Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Christine Lagarde pays no taxes

Christine Lagarde
Is anyone else as flabbergasted, even as angry as I am about this? It seems that Christine Lagarde, the IMF boss who last week railed against those Greeks who don't pay their taxes, doesn't pay what? You've guessed it, taxes. As the following report in the Guardian tells us:

"As an official of an international institution, her salary of $467,940 (£298,675) a year plus $83,760 additional allowance a year is not subject to any taxes."  

This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Things must be changed.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right? A meditation for Pentecost Sunday

Pentecost by Michael Freeman
Biblical Reading: Acts 2:1-21

Our responsibility in Society by James Luther Adams

We of the Free Church tradition should never forget, or permit our contemporaries to forget, that the decisive resistance to authoritarianism in both church and state, and the beginning of modern democracy, appeared first in the church and not in the political order. The churches of the left wing of the Reformation held that the churches of the right wing had effected only half a reformation. They gave to Pentecost a new and extended meaning. They demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church. The new church was to make way for a radical laity – that is, for the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers. "The Spirit blows where it lists."
Out of this rediscovery of the doctrine of the Spirit came the principles of Independency: local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state. Power and responsibility were to be dispersed. In a fashion not unlike that of the primitive church, the doctrine of the Spirit became the sanction for a new kind of social organization and of social responsibility.  A new church was born, and with it a new age.
Once released, the new spirit poured forth into all areas of society. It could not be kept within the bounds of church life. First it was carried over into the sphere of the state. The Independents bagan to say, 'If we are responsible to God for the kind of church we have, we are also responsible for the kind of state we have. If it is wrong to be coerced by church authorities, it is wrong to be dominated by political authorities. As children of God, we ought to have a greater share of power and responsibility in the state as well as the church." By analogy the conception of the new church in a new age was extended to include the demand for a democratic state and society. Thus the democratic state is in part the descendent of the Church of the Spirit" (The Essential JLA pp. 163-164).


Finger pointing to the moon
The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriach Huineng, "I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas I do not quite understand. Please enlighten me."
     The patriach responded, "I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning."
      Said the nun, "You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?"
     "Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?"

*****

There is a well-known story that I first heard in educational circles about a sailing ship setting-off for a long voyage to a distant, promised land. The crew begin the journey with passion, clarity and purpose and undertake all their tasks in this light whether they are coiling ropes, setting sails or cleaning decks. However, after many, many months at sea slowly they begin to forget their beginnings and, without them fully noticing it, these tasks become increasingly detached from the initial, enabling passion, clarity and purpose and the crew begin *only* to coil ropes, set sails and clean decks.

It's a story that is used to illustrate a certain understanding of in what consists institutional, even societal, decline. But I'm not sure that's all it is about and, through the theme of Pentecost, I'd like to bring before you another, much more hopeful reading of this story.

I have noticed that, when this story is told, most people believe that the solution to the perceived problem is to be found in restoring the original conditions. If they can restore these, so the argument goes, the deeper meaning of their present tasks will suddenly be restored, all will be well and, re-energised, their journey can proceed as before.

But this reading fails to take into account that the present difficult situation, with its apparent disconnection from the initial, enabling passion, clarity and purpose is, in fact, *fruit* of these same original conditions and that the crew are where they are precisely because of this same fruit.

The first thing to observe is that one simply cannot restore to the crew the initial conditions that obtained at the start of their voyage. This is impossible because, thanks to the experiences of the journey, they are now very different people from those who they were when they originally set-off. They have changed. Additionally, they are now, quite literally, in a different place and time.

The matter of how to restore deeper meaning to the crew and the journey is, therefore, more complicated than at first appears because the only thing that can be restored is their faith in the *promise* that the initial conditions gifted them even though, right at this moment this fruit seems to speak of a lack of direction and purpose and to taste to them bitter, even bad.

In order to go on let's translate the story I have just told into our own institutional and societal terms.

The strange story of Pentecost, the giving of the Spirit, is our story about the foundational moment when we were gifted with our initial passion, clarity and purpose which sent us out into the world to proclaim to it a new message of hope which was the promise that the spirit would be poured out on all flesh. We are now over two millennia away from that moment so we need not worry too much that the account in all its details doesn't make complete sense to us today. We need only observe that our story preserves a memory of an extraordinary moment which was powerful enough to propel our forebears on a new journey with a clearly promise in view. As James Luther Adams' account reminds us, when we reached the sixteenth-century the flame of the Spirit which we had kept alive within our religious communities was then deliberately released by us so that it could begin to spread into *all* areas of society. We released the Spirit because, still believing the promise, we felt it could not, should not, be kept only within the bounds of church and, therefore, only Christian life but must be allowed into the world more widely. As the following centuries continued to unfold the Spirit was indeed poured out on more and more people however the flame that was passed from person to person was no longer in the form of tongues of fire but in the form of the tongues of men and women who, in an increasingly conversational democratic spirit, passed on a passion for the promise. Slowly, but surely, these passionate tongues called into ever wider existence increasingly plural societies full of many different peoples and languages.

