Tuesday, 25 September 2012

"The Innocence of Muslims" and "Islam: the untold story" - a meditation upon something they tell us about our own liberal Christian tradition


Matthew 18:21–22
and Luke 17:3–4

A theological joke . . .

Rudolf Bultmann's (1884–1976) most famous work was on what was called the ‘demythologization’ of the Bible. On the basis of historical research he acknowledge that the Bible is full of fictional stories. For Bultmann the fact that these stories are fiction need not effect faith because, he thought, the commitment to Christianity is primarily existential. Indeed Bultmann remained a committed Lutheran theologian throughout his long life.

One day the Pope received a phone call from an archaeologist in Palestine.

“Holy Father,” the archaeologist said, “I'm not sure how should I say this... I don't know if it's fortunate or not but the bones we have discovered have proved, beyond doubt, to be the very bones of Jesus!”

Hanging up, the Pope immediately sought consultation with his closest Cardinals. After revealing the situation, he asked them for suggestion. One Cardinal spoke up, “Holy Father, I believe there is someone who might be able to help. His name is Rudolf Bultmann.”

So, with some urgency, the Pope called Bultmann’s office at Marburg University. "Hi Bultmann, I’m afraid we have quite a problem here, and we’re hoping you can advise us. You see, our archaeologists in the Holy Land have discovered the bones of our Lord Jesus!”

After a moment of silence, Bultmann replied with utter astonishment: “What! You mean he actually lived?!”

A “confession” by Timothy Sprigge (1932–2007), Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Edinburgh University and member of St Mark’s Unitarian Church, Edinburgh: 

I must confess that I am very much the metaphysician [. . .] inasmuch as I would not like to base my life upon any claims about historical fact of which I am quite incompetent to judge the accuracy. You may suggest that I am just as likely to go wrong in metaphysics as in history. However, each person has the evidence to think out their metaphysics for themselves, so that even if we cannot all be right we can at least all have a right to our opinions. But I might have spent my whole life in appropriate historical enquiries and still had no right to a settled opinion as to what happened in the life of Jesus (Sprigge, Timothy: “The God of the Philosophers: Faith and Reason” in “Studies in World Christianity” Vol. 4 Pt. 2, Edinburgh 1998).


This week I saw two films with religious connections that prompted this address.

The first was the recent anti-Islam film made in the US called the “Innocence of Muslims” that has resulted in some extremely violent responses in various places in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. In addition to the direct ad hominem attacks made upon Mohammed concerning his sexual proclivities this appallingly inept film also expressly states that the Qur’an is a fictive, human creation. It’s a film that was clearly made deliberately to cause offence and provoke already volatile and radicalised religious groups to violence. It has succeeded.

But this is not the only very recent film on Islam that has roused anger in some Muslim circles – if nowhere near the level of anger we are currently seeing about the US film. The film in question is Tom Holland’s Channel 4 documentary called “Islam: The Untold Story” which – on the basis of what for us is a wholly responsible historical study - presented the view that Islam did not emerge suddenly and fully formed with a single text (the Qur’an) composed by a single identifiable Prophet (Mohammed) but instead developed gradually over many, many years alongside, and symbiotically related to, the rise of various Arabic empires. This view (one which I should add I share with Holland) cuts, of course, against traditional Islamic understandings of how their faith came to be in the world.

Shortly after the documentary’s live airing on terrestrial TV Holland was threatened online. It appears that one message read: “You [Holland] might be a target in the streets. You may recruit some bodyguards, for your own safety.” One thousand complaints were sent to Channel 4 and a further two-hundred to Ofcom and, off the back of this, a Channel 4 spokeswoman quickly announced that: “Having taken security advice, we have reluctantly cancelled a planned screening of the programme Islam: The Untold Story. We remain extremely proud of the film which is still available to view on 4oD.” (Report in the Daily Telegraph here; report in the Guardian here.)

In the face of these kinds of reactions it is highly tempting for someone like me to go on to say something critical about Islam and its evident current problems in dealing with satirical humour and historical-critical research and then to move on to talking about how “we” – whoever the “we” is understood to be – “we” have learnt to do this and how much better our society became because of this. (I should add here that the US film can hardly be seen as satire – as I said it was clearly made simply to offend.)

Now, in a general and strong way I am, in fact, more than prepared to affirm some such claim on behalf of our culture but, and it’s a massive but, but we cannot ignore the current social, religious and political contexts in which all this is kicking-off, namely the subjugation and mistreatment by our own US and British governments over many years of populations composed mainly of Muslims. This situation cannot be used as an excuse for violence and threats of violence to those who laugh at or who critique historically any religion but we’d be politically and religiously naïve not to take into account this wider context. Neither must we forget that, taken as a whole, Islam is an extraordinarily sophisticated and nuanced religion and with many aspects of it our own religious and philosophical traditions can and does have meaningful and constructive dialogue. So, although certain clashes between our religious/political cultures are occurring at present this is by no means inevitable nor, indeed, a final state of affairs.

