Sunday, 29 April 2012

An archaeologist of morning - Charles Olson as scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven?

Charles Olson teaching
In July 2016 a more fully developed version of the idea at the heart of this address became part of a presentation I gave to the annual Sea of Faith conference in Leicester. If you would like to read that please click on the following link.

The freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today—becoming Free Spirits and Archeologists of Morning

Mark 1:35-38:
And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, Jesus went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed. And Simon and they that were with him followed after him. And when they had found him, they said unto him, All men seek for thee. And he said unto them, Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth.

Matthew 13:52:
Jesus said: "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

Henry David Thoreau from Walden, ch. 2 Where I Lived:
The present was my next experiment of this kind, which I purpose to describe more at length, for convenience putting the experience of two years into one. As I have said, I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbours up.

Charles Olson from "The Present is Prologue" in Collected Prose eds. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, University of California Press 1997 p. 205-207:
My shift is that I take it the present is prologue, not the past. The instant, therefore, is its own interpretation, as a dream is, and any action - a poem, for example. Down with causation . . . And yrself: you, as the only reader and mover of the instant. You, the cause. No drag allowed, on either. Get on with it.
In the work and dogmas are: (1) How by form, to get the content instant; (2) what any of us are by the work on ourself, how to make ourself fit instruments for use (how we augment the given - what used to be called our fate); (3) that there is no such thing as duality either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact in the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one (yrself done right, whatever you are, in whatever job, is the thing - all hierachies, like dualities, are dead ducks). 
[. . .] 
I find it akward to call myself a poet or writer. If there are no walls there are no names. This is the morning, after the dispersion, and the work of the morning is methodology: how to use oneself, and on what. That is my profession. I am an archaeologist of morning.


An image often found in spiritual writing is that of the morning. Almost universally, getting up early to pray or meditate is understood as a good and cleansing practice, one which prepares one well for the necessary work to be done. My question in this address is what is it about the image (and actuality) of morning that is so powerful for the theological mind?

My own key loci classici for this "morning spirituality" are the passages you heard earlier from the Gospel of Mark (1:35-38) and Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" (Where I Lived - Ch. 2). Over the years both of them have powerfully and continually encouraged me to try it - not least of all in a number of visits to the Benedictines at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of White (and, boy do they do early . . .). Alas, natural proclivity plus a life spent as a professional jazz musician has always cut against it. Consequently it is true to say that in my own life early mornings have almost only ever been experienced after the long gig and subsequent drive home and, more often than not, I've observed the sun rise, not like Jesus, ready to go "into the next towns" nor like Thoreau to "brag as lustily as chanticleer", but simply to my bed and to a long, long sleep.

Given that such an actual morning spirituality seems definitively closed off to me, a question that has remained with me throughout my life is whether something of what is meant by the "morning" is available to more crepuscular creatures like me, perhaps under another practice or form? In short what is being elicited when these writers use the image of morning?

As I have noted elsewhere I take it that these authors wrote what they did because they experienced in the morning 'certain conditions in which their minds were set in motion' (Michael McGhee: Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice CUP 2000, p. 124) which allowed 'something [to] well up in the inner reaches of their consciousness' (William James quoted by McGhee p. 17). These authors then tried to communicate their experience to us through means of 'aesthetic ideas and images' - in this case those associated with early morning; in other words they 'gave us an approximation of this experience and, in so doing, gave it the semblance of objective reality' (McGhee p. 119).

What I'm trying to do today is, in my own words - which are a kind of variation or phantasy on a theme by Charles Olson - to make what feels to be a meaningful and legitimate expression that approximates to what I have long felt Mark and Thoreau were doing when they talked about morning.

Olson's work as poet and prose writer has long been of interest to me since I picked up his early study of Herman Melville (called "Call Me Ishmael") in the Arts Council funded poetry bookshop in Colchester where I had my first job after leaving school in 1983. The manager who had Olson's work in stock was an extraordinary man, himself a poet, called John Row. I later went on do a number of wonderful, madcap tours around the UK, East Germany and Poland with his avant-garde music and poetry collective called "John Row's Sound Proposition". On one tour John, seeing my growing interest in Olson, lent me Martin Duberman's book about the experimental, interdisciplinary school set up in 1933 in North Carolina called Black Mountain College which, before it's closure in 1957, managed to attract a faculty that included many of America's most important artists, composers, dancers, poets, and designers. Olson became College Rector during the second half of its life and at the same time amongst the teaching staff were a number of other figures whose work became central to my own formation: the composers John Cage and Stefan Wolpe, the poet Robert Creeley, the dancer Merce Cunningham and the architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller.

If you click on this link you can see some excerpts from a documentary film called Fully Awake about Black Mountain College.

The trailer for the film can be found here.

Olson, in one of his most influential prose pieces, "The Present is Prologue" (1952) wrote the words you heard earlier whilst he was at the College. Going back to them after many years I can see how clearly they mark out the particular path I have come to follow since those days.

Pause, of a dramatic kind . . .

Now, the way I have just told my story comes, of course, very naturally because Olson's words, written sixty years ago and read by me nearly thirty years ago, are in some obviously real sense in the past and so could be thought of as forming a prologue to who I now am now, speaking to you in the present about this subject.

But it should be clear that telling my story in this way cuts completely against Olson's feeling that it is *not* the past which is prologue but the present, this moment now. What does he mean?

