Monday, 27 February 2012

This life can only be what it must be - a meditation for the first Sunday in Lent

Pitcher and Bowl from Miri Clay Pottery
Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page):  This life can only be what it must be - a meditation for the first Sunday in Lent - 26 February 2012

Wednesday was, as you know, Ash Wednesday and so we have now entered the season of Lent. The Lenten season finds its origin in the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before the start of his ministry. One of the season's chief aims is to provide a way and a space to help a person back into right relationship with the world. However, it is important to realise that this season doesn't yield up its fruits if it is entered simply as being a time of intellectual and abstract reflection because it's a time to be done and felt. It's a time for a deep, *embodied* reflection.

Spending time in a physical wilderness with the intention of bringing about some kind of deep change in a person is, of course, not a uniquely Christian practice but one which is found across cultures and times. But for many moderns, no matter what their culture, it has become increasingly hard to find real physical wildernesses - this is especially true for those of us who dwell in towns and cities. Consequently, there has come into play various ways by which we can experience some aspects of the embodied wilderness experience, the chief of which is the practice of fasting, not only from certain foods but also from festivities and habits which a person can see are, or have become, problematic. Added to the act of fasting (which is often understood in our Christian context as expressing the desire to show justice towards one's self) two other practices are also often *taken up* in Lent with a renewed passion. The first is prayer (understood as being an expression of our desire to show justice towards God) and the second is almsgiving (which is understood as being an expression of our desire to show justice towards our neighbour). Our reading from Isaiah (58:6-12) illustrates eloquently this taking up of something - in this case just acts - as a key aspect of in what consists a true fast:

. . . this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the LORD will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the LORD will answer. 'Yes, I am here,' he will quickly reply. Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The LORD will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.

It is this *taking up* of something that I want to speak about today and I wish to do it for two reasons. The first is the straightforward psychological problem that *giving up* something can often feel very negative and can encourage us to concentrate, I think, too much on the uncomfortable, and sometimes even painful, absence of the thing given up. The second reason is that, when understood in a certain way, the act of *taking up* some activity reveals to us something very primordial about what it is to be a human being. This is something which we all too often forget and which holds us back from having the authentic and meaningful life we both desire and feel is possible. Though in a second I'm going to start talking about our mortality (and therefore death) it is important to realise that I'm doing this as a way of helping us to live the authentic and meaningful life I've just mentioned.

Being a minister of religion an awareness of human mortality and the inevitability of death is necessarily for me a daily reality - it comes with the role. But I have come to appreciate that, at its best, such an awareness offers us all a way by which we might begin to liberate ourselves from many of the trivialities with which we can all too easily fill our lives. It can alert us to the fact that we would rather not be wasting our time on so many empty gestures and tasks but on the matter of actually being who we could most fully and meaningfully be - to have, as Jesus promised, our own unique life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Today's address is, then, about being wholly who we are but, as we shall see, what it is to be a *whole* human being is a great deal odder than we might at first imagine.

We can begin by thinking about the way we often try to define ourselves. So, for example, in my own mind I'm often tempted to define who I am by reference to two things - jazz musician and minister. But, as Richard Polt points out (in his "Heidegger - An Introduction" pp. 85-88 to whose insightful and admirably clear presentation of Heidegger's understanding of mortality I owe this whole section of my address) to say I'm essentially the combination of these two things, and *nothing else*, would be to eliminate my freedom to choose what I am going to make of myself in the days, weeks and years to come. The important thing to observe here is that even if I continue to be a musician and minister I am not just these things but a *chooser*. Now, because I'm a *chooser* I (nor you, nor anyone) cannot be grasped as a whole and finished thing because we are always constituted to be open to future possibility and change. But, you might be tempted to say, at the moment I die - which is the end of my being and possibilities in this world (and I speak not at all today about anything other than *this* life in *this* world) - do I then finally become a whole? But that feels very odd indeed (wrong, in fact) to say that "we are complete only when we no longer exist."

This gives us a clue that what it is to be whole *as a human being* is quite unique and extraordinary because it is to do with, on the one hand, the realisation of possibilities - I chose (and at the moment still choose) to be a musician and minister and not, say, an insurance broker - and, on the other hand, the elimination of all possibilities - I know that one day I will die. So to be a whole human being is about a "certain way of having possibilities in which these possibilities are limited." It is also important to see in this that for us "mortality is an *ongoing* condition, it's not a one-time event. Mortality is for us as living beings not an actual happening but always a possibility that lies at the heart of our existence. It, and all other possibilities - like being an insurance broker - only collapse to zero at our death - the ultimate limit of our own individual human possibility - but at that point this can no longer be of concern to us since we no longer exist.

