Friday, 29 June 2012

Some photos from an afternoon in the backyard and a trio of photos of Ely Cathedral

I spent a couple of hours out in the back yard this afternoon reading Giorgio Agamben (including his recent homily The Church and its Reign). I had my camera in my bag and when a thrush visited me I took the following photo. For me, as a lover of Lucretius' poem De Rerum Natura, the arrival of such a beautiful creature always makes me think of Venus whose statue also graces our yard. Snap, photo number two. While I was taking that photo the wind caught the hanging mirrors by my side and I noticed Venus make a reflected appearance. It took about forty shots to catch her thus - but she's worth it, and so you have photo number three. Erasmus' quote, picked up on by Jung, which hangs above Venus looked lovely too, so photo number four of "Bidden or not bidden, God is present." Making an appearance at number five is the backyard and me in it saying "Amen!" (even though I look here a little miserable!) to the sentiments of both Agamben and Erasmus . . .

The next two photos are of Ely Cathedral which I took last week when I went up there with my wife, Susanna, to attend the tenth anniversary bash of the East of England Faiths Council of which I was, for a couple of years, the secretary. I have a fondness for old postcards and, with a little judicious processing, I arrived at an approximation of one of my favourite colour processes they used to use way back when. It made me  wonder how much has really changed in our world. Lastly there is a photo of Susanna saying hello to one of the horses you can see in the first picture of the cathedral. A splendid evening was had by all.










Tuesday, 26 June 2012

On ascending a high mountain and building towers - Jesus, Lenin and the kingdom of Heaven

Lenin Peak (7,134 m – 23,406 ft) in Gorno-Badakhshan 
Perhaps it was because a couple of weeks ago that I heard a programme about Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing's ascent of Everest and that this week a house guest had left a copy of "Mountains of the Mind" by Robert Macfarlane on our sitting room coffee table; perhaps it was because this week I was reminded that the Beatles' final recording, known to history as "Abbey Road", was once going to be called "Everest"; perhaps it was because at the moment I am re-reading Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil" which he wrote in Sils-Maria in the Swiss Alps, but mountains have recently been very much in my mind. All of which may have reminded me of a short piece written in 1922 by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin called, "Notes of a Publicist" which bears as one of its subtitles: "On ascending a high mountain."

But, before we get to Lenin's parable here it's important to say something else first. I have long thought Carl Schmitt was correct in asserting, also in 1922, that "All significant concepts in the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts" (Political Theology p. 36). When I went back to Lenin's essay this week it's practical theological relevance to our own church's situation struck me forcibly and that is why I bring it before you today. So, Lenin begins:

'Let us picture to ourselves a man ascending a very high, steep and hitherto unexplored mountain. Let us assume that he has overcome unprecedented difficulties and dangers and has succeeded in reaching a much higher point than any of his predecessors, but still has not reached the summit. He finds himself in a position where it is not only difficult and dangerous to proceed in the direction and along the path he has chosen, but positively impossible.'

In these circumstances, Lenin continues, the climber:

'. . . is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit. The descent from the height that no one before him has reached proves, perhaps, to be more dangerous and difficult for our imaginary traveller than the ascent — it is easier to slip; it is not so easy to choose a foothold; there is not that exhilaration that one feels in going upwards, straight to the goal, etc. One has to tie a rope round oneself, spend hours with an alpenstock to cut footholds or a projection to which the rope could be  tied firmly; one has to move at a snail’s pace, and move downwards, descend, away from the goal; and one does not know where this extremely dangerous and painful descent will end, or whether there is a fairly safe detour by which one can ascend more boldly, more quickly and more directly to the summit.'

Lenin begins to draw this section to a close by noting that:

'The voices from below ring with malicious joy. They do not conceal it; they chuckle gleefully and shout: "He'll fall in a minute! Serve him right, the lunatic!" . . . They moan and raise their eyes to heaven in sorrow, as if to say: "It grieves us sorely to see our fears justified! But did not we, who have spent all our lives working out a judicious plan for scaling this mountain, demand that the ascent be postponed until our plan was complete? And if we so vehemently protested against taking this path, which this lunatic is now abandoning . . . if we so fervently censured this lunatic and warned everybody against imitating and helping him, we did so entirely because of our devotion to the great plan to scale this mountain, and in order to prevent this great plan from being generally discredited!'"