This is a wonderful, potentially still growing fruit, n'est ce pas? But difficulties will always arise on any long journey which, at first sight anyway, don't seem positively to be related to our founding conditions. These difficulties often seem to us like bad fruit, we don't like their challenging taste, and the consequence of eating it even makes us feel a little ill and very disorientated. Eating such fruit can start to make us feel that we really have lost our way and can push us into despair.

So what is the apparently "bad" fruit of the Spirit that our society is struggling with? Well, I've brought it to our common table before because I don't think it's actually bad at all, it's just that, at first, it tastes very strange indeed. It is an acquired taste but it is also one which, for the good of our whole world, we must all acquire.

(In my opinion the best and most accessible précis of it has been made by James C. Edwards in his excellent book "The Plain Sense of Things - The fate of religion in an age of normal nihilism". The next two paragraphs draw heavily, and gratefully, upon some of his actual words and phrases.)

As the released Spirit began to bring us the growing and ripening fruit of a radically plural, democratic civic society it necessarily also brought with it the recognition that *every* system of belief (including our own) is only a set of values posited by the will to power in its attempt to preserve and enhance itself. Another, more modern way of putting this is to say that the released Spirit has enabled us to see that every illuminating vocabulary (including our own) is only *contingently* useful - useful "here" in such and such conditions but not "there" in such and such conditions. Each of us here now has no choice but to know that if we had been born in Saudia Arabia or India rather than England our basic illuminating vocabulary would, in all likelihood, not be Christian but Islamic or Hindu. And so we realise that an important part of this fruit's strange taste is that no voice, ideology or belief (not even our own) can any longer dominate the whole in an absolute way - it can only play its part by taking part conversationally in the ongoing process of discernment that is a genuine democracy.

But this recognition, this taste, seemed for many people to destroy what they thought was their sure foundation and a widespread feeling has spread abroad that because of this we as a culture and society have lost our way. In the midst of this we have collectively felt ourselves forced to ask how any cultural symbol (including our own) can retain sufficient power to check our well-documented and contradictory human tendencies both to addictive, individualist self-magnification and to (equally addictive) totalitarian, fundamentalist rigidity?

Many today, having tasted this strange fruit of the Spirit, have responded by whole-heartedly giving in to ways of behaving that are forms of addictive, individualist self-magnification. No one cultural symbol suffices but we satiate ourselves by gorging upon a dizzying variety of them from Nike, to Orange, Mercedes, Chanel, to Dolce and Gabbana and we can flit between "identities" to the point where some people could almost be getting new heads every week. Our current financial crisis undoubtedly finds its roots in this approach.

Many others have responded by whole-heartedly giving in to the temptation to adopt rigid, totalitarian and fundamentalist theologies and philosophies. They seek to return to simple symbols that clearly and dangerously mark insiders apart from outsiders, and indicate who is worthy and who is not. To keep to the Pentecost theme this is an approach that says unless your community has (or claims it has) continued to experience the Pentecostal spirit itself in exactly the same fashion as the first Disciples/Apostles then it is not truly Christian, it does not have the truth, it is not worth taking seriously and perhaps should even be suppressed. The symbol of *this* flame and this exact flame alone becomes the only true symbol and all the rest be damned.

It seems to me that, although there exist "liberal" versions of both of these approaches, as the kind of liberal church we are we cannot follow our brothers and sisters in adopting either of them. But what are we to do?

Well, the first thing we can do is recover a strong sense of our own church's identity not by engaging in a slavish dogmatic attempt to recreate the original conditions experience by our forebears but in a continued articulation of the *promise* gifted us, namely, that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh and that this would open our world up to multiple languages, visions and dreams. James Luther Adams is one of the few people I have read within our own tradition who saw this clearly and who reminded us that we must accept that Christianity, at least as we in the Free Church tradition have been living it for over four-hundred years, has consistently been revealing to us that our world is plural and that the "new church", for which read "the modern, secular democratic state", is a descendent of the Church of the Spirit. Its priesthood and the prophethood is one to be shared by all people which, in turn, means that power and responsibility in our society must continue radically to be dispersed.

We also need to remember that when we tell others our Free Church story - which can only be done when we are able to articulate it in a solid coherent enough way to be seen to be pointing clearly in a particular direction - we need to make people aware that our understanding of the Christian tradition is to be likened to a pointing finger. In our faith and practice, our way of being in the world we must make it clear we are pointing beyond ourselves and towards the creation of a radically plural, democratic society just as Huineng did when he reminded his hearers that "the finger is not the moon and that to look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?"

Without the existence of a strong, recognisable, fat, round, laughing person pointing at the moon we might not be recalled to the existence of the moon beyond the finger. So, too, without the existence of a strong, recognisable, fat, round, laughing liberal Christian church (and I hope we can be this) pointing at a radically pluralistic, democratic society we might not be recalled to the existence of the promise beyond the finger, that God's Spirit is to be poured out on *all* flesh.