Excursus - not in the sermon as given. Remember Epicurus' way of pushing against our fear of death:

1. Death is annihilation.
2. The living have not yet been annihilated (otherwise they wouldn’t be alive).
3. Death does not affect the living. (from 1 and 2)
4. So, death is not bad for the living. (from 3)
5. For something to be bad for somebody, that person has to exist, at least.
6. The dead do not exist. (from 1)
7. Therefore, death is not bad for the dead. (from 5 and 6)
8. Therefore death is bad for neither the living nor the dead. (from 4 and 7)

Now we can touch directly upon the Lenten theme of this address and the taking up of things rather than the giving up of them. Once you have understood that mortality must be understood as a possibility that belongs to human life one needs an authentic response to it.

All authentic human existence involves facing up to mortality, not by worrying about when our "demise may come but by accepting the limitation of our possibilities and choosing how to live in the light of this limitation."

Here I can leave Polt's words behind and return to George Kimmich Beach's parable of the bowl and the pitcher:

'. . . 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 I 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!'

To be wholly who we are is to be prepared to choose a possibility and have the courage to let others die away. To choose a the possibility of a bowl is to let die the possibility of a pitcher. When I chose fully to follow the possibility of becoming a jazz musician I let die the possibility of my becoming an orchestral double bass player. When I chose fully to follow the possibility of becoming a Unitarian and Free Christian minister, I let die the possibility of my becoming an Anglican priest. When I chose fully to follow the possibility of marrying Susanna, I let die the possibility of marrying any other woman. This is not to judge or see as second rate pitchers, orchestral musicians, Anglicans, or all other women - or any of the other possibilities I may have at times chosen to pursue - but simply to say that in order to be *wholly* and authentically who I could be I had to accept the limitation of my possibilities and had to choose how to live in the light of this limitation. Though, as with every life, it's at times been far from a bundle of laughs I continue to feel that this life, my life, can only be what it must be. For this I am profoundly grateful.

But your life, any human life, can only be felt to be *whole* in the way I have been pointing to when we are prepared fully to take up certain possibilities and be equally prepared to let others die away.

In Lent we practice this kind of letting die so that we can begin, or continue to live lives that show up to us (and others) as being authentic, meaningful, whole and abundant.

This year my own choice is to take up the possibility of drinking water for forty days and to let die away other drinking , mostly beer and the occasional gin and tonic and single malt. I do it in part for straightforward health reasons - like a lot of middle class people in the UK today I think I'm drinking a tad too much. But the real driver for me is that I fear that I do not always use water as mindfully as I should - an especially pressing issue since we in the UK are currently facing a serious drought. Water for all is a step towards justice for all and I feel I need to experience the sanctity of water more than I do at present.

Anyway, in Lent we are brought face to face the strange fact that to choose one possibility and to let another die away is not to be diminished but to helped towards a sense of wholeness. Only through this process can we have hope we will be able daily to say to ourselves that "this, my life, can only be what it must be!", to give grateful thanks and be encouraged better to play our part in helping others to be able to say the same of their own lives.

Friday, 24 February 2012

A visit to Anglesey Abbey

Susanna and I took the opportunity of another lovely early spring day to visit the gardens at Anglesey Abbey where the winter garden is still looking stunning and the snowdrops are out. Here are a few photos from the visit and the opening lines of Book One of Lucretius' poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)
since Venus makes an appearance in a couple of the photos.

From Lucretius' poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) 
translated by William Ellery Leonard
Book 1.1-28

Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands--for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun--
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
For soon as comes the springtime face of day,
And procreant gales blow from the West unbarred,
First fowls of air, smit to the heart by thee,
Foretoken thy approach, O thou Divine,
And leap the wild herds round the happy fields
Or swim the bounding torrents. Thus amain,
Seized with the spell, all creatures follow thee
Whithersoever thou walkest forth to lead,
And thence through seas and mountains and swift streams,
Through leafy homes of birds and greening plains,
Kindling the lure of love in every breast,
Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
Kind after kind. And since 'tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
Which I presume on Nature to compose
For Memmius mine, whom thou hast willed to be
Peerless in every grace at every hour - 
Wherefore indeed, Divine one, give my words
Immortal charm.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

A couple of photos from another ride into the Fens

A photograph of the Guvnor's front wheel taken by accident 
The Cambridgeshire Fens are for me a wonderful and mysterious place. Growing up in Kirby-le-Soken on the Tendring Peninsular with it's flat coastal landscape this is a region where I feel very much at home. Today, on a lovely warm early spring day, I took another ride on the Pashley Guvnor out to Burwell and back along the Lodes Way. Here are a just a few photographs from the ride. This time in black and white.