Well, we may begin by observing that one of Olson's major concerns throughout his career was how to get himself, his students and his readers away from theories about the world and back into a lived and experienced world. A key way he thought this could be affected was breaking down what he came to think were the many artificial barriers that existed in our North Atlantic culture. It has long seemed to me that one of the reasons he took the post of Rector at Black Mountain College was because the anarchic interdisciplinary nature of the place deliberately transgressed traditional academic boundaries and brought together an astonishing range of endeavours from both the so-called humanities and the so-called sciences. Olson thought they all belonged together in a kind of geography, a complex horizon of human life within which one could, and should, be free to wander, looking, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling and telling.

When he says "If there are no walls there are no names" it is to this interdisciplinary geography that he is referring. He resists being called a poet or a writer because if there are no walls then these names, poet and writer, really don't tell you much about what he's really up to only what he does with what he's up to.

Olson saw that there was another way to educate people, namely in an institution that existed after the dispersion of artificial boundaries and this was a kind of new morning, a moment and time where one was genuinely opened up to the fullest possibilities of action that could spring from the whole human endeavour and from which one could begin to do one's work in a new way, whether as a artist (so-called) or a scientist (so-called). This way of proceeding required a new methodology and I'll come to that in a moment but firstly I want to point to something else.

As I've just said, in terms of the split between disciplines, Olson wanted to pull down all artificial walls to allow the possibility of there being a free and instantaneous movement between them. But things didn't stop there because Olson wanted to pull down *all* the walls in our culture which created dualisms - especially those which created the apparently separate realms of the "body" and "soul" and the "world" and the "individual." Please note as I say this that there is a great deal of difference between "differences" and "dualisms" - Olson is challenging dualisms, not differences. As an early example of a post-modernist difference is very important to Olson.

Anyway, it should be obvious that in doing this one wall that for him came tumbling down was that which divided in a dualistic way what we have learnt to call past and that which we have learnt to call the present. He became acutely aware that in every living, alert whole human being the memories of the past (so-called) were not past at all but were the always-already present resonances that are the very condition human possibility, growth, knowledge and meaning, the very  possibility, here and now, to able to do anything at all and, energised with this possibility, to take the next step into a new day.

Like Gianni Vattimo, although some forty years earlier, Olson saw that reality, our world, is always-already '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).

It was into this rich cultural soil that, in his poetry and prose, he sought to dig, just like an archaeologist, in order to find things that were both new to us but which were also, paradoxically, old. In undertaking this task Olson seems to me to be enacting that which is gestured towards in Jesus' teaching that "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (Matthew 13:52).

Olson called this "treasure", this always-already present soil the "morning" because, when paid attention to and without beforehand dividing it up artificially into science here and the arts there, the past behind us and the future before, this soil's natural complexity was always capable of gifting us some unique combination of different things which could suddenly and unexpectedly show up and shine for us in a way that called us, irresistibly, to our work whether that was to an act of new justice and compassion, the composition of a new poem, piece of music or a dance, to see a new way to build a house or construct a dome and, like Jesus, to be impelled to tell about what you have seen to the "next towns" or, like Thoreau, "to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake [your] neighbours up."

Olson's educational point was to say to everyone he met and taught, either in person or indirectly through his work, that our rich cultural soil was always ready to give up to anyone who cared to look and to dig, a new light on things, a new way to see the world and to be in it. In short, every day, every hour and every minute of our life was, potentially at least, a new morning and not just when our natural sun was rising. All we had to do was "get on with it" and become ourselves an archaeologist of morning.


If you want to know a little more about Olson I post below the six episodes of a film about him called Polis is This made available on Youtube by the director Henry Ferrini:

Thursday, 26 April 2012

David Holzman recording Stefan Wolpe's "Passacaglia"

I've long been a fan of the composer Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972). I stumbled across him during my late teens because of his connection with Black Mountain College where a couple of my literary (Charles Olson and Robert Creeley) and musical (John Cage) heroes worked during the 1940s and 50s. I'm thinking about and listening to Wolpe's music at the moment because this Sunday one of the readings I'll be using is from Olson's short essay called "The Present is Prologue" and to read Olson is (for me) simultaneously to hear Wolpe's music - not least of all because his music figures in the intriguing documentary about Olson called Polis is This.

Anyway, one of Wolpe's famous piano pieces (notoriously difficult to play) is one of his Four Pieces on Basic Rows called Passacaglia. I have  long enjoyed David Tudor's 1954 performance of the piece reissued in 1996 by Hat Art but an idle surf of internet this week revealed that there is a new(ish) recording of the piece by David Holzman on Volume 6 of Bridge Record's recordings of Wolpe's music. It is a remarkable performance and the whole CD is also technically very fine in terms the recording. Bridge Records have also thoughtfully posted a video of Holzman recording the piece. I found it captivating and re-post it here for your delectation and in the hope you might check out the CD.

David Holzman's essay on Wolpe from his previous CD release of Wolpe's music can be read here.

More details about Stefan Wolpe can be found at the following site:
Stefan Wolpe Society

Sunday, 22 April 2012

On inhabiting our energising paradox

On a day when our church is to hold its AGM it makes sense to spend a little time considering our institution, its foundation and its nature. By a happy coincidence, which may also be thought of as a gift of grace, during the week I was reading something Jacques Derrida said about institutions in general that seems to me to be helpful in understanding what a church, institutionally speaking, such as this is.

In the Summer of 1996 Derrida was speaking at a roundtable discussion at Villanova University in Pennsylvania to inaugurate their new doctoral program in philosophy. He said:

"The paradox in the instituting moment of an institution is that, at the same time as it starts something new, it also continues something, is true to the memory of the past, to a heritage, to something we receive from the past, from our predecessors, from the culture. If an institution is to be an institution, it must to some extent break with the past, keep the memory of the past, while inaugurating something absolutely new" (John D. Caputo (ed.), Deconstruction in a Nutshell: Conversation with Jacques Derrida, Fordham University Press, 1996, p. 6).