To religious and political palettes that like single tastes this fruit is a complex taste indeed but for the good of the world we have to help people acquire a taste for it. Only when we begin to eat it together with passionate pleasure and joy is there any hope of us all moving on to the next course in which all our daily activities, whether they be coiling ropes, setting sails or cleaning decks will begin again to be filled with something like the passionate Spirit of the first Pentecost.

*****

The morning service concluded with a short service of Communion written specially for Pentecost/Whitsunday by the Revd Cliff Reed. For those who would like to see it or use it can be downloaded at the following link:

A Whitsunday Communion Service


Thursday, 24 May 2012

Sun, cycling, beer, sandwich, Fenland = heaven

At last some sunshine coincides with a day off. Hallelujah! Out came the Guv'nor for spin out to QuyBottishamSwaffham BulbeckBurwell, finally stopping at Wicken Fen and its wonderful café where I had  a home-made sandwich and a bottle of refreshing beer (City of Cambridge Brewery's excellent Boathouse Bitter). As usual I came back to Cambridge via the Lodes Way. Since my last spin along this route there has appeared a new "Portrait Bench" put up by Sustrans. I couldn't resist having my portrait taken on it - I presume that's why they call it a Portrait Bench? (It seems the answer is "Yes"). Anyway, a splendid ride.

Andrew with Guv'nor in Fens with Skater, Eel Catcher and Entomologist
Bench information
Burwell Church
Burwell Fen
Burwell Fen
Path along Monks Lode
Ploughed turf near Tubney Fen


Sunday, 20 May 2012

"Tribunus plebis from first to last" - an Ascension Sunday meditation on the democratisation of Heaven


French illumination c. 1200
Something that's becoming more and more important to me as I look for an effective way we might help our contemporary culture and society to reinterpret and change itself in ways consonant with our radical liberal vision is to ensure (a la Gianni Vattimo) that we engage, not in a process of overcoming (überwinden) - that is to say attempting to affect change by the wholesale defeat of certain aspects of our culture and society - but by finding ways to incorporate, twist or weakening those same aspects of it (verwindung). To sum it up: "Overcoming is worthy only when we think about incorporation" (M. Heidegger: "Overcoming Metaphysics" in the End of Philosophy, trans J. Stambaugh, New York, Harpur and Row, 1973, p. 91).

When we get to next Sunday, Pentecost (Whitsunday), I'm going to be speaking more about our radical, liberal vision, both where it comes from and what it seeks to achieve but here, in nutshell and in the words of our own great twentieth-century theologian James Luther Adams, we may say that out of our rediscovery during the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation of  ". . . the doctrine of the Spirit came the principles of Independency: [that is to say] local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state" (James Luther Adams: “Our Responsibility in Society” in The Essential JLA ed. George Kimmich Beach, Skinner House Books, 1997).

This brief introduction to next week's theme - Pentecost, is important because it helps us see how we might usefully incorporate the otherwise frankly odd and off-putting story of the Ascension into our own contemporary liberal narrative by giving it an interpretation that helps us achieve the aims I've just mentioned.

Chapel of the Ascension, Lt. Walsingham
When understood and depicted in a literal way the Ascension Day account is, to me at least, comic in an almost Monty Pythonesque way. I well recall the first time I visited the Anglo-Catholic shrine at Little Walsingham. Unexpectedly I came across a little side-chapel dedicated to the Ascension where, above my head I saw two life-size feet disappearing into the chapel ceiling. One could have been fooled into thinking one had walked into the middle of a Terry Gilliam cartoon - a thought, I should add, that was shared by a devout Anglo-Catholic who was with me at the time.

When understood metaphysically the Ascension is no longer even vaguely comic but somewhat disturbing. One common way of thinking metaphysically about it is to understand it as a kind of divine ennoblement from on high which simply removes Jesus from our world. As Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) suggests this is to see Jesus as a "Kyrios/Son of God, a super-Hercules in a super-firmament." Bloch points out that this picture is "of the dynasticsolar variety, with the chariot of the sun-god and the general style assumed by ascending heroes when they quit the earth" (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164).

Another common way of thinking metaphysically about it is to understand it as an example of the profoundly problematic doctrine that became known as Docetism. It is derived from the Greek words "dokein" (to seem) and "dókēsis" (an apparition or phantom) and refers to the idea that Jesus only *seemed* to be a human being and that, in consequence, his physicality - his humanity - was merely an appearance.

In both these cases the problem - for me anyway - is that the whole story of Jesus actual life's work of teaching and healing the poor, sick and excluded in society and his subsequent death for challenging the coercive and exclusionist power-structures of his own day, becomes something which occurred at no cost to God. God came all-powerfully from on high and after only appearing to be human merely returns, unharmed to on high. Net gain and change to God? Zero, zilch, nada. And, for us? Well, in these interpretations we are reduced to mere spectators of a divine drama, through-scripted by a distant, infinitely perfect, disengaged divine author.

