Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Some photos of a ride out to Wicken Fen and a note about the photography of Herbert Wendell Gleason (1855-1937)

With the Raleigh Superbe in Swaffham Prior
Last week I took another spin out to Wicken Fen on one of my favourite routes. I take the road from Cambridge out to Bottisham, Swaffham Bulbeck, Swaffham Prior, Reach, then near Burwell along Weirs Drove and then up Dyson's Drove and Little Fen Drove to the Lodes Way. Once on the Lode's Way I go north to Wicken Fen. On the return journey I follow the Lode's Way all the way back to Lode and home via Bottisham. A splendid thirty miler. This time I took my late 1970s Raleigh Superbe - a bicycle that encourages a slow, looking about mode of travelling.

The Superbe in an old Raleigh Catalogue
As usual I took a few photographs and you offer a few here. The last time I posted some black and white images I realised that the way they look owes a great deal to the work of Herbert Wendell Gleason. I know his work because, when we were courting, Susanna bought me an illustrated copy of Henry David Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers which used Gleason's photographs. I was captivated by his work and have never managed to take a black and white photo without thinking of the photographs in this book. If this post does nothing else I hope it encourages you to take a look at Gleason's work.

And now the photos from the ride out to Wicken Fen . . .

Between Reach and Burwell near the electricity sub-station 
Bottisham looking SE towards Lode
Burwell Church from railway bridge in Swaffham Prior
Crossroads on Swaffham Prior Fen - looking NNE
Crossroads on Swaffham Prior Fen - looking NNW
Crossroads on Swaffham Prior Fen - looking SE
Crossroads on Swaffham Prior Fen - looking SSE
Electricity lines next to Reach Lode
Fen Lighter, Wicken Fen
Flooded field, Priory Farm, Wicken
Konik Ponies on Priory Fen, Wicken
Konik Pony on Priory Fen, Wicken
Konik Ponies on Priory Fen, Wicken
Looking NE over Bottisham Fen
Looking SW across Bottisham Lode towards Stow-cum-Quy
New River, Wicken
New River, Wicken
Reach Lode
Swaffham Prior church towers
Windpump, Wicken Fen
Wicken Lode
New River, Wicken
New River, Wicken

Monday, 25 February 2013

With just a wooden sword: the power of the "as if" - lighting candles for a just and inclusive society

Like many children I have very fond memories of playing with my wooden sword. Like knights of old my friends and I would fight many imaginary battles against each other and dragons in the back gardens of our respective homes. Of course, the battles fought owed more to the imaginary mythical constructs of literature and film than they did to any actual real and bloody conflicts.

I think that the most fun I ever had with a wooden sword was, whilst on holiday, playing with it in a ruined castle, Caernarvon I seem to remember. In my childhood one had, of course, to bring with you your own sword or, failing that, to find the least knobbly stick lying around and work hard, very hard at imagining it was in fact a sleek, shining sword.

However, today, as many of you will know, at many ancient ruins there are now often well-stocked shops full of sexy gifts ranging from the more-or-less pointless to the highly educative and even genuinely useful. Somewhere in between the pointless and the genuinely useful there are, yes you've guessed it, wooden swords. Really good ones too, along with shields, bows and arrows and even costumes and plastic armour. In many, many ways I regret the way the heritage industry has sanitized our ancient ruins but also admit that I never pass through one a shop in one of the new gleaming visitor centres without looking longingly at those wooden swords.

Last year I finally succumbed to temptation and bought one, not at a castle, but from the toy shop here in town. A bargain at four quid (see picture above left). I was wandering around the shop with Susanna as she looked for some pots and pans for her grandson Harrison when, all of a sudden in front of me, there was a big box of wooden swords. I bought one on impulse - ostensibly for wee Harrison but, since I still haven't given it to him, I have my doubts about this reason. He's staying with us this weekend so, before I finally give it to him, I’d like to use it to help place before you a thought.

Faustus Socinus
Our church's chief forebears were the sixteenth-century Polish Brethren, called Socinians after their leading Italian theologian Faustus Socinus, and some of their words, from their Catechism appear on the back of every order of service. In addition to their well-known affirmation of Jesus' humanity and the unity of God (which is why, of course, part of our denomination’s name includes the word “Unitarian”) they advocated a number of important things which, today, we still advocate. Namely, the complete separation of church and state, the equality and brother and sister-hood of all people, an opposition to social privileges based on religious affiliation and last, but not least, a passionate commitment to non-violent means of protest.