In expressing this his desire was that institutions should be open to their own future as that particular, distinct institution and not another.

We'll come to our own openness to the future later on but firstly, taking Derrida's words as a starting point what was our own community's inaugurating moment? Clearly the first is the "event that transpired in Jesus and which knocked Paul off his horse and delivered a shock to the world" (cf. John D. Caputo in "After the Death of God" p. 82). This event founded the whole complex tradition of institutions that collectively became known as the Christian church. Although this Church was in its first blooming a radically plural institution once a form of Christianity was adopted by Constantine the realities of empire slowly allowed for the development of an increasingly dominant force within it, i.e. that which was centred upon Rome and the Popes.

As we know by the sixteenth century this power had become problematic in all kinds of ways and the general protest against it, the Reformation, was what led to what we might more meaningfully be called our particular moment of institutional foundation. The event, which occurred on June 10, 1565 in the Polish town of Brzeziny, was the calling of the first synod of the "Minor Reformed Church of Poland", better known today by the name of the Polish Brethren. The synod was convened after Peter Gonesius (Piotr of Goniądz) had spoken out against the doctrine of the Trinity during the general synod of the Reformed (Calvinist) churches of Poland held in Secemin in January (22) of the same year. As disagreement which revealed the need for the articulation of an alternative institutional voice. (An valuable short introduction to this community can be found in Racovia by Phillip Hewett.)

Returning to Derrida's words we can see that in their synod the Polish Brethren inaugurated something absolutely new and unexpected. In questioning the doctrine of the Trinity they inaugurated something of much more general importance than the challenging of a single doctrine, namely, the right to question what had become for their culture unquestioned theological answers and to go on to suggest alternative answers born out of other legitimate readings of their foundational text - the Bible. They knew - first hand I might add - that asserting this right was dangerous because it opened the door to real difference and threatened the status quo. It made them not just heretics but really major heretics. In the picture at the top of this post you will see that their first great theologian, Faustus Socinus is derided as "magnus hæreticus"! In consequence the Polish Brethren also began to develop the equally radical new idea of religious tolerance both for their own views and those of others. For them this assertion came to it's first full flowering in some words found in their catechism of 1605 - the Racovian Catechism. I print these words each week on our own order of service:

"Whilst we declare our own opinions, we oppress no one. Let every person enjoy the freedom of their own judgement in religion; only let it be permitted to us also to exhibit our view of divine things, without injuring and calumniating others."

Yet, for all this breaking in of the new, they were also absolutely clear about their desire to be true to a tradition and to a memory of the past that they found expressed most succinctly in the Biblical text. They may have been radicals but make no mistake about it, they understood themselves to be continuing something important.

Consequently, we can see that our foundation as an institution is exactly the kind paradox of which Derrida spoke. On the one hand out of a memory of the past - especially by attempting better to follow the radical example of Jesus and we formed an actual, extant Christian community with deep roots in past stories and practices. On the other hand, we also consciously opened ourselves up, not only to the right of differing viewpoints to exist, but also to the idea that these same viewpoints should to be taken seriously and, wherever possible, engaged with - especially in the public, civic sphere. In this we helped give birth to the modern idea of toleration and civil and religious liberty.

By the eighteenth century our community's overall attitude was perhaps no better nor more succinctly summed up than by the English Unitarian minister and chemist Joseph Priestley, who said:

"But should free inquiry lead to the destruction of Christianity itself, it ought not, on that account, to be discontinued; for we can only wish for the prevalence of Christianity on the supposition of its being true; and if it fall before the influence of free inquiry, it can only do so in consequence of its not being true" (Joseph Priestley, 'The Importance and Extent of Free Inquiry in Matters of Religion: A Sermon, in P.Miller (ed.), Joseph Priestley: Political Writings, Cambridge: CUP, 1993, p. xxiv).

Here we see developing a kind of faith that was no longer understanding itself as being an ideology we could ever know was absolutely true but was instead something that remained radically open towards its future, something that would at a certain level always be a possible object, or a possible system of claims about the world whose truth could only be determined by a living commitment to, and participation in, an ongoing and genuinely open-ended conversation with the whole of society and the whole range of human knowledge.

One of the key pieces of new knowledge that has broken over our horizon of being since Priestley's time and which I need to note here, because it makes such a significant difference for us today, is that we can now see that the way we use language in religion is not the way we use language in the natural sciences. Also, that what truth is, and how and for what purpose it is used, is understood differently in the religious context to the way it is understood in the natural sciences. For our tradition science and religion are complimentary human endeavours.

It seems to me that it is only when this paradox - between a real Christian rootedness and a genuinely radical openness to difference - is consciously kept alive at the very heart of our community that today we have any hope of continuing to access and release our tradition's liberal and radical energy.

The problem is that at this time in our history there are many people (both within and outside our particular institution and tradition) who would like to collapse this always difficult paradox to a singularity, to one side or the other. On the one hand there are those who would like us to land definitively on the side of our inherited Christian tradition and to claim that only on its shore will it be possible to build an effective liberal religious institution which can move us into our true future. On the other hand there are those who would like us to land definitely on the side of open-ended change and to insist that we must let go of our distinctive traditions and roots and move into an undiffentiated pluralistic landscape. For such people only this approach will move us into our true future. But either of these moves, if and when acted on, as they sometimes are, cuts dangerously against our community's own unique way of being and effectively destroys the paradox which is nothing less than the very source or engine of our liberalism and openness.