In consequence the Ascension story looks to many liberals like a dangerous piece of ancient mythology that really can't be salvaged by a process of incorporation and, consequently, is one that must be wholly overcome (überwinden). At first sight it is admittedly very hard to see how one might incorporate it meaningfully into our own, contemporary mythology - i.e. the story through which we might ourselves can come to live more fully.

But Bloch has a reading of the Ascension that doesn't proceed by overcoming (überwinden) but, by incorporating, twisting and weakening aspects of it (verwindung). In so doing he opens up for us a way of using the story that is for us creative and helpful.

To get to this interpretation we need to be aware of two things that are important to Bloch when he reads the Christian story. Firstly, he points out again and again that Jesus' own prefered title was "ben Adam" - Son of Man and that Jesus, himself, never used the title the Son of God. Secondly, Bloch draws our attention to Jesus' claim that "the Father and I are one" (John 10:30; cf John 17). This latter claim might make it look like Jesus is really saying he's the Son of God but everything here hinges on the overall direction in which you think read this story as heading. Culturally we are used to seeing the direction as being "downwards" from a God "outside" the world travelling towards the human. Bloch, however, turns this upside down and he makes humanity, in the person of the representative Son of Man, head firmly and courageously in the other direction. The Ascension story is for Bloch one place where we see this happen. He says:


"The Son of Man not only broke through the myth of the Son of God, but also through that of the throne "at the right hand of the Father": now a Tribune of the people sits upon that throne, and so revokes it. For all his celestial dignity after the Ascension, Christ is still, even for Paul, the man Adam - indeed Paul is explicit: 'The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven' (1 Corinthians 15:47). And his human character stays with him there: that of a Tribunus plebis from first to last" (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164).

Bloch continues:

"The model of ascension here, even if it is still the ascension of Christ that is in question, is no longer the departure of a mighty lord for high places, but is, instead, one of the most striking images of hope - that archetypal anchor pulling us home" (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164-165).

Bloch reminds us that the author of Hebrews says "We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered" (Hebrews 6:19-20a).

Bloch offers us here an interpretation of the story that transforms the Ascension story into one where we bear witness to an extraordinary moment of a revolutionary hope and freedom. The celestial palace, the seat of disinterested unchanging power, has finally been incorporated by us by being taken over for the use of the peoples of the earth with Jesus leading the way as our Tribune. A Tribune, you will recall, was an officer who had been elected by the plebeians of Rome to protect their rights from the arbitrary acts of the patrician magistrates.

Looked at in this way Jesus doesn't at all leave us behind but, instead, goes ahead of us showing us that Heaven is no longer the enclave of an all-powerful single ruler but a place of meeting to which all humanity is invited - no longer a palace but a parliament. The word "parliament" derives, remember, from "parler" meaning to speak and in a parliament we are free democratically to converse together so as to share our stories and opinions and go on to create new, shared enabling stories and laws.

Now some of you may now be saying well, OK, but really what's the point of this reinterpretation? Who really cares? And since, in offering this to us you've more of less admitted that you don't really believe the Ascension story in any literal way, so why can't you just move on and do something less esoteric, less boring and more interesting and relevant instead?

It's a tough question that requires a firm and clear answer which needs to be begun with the acknowledgement that only an blind person with their head also plunged deep into the sand can fail to see, in the words of Peter Thompson:

". . . that religion as both debate and way of life has not crumbled in the face of an apparently inexorable rationalist, scientific, modernising Enlightenment and globalisation of the market economy, but retains a potency and strength which remains far in excess of its ability to explain" (Peter Thompson's introduction to Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. ix).

Whether we like or dislike this fact matters not the least because it would be politically naive, foolish and dangerous not to take this fact of our age into account. So the question is not whether or not we are to deal with our religious inheritance it rather is *how* we are going to deal with it.

The new atheists and hardcore secular humanists want to tackle religion by a fairly straightforward process of overcoming (überwinden). Of course, many newly active religious believers of all stripes also want to tackle atheism and humanism in the same way. It is this approach that has give rise to the unfortunate culture wars we are beginning to see all around us in the unedifying spectacle of the often angry bitter and recriminatory debates between atheists and theists in all human spheres of endeavour, science, politics, literature, education etc., etc.. This desire for overcoming (überwinden) also lies behind the growing number of violent religious conflicts of our own age all of which are being encouraged by leaders of both small terror groups and nations who are increasingly committed in strong metaphysical ways. Everything in this sphere is about defeating the perceived "enemy" with a more powerful argument, a more powerful metaphysics or more powerful tactics of violence. But it is clear that this kind of power play cuts clearly against our own liberal desire for the existence of a plurality of voices within our society and, in consequence, I do not believe we should be supporting, in any shape of form, such tactics.

