Sunday, 31 March 2013

Easter Sunday - "Jesus died but Christ has triumphed" - believing in not a single impossible thing before, or after, breakfast

On this most joyous day of the Christian year one thing is clear, that without a "Resurrection" there would be no Easter Sunday and without the Easter "event" it is unlikely that anything like Christianity would have come into being.  That this event was of central importance to the early Christian community can be sensed in St Paul's words who said:

"Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:11-15).

But before we deal directly with what for our age and culture is a difficult claim it is vitally important to see that without the coming into being of Christianity after the first Easter, nothing of what we are as a radical, liberal Christian tradition prepared willingly to travel beyond the boundaries set by formal Christian belief would today be possible. In short, for a community such as our own to deny the central importance of the Resurrection or even simply ignore it as irrelevant is as pointless an exercise as railing against the rising of the morning sun. It's always-already part of our community's history and we have to take it into account.

Ah, you may argue, today we know that the sun (Helios) actually rises whereas Jesus, as a son of God, most certainly doesn't. But such a thought is precisely one which can open us up to another way of looking at things that doesn't require us, like the White Queen in "Alice through the Looking Glass", to believe in six impossible things before breakfast.

Given these things we have before us at least two questions. One, what are we going to do with this historical "fact", namely, that without the "Easter event" (whatever it was), we would not be here today and, two, can what we do with this fact help us reconnect in some real way with something like the empowering sense of joy and hope that was felt be our forbears during and after that first Easter?

However, because we are so thoroughly imbued with scientific, skeptical  critical spirit of our age, the truth remains that access to the joy and hope of the "Resurrection" is barred to many of us. It seems to me that what we need to do is not to lose our scientific, skeptical  critical spirit - it is I think vital to human well-being - but rather to broaden it, supplement it. Like the Roman poet Lucretius this would be to live acknowledging both the power and the place of knowledge of nature's "inner workings" (ratio) and the kind of knowledge we can derive from  nature's poetic face (species).

So let's return to my point that for us to deny the importance of the "Resurrection" is as pointless an exercise as railing against the rising of the morning sun. As we do this let us also notice that, after Copernicus, an important shift occurred in the human perspective on the nature of things when we realised that in a heliocentric universe the sun, Helios, cannot be said to rise at all. Today we know it's all about the orbits of planets moving around a local star, all of which is all taking place in a universe with no absolute up nor down.

And yet, for all that, as I awoke this morning I can still meaningfully say to you that I felt the good earth down *below* my feet and, when I looked *up* into the sky, I still found myself giving thanks that the sun had risen *above* the horizon and that a new and hopeful day has dawned down *below* on earth.

Although as a human being decisively shaped by scientific knowledge I understand that what I mean when I use the words "Helios, the Sun, has risen" is different from the full meaning and use it had for our pre-Copernican forebears, this does not stop me from continuing to use with you, legitimately and meaningfully, the words "the Sun, Helios, has risen."

It seems to me that something similar is true in connection with the "Resurrection." Today, at least for me and I know for many of you, belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus is impossible to hold. The passing of two thousand years and a great deal of human thought and experience has gifted us with a body of evidence which overwhelmingly indicates that the physical resurrection of the dead is an impossibility. This change in human perspective means I can say with considerable (though never absolute) authority that I know Jesus, the son (of God), did not rise from the dead on that first Easter morning.

And yet, and yet as I awoke this Easter morn, felt the good earth beneath my feet and looked up into the sky at the risen sun, Helios, I still found myself giving thanks that Christ, the son of God, has risen and a new and hopeful day has dawned down here on earth. More even than this, for knew I was going to offer you this address which will conclude with the traditional Paschal greeting "Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!" Now, why might I, someone who does not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus, feel able to do this and, not only that, but really mean my Alleluias?