In the case of our forebears this latter belief involved them in opposing military conscription and it was connected with this that they made a wonderful symbolic intervention. To all intents and purposes at that time it was obligatory for every male in Poland to wear a szabla, a distinctive kind of Polish sabre, in order to show one’s readiness to intervene violently on behalf of the state. Their stroke of genius was to agree to wearing swords publicly to fulfil their then current societal demands but, as I am sure you have already guessed, the swords they chose to wear were made, not of sharpened steel, but of wood. To this day their intervention - being in a violent world "as if" all swords were made of wood - stands as an inspirational, if highly unusual, kind of a non-violent direct action that helped bring to the fore of their own society a real questioning about how they were going to deal with their own problems connected with religious, political and national diversity.

Though it may have been a stroke of genius to make this stand it is important to see that, in their own immediate local context, it was a symbolic intervention which failed. The Polish Brethren were always very small group in Poland and during the Counter-Reformation their stance, both theological and political, ensured that they were further marginalised by what was becoming an increasingly intolerant society in the wake of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Their church, the liberal, pacifist Minor Reformed Church, was finally dissolved on July 20 1658 when the Sejm, the Polish parliament, expelled them from Poland. Now stateless they were forced westwards into Holland, England and thence to the New World.

However, and this "however" I cannot stress enough, their non-violent "as if" stance rooted in the example of Jesus - who reminded us that those who live by the sword will die by the sword - has over the centuries continued to help feed and sustain not only our own but humanity's wider, general hope of creating a better, non-violent world. In Jesus' life and in communities such as our own who have tried to followed him we can say a light came into the world which, so far, no darkness has been able to overcome.

True, there may have been for our forbears no decisive victory of this light over darkness but they remained committed to wearing their wooden swords as if this were going to overcome the darkness of violence. It is this "as if" attitude that continues to inspire me to follow in their footsteps and to try to keep alight the light they kindled and to be able to myself, "as if" I really knew it were true, that "We shall overcome some day."

Candles for a just and inclusive society
Now, without making too much of it, I would venture to suggest that yesterday's lighting of candles for a just and inclusive civic society stands firmly in this same "as if" tradition.

Speaking of its immediate effect on the wider world outside these church doors this small event may be considered to be spectacularly unsuccessful. Despite getting good publicity via all the churches and that I received half a dozen emails of support for the event from various church groups (including two large evangelical groups) and some politicians only twelve people actually came in to light a candle. But this is, of course, not even a fraction of the whole story still to be told and played out whenever a community begins to acts "as if" what they are doing will be successful.

However, amongst those who came there were two very active, committed local politicians, Daniel Zeichner from Labour and Ed Cearns from the Lib Dems, the Revd Dr Tim Maquiban (from our neighbour Methodist Church) also came. They and other nine people who came all, of course, got the point of the event and lit their candles "as if" what the event was saying were successful - that such an inclusive vision of peace and justice would overcome the anger and hatred being expressed in the events occurring outside our church on Christ’s Pieces. Also, strange to tell, this small almost unnoticed intervention resulted in an unexpected invitation for to me to speak on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire this morning. Now I've organised some reasonably high-profile religious and political events but I have never been invited to talk about them on the radio. Yet the "as if" quality of the candle lighting seems to have appealed both to the producer and presenter in a surprising way and it was deemed worthy of some air time.

The simple point I want, therefore, to make today is that so many of our big successful public events may look and sound impressive but, in truth, they often merely re-enforce stale status quos - and in them nothing really important is addressed nor changed. On the other hand "as if" events, those small scale gentle, non-violent but nevertheless challenging tries or grasps at creating a better world may not look at all impressive, and may even seem to have failed in their moment of articulation, but, in truth, they often carry within them a revolutionary power that is sometimes capable of bringing about a real radical overturning of the old ways and the heralding of the kingdom of heaven itself. Jesus own life bears eloquent witness to the truth of this.

These reflections remind me of a powerful verse in the Bhagavad-gītā:

You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty (2.47).

Speaking very personally I have to admit I really do not know whether my forbears' wearing of wooden swords actually helped to reduce violence in the their own land - but I find I have no choice but to agree with them in their willingness to act as if it was going to. Likewise I really do not know whether courses like Claire's or the lighting of candles for a just and inclusive society will be in anyway a contributory cause that helps usher in the kingdom of heaven but I find I have no choice but to act as if they will.

Everyday of my life I ask myself the question posed by George Kimmich Beach in his prayer we heard earlier and which we used yesterday:

"The human needs we see about us are so many, so diverse, so weighty, so complex – leaving us to wonder: am I, or are we, strong enough to face all this?"

Everyday I answer as does Beach: "No we are not" and on my worst days this answer leaves me powerless and despairing. But, as Beach continues, we are also always forced to ask: "and yet, how can we not be [strong enough]?"