Jesus' parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30) is a good illustration of this tension, this paradox, at work in the world. (This parable has been used many times by those who are pushing for religious toleration.) On the one hand we have a duty and a calling, a history as farmers of a particular crop and not another, to sow what is for us our good wheat - in other words to sow our tradition. This wheat is what we feel best sustains us and our community and so, of course, we sow - we'd be foolhardy not to. Yet, even as we sow we know that there are other forces in the world that seemingly cut against our own way of being in a fashion that they can at times make them seem as if they were our enemies. They, too, are sowing in the world, the same world as the one in which we sow. From time immemorial the temptation on all sides has been to tear out the other's crop and the aim of those who desire power has everywhere and always been to develop a monoculture free from what they believe to be weeds. But the radical event that transpired in Jesus and so also in our tradition - an event which cuts against all strong impositional power structures - says "No!" to this. Our event says to us, sow your good wheat but for your own crop's good you must let the tares grow too. Our event says leave to the future what future generations, what God, will choose to be gathered up and kept and what will be thrown away and burnt as chaff - we are simply to let them grow together. And so we learnt to say, mean and act upon our words that "Whilst we declare our own opinions, we oppress no one. Let every person enjoy the freedom of their own judgement in religion."

Such a highly unusual, unique even, religious tradition is a hard way to follow - it is a veritably narrow way and has never been popular - but it is a way of being which has played a vital role in the gifting to our world the idea and actuality of religious and civil liberty. An idea and actuality that, I might add, is increasingly being threatened around the world and at home by those who desire single, monocultural, solutions.

On this important day in our institution's life it behoves us to recognise and reaffirm the energising paradox that grounds our liberalism and makes us the unique kind of liberal community we are. But as we do this we must also remain constantly on the alert for those who, in sheep's clothing, would wish to collapse our paradox to nothing. We must be alert to this because whenever we are so tempted we begin ourselves to walk a broad and destructive way towards a monoculture which will not only close down our own future but also the future of the other diverse religious and civil traditions we see around us.

For the benefit of both the wheat and tares I urge us to continue to inhabit, deeply, our energising paradox.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Widow’s Mite – an open letter to the British Prime Minister, Mr Cameron

Scene from the film "WInstanley"
Here, Mr Prime Minister, I want to take seriously something you said at a reception in Downing Street over Easter.  You quoted from the Gospel of Luke and spoke of “we” Christians saying:

“This is the time when, as Christians, we remember the life, sacrifice and living legacy of Christ. The New Testament tells us so much about the character of Jesus; a man of incomparable compassion, generosity, grace, humility and love. These are the values that Jesus embraced, and I believe these are values people of any faith, or no faith, can also share in, and admire. [. . .] It is values like these that make our country what it is – a place which is tolerant, generous and caring. A nation which has an established faith, that together is most content when we are defined by what we are for, rather than defined by what we are against. In the book of Luke, we are told that Jesus said, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ – advice that when followed makes for a happier, and better society for everyone.’“ 

With regard to the claimed marginalisation of Christianity in our contemporary culture you went on to add:

“I think there’s something of a fight-back going on, and we should welcome that. The values of the Bible, the values of Christianity, are the values that we need.”

I want to send your words back to you with a few thoughts about what you have just suggested might really mean because, make no mistake about it, any serious re-engagement with religion has serious consequences for you and for us, consequences that are both good and bad, positive and negative.

Let’s start with Bible from which you so freely quoted. It’s worth remembering here with some words of Ernst Bloch found in his powerful book Atheism in Christianity that:

‘There is only this point: that the Church and the Bible are not one and the same. The Bible has always been the Church’s bad conscience.’ [And although the Bible has often been used as a cattle prod to by the powerful] ‘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’ (Bloch, Ernst: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009, p. 13).

With this unsettling thought in mind let’s turn to one of the readings set for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary and which will be used in any of the churches you may choose to attend today (i.e. Sunday 15 April 2012):

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).

And, from my own reading this week – I just happen to be reading Luke myself at the moment – there is the story of the widow’s mite:

“[Jesus] looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said [to the disciples], ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on’” (Luke 2:1-4 and Mark 12:41-44).

So, Mr Prime Minister, what are we to make of these values expressed by the Bible, these the values of Christianity? Are these really the values that you think we need? If so I rejoice for after the first Easter the Apostles speak of enlarging common ownership and they do not speak of privatising the things that we already own in common, things designed to contribute to the common good or to the common wealth. The Apostles are not recorded as looking around and saying to each other let’s take these things into our own hands and turn them to our own profit. They did not because the resurrection was for them in part about understanding the whole community as the risen body of Christ (see my sermon for last Sunday - Easter Sunday) in which, as Paul said, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28) and this pluralistic, multi-cultural, multi-faith and inclusive body was, naturally, to hold all things in common ownership for the good of all. Luke, also the author of Acts, tells us this meant that there “was not a needy person among them”. Now I do not doubt that this may not always have been one-hundred percent true to the facts on the ground but neither do I doubt the idealistic intention, passion, vision, values that were calling the Apostles to this new Easter way of being together in the world.

My own great hero in this nation’s struggle to live out such a Biblical and Christian vision is Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676). He was the leader of a radical religious movement during the English Revolution known as the Diggers who felt that the earth and its fruits were a “Common Treasury” for all.  In 1649, in protest at their poverty, they began to live and dig upon the common land of George’s Hill in Surrey. Today, this hill is a 964-acre private estate consisting of about 420 large houses, a golf course and a tennis club. It has become a very popular residential location for the wealthy where, as a cursory glance at any Estate Agent's website will reveal, houses nearly always go for over £3,000,000. Anyway, on that former piece of common ground Winstanley memorably asked:

“Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?” (Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness, 1649)

So, your words suggest to me that you are filled with the Biblical and Christian intent, passion and values of the Apostles and are, therefore, against the values of all covetous proud men and women who, then as now, live at ease whilst barning and bagging up treasures for themselves at the expense of the poor. If so then I applaud your words.

