I posted a link to a pdf scan of the only biography that was written about him - you can download that here. My own way of getting there is very different to his but the 'final' hope is the same - that no life is ever lost or wasted.

So, thanks RyS for the post and the comment - thanks to the wonders of Blogger we can open up a wider conversation.

So to your comments in turn (RyS's points are in italics):

The reference to the 'two paths' seems a bit stark - one liberal, one conservative.

Indeed - but then I point out this fact when I say there is here much blurring and grey. One of the things that is difficult about writing short addresses is how to highlight important matters so they can be seen very quickly. I hope that the conversations after the sermon and here, such as yours, can then nuance them appropriately. So thanks for the chance.

(Addendum: Don't forget the two path image appears in the Christian tradition very early - see the opening of the Didache.)

It then transforms into a critique of liberalism as infinitely too many paths, and conservatism as simply right path/wrong path.

An important point to put in at this point is that in this address I was trying to talking about individual approaches/attitudes NOT actual religious traditions/denominations etc. I think one might be able to say something along these lines about them but it's not what I tried to do here - though I did not, I think, make that clear enough and you are right to raise this point. However, I hold fast to my general point really because of my pastoral experience. I regularly come face to face in my study with two general types of people: on the one hand, those who are convinced that there is a right path and many wrong ones and, on the other, those who - even if they believe they have started down one path - are crippled by anxiety about the multitude of possible paths they have encountered and not taken and those they believe they will encounter. In the latter case it really does often mean that the person before me isn't able to live their life in a deep and abundant way they (and I) feel is possible. (I know this latter tendency only too well being as I'm a liberal myself).

You then tell us there's just the one path, and that we cannot change the world, merely how we perceive the world.

I do indeed say this - I think that for an individual there is just the path that is your life - to go back to Beech's parable, when you are dead and gone your life (as with the pot at it's completion) will have been just that life and not another.

But my point is that this life (like every great text) is always capable of being interpreted in ways that can show up new meanings and possibilities. The Christian example par-excellence is how the utter disaster of Jesus ministry - death on a cross with all his followers running away scared beyond measure - is somehow transformed such that it lights up a whole new possible way of being in the world for those who eventually regrouped and began to live in what we call today Christian community. In a very real sense the world hasn't been changed by that - Jesus was still killed - but what that *means* has changed and it is this aspect change which allowed them, and then those of us who live in the light of that event, to live in a world where things now show up differently before us. This is why I think one should never say 'merely' with regard to how we perceive the world. Everything hinges on this - this is what makes all the difference. When you perceive the world differently then you will be in it (and acting) differently.

This goes against the reality of the world pushing back, and us reacting (not reactionary) in it. Surely such 'pushing back' is prompting us to interact with the world, and therefore exercise our gifts in order it to change it? And in the process of meeting the demands of this reaction, altering our path in ways which we would not have known we would have chosen? Thus we find us and the world changed by our response to a need that pushes uniquely against us. This affects other people's choices as well. So - is this not a concept of God?

It seems to me that here I am talking about the world pushing back at us and it is this pushing that causes us to question how we perceive it and then, with this change of perception, we are freed to exercise not simply our gifts (those we have or believe we have) but sometimes actually to have disclosed the possibility for new ways of acting that were never possible for us before hand (we are gifted new gifts).

Here I come back to the thought I've particularly been talking about over the last month which is that God might best be thought of (perceived) as self-giving unfolding event and that we form part of that unfolding (consciously or unconsciously) - there's your interacting aspect. This is, indeed, a concept of God for me but it is one which allows countless narrative lines (i.e. our individual lives and, therefore, our story) to wander through it. The trick is to find ways such that the only one of those paths that we walk (our life and not another's) is walked in such a fashion that we can begin to see how meaning-ful it is - in fact how meaning-ful is every life.