Well, we can begin to move towards an answer by noting that for our forbears Jesus and Christ were one and the same person, Christ was simply a title (meaning the Messiah, or the Anointed One) applied to Jesus; together this gave us what has become a proper name: "Jesus Christ." So, when our forebears spoke of Jesus they meant Christ; when they spoke of Christ they meant Jesus.

But today in a church tradition such as this everything hinges on making a distinction between the human being Jesus and the figure of Christ. As I have already said for me, Jesus the man died upon the cross and somewhere in that as yet undiscovered Syrian garden he, to this day, lies in perpetual peace.

But when I (on behalf of this tradition) begin to speak of Christ I am speaking of something intimately connected to the life and death of Jesus but which is significantly different. In the same way the meaning of the words  the "rising of Helios, the Sun" is different for us than it was for our forebears, the meaning of "the rising of Christ" is also understood differently. The roots of this difference lie with St Paul when he allowed us to understand the word "Christ" not as a single, discrete individual (Jesus) but as a present, living corporate entity. In Romans 12 (vv.4-5) he says: "For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another"; and in 1 Corinthians 12 (v. 12) he says "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ."

Coupled with our increasing scientific knowledge this allowed our tradition legitimately to say that for us what was raised from death was not Jesus' body but the body of the spiritual community which followed him; a body which they named Christ. In short, they could begin to understand themselves as the bodily resurrection. Their hope for a radically egalitarian kingdom of heaven had died on the cross with Jesus but in Christ it was resurrected in them. This feeling (thanks to the stories which contained it) was successfully carried forward across generations and geography and centuries afterwards it was, perhaps, most strikingly put into words attributed to the medieval mystic St Theresa of Avila (1515-1582):

"Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now."

In our own time and family of churches this understanding of the resurrection has been no better, nor more simply expressed than by the recently retired Unitarian and Free Christian minister of Ipswich, Cliff Reed, in his Easter hymn that we will sing at the close of this service:

Jesus died, but Christ has triumphed,
Broken now the chains of death;
From the tomb comes God’s anointed,
Kindling cold hearts with his breath.

Now at last we see his purpose,
Breaking through like sunburst bright:
Liberation for God’s people
Ends humanity’s long night.

For there is a Spirit greater,
Who has now the victory;
And our God indwells the human,
striving for our liberty.

And that Spirit dwelt in Jesus,
Teaching us that love redeems;
How God, through a man’s compassion,
Gains great ends by human means.

But for love and life undying
Death of self must be the key;
Jesus died to bear this witness
And Christ rose to make us free.

Whether before or, as now, after breakfast, I would argue that there is to be found in Cliff's words not a single impossible thing (let alone six) in which we are being asked to believe. To proclaim the truth of the resurrection in this church is at heart simply to affirm that whenever a human community consciously tries to live together genuinely inspired by Jesus' spirit of love and compassion then, as they express this through the actions of their corporate body, then they most surely can say with full joy and meaning:

"Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!"

Friday, 29 March 2013

Good Friday Communion Service

This evening, at 6.30pm, the Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge holds its Good Friday Communion Service. It's primarily a service devised by the recently retired Revd Cliff Reed and is based upon the passion narrative found in Luke. I post it this morning because a couple of members of the congregation cannot be present today and wanted a copy to read by themselves. On sending them out this morning I realised that there may be others who read this blog who are unable to attend a service and who may may value reading through the service.

Click on the following link to download a pdf copy:

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Palm Sunday - Le Pas au–delà (the step/not beyond) - choosing to follow Jesus in the post-modern liberal context

Readings: Mark 11:1-11

And from the conclusion to a chapter entitled Jesus by the Revd Dr J. Cyril Flower, minister of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church between 1922 and 1931. The chapter can be found in the book entitled "Aspects of Modern Unitarianism" published in 1923:

I confess that I find the laborious attempt to define what is called the "place" of Jesus, or any other great prophet of God, altogether unedifying. It is enough if we follow the light when and where we see it, in whose hands soever be the torch. When I am in Switzerland, worshipping God in the splendour of the snowy mountains, it is of no interest to me that, in India or America, there may be snow-clad mountains which are a few hundred feet loftier. If I am in Switzerland, let me breathe in the beauty of its mountain grandeur, and expand my soul in contemplation of the present symbols of the Infinite and the Eternal: he who is among the Rocky Mountains or in India can do nothing more, and should do nothing less. We live in an atmosphere and a civilization whose best characteristics  are steeped in the influence of Jesus. We are enlisted by birth, environment and choice, under his banner. There are other captains in the one great army of God; but he is ours, and we shall promote the success of the divine campaign for the kingdom of heaven, not by gossiping about the particular features, demeanour, or apparel of the various captains - but by lovingly and faithfully following our own; for all genuine religions are allies, and not enemies. The prophets of God are many, but God is one; and that under whatever banner India, China, England, Palestine may move forward, they may be led by their accepted captain, courageous, faithful, loving their brothers and honouring their leader, to God, should be the aspiration and the prayer of all who are disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.  


Palm Sunday is a day which demands we ask ourselves once again the question about what is actually involved in continuing to follow Jesus’, something that we as a local liberal church we still claim to be attempting. As you know, when you come in to this church, hanging on the wall to the left of the door, is a hand-lettered inscription that includes the sentence “Our religious thinking is related to the teaching of Jesus and its application in the modern world.” (This phrase almost certainly comes from the pen of J. Cyril Flower and you may download a copy of his book The Parables of Jesus Applied to Modern Life by clicking this link).

To help us understand what following Jesus can mean in the post-modern liberal context we can usefully turn to something that shows up in the French language. In French the word “pas” has two meanings. The first meaning is straightforwardly a “step”, as in a taking a step forward. But it also has the meaning of “not” as in “Je n’avance pas.” This ‘literally means “I do not move forward, not even a step.” On this account pas as “not” (ne) is simply shorthand for “(not a) step” (John D. Caputo, What would Jesus Deconstruct, p. 141). John D. Caputo notes about this that:

Thus pas means [therefore] “step/not”; it means to take a step but then again not to, to be following in someone’s steps but then again not to. Steps cannot be insulated in an absolute way from missteps and sidesteps, and paths cannot be protected from dead-ends. To take steps in a certain direction, to be en route, to follow in someone’s steps cannot be protected absolutely from detours, road blocks, misleading road signs, false steps and impasses [. . .] (ibid. p. 43).

The truth of this shows up very clearly when we consider taking steps towards another person because the relationship we can have with them is always a journey we cannot complete. Marriage shows this up particularly well. In marriage when you say “I do” you say it not simply to who the person is, or who you think this person is, but “to whomsoever or whatever this person is to become, which is unknown and unforeseen to the both of you” (ibid. p. 45). It is vitally important to see that this risk is constitutive of the vow and commitment. Without this risk the vow and commitment mean nothing.

So let’s now return to the roadside in first-century Jerusalem. You’ve heard about this man Jesus who has been doing and saying extraordinary things about a completely new way of being in the world. A way of being that promises a certain kind of freedom and justice for all, a kingdom of God that turns the whole world upside down such that it doesn’t resemble anything that has ever before been called a kingdom. All other kingdoms have been ruled by powerful rulers who rigidly impose upon the people a law that feels, and indeed is, a heavy and painful yoke. But Jesus says that the yoke of his kingdom is a light one and that the power in his kingdom is one based, not upon brute will and might, but upon love and compassion. These are strange but attractive words that speak of a condition which seems almost impossible ever to imagine as really coming to pass. For all that you feel deeply in your heart that it could come to pass and, faced with the less than desirable conditions of the time, why not at least go out and welcome such a man? So you take a step forward, you go to Jerusalem, you find your palm branch and you hail with Hosannas this possible Messiah.