And what about the widow? When we read the text carefully we see something very, very telling. Luke tells us that Jesus noticed the rich gave out of their abundance (i.e. their excess) whilst the widow gave out of her poverty (i.e. her very substance). As the Good News Bible (the Bible of my Primary and Sunday School days) more clearly puts it: “the [rich] put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had – she gave all she had to live on.”

And here I must turn to the phrase we hear you say often, namely, that “we are all in this together” and that, together, we must all help to refill the nation’s coffers.

You tell us that we must all do our bit and that’s fair enough – in a genuine commonwealth I would expect nothing else. But is this really a commonwealth and is this really happening? We are told, for example, that the rich will be able best to contribute to the common wealth by being given top rate tax breaks. The money they will gain from this will then be used to encourage entrepreneurship. Perhaps this is true and it will create much new work and wealth. I have my doubts but I will, today, take you at your word and that the wealthy will, thereby, contribute more to the national coffers. But notice, and notice well, that this is a contribution being made by the wealthy only out of their already considerable abundance and excess, an abundance and excess that is in many cases increasing even as the downturn continues.

The poor and not so poor, on the other hand, are being asked to do something quite different. They must contribute to the national coffers out of their substance and not out of their excess. Their contribution is being taken directly from their weekly wages – already in many cases less than a living wage – and also through tax increases such as VAT or the extra 20% on their hot pasty at lunch which was already for them a budget meal. Make no mistake about it, the poor’s giving is not coming from out of their abundance but from their poverty, their very substance. A poverty that is in so many cases increasing as the downturn continues.

The point I am making is not that the rich person, merely by dint of being rich, is bad, or that the poor person, merely by dint of being poor, is good but something far more structurally disturbing about our society which was expressed succinctly by the writer of 1 Timothy (6:7-11). He reminded us all that:

“. . . we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.”

You see it is the love of money that I see growing all around me that worries me so much. It is a love that all too easily distorts or suppresses what following Biblical and Christian values really entails and this encourages many, but I hope not you, to begin to turn the Biblical text and Christian values into a cattle prod to be used against the common people.

To be sure even the distorted form of love that is the love of money is one that believes in giving, and perhaps it does give a little, but it is never enough and, worst of all, it is a giving made within an economic system which ensures that the substance of the poor and vulnerable in our society continues slowly and painfully to be eaten away while the abundance and excess of the few continues to grow. Surely here we must not forget another Biblical and Christian claim, namely, that it is the poor who are blessed and it is they who will inherit the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20) . . .

So, you have told us that the values of the Bible, the values of Christianity, are the values that we need and, today, I will take you at your word. I will assume that you do wish to be a man of God and to shun all this greed and love of money and wish genuinely to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness so as to bless the poor.

I try to say all of this today without irony because we must always be ready to allow people the opportunity to repent and to turn around their lives, but today is not tomorrow and, as Luke also tells us Jesus said: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43-44). Please remember, Mr Prime Minister, that our political and religious systems will be known by their fruits.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Some photos of Guyhirn Chapel - a place in the heart of the Fens built for the preaching of the word

A couple of weeks ago an old Oxford college friend and I went out into the Fens for a day. He and I share a great love of this landscape and its history. My love for the fens has grown over the twelve years I've lived in Cambridge but his goes much further back since he spent some of his childhood in Doddington where his great-grandparents and grandparents once farmed. One of the places we visited that day was Guyhirn and what is now known as the Chapel of Ease. It's a place built for the preaching of the word and, as a great lover of the Biblical text, I find this place overwhelmingly evocative of the kind of English Christian spirituality into which I was born and to which, for all my theological scepticism, I remain utterly loyal.

However, regular readers of this blog will know that, despite my great love of the word I'm no Biblical fundamentalist, far from it - and though I must be careful about what is meant by this in fact I'm a certain kind of Christian Atheist. Anyway, the crucial point I want to make here in connection with this beautiful chapel and the word is that although I still think there is ‘the right word to speak, the one properly required for this sentence (if only [we] can hear it)’, in the end ‘it is the word properly required only for this sentence, not for the next or the next.’ As James C. Edwards goes on powerfully put it, ‘It is the right word, the only right word; but it is not the Word of the Lord, nor of any of the Philosophical Fathers’ (James C. Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things, Penn State Press 1996 p. 234)

Here, at Guyhirn on such a beautiful spring day, I was forcefully brought before the continued need always to be seeking the right word to speak to our own fractious times.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Jesus died but Christ has risen - on the weakness of God - a meditation for Easter Sunday

A Shropshire Lad - illustration by Elinore Blaisdell
Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page): Jesus died but Christ has risen - on the weakness of God - a meditation for Easter Sunday 8 April 2012

In any contemporary liberal context Easter Sunday is a very difficult day upon which to preach because there is always the overwhelming temptation to avoid the heart of the matter put so starkly and disturbingly by St Paul in I Corinthians (15:11-15):

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ.

Given Paul’s importance to the history of Christianity the nagging question of our sceptical age remains that perhaps his proclamation was in vain and was a misrepresentation of God. Overly literalistic preaching to prove otherwise have caused many people either to leave the church behind as an unreasonable, superstitious and anti-modern institution or, if choosing to stay, there is the strong temptation to turn the resurrection into something completely different such as a vague metaphor for spring.