This doesn't mean, of course, that every life is (or can be perceived to be) in it's actual living, lovely, wonderful and without pain and grief (twelve years in the ministry reveal this to me only too well) but it is to keep the door open for, well, let's call it what it is: Universal Salvation - how every life can, somehow, be seen as forming part of a greater, meaning-ful story even as this greater story is always too great to be known by any one of us (this is not to resurrect a old style grand-narrative because what I'm talking about is radically open-ended, open to new interpretations and possibilities and, by definition, is something that cannot be known by us, nor even God). This is one of the reasons I so admire Norman Maclean's story "Young Men and Fire" where he does just this for the twelve Mann Gulch Smokejumpers who died in 1949. It seems to me to be  a theological gesture towards the kind of theological narrative of salvation a God who is unfolding, self-giving event might 'write' (be always writing) - if such a thing were possible (which it isn't). It would be an open-ended version of the book (text) of life - itself capable of, as I quote Thompson in my address, continually generating new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work (which we might call 'creation' - or God).

But none of these words, of course, makes this sermon right and your comments have helped me clarify something important about what I was trying to say. If what I've said just strikes you as plain nonsense of just missing your points then fire a message back.

It seems appropriate, even required as a necessity requires to conclude with some words of Benneville's that have long inspired me (they appear on the opening page of the prayer book I wrote) and sum up the call that lies behind my words above.

Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular. . . . Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception. . . . The Inner Spirit makes men feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things.

My thanks and warmest wishes to you as always for your gentle and always helpful pushing-back.


Sunday, 15 January 2012

By another way - living a meaning-ful life

Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page):
By another way - 15 January 2012

Although I deleted them from the final script, in the first draft of last week's address, I originally concluded with a few words about the final verse of our reading for Epiphany Sunday, where the Magi '. . . being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, . . . departed to their own country by another way" (Matthew 2:12). Today I've revisited my concluding words and expanded them into this address.

As I have mentioned a couple of times in the past few weeks, given that in our own age, we can see clearly that our understanding of in what consists for us reality, our world, is always 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others, and others beside us such as other cultures' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9) one of the echoes that, for me, came into play as I continued to think about the Magi's return by another way, was Robert Frost's very famous poem of 1916, "The Road Not Taken":

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It seems important to add to the mix here one message coming from another culture besides our own, namely the Chinese word or concept, of the "Tao" which has become part of our own Western philosophical and religious lexicon (though in a distinctive way not entirely akin to the way it is used and understood in the Chinese context). Although the basic generic, normative meaning of the word Tao is simply "road" or "way", an additional meaning - and the one that I play with today - is "the spirit or quality of mind one is cultivating" (Michael Lafargue, The Tao of the Tao Te Ching, SUNY Press, Albany 1992, p. 245).

So, now, within our own cultural horizons and with these echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past and messages coming from others in play around us, what useful lesson might be showing up for us in this short verse found in our culture's great, normative Christian text?

Well, to draw out one important lesson that I see showing up, the first thing I need to do is place before you an insight disclosed very much to our own age. It is as the philosopher Iain Thomson puts it, the feeling that:

'. . . what makes the great texts "great" is not that they continually offer the same 'eternal truths' for each generation to discover but, rather, that they remain deep enough — meaning-full enough — to continue to generate new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work that previously guided us.' (Figure/Ground Communication interview).

This insight is worth remembering, especially at a time when religion is making a return to our civic space and often in some very conservative and reactionary forms.

These religious traditions and their contemporary mirror images, namely certain kinds of atheism and scientism, love to play the two-paths or two-roads game. Down one, they say, lies darkness, down the other lies light; down one lies heaven, down the other lies hell; down one lies truth, down the other lies superstition. N'er the twain shall meet, or so they say.

The Bible is, as we know, caught in the middle of all this but Thompson's words remind us that if we are smart about how we use this great texts of religion we have inherited we can always turn it to good, liberal use. One of my own great heroes, the Marxist and Atheist, Ernst Bloch, pointed out in his book 'Atheism in Christianity' that the Church and the Bible are not one and the same: 'The Bible has always been the Church's bad conscience.' And, as Bloch reminds us, although the Bible has often been used (and is still used) as a cattle prod by the powerful against the weak, 'the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is why [the Bible] has always been suppressed or distorted, from the serpent on' (Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009, p. 13).

