Monday, 28 January 2013

Christianity - of this world or not? - a couple of extra (grateful) thoughts to add about the Revd Klaas Hendrikse

Last week I uploaded a post called Christianity - of this world or not? in which I address one of the commonly perceived problems with the contemporary church - namely its unwillingness to allow from the pulpit open, frank admissions that today there are ways of talking about religion - and doing it - that don’t require from a person a belief in either a supernatural God or realm.

Back in 2011 I was asked the following question relating to this matter. If you click on the link you'll go to my reply : Someone has just asked how can I, reasonably and conscientiously, remain a self-avowed Christian and Unitarian minister when I have basically embraced atheism? - An answer . . .

Anyway, some of the ongoing correspondence flowing from the event at which I read Christianity - of this world or not? led me back to the Revd Klaas Hendrikse, a Dutch Protestant minister whose personal stand on the matters about which I spoke I greatly admire. With him I clearly share a great deal and I thank him for his courage in going public about this. It certainly helped me.

Many readers of this blog will already know about Hendrikse's work and ministry but for those who don't here are some links to explore:

The 2011 BBC article about him (scroll down the BBC page to see a short interview with him)

His book Believing in a God that does not exist: the manifesto of an atheist pastor in French translation

And lastly here's a interview in Dutch with English subtitles:

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Christianity - of this world or not?

The title of this short piece was given to me in January 2013 by organiser of a small village church (Anglican) group in Suffolk who wished to have a conversation about how they might offer their wider community a contemporary, relevant and liberal kind of Christianity. One of the commonly perceived problems with the contemporary church is its unwillingness to allow from the pulpit open, frank admissions that today there are ways of talking about religion - and doing it - that don’t require from a person a belief in either a supernatural God or realm - hence the title I was given. I chose to lead into the nearly two hours of open conversation that followed with a short version of a story well-known in the kinds of theological and philosophical circles I move in. It's the story of how our culture got to the situation it is in with regard to faith and belief in God and of the reality, or not, of another world. I did it so as to put us clearly into the contemporary cultural context. What follows owes an enormous debt to the work of James C. Edwards in his lucid and helpful book called “The Plain Sense of Things - The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism” (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997). His opening chapter “The City in a Dome: Living in an Age of Normal Nihilism” is, in my opinion, a must read text.

The text below is, of course, simply my full notes and not a finished piece. At many points in the text I added further thoughts and responded to immediate questions.

Once upon a time God was the kind of God spoken about in the stories we find in the Torah, the first five books of Moses. There God is presented as a literal being who walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve directly observing their growing relationship with the world and each other, one who wrestled hand to hand with Jacob one night dislocating his hip (Genesis 35:1-7), one who appeared on mountain-tops personally to deliver his commandments in the most physical of forms, the tablets of stone (Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4–21) and one whose very presence (shekinah) dwelt in the tent of meeting and the Temple. (It's important to note that many forms of contemporary Judaism don't at all read these texts in a literal and fundamentalist way - there is strong liberal tradition in Judaism with which liberal Christians have and should maintain good relations.)

But our Western European culture did not inherit its conception of God solely or even directly from early forms of Judaism but through its complex intermingling with Greek culture. As it sometimes put, our own culture is a veritable mix of Athens and Jerusalem.

Turning then, for a moment to Greece we can see that at least from Plato on (424/423 BC–348/347BC) philosophers have proposed various conceptions of a transcendent supreme being who was the ground of existence and intelligibility of the world. It was only really in the works of St. Augustine that this Greek metaphysical conception of god became identified with the creator God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This ensured that we inherited, not a literal conception of a providential God, but rather a Christianised version of Platonic idealism in which ultimate reality is that of the ideal Forms. God was the Good, the True, the Beautiful, the world's ultimate ground, structure, purpose and meaning. True this God could come to this world - the story of Jesus as God's son is perhaps the example of most concern to us today - but this world was not God's permanent dwelling place and, as we know, in traditional understandings of the resurrection of Jesus, Jesus (who in traditional Trinitarian thought is God the Son) leaves this world by ascending or returning to God the Father’s right hand in another realm or another world. This world was, in contrast to the eternal heavenly one, merely passing, transient and flawed; even at its best it became thought of as merely shadow of God's eternal really real kingdom (cf. the allegory of the cave).