But it is important to know that, historically speaking, our liberal Christian tradition has, as a whole, never rejected central claim of the resurrection. At its best it has been concerned to reinterpret the event and to live within it in the light of contemporary experiences and knowledge and to engage in a process, which tries to ensure that we remain in continuity with the earliest Christian experience of Easter even as we acknowledge we can never remain identical with it. That’s what I’m trying to do today.

At this point it is important to note that what I’m about to say in this address is not an attempt to express the (capital T) “Truth” of the resurrection or, to put it another way, what the resurrection “really” means. This is something my liberal forebears, along with their literalist conservative opponents, most certainly did think they were doing. But I cannot follow them in this matter because I no longer believe it is possible to stand outside the world and, from the view from nowhere, come up with any totalising description of reality. It seems clear to me that every attempt to do this has involved inflicting some violence upon reality and history teaches us that this kind of intellectual move, in whomsoever’s mind it occurs, all too easily grows like Topsy to the point that this theoretical violence begins to be turned outwards and actually inflicted upon those people who don’t happen to share your totalising (capital T) “Truth”. A vitally important aim of this address – and I think a central aspect of the Easter event – is to encourage us in our religious and philosophical lives to abandon power wielding (capital T) “Truth” in favour of a far gentler and weaker self-emptying love (caritas) and cosmopolitan friendship that Jesus taught us were central to his understanding of in what consists the kingdom of God.

The Resurrection is key to such a change of focus because it is the moment that through a radical weakening of the conception of God we are allowed to experience anew the strength, hope and joy of the Christian story; to see and reinterpret that other insight of St Paul’s, also found in 1 Corinthians, that ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men’ (I Corinthians 1:25). But to get there I must start in the darkness of the tomb with A. E. Housman’s poem “Easter Hymn.”:

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

Housman inherited the Easter story during an age of powerful empire and within a religious and philosophical world-view that could only see in it a cyclical trajectory of power – one in which Jesus came down from heaven and who then, having lived, preached and been executed, in the resurrection merely returned unharmed to the heavenly realm to sit at ‘the right hand of majesty on high.’ This cyclical (metaphysical) journey from heaven (from ultimate power) to earth (into only apparent human weakness) and back again (to ultimate power) was one in which for many reasons Housman and, I would guess most of us, simply could no longer believe.

Although Housman’s poem reveals his painful loss of Christian belief it also clearly remains full of longing that the good man Jesus may still, somehow, be able to ‘bow out of heaven and save’ and that, therefore, Christian hope may somehow still be true. But for all his lingering hope there can be no doubt that in the end Houseman leaves us with his overwhelming sense that, in the end, the best he (and we) can do is simply bid Jesus – of whom he is clearly fond – to ‘sleep well.’

Father John Davis
Just like the Bible, Housman’s poetry has always been part of my life. My grandmother loved it and introduced it to me, a collection of his poetry was a set text for my ‘O’ levels and, in my Old Testament class on the first day of teaching at Oxford my teacher, who later became a friend, Father John Davis, recited at length some of Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’. 

(As you will read in the address at the previous link Fr. John also recited Matthew Arnold's poetry to me in my Hebrew tutorials and also in class, often in connection with Koheleth's philosophy of life found in the Book of Ecclesiastes, Fitzgerald's "translation" of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - another poem bequeathed to me by my grandmother.)

So Housman’s poetry is deep within me and it has always run as a continuous counter-point to Paul’s resurrection claim. As a choirboy every Easter Sunday, even as I sang out with gusto from my stall ‘Alleluia! He is Risen!’ I could always-already hear Housman whisper in my ear, “Sleep well, son of man.”

Given this it should be obvious why at Easter I return again and again to this poem because it forces me to address the hardest and most important question that as a serving minister of the church I have to ask, namely, whether there still exists a way by which it is possible to discharge to our own age something real that we can meaningfully still call Christian hope or whether we, like Housman, should merely bid Jesus ‘sleep well’ and move on to abandon Christianity for some other philosophy or form of life? Well find that as I stand here I continue to think there is a meaningful way to discharge this hope and why I think that is the case can best be glimpsed at Easter.

It can be glimpsed because in our own age, in part thanks to some hard reflection and thinking that began in certain circles after the First World War. This work has meant that it is now possible to see shine out from the Christian story a trajectory Housman and his age could not see. It is not a cyclical, metaphysical one – one concerned ultimately with preserving divine power – but something much gentler as an ongoing, self-emptying event – one that takes Paul’s insight into the weakness of God with the utmost (and dare I say it, almost literal) seriousness.

Lived and looked at this way our story can now tell of our historical journey from being a people who held a belief in a perfect, all-powerful God (a supreme being) on high, to being able to see and experience God in the example of a single, remarkable lived human life (Jesus) and then, in the self-emptying passion on the cross and what we call the ongoing event of the ‘resurrection’, to the ongoing possibility of seeing God emptied out as the spirit into us as a people transformed in the light of this event. In short, we can see something Housman couldn’t because our focus of attention has moved from seeing God in beings – and most of all in one all-powerful supreme being – to seeing God in Being, to seeing God in the way we are together in the world transformed by the event of the Resurrection.

Paul seems to have seen this even though later Christian theology has somewhat hid his shining insight under a bushel (pace I Corinthians 1:25). When Paul speaks of Christ (again in 1 Corinthians) we must take care to remember that although he is certainly always referring to a being, namely Jesus of Nazareth (in whom he believed he saw God) he is simultaneously always referring to us as a community – the body of Christ: As he says so memorably in I Corinthians “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it” (I Corinthians 12;27). As Cliff Reed, alas soon to retire as minister of the Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House, puts it in his Easter hymn we will sing at the end of the service:

Jesus died, but Christ has triumphed,
Broken now the chains of death;
From the tomb comes God’s anointed,
Kindling cold hearts with his breath.