One of the oppressive and powerful ideas in our culture that we need to strike a counter-blow against is precisely this two path model of life and here's where the biblical story of the Magi comes in.

It struck me last week that, although when the text says the Magi returned 'by another way' it is clear that the author is imagining them to be taking a different actual road home, the linguistic resources available to us enable us to consider the possibility that we may also consider the Magi as undertaking their return by embodying a radically changed *way* of being-in-the-world - by another Tao - namely, the one they saw shining in the Christ-child. What it was that I think we may understand them to have seen you can find in my Christmas Day address. In outline it was to see God not as a powerful *being*, like the Gods of old, but as unfolding event, self-giving Being itself, which in turn enables quieter, weaker, less dogmatic voices to be heard and responded to.

If we lay the weight on this second kind of returning, by embodying a different *way* (Tao) of being in the world, a thought springs to my mind.

When we look back on our own life-path - as we may imagine the Magi doing on their return, what we are commonly tempted to call "taking a different path" at a particular point in our lives, is really to speak with hindsight of a moment/period in our life when we were able to identify that a new way of understanding the world was being disclosed to us. With this disclosure there also came new possibilities and new ways of opening ourselves up to the world. This should help us see that our life-path *never really diverges at any point* (I want to stress this very strongly indeed). Perhaps the best parable I know of living life in this kind of way (Tao) is told by the theologian George Kimmich Beach:

'. . . as a potter you form a lump of clay, you make many decisions, exercising your freedom both consciously and instinctively, to one end, a finished ceramic. [. . .] The original decision in pottery making is not unlike the original decision in faith: once a direction is set, soon it will be too late to change your mind. Choosing a bowl excludes a pitcher. Now choices are being made within an ever narrowing range; necessity is closing in on the maker. But this is the miracle of creation: a reversal is also in progress, for the embrace of necessity gives birth to a greater freedom. With each new choice, new, more refined choices arise; creative freedom is growing exponentially. [. . .] The perfect end to the exercise of freedom is perfect necessity. We think: This bowl, or this life, can only be what it must be!' (George Kimmich Beach cited in Walter P. Hertz, 'Redeeming Time', Skinner House Books, Boston, 1999, pp. 99-105).

But, although we may find it relatively easy to see how this is true with regard to a pot, we struggle to see how this is true of our own lives. This is because we have inherited a tradition that really loves two-path thinking. How those of conservative persuasion play this out is different from those of a more liberal persuasion but, make no mistake, both play it out.

In a nutshell (and at the risk of over-simplification - for there is much blurring of boundaries and grey here!) the conservative (religious or secular) person tends to insist on the absolute need to follow the right path. So, if you find, feel or are told you are on the wrong path you must change, you must convert and get on the right track. If you find you have gone by the wrong path then you must retrace your steps and roll back the corruptions - leaving all the old behind in order to arrive at the place where the paths diverged and you can make the necessary change.

The liberal (religious or secular) person tends to be more equivocal. They want to be able to hold open, in principle at least, all possible paths. This is because they know that neither one nor the other is absolutely right nor absolutely wrong but this can mean (often means?) that the choice to follow one path or another diminishes in importance - to echo Frost, the choice *doesn't* make all the difference. In a many liberal's minds most paths are really just as fair as any other and the choice for travelling one rather than another is often based on something as minor and inconsequential as being merely grassy and wanting a little wear.

As a little warning, I've been in the full-time professional ministry for twelve years now and I have seen how for many liberals, especially towards the end of their life, this can result in the feeling that they have never quite lived their life fully, never done what old Thoreau tried to do by going to Walden Pond - 'I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.'

Anyway, on the one hand, conservative positions tend to become narrowly focused, exclusivist and restrictive and, on the other, liberal positions tend to become unfocused, blind to the importance of real difference and, in wanting to keep open the theoretical possibility one could check out the other path at a later date, impossibly vast in reach.