As the Bhagavad-gītā says it is our duty only to try and so I find that, on my good days and the bad, I can only pray "God, may your spirit be our strength" then (figuratively speaking) put on my wooden sword and participate in church events like lighting a candle for a just and inclusive society.

None of us can live with the certain expectation that the good WILL come to pass and that we WILL overcome - not even Jesus could do that as his cry on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me", reveals - but all of us can, and should act "as if" this good WILL come to pass and "as if" we WILL overcome.

It seems to me that the real power for real change lies not in the sharp, sword-like certainty of belief that we are right and we will prevail but in the gentle, non-violent, wooden sword-like interventions of the "as if."


The service concluded with us singing "We shall Overcome":

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Gig with Bobby Wellins in Bury St Edmunds

I haven't been doing much playing recently but this Friday . . .

Bobby Wellins
UK Jazz Legend
Icon of the tenor saxophone, Bobby played on Stan Tracey’s UK jazz landmark album Under Milk Wood in 1964 and remains a benchmark for creative, moving, straight-ahead playing and richness of tone.
Wellins has the eloquent reserve of Stan Getz and is playing as well as ever, maybe better.” GUARDIAN

One of my favourite saxophonists in all of jazz - not just in the UK, not just in Europe, but anywhere in the world”ALYN SHIPTON BBC RADIO 3

with Chris Ingham piano Rev. Andrew Brown bass Russ Morgan drumsLike being driven around in a Rolls-Royce” ART THEMEN

8pm Friday 22 February 2013 
£10/£6 (U21)
Hunter Club, 6 St Andrews Street South, 
Bury St Edmunds, IP33 3PJ
TEL:01284 748280 (office hours)

Sunday, 17 February 2013

A Lucretian Lent - letting go of God and taking up the gods

Venus in our backyard in Cambridge
READINGS: Matthew 4:1-11

A précis of Ovid's story of Phaeton

From Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura Book 1.1-28 & Book 3:1-30 (The following texti of the Proem to Book One is translated by William Ellery Leonard. My preferred modern English version is the lovely one made by David R. Slavitt - which we used in the service):

Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands - for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun--
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
For soon as comes the springtime face of day,
And procreant gales blow from the West unbarred,
First fowls of air, smit to the heart by thee,
Foretoken thy approach, O thou Divine,
And leap the wild herds round the happy fields
Or swim the bounding torrents. Thus amain,
Seized with the spell, all creatures follow thee
Whithersoever thou walkest forth to lead,
And thence through seas and mountains and swift streams,
Through leafy homes of birds and greening plains,
Kindling the lure of love in every breast,
Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
Kind after kind. And since 'tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
Which I presume on Nature to compose
For Memmius mine, whom thou hast willed to be
Peerless in every grace at every hour -
Wherefore indeed, Divine one, give my words
Immortal charm.

From LucretiusDe Rerum Natura Book V (lines 380-415) trans. Rolfe Humphries

      With the elements
Fighting their fierce and fratricidal wars,
Can’t you imagine there will be some day
An ultimate truce? Either the heat of the sun
Will dry up all the rivers – this indeed
Is what even now that fiery force intends
But has not yet been able to accomplish
With all its trying, for the waters marshal
Their armies of reserves, not for defense
But for deliberate attack, a threat
To overwhelm the universe with flood;
But this is silly, for the sweeping winds
Abate the water, and the sun in heaven,
Their ally, makes it shrink; sun and wind
Are confident they can dry up the world
Before the water drowns it in a deluge.
So the war-breathers seek supremacy
In undecisive conflict; fire was once
Victorious, or so the story goes,
And water, at another time, was lord.
Fire was triumphant over all the world
When the sun’s horses whirled poor Phaethon
All over the sky, and much too close to earth,
Till the Almighty Father, in a rage,
Struck our young hero with his thunderbolt
And blasted him from chariot to earth,
Where, as he fell, the sun-god caught the torch,
Resumed the car of light, repaired the reins,
Patted the steeds from panic into calm,
Yoked them once more, drove the familiar course
With everything in order once again.
Such is the story old Greek poets sang,
A myth, of course, quite senseless and untrue,
For fire can win only when motes of fire
Attain to almost infinite multitude,
Beyond all normal count. But even so
Their force is somehow spent; it has to be,
Or the whole world would die in holocaust.
Water once also had its day, or so
Legend relates, and poured its floods across
The cities of mankind, but that attack
At last was beaten back, we know not how,
And rainfall ceased, and rivers lost their rage.


