Sunday, 18 November 2012

In the beginning stood the knowledge of life

Tolstoy felt that the moment he was able to render the opening of the Gospel of John, traditionally translated as "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" as, "In the beginning stood knowledge of life, as the foundation of all things. Knowledge of life stood in the place of God. Knowledge of life is God" his project to reinterpret and re-present the Gospels truly began. (Tolstoy's opening section of the Gospel in Brief can be found at the end of this blog post)

Even though I personally find it a particularly congenial work, today I don't wish to defend or promote Tolstoy's "Gospel in Brief" but, instead, simply to concentrate our attention on the insight that led to words you have just heard.

Tolstoy came to this project after writing his most famous novels and after a long period of deep despair and depression in which on a number of occasions he nearly took his own life. This experience of despair, which he so memorably recounts in his "Confession", still speaks powerfully to our own age and condition. There he looks back at the course of his life in which, after he had abandoned the Russian Orthodox faith of his childhood, he set about to shape his own life through the cultivation of his intellect and the acquisition of knowledge. In many ways he was incredibly successful at this shaping and the first mature fruits of this life, especially his major novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, assured him both financial and social success and, as we know, secured him a place in the history of literature. Despite this he increasingly felt his life was meaningless and, in consequence, he threw himself even more deeply into finding the answers to the questions that we all ask at some point in our lives, namely: "What will come of my life?" and "What is the meaning of life?". Initially, he sought his answers in the pursuit of the natural sciences and through an intensive study of philosophy, history and of other religion's expressed "solutions" to these profound questions. Alas, this approach did not reveal to him the kind of answers he sought and his depression only deepened. He began to glimpse an answer when he noticed that ordinary Russians outside his own intellectual circles, in their deeply embodied Russian Orthodox faith, did seem to have found answers to those questions. It is this fact he is confessing and he feels the need to confess it because it runs so counter to the assumptions of skeptical  intellectual tradition to he had for so long espoused. It is a confession because his insight has the character of a betrayal. After all he, like many of his intellectual friends and many of us, had abandoned the Christian faith of his childhood because his intellectual acquired knowledge had shown that so much of it was oppressive, superstitious and, frankly, incredible. And yet as he looked at the faith of the common people Tolstoy sensed that, to cite a Russian proverb, he must be careful not "throw the fur coat on the fire because he was angry at the fleas."

Tolstoy initially responded to this recognition simply by returning to the Russian Orthodox church but for him this proved an impossible route to follow and he quickly left again. Tolstoy realized he could not go back and that if he were meaningfully to re-engage with the good news that he sensed was to be found in the Gospels then he could only do it by moving forward from where he was. So how did Tolstoy move forward?

Well, remember that Tolstoy had initially tried to answer the questions of life and its meaning through a rigorous intellectual pursuit via the natural sciences, philosophy and history and a study of other religion's solutions. He seems to have seen that, although this approach had not, in itself, brought him the kind of answers he sought and needed, he could not but help bring it with him in his own attempt to re-connect meaningfully with the Christian tradition. He could not but help see - as many of us cannot but help see - that the Biblical text is a wholly human document and that it contained within it many misunderstandings, mis-rememberings, mistakes and intellectual interpretations and theories about the world and God that not only could no longer be entertained by him as true but which were also largely irrelevant to his own life and age. Naturally, he also saw that the Church had been erected upon many of these interpretations and theories and so a simple, naive re-engagement with the Church was never going to be possible for him. Consequently he had to move forwards on the margins of the formal church and, as he says in the introduction to the "Gospel in Brief", he began to see that his:

“. . . task [was] not to prove that Jesus was not a God and therefore his teachings were not divine, any more than it is to prove he was a Catholic. The task must be to understand the essence of his teaching, this teaching that became so high and precious to people that they recognized the messenger of it as a God (Gospel in Brief, p.xxxi).