With this important thought in mind rather than go on to point at “Islam” I want to use what has happened with these two films briefly to reflect upon our own faith’s relationship with historical critical research and humour.

But, before I go on I need to say that although I could examine it in some detail today I’m going to take one thing for granted, namely, that historical research *is* an absolutely necessary (but not sufficient) element in seeking what we here call truth, that is to say the things which show up for us as worthy of living by as we engage in an ongoing search to understand how the world is and our place in it.

The second thing to that needs to be said is to repeat the wise mantra of my Old Testament tutor at Oxford, Fr John Davies. Every now and then he would stop the class and say to us, “Dear boys,” (and we were all boys), “Dear boys, always remember that there is no such thing as the assured results of historical research.”
OK, now we can move on.

Our liberal Christian tradition’s problematic relationship with historical critical research can perhaps best be seen with regard to our relationship to Jesus. We were enthusiastic supporters of what has become known as the “Quest for the historical Jesus” – a quest begun in the eighteenth-century with Hermann Reimarus (1694–1768) and which has run through several phases until this very day with the network of New Testament scholars known as the “Jesus Seminar”. Throughout this search one common hope has been that, by getting back to the "authentic", historical sayings of Jesus, we would be able to clear away the “superstitions” and “corruptions” of later Christianity and so come to encounter directly the “clear”, “pure”, “uncorrupted” teachings of the man himself. Only then, it was argued, could we make a proper decision as to what exactly was Jesus’ basic message and, of course, whether and how we should continue to heed it.

Various methodologies have been used in the attempt to uncover this “pure”, “uncorrupted” teaching but throughout the centuries there has never been any meaningful agreement on the matter of what Jesus actually said or did. Some scholars thought Jesus said and did A, B, C. but not D, E, and F. Others have said precisely the opposite and still others have said variations of all the other, almost countless, possibilities.

This left our own tradition as a whole in a terrible state. Could we really trust the text as saying anything true about the historical Jesus? Could we really continue to say with integrity that we were trying to be followers of Jesus when there was the real danger that all we were really doing is merely following later human interpretations of who Jesus was thought to be? When you start to think your community's foundational text is *just* fiction (and the word just is important here) and of definitively secondary importance to so-called “historical fact” then you are in trouble.

But in recent years what most of us in liberal circles who have embraced some of the key insights of existential and post-modern philosophy have realised is that the idea getting back to some pure beginning or ground of anything is simply a chimera. To put the insight in it’s most down to earth terms we have come to recognise, in the words contemporary African-American Baptist preacher Johnny Ray Youngblood that always-already: “we've caught a moving train” and, together, we're on our way. We have come to see that our faith is not one made up of static, immovable and permanently revealed truths but rather its truth is to be “found” by belonging to an unfolding story and family of faith. Today this means our faith tradition has a very high regard for the place of historical (and of course scientific) research. Research which, on our moving train of faith, doesn’t supersede our foundational religious story but rather always allows it be seen in a constantly changing light which is always letting something new show up in it and which, in turn, provokes us to further creative reflection and action.

In our readings I told you the joke about protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann and the Pope speaking to each other about finding the bones of Jesus but I hope you can see that the power and truth of the joke relies not upon the relative rightness or wrongness of the positions held by the “Pope” or “Bultmann” but the possibility that we can make the joke in the first place and find it funny – the joke allows us to keep the importance of both views in play in our overall understanding of how our tradition is unfolding.

The kind of faith that is encouraged in our liberal tradition can never, therefore, be one which opts for either slavish adherence to the supposedly historical truth of Christianity (of which there can never be assured results) nor a slavish adherence to some personal but ineffable philosophical truth of Christianity (of which there can never be assured results) but, instead, to find a delicate creative balance between these two poles through the concious living of an unfolding form of life.

In my opinion, although this general balance must be struck, the overall weight leans ever so slightly towards the philosophical end of things for the reasons hinted at by Timothy Sprigge in his “confession” (see the start of this blog post).

In Holland’s film the Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr (he’s at George Washington University in Washington DC) made a number of points from the Islamic perspective that strongly echoed Sprigge’s point – which is that we cannot judge the truth of any religious faith simply by looking at its historical veracity or otherwise. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism – indeed the whole of human culture - is always-already a moving train.

Holland, not least of all by having Nasr contribute to his film, clearly has not made the mistake I’ve just outlined. On the other hand the “Innocence of Muslims” does make such a mistake. Alas, religious fundamentalists of all varieties as well as their atheistic mirror images always seem to make such a mistake. It is a truth universally acknowledged that these fundamentalists just love to get angry, to start arguing and fighting and, at times, even to kill or to engage in the worst kind of political and religious repression.

It’s a very sorry state for us to be in and we should be extremely concerned about this.

However, in the face of this situation – which will take a great deal of time and work to work through - we can at least do a couple of things. In the first instance we can remind people that, at least as far as we here understand our liberal Christian tradition, we are looking for the trembling divine life that lies at the heart of every human event whether that event occurs in fiction or in historical fact.