Dyson Drove, Burwell looking north-west towards the Lodes Way
Looking north-east along a drainage ditch near Tubney Fen
Looking north-east along a drainage ditch near Tubney Fen 
With the Guvnor on Burwell listening to the singing of dozens of skylarks

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Time-scissored work - the meaning-ful giftedness of fragments

Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page):  Time-scissored work - the meaning-ful giftedness of fragments - 12 February 2012  


John 6:1-14

Two poetic fragments by Sappho 
translated by Willis Barnstone

Afroditi and Desire 

It is not easy for us to equal
the goddess
in beauty of form   Adonis


poured nectar from
a gold pitcher
with hands Persausion

the Geraistion shrine
of no one

I shall enter desire

Return, Gongyla

A deed
your lovely face

if not, winter
and no pain

I bid you, Abanthis,
take up the lyre
and sing of Gongyla as again desire
floats around you

the beautiful. When you saw her dress
it excited you. I'm happy.
The Kypros-born once
blamed me

for praying
this word:
I want

Papyrus by Ezra Pound

Spring . . .
Too long . . .
Gongula . . .

Song by Robert Creeley

What do you
want, love. To be
loved. What,

what, wanted,
love, wanted
so much as love

like nothing
considered, no
feeling but

a simple
forgotten sits

in its feeling,
two things,
one and one.


We often like to think that full meaning, that which is truly meaning-ful, can only come from something that is, in itself, complete. It's a belief that it is only a complete and finished story that can tell us the deep truths we need to live by. (Underlying this is, of course, the belief that *the* real deep and finished story is the traditional monotheistic conception of God - the God who is beginning and end, Alpha and Omega.)

In our culture it should come as no surprise the collection of stories known as the Bible, has been believed to be complete and so a trustworthy guide to the truth of how to live. However, even the increasingly secular understanding of the Bible's texts that developed since the mid-nineteenth century with the rise of historical critical Biblical studies and in particular the influential search for the historical Jesus maintained this hope albeit in a different way. We began to think that, if only we could get better historical (archaeological, documentary or theological/philosophical) evidence, get back to the original words and their original meaning, fill in the gaps and so know more of the complete story, we would slowly close in on the kind of truth we can really live by or even decisively reject. In either case this historical critical process would itself bring us closer to accessing and owning the full meaning of the Biblical texts. But after countless hours expended in scholarly literary, philological, anthropological and archaeological pursuits all we have really been able to do is confirm how fragmentary the texts are and also how fragmentary remains our knowledge of the times, peoples and events about which the Bible relates.

This fragmentary nature of our texts and knowledge can be felt negatively but I think that it is something positive, which can ground our liberal attitude and practices and which we should celebrate. Today's address tries to gesture towards this positive point, a point which showed up for me because next Tuesday is Valentine's Day - the day upon which lovers (or would be lovers) express their love to each other by exchanging gifts of various kinds - and I was minded at least to try and write an address connected with the day.

As most of you will know, apart from the Bible I tend to draw upon illustrations and inspiration from the poets but I have to say that, in general, love poetry is not my favourite literary genre. However, one poet, very famous across over two millennia for her love poetry, has continued to sustain, bewitch and intrigue me throughout my literate years - Sappho. And so to her I returned.

Sappho was, as most of you know, a Greek poet born between 630 and 612 BC and who died around 570 BC. Very little is known about her life but we do know that her poetry was greatly admired throughout antiquity and was placed upon the later Greek's definitive list of nine lyric poets. However, over the years, like many other ancient authors, nearly all of her poetry has been lost to us. Of the more than five hundred poems that she wrote only about two thousand lines which fit into intelligible fragments have survived. However, her reputation has continued to live vibrantly into our own age and culture thanks to her recorded reputation in other authors' works and to an oddity concerning the way that many of the fragments of her poetry that we do have actually survived.