Tolstoy also wanted to be clear to himself and his readers that in this task he “. . . sought the answer to the question of life, not to theological or historical questions.” Therefore, he says it was completely irrelevant to him “whether Jesus Christ was God and where the Holy Ghost comes from and so on, and it was equally unimportant and unnecessary to know when and by whom the Gospel which Gospel and which parable was written and whether or not it could be ascribed to Jesus.” Tolstoy concluded that “what was important was the light which had illuminated and still illuminates me” (ibid., p. xxiii).

One key moment of illumination occurred when, by looking at the common people around him and who were outside his own intellectual elite, Tolstoy noticed that the living of some actual form of life was a prerequisite for any proper seeking and finding of knowledge that brought with it real meaning. It is absolutely vital to see that Tolstoy moved forwards by being concerned first and foremost with discovering what it was he should be doing and how he should be living and not, repeat not, about discovering abstract theological or historical knowledge.

This explains why his rendition of the opening of the Gospel of John as, "In the beginning stood knowledge of life, as the foundation of all things. Knowledge of life stood in the place of God. Knowledge of life is God"  was so important to Tolstoy - it summed up not only his own basic governing insight but also the one he thought Jesus had expressed most perfectly. Once Tolstoy could articulate this the rest of his interpretation followed quite naturally.

As I said at the beginning I bring this insight before you not to persuade you to take on board Tolstoy’s own interpretation as the right one to follow but because his basic insight seems to be one that, today, we need to heed as a liberal church. I think we find ourselves in a very similar situation to that experienced by Tolstoy. Most, if not all of us here, grew up in within a culture that has in general (and in particularly in religion) privileged abstract knowledge over practice. The consequences of this for us have been that, although we sense that there is something in the Christian tradition that remains highly valuable and meaningful our intellectual upbringing means we cannot attempt this re-connection simply by stepping back naively into the churches of our youth. We can only begin to re-engage with the Christian tradition by remaining at the edge of the formal Church and by remaining appropriately critical of much of its beliefs and practices. (A church such as this one has, throughout its history, always functioned as a liminal place, a church of the boundaries).

Now, much of my own preaching is directed at trying to break down the many complex intellectual barriers that stop people today from re-engaging with the Christian tradition. Complex intellectual barriers require, alas, sometimes complex interventions and I know that sometimes my hearers and readers find what I say difficult to follow. But outside this pulpit (and this blog) things are much more straightforward and simple. As many of you know for me the primary and most important service of the week is the evening service. In it no sermon is ever preached - in it you will find only prayer, mindful meditation and music. In the prayer book I wrote with my American Unitarian/Universalist colleague, John Morgan, (you can buy a hard copy here) again you will find in it no intellectual argument just an offering up of a way of being liberal Christian through a pattern of daily prayer, various daily readings and prayers, and also through various other services such as those of communion, child-dedication and welcome, confession and reconciliation. This service and book are concentrated upon a doing of a particular kind of liberal religion rather than presenting a reader with  arguments for or theories about liberal religion and so I add here that our parties, shared meals, conversations and committees are also very much part of our doing - our form of life as a church.

Also, in the project Claire Henderson Davis will be introducing to us more formally next week when she preaches and conducts our Sunday service, you will find another example of this doing in which as a community we attempt to embody a form of liberal religious life.

In promoting these kinds of practical, embodied projects it is not that I want us to abandon our intellectual endeavours - far from it - for every generation has to engage with the cultured despisers of religion and attempt to persuade people back into religious community. I'm very much part of that tradition myself (and consciously follow in the footsteps of Schleiermacher and Tillich) and our own church tradition, which comes out of the Enlightenment, has also always played such a role in our society. But Tolstoy knew that an intellectual, theoretical approach will, alone, never yield the answers to the questions "What will come of my life?" and "What is the meaning of life?" A theory of swimming will never yield the experience of swimming - for that you must get wet by actually going swimming.

John Morgan, with whom I wrote the prayerbook I mentioned earlier, knew this truth intimately and it was something he wrote at the beginning of his own book of daily devotions, "Awakening the Soul" that caused me to contact him in the first place. With his words I'll conclude this address in the hope that they may persuade you to get more involved in the services and activities of this church (or some other liberal religious community). In my addresses you will NEVER find the meaning of life - these answers are only to be found by actually becoming willing to participate in some form of religious life.