Frost's own relationship with religion was complex and ambivalent - that's one of the reasons I like him. (It's also why I think his poems form a great text of our culture.) But what we can say for sure was that he was well towards the liberal end of the religious and spiritual spectrum. Like us, inherited a two-path tradition of thinking and, in this poem, his genius as a poet is revealed in how subtly and gently he places before us the problem we liberals face and gives us the gentlest hint of a solution appropriate for us in our own age - the solution I've already gestured towards in Beech's parable of the bowl or pitcher.

The body of the poem, the first three verses, explores the flawed liberal dream of being able to hold together in one lived life many *possible* divergent paths. Frost describes them, weighs them evenly and dispassionately, and only then does he say he followed one, but only after he has categorised the first as to be kept "for another day."

Frost's last verse gently reveals that really he knew how silly and wrong this idea was and this is, perhaps, what his sigh reveals:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

What makes all the difference, what makes Frost authentically himself and not someone else, is not that there exists in him (as he looks back and sighs) multiple possible paths which he may or may not have taken but that his life-path, like everyone of our life-paths, was always the only road he travelled. It was always going to be the one "less travelled by" because it was his and only his - it was and is, and always will be, genuinely unique.

Frost is reminding us that human freedom does not consist in keeping open endless diverging possible paths but in learning consciously to embrace and embody one's own, single path. (It seems to me that it is only when our own paths are consciously embraced by us like this that they turns into something we might legitimately call a Tao - when our 'path' and our 'life' become one). Our freedom also consists in being awake to the moments when, as we make more refined choices, our path's meaning changes for us and we enter for a moment a clearing where authentic, new, subtle and refined possibilities show up to us. In other words our freedom is not so much in our ability to change the world (we all know we can really change very little about the world) but in our ability to reinterpret it. It is this recognition that helps us discover that, in truth, a truly lived life, rooted in reality itself, is always greater and more meaningful than any text and is always capable of generating meaning-ful possibilities that can radically and creatively reorientate not just ourselves but whole societies and cultures.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Old Year and Helicon - new Riprap CD in the making

Setting-up the room - the engineer, Bill Campbell is on the left
For all you jazz fans out there below there are a couple of links to give you a taster of some of the  material which will end up (in some form or another) on the new Riprap CD which we should have out in the next few months.  The recording session was on the 2nd and 3rd January 2012 and I've also posted below a few photos from the session.

As Kev tells us Old Year "is a very rough un-mixed version (mainly just off the central ambient mike - that you can see in the photo on the right) of a twisted children's song that got out of hand on the session... comments or threats are welcomed. Excellent solo from Dave halfway through."
Old year - late Miles-like version

The second, Helicon, again as Kev tells us "is another rough un-mixed track destined for the new Cd, inspired by a Seamus Heaney poem."

And here's a link to the current Riprap - website

The band, left to right: David Gordon, Kevin Flanagan, me and Russ

Yours truly

David Gordon

Kevin Flanagan

Russ Morgan

Russ reflected in the piano - 1

Russ reflected in the piano - 2 

Sunday, 8 January 2012

"Hold tight and pretend it's a plan” Epiphany Sunday – In praise of the ad hoc

Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page):
Hold tight and pretend it's a plan - Epiphany Sunday 2012 - In praise of the ad hoc

Today is Epiphany Sunday and the Greek word "epiphany" (epiphaneia) means "manifestation" or "striking appearance." Today I'm going to be speaking about this in terms of how things "show-up" or "shine" for us as having meaning and worth giving our life a sense of purpose and wholeness.

In the Western Christian tradition the feast of Epiphany is on the 6th January - the twelfth night after Christmas - but it is often moved to the nearest Sunday and it's the day upon which we remember the Magi's visit to Jesus' cribside in which this child first "shows-up" or "shines" as "God with us", Emmanuel, to a wider world beyond Jesus' own Jewish circles.

Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

You may wish to say at this point that, since this story is only a fiction, this is all irrelevant by-the-by stuff. But the story need not be taken as being historically "real" - indeed it almost certainly isn't - for us clearly to see that it has an *effective* reality because it has influenced and shaped, and continues to influence and shape, our own culture. As I mentioned last week, given that our understanding of the world is always 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others (and others beside us such as other cultures' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9) whenever we explore the story in a religious setting we are required as a necessity requires to find an interpretation of it that makes it intelligible to us in a way which can help usefully to illuminate what it means to be the kind people we are, here and now in our pluralist, secular world. I offer this Epiphany address to you today because I think the story can still do this.

(Excursus: I need to add here that this address tries to speak about how to find the truth of your life - what it is to be you in the world. Although there are many overlaps and points of intersection with the scientific task of finding truths about the universe (where universe is understood to be the sum of things and entities) I am not talking about this here. When I talk about risk below I also need to be clear that I am not talking about it as mere bravado but the kind of risks we need to take which move us away from mere rule following and towards authentic living.)

This address began whilst watching the recent Dr Who Christmas Special. I was suddenly struck by something the Doctor said when he was forced to act in an improvised way. As the building he and his companions were in suddenly and unexpectedly turns out to be a spaceship and begins to take-off, his companions shout over the noise the question of what they are to do. The Doctor replies, "Hold tight and pretend it's a plan."

Although there are times and situations when pretending there exists a plan when you actually haven't got one is an example of, at best, hubris and, at worst, delusion, consciously stating this openly at the outset, as the Doctor does here, is quite a different matter. In fact openly recognising that you need to be prepared and able to improvise ad hoc responses to the unexpected showing-up of certain things and events can still be to follow a plan but in very special, nuanced and skillful way. The phrase "ad hoc", by the way, means literally "for this" - i.e. for this situation and not another.

My own embodied understanding of what this entails comes, understandably for me, from being a jazz musician. When you begin to learn to play jazz you do so within an always-already given world with all its echoes, aural resources and messages from the past and other cultures. Once jazz began to show up as one possible way of expressing oneself as a musician it developed a self-understanding that includes certain initial rules that are required to be followed just to get a player going in the first place - they include arpeggios, scales, phrases etc. etc.. I explored some elements of this necessary structure with you during Advent. But these rules of jazz get you going only by ignoring details - details such as the complexity or simplicity of the music you are currently trying to play, the weaknesses and strengths of your own playing and knowledge as well as that of the other players around you, the differences in distance between players, the making of mistakes or the inspired creation of a new melody or rhythm, the acoustic of the room, the attentiveness or otherwise of the audience, the temperature in, or even the colour of, the room and countless other factors that go to create this particular, unique playing situation rather than another. As the philosopher Mark Wrathall points out, 'What anyone who's very skilled in a domain knows is that being very skilled means responding not just in general terms to a situation but responding very specifically to what the situation demands' (from the film Being in the World) Sometimes - and more often than good players realise - we intuitively understand that to be authentic, really to live and play, we have to start taking risks and doing something that the rules haven't told us about. On the same topic another philosopher (from the same film), Hubert Dreyfus, notes that:

'Risk is absolutely essential in becoming a master [and] in acquiring any skills at all because you have to leave the rules behind and stop doing what one generally does, doing the standard thing, [so you can] push out into your own experience of the world.'   

It is important to see that, although it is true that without leaving behind the rules you will never be able to push out into your own experience of the world, this possibility that we can push out into an authentic experience of the world only comes about because we are always already in a world of practices (which includes rules) and this is always-already a pre-requisite for getting us going in the first place.

For our Western European and North American culture one major horizon in which we always-already are and whose echoes, messages from the past and linguistic resources we are always-already shaped by and which get us going in the world in the first place is the Christian story.

The question has always been is how to use our story (stories) - which gives us so many of our cultural rules - how to use this story (stories) to help us push out healthily and creatively into our own, authentic experience of the world. (In cultures other than our own, of course, the basic story will be different to ours - but we are here and not there.)

Well, one thing that I think can clearly be seen in the Epiphany story is a powerful reminder that our own present secular culture's present-day shape is only possible because it contains within it a strong memory of the foundational importance of just such ad hoc, risk-taking pushings out into the world. Let's now turn directly to the story.