With this parable in mind and before we go on we may say that, whatever else this church is about, its beginning, the commandment it first responded to and which brought it into existence (its αρχή - arche), was the call to help build the kingdom of heaven on earth of which Jesus spoke. This task was always going to be like the climbing of a steep and hitherto unexplored mountain. The attempt to build on its slopes a "Golden City" or a "Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land" (two of the hymns we sang during the service when this address was given) was, at many times, exhilarating and our progress towards the mountain's peak once seemed almost unstoppable. Whenever you take a spin out into the English countryside you can still catch a glimpse that this was so. One cannot fail to notice that, even in the smallest of villages and hamlets, we find, again and again, a proliferation of churches and chapels. The church and chapel buildings themselves mostly survive of course but, today, many of them are either poorly attended, disused or, in the case of many chapels, turned into chi-chi homes. They have become symbols of what is, today, commonplace knowledge namely, that in the painful, difficult and extremely slow way Lenin describes, every mainstream historical denomination (including our own) is finding that it is has no choice but to descend from the great heights they once reached.

As we are all being forced by present conditions to make this descent and it is impossible not to feel at times real despair and fear. It is not made any easier by the fact that, "below", we know there are many people who are only too delighted to see this situation unfolding.

Whilst meditating upon Lenin's parable I was strongly reminded of Jesus' own parable about the tower found in the Gospel of Luke (14:28-30). In it Jesus warns us that the desire to build a tower (which, like the mountain, can be read as an image of the kingdom of Heaven) requires us to count the cost before we begin. It is a parable which, when read in isolation, has often been used to criticize us by the same kind of despisers who have remained at the bottom of every mountain (or at the planning stage of every building project) who always have the excuse that their own continued inaction is rooted in a devotion to the same great plan to scale this mountain or build this tower. They tell us that they have not yet begun in order to prevent this great plan from being generally discredited by ill-prepared lunatics like us who continue to be prepared to make daring attempts to climb the heights (or build towers).

Now there is no doubt that an adequate lack of the right kind of preparation can contribute to the kind of failure that brings discredit to otherwise great plans and the arguments for inaction are almost infinite in number. However, as I intimated earlier, Jesus' parable must be read in the context of the whole New Testament and the ongoing Christian tradition and, when you do this, it dovetails with Lenin's parable in encouraging us to make attempts to build a better, more ideal society.

Seen in this wider context Jesus' we see that his parable is one which centres on the fact that our tradition's first great push to achieve the kingdom of heaven on earth, led by Jesus himself, collapsed in painful betrayal, violent death and empty despair and loss. The climbdown that had to be made by the first climbers, the early disciples and other followers of Jesus, seemed total. There would have been plenty of people around at that time who would have felt that this lunatic Jesus had generally discredited the great plan to free the people from both coercive religion and imperial control by beginning to build a fairer, more just and loving society for all.

But, as we know, the New Testament story takes a strange turn at this point and the story of the Resurrection marks the moment when a new attempt to climb the mountain begins and, for a millennia or more achieved some remarkable successes (as well as, of course, some serious mistakes, mis-steps and plain wrong turns).

Here, for a moment, we may return to the parable of Lenin because he reminds us that when we come to count the cost of our task those:


' . . . are doomed who imagine that it is possible to finish such an epoch-making undertaking . . . without making mistakes, without retreats, without numerous alterations to what is unfinished or wrongly done.'

Consequently he feels that only those:

'. . . who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility "to begin from the beginning " over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish).'

Developing the strength and flexibility "to begin from the beginning " over and over again (an insight first picked up on several centuries earlier by the Benedictines) is an all important part of counting the cost because we know that *ALL* our attempts to build a kingdom of heaven on earth will, in one way or another, continue to fall short of the full vision. The paradox is that this vision is what both inspires us to attempt to create the kingdom of Heaven, the Golden City, Jerusalem on a hill in the first place (always a deconstructable project) and that which also constantly stands undeconstructably before us calling us to account and to insist we correct our inevitable mistakes. As the playwright Samuel Beckett once put this insight: 'Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.'  (I have in mind here, of course, Derrida's thinking about the "undeconstructable".)

Anyway, right here and now, it is clear that we are not in a period of ascent but in the midst of what may prove a long descent and, like all such descents from such a great height it is often a frightening, humiliating and, at times, deeply depressing experience. Not least of all because as we get closer to the bottom we begin to hear ever more clearly the many cultured despisers of religion who will for ever belittle any utopian attempts to build a better society.