In the second instance – even though I know it is so hard to do - we must do our best as a community to follow Jesus’ teaching to forgive our angry brothers and sisters seventy-times seven (Matthew 18:21-22) and always be prepared to go back with them to the table to talk of faith and of history so we can all begin better to see that, whether we like it or not, we’ve caught a moving train and together we’re on our way.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

An odd kind of ghost story: Spectral resistance to those who say things like "Values at the centre, shiny going forward, sauce insofar as conditions permit."

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall (1936)

1 Corinthinans 1:18-31


The Spectre of Venice from The Power of Life by David Kishik (Stanford University Press, 2012, pp. 13–14)

From time to time [Giorgio] Agamben allows himself to add a subtle personal touch to his texts. An interesting recent example is “On the Uses and Disadvantages of Living Among Specters,” in which he contemplates his life in Venice. If, as Wittgenstein once suggested, language can be compared to a city, then Venice, according to Agamben, is like a dead language. Living in Venice, he claims, is like studying Latin. Though it is possible to read and even speak Latin with great effort and the help of a dictionary, it is still impossible, or nearly impossible, to find in this dead language the place of a subject, of the speaker who says “I.” This leads him to describe Venice as a spectral city inhabited by ghosts. Perhaps, his argument continues. Venice is an emblem for much of our modern world, where cities and languages, peoples and states, religious orders and secular institutions, could be said to be essentially dead, although everyone continues to pretend that they are not, to treat them as if they were still alive. It is much easier to come to terms with the fact that eventually I am going to die, to achieve what Heidegger calls a “being-toward-death,” than to face the fact that I am already dead, which is the reason that ghosts are often depicted as being consumed by quantities of angst that would probably crush the soul of any living human being. “For a man can never be in death,” Saint Augustine writes, “in a worse sense than where death itself is without death.” Nevertheless, there are also those special ghosts that learn to accept their ghostliness, because they realize, together with Agamben, that “spectrality is a form of life; a posthumous or complementary life that begins only when everything is finished. Spectrality has, with respect to life, the incomparable grace and astuteness of that which has been completed, the courtesy and precision of those who no longer have anything ahead of them.” 
Another appealing aspect of the spectral form of life is that ghosts rarely follow a leader, whether political or spiritual, nor do they tend to lead others.


Most of us (in this church or who are reading this blog) will take a great deal of interest in our culture’s many public conversations about politics, religion, the sciences and the arts. That this is so should come as no surprise because we were all educated by our culture to seek a truth that is, as our order of service puts it, the sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it. The centrality of this search in our common life once seemed to us to be so self-evidently true but I think we need to examine this a bit more closely. Is it the case, is it true? I ask this because I’m increasingly struck by the fact that when I do come to examine closely a great deal of what is being said in the public space, I often find it empty of meaning and that, although lip-service is generally being played to truth-seeking I find that, for the most part, it is not actually going on.

Just this week I had to re-listen twice to a speech given in the House of Commons twice to ascertain that, for most of the time, the person speaking was, despite surface appearances to the contrary, saying nothing let alone engaging in a genuine search for truth. The speaker, along with too many others in our culture, had clearly slipped into using the kind of language so perfectly parodied in 2010 by the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell in a speech he put into Ed Milliband’s mouth after winning election for the Labour leadership:

We must have sauce but only insofar as conditions permit. We must accept that we have made mistakes and we must move forward going forward and be shiner! Above all we must put values at the centre of our values! So values at the centre, shiny going forward, sauce insofar as conditions permit . . . but there is one thing more: we must be realistic about being real! We need to step out of our comfort zone and stride really, boldly, forwardly, shinily, saucily into our discomfort zone! I stand for change, for a society that is less unequal and more balanced going forward . . . for a different style of leadership, one that actually listens to its own flatulence (published 27-30th September 2010).

Of course, what Steve Bell parodied here in the political context is found in almost every other sphere of our lives including, of course, religion (liberal and conservative alike). Only an ounce of self-reflection is required to make anyone who suddenly realises this is occurring to ask themselves whether what they themselves are saying is anything more than “values at the centre, shiny going forward, sauce insofar as conditions permit”? Do I really say anything more to you each week? I’ll come back to this question at the very end.

I consider myself fortunate that over the past year or so I have been struggling with this question at the same time as discovering the work of Giorgio Agamben who feels, as we heard in our reading, that so many of our modern “cities and languages, peoples and states, religious orders and secular institutions, could be said to be essentially dead, although everyone continues to pretend that they are not, to treat them as if they were still alive.”