John Morgan said:

In the end it won't matter how much you have, but rather how much you have given.

It won't matter how much you know, but rather how much you love.

And it won't matter how much you profess to believe, but rather how deeply you live the few enduring truths you claim as ultimate.

All the rest is discipline.


From the opening of The Gospel In Brief translated by Dustin Condren

In the beginning stood the knowledge of life, as the foundation of all things. Knowledge of life stood in the place of God. Knowledge of life is God. According to Jesus’ proclamation, it stands as the basis and source of all things, in the place of God.

All that lives was born into life through knowledge. And without it, there can be nothing living.

Knowledge gives true life.

Knowledge is the light of life. It is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it. The true light has always been in the world and it illuminates every person born into the world. It was in the world and the world is living only because it had that light of knowledge within itself, but the world did not hold on to it.

It revealed itself to its own, but its own did not keep it. Only the ones who understood the knowledge, they alone were given the opportunity to become like it, by virtue of their belief in its essence. Those who believed in the fact that life is based in knowledge did not become sons of the flesh, but became sons of knowledge.

And the knowledge of life manifested itself in the flesh, through the person of Jesus Christ, and we understood his meaning that the son of knowledge, a man in the flesh, the only begotten of the father, begotten from the source of life, is the same as the father, the same as the source of life.

The teaching of Jesus is the perfect and true faith. Because by fulfilling the teaching of Jesus we have come to understand a new faith in place of the old. The law had been given through Moses, but we have come to understand the true faith, based on the attaining of knowledge, through Jesus Christ.

Nobody has seen God and nobody ever will; only the son, the
one who is within the father, he alone has shown the path of life.

Monday, 12 November 2012

A Remembrance Sunday meditation on Jesus' teaching to love our enemies

The view across to Christ's Pieces from the front of the
Memorial (Unitarian) Church on Remembrance Sunday 
Readings: Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 10:25-37

All of you will have had primordial experiences that have shaped your own understanding of what is,or should be, happening in an Armistice Day/Remembrance Sunday Service. But, however deeply felt are those personal, primordial experiences, they took place within a context that is even more primordial and collective, namely the general culture into which we were born and brought up.

So, for a child of my age (47), I grew up in our culture's still moving shadow of the Second World War. This shadow could be seen moving in the countless British and American war films I saw in the cinema and on television, in the memoirs, hagiographies and histories of politicians and war heroes and also in the sermons and liturgies I participated in as a choir boy, Scout and Sea Cadet on Remembrance Sunday in the local church and around the village war memorial. I saw it, too, in the general way my family would simply act, for example, the way we just bought red poppies and wore them, the way we would simply feel “relieved” when, in a film, we saw an enemy ship, plane or tank eliminated. These are just two of the things we simply did and felt in this still moving cultural shadow. This general context silently passed on to me the ideology of my culture - in this case a culture which understood itself as having "won" the war and for good and just reasons. Please don’t hear the word “ideology” negatively because to speak of it is, of course, simply to speak of the comprehensive vision and way of looking at the bequeathed to me through my socialization in mid-twentieth century British culture. In many, many ways it’s an ideology that I remain very proud of.

Such a process of socialization is, of course, necessary for everyone everywhere around the world, because without it no one could, in any meaningful sense, get started in the world and have the chance of going on to become in it an authentic individual. But what is an "authentic" individual in this context? Well, at the very least it must include a process in which an individual person in the culture begins to notice this process of socialization which has made them what they are and, then, to be able to go on to inhabit and move along their culture in creative and, we hope healing and healthful ways.

NB - As I have said in another address this is to engage, not in a process of overcoming (überwinden) - that is to say attempting to affect change by the wholesale defeat of certain ideas and practices of our culture and society - but one in which one can find ways to change them by incorporation, reinterpretation, twisting or weakening (verwindung). 