Willis Barnstone
Although very few fragments of her poetry survived in Greece itself, in 1879, in an oasis in Egypt, a great deal of new material was discovered. In Egypt, as you might expect, her poetry was written on papyri and, by coincidence, papyri was also used to make the papier-mâché used in wrapping mummies. In unwrapping the mummies discovered in this oasis it turned out that Sappho's poetry (and of course much other work besides her own) provided the raw material for their wrappings. To make this papier-mâché the papyri were torn into strips and in consequence, as Willis Barnstone (one of Sappho's modern translators) puts it:

'The mummy makers of Egypt transformed much of Sappho into columns of words, syllables, or single letters, and so made her poems look, at least typographically, like Apollinaire's or e. e. cummings' shaped poems. The miserable state of many of the texts has produced surprising qualities. So many words and phrases are elliptically connected in a montage structure that chance destruction has delivered pieces of strophes that breathe experimental verse. Her time-scissored work is not quite language poetry, but a more joyful cousin of the eternal avant-garde, which is always and ever new. So Sappho is ancient and, for a hundred reasons, modern.' (Sweetbitter Lover by Sappho trans. Willis Barnstone p. xxix)

We saw in our readings how this time-scissored shaping has also directly inspired the work of a number of modern poets like Ezra Pound and Robert Creeley. I included Creeley's very Sappho-esque poem "Song" (p. 319) because I first pondered upon it during the summer I fell in love with Susanna (my wife).

Anyway, today, there is no doubt that Sappho's body of work, though fragmentary, forms one of our culture's great texts. Now, in relation to the greatness of texts, a few weeks back I cited the philosopher Iain Thomson who said that:

Iain Thomson
'. . . 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).

What I want us to see today is that the greatness of Sappho's texts - their meaning-ful quality for our culture - stems, as you now know, not at all from their completeness but precisely from their incompleteness.

(Excursus - not given in the address: In this I've often thought that they closely resemble our country's monastic ruins because, although their ruinous state still clearly speaks of a life centred around the contemplation of God, their startlingly visible state of destruction also let's in more light than was ever possible when the building was complete. Standing in those ruins I have often wondered whether, in fact, the ruined, incomplete state of the buildings doesn't better suit how we contemplate the world and God today than could, or now can, any complete building. Back in 2008 I was exploring with you the idea of what would church look like if we came to it in the same way we came into a garden - here's an echo of that thought which I'll just leave leave reverberating today.)

But when you really think about it - and here I arrive at the thing to which I wish to draw your attention - what is *obviously* true of Sappho's texts (and ruined monastic buildings) also turns out to be true of even those great texts we think of as most complete and fixed - as some people have claimed and still claim the Bible is.

But this belief they are complete is clearly nonsense for whenever we engage with these texts imaginatively rather than dogmatically we find that even the most complete of them is full of lacunae - gaps where we find that, as we begin to read, we suddenly find we have ourselves entered into the text and begun to inhabit it in a living way. We enter ourselves into the narrative and we become part of the story. In this encounter the story changes us and, because of its depth, what the story tells us is also changed - in this encounter we, it and the world around can suddenly start to show up differently or disclose to us new things.

Entering procatively into a living relationship like this with one of our culture's great texts (i.e. not passively approaching it as a fixed complete thing that we bow down before and which we believe will tell us 'what it is all about') - entering proactively into a living relationship with one of our culture's great texts is somewhat like going hitchhiking. The philosopher Freya Mathews illustrates this nicely in her book 'Reinhabiting Reality - Towards a Recovery of Culture'. In this quotation Mathews is not talking about texts but our wider world and I'll return to that thought in a second. Suffice it to say here that texts are, of course, part of our world:

Freya Mathews
'The modes of proactivity in question are those that work with, rather than against, the grain of the given. By this I mean there are forms of energetic flow and communicative influence already at play in the world. An agent [potentially you and me] in this mode is a kind of metaphysical hitchhiker, catching a ride in a vehicle that is already bound for her destination. Or, more usually, via the hitchhiker's communicative engagement with the driver of the vehicle, both the hitchhiker's own plans and those of those of the driver are changed. The vehicle heads for a destination that neither the hitchhiker nor the driver had previously entertained, but which now seems more in accordance with their true will than either of their previous destinations' (Freya Mathews: Reinhabiting Reality - Towards a Recovery of Culture, 2005, SUNY Press, NY, p. 39).