But with your first step to that roadside you immediately run into the structural reality I’ve already mentioned and you see that it simultaneously brings with it the possibility of a “not” or a “misstep”. As you look around, yes, there’s lots of acclamatory noise but, over there behind the crowds, the Romans don’t look at all pleased and neither do the Temple authorities. Hmm. Is their displeasure a sign that Jesus is who he says, that the kingdom of which he speaks can actually come to pass? Or is it perhaps an indication that he is not who he says he is and that his kingdom is a foolish, even dangerous, piece of nonsense? Suddenly, you are face to face with the realisation that you don’t know and that the next step is not clear. So do you now take the risk of making a vow and commitment to follow him or are just going to get away?

What could make it clear? Nothing could – just like you know nothing can make it clear what is exactly to be involved when you say “I do” to the person you are about to marry. And by that road-side you also suddenly see that to promise to follow in Jesus’ footsteps is to engage in something like marriage. It could never be merely to follow who you, or some religious group, has decided Jesus is, but instead to follow whomsoever or whatever he is and who you are together to become . This is, of course, something always-already unknown and unforeseeable.

What was true for that first-century crowd remains true for us today. However, it is important to see that our understanding of Jesus (who he was, is and may become) is very different from that held by our forbears but so it should be - after all, we've been in a two-millennia long relationship (marriage) with him and, like a couple in a real marriage, we've both been radically changed along the way.

This means that, for those of us in the liberal Christian tradition, true loyalty to Jesus (to continue to try to step with him) is not to be loyal to some simple predetermined scheme or belief about in what forever will consist the right steps to take (steps that some church authority has decided it knows and which deemed to be fixed forever in certain rules or creeds) but, instead, it is to be loyal to a certain open-ended, trusting, loving way of walking through the world that helps us discern together how we might best take the next step, and the next, and the next. Its about how we create a meaningful continuity with our past but without turning this into identity with the past. It is also to root and ground ourselves in history (giving us a sense of home and belonging) but one which continues to allow us to be open to the world's ongoing formation.

This is to proclaim a Christianity after Christianity, a Christianity after all the security of believing that it is ever possible to know that your current views are right has fallen away and you are left simply with love and friendship – the central aspects of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. It is to proclaim to the world an understanding of the Christian path that says, since we can never know in any final sense what following Jesus’ steps means, we must always be walking and talking lovingly and respectfully together and, in conversation and shared work, to see what shows up for us as a possible, reasonable shared next step – just like we do in every real marriage (gay or straight), any great friendship or any true secular democracy. As Caputo notes, this is faithfully to live in a tradition that “keeps “happening” (arriver) without ever quite “arriving” at a final, fixed, and finished destination” and to live in such a way that reveals we can never simply “derive” (dériver) direct instruction from Jesus but can only “allow it a certain drift or free play (dérive)." It is precisely this which allows our liberal tradition to be creative and to reinvent itself so that it can be, as Augustine said of God, 'ever ancient yet ever new’ (ibid. p. 57).

The Revd Dr J. Cyril Flower 

Monday, 18 March 2013

Such Singing in the Wild Branches - being a meditation upon the openness of the world and the fruits of inhabiting the constellation of truth

I'd like to begin today by reminding you that everything I say from this lectern (and in this blog) is guided by a central thought which has been well expressed by the author Iain Thomson that:

'. . . what makes the great texts "great" is not that they continually offer the same "eternal truths" for each generation to discover but, rather, that they remain deep enough — meaning-full enough — to continue to generate new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work that previously guided us.' (Figure/Ground Communication interview).

Normally, of course, the word "text" would imply that this passage refers always and only to books. But the greatest of "texts", and I think the video interview above shows that Iain Thomson would agree with me, is the natural world. This thought was explicitly expressed in our culture as early as the fourteenth-century when nature began to be described by some as being itself a kind of book - "the book of nature" (cf Konrad of Megenberg) -  a book, which someone as influential upon our culture as Galileo believed, could become "readable and comprehensible."