Now, there are many ways by which a person comes to notice the silent ideology of their own culture and so begin to play their own part in moving it on in creative and healing and healthful ways but I began to notice the ideology of our own culture in the places and moments where it met and conflicted in some way with personal experiences of it. Here, briefly, are my two most memorable experiences related to war and remembrance.

The first concerns my mother. I remember one Saturday afternoon watching some war film on TV about heroic British bomber crews - it was something like the film "The Dambusters." When it finished I began talking with her about bravery, heroes and the fighting of the good fight; you can imagine the kind of talk. Without diminishing their undoubted bravery, heroism and willingness to fight the good fight my mother’s unexpected response quite shocked me out of my culture’s ideology and into an encounter with my mother’s own direct experience of what the dropping of bombs really meant to her as a very young child. She spoke to me in simple and straightforward terms about the horror of hearing doodle-bugs, the V-1 flying bombs, coming over their neighbourhood (near Hampstead Heath) and knowing that when the engine cut out all she could do was wait and pray that it did not fall on her. It never did so fall but, well into my own childhood, she still had nightmares about those bombs. In that moment I saw clearly that there was a huge difference between the corporate ideological understanding of the meaning of any conflict and an individual’s understanding of its meaning as someone actually caught up in its midst. The experience of her sharing this with me brought me up sharp and lit up for me something important. What that something was we'll come to in a moment.

The second event occurred when I was about fifteen. For some reason I read a memoir called "I Flew For The Fuhrer." It was written by Heinz Knoke who joined the Luftwaffe at the outbreak of the war, rose to the rank of commanding officer, and who was eventually awarded the Knight’s (Iron) Cross. Although a later reading of the book revealed to my, by then, more sophisticated understanding, clearer sight of Knoke’s own problematic relationship with the great evil inherent in Nazi ideology, what I took from the book on my first, naive, reading still came powerfully to me. Namely, that Knoke, as an individual human being, was shockingly similar to the individual human beings who sat in Allied cockpits. In reading his book I found, not a clichéd ideologically shaped enemy, but a real person whose feelings and concerns were wholly familiar to me: fear, love, courage, a sense of duty and loyalty to one's country and culture and a deep concern for the well-being of his own family. This profoundly disturbed me because it definitively challenged my naive and socially reinforced belief that easy distinctions could always be made between the "enemy" and me. The experience of his book brought me up sharp and lit up for me something important.

So what was that important thing that was lit up? Well, it was something about the teaching of Jesus that we should love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). I have always been struck by how this teaching is so rarely publicly invoked on Remembrance Sunday. Of course, I'm so completely a product of our culture that I fully understand why this is the case for, however, you look at it, and from which ever side of the conflict you look, the "enemy" had killed the people whom you were now remembering and the idea of loving them at that moment is extraordinarily hard. But I'm also completely product of a Christian culture that takes with absolute seriousness Jesus' teachings. For me these teachings simply cannot be ignored. In short there is for me always a huge tension present on this day.

What was lit up for me was how Jesus' teaching is consistently concerned with the individual who is actually in front of him at any given time and he is never directly concerned about the ideology that has shaped that same person. This powerful way of being in the world is no better illustrated than in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The message of the story relies upon us knowing that both of the characters involved are ineluctably shaped by their respective, conflicting ideologies such that in important ways they are truly enemies to one another. Jesus' compassionate strategy to move us beyond the ideological and into a more authentic way of living is to help the Jewish man (and therefore us) to see how, without necessarily going on to love, or even approve of, Samaritan ideology he can, in fact, love that person who is his enemy and to care for him compassionately as a neighbour.

This realization, this thing that was lit up for me in Jesus’ teachings by my mother's and Knoke's stories, has been for me very helpful in all kinds of ways for many years. But something happened last month which took this general realization to a much more challenging place.