Consequently, as we descend (deconstruct our earlier attempts), we must always take care to remind ourselves and each other of the arche which called us into existence, namely Jesus' irresistible call to create the kingdom of heaven on earth - a society in which there is love and justice for all. Only when we do this with an authentic, living passion for this more just and loving society will we be able both to preserve our strength and flexibility "to begin from the beginning" over and over again and, in turn, help us see that we are far from doomed and, in all probability, that we will not perish. Though during a difficult descent (deconstruction) this is always hard to do for this comforting insight we must still give thanks and rejoice. Of course, just what exactly the new path up will be like and with whom we will be taking it cannot yet be known - but one thing I do know (thanks to being the kind of lunatic I am in my attempt to follow Jesus' footsteps) I'm up for another go. Anyone interested in coming?

Sunday, 17 June 2012

God is not like tin tetrachloride - words and transgressions and the fallacy of the alchemists


In 1976 a former pupil of Wittgenstein's called Maurice O'Connor Drury wrote a book called the Danger of Words in which he made some very interesting Wittgensteinian observations on his own profession, namely, psychiatry. Ray Monk, Wittgenstein's biographer, thinks that, "though much neglected, it is perhaps, in its tone and concerns, the most truly Wittgensteinian work published by any of Wittgenstein's students" (Monk p. 264).

In Drury's opening chapter, called "Words and Transgressions" he presents us with five fallacies about language. I brought them before you three years ago and do so again today in revised form because I think they remain of great practical import to us both as a church and as individuals (all quotations in this post are found between pp. 1-5).

Drury begins his chapter with a quotation from Proverbs 10:19: "With a multitude of words transgressions are increased". It's highly relevant because he is aware that in psychiatry (as I am suggesting in religion) "words can lead us into confusion, misunderstandings, error. Confusion when talking to patients, misunderstandings when we discuss mutual problems with our colleagues, error when in solitude we try to clarify our own thinking".

This seems to mirror the situation here as we are, I think, a kind of admixture of patients and colleagues. In the first instance we all come here looking for something therapeutic and healing in our lives and, in the second place, in any genuinely liberal religious community we must also be acting as colleagues or co-workers with each other in the search for meaning and what we call truth. Additionally, in so far as we actively take time to think about the things we do and talk about together we, too, will also be spending time in solitude trying to clarify our own thinking.

Drury's first fallacy, which we'll re-consider today, he calls the "fallacy of the Alchemists." He gives it this name because of something noted by the eighteenth-century chemist  Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794). It was Lavoisier who, rather than continuing to use the old names given to substances and compounds that he inherited from the alchemists, introduced into chemistry the modern system of naming where different substances and compounds were identified by the basic elements from which they were formed. So, for example, what was once known as "Glauber's salt" or "sal mirabilis" became called "sodium sulfate." Another evocative, alchemical name he cites is "fuming liquor of Libavius" (spiritus fumans libavii) which is today called "stannic chloride" or "tin tetrachloride."

Lavoisier made it clear (in his Mémoire sur la nécessité 1787, 14, 16-17 and Rapport sur les nouveaux caractéres chimiques 1787 in Oeuvres 5:378]) that he believed by doing this he was introducing to the world "a method of naming" as distinct from a "nomenclature."  (See Jessica Riskin's book Science in the age of sensibility from Chicago University Press).

I realise that today the word "nomenclature" also refers to systems of naming but I'm following Lavoisier and Drury in using the word here to point to the way a culture slowly, unsystematically, unscientifically, and even poetically, appends names to certain things or situations. This doesn't mean that these "nomenclatures" are useless rather here I am concerned to help us recognise that their usefulness is to be found precisely in their inexactitude and ability to evoke, or gesture towards, certain important more general aspects of human experience not necessarily covered by scientific "systems of naming". The inexactiness of "nomenclatures" is exactly what is required from them!

Now why is making this distinction important for us as a religious community? Well, we can begin to see why by turning to the introduction to Lavoisier's treatise (Traité Élémentaire de Chimie of 1789). He wrote:


"If languages really are instruments fashioned by men to make thinking easier, they should be the best possible kind, and to strive to perfect them is indeed to work for the advancement of science. For those who are beginning the study of science the perfecting of its language is of high importance."

A little later he continues, musing on the problem of using the old names, to say that:

"It is not therefore surprising that in the early childhood of chemistry, suppositions instead of conclusions were drawn; that these suppositions transmitted from age to age were changed into presumptions, and that these presumptions were then regarded as fundamental truths by even the ablest minds."

Reading these words Drury realised that he had to admit that the situation of his own profession of psychiatry was "only too comparable" with that which Laviosier saw occurring in early chemistry. If we are honest with each other I think it is also clear that in our own religious engagement with each other a similar situation obtains.