With regard to the language we use to talk with each other one of the significant problems, as Agamben’s example of the Latin language showed, is that we lose the possibility of being, in the grammatical sense of the word, an authentic subject – the speaker who can meaningfully say “I” and communicate to another subject something meaningful, living and truthful about what it is to be a subject, this living, breathing “I”. What Agamaben is trying to get at here is that truly to speak as subjects we have to be inhabiting a living language so deeply that the language is us and we are the language. But a number of things have happened in our culture that distances us (the “I”) from the language and makes it very difficult and perhaps even impossible to remain the subject of our language. I can best illustrate what I mean by recounting something the contemporary theologian Jürgen Moltmann once said. He spoke of a nightmare scenario that resonates strongly both with me and some of my other ministerial colleagues, especially in the highly academic environment of Cambridge:

I imagine that I step behind the pulpit in a church and preach in order to proclaim the Gospel and, if possible, awaken faith. But those who sit in the pew don’t listen to my words. A historian is there who examines critically facts about which I’m speaking; a psychologist is there who analyses my psyche which reveals itself in my speech; a cultural anthropologist is there who observes my personal style; a sociologist is there who is identifying the class to which I belong and whose representative he believes I am functioning. Everybody is analysing me and my context, but nobody is listening to what I want to say. And the worst thing is: nobody is disagreeing with me, nobody wants to discuss with me what I have said (cited in Volf, Miroslav: Captive to the Word of God - Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010, pp. 22-23).

It should be obvious that if we make this the normal way we proceed in our public speech (and for me this is religious speech) what it is that any subject wants to say all too easily gets lost behind the din of historical, psychological, anthropological, sociological,  or political concerns or, at worst, what the subject actually wants to say is without anyone noticing finally driven out completely (not even the “I” who speaks always notices this has occurred). The public speaker may, as they speak to you, have the semblance of being a living being, a subject, who is saying something true to you, but increasingly (in my opinion) this is not the case, at the heart of things is something else, something spectral. (Am "I" here, the author that is trying to speak to you?)

My concern is that in many (most?) of our public discourses we, in Western Europe and North America (I cannot speak for other cultures), have travelled a long way down this spectral route (may not our popular culture’s current interest in Zombies speak to this feeling of spectrality?)

Though this announcement of our death and consequent spectrality or ghostliness (even zombie-like existence) might sound bleak, for those of us who become alert to the situation, it is far from being the end of all hope because we can appropriate our spectrality in at least two ways. The appropriation I favour is one deeply related to a foundational Christian insight.

On the one hand we can go the way of ghosts who allow themselves to be “consumed by quantities of angst that would probably crush the soul of any living human being.” In connection with this Agamben, you will remember, cites Saint Augustine’s words that “For a man can never be in death in a worse sense than where death itself is without death.” This is a desperate state to find oneself in and I think it is not unreasonable to say, to pick up on the theme of my address two weeks ago, that we live in a culture which is often characterised by this kind of angst and spectral existence.

But Agamben remind us that there are also those special ghosts that learn to accept their ghostliness, because they realize that, contrary to popular opinion, “spectrality is a form of life; a posthumous or complementary life that begins only when everything is finished. Spectrality has, with respect to life, the incomparable grace and astuteness of that which has been completed, the courtesy and precision of those who no longer have anything ahead of them.” To this point Kishik adds that “another appealing aspect of the spectral form of life is that ghosts rarely follow a leader, whether political or spiritual, nor do they tend to lead others.”  I hope it goes without saying that I would encourage us to be the latter kind of graceful and astute spectre.

Now, all of the foregoing allows me to get, in my final few words, to the thing I (as a spectral subject of the latter kind ) most certainly do want to say to you today.

One of the most striking things about the New Testament as a whole is that what is being offered to us as a way of salvation, a way by which we might all have a genuinely rich and satisfying life is, as St Paul so eloquently says, something that the self-proclaimed wise and powerful people of our "real" world have always thought was foolish and weak, so weak and foolish in fact that it is to them as nothing – a mere spectre. It is precisely out of this spectral weakness (epitomised by the presence among and within us of what in our older language we called the Holy Ghost) that the powerfully transformative kingdom of heaven comes in  –  a kingdom in which, remember, are finally blessed the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Matthew 5:1-12).

The texts suggest that we will not affect this revolution if we decide merely to go head to head with the present powers that be. Those powers - especially in their present neo-liberal forms - have been very effective at turning human beings (and cultures) into spectres, mere shadows of the independent, truth and justice seeking beings and cultures we once were. To my mind in our age these powers have won some very significant battles. But, and it’s a but of incalculable importance, but what those same powers haven’t seen – and which as members of the Christian tradition we too often forget we have seen – is that we need not become the despairing angst ridden spectres the worldly powers would like us to become – the desperate, never satisfied, angst ridden consumer for ever in thrall to empty words and products. No! Consciously mirroring the weakness of the God whom we know as spirit (ghost) of love, we can, in our own weakness and spectrality, choose to continue lovingly to act in the world with incomparable grace, astuteness, courtesy and precision of creatures who have glimpsed the promised kingdom and even tasted its first fruits. The revolution of divine love we’d like to see come to pass in the “real” world starts wherever, and wherever, the Holy Ghost – the living Spirit - is nurtured among and within us. As St Paul said: “This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength (I Cor. 1:25).

Now, whether I have said here anything more than a fancy theological version of “Values at the centre, shiny going forward, sauce insofar as conditions permit” I must now have leave you to decide . . .