Within the Magi's own pre-scientific worldview the appearance of a new star in the heavens would, we may legitimately imagine, have had some kind of rule-based meaning capable of being attached to it. The story makes it clear that it signified to them that an important king was to be born in 'that' general direction over which the star was presumed to stand.

Following the star in the way one is forced to follow a star when one is on the surface of a world (whether thought to be flat or spherical) they go, quite naturally, to a local seat of power lying in the *general* direction of the star. Not unreasonably we may again imagine that they go there first of all because the Magi's cultural rules would be likely to say to them that the birth of a new king would 'naturally' take place in such a setting of earthly power.

As we know this was far from being the case and when the earthly King they visited, King Herod, heard their news he was much 'troubled'.

Not finding the new born King in this royal court the ad hoc solution which slowly began to attune the Magi to the finer details of the actual situation they found themselves in was in part provided by listening to and taking seriously the local chief priests and scribes opinion that the birth would have taken place 'In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet' (see Micah 5:2). The Magi were now clearly taking risks for these priests and scribes were not their priests and scribes and the prophecy was not one given by their own prophets. We see here the Magi beginning to push out beyond the rules into their own experience of the world. Leaving Herod's palace we may imagine them telling each other to hold tight to their camels' reins and say to themselves that this was still part of their plan.

On arriving and seeing the poverty and meanness of Jesus' birthplace must have made them question very strongly whether they were in fact in the right place - right, that is, according to their prior rules and expectations. I can imagine some serious arguing and ad hoc theorising going on between them about whether they should indeed hand over their valuable gifts to the care of Jesus' poor and considerably less than royal parents. You will remember the Monty Python team in "A Life of Brian" brilliantly imagine the Magi arriving in Bethlehem only to go firstly to the wrong stable in which Brian has just been born. It is only when they leave that they see further down the street a celestial light shining from inside another stable that they realise their mistake and they go back in and wrench their valuable gifts away from Brian's hapless mother. The Python team touch here what seems to me to be a psychological truth which is that, in matters to do with the truth of one's own life, there is always doubt and uncertainty which simply following rules won't help resolve.

However, what the story tells us is that as they actually stand by the cribside and look down at this particular baby (not just a generalised conception of all babies - i.e. a Platonic baby) they saw something that made them take yet another risk and push even further into their own experience of the world in a fashion that went way beyond the generality of their own learned rules. Their gifts originally signified for them the kind of kingship they already knew about but, in that moment then, their understanding underwent a radical reinterpretation and began to shine or show-up for them very differently indeed. You will recall that on Christmas Day I suggested that we might understand what they saw as they gathered around the crib that day was a new vulnerable, self-giving way of being in the world show-up and shine in that child. This opened up for them a wholly new and authentic possibilities of how to be in the world. In the giving up and letting go of their valuable gifts we see the Magi at the moment they choose to respond very specifically to what that situation - and only that situation - seemed to demand of them, namely, to honour and embrace in this risky, ad hoc fashion the new way of being-in-the-world which they felt was now shining before them.

With these thoughts in mind I'll come to rest today with a point made by the poet W. B. Yeats in a letter he wrote just before he died in 1939:

'It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put it all in a phrase I say, "Man can embody the truth, but he cannot know it." I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence' (William Butler Yeats Letter of 4th January 1939 to a woman friend in "The Life of W. B. Yeats" by Terence Brown, Blackwell, Oxford 2001 p.376).

In the actions of the Magi the Epiphany story contains a powerful reminder to our culture that the truth and meaning we seek as human beings can only be found whenever we are prepared to leave behind our abstract theories and rules about how to live and instead learn to take risks in order to push deeper into our own experience of the world. Whenever we do this then, in all kinds of creative ad hoc ways, we begin to learn what it is, not to know truth and meaning, but to embody them. Only then will we have begun to push out into our own experience of the world and finally have the abundant life Jesus promised was possible for all people.