Various versions of this picture held the centre stage in our culture right through medieval times and on into the Reformation. But no culture stays still and ours moved inexorably on thanks to both the rise of the natural sciences and the sceptical thought of people like René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes began to wonder how we could ever come to have secure knowledge that a transcendent God and the ideal Forms were, in fact, the basis for, or ground of, reality? After much worry and thought he came to the opinion that the only thing we could know for sure was, not God, not the ideal Forms but only ourselves as 'thinking things' (res cogitans). From out of this insight came his most famous words "Cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am - Part IV of Discourse on the Method 1637 and §7 of part I of Principles of Philosophy 1644).

We see here our culture developing the feeling that God and the Forms were "known" to us only as representations upon the ground of our own ego-consciousness. To help grasp this idea, think of a seal and sealing wax. We could only know the seal (God) was real because of the impression it made upon us (the wax). Alas, although we felt that, yes, we did have an impression of God, we could nowhere produce the seal itself (God) in a way that made it’s existence as certain and tangible as, say the little metal seal that sat upon your desk. God was not like that at all. Anyway, in short all we could say for sure was something about impressions. If we could only know for sure "Cogito ergo sum" and, therefore only our own *representations* of reality, how could we know for sure that they were true *representations* of reality? As a culture we were discovering, rather disturbingly, that the once secure ground of God and the Forms was rapidly disappearing from under our feet.

Enter Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who came to the conclusion that our own views of the world as an individual 'thinking thing' were not some accurate, ultimately trustworthy mirror-image (impression) of reality itself but were, instead, simply a creation of our own will (to power).

What this meant was that we were left not with 'indubitably true beliefs' but simply values. It is this recognition that allowed Nietzsche famously and notoriously to proclaim "God is dead." In his book "The Gay Science" (1882/1887) he says:

"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?"

As if this thought were not disturbing enough we began to see that this meant, as the contemporary Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, says in his recent book 'A Secular Age' (Harvard University Press 2007)

"We live in a condition where [now] we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and anxiety" (p. 11).

The contemporary philosopher James C. Edwards succinctly sums up the consequence of this:

". . . we have left ourselves no intellectually respectable way to dismiss the disconcerting thought that other, and radically different, forms of life have just the same claim on some sacred ground as does ours; namely no such claim at all. Our 'highest values' compete with the 'highest values' of others on what is looked at philosophically, a perfectly level field of battle" (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 47).

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) saw all this coming as early as the mid nineteenth-century) and imagined all these different sets of values being on sale together. A contemporary version of this is to think of a shopping-mall thronged with shoppers and bargain hunters at sale-time.

Edwards comments on this by saying:

"Prices have been cut to the bone. Crowds move through the market hall of European intellectual history, fingering the bargains displayed there. Yet the goods - [that is to say] the 'highest values' of European civilisation - are strangely slow to move. 'Everything can be had at such a bargain price that it becomes a question of whether there is anyone who will make a bid' (Fear & Trembling). Why should anyone live or (more sharply) die for something that is, after all, only a value, only a structure of interpretation posited by some passing form of life?" (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 59-60).

As Kierkegaard put it, our culture has been busily been engaged in "ein wirklicher Ausverkauf" - a real clearance sale and, "of all the items currently selling at a discount" perhaps the showing the greatest price drop “is faith” (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 60). This condition Edwards calls "normal nihilism."

For many people involved in religion this was and is a terrible story to tell. It's undeniably an uncomfortable one especially to those of us who wish to see religion continue to play some meaningful role in, not only our own lives, but in the society in which we live.

One approach is to pretend that the story I have told is either not true or is one which can simply be ignored or side-stepped. All one has to do is reassert old, traditional beliefs and practices and all will be well. Many, many communities (especially those with conservative theologies) are today advocating and/or attempting just such an approach to the situation.

However, others - including myself - have decided to accept the situation of normal nihilism and, rather than harking back to an earlier "golden age", have decided to embrace the story and to set forth from where our culture actually seems to be. To work through (verwindung) the problem rather than seeking to overcome or defeat it (überwindung). One such thinker is Mark Wrathall who feels that:

". . . the loss of belief in a metaphysical god that is the ground of all existence and intelligibility, and even the loss of belief in a creator God who produced the heaven and the earth is not a disaster. [In fact the] absence of a foundational God [can] open up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and the sacred. Thus, the death of the philosopher's God may have provided us with new and more authentic possibilities for understanding religion that we blocked by traditional metaphysical theology (or onto-theology)" (Mark W. Wrathall's introduction to "Religion after Metaphysics", Cambridge University Press 2003 p. 1).

In my own theology and ministry I have come to share this attitude and approach, one which has, at times, been given the controversial and not always helpful title of "Death of God theology".

Before concluding, born out of my experience of working through this with my own congregation and with various other groups, I need briefly to say one more thing. I need to give an indication of why one might bother keeping going an active involvement with religion if one finds oneself agreeing with and even positively embracing the story of the death of God I have just outlined?

There are two reasons. The first is that the God who is dead is the God of the philosophers and of post-Augustinian Christianity. With regard to this God who is understood as a being I am most certainly an atheist. But, thanks to the work of thinkers like Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Ernst Bloch and current thinkers like Edwards and Wrathall other non-theistic and non-supernatural conceptions of divinity do in fact begin to show up. (Here's a link to an address where I look at an understanding of God as an event rather than as a being.)

Secondly, I stay with religion because it offers certain practical ways to address two recurring and deeply problematic human tendencies pointed to by Edwards. The first is our addictive, individualist self-magnification and the second is our, equally addictive, tendency towards totalitarian, fundamentalist rigidity (Fundamentalism, remember, is not the preserve of the religious only but also of groups such as the new atheists like Dawkins et. al.).

In our culture religion offered us some very practical responses to these two temptations and, albeit always imperfectly, it was able to keep them more or less in check. Religion still offers us practices that, again in the words of Edwards, can contain, concentrate, and transmit two key sacramental energies, namely: “limitation in the face of hubris and for transformation in the face of complacency.”

Although I, personally, am very much a child of the story I have just told and find that I can no longer conceive of a being who is God nor of the existence of any other world, the post-modern theology of the kind of I hold to, most certainly does think there is *another* world, it is *this* world seen differently. The Christian tradition is, in my opinion, still capable of helping to bring about that other world, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus told us was always-already within or among us.

With that, far from final thought, the floor and the conversation is now yours . . .

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Looking and considering - ensuring the wheels of liberal religion don't slip on the ice

The River Cam in some icy weather
Readings: Matthew 6:25-34

Judith Genova – Wittgenstein: A Way of Seeing, Routledge 1995 p. 55

Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? - Don’t say “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games”’- but look and see whether there is anything common to all.- For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: Don’t think, but look!... (Philosophical Investigations 66 – L. Wittgenstein)

The word “see” in the expression “a way of seeing” is not fortuitous. Wittgenstein explicitly means to speak of “a way of seeing” and not “a way of thinking.” Not only does he rarely use “thinking,” but he repeatedly thematizes the differences between it and seeing:

One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that.
But the difficulty is to remove the prejudice which stands in the way of doing this. It is not a stupid prejudice. (Philosophical Investigations 340 – L. Wittgenstein)

Surprisingly, for a philosopher, he insists that looking, not thinking, remedies philosophical ignorance. One would have thought that seeing only reproduces the status quo; not so for Wittgenstein. Sounding like Bacon chastising his mathematically-minded contemporaries, Wittgenstein cautions that adequate deductions only follow from the meticulous examination of data. Don’t guess, he admonishes; be there, look, observe.

Judith Genova – Wittgenstein: A Way of Seeing, Routledge 1995 p. 57
Concepts are meant to generalize, to bulk experience. Percepts, on the other hand, are meant to particularize. In fact, by crossing wires, thinking tends to see identities and essences, where seeing, in contrast, thinks differences. (The ultimate goal is to find a skill tuned to family resemblances). While we ordinarily picture thinking as more liberating than seeing, Wittgenstein reminds us that thinking can be as conservative as other modalities. Instead of liberating one from provincialism, thinking can imprison one in ritualized beliefs.


A question put to me again and again in various ways is "What do you, or what does your church believe?" Sometimes this question is put in a gentle, inquiring way but, alas, it quite often comes in the form of an aggressive first shot in a pre-prepared theological or philosophical battle over claimed truths and falsities about the nature, and reality of, a supernatural God.

Because this generally adversarial way of proceeding which centres on beliefs has been culturally sanctioned for centuries - and is still taught to us in our schools of theology - it's very easy to let oneself be drawn into this kind of activity.

But I increasingly try to avoid this because like many other contemporary liberal theologians I've come to feel that in talking about beliefs all too often our words about God are simply allowed to go off on a lengthy holiday free to skate about with gay abandon on the ice of the ethereal, invisible, intangible, frictionless religious winter-wonderland that is formed solely from human conjectures about the general nature of divine reality. When our religious words are only, or primarily being used in this frictionless realm they cannot gain any real traction - they avoid detail and particularities. The mind's power may be on and the intellectual engine may well be producing a great deal of noise and using up a lot of fuel but this is all to no avail as the wheels of our language are simply spinning uselessly on the ice beneath us.

It seems to me that the best way to keep our wheels from such a useless spinning is always to ensure that we bring them back to the sure, rough ground by using them in relation to a real, existent, living context or tradition - in our case "the liberal Christian tradition."

Importantly, this tradition (which has incorporated within it not only many insights and practices from it Judaeo/Christian roots but also, most importantly from the Greeks) is not some fixed once-and-for-all system of beliefs but rather a very complex and still unfolding story about a how, as our order of service puts it, we as a people have tried to express our ongoing "sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it."

A defining aspect of this tradition is that it has maintained at the centre of its being an open, creative clearing in which something new, whether a religious or philosophical insight or a discovery about the natural universe, is always given the space and freedom to show up or shine, to be looked at and also considered. This, almost mystical and miraculous clearing in the midst of our being, is powerfully related to what we call our civic, secular space - the place where a genuine, embodied societal conversation and debate and form of life is birthed and maintained.

Such a tradition, when and where it is actually being upheld, remains highly resistant to being turned into an "-ism" of some description. Not incidentally this is why I won't espouse any kind of "-ism" - not even some supposed thing called "Unitarianism". But, perhaps even more importantly, the liberal Christian tradition cannot be restricted to one Christian denomination nor even solely to something called the Christian Church. It simply isn't something that is only available to what one might call traditional Christian believers (whether Unitarian or Trinitarian) but to all those whose open-ended ways of being (whether theist or atheist) has been birthed from out of the creative clearing the tradition has consistently been able to hold open.

So, now, when someone asks me about what I believe or what this church believes, I try very hard not to talk in terms of frictionless beliefs but instead to find ways to point, firstly to this central clearing and, secondly to the kind of grounded practices offered by the tradition that help keep us as individuals and as a society radically open-minded and open-bodied to new ways of thinking and doing but without, at the same time, being so formlessly open-minded and open-bodied that our brains and organs simply fall out everywhere in a shapeless, chaotic and relativistic mess.

Let's move now to our Gospel story in order to give one example of how one might see this being outplayed. In what follows I need you to keep in mind Wittgenstein and Judith Genova's words heard earlier and to pay close attention to the different use of the verbs "to think" and "to look."

What I find particularly interesting about this story in Matthew's version is that he has Jesus use two different verbs where Luke reduces them to one.

Some birds of the air over Cambridge
Matthew first of all uses "emblepo" which means "to turn one's eyes on" or to "look at" - he has Jesus calling upon us to "look" at the birds of the air. This has an immediate feel about it, one that encourages us "not to guess" but to "be there, to look, observe." Looking or seeing is here an example of Jesus' encouragement particularly to think of grounded differences.

Matthew then uses "katamanthano" which means "to learn thoroughly, examine carefully or to consider well" - he now has Jesus calling upon us to "consider" the lilies of the field which is tantamount to saying "think" about them. This has a less immediate feel about it, more like an encouragement to back away from an immediate looking and to do some theorising, perhaps even some creative guessing. Considering (or thinking) is here an example of Jesus' encouragement particularly to see something general, to see identities and essences.

Field of Lilies - Tiffany Studio c. 1910
Luke, by the way, uses the same verb for both, in his case, "katanoeo" which means "to perceive, remark, observe, understand or to consider attentively". So Luke has us "consider" both the birds and the lilies. Now Luke is very much an author who was concerned to think through, to consider the story about Jesus, so as to be able to offer his readers a beautiful and inspiring but a sometimes rather frictionless story about underlying identities and essences. He's quite explicit about this - remember his account of things, which includes both his Gospel and the Book of Acts, begins:

"I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed" (Luke 1:3-4).

Matthew's account, on the other hand, is much craggier, much more ragged and keen to offer some rough ground where we can see Jesus checking that his theories and his beliefs about God have got real traction and are not just slippery conjectures. In various places we see Jesus use this method radically to reassess the situation and change his way of being in the world (cf. Matthew 15:21-28).

Matthew's choice of words allows me to suggest that this seems to be Jesus' general way of proceeding. He is clearly capable of thinking and considering, of imagining frictionless identities and essences suggesting possibilities but, even as he does this, he is also clearly always-already alert to the need to bring that kind of thinking down on to the rough ground of our world to see which ideas had real purchase and embodied use.

Right now, in this address, I'm not going to explore what differences we might *think* when we see, or look at, the birds of the air; nor am I going to suggest what identities and essences we might *see* when we consider (or *think* about) the birds of the air. What I do want us to see today is that Jesus, although he is prepared to go into potentially frictionless realms of thinking, considering and conjecturing, he is also always concerned to bring things back to earth by looking and observing how they play out - he gets down into the world and encourages us to do likewise. In the end we see that his looking and thinking is inseparably of a piece - its an open-ended way of acting in the world.

Shockingly, for some anyway, in the liberal Christian tradition we do not need to agree absolutely or finally with Jesus' conclusions on any matter but instead to take seriously his method of proceeding, the way he comported himself. As our church covenant says we meet in the *spirit* of Jesus and not in the *beliefs* of Jesus.

So our liberal Christian tradition is not defined by abstract beliefs (even though it has some) but by a kind of empirical method. It's a method which, although it allows that our beliefs and abstract theories are important (they can help show up new possibilities and useful generalisations) always insists that they must be brought down to earth to be tested again and again. The space at the heart of our tradition is where our thinking and our looking are allowed to meet in loving and critical conversation and action. This space is the source of our  liberal freedom to affirm those things which have real purchase in our world and to let go of those things which don't.

I'm minded only now to say that in this tradition I most certainly do *believe*.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

". . . to keep changing my posture, not to stand for too long on one leg, so as not to get stiff" Practising the religion of Jesus rather than the religion about him (being some words about the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches' Object)

A signpost (finger post) on the
Essex-Cambridgeshire border
There is a story told about the Rabbis Shammai and Hillel (Talmud, Tractate Shabbos 31a) in which a non-Jew comes to them to ask what was the basic instruction or teaching of Judaism (i.e. the Torah). The man appears to do this in an unpleasant mocking fashion because, seemingly in order to draw attention to the great length and complexity of Jewish teaching, he asks the Rabbis to teach him the entire Torah standing on one leg. The man, like all too many people today, wants from his religious teachers simple first principles and axioms; he does not want or need, or so he believes, the many, many words, stories and practices that a lived, embodied faith generates. We may imagine him saying to the Rabbis and us: "Strip away the unnecessary accumulation of inconsequential stuff and just give me the true, pure essence of your teaching."

So, on arriving firstly at Shammai's home, it is said that Shammai instantly recognised the man's less than positive attitude and his response is simply to throw him out. Undeterred the man then goes to Hillel's home and makes the same request. Hillel's response is different, he agrees, stands on one leg and says: "No problem! The basic idea of the Torah is 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Everything else is commentary. Now, if you're really interested, go and study the commentary."

The man, or so the story goes, is so impressed by Hillel's reply that he does just this and becomes, himself, a Jew. As we heard in our reading Jesus (the story of the Good Samaritan), who was himself called "Rabbi", used a very similar method in his readiness to point (or get others to point) to the famous summary of the law, "Love God and your neighbour as yourself" and then to go on and offer some kind of commentary upon it.

It is worth noting before we go on that Jesus was born only some ten to fifteen years before Hillel's death so the similarities between their teachings methods is highly unlikely to be accidental. We are speaking here about a deeply shared Jewish/Christian tradition here.

But as our Western European and North American culture developed brief summaries like those offered by Hillel and Jesus have often been understood in ways that have not always borne the rich, satisfying and sustaining fruit they might have. For all kinds of reasons - which I have rehearsed with you before but which I will not today - we came to think that the best, the most reliable and true kind of knowledge is to be found in simple first principles and axioms and that, consequently, all else is just commentary and can be dispensed with as merely non-essential and secondary. But now notice this - the Rabbis say "The rest is commentary" whereas I have just suggested we tend to add that little, but O so important and often dismissive adverb, "just" - "The rest is *just* commentary."

Today I'd like to challenge this idea and encourage us to remove the word "just" from "commentary" so as to bring it back into a close living relationship with the kind of brief, helpful summaries of what we should be doing that the Rabbis, Jesus among them, were so good at formulating.

I was reminded of the story about Hillel's teaching and minded to write this address because of a remark of Wittgenstein's found in one of his notebooks. He said: "I find it important in philosophising to keep changing my posture, not to stand for too long on one leg, so as not to get stiff" (CV pg. 27).

Now I have no idea whether Wittgenstein had the story we have just heard in mind when he wrote these words but he easily could have (given his family's Jewish roots). What I can say for sure, is that what he's trying to get us to see is powerfully related to the way Hillel and Jesus encourage us to proceed.

None of them rested content with the offering up of a simple principle or summary of things that could be said standing on one leg, rather they immediately set about taking the principle or summary into the world by changing their and our postures - i.e. by encouraging us to move about, to walk through the world shifting position to see how the principle or summary plays out in different contexts.

Here's an illustration of Hillel doing this. In the Pirkei Avot ("The Ethics of the Fathers - 2:5) he says "Do not judge your fellow man until you reach his place." Hillel saw that it is impossible us ever to occupy exactly the same "place" as another person because none of us can ever have exactly the same experiences or be in precisely the same conditions or context as as someone else. Consequently, what we must do when we *are* forced to judge, that is to say to choose one action over another, it is important to have spent a great deal of time, not simply standing on one leg in one place merely reciting an abstract principle, but letting it encourage us to walk around the issue at hand looking at it from one perspective and then another to try and build up as full a picture of the situation we can. The reason for this is to help us judge, when we must judge, using the most perspicacious representation of fairness available to us.

Here's an illustration of Jesus doing this. The story of the Good Samaritan shows Jesus move the man he is talking with very quickly from standing on one leg and stating merely a summary of the law to change his whole posture by walking the principle imaginatively through the world in the hands of three different characters so as to reveal the most perspicacious representation of who your neighbour is or might be.

Now here's an illustration of Wittgenstein doing this:

"I am trying to conduct you on tours of a certain country. I will try to show that the philosophical difficulties which arise in mathematics as elsewhere arise because we find ourselves in a strange town and do not know our way. So we must learn the topography by going from one place in the town to another, and from there to another, and so on. And one must do this so often that one knows one's way, either immediately or pretty soon after looking round a bit, wherever one may be set down" (WLFM pg. 44).

In their own ways Hillel, Jesus and Wittgenstein all realised that as Judith Genova poetically put it (in her truly wonderful book "Wittgenstein - A Way of Seeing), "No moonbeams carry [us] to a star to obtain an aerial view." Instead our sense of the whole world, or the whole of the moral law, is achieved only by those who are prepared to walk around and gain an apprehension of the connections that exist between different conceptions and situations. These webs of connections seen by walking around and seeing what's going on (or possibilities for what might go on) Genova suggests "suspend one just high enough to see forever" - which is another way of saying this approach suspends us just high enough always to see how we might healthily, fairly, open-heartedly go on.

Occasionally, as responsible explorers mapping the terrain of life, people like Hillel, Jesus and Wittgenstein erected signposts - veritable one-legged indications of how to proceed -  in the form of some terse, pithy teachings to guide us on our way. Brief and to the point they are most certainly to be taken seriously by pilgrims and truth-seekers. But if their teachings are to bear sustaining fruit these one-legged signposts must be left standing on one leg whilst your own two legs take you into the world to join the ongoing conversational commentary that is our life together. All the rest is most certainly not *just* commentary - it is your very life. The teaching, indicating Word on the one-legged signpost is only made flesh in the commentary that is your lived life. 

At our best, as one of the oldest free church traditions, we have tried to epitomise just such an approach in our religious life. Early on in our history we expressed the desire "to practise the religion of Jesus and not the religion about Jesus" (attributed, amongst others, to Thomas Jefferson). That is to say, although we have continued to take seriously many important and useful one-legged signposts erected during our Judaeo-Christian tradition's two-millennia long walk of faith (which took in along the way a significant grand-tour of Greek and Roman culture) we always knew that only by walking the way the signposts indicated was there to be found truth and life.

This is why our local and national summaries of "what we are about" are in the form of covenants and objects rather than in static creeds stating fixed beliefs. Our signposts, our simple summaries (capable of being recited whilst standing on one-leg), are not designed to keep a person standing on that one leg merely "talking the talk" but instead to offer people a living indication of what it is to take that summary out into the world - so as to change their posture and "to walk the walk". So this local church's covenant reads:

In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus the members of this church unite for the worship of God and the service of humankind. 

The national Church's object reads (the object with its full surrounding commentary is printed at the end of this post):

To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition.

It is in this ongoing, bracing walk through the world that Jesus recommended that consists our distinctive four-hundred and fifty year old liberal Christian practice. In this age of increasingly one-legged doctrinal (secular and religious) stiffness, I recommend our perambulatory faith with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.


Object of the General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches

We, the constituent congregations, affiliated societies and individual members, uniting in a spirit of mutual sympathy, co-operation, tolerance and respect; and recognising the worth and dignity of all people and their freedom to believe as their consciences dictate; and believing that truth is best served where the mind and conscience are free, acknowledge that the Object of the Assembly is:

To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition.

To this end, the Assembly may:

Encourage and unite in fellowship bodies which uphold the religious liberty of their members, unconstrained by the imposition of creeds;

Affirm the liberal religious heritage and learn from the spiritual, cultural and intellectual insights of all humanity;

Act where necessary as the successor to the British and Foreign Unitarian Association and National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and other Non-Subscribing or Kindred Congregations, being faithful to the spirit of their work and principles (see appendix to the constitution [below]), providing always that this shall in no way limit the complete doctrinal freedom of the constituent churches and members of the Assembly;

Do all other such lawful things as are incidental to the attainment of the above Object.


. . . the following is a statement of the Objects of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, as set forth in Clause 2 of its Constitution [as worded at the time of adoption of this Constitution]:

“The diffusion and support of the principles of Unitarian Christianity, including the formation and assistance of Congregations which do not require for themselves or their Ministers subscription to any doctrinal articles of belief; the publication and circulation of biblical, theological, scientific and literary knowledge related to Unitarian Christianity; the doing of all such other lawful things as are incidental or conducive to the attainment of the above objects or any of them.”

The following is a statement of the Objects of the National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and other Non-Subscribing or Kindred Congregations, as set forth in Clause 1 of the Constitution:

“To consult, and when considered advisable to take action, on matters affecting the well-being and interests of the Congregations and Societies on the Roll of the Conference, as by directing attention, suggesting plans, organising expressions of opinion, raising funds to carry out the foregoing objects.”

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A winter ride on the Dursley Pedersen to Burwell Fen

Another Lodes Way ride (30 miles) only this time without any sun and, for the last fifteen miles, rain. I had to go out today as I was going shack-simple. The general busyness of Advent, Christmas and New Year and the bad weather in general meant that, except for pastoral calls and meetings, I had not been on a proper cycle ride for nearly five weeks - my spin out to Fleam Dyke on the 18th being more walk than cycle-ride. Not good for the soul. So I got out the Dursley Pedersen (made by Jesper Sølling) and took off across Stourbridge Common, out to Reach and then along Newnham Drove to Burwell Fen and back along the Lodes Way. Hard by Reach Lode I had a very interesting conversation with a farmer who had just been out digging a new drain. We talked of the weather, our shared love of the Fenland landscape and then, when he found out I was a minister of religion, we even got onto the subject of religion and the meaning of life. A good and life affirming encounter. Despite the rain I thoroughly I enjoyed the spin and post below some suitably moody shots I took along the way before the heavens opened. For those who doubt how wet it is out in the Fens at the end of this post is a Youtube posting of a seal that made it to Fen Drayton lakes - 50 miles inland! Here's a link to the report about it in the Guardian.

Stourbridge Common
Horse on Burwell Fen
Newnham Drove looking north west onto Burwell Fen
On Burwell Fen with the Dursely Perdersen
Reach Lode looking north west
Reach Lode looking south east