Monday, 10 September 2012

Revisiting the Smorgasbord Religiosity Question

This address came about because of an interesting online conversation I had with a bookseller from whom I had bought a DVD showing the two forms of Tai Chi I practice – the Bejing short 24-posture and the 48-posture forms. Noticing from my email footer that I was the “Reverend” Andrew Brown he asked me if I could explain something to him. He went on to say that he’d been practising Tai Chi since 1968 and also teaching it for a long time. He said that two churches had refused to let him use their halls on the grounds that Tai Chi was “in some way connected to Taoism.” One was a Methodist church and the other, surprisingly to us perhaps, was a Unitarian Church. To him this seemed strange when he said that he thought Christianity “teaches a more open attitude to others.” His final point was that Tai Chi (at least as we tend to practise it here in Europe and North America) is not necessarily connected to Taoism except in the sense that it was undeniably formed within a Taoist cultural milieu. As some of you will know a similar overall issue sometimes arises with regard to the practice of Yoga in church halls – a practice that developed within a predominantly Hindu culture.

I wrote back to him to remind him that part of the problem is that Christianity and, of course, Judaism and Islam have to take seriously their monotheism which requires an exclusive worship of, and belief in, a certain kind of one, absolute God. In Judaism and Christianity their call to this belief is, of course, classically expressed in the first three commandments: 1) having no other gods beside God, 2) not making any idols or images of God and, 3) not to worship or serve those other gods (cf. Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:4–21). (NB Notice, however that this call occurs in a polytheistic context – i.e. there are other gods around all over the place. See a particularly striking example of this in Psalm 82). In Islam it's related to the central concept of Tawhid which, in the Qur’an is, perhaps, most succinctly expressed in the 112th sura, Al-Ikhlas, which reads:

“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none comparable unto Him.”

It should be obvious that when understood in a certain way this kind of language all too easily sets up a situation in which the kind of issue my correspondent experienced could occur – having anything to do with alien gods is forbidden. As a church which bears as part of its name the word “Unitarian” (the other half of our name for those who don’t know is “Free Christian”) we need to be alert to the fact that we have been and still are susceptible to a peculiarly liberal form of the same problem. I won’t go into it here but it’s to do with the way another kind of monotheistic metaphysics can sneak into the picture which actually devalues diversity instead of celebrating it. But that’s for another day . . .

However, in general, those of us who attend this kind of church – and probably most people in most liberal settings whether religious or not – simply take the kind of religious and spiritual exclusivism I’ve been outlining to be self-evidently wrong. Speaking now only for our own liberal Christian tradition – despite one Unitarian church’s decision to the contrary – in general we happily say, let the Tai Chi and Yoga be practised alongside, and even commingled with, our own Christian faith.

But such a decision, precisely because it appears to us so self-evident, must, I think, be examined a little more closely from a theological perspective because, when it is not, a certain kind of confusion enters into our lives which, when unchecked, has often led to a number of our own spiritual, social and political difficulties.

I can get us to the general issue quickly by introducing here the most well-known colloquial expressions used to gesture to the matter at hand, namely, “pick and mix” or “smorgasbord” religiosity. It is often characterised as something like “a little dose of Jesus, a little pinch of Buddha, a little Mohammed here and a little New Age thought there. It makes you sound so “with it” . . . so spiritual.” 

This sets up a basic argument which one hears all the time. On the one hand there is presented the smorgasbord approach which never quite digs into the world in the disciplined way required for any genuine human flourishing to occur. Nothing is ever done quite fully enough or quite right. Consequently, lots of misunderstandings and faulty practice gets into play and any sense of real spiritual progression and attainment becomes impossible. On the other hand, there is presented the argument for a single-minded following of one supposedly pure tradition in which there is a real possibility that everything will be done fully and in quite proper fashion. The belief is that this will reduce the possibility of misunderstandings and faulty practices entering into the mix and the person involved can, thereby, gain a real sense of spiritual progression and attainment. In brief, this argument comes out as saying something like: if your religion (or spiritual practice) is plural in anyway it will lack depth and be generally confused; if your religion  (or spiritual practice) is pure and unitary it will be deep and full of clarity.

The first thing I want to say is that, although the views I’ve just outlined when presented in this fashion are mistaken – I’ll get to this in a moment - I think there is a pearl of great price lurking in this false argument. It is that whenever you don’t concentrate properly – and to some extent single-mindedly - on something and you let yourself be distracted all kinds of other things you will end up with a very limited, and perhaps, fatally flawed or just useless understanding of any possible spiritual life – your spiritual life. To echo the words of the epistle of James – a practitioner of any discipline (religious or not) whose loyalty to the task in hand is lacking, is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:6). The present Dalai Lama says the following about this very text:

The epistle begins by underlying the critical importance of developing a single-pointed commitment to our chosen spiritual path . . . because lack of commitment and a wavering mind are among the greatest obstacles to a successful spiritual life. However, this need not be some kind of blind faith, but rather a commitment based on personal appreciation of the value and efficacy of the spiritual path. Such faith arises through a process of reflection and deep understanding. Buddhist texts describe three levels of faith, namely: faith as admiration, faith as reasoned conviction, and faith as emulation of high spiritual ideals. I believe that these three kinds of faith are applicable [in this passage] as well. 