It should be apparent to most of you that many religious people and their atheist opponents (of both liberal and conservative inclination) have often made the mistake of believing that their traditional religious (or atheist) "nomenclature" is, or was capable of becoming, a scientific system of naming. But believing this is possible/true does not make our religious thinking either easier or clearer. Far from it and here's why.

I can still delight in and explore both the sound, poetry and historical use that piece of alchemical nomenclature "fuming liquor of Libavius." Thanks to intellectual historians we now know that it is wrong to think of the early alchemists as simply proto-chemists as they were people engaged in a much more complex and wide-ranging spiritual quest. However, as they continued to think about the results of their experiments many of them were lead in a direction which has since then flowered into our modern discipline of chemistry. One result of the their experiments was, for example, what they called "butter of tin" produced when they mixed this "fuming liquor" with water. It was called "butter" because of the consistency of the substance formed - it was named out of their embodied experience of the substance - its appearance (not inappropriately) led them to this name.

However, today, thanks to Lavoisier, I can simultaneously turn to a scientific system of naming which tells me that the "fuming liquor" is "tin tetrachloride", that "water" is "dihydrogen monoxide" and, when they are mixed together, "tin tetrachloride pentahydrate" is formed. The chemist, thanks in part to their "system of naming" knows something very clear about what's going on here. Using this "system of naming" we can gain a certain kind of "objective" purchase on certain things and processes of the universe that is simply *not* available to me if and when I continue to try to work only with the complex and tangled, if beautifully evocative, web of "nomenclature" that gives me "fuming liquor of Libavius", "water" and "butter of tin."

Now here's a religious example - though, as you will see here a vitally important asymmetry appears. I can still (and still do) delight in, play with and explore the sound, poetry and historical use of that piece of nomenclature "God". But, unlike in chemistry, I cannot today also turn to a scientific system of naming that tells me what "God" is in a way "tin tetrachloride" tells me what "flaming liquor of Livabius" is. It should be absolutely clear from this that the word "God" only functions for us as part of a religious "nomenclature" and *not* as part of any meaningful "system of naming."

This means that we must be especially careful to heed Drury's warning to "beware lest from this unsystematic nomenclature suppositions are drawn, which then become presumptions and only too easily pass over into established truths."

I hang my head and weep whenever I see this happening - which is, alas, a great deal of the time both within our own liberal religious communities and in other more conservative ones.

However, whenever I can see the word "God" being used as part of living religious nomenclature - for example in a beautiful liturgy - and the person or community that is using the word "God" is gently mindful of this history of use, then the word "God" begins to do again what it should be doing, namely, to help us "show", feel or gesture towards, and meaningfully share with each other, a certain stance in the world rooted in a kind of wisdom and knowledge about the human world that is as equally important to us as is our scientific knowledge of the physical world.

In our own community's history of use such a "God" can only be named and known by doing things like incarnating love, compassion, justice and the paradigmatic, general showing of this kind of understanding of "God" is seen for us in the person of Jesus. As the Taizé chant we often sing in the evening puts it: "Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est" - "Where charity and love are, God is there."

"God" is not a natural substance like "tin tetrachloride" (nor any other natural thing) and, for the love of God and neighbour we must never forget this.


Friday, 15 June 2012

Bicycle, sun, sandwiches, churches, Tolstoy, busway, beer and bumps

A few photos from a ride on the Pashley Guv'nor out from Cambridge to Knapwell, Boxworth, Swavesey and back along the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway this Thursday. Had a wonderful packed lunch (ham sandwiches, a flask of tea and an apple in the graveyard at Knapwell and lay on my back for an hour in the sun reading Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief. Back in Cambridge I stopped at the Green Dragon for a pint and watched a bit of the May Bumps. Post pint and heading home by the river I met John Hughes (the Revd Dr) who is Dean of Chapel & Chaplain at Jesus College who had been out supporting the college crew. I've had a couple of conversations with John recently about Christianity and Socialism (his area of research) that have been very interesting. He was recently involved in the Christian Socialist Movement's Tawney Dialogue along with Rachel Reeves MP, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Lord Paul Myners, who was Chair of Marks and Spencer and also a junior Treasury Minister from 2008 to 2010.