A couple of weeks ago I talked about how, as a liberal church, I thought we were rather like one of those covered wagons called prairie schooners which carried settlers west across desert and prairie to a new life and land. I pointed out that because we cannot take everything with us on such a journey into the wilderness it is a time when we have to decide what old, inappropriate, burdens can and even must be dropped and what more appropriate, creative and life enhancing "light" burdens should be kept or taken up?

Two weeks ago I didn't say anything about what I thought was the most important of these - instead, I deliberately encouraged you to articulate your own thoughts.

But, today, given that this is the first Sunday of Lent, that the "place" of Lent is the desert and that in the wilderness Jesus made his own comparable decisions about the nature of the God (what aspects of his belief in God were to be kept and what were to be dropped), I find that, via the ancient story we heard earlier about how the desert was made, I can point to something I think is important to articulate about God in our own age which is struggling appropriately to balance the claims of both science and religion.

The story of Phaeton is delightful and very memorable but, as the Roman poet Lucretius makes clear he thinks it's really "all nonsense." He thinks this because, although along with his exemplar Epicurus, he believes the gods exist, thanks to careful observation of the universe he also thought it was possible to see clearly that these same gods neither created the universe nor intervened providentially in its ongoing workings. In the Epicurean schema the gods appear to us more akin to archetypes than they are to everyday, actual physical beings. In consequence Epicurus' portrayal of the gods allowed Lucretius to let them serve real but, nevertheless, only inspirational and poetic purposes.

However, it's important to be clear, Lucretius hoped that his poem would help humankind drop the heavy and crushing burden of belief in, and fear of, any kind of interventionist *supernatural* beings or Being, gods or God.

Venus and me at Anglesey Abbey
This fact has, naturally, appealed to many modern atheistically inclined readers but, to steal a phrase from Paul Veyne in his book "Did the Greeks believe in their myths?", Lucretius’ (and Epicurus') way of *not believing* in these gods is for them profoundly disturbing. Given that Lucretius is concerned to show his readers clear evidence why the gods do not intervene in the world why then does he continue to drop into his poem so many stories about the gods? And why, oh why, along with the figure of Epicurus is his poem's major character the goddess Venus? As Stephen Greenblatt notes, Lucretius' prayer to Venus at the beginning of his poem:

". . . pours forth, full of wonder and gratitude, glowing with light. It is as if the ecstatic poet actually beheld the goddess of love the sky clearing at her radiant presence, the awakening earth showering her with flowers. She is [for him] the embodiment of desire, and her return, on the fresh gusts of the west wind, fills all living things with pleasure and passionate sexual longing" (Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, p. 201).

It's admittedly a puzzle but, hiding within it, is the appropriate and, therefore, "light" burden I'd like to encourage us to consider picking up and taking on board our own prairie schooner as it continues to travel westward.

We need to begin by noting that Lucretius firmly believed human fears and misconceptions about themselves, the gods and the world would be dispelled, 'not by the sun's rays or the bright shafts of day' but only by a consideration of both the 'outward appearance and inner workings of nature' (1.148). The Latin behind the English words 'outward appearance and inner workings of nature' (cf. 2.61, 3.93, 6.41) is 'naturae species ratioque.'

By 'ratio' Lucretius meant something like nature's 'law or inner workings' and he uses the word to refer to how the universe shows up to us (shines) when we consistently apply to it active human reasoning. This is most obviously displayed today in our various scientific endeavours as we attend patiently and carefully to the natural, physical workings of the universe.

By 'species', Lucretius was gesturing towards the 'face' or 'outward appearance' of nature - i.e. how the universe can show up to us (or shines) as human-beings who are always-already in a world of human culture and tradition, where we are not only creatures with a dispassionate and rational faculty, but always-already embodied, emotional, feeling and storytelling creatures.

Lucretius' genius is seamlessly to combine in his own person (and poem) both the rational, detached attitude of the (proto) scientist and the poetic, deeply embodied attitude of the great epic poet. Lucretius' use of the story of the creation of the desert is a good example of this powerful combination at work.

Let's start with "species" - the outward appearance or face of nature. As a poet, the face of nature in the astonishing form of the desert strongly evokes his, and our own, imagination. Standing by our prairie schooner on our travels we can look into this vast desert landscape, turn to each other and say, "My God, it's just like the place where Helios' chariot touched the earth." As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words and this highly pictorial story, this imaginative construct, works extraordinarily well at immediately placing us right into the heart of, not only what a desert really "looks" like (its face) - blasted and burnt, but also what it really "feels" like (hot, hot, hot).

Lucretius is way too much of a great poet to let this kind of power and energy go untapped and unused but he is also always alert to the dangers that exist whenever you tap this. He knew that just as the bright sun blinds us to the mysterious wonder of the night-sky, the shining stories of the gods all too easily blind us to important physical realities concerning our natural universe.