After the address we heard the second of Valentin Silvestrov's pieces called Stille Musik which can be found on the CD Bagatellen Und Serenaden. I chose it for two reasons, The first is I adore his music and it has been accompanying much of my thinking over the Advent and Christmas season and, secondly, because his own compositional philosophy led him to say: "I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists." This seemed to resonate powerfully with the thinking of Gianni Vattimo's which I mention above and in other places on this blog. If you do a search on Youtube for: Silvestrov Stille Musik you'll find it there. For some reason I can't embed a link to it from here. Enjoy.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

God as citizen and the kingdom of Heaven made a Republic - A New Year Meditation

New Year's Day is a moment when we are enabled by our culture to feel that we are standing on a cusp between what we call the old and the new. It is a potentially helpful cultural practice which can enable us both to review our lives and also to envision and plan what might be for us in the future a better way of being in the world - as Mary Oliver puts it, to find a way to mend our lives. (Her poem The Journey appears below but if you want to read it straight away click here.) The Utopian pull into the not-yet is rarely felt as strongly by our secular culture as it is on this day.

But, as some of you will have noticed I said only that this is a "potentially" helpful cultural practice because it can also be played out an unhelpful way not least of all because there also exists for our culture such a thing as nostalgia for the future.

The Greek word "nóstos" means "returning home" and álgos means "pain" or "ache" and we can experience this apparently paradoxical phenomenon of nostalgia for the future because our culture has developed over many centuries a strong and deeply problematic belief that at the back of everything there must exist some discoverable immutable true metaphysical reality out of which everything has come (Alpha) and to which everything will return (Omega). Given this idea it is not surprising that at stressful and chaotic times in our personal and/or corporate lives there arises an ache for a return to this presumed stable, underlying, eternal and immutable truth. And please be very aware that there exist both theistic and atheistic versions of this nostalgia for the future and both are today strongly at play notably in various religious fundamentalisms, nationalisms and also in so-called the "new atheism" and various other scientisms. In the end it matters not whether a person labels their eternal and immutable metaphysical truth blood, soil, God or 'natural' laws but only that such purveyors of nostalgia for the future believe they already know in what its perfection consists and are all too often prepared to act unilaterally and undemocratically upon it.

Anyway, when at this time of year we come to view our personal and corporate lives and see before us the considerable mending that needs to be done, it is not surprising that there arises within us an overwhelming ache for change. But the trouble is that this intense aching for some better way of being in the world so often causes us to heed our culture's shouted bad advice to seek our mending by accepting that there exists, and can be known before-hand, a perfect state of affairs.

It's worth noting that, at the personal level on January 1st, countless oppressive and totalitarian plans for perfection are hatched involving dieting, fitness, reading lists, this and million thats. At more macro levels countless oppressive and totalitarian religious and non-religious political plans are also hatched with similar aims, namely the creation of the pre-imagined more perfect and stable society.

Given this temptation how might it be possible to articulate, right here and now, a vision for a better, fairer and more just future world but which doesn't fall into this same trap - i.e. that of thinking we who envision it already know what the desired outcome is to be like?

Well, I believe one possibility we should explore in our liberal democracies is directly related to what I said in my address given on Christmas Day. I suggested there that the Nativity - the story of the incarnation of God, of God becoming human and dwelling amongst us - can be understood as an attempt to point, not to a perfect individual Divine being who has come into the world in a particular and definitive way imposing a finished conception of perfection on all - but, instead, to a whole new liberating style of being-in-the-world which disclosed an understanding of God/the divine as ongoing, self-emptying, self-giving *event*. It is a story which discloses a conception of God (and, therefore, of hope), not like that which undergirded the gods of old who were merely expressions of totalitarian power, dominion and violence, but as the lived, vulnerable life of loving service in which are blessed and have a voice 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. It is to this radically new style of being-in-the-world that I find I am trying to point towards when I say of the Christ-child in the crib - 'Look, that is what I mean by God.'

It is with this hopeful but deliberately weak theology in mind (Il pensiero debole) that I would like to consider our Biblical readings both of which have been culturally influential on the ways we imagine how the new will come.