Now this liberating and creative way of understanding what it is to be in the world is only possible because our greatest and culturally enduring texts are those which are open and, in the way I have outlined, incomplete and fragmentary. But this is not only true of our texts but reality itself. Iain Thomson follows his note I cited earlier about great texts by expressing his wish to get even his first year philosophy students to see that '"reality" itself is perhaps the greatest of these great texts."

Jacques Maritain 
It seems to me that the abundant and meaning-ful life is had by being always prepared, as Jesus advised in our reading (John 6:1-14) to "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost". The community gathered around Jesus that day were fed by gathering up fragments in the first place and then by gathering up the abundant fragments left from that encounter - enough to fill twelve baskets and to sustain still more people another day. It's a reminder that, as Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) once said: 'Things are not only what they are, they give more than they have.'

This is why I always conclude our period of open conversation which immediately follows the giving of this address with some words by Sarah York:

'We receive fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts they are and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown.'

All this is a reminder that our culture's great texts are never given to us objectively as complete, finished things with a fixed eternal meaning lying at their core but only given to us through our involvement with them. And our involvement with them always changes the text and always changes us and we both end up at a destination that is, sometimes a little, but sometimes also a great deal different from where we expected we were going.

And more importantly than this, that reality itself (which includes us) is never given to us objectively as complete, and finished with an fixed eternal meaning lying its core but only given to us through our involvement with it.

This kind of proactive engagement is characterised by love - not romantic love, but erotic love - the kind of love about which Sappho wrote. By this I mean a deep, intimate, engaged and literally touching love for our world in which infinite fragments (which include us and our texts) continually commingle and endlessly give birth to new, often unexpected and deeply meaning-ful expressions of life.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Upholding of the liberal Christian tradition - the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association hold 'intentional' meetings

As most readers of this blog will know as a minister on the roll of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches I'm committed to upholding the GA's object in its entirety:

To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition.

It is, as many of you will also know, the last clause which so often gets excised in many contemporary Unitarian circles in the UK as an embarrassment to be deleted and forgotten at the soonest opportunity. Anyway, given my passion for the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition the following press release of intentional talks between the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in the USA comes as a pleasant and intriguing surprise. Click on the link below to read this press release:

UCC, UUA members break ground with first 'intentional' meeting

Over the past twelve years as minister to the Memorial Church (Unitarian) Cambridge  I have had some close and fruitful connections with UCC ministers and, at the moment, we have one of their ministerial students, Ryan Sirmons, on a light-touch placement with us whilst he studies at Westminster College, Cambridge. It was he who alerted me to this article and this makes it a doubly pleasant piece of news to share with you all.

Any other news and views from folk on this will be gratefully received. Just post a comment.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

In praise of craziness of a certain kind - a winter meditation on love

The church bird-bath in the snow this morning
Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page): In praise of craziness of a certain kind - a winter meditation on love - 5 February 2012

We start some words by Martin Heidegger from a 1964 TV interview which alert us to something very important about what it is to be a human being, something which we all too often fail to see. I am grateful to Iain Thomson for bringing my attention to it in a recent paper of his in which he gives an interpretation of Heidegger's words, an interpretation with which I begin this address. However, I must take full responsibility for what I then go on to say about it in relationship to Mary Oliver's poem In Praise of Craziness, of a Certain Kind. I have to say that, on re-reading this address as I post it here (and record it for the podcast) I think it is, perhaps, itself a little crazy, a little deranged but, since that is, in part, its subject matter, this may be no bad thing. That love is this address' other subject, and that love can make us a little crazy, makes me feel 'happier' to risk publication.

So, Heidegger said:

'I would say: no human being is without religion. And: Every human being, in a certain sense, opens beyond himself [über sich hinaus]; that means [we are each] deranged [ver-rückt].'