The Fall of Phaeton (1780) by George Stubbs (1724 - 1807)
Lucretius is also completely aware that, when it is kept within appropriate bounds, sun-like fire is necessary for warmth, growth, and a certain kind of illumination but, if and whenever it is allowed to spread out in the kind of uncontrolled fashion exemplified by Phaëton's cocky and ultimately fatal joy-ride, it is highly dangerous and destructive.

So, Lucretius is always careful to say, as he does elsewhere in the poem:

All this, all this is wonderfully told, 
A marvel of tradition, and yet far
From the real truth. Reject it - for the gods
Must, by their nature, take delight in peace,
Forever calm, serene, forever far
From our affairs, beyond all pain, beyond
All danger, in their own resources strong,
Having no need of us at all, above
Wrath or propitiation. 

(Book 2 lines 644-652 - trans. Humphries)

It is clear that Lucretius thinks his tradition’s stories about the gods count and that they may be considered "true" - or at least truely useful - when they are being used as part of the overall method summed up by the phrase "ratioque species naturae." But whenever, and by whomsoever the tradition’s stories are being taken on their own as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (mostly by formal religion) then we must reject them because they, not only do not tell us about nature's inner laws and workings, but they actively blind us to them. Here I should state explicitly that I consider our own wonderfully told marvel of tradition, the Bible, to be in the same category of stories about the gods that were available to Lucretius.

Lucretius is always aware of the need to be  restoring the balance (a veritable yin-yang affair) by immediately turning from the face (species) of nature to ground his readers once again in nature's laws and inner workings (ratio). So, following his retelling of the poetic story of the creation of the desert (the immediate context of which is Lucretius’ desire to help us understand why our world is neither too hot nor too cold, neither too wet nor too dry) he says:

Such is the story the old Greek poets sang,
A myth, of course, quite senseless and untrue,
For fire can win only when motes of fire
Attain to almost infinite multitude,
Beyond all normal count. But even so
Their force is somehow spent; it has to be,
Or the whole world would die in holocaust.

(Book 5 lines 404-411 - trans. Humphries)

To be sure, today, we may be able to find many places where Lucretius’ own proposed naturalistic theories no longer stand up, but that’s not really the point of the poem. He’s simply showing us, not absolutely final conclusions, but in a wonderfully poetic fashion a basic method to follow. He openly admits that his account of the natural world’s workings are likely, at some future date, to be shown to be wrong (see Book V, lines 529-537). All he is really concerned to do is to help us see in the universe a basic (primordial), stable, trustworthy, natural order of things.

Lucretius’ way of proceeding strongly reminds me of something said by the great French physiologist Claude Bernard (1813–1878):

"When you go into the laboratory do not forget to leave your imagination in the ante-room with your overcoat; on the other hand do not forget to take it away with you when you go home" (cited in The Danger of Words by Maurice O’Connor Drury p. 8)

By constantly moving between, on the one hand, the use of poetic, embodied, imaginative language about the face of nature (epitomised in his poem particularly by the goddess Venus) and, on the other hand, the use of rational scientific language about the inner laws and workings of nature (epitomised by the character of the human Epicurus), Lucretius offers his readers a way to keep creatively and healthily engaged with their culture's traditions and stories about the gods but without ever letting those same stories run amok and blind us to a clear general understanding of the true nature of things and our place in both the natural universe and the human world.

In short Lucretius' poem offers us a stunning and beautiful example of how in this season of Lent we might go about dropping (fasting from) the inappropriate and, to my mind unbearably heavy burden of belief in a supernatural creator Being called God (upper case "G"), and to pick up (imbibe) other light, and eminently more bearable "gods" (lower case "g"), whose poetic personifications have a real shining, creative and useful existence for us all as creatures endowed not only with a physical nature, but also with language, imagination and emotions.

I recommend his approach to you and can do no more now than close with the final words of the manuscript copy which reintroduced in the book to Western European culture after its rediscovery in 1417:

Lege feliciter. Amen.
Read happily. So be it.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

An, as yet, only imagined Epicurean Gathering to meditate, to philosophise, and to eat together

Update 26 June 2014. Please click on this link to go to a page where you will find the most recent revision of the Epicurean Liturgy and also links to all the various posts on this little project to create a modern Epicurean practice. 

UPDATE 1 May 2014. The liturgy mentioned below has now been revised a couple of times. For the latest news please click on this link. 