(Click on the links below to read the short passages.)
Revelation 21:1-6
Isaiah 40:1-5

In the case of Revelation its author, John of Patmos, believes that the new and better life and world can be (in fact has been) articulated beforehand and is capable of appearing from on high (which includes the 'high' realms of theory) already fully formed and utterly independent from the old life and world which will, or so John believes, simply have passed away (in either cultural or material relevance). Although he doesn't say this explicitly I think we can take it that for him the old world (paradigm) feels to him as a wilderness because finds it no longer capable of bringing forth and sustaining in him a sense of deep and fulfilling meaning and worth. It is good for nothing and must, therefore, be done away with. Things are so bad, so unfruitful, that he cannot conceive how what he sees as the corrupt material (which includes ideas and stories) of this world could ever be the same material out of which a city of God could be built and so he hopes for an Omega which is, in truth, nothing less than the Alpha that he believes always was and which, more worryingly, he thinks he already knows all about.

On the other hand the prophet Isaiah feels that a new city of God will come about, not already fully formed from outside our world, but only in and through the material of our present and always unfolding world. It is brought into being whenever we are prepared to take our world's available material and then work hard to reshape, re-order and reinterpret it such a way that a new route towards a city of God appropriate to our own age and understanding shows up for us - making the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

Isaiah seems to have understood something that, thanks to Nietzsche and Heidegger et. al., our own contemporary culture has become increasingly aware about, as Gianni Vattimo puts it, that our understanding of the world is always 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others (and others beside us such as other cultures' (cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9).

In other words truth for Isaiah consists in working with the stuff of this world to disclose through collective interpretation a radically open highway along which a weak and vulnerable God will walk with his people (his children and, after Jesus, also his brothers and sisters) are to travel together in unfolding relationship. Such a conversational, dialectic journey is always capable of disclosing new and enlightening possibilities for being and so also new clearings and views that tend towards encouraging democracy rather than demagoguery.

It seems to me highly significant that Isaiah's vision stands at the head of the Gospels and not something like that expressed by John of Patmos.

However, the problem has always to be able to hear within the Christian tradition this quieter kind of call (the still small voice - 1 Kings 19:12) with sufficient force to feel confident in replying, as did Isaiah "Here am I! Send me" (Isaiah 6:8). Alas it remains aware that the louder more demagogic Alpha/Omegaery kinds of Christianity keep shouting their bad advice.

(An aside: It seems to me vital to continue to hold out against this last loud voice (and its new atheistic echo) because the hope found when you read Christianity in the weak, non-metaphysical way I do can finally be discharged and lived fully - a discharge that seems impossible when you keep to a strong, metaphysical understanding of Christianity.)

One person in our contemporary culture who it seems to me has consistently heard this quiet call amidst the shouted bad advice and has been capable of being herself a sounding board so it echoes it back to us in the more everyday language of our contemporary secular, pluralist culture is Mary Oliver. Here is her poem, The Journey (New and Selected Poems Vol. 1):

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Her poem recognises the strength of the weak call which is directed at each individual - for, in a true democracy there can be no mass co-coercion. But this individual call to mend your 'own life' is not the separating, individualistic call of neo-liberal consumerism but a call for us all to stride 'deeper and deeper into the world' and, as I said earlier, to know this world in this deeper way is to be called not into a coercive power-relationship with things and people (who stand apart from us as subjects and objects) but into an ongoing conversational relationship made up of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past and messages from others - including other cultures.

As we, as individuals and as a community standing in the liberal Christian tradition, contemplate at this time of year what we are to do in the coming year I think we can do nothing better than to heed the quiet and blessed still small, weak voice and enter into conversation with the world and each other and, in so doing say 'Hear am I! Send me!'

This is to begin to walk the holy road of democracy which leads to an open and unfolding city of God, both secular and sacred - a city whose creative ways of unfolding in conversation no one can ever fully know - not even God, for in this city God is a citizen like one of us. As we begin to live this way of being in the world we find we are walking towards, not the Kingdom of Heaven but the Republic of Heaven.

Happy New Year citizens.