Please hold on to this valuable pearl. I'll return to it at the end.

Now the technical name for “pick and mix” or “smorgasbord” spirituality is syncretism and the first thing I want to say here is that a so-called pure, unitary, originary faith has never existed and any claim to the contrary can be shown (from with the faith’s own history and theology) to be misunderstanding their own development. The story of St Barlaam and St Josephat (we heard in the readings) is just one example that reveals this very well. We can say with a confidence, not always available to us in matters religious, that there is no historically established religious tradition that is not syncretic in some way.

The second thing I want to say is that we must distinguish between religious traditions that, like the Hindu one, are very established in their syncretic practice (it is their particular spiritual discipline) and a personal syncretic practice that is thrown together in an unreflectively ad hoc way.

The third thing I want to bring before you are three general kinds of personal syncretic practice. These “types” have been suggested by the contemporary Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf who is now at Yale. One type tends to be the “performance enhancing drugs” religion for when “you need to achieve something and you need spiritual energy to do that”. A second type is the “band-aid” religion to provide quick help for the bruising everyone gets as they walk through life and for when we need a bit of instant, First Aid. The third type is a kind of “local wisdom for action” – something that simply works in a very small locality and set of conditions. As Volf notes none of them give “wide accounts of reality” and, in consequence they tend not to form robust enough communities [which can] resist anything and introduce social change - a person “floats with them.” Wolf rightly, and irenically makes it clear that this is “maybe what some people may like and what’s exactly right [for them]” but he adds that, “from another perspective that may be a real detriment because you can’t create social movement for change with these type of religiosities.” (At the end of this post I have added an example of how our own liberal tradition has to a great degree shifted into the realm of personal syncretic practice and, in consequence, lost much of its ability to affect important social change. The example occurred to me in the congregational conversation which immediately follows my giving of the address.)

It has long struck me that, at our best, ours is a church tradition which has tried to walk a path between the extremes of, on the one hand, offering an absolute monotheism that will brook no deep encounter or involvement with other religiosities or, on the other hand, offering a smorgasbord religiosity with a horizon which only stretches as far as an individual’s immediate needs and which is, therefore, incapable of engaging in either, corporate action for social change or helping the long-term spiritual growth and sense of attainment of its members.

In a very real way my recent address “No image, no passion - why this liberal continues to stand up for Jesus” is the other half of this address because it outlines our liberal Christian tradition’s collective focal point – namely a following of the model and example of Jesus. A model that helps us to experience the world in increasingly authentic ways as both individuals and as a community. Such a way, such a form of life is precisely why we are here and now NOT frightened of Tai Chi, or Yoga, or Buddhist meditation and a whole host of other spiritual practices and religiosities.

A single-pointed commitment to this form of life – to living a life in the spirit of Jesus - is our pearl of great price. There are other pearls, of course, but this is ours. As I do my Tai Chi each morning before I go on to say my Christian prayers this pearl rests gently in my breast pocket, as close to my heart as is my own heartbeat, and it reminds me of the task in hand – to  love God and my neighbour as ourselves. As Jesus said; “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28)


Brief Afterword

It is reputed that the 16th-century Transylvanian Unitarian Bishop, Francis David (1510–1579) once said “We need not think alike to love alike.” A stone-carved plaque bearing this text is found in our church’s memorial garden (on left). In our own age we have tended to internalise this so that when we look around our own congregation we apply it, in the first instance, to ourselves. The trouble is that with so much internal diversity it has often become very hard for us to be collectively and religiously inspired to engage in long-tern, strong social action. But for David and his congregation it is important to see that his own community most certainly did think alike - their faith (and openness to diversity of belief and practice) was most certainly not one of the smorgasbord type. They had a very clear shared theology which was calling them to act in the world as a community. The key thing from our point of view was that this community’s shared belief helped them look at other religious communities and say “You know what? “We need not think alike to love alike.” This theological insight because it was collectively held by a strong body of believers was able to be taken out into the world and, over the centuries, they, in collaboration with others, contributed to the massive social change we have seen in the sphere of religious tolerance.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

“The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace became a human being.” Time has contracted - a liberal Christian meditation on messianic time

The picture here shows a sixteenth-century Polish Socininan (Unitarian) medallion. On the obverse is the image of the Rabbi Jesus surrounded by the single word “man” (ishi) which, in Hebrew, is used as a balance to the idea of God so it has the additional connotation of ordinary, customary, or common. On the reverse the inscription can be translated to mean “The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace became a human being.”