Going north to Knapwell

Knapwell Church

Knapwell Church

Pashley Guv'nor at Knapwell Church

Countryside opp Boxworth Church

Boxworth Church and House 

Boxworth Church

Cambridgeshire Guided Busway

Over Mill on the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway
May Bumps near the Green Dragon pub
From the Pashley Guv'nor brochure
From the Pashley Guv'nor brochure

Sunday, 10 June 2012

I saw myself a ring of bone . . . allowing ourselves to be struck by the world


Transit of Venus viewed from Woodstock, Maryland
Last week, I guess like many people around the world, I was sitting at my computer for a time captivated by the transit of Venus across the face of the sun, the last time this will occur for 105 years. For centuries past it inspired awe not least of all because it was wrapped up with the mysterious workings of the gods. We must not forget that until relatively recently in human history the Sun and the planets were not what we might call "natural facts" of the universe but gods - in Celtic cultures the sun was known as "Bel" (meaning "shining") and in later Greco-Romano culture, as "Sol" or "Helios." Venus was, of course, named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. Though awe-inspiringly powerful, independent, and always wilful, these gods and goddesses were forces with whom, in some measure meet, we could communicate and, from time to time, perhaps even propitiate. Our relationship with them could be said to be, in some way, personal.

Although vestiges of this religious awe remain, today it is an inspiring event for us mostly for naturalistic, scientific reasons. The mystery and wonder of a personal encounter with the gods has been driven out in favour of aw(e)ful (pun intended) knowledge of a universe governed by reliable and, to a great extent, predictable physical laws.

As I leaned back from my computer and mused on this well known trope for our age I realised that although in earlier times one might meaningfully have been happy or angry with the ways of the gods Sol and Venus as one stands today before natural objects of the universe, it makes no sense at all for us to be angry at their ways. This thought immediately led me to recall a poem published by Robinson Jeffers called "Be Angry at the Sun":

That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept
Like the historical republics corruption and empire
Has been known for years.


Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors.
This republic, Europe, Asia.


Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.


You are not Catullus, you know,
To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar. You are far
From Dante's feet, but even farther from his dirty
Political hatreds.


Let boys want pleasure, and men
Struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame,
And the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes to be duped.
Yours is not theirs.

Turning away from the NASA website and, via the BBC News website, towards the world of humankind I was left in little doubt that Jeffers had a point because, alongside the story of the transit, which was graced with beautiful pictures of Venus passing in front of the fiery Sun, there were countless other stories which spoke of "public man's" many falsehoods, corruptions, hatreds and violence. In all the centuries humankind has been able to look up at Venus cross the Sun it has never ceased to be filled with men and women who, wishing for pleasure, power and fame, will lie, spread hate and kill. Reading the terrible litany of the BBC News page one cannot but help think Jeffers seems to be right in suggesting that this feels like the action of the same unchangeable natural laws that govern the physical universe - after all we, too, are part of this universe; could we really expect things to be otherwise? Ergo, we should not to get angry about this natural "fact" about our ourselves just as we should not get angry about the sun.

But as I scrolled through the headlines I found it impossible not to feel anger about the violence of the Assad regime in Syria, anger about the financial greed and corruption that is so threatening global stability, anger about the misuse of the world's natural resources and the associated fact of pollution, and anger about so much more besides. However, I don't think Jeffers is suggesting we shouldn't be angry nor seek to change these things, rather he is reminding us not to waste precious time and energy on futile anger. He's concerned instead to encourage us to remember that we follow another way, a way that, as he suggests in his final line, is not the way of the "public men". In this poem I think he's teaching us something that was wittily, if necessarily darkly, summed up by the French eighteenth-century writer Sébastien-Roch Nicolas (1741–1794) otherwise known as Chamfort:

"If you want to become a philosopher you mustn't allow yourself to be put off by your first unpleasant discoveries about the human race. To learn about mankind, you have to ignore the disappointments they cause you, just as an anatomist needs to overcome his initial disgust and ignore his own organs in order to learn the necessary skills to practise his art" (trans. Douglas Parmée).

If we are going to live a different way - and learn this way's necessary skills - then we clearly need to live in frank acknowledgement of human frailty and humankind's ever present propensity to evil and destructive behaviour. With that thought I judged it was time to turn off the computer.

I sat back in my chair and my mind began turning over the perennial question of just what is, or might be, "our way"? The lateness of the hour and my tiredness drove me first to thoughts of quiet retreat and contemplation because it's so hard to tackle this question well when all one can hear is the din of public man's stupidity - a stupidity in which I am, and all of us are, complicit from time to time. Anyway, most of my own literary and philosophical heroes are those who did their best thinking about such questions in retreat - Thoreau went to his hut in the woods, Nietzsche went to a quiet house Sils-Maria to walk in the Alps, Wittgenstein built a hut on a mountainside in Skjolden, Norway whilst Heidegger built his in the Black Forest at Todtnauberg. So, too, did one of my favourite poets Lew Welch - his hut was in the woods of the Sierra Nevada mountains, California where, in 1963/1964, he wrote a small collection he eventually called "Hermit Poems." Lew's work seemed relevant at this point in my thinking because he was quite capable of the kinds of destructive behaviour carried out by "public men" of which Jeffers had spoken. Years of drinking, depression and failure to find success as a poet led to some very bad, very dark years. His retreat to the woods was an attempt to clean up and start anew. So I leant over and pulled Lew's Collected Poems (A new edition is to be published in July) down from the shelf and read:

Atlas vertebra superior sight
I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it


and vowed
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through


and then heard
"ring of bone" where
ring is what a


bell does

(You can hear Lew Welch recite this poem at the Penn Sound webpage. He also reads it on CD4 of the collection Howls, Raps and Roars - Recordings from the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance)

An Enso - "Zen Circle"
In the morning Lew would wash in a spring near his hut. In one of the other poems written at the same time ("Not yet forty") he tells us that, on occasion, he used to stick his head right into the water and look around at the pebbles. On this day it seems that, as he looked around, he saw a ring of bone - the vertebra of some dead animal lying there on the spring bed (I think he also had in mind that this ring of bone resembled the Ensō the circle closely associated with Zen). Of the living and dying of all creatures there is, of course, no end - a natural fact of life about which, like the movement of the planets, one simply cannot be angry or happy about. Lew clearly feels neither and instead he simply, and suddenly, sees himself as that ring of bone, utterly commingled, not only in this spring at the head of a mountain stream, but in the flow of everything - the same flow that moves the stream and the Sun and Venus. Though this kind of thought has had mystical connotations it seems to me that Lew knew that this, too, is really just a natural fact, one which he could notice but never change. Consequently, his seeing of this is not, I think, the thing towards which Lew wants to gesture to in this poem. Instead I think it is seen when he draws our attention to the one thing we can change, namely our willingness to be open to the natural facts of the world and of allowing them to push back so that they, almost literally, can be said to strike us and set us resonating in the world differently so as to be nudged in a new direction of looking and travel.

It is this act of opening up that allows him to be wonder-struck and to be caused to look up and away from his old destructive ways of being as a kind of "public man" and to resonate or ring, in the world in a new way. His own "ringing" is transmitted to us in his poems and, as their sound continues to ripple out into the world, they now and then will strike one reader or another and cause them to look up and to be nudged away from their own old destructive ways of being and towards a new direction of looking and travel.

I realised that in allowing myself to read Lew's poems (read anything in fact) they become themselves new kinds of natural facts capable of striking us and setting us ringing anew just like rings of bone, stars and planets.

This ringing, this being struck by the wonder of natural facts and being nudged by them in new directions of looking and travel seems to me to be deeply resonant with the methods of teaching pursued by Jesus - my own and this tradition's distinctive religious teacher. He was always concerned to teach in a way that encouraged people to be struck by some natural fact such that they would look up, be set ringing differently and nudged away from their former destructive ways of being "public men" and towards new directions of looking and travel.

He constantly called upon us to look and consider at such natural facts whether they be birds of the air, lilies of the field, mustard seeds, leaven, hidden treasure, pearls, lost sheep, lost coins, lost (prodigal) sons, faithful servants, ten virgins, tares, rich fools, budding or barren fig trees, unforgiving servants, Good Samaritans and friends at night. These parables are not in themselves answers - answers are in fact not the point - they are designed to strike us and make us wonder, "how on earth is the kingdom of heaven like this?", to set our own lives ringing in new, creative, non-destructive ways.

It seems to me we will never be able to stop for all time "public men" falling into their destructive ways of being. But what we can do, is pursue "our way" which is always be cultivating amongst ourselves practices that can open ourselves and others to the natural facts of the world (which as I have suggested I think includes poetry and the other arts) such that we and those around us are struck by them and set ringing, natural facts that make us look up with wonder and which can change our direction helping us to see that there is another way, something better.

So, please risk being that "ring of bone - where ring is what a bell does" for it is nothing less than "our way" - a way which can remind the human world it can change and even, in some measure, achieve salvation.

*****

After finishing this address I turned my attention towards Ernst Fischer (1899–1972), the Austrian Marxist journalist, writer and politician whose most famous book was "The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach" which has just recently been re-published by Verso Press and which I've been meaning to read for a while. Below are two well-known quotes of his (both, I think, from this book - something I'll check as I read it in the coming weeks) that connect with an underlying theme of my address printed above. It seems worth adding Fischer's words here as provocations to further thought:


"Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognize and change the world. But art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it."


"In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it."