Now at last we see his purpose,
Breaking through like sunburst bright:
Liberation for God’s people
Ends humanity’s long night.

For there is a Spirit greater,
Who has now the victory;
And our God indwells the human,
striving for our liberty.

And that Spirit dwelt in Jesus,
Teaching us that love redeems;
How God, through a man’s compassion,
Gains great ends by human means.

But for love and life undying
Death of self must be the key;
Jesus died to bear this witness
And Christ rose to make us free.

Consequently, our hope is no longer something to be dispensed by some all-powerful supreme being from up on high but, as our reading from Luke (Luke 24:13-34) telling the story of the road to Emmaus showed, it is to be found in the people who walk with us, who talk with us and who break bread with us round the table. And this is, as John Holmes (1904-1962) says in the hymn we sang earlier, a peace not past our understanding but one born out of self-emptying lives lived in love and cosmopolitan friendship – in Christ, if you like – which is, as Holmes beautifully puts it is, in the end, “a thing too simple to be tried as truth” (see the end of this post for the lyric of this hymn).

Consequently, from where I stand, to live the Easter story is to understand ourselves as being reborn into a community that knows it is on an unfolding, radically earthward trajectory which, in Jesus’ teaching to love God and neighbour (which includes both friend and enemy), also calls us to develop increasingly pluralistic, cosmopolitan and democratic forms of governance. Therefore, it seems to me that we discharge the Christian hope of Easter (and figuratively ‘Jesus’ still bows out of heaven, sees and saves) whenever we remain consciously loyal to this ongoing trajectory/story and continue to play an active part in the redemption of the world, no longer as subjects of a powerful heavenly kingdom, but instead as members of the body of Christ which for me is to say free citizens of much more down to earth secular, republic of Heaven.

And that is why when it is proclaimed, not as a slogan of religious triumphalism and power but as a call to ever-greater human solidarity, I can still say and mean “Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”


The People's Peace by John Holmes (1904-1962)

Days into years, the doorways worn at sill,
Years into lives, the plans for long increase
Come true at last for men of God's good will:
These are the things we mean by saying, Peace.
Not scholars's calm, nor gift of church or state,
Nor everlasting date of death's release;
But the careless noon, the houses lighted late,
Harvest and holiday: the people's peace.

Peace is the mind's old wilderness cut down
In a wider nation than our parents dreamed.
Peace is the main street in a country town;
Our children named; our parents' lives redeemed.
The people's peace is ours, and who says No?
Green leaves and landscape; folly, danger, sleep,
And obvious hurt, and the joy that does not show,
Are sometime any man's to take, to keep.

The peace not past our understanding falls
Like light on the old soft white tablecloth
At winter supper warm between four walls,
A thing too simple to be tried as truth.
Having it never made a man to die,
And it asks of no man what he might do.
Why is the people's peace in danger? Why?
Who living hates it? Who would destroy it? Who?

Monday, 2 April 2012

Le Pas au–delà (the step/not beyond) – a Palm Sunday meditation

A trope that one can see emerge from almost every reading of the Palm Sunday story (Mark 11:1-11 and parallels)  is one which speaks of the common situation in which many of the people who first gather to welcome a great person or movement during it’s early days, at the moment they must commit to it and actually see the project through, simply fade away to nothing.

Palm Sunday is, then, a day which demands we ask again the question about what is actually involved in following Jesus’ steps, a programme that as a church we still claim we attempt. As you know, when you come in to this church, hanging on the wall to the left of the door, is a hand-lettered inscription that includes the sentence “Our religious thinking is related to the teaching of Jesus and its application in the modern world.” Additionally there is also our General Assembly’s object that calls upon us to “uphold the liberal Christian tradition.” (This present address is, by the way, closely related to last week's and I encourage reading them together - No image, no passion - why this liberal continues to stand up for Jesus).

However, when we ask what this means in relation to the first Palm Sunday we are easily tempted to do it in solely the light of the actual complex historical outplaying of the Christian tradition and to read this ancient story as if what has transpired for us in the present was somehow accessible (even obvious) to Jesus’ first hearers. This way of looking at the matter also, therefore, tends to make us think that the complex path our own community followed (for us the one that has been named “liberal”) is the clearly right one, the one most consistent with Jesus’ original message. Consequently, we can easily go on to cast the crowd in Jerusalem in a very negative light as representing those who would disagree with us today on so many matters. Walk into a more conservative church and the roles are, of course, merely reversed and we become the cowards who disappeared and got it wrong.

All this judging (whether done silently or publicly) about who is right and who is wrong, who is a betrayer and who is coward in relation to following Jesus offers the wider world a very unpleasant sight and it’s something which today puts off countless people in our culture from being able consciously and publicly to follow Jesus either as an individual or within a larger Christian community. Whatever else you take from today’s address I really want you to heed Jesus’ teaching:

Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven (Matthew 6:37).

It seems to me that only when we make a concerted effort to follow this teaching that are we in with a chance of giving ourselves some interpretative space to see in the Palm Sunday story something else that seems more important to us in our ongoing attempt better to understand our world and our place in it.