In the United Kingdom there is an excellent radio programme called "In our Time" in which Melvyn Bragg gathers together three experts to talk about an historical, philosophical or theological subject or person. It is public service broadcasting at its best. This week the programme was on Epicurus who, as readers of this blog will know, is a particular influence on my own thinking. (Readers outside the UK may not, alas, be able to hear this programme). The guests were: Angie Hobbs (Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield); David Sedley (Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge); James Warren (Reader in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge)

Being a minister of religion one of my constant concerns is liturgy (literally the "work of the people"). In the liberal Christian setting I mostly work in it is important to have liturgies that, even as they give a real sense of stability to the community (they help reveal what the community basically is and does) they also allow for the breaking in of new knowledge and insights. In my last address of 2012, "A lesson for liberal religion from the world of sport – a meditation for the year to come" I posted the various liturgies we currently use in Cambridge, England at the Memorial (Unitarian) Church (you'll find the links to them towards the end of the address).

Well, the "In our Time" programme reminded me that back in 2011 I put together a liturgy for a regular gathering of those wanting to explore Epicurus' philosophy in a way that took people from their books and heads and into their bodies within an actual gathering of like-minded people.

Although Epicurean thinking has not always sat easily with orthodox forms of Christianity it makes a great deal of sense in the Unitarian and Free Christian setting I minister. Indeed Thomas Jefferson, a notable Unitarian if ever there was one, said in a letter to William Short in 1819: "I am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greek and Roman leave to us." In the same letter he wrote: "Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others."

Anyway, the usual pressures of church work meant I never got round to trying it out. But it strikes me as, perhaps, the right time to put it out there and to see what happens. Epicurus' ideas have long seemed to me to be very relevant to our own age and concerns but for them to get some real purchase in our culture it they have to be given an actual, public form. I don't pretend what I post below is anything more than a first try but, as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a singe step . . .

Update June 2013: A revised version of the following order can be found at this link. This was made after actually doing the thing!

It consists of a basic "order":

during which there is a period of led, mindfulness meditation (which seems to me to make a good fit with Epicurus' philosophy). After all Epicurus himself says, "One must attend to one’s present feelings and sense perceptions, to the common sense-perceptions for individual properties, and to every immediately clear fact as revealed by each of the criteria." (DL 10.82). In "The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies" (p. 618) Thomas McEvilley translates this such that the (possible) connection with mindfulness meditation is made even more explicit:

"It is necessary [says Epicurus] to pay constant attention to one's pain and pleasure process as it works in the present moment."

Please feel free to use as you see fit. I'd love to hear if and how it works or, of course, doesn't! Anyone in the area around Cambridge, UK who wants to give it a go please contact me. My email address is:


A very good and helpful online source of all things Epicurean can be found here:


Friday, 8 February 2013

Below Sea Level - A ride out to Fen Drayton Lakes and it's perfect soundtrack

Simon Scott's CD "Below Sea Level"
At the beginning of the week I took a ride on the Dursely Perdersen out to Fen Drayton Lakes along the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway. The whole area surrounding the lakes has been flooded for weeks and I wanted to see how things were. The water level  has fallen a lot but, as the photos below show, there is still plenty of water about. The church you can see in silhouette on the horizon of the second photo is St Andrew's at Swavesey.

When I got back home I made a pot of tea and took a first look at the shots I'd taken all whilst listening to Simon Scott's wonderful and most recent CD "Below Sea Level". Simon spent two years going into the fens with hydrophones and self-built recording devices to, as the record label puts it, "explore the land that is cartographically below mean sea level, [to] trace the devastating history of this environment caused by the drainage of the land, and arrange it into conceptual musical and visual project." Simon performed some live versions of these pieces in the Memorial (Unitarian) Church last year. A great experience - especially for a lover of both the Fens and Ambient Music - like me. That it happened in the church where I am the minister was an added delight.

Anyway, as you look at these photos taken at Fen Drayton you might want to listen to a couple of tracks from the CD that Simon has kindly made available on his Soundcloud page:

Sunday, 3 February 2013

The liberal church as prairie schooner & its appropriate burden

A Prairie Schooner 
UPDATE 29 June 2014. I've just had cause to revisit (and tidy and tighten up) the address on this page. If you click on this link you can go to that post. 

The version you will find below is essentially the same as the revised version but it's really very messy and considerably less well-structured. I'd advise clicking on the link above! However, just for the record, I leave the old version here as a salutary reminder to myself (if no one else) of some famous wise words by Samuel Beckett:

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." (Worstward Ho).


A prayer of Socrates':

"O dear Pan, and all the other gods of this place, grant that I may be beautiful inside. Let all my external possessions be in friendly harmony with what is within. May I consider the wise man rich. As for gold, let me have as much as a moderate man could bear and carry with him" (Plato, Phaedrus 279c).