Heidegger spent a great deal of time trying to help us see that, for all of us, the content of what we call our 'selves' is, for the most part, wholly unchosen and is gifted to us from even before our birth when we are, extraordinarily, thrown into a pre-existing world. To be a human being is always-already to be in a particular culture, a particular geographical place, a particular time and a particular epoch. For a great deal of the time, of course, we never even notice this and nor, therefore, our many inherited cultural traditions because, as Heidegger noted elsewhere, '[t]radition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence' (Being and Time p.43 [21]). It is important to see here, as Iain Thomson notes, that

'Thrown into a world we did not make (and whose influence we can never render wholly transparent to ourselves), we all understand ourselves in terms of belief systems which we can never fully reconstitute and re-appropriate. All of us thus remain inextricably *bound* to these larger belief systems whose truth each of us always takes partly on faith; and in this literal sense, Heidegger suggests, we are each "religious" (from the Latin religare, "to bind")' (Thomson, Iain 2011 'Transcendence and the problem of other worldly nihilism: Taylor, Heidegger, Nietzsche', Inquiry 54:2, 140-159)

So, whether we feel we are conventionally religious or not (and choose to call ourselves atheists or humanists) who we are is to be bound inextricably to innumerable ideas and beliefs not all of which have, or even can be, validated by personal experience and which we simply hold on the basis of faith.

When Heidegger goes on to say that every human being, in a certain sense, opens beyond him- or herself he is pointing to this complex of larger belief systems. The point he wants us to see, and it is what I concentrate on today, is that, in consequence, what it is to be a human being is not to be some discrete, closed in, wholly independent and rationally constructed creature (entity), but a much more open kind of being in the world that is always-already indissolubly commingled with a phenomenally pluralistic world.

This kind of open being (it is what we *are* - i.e. we are not simply beings that *become*) is one of the things he is trying to get us to see when he continues by saying 'Every human being, in a certain sense, opens beyond himself [über sich hinaus]; that means [we are each] deranged [ver-rückt].' Now to be de-ranged in this sense is to say that we are always-already unbounded or "opened up" to and commingled in a very complex world.

But he's also trying to remind us that, when we really try think through what makes us who and what we think we are we find, NOT a wholly ordered, logical and rational, fully accessible structure but a complex 'disar-ranged' opaque weave of inherited things (passed over to) us by our complex culture which, to repeat, not all of which have, or even can be, validated by our personal experience and rational thought. Heidegger is, therefore, in a provocative joking way, saying that to be human is, in a certain way, always to be religious and 'deranged' or, as the more common way the German word 'verrückt' is translated into English, 'crazy'. We're all religious and crazy.

Now I find this a helpful idea to think through or play with and I was doing this during the week in the middle of Britain's first real period of winter this year (see picture at the top of the blog and a couple more at the end). This wholly contingent connection of craziness and cold brought back to mind Mary Oliver's poem 'In Praise of Craziness, of a Certain Kind':

On cold evenings
my grandmother,
with ownership of half her mind -
the other half having flown back to Bohemia -

spread newspapers over the porch floor
so, she said, the garden ants could crawl beneath,
as under a blanket, and keep warm,

and what shall I wish for, for myself,
but, being so struck by the lightning of years,
to be like her with what is left, that loving.

It's a touching and very moving poem which I have explored with you one Mothering Sunday back in 2010. There I noted that, although I've now seen many people who, struck by the lightning of years, exhibit forms of behaviour that do not express a mothering kind of love, even in those most difficult of contexts, I have time and again seen the mothering instinct come out in the great love, care and concern shown by the friends and carers (both professional and familial) who surround the person who we now find to be verrückt, deranged or crazy.

With this kind of loving Oliver concludes her poem and with it I'll also end today's address. But reflecting on Heidegger's words this week something new and hopeful showed up for me in the poem that I have not seen until now and which I'd like to bring before you to consider.

I find that I've consistently read this poem as being one which, in part, centres on the loss of self; in this case the loss of Oliver's grandmother's self. But, in the light of Heidegger's words, I think this is not a good reading, not least of all because it obscures something about very powerful about the nature of love and how it shows up in our world.

In her first two stanzas Oliver simply places before us, in a completely non-emotional way, two phenomena. The first is that her mother appears not to be in full control of herself (she is de-ranged) - at least half the time she appears 'elsewhere', either in Bohemia, the place of her birth and, during the other half of her time, this de-rangement is revealed in some unusual deeds. The second phenomenon is one such unusual deed that her mother now performs - spreading newspapers over the porch floor on cold evenings so that the garden ants can crawl beneath, as under a blanket, and keep warm - a deed which looks decidedly 'verrückt', deranged or, in as Oliver's title suggests, crazy. But, remember, Oliver tells us in the title that she thinks it's a craziness of a *certain* kind. The question we must ask is what is the kind of craziness to which she is pointing and what might make it meaning-ful for us?