We can begin to see something of this by turning firstly to a contingent fact (which is also to say an act of grace) that shows up in the French language. In French the word “pas” has two meanings. The first meaning is straightforwardly a “step”, as in a taking a step forward. But it also has the meaning of “not” as in “Je n’avance pas.” This ‘literally means “I do not move forward, not even a step.” On this account pas as “not” (ne) is simply shorthand for “(not a) step” (John D. Caputo, What would Jesus Deconstruct, p. 141). John D. Caputo notes about this that:

Thus pas means [therefore] “step/not”; it means to take a step but then again not to, to be following in someone’s steps but then again not to. Steps cannot be insulated in an absolute way from missteps and sidesteps, and paths cannot be protected from dead-ends. To take steps in a certain direction, to be en route, to follow in someone’s steps cannot be protected absolutely from detours, road blocks, misleading road signs, false steps and impasses [. . .] (ibid. p. 43).

The truth of this shows up very clearly when we consider taking steps towards another person because the relationship we can have with them is always a journey we cannot complete. Marriage shows this up well and, lest you are unaware of this, in the case of this church marriage is extend to gays in our religious words and actions and, we hope soon, also in civil law. In marriage when you say “I do” you say it not simply to who the person is, or who you think this person is, but “to whomsoever or whatever this person is to become, which is unknown and unforeseen to the both of you” (ibid. p. 45). It is vitally important to see that this risk is constitutive of the vow and commitment. Without it the vow and commitment mean nothing.

There are other examples we could examine but in Caputo’s felicitous phrase they all show ‘how deeply not is embedded in the path, how deeply the impasse is embedded in the pass, how deeply the impossible is embedded in the possible – almost to the point that, far from being a simple play on words . . . it is beginning to look like a law, and one very close to the religious heart’ (ibid p. 45).

So let’s now return to the roadside in first-century Jerusalem. You’ve heard about this man whose been doing and saying extraordinary things about a completely new way of being in the world. A way of being that promises a certain kind of freedom and justice for all, a kingdom of God that turns the whole world upside down such that it doesn’t resemble anything that has ever before been called a kingdom. All other kingdoms have been ruled by powerful rulers who rigidly impose upon the people a law that feels, and indeed is, a heavy and painful yoke. But Jesus says that the yoke of his kingdom is a light one and that the power in his kingdom is one based, not upon brute will and might, but upon love and compassion. These are strange but attractive words that speak of a condition which seems almost impossible ever to imagine as really coming to pass. For all that you feel deeply in your heart that it could come to pass and, faced with the less than desirable conditions of the time, why not at least go out and welcome such a man? So you take a step forward, you go to Jerusalem, you find your palm branch and you hail with Hosannas this possible Messiah, this Son of David.

But with your first step to that roadside you immediately run into the structural reality I’ve already mentioned and you see that it simultaneously brings with it the possibility of a “not” or a “misstep”. As you look around, yes, there’s lots of acclamatory noise but, over there behind the crowds, the Romans don’t look at all pleased and neither do the Temple authorities. Hmm. Is their displeasure a sign that Jesus is who he says, that the kingdom of which he speaks can actually come to pass? Or is it perhaps an indication that he is not who he says he is and that his kingdom is a foolish, even dangerous, piece of nonsense? Suddenly, you are face to face with the realisation that you don’t know and that the next step is not clear. So do you now take the risk of following him or are just going to get away?

What could make it clear? Nothing could – just like you know nothing can make it clear what is exactly to be involved when you say “I do” to your espoused. And by that road-side you also suddenly see that to follow in Jesus’ footsteps would be to engage in something like marriage. It could never be merely to follow who Jesus is, or who you think Jesus is, but to follow whomsoever or whatever he is (and who you are) to become and that is always-already unknown and unforeseen to all of us right up to today and infinitely beyond.

And let’s not forget that key to the Gospel story is the fact that the nots and missteps (the fact that there was betrayal, that Jesus was executed, that Jesus’ kingdom didn’t come about in any way that would be recognised by the powers that be) play as great a role as do any of the story’s “I dos” and apparent right-steps. The whole story is clearly characterised by the “step/not”.

So, were the crowds who so quickly disappeared after Palm Sunday traitors and cowards? Was their disappearance a “not-step” or a “misstep”? What, too, about the disciples all of whom also disappeared? We simply cannot say one way or the other and we must not judge lest we be judged for we are all tied together by the “step/not” nature of reality no matter which step we eventually choose to take.

The most important thing to see in all this is that true loyalty to Jesus (to try to step with him as individuals and as a member of a congregation) is for our liberal tradition not to be loyal to some simple predetermined scheme or belief about in what consist the right steps (steps that some church authority has decided it knows and which are fixed forever in certain rules or creeds) but to be loyal to a certain open-ended, trusting, loving way of walking through the world that helps us discern together how we might best take the next step, and the next, and the next and, therefore, how we might best deal with the those which show up to us as “not-steps” or “missteps”.

This is to proclaim a Christianity after Christianity, a Christianity after all the security of believing that it is ever possible to know you are absolutely right has fallen away and you are left simply with love and friendship – the central aspects of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. It is to proclaim to the world an understanding of the Christian faith that says, since we can never know in any final sense what following Jesus’ steps means, we must always be walking and talking lovingly and respectfully together and, in conversation and shared work, to see what shows up for us as a possible, reasonable shared next step – just like we do in a marriage, any great friendship or any true secular democracy. As Caputo notes, this is faithfully to live in a tradition that “keeps “happening” (arriver) without ever quite “arriving” at a final, fixed, and finished destination” and to live in such a way that reveals we can never simply “derive” (dériver) direct instruction from Jesus, the story of Palm Sunday or from the rest of the Bible, but can only “allow it a certain drift or free play (dérive) which, in turn, allows our tradition to be creative and to reinvent itself ‘so that it can be, as Augustine said of God, ever ancient yet ever new’ (ibid. p. 57).