Thursday, 7 June 2012

A trio of photos from a ride out to Toft

Just three photos from a ride a couple of weeks ago out from Cambridge to Toft via Harlton. A wonderful time away from church business.

A corner near Harlton

Looking east towards Coton with the tower of the University Library in the distance

The Pashley Guv'nor in Toft graveyard


Monday, 4 June 2012

Theatre or Spectacle? - a question about the Diamond Jubillee


Christianity's relationship with state or civic power has always been complex and problematic. On the one hand there have been many periods when those who were in power have threatened the freedom of our communities and, on the other, when our own communities have become linked directly to power we have often, in our turn, threatened the freedom of others. But, whatever you think about the overall rightness or wrongness of mixing religion with state and civic power, our reading from I Timothy (2:1-4) expresses what has become a widely shared position of churches within the state that, at the very least, "supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings [should] be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity."

But this general, eirenic approach with those who are currently in power should, at the same time, never ever be used to stop us turning a critical eye now and then upon such matters. Today, following the example of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne (Essay 56 On Prayer) I think we can emboldened enough to raise important questions about this power. Along with Montaigne and also, in fact, the author of I Timothy, I hope we can do this today because we are only interested in "seeking the truth not laying it down." In that spirit, the "notions which I am propounding have no form and reach no conclusion" and I will leave you simply with a question to consider. Only then will I offer up a short prayer suitable for this time.

My question hinges on the difference between theatre and spectacle and whether the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of this weekend are the former, or the latter.

A very influential attempt within our own Western European culture to differentiate between theatre and spectacle was made by Rousseau who, following Plato, was very suspicious of theatre. Simon Critchley reminds us that:


'In [his "Letter to D'Alembert" Rousseau] restates Plato's critique of the tragic poets in the "Republic" where theatre is excluded from the well-ordered polis because it is the mimesis or imitation of mere appearance, rather than attention to the true form of things which should be the proper concern of the philosopher (Faith of the Faithless, Verso Press, 2012, p. 51).'

Given this Rousseau proposed that theatre should be replaced with civic spectacle and that,

'What is essential to such spectacles is precisely that they are not representations but the presence to itself of the people coming together outdoors in daylight and not dallying in the darkness of the theatre, whose very architecture, says Rousseau, is reminiscent of Plato's cave:
"Plant a stake crowned with flowers in the middle of the square, gather the people together there, and you will have a festival. Do better yet; let spectators become an entertainment to themselves; make them actors to themselves; do it so that each see and loves himself in the others so that all will be better united"' (ibid p. 52).

Simon Critchley sums up Rousseau's basic point by noting that 'In the civic spectacle, the people do not passively watch a theatrical object of representation, but rather become the actors and enactors of their own sovereignty' (ibid p.52).

In order to help us get back to my initial question we need to ask two supplemental ones.

The first is whether or not watching the Queen and her sizeable retinue over weekend and throughout this year is an example of "we the people" becoming an entertainment to ourselves in which we are the actors and enactors of our own sovereignty? In short, are the Queen and her retinue genuinely representative of you and me and, therefore, of *our* sovereignty as a people?

The second is whether, when we take part in any other kind of public event during the Diamond Jubilee weekend where the Queen and her retinue are not present, we are witnessing an example of "we the people" becoming an entertainment to ourselves in which we are the actors and enactors of our own sovereignty as a people? In short, in these situations are *we* genuinely representative of ourselves as a people and, therefore, of *our* sovereignty?

The answer to both questions hinges upon whether we think either the Queen and her retinue, or ourselves, were, are or still can be true representations of our collective sovereignty as a people? If they/we are representive figures then there is a chance we are in the realm of spectacle; if they/we are not then we are in the realm of theatre.

So are the events of this weekend and the whole Diamond Jubilee year theatre or spectacle?

The only answer that could possibly satisfy us as a people (rather than as individuals) depends on whether there *actually* exists today something we can meaningfully call *a people* who might genuinely be able to experience and celebrate a shared understanding of in what consists its *collective sovereignty.*

I don't think I'm saying anything particularly controversial when I say that, in connection with the Jubilee celebrations, I find it hard to see what for us this genuinely collective understanding and experience of sovereignty* might be. My looking is haunted by a memory from my time teaching music in a Young Offenders Institution (a prison for youngsters) at Hollesley Bay in the early 90s. It was the first day of teaching guitar to a young lad who was inside for violent robbery and he was struggling to recognise, let alone play even the most simple musical example. Perhaps, I thought, he was a rare example of someone who was genuinely "tone deaf". So I played him "Happy Birthday". Nope, he said he didn't know it. Strong evidence in favour of my conjecture you might think but I tried another example first - the British National Anthem "God Save The Queen". "Yes!" he instantly replied and immediately added "It's the theme tune for the boxing." It showed two very disturbing things. One, that here was a eighteen year-old lad to whom no one had even played "Happy Birthday" and, two, that what I had assumed would be a tune connected to a shared understanding of our sovereignty simply didn't exist - for me it was tied up with national occasions and a evoked a remembrance of our national history (good and bad) but for him it was simply the tune that began a boxing match.