Three weeks ago, Susanna and I were, as you know, in Germany in the small towns of Lemwerder, Altenesch and Bremen-Vegesack to attend the induction of my friend and colleague Jochen Dallas into his new ministry there. These towns have been the site of shipbuilding for centuries and to this day there are still two major shipbuilders present, Lürssen and Abeking & Rasmussen. Because of this industry, during the Second World War, the place was very heavily bombed. So heavily that, at least in the centre of the town (Bremen-Vegesack) where we were staying, there were appeared to be no surviving old buildings.

As Susanna and I walked around Bremen-Vegesack on the Saturday I slowly became increasingly aware of this fact and my mother's story slowly began to press in upon me with great and painful force. I couldn't stop thinking that in so many of those old buildings there had been hundreds of children of my mother's age who had experienced the same abject terror she had. Not only children but whole families - families just like my family. At the time, ideologically speaking, they were clearly our enemies but, as we have just seen, according to Jesus' ethic they were also always-already our neighbours and, as such always-already deserving our love and care. That Saturday I didn't really know what to do with this painful experience and tried, for the moment, simply to put it to one side.

On the following day, Sunday, along with thirty other members of the German Lutheran Church in Cambridge, we went to and took part in Jochen's induction. It was a splendid and joyous event.

In the afternoon after the service and shared meal Jochen took us all on a tour of the three churches he currently has charge of. Naturally, in each of them there are war memorials. However, in Bardewisch, one of the memorials consists, not simply of a list of names carved anonymously upon stone, but of pictures of real people. It was the human faces looking out at me that completely stopped me in my tracks. To be sure the memorial, which you have in front of you (click on the picture on the right to enlarge it), contains other images which for us in Britain will resonate ideologically and negatively, but at that moment I didn't, couldn't see them, because all I could see were the human faces of real fathers, brothers, sons, husbands and lovers and, by extension their many loved ones some of whose children were welcoming us so warmly in this church community and in the town where we were staying.

That this was happening to me the day after my own remembrances of my mother's experience of the bombing, that it was happening in a church in which Jesus' teaching of love, compassion and forgiveness are eloquently and passionately preached by Jochen, that happily chattering away around me were a mixed group of German and British friends, and that we were here to celebrate something wonderful and beautiful that we shared, meant that the faces of these German soldiers burnt unexpectedly and very deeply and painfully into my consciousness.

In that moment I became acutely aware that on Remembrance Sunday, by then fast approaching, I could not, under any circumstances, fail to remember, not only our own war dead - which we have already done - but also the German soldiers of Lemwerder, Altenesch, Bremen-Vegesack and Bardewisch and the thousands of other people who had died in these towns.

The question that remained unanswered until this week was how was I going to do this? In my private prayers? That seemed necessary but insufficient. Perhaps it should be done in the very intimate, quiet  evening service amongst the half-a-dozen people who come? Again, this seemed necessary, but it also felt insufficient. Or should it occur in this larger, much more public morning service that, understandably, expresses our own British culture's ideology more clearly and formally and where, in consequence, actually heeding Jesus' teaching and taking time publicly to remember German war dead would be significantly more difficult? I hope you will see why it has to happen here and now.

If we're really concerned to be a genuine liberal Christian church community that actually practices a religion rooted deeply in the spirit of Jesus then we simply must like him pay attention to the real people whose faces are before us now on Bardewisch's war memorial and to see beyond the ideology that separated us and made us enemies. We must begin to find ways to love them and to see them as neighbours who also deserve a worthy and compassionate remembrance. Our conflict was a shared European tragedy and we must find ways together to transform our remembrance of it into something better and deeper so we may share together a more hopeful future.

We have already in this service remembered our own war dead with the two minutes silence and this is right and proper. But now I’ll conclude this address with a further minute of silence in order that we may explicitly remember those German soldiers, sailors and airmen from Lemwerder, Altenesch, Bremen-Vegesack and Bardewisch who died in the war and to hold, too, in our prayers, their families and loved ones.

Silence . . .

May the dead of Lemwerder, Altenesch, Bremen-Vegesack and Bardewisch’s rest in peace alongside our own dead and may the loving, healing and forgiving spirit of God be amongst us all, now and forever. Amen.