In my mind this requires us to commit to an ongoing attempt to affect change by finding ways to incorporate, twist or weaken aspects of our inherited religious culture (verwindung). (This is the "weak thought" of Gianni Vattimo - il pensiero debole). It seems to me that only by doing this that will we genuinely achieve the kind of liberal society we desire. Verwindung, verwindung, verwindung should be our public proclamation at every step along the way.

We need to be smart about this because religion is not going away, so let's take the Ascension story, the story of Pentecost and all the other religious stories we inherit and reinterpret them in ways that pull us towards local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state.

But to conclude I want to be absolutely clear about something. I'm not just offering you my comments merely in the spirit of political expediency - though I hope my comments are, indeed, politically expedient. No, in the end I offer them because, when it remains open to kind of reinterpretation, transformation, incorporation, twisting and weakening that Bloch and the other thinkers I bring before you engage in, I think there is something about the Christian tradition that can help us move consistently and determinedly towards the conversationally driven democratic, freedoms I have already mentioned. Such a movement is the closest thing to truth I know.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Spring mending-time – a meditation on the value of maintaining walls


Stone wall at Frost's farm in Derry, NH
Readings: Psalm 16 and Mending Wall by Robert Frost (Youtube link below)

A poster which has appeared on our own noticeboard from time to time says: “Unitarians: building bridges not walls.” Today, whilst I want to agree with the general sentiment this poster is supposed to invoke in a casual passer-by, here I want strongly to challenge this statement and to consider the value of walls and to remind us that walls can, in fact, help us bridge important gaps between people and ideas and are also capable of gifting us with valuable insights and practical ways of proceeding that are very consonant with our liberal inclinations.


As I mentioned last week, Wittgenstein observed (in the Philosophical Investigations §38) that our philosophical problems only arise when we try to look for the meaning of words outside the context (the language-game) in which they are actually being used. To ensure we do this and do not let our use of the word “wall” (and also “bridge” though I’m not specifically looking at it today) go on holiday I’m going to tie my address Robert Frost’s well-known poem about wall-mending. I apply my usual caveat here, namely, that I am not trying to suggest that what follows is what the poem *means* but to gesture towards something that it has helped me see. With this in mind we can begin.


Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

These opening lines evoke in us the strong feeling our liberal Christian tradition has passed over to us as being self-evidently true. We read these lines and think of the many dogmatic walls which divide humanity and, within us, without conscious choice, we feel stirring that *something* that doesn’t love a wall, that radical, revolutionary protest against arbitrary human divisions that we learnt from Jesus, not least of all from his story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). This feeling spontaneously wells-up within us just as naturally as does the frozen earth – a movement in our hearts which, at its most effective, is able to topple walls and to allow people to pass freely through them side by side.

But this energy, which feels so “natural” to us, needs to be handled with care because, like fire, it can harm as effectively as it can warm. So we need to observe at the outset that whenever we notice that something feels self-evident or “natural” to us it is precisely then that we should begin to question it strongly. The power this image has for us should alert us of the need to look more closely. Frost is, I believe so alert. He continues:

The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

But, even as we feel that "something" that doesn’t love a wall we know that walls and boundaries have their place. And we also know that there exist in our world people who simply do not care at all for another person's walls and boundaries and, therefore, that another person's domain of being. There are people who will destroy another’s carefully maintained walls and boundaries in order simply to chase their own selfish ends. Often the damage these people do can only be seen after the event and only then at “spring mending-time”, the time when, if we are still alive and motivated enough in our own traditions of being (within our own boundaries and domains) to take time to walk our boundaries with our neighbours and look. Frost continues:

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill; 
And on a day we meet to walk the line 
And set the wall between us once again. 
We keep the wall between us as we go. 
To each the boulders that have fallen to each. 
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls 
We have to use a spell to make them balance: 
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’ 
We wear our fingers rough with handling them. 

A wall assuredly has two sides and so, as much as it clearly divides, it also clearly gifts an opportunity for shared activity. Frost reveals this in calling up his neighbour to walk together the length of their shared boundary wall to repair the breaks. Dana, a member of the congregation, helpfully pointed out immediately after I gave the address that Frosts’ line about a spell being required to keep the round stones in place, at least until their backs are turned, reveals how their mending is focused more on their shared activity than it is on any requirement for a relatively permanent actual mending of the wall.  If a stone rolls away after they have left, as long as they don’t see it, so be it, the wall is still “mended.” 

Frost’s observation that “We wear our fingers rough with handling [the stones]” is, it seems to me, very important because it reminds us to keep our words here from going on holiday and that he is *not* talking about a theory of walls, a theory of things which divide us, but about a real wall that does in fact divide him from his neighbour in some way but which is also gifting them both this possibility of meeting each other despite holding very different viewpoints. Frost continues:

Oh, just another kind of out-door game, 
One on a side. It comes to little more: 
There where it is we do not need the wall: 
He is all pine and I am apple orchard. 
My apple trees will never get across 
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. 
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’. 