This medallion was worn by young Polish Brethren (known as Socinians after their leading theologian Faustus Socinus) who, in the late sixteenth century, began to frequent foreign universities, principally in Holland or Germany, to study under ministers or theologians sympathetic to their Unitarian theology which affirmed the unity of God and the humanity of Christ. Across Europe at that time to be a Socinian was still to risk execution and so the medal, in addition to being a statement of their faith, was also a way of identifying each other without making their heresy too obvious. Because the inscription was in Hebrew it would not be understood by most people and the wearer could either claim ignorance as to its meaning or, if it someone could read it, it could be given an orthodox spin. But to most people it would have been seen as a simple symbol of devotion to Jesus Christ, that is to say Jesus, the Messiah (cf. Albert Blanchard-Gaillard in Revue Regard, no. 2, Summer 1997, Institut d’études et de recherches sur l’histoire, les traditions, la nature et les sciences, pp. 30-34).


But let me say this, dear brothers and sisters: The time that remains is very short. So from now on, those with wives should not focus only on their marriage. Those who weep or who rejoice or who buy things should not be absorbed by their weeping or their joy or their possessions. Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away (I Corinthians 7:29-31 NLT).

From The Church and the Kingdom by Giorgio Agamben  (pp. 8-13)

In the Judaic tradition there is a distinction between two times and two worlds: the olam hazzeh, the time stretching from the creation of the world to its end, and the olam habba, the time that begins after the end of time. Both terms are present, in their Greek translations, in Paul’s letters. Messianic time, however – the time in which the apostle lives and the only one which interests him – is neither that of the olam hazzeh nor that of the olam habba. It is, instead, the time between those two times, when time is divided by the messianic event (which is for Paul the Resurrection).
How can we best conceive of this time? If we represent time geometrically as a segment taken from a line – the time that remains between the Resurrection and the end of time – does not seem to present any difficulties. Everything changes, however, if we try to conceive this time more fully. It is perfectly clear that to live in ‘the time that remains’, to experience ‘the time of the end’, can only mean a radical transformation of our experience of time. What is a issue is neither the homogenous and infinite line of chronological time (easy to represent but empty of all experience) nor the precise and unimaginable instant where it ends. Nor, for that matter, can we conceive of it as that segment of chronological time extending from the Resurrection to the end of time. Instead, what is at issue is a time that pulses and moves within chronological time from within. [. . .] This time is not some other time located in an improbably present or future time. On the contrary, it is the only real time, the only time we will ever have. To experience this time implies an integral transformation of ourselves and our ways of living. 
This is what Paul affirms in an extraordinary passage, and which perhaps presents the most beautiful definition of messianic time (I Corinthians 7:29): “But this I say, my brothers, time has contracted [ho kairos synestalmenos esti – the Greek verb systellein indicates both the clewing up of a ship’s sails and an animal’s gathering of its strength before pouncing].”


One of the first things we notice whenever we are able to take a proper holiday is that we are leaving behind us a time of no-time, a time characterized by countless pressures to get things done, and are slowly moving into a time where those pressures are removed. Occasionally – on the best of holidays – we experience what feel like moments of perfect calm and rest and later we say that time seemed almost to have stood still. Naturally, this time of time never lasts for very long because something always intervenes which reminds us that, like it or not, we are moving chronologically towards the resumption of our daily life and its chronic lack of time. As Isaac Watt’s memorably put it we feel strongly that "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away." As the days pass and we approach ever more closely that dreadful, first day back at work, we feel our stomachs slowly tighten again and our levels of anxiety increase. Back at work, how quickly we begin again to dream of our next holiday when for us time might, once again, stand still, even if only for just a moment.

This is, of course, to live within a very linear conception of time. One thing that we should notice about is that at no point on this line do we ever find *the* time in which we can be said to be leading the kind of rich and satisfying life which Jesus promised us was possible (John 10:10). Although it is fairly obvious why we don't like living in the time of no-time we should remind ourselves of why we wouldn't like always to be living in the time that seemed to stand still. It is because, even as it is wonderful to experience for a while, we all know deep in our hearts that to dwell that state permanently would be to live an aimless and apathetic life – in fact it would be to stop meaningfully living at all.

This linear conception of time, with it's two extremes of either never-ending pressure and rush or of no pressure at all and stasis seems to characterise our age.

The time of no-time encourages us into many apocalyptic ways of living. We are all acutely aware that we are constantly surrounded by end-time pressures. This is true, not only in our own work environments (little apocalypses), but also in our collective, regional, national and now global environments where daily we hear and talk about imminent collapse and crises, whether of the environment or of our financial, social, religious or political institutions (great apocalypses). Thoreau was surely right when he observed that most people in our culture today lead lives of quiet desperation.

Faced with these constant individual and collective end-time pressures it should come as no surprise that there has arisen in our culture a set of practices which are designed to, if not to remove this desperation, then at least to give us some respite from it now and then. So we self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol, by endlessly buying things to make us happy or by the purchasing of expensive holidays in the sun or some other form of entertainment – anything, as long as it takes our mind off the desperate state of affairs we feel we are in.

The net result of all this is that we are radically dis-empowered, lurching about from moments of extreme despair to moments of extreme rest. It is to be living a life of dysfunctional activity and dysfunctional inactivity.