The villagers of Bédarrides present to themselves
Anyway, in my own adult life my only personal experience of what seemed to be a true civic spectacle has not been here but in France where, over the years, I have spent a good deal of time. One of my most striking and memorable experiences of this was had only last year. Susanna and I were staying with our friends in a small village near Avignon called Bédarrides which was holding a "Spectacle de Reconstitution Historique" celebrating the moment when, in 1791, the village was the place where the local region, the Comtat Venaissin, joined the French Republic some two years after the Revolution first created it. The event in 1791 marked the moment when the people of the region took sovereignty into their own collective hands and away from the Papacy.

What struck me as I sat on a straw bale in the village square surrounded by hundreds of happy spectators was that this was a true civic spectacle which spoke with a national resonance about the people's sovereignty. Firstly, even though evening was falling, we were coming together outdoors in daylight and we were not dallying in the darkness of the theatre; this village square was most certainly not Plato's cave. Secondly, most people in the village were involved in the spectacle in some way or another having either made the costumes, built the sets, provided the horses and the lights, written the script or, of course, by playing the parts. They also took time to eat and drink together before hand and continued to celebrate together long into the night after the re-enactment had finished. And, thirdly, it was clear that I  was witnessing a people who were an entertainment to themselves, who had become actors and enactors themselves and by so doing it was possible, for a while, for them each see and love themselves in the other so that they would all be better united. This unity was no better expressed than in the collective proclamation of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" which is, of course, a succinct expression of in what consists their sovereignty as a people.

(Click on this link to see some photos of the occasion)

Now I am not making here a claim for the perfection or desirability of either the past or present French Republic - or indeed this individual spectacle - rather I'm simply trying to point you towards in what consists a genuine civic spectacle.

The history of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is, of course, very different from France's and so one cannot make a simple, direct translation from one to the other. However, this illustration from France can help us ask where, in our own celebrations this weekend, do we see truly see in ourselves the actual presence of us as a people who are speaking of our sovereignty?

It matters because I hope that as a people - and not merely as individuals - we want in these celebrations each to see and love ourselves in others so that we can all be better united as a people. I hope and pray that for the most part we are this weekend not meeting merely for an ultimately empty entertainment which is simply the bread and circuses of which Juvenal once spoke (Satire 10.77–81).

One of the great pleasures and privileges of being part of a small, independent, religious community like this one is that, at our best, when we meet we *are* present to each other in a way that can help us see and love ourselves in others and so become better united as a community. We do this because, holding to the enabling claim that to love God is to love neighbour as ourselves, our self-understanding of our sovereignty as a liberal religious community is expressed by *showing* to each other (and those whom we meet) what this means in practice. One of the chief reasons I continue to encourage more of you to become involved in both the provision of services - as today - and in the wider, general daily life of this community is because only this kind of real engagement with each other will help keep us engaged in spectacle rather than creating merely religious theatre in which we only play with appearances.

But this, our local religious spectacle, is clearly not representative of the state of affairs that always obtains today more widely in our national civic life.

So, given this I ask all of you, however you choose to celebrate this Diamond Jubilee weekend, please to look around you and ask: "At this moment, now, are we actors and enactors of our own actual sovereignty as a people or are we merely playing with appearances?" In short: "Are we witnessing spectacle or theatre?"

*****

And now with my question asked, following Timothy's advice, we conclude with a prayer. Let us pray:

O God of all humankind and nations we are grateful this day for the surpassing heritage of our nation; for all those who in former times by whose labours and whose sacrifices we have been made free; whose courage in times of testing inspires us to face up to our own fears and trials. 
We particularly hold in our prayers today Elizabeth, our Queen and all who are in positions of civic authority; that they may continue to play their part in helping this nation lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. Make us all worthy, O God, of what has been bestowed upon us, that with faithfulness and fortitude, together we may go boldly forward, honouring in the present all that is precious from the past, and keeping bright the promise of the future. Amen.


(Adapted from a prayer by A. Powell Davies in The Language of the Heart)