It is very tempting to take Frost’s observation that this is just another out-door game which “comes to little” negatively to mean something like, this wall-mending is a pointless game, one with no real meaning. However, I beg to differ. I think Frost has recognised, a la Wittgenstein et. al., that we are always-already inside “language games” and that it is foolish to think there is more than this. But it's vital to see that games are not pointless and that the analogy between language (most immediately Frost's poem and this address) and a game is to help us see clearly that it is *only* in the varied and complex activities of human life that words have meaning at all. In this poem Frost is, I believe, calling us away from constructing a theory about walls and back to the context of *THIS* wall and to the actual activity of spring mending. He want us to look at this activity before we think about it. When we do so look we see again that, although this wall clearly divides him from his neighbour, it is also precisely the condition of a real meeting between them, of the writing of Frost’s poem and of the possibility of our talking about it today and, together, they form a bridge between people and between what we call the past and the present. 

With this point in mind the next lines show up differently. The game in question, namely, wall-mending includes, in this place, the possibility of Frost saying that here “we do not need a wall.” It is possible to say this because, as Frost says, he is all apple orchard and his neighbour is all pine.  Frost offers this possibility up to us and his neighbour with the comic image of an apple tree nipping over the boundary line to scrump pine cones. His neighbour simply replies to this with an inherited aphorism – one which is to him is self-evidently true and “natural”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost continues:

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder 
If I could put a notion in his head: 
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it 
Where there are cows? 
But here there are no cows. 
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know 
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offence. 
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, 
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him, 
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather 
He said it for himself.

The swiftness of his neighbour’s reply reveals that his aphorism has become “natural” and passed over into self-evidence but he cannot see this. As I noted earlier it is precisely when we notice this has occurred that we should begin to question it hard. The genius of this poem is that, even as it is clearly a poem which is about trying to get his neighbour to question his own self-evident, natural truth, as a whole, the poem is written by Frost to challenge his own "natural" "self-evident" responses to the mending of this wall. Frost firstly offers up this challenge to his neighbour with his point about the obvious lack of need for a wall to divide apples and pines but he presses it home here with his point about cows – if we had cows a wall would obviously be needed. The hope is that this will help his neighbour (and us) to look at what is actually going on in this particular activity and to move away from a merely inauthentic response based on his  inherited tradition and into something much more authentic and nuanced. It may be, of course, that a more authentic response from his neighbour will still leave between them this wall and the need for its mending. Frost makes it clear that he isn’t against building walls per se he just wants us to consider what we might be “walling in or walling out” and, by doing this who we are “like to give offence.” (Is there a pun here between the word “offence” and “a fence”?) And with this powerful question he brings us back to actual acts associated with walls rather than merely theories about them - acts which give us real "calluses" because we are concerned about moving real "stones" and not merely abstract ideas. 

Anyway, it is clear that his reference to something as obviously tangible as cows doesn’t get his neighbour thinking and Frost wonders whether more mythical will do the trick and he picks on elves! I feel that Frost picks on elves because they are as mythical a reason for building a wall here as is the "self-evidence" out of which his neighbours aphorism springs. 

But we know that his neighbour is as likely to dismiss the elves as he did the cows – for him good fences just do make good neighbours. But, in the end, Frost’s knows that cows and elves can only be prods to his neighbour from his own side of the wall and that what he really wants is for his neighbour to become himself authentically engaged with Frost in this activity of wall-mending and so, as the next and final section reveals, no longer standing in the darkness that covers anyone who only ever lives out of inherited, unexamined so-called “self-evident” and “natural” truths.

                                        I see him there 
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top 
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. 
He moves in darkness as it seems to me ~ 
Not of woods only and the shade of trees. 
He will not go behind his father’s saying, 
And he likes having thought of it so well 
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Frost’s poem reminds us of the fact of walls and that people will always be maintaining walls rightly and appropriately and wrongly and inappropriately, and that other people will also always wanting them down, rightly and appropriately and wrongly and inappropriately. (All this is alerting us to the importance in our lives of elucidating the “appropriateness” of things/actions – something that can only be done in ongoing conversation with our neighbours). We must, however, be absolutely clear that it is never a fact that walls always divide and, to return to my opening words, that bridges always connect. Sometimes quite the opposite is true. To me it is clear that we need to bring these words – “walls” and “bridges” – back from holiday and look at how they are actually being used by us. (And what is true for the words “walls” and “bridges” is also true for most of the words our liberal churches like to use in conversation and publicity as if their meaning were “self-evident” and “natural”, words such as “justice”, “tolerance”, “rights”, “duties”, “openness”, “peace”, “respect” etc..) None of Frost's words in this poem are, I think, on holiday. 

Because of this, Frost helps us see that the problem is not really about walls at all, the problem is “self-evidence”, in this poem that to one person it is self-evidently true and natural that there is something that doesn’t love a wall and which, in general, wants them to tumble and that to others, like Frost’s neighbour, there is something self-evident and natural that loves a wall and which, in general, wants them maintained.

The only wall that I can see that needs consistently to be brought down by us is that which, as Frost clearly saw, blocks out the light and keeps us moving in darkness (not of woods only and the shade of trees) and  which stops us from going behind our “father’s saying” (i.e. all our forbears) to see what we are actually doing when we say certain things. The truth is that sometimes good fences do make good neighbours; sometimes they don’t. Either way, at some point in our lives each of us will have to drop our theories about walls and go out to look at our own real walls and boundaries and decide what is actually the case. Then, like the Psalmist, we must discern whether our walls and boundaries have fallen to us and our neighbours in genuinely appropriate and pleasant places or in places where their presence is inappropriate, unpleasant, and offensive and then further to decide whether we should go a wall-mending or strive to knock them down.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Inviting the God of love back from holiday to dwell amongst us once more


Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page): Inviting the God of love back from holiday to dwell amongst us once more - 6 May 2012


Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1 John 4:7-21)

It may once have been sufficient to read this passage preaching that "God is love" and simply conclude by saying, "Amen. Sermon over."

But, alas, no longer, because the words which form the phrase "God is love" have, by my reckoning, been away on holiday from us for at least seventy years. In this address I'll try to show you what I mean by this and also to suggest how we might go about inviting them back home to dwell amongst us.

The teaching that "God is love" had a hugely important place in our liberal Christian tradition. It was *the* theological mainspring, *the* motive power, which drove us to campaign against all kinds of repressive, judgemental religion and offer the world a different vision. Between the sixteenth and early twentieth-century our forbears inherited a theology which saw God as an objectively real and all powerful being, a view shared, of course, with the Protestant reformer John Calvin. However, as this concept played out in the system that came to bear Calvin's name, God came primarily to be understood not as a God of love, but one of judgement who had predetermined most people to eternal damnation and only chosen certain others, the elect, to receive the rewards of salvation. With great courage our forebears said "No!" to this prevailing understanding and "Yes!" to love. The English Universalist, John Murray (1741–1815), attempting to escape the judgemental religious strictures of his own family and country went to the America and there, in 1770, began to preach a gospel of universal salvation. He most famously urged those whom he converted to:


John Murray (1741-1815)
"Go out into the highways and by-ways of America, your new country. Give the people, blanketed with a decaying and crumbling Calvinism, something of your new vision.  You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men. Give them, not Hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God."

This powerful message led to the creation of a much more hopeful and optimistic faith which, by the late nineteenth-century, had settled into a memorable form of words written by the Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke (1810–1888) that remained in use in many of our own churches both here and in the USA until shortly after the First World War. It reads as follows:


James Freeman Clarke (1810-1888)
"We believe in:
The Fatherhood of God;
The Brotherhood of Man;
The Leadership of Jesus;
Salvation by Character;
The Progress of Mankind
onward and upward forever."

Clarke's statement began quickly to fall out of use after the First World War because fifteen million dead bodies lying across the fields of Europe and a further twenty million injured people was sufficient evidence to persuade even the most die-hard of liberal optimists that they needed to rethink how an *all-powerful* God of love (and all-powerful is key here) could have allowed something like this to have happened.

In those early post-war years more conservative theologies drawing on Calvin's work rapidly began to develop and gain ground and they began forcibly and effectively to challenge our optimistic, liberal theology. Karl Barth is a name that looms large here and of his influential 1919 repost to liberal theology, his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, the Catholic theologian Karl Adam (in Das Hochland, June 1926, 276-7) wrote in June 1926 that it "fell like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians."

This was particularly true for our family of churches. Artillery shells had succeeded in killing many of our upcoming generation of theologians, and Barth's bombshell of a book simultaneously destroyed our liberal theological playground.

Then, as if all this were not enough, along came the Second World War and the Holocaust which for many put the final boot in to any possible belief in the existence of an objectively real all-powerful God of love, one who could challenge and overcome the all-powerful judgemental God now being propounded ever more loudly by our more conservative brothers and sisters.

Since then liberal theology has never got back either a self-confident footing nor any real power. At the risk of over-simplifying we can say that the only effective all-powerful God left on the scene today (and again I draw your attention to the fact I am saying "all-powerful God") is either the objectively real judgemental God believed in by the religious right (Jewish, Christian, Muslim or other it matters not) or the objectively real God whose non-existence the new atheists are so concerned to prove.

The very few who still believe in the objective reality of an all-powerful God of love have increasingly tended to become involved in more personal, inward, quietist and quasi-mystical spiritualities which, even if they no longer pretend they can change the horrible and brutal external world around them these theologies at least try to offer their adherents a measure of individual psychological well-being and a generalised hope of a final union beyond time and space in a transcendent loving divine unity.