I think the craziness that Oliver sees and tries to point us towards in her grandmother is something like that to which Heidegger was pointing, something that is primordially true about humankind as a whole, namely, that all of us are always crazy in a certain way, are deranged, 'verrückt'. All our actions come out of such derangement.

But, of course, that's clearly not all Oliver is concerned to point us towards because she concludes the poem with a grateful recognition that out of this derangement, this craziness, there has come the loving that her grandmother displays to the ants and her own wish that she, too, when struck by the lightning of years will, with what is left, be that loving.

That Oliver makes this love's appearance in us only a wish (a hope) - rather than suggesting or claiming it will happen - reveals that she knows that this loving can never be *guaranteed* to turn up, every time, in anyone of us. Oliver is too wise a poet to fall into such a sentimental notion - she (and we) know only too well that hatred and enmity can also show up.

But let us look at what love is. The key thing to observe is that human love is, by it's nature, always verrückt, deranged, and a little crazy, as Freddie Mercury of Queen so wonderfully expressed it in his 1979 hit with Queen, a 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love'. (We also commonly talk about being 'madly in love'.) To fall in love is to fall into the world and for us to fall into the world the door of our being has to be open - our being has to be itself verrückt, deranged, crazy. And, to that love, we are bound.

Now, is not the world itself - in it's constant co-mingling and openness - somewhat like love in this regard? It's being, too, is verrückt, deranged, crazy. You may baulk at this and say ah, but we know there are laws of nature which are not at all like love, not at all crazy. At a certain level I'll concede this point, but our presence in the world reveals that these same laws have been shown to be able contingently commingle things and to allow to shine forth, bring into being, poets, grandmothers, ants, you, me, lovers and friends and, for all we know, countless other life forms in the universe, and that all of them will in some way at some point act lovingly and fall crazily in love with some one or some thing. There's no need to point to a underlying divine rational plan for this showing up of love - we need only point to our wonderful, open contingent deranged world.

The miracle is that this open contingent derangement let's love show up for us, again and again. As I have just said, we know that hatred and enmity also show up, but it is important to see that, when they show up, hatred and enmity are characterised by a closing down, by a refusal to remain open to the complexity and contingency of the world, by a refusal to fall into the world and love.

Consequently, I want to suggest that love is more attuned to the way the world seems to work (and ultimately, therefore, more powerful) than are hatred and enmity and this is perhaps why love continues to press itself upon us throughout human history, even in the darkest of moments, as being the best way (or mood) that we should cultivate and adopt as the basis for our living and acting together (with each other, ants and all other entities in our world/universe).

Might it be possible to say, then, that when we are in love (in that mood) we understand better how to work with the grain of the world and are, therefore, better able to create (build) out of the unique, deranged, crazy weave that is both our individual lives and our collective life the greatest possible flourishing and meaning-ful society?

Hate and enmity are, of course, in their own way deranged and crazy but it is not the open, creative de-ranged craziness Heidegger saw, that Oliver's grandmother displayed and which Oliver, and we also, wish to embody.

The craziness of a certain kind that Oliver praises is, I'll suggest today, a faith that the human world and the physical universe seem to be constituted in a way that keeps showing up love as being *like* a divine command from beyond our world - a command from what our culture has traditionally called God. It is a faith that inspired people like Jesus and his disciple John to make love central to our lives - so central, in fact, that John was deranged enough to say God is love (I John 4:8, 16).

Today we may doubt (rightly in my opinion) the reality of such a transcendent God but this need not mean we have loose the feeling that to love one another is *like* a command from God and to give profound thanks and praise whenever, where-ever, and in whomsoever we see that love made visible.

The Memorial Church (Unitarian) in the snow

A snowy Cambridge roof-scape from the Manse

The church garden in the snow

Friday, 3 February 2012

Another spin out into the fens

As Britain enters a proper cold spell, today turned out to be a perfect winter day for a ride - sunny, dry, fairly still and refreshingly cold. So I thought I'd take the Guv'nor out on the 31 mile route I took last week - out to QuyBottisham, the Swaffham Bulbeck and Burwell and then back into Cambridge along the Lodes Way. Lovely. The photos below are of Burwell Lode and Fen which is one of the lowest parts of the Cambridgeshire fens - in places nearly two metres below sea level.

Looking east along Burwell Lode
Looking west along Burwell Lode

Looking up to the top of Burwell Lode from the cycle path on Burwell Fen

With the Guv'nor by Burwell Lode