A promise of Jesus':

"Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30)

Tolstoy’s recasting of this promise:

"All people worry about the well-being of the flesh, they have loaded up a kind of cart that they could never pull away; they have placed a yoke on themselves which was not designed to fit them. Understand my teaching and follow it, and you will come to know peace and joy in life. I will give you a different yoke and a different cart: spiritual life. Harness yourself to it and you will learn calmness and blessedness from me. Be peaceful and meek in heart and you will find blessedness in your life. Because my teaching is a yoke designed to fit you; fulfilling my teaching is an easy cart to pull and a yoke designed to fit you" (Tolstoy, Leo: The Gospel in Brief, trans. Dustin Condren, Harper Perennial 2011, pp. 49-50)


This address began with me stumbling this week across Socrates' prayer. I was especially taken with the line in which he asks Pan and the other gods of the place: "As for gold, let me have as much as a moderate man could bear and carry with him" (Phaedrus 279c). This mention of carrying a burden deemed appropriate inevitably brought to my mind one of Jesus' most comforting promises that, unlike other teachers, his yoke was easy, and his burden is light" (Matthew 11:30).

Although one might be tempted on a first reading to think that these two teachings are not really about quite the same thing, after spending a little time with them, I began feel that, in their different ways, Socrates and Jesus were both trying to gesture towards the same thing, namely, the need to figure out what is the burden appropriate for the task in hand. It's important to try to ascertain because, as Tolstoy's recasting of Jesus teaching suggests, humanity is all to prone to loading up a kind of cart that we could never pull away and to place upon ourselves and others a yoke which was not designed to fit human kind. It seems to me that our current neo-liberal inspired consumer lifestyle is just the latest of these ultimately crushing burdens.

Sometime during this week my thoughts about burdens and their appropriateness or otherwise condensed around the Western. Although, of necessity, in this address I speak in rather general terms I have particularly in mind John Ford's fine, but often over-looked, movie of 1950 called "Wagon Master".

Like many children of my generation I watched many dozens of Westerns and their basic story lines became thoroughly interwoven with my own. As you will be aware many Westerns focus on a group of settlers moving West and the image of their distinctive covered-wagons, "Prairie Schooners", travelling through a variety of extraordinary landscapes has become almost indelibly etched into the cultural memory of America as well as Europeans like me.

Most of these settlers (who were, of course, mostly Europeans) were leaving behind something that no longer satisfied them in order to create a better life in a new land. Some of them were fleeing religious persecution, some former crimes and misdemeanors, some simple poverty. Others were, not so much fleeing anything in particular, as setting off to find some kind new or greater excitement, fame or fortune, perhaps as gamblers, hunters, gunfighters, bounty-hunters, actors, or prospectors.

The mix of reasons for undertaking such a journey was always profoundly complex and, in the best Westerns, it is this volatile and unstable mix which provides the raw material and energy that drives along the plot. One thing worth observing here is how in the genre's classic period there are fewer gunfights than you'd imagine. When they do occur there is often only one of them and even then it lasts but a few seconds. The reason for this is that the gunfight is generally not the focus of the best films and the classic Western does not fetishise violence. Instead its focus is upon the moral and ethical dynamics that lead up to the moment of violence and then about the moral and ethical consequences which follow it.

Monument Valley, Utah
Now so far I've only been speaking about the people who appear in the Western but a central character in many of them, often overlooked, is the landscape of the West itself. To be sure nearly all film-makers realised that there was a straightforward visual appeal to be had in the landscape but the best directors also always allowed it to play an important, narrative, role. In their hands the landscape becomes the place where the rules of old laws back East not only no longer apply but actually cannot apply here. The sheer alien strangeness of the landscape (whether it is Monument Valley, Utah or the endlessly open and flat prairies of the mid-West) emphasises that the people travelling through it are *not* acting in their former worlds where old moralities and law are known and in force but somewhere these things are suspended and/or put radically into doubt. The landscape is the necessary, highly particular context in which everyone - whether the good, the bad or the ugly - must learn anew how to make the most appropriate basic decisions. It's important to see that this wild landscape is not yet that of the hoped for new world but it is only place in which such a new world can be formed, where a new and more appropriate morality and law is forged and refined between the competing and often conflicting visions of the good life these settlers are bringing with them. It is this process that the best Westerns seek to show us at work.

OK, all well and good, but what has this go to do with us?

Well, we may begin by observing that each of us here today will be able to tell a story about how we came to this church because we felt that the old ways of doing religion back "East" were not only not working for us but were also not working for wider society. So, we asked around for, or by luck or grace simply stumbled upon, this prairie schooner of a liberal church which openly recognises the need to "go West" to begin the admittedly hard journey of making a new and good life. To join this kind of church is to climb aboard an already moving wagon train and to set out together willingly into the wild to remake, to revision the good life.