Megenberg's "Buch der Natur"
Now, I am fairly sure, Galileo believed that reading the book of nature would eventually reveal to him *only* certain kinds of secure, eternal truths, a belief that remains worryingly prevalent today in scientistic circles. However, if the book of nature is in fact the deepest of all "texts" then, more than any humanly produced book, it is also able constantly to generate revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient for us the sense of how nature can guide us. Today I'd like to offer you a personal example of how such a re-reading shows up and offer us renewed sense of meaning, hope and joy.

(After I gave this address it became clear that at this point in proceedings I needed to add this note. It is very important for me to say that the apparent theological/philosophical content of this address - a kind of Spinozistic pantheism (though it’s really just a Spinozistic-like story and a not piece of Spinozistic metaphysics) - is NOT the reason for/point of this address. Here I simply wish to draw your attention to a certain understanding in what truth consists.)

Let's start with the thought that we who are writers and readers of texts are, ourselves, clearly part of the natural universe. Now let's consider the well-known aphorism which says: "The most radical thing you can do is introduce people to one another." It should be clear that what is true of people is, therefore, simultaneously true of our texts and so we may also say: "The most radical thing you can do is introduce one text to another text." Introducing different texts and people to each other who, without this church and its activities would otherwise not meet, is my job as both a theologian and a minister and what I do for other people I also do for myself (or, perhaps better, I try to open myself to it happening to me). So here goes . . .

My own initial sense of the meaning of life showed up within a liberal Christian cultural tradition (as it did for the church tradition in which we stand as a community) and this gifted me with amongst other things a knowledge of the Biblical texts and a certain shape to the unfolding year. So, in this season of Lent in the approach to Easter I (we), naturally, take time out to re-read the various stories in the Gospels connected with the events in Jesus' life immediately before his crucifixion:

John 17:20-26 (NRSV)

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

Thrush in the Manse yard last summer
The second text in today's mix is taken from the book of nature. The day upon which I began consciously to get ready to write this address began with me sitting in the Manse kitchen idly looking out into the frosty back-yard with my Bible open, the words from Chapter 17 in my imagination, and a warm cup of tea in my hand. All of a sudden (and, of course without any of my own planning or control in play) a beautiful thrush landed on the head of Venus who stands serenely and beautifully just outside the glass paneled back-door. The glorious singing of the thrush joyfully reminded me that, despite some indications to the contrary, we had entered upon the season of spring.

As nature pushed back at me in the arrival of the thrush I was brought to my third text because the bird’s singing immediately made me think of Mary Oliver as it is just the kind of event she writes about. Since being unexpectedly introduced to her work by both my old philosophy teacher and another visitor to this church I have learnt to go straight to her texts when so prompted by nature in order to see what might show up. However, my copies of her books are kept in my study and I didn't have them immediately to hand. Instead, I opened up my computer and did a quick Google search for "Mary Oliver" and "spring poem". I let the natural mathematical working of certain algorithms play out and push back at me. At the top of the proffered list was a poem I had not until then read, "Such Singing in the Wild Branches" and so, quite unplanned, I found myself in the presence of second singing thrush.

Such Singing in the Wild Branches from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

It was spring
and finally I heard him
among the first leaves -
then I saw him clutching the limb

in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still

and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness -
and that's when it happened,

when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree -
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,

and the sands in the glass
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward

like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing -
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed

not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky - all, all of them

were singing.
And, of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn't last

for more than a few moments.
It's one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,

is that, once you've been there,
you're there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?

Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then - open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.

I was powerfully struck by a family resemblance between the song of her thrush and the words of Christ found in John. What this was I'll come back to in a moment but, firstly, I need to note that a family resemblance was also showing up in connection with the contents of a fourth text, namely me. At the start of every service I invite you to join with me in the presence of God-or-Nature