Alas, much of the Church, Protestant and Catholic, conservative and liberal, has fallen prey to living in chronological time and been drawn (sometimes unknowingly but often willingly) into this dysfunctional way of living.

On the one hand, it has often used apocalyptic fears to pressure and scare people into furious, thoughtless, panicked action on a whole series of issues or raft of issues. On the other hand, it has made use of our overwhelming desire to escape these frightening issues by claiming to offer us a product through which we can escape all this and find salvation or spiritual fulfilment and happiness right here and right now.

But is this present understanding of time and our consequent way of living be the one we should be practising ourselves or promoting to the world? No, of course not. It seems to me that for the sake of the health of the world and ourselves we need to recover an ancient Christian insight that was first articulated by St Paul.
Paul saw clearly that there was another kind of time in which humankind could live – messianic time, a contracted time, a time in which everything is gathered up and which gifts us a new way of living creatively and with genuine hope. As Agamben reminds us messianic time "is a time that pulses and moves within chronological time from within." This is the time within which Jesus’ and Paul’s life and teaching was located and must be understood. (Also, I think the time by which someone like Thoreau, who I have already mentioned, lived). They were teaching us about how to live differently within in *this* world rather than speaking of some other, transcendent, future world.

Paul’s claim, as summed up by Agamben, is quite simple: messianic time – as seen lived out firstly in the person of Jesus understood as the Messiah - is the only time humans can ever truly have and, consequently, it’s the only truly satisfying time in which to remain. Jesus memorably called it the kingdom of heaven.
This fact is vital to see but it is rather obscured by the history of this insight’s reception. For obvious historical reasons we are encouraged by our culture to think that Jesus and particularly Paul intended to bring into being a new religion – a religion which, of course, became known as Christianity. But this is, I’m certain, wrong. It was Alfred Loisy (1857–1940), a French Roman Catholic priest, professor and theologian, who most famously observed: "Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church" (Loisy, Alfred - L'Évangile et l'Église, Paris, Picard, 1902).

As one of our own ministers, Robert Travers Herford (1860-1950), noted in the closing address of the first annual meeting of The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in 1929:

"The Christian Church never was the same as the Kingdom of God, either in fact or intention; and the Christian Church has held the field, for good and for evil, since the days of the Apostles, with the result that the Kingdom of God has never had a real chance of being developed into what Jesus meant it to be, the supreme fact of the religious life, individual and collective." 

Herford went on to note that:

". . . the Idea of the Kingdom of God is universal and all-inclusive in a way which was never possible, nor even contemplated or desired, under the Church Idea. The Kingdom of God, as the rule of God in the heart, the love and service of him, and the consequent love and service of all [people] as children of the one Father, that is not limited by any doctrinal definitions. No one but a Christian ever did, or ever could, work for the Church. But all can work for the Kingdom of God, not Christians only but all who consciously own God, whether Christian or Jew, Mohammedan or Brahmin, or any other of those to whom God has revealed himself ‘by diverse portions and in diverse manners’" (The Idea of the Kingdom of God, R. Travers Herford, 1929).

It seems to me necessary for us to begin once again to preach with confidence the kingdom of heaven and not the Church. To do this effectively we must try our hardest to recover what Paul and, as you have seen our own Socinian forebears, were so keen to proclaim to the world, namely, that the Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace has come in the person of Jesus and that the kingdom of heaven, despite all our daily difficulties and pressures, is to be found within or amongst us, where and whenever, people love God and their neighbours as themselves.

Though to the modern, rational and sceptical mind all this talk about the Messiah and the kingdom of heaven and peace might sound horribly archaic and, to some, even unpleasantly and unreasonably religious, it is important to see that this is not really to be saying anything which involves us in unreasonable and/or unlikely beliefs but, instead, about a practical method of radical transformation in the way we *comport* ourselves towards and in the world.

We come to experience what it is to live in messianic time and, therefore, in the kingdom of heaven, by simply and purposefully loving God and neighbour again and again and again. Whenever and wherever this is DONE – in church or outside it, amongst Christians or anyone else - it is to have the rich and satisfying life (John 10:10) that chronologically ordered frenzied activity and desperate holidaying can never gift us. Jesus, with an almost disturbing simplicity simply said to us: "Do this and you will live" (Luke 10:28). (Please note that he says here "do this”, he does not say "believe this.")

The simplicity of this message – which is a practical doing in this world and not a believing in three or more impossible things before breakfast - the outrageous simplicity of this message is perhaps why we ended up with the Church and not the kingdom. How could it be that simple?

But surely such voluntary, radical simplicity – a life lived with confident and joyous hope in the fruits of messianic rather than chronological time – is without doubt more needed by our world than ever before.

So, in the time that remains to us, I encourage you to DO this simple thing Jesus the Messiah encouraged again and again – for service under the law of love is precisely what transforms our perception of chronological time from within and which gifts us the kingdom of heaven on earth in which all work and rest can become meaningful and satisfying.


See also:

Has the Messiah Come? - A Christmas Day Sermon

The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace - First Sunday in Advent