As a mix of approaches this does not make for a healthy public religious landscape or conversation - a fact our society is coming to know only too well. In my public role as a minister and chaplain I'm struck again and again by the need for a grounded, down to earth, perfomative liberal religion that can still root itself in a belief that "God is love." But we can only achieve this in so far as we invite the words "God is Love" back from their holiday and back into our community in an effective, non-quietistic way that might provide us with the motive power to get our liberal religious machinery moving once again. To do this I need firstly to remind you what is meant when I say that the words that make up the phrase "God is Love" are for us still on holiday.

The phrase (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §38) is used to mean that our philosophical problems only arise when we try to look for the meaning of words outside the context (the language-game) in which they are actually being used. My favourite literary illustration of this can be found in an essay called "Civilization" by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). In it he wrote the famous sentence that has since then become endlessly anthologised and quoted as an aphorism:


"Hitch your wagon to a star".

This sentence has come to mean that men and women should have high ideals and great aims and hopes. But, if in your mind you now say it to yourself most of us will quickly discover that in our current sceptical culture it's effectively become an empty platitude. When we say the phrase, "turn its handle" so to speak, ask yourself if it is attached to any real machinery? Whether anything real has been moved?

We may still be seduced by what these words seem to SAY but I imagine that most of us here will doubt that it says anything real at all - it's just a platitude we can throw into a conversation to make us and others feel temporarily good, just like the phrase "God is Love". But if we go back to the context in which Emerson introduces the phrase - i.e. when it wasn't on holiday - we can see how its USE gives it real meaning. Emerson writes:

Tidal mill at l'île de Bréhat
"I admire still more than the saw-mill the skill which, on the seashore, makes the tides drive the wheels and grind corn, and which thus engages the assistance of the moon, like a hired hand, to grind, and wind, and pump, and saw, and split stone, and roll iron. 
Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labour, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements. The forces of steam, gravity, galvanism, light, magnets, wind, fire, serve us day by day and cost us nothing."

I hope you can see that Emerson’s phrase, in context, has a very real meaning because it is tied to the work it is supposed to be doing, which is pointing at an example of how we work in and with the forces of natural world. In the actual context of Emerson's essay 'hitch your wagon to a star' is not a bunch of words on holiday, a handle turning no real machinery, but words which have real meaning and motive power because they are connected to the turning of a real wheel, the water-wheel of a tide mill.

Our theological mistake, during the four hundred or so years of our existence, was slowly to allow the words "God is love" to be taken out of context and let them go on holiday. As they came to lounge on a some sandy, sun soaked metaphysical beach we began to build on them increasingly high-flown abstract theologies about the metaphysical nature an all-powerful omniscient God and, most importantly of all, what we thought was his basic metaphysical characteristic, namely, love. We did this, of course, in an attempt to make our theory about the nature of God more powerful and persuasive than that offered up by our opponents. Before I continue I want to make it clear that I'm glad and proud we did and I do not want to deny how important this was for us and those whose lives were immeasurably improved by us trying to give people not hell, but hope and courage by preaching the kindness and everlasting love of God.

But today is not yesterday and, as I have shown, two-world wars revealed that, for all our good intentions, our former way of using those words are no longer able to turn any effective machinery.

Are we, then, pushed back into theological despair? No, I don't think so, not if we take time to put "God is love" back into context just as I have done with Emerson's words.

As you read the passage from John it is vitally important not to let the words, God, love, Jesus, atoning sacrifice, sin, saviour, son of God etc. go on holiday and for you to reject (or accept) them on the basis of your theories about what they mean. Keep them in context. When you do you will begin to see that these words do not form some free-floating, airy-fairy theory about an abstract metaphysical all-powerful God of love but are words being uttered by community that is struggling to speak about how it saw and still *sees* something in action - here and now, in their world. What this community saw was, and is, as real and tangible as any tide-mill, namely, love in action.

They first recognised, pointed at and named love in action in Jesus' life and teaching and, of course, in his death. They saw something trembling in that event that made them say "There! Now *that* is what we mean by God!" Importantly, they saw something that was *not* all-powerful and omniscient, something that was merely a theological mirror image of their opponent's all-powerful conception of God or the gods. No, instead they saw something smaller scale, gentler, weaker even, that called them irresistibly again and again into simple acts of loving service - no more and no less. After the first Easter, whenever, wherever and in whomsoever they saw love in action they discovered that they could continue to say "There!, Now *that* is what we mean by God!"

It's a disturbingly simple thought - especially to a highly rational, intellectually driven tradition like our own - but it seems to me that if we genuinely want to reconnect with the motive power that historically made us the effective, liberal presence in society we once were we need to do nothing more, nor anything less, than what John suggests. We need to drop ALL our metaphysics and simply return to the need to love one another and, whenever, wherever and in whomsoever we see love shown and love received, to proclaim to the rooftops, "There! Now *that* is what we mean by God!"