But no one, except perhaps the most foolish, ever joins a wagon train without taking with them from the old world some important things that they deem are an appropriate load for such journey. I do not just mean the appropriate material burdens of food, clothing and tools (such as the gold of which Socrates speaks or the beef-jerky of the cowboy) but also appropriate spiritual foods, clothing and tools. In the genre of the Western (and for us as a kind of Christian church) this latter appropriate burden is primarily symbolised by the Biblical text whose words come regularly to be heard under the open skies by the graveside, at mealtimes, or on Sunday morning in camp. The words of the Bible are borne as an appropriate burden because they are able continually to give the settlers spiritual strength just as their beef-jerky is able to give them physical strength.

The hard part is, however, not coming to accept that from the old world some kind of burden must be born by us as we set out, rather it is in deciding what, precisely, we should take with us in the first place? We've all been through a rather less dramatic version of this when packing for a holiday. I mean just how many pairs of socks and undies do we take, how many pairs of jeans, shirts jumpers jackets or shoes? How many books to pack (a perennial problem of mine - I mean do I really need to take with me everything Wittgenstein wrote just for a week's holiday!!), how many snacks and, whether or not we are to include the laptop?

The question is not whether there is a burden from our old world to be carried forward or not - there always is - but rather it is how do we ascertain that the burden we are to carry is an appropriate one? We also have to ensure that we have loaded up the right kind of cart so that we can, in fact, pull away and also that we are taking up a yoke that is designed to fit us.

It seems clear to me that one of our tasks from time to time is together to reflect upon what burdens seem still to be appropriate for us to carry and what are now inappropriate and which should be left behind?

(NB: In the conversation immediately following the address and musical offering we, as a congregation, shared together some thoughts about this.)

But it's important to realise that discerning the appropriate is always an ongoing activity. The unfolding journey together through an actual landscape is what will continually show us, as it did to the first settlers, what is now really appropriate to our journey and what is not.

So, in this morning service some things we initially took on board our prairie schooner of a church have stayed on board (for example: the Lord's Prayer, a reading from the Bible and another religious or secular text and the overall basic shape of the service); other things have gone (for example: a fourth hymn and a sung canticle); still others have been brought on board (for example more silence, the lighting of a candle, the Prayer for Peace and the time of conversation). These are the things our journey together has made us feel are, at present, appropriate and so "light" burdens to carry. I do not doubt that over time what is deemed to be an appropriate burden may well change.

But I've said nothing yet about the wild landscape through which our church is presently journeying. It is not the desert of Monument Valley nor the open prairie but it is one that in many ways is at least one as alien, strange and, sometimes, as threatening. Our current cultural landscape is often felt as alienating, disorientating, unmapped and wild as anything filmed by John Ford. So many of our old moral, ethical, legal, cultural, political, scientific, philosophical and religious certainties have just disappeared from sight and we know that we are in an increasingly wild and lawless place. This is the condition of "normal nihilism about which I have spoken a number of times before - and which I précis in a piece called "Christianity - of this world or not?".

However, the visionary promise contained in the classic Western is that only by risking everything to traverse this dangerous, region landscape can we hope to forge new and genuinely shared moralities and practices that have taken genuine account of the diversity of our current culture in which, in truth, all its members find they are displaced and forced to harness up a wagon and move on. As every settler and refugee knows - you can only take with you an appropriate burden, i.e. you only carry and keep what you really, really need and only those who can successfully discern what this is will be able to pull the cart away and make it to the end of the trail. Once there, only the really important things, the things we found to be truly appropriate, whose burden we found light and whose yoke was easy, will be with us on our first day in the new world in, what we can genuinely hope will be an extraordinarily diverse and new kind of community. A community that, thanks to the furnace of the wilderness, has forged and begun to refined for its own time and place a new and appropriate shared morality and law.


An important postscript: The narrative found in the classic Western does not, of course, take proper account of the Native American Indians nor women. The classic Western offers an idealised, generally optimistic story and glosses much about which humankind should be ashamed. But, the frontier town at the end of the trail, this new world, was not a definitive end but, like most apparent ends, it was really only a new beginning. As America (and the World) itself developed, and as the genre of the Western developed, better account has been taken of both the contributions and the sufferings of the Indians and women in the story of the West and of excluded and silence minorities everywhere. The struggle for a truly appropriate shared morality and law never ends. Our wagon train is still, thankfully, moving. The task of letting go of the inappropriate and taking on board the appropriate goes on even as, along the way, there are times when we'll settle for a while on some attractive bend in the river with our wagons in a circle to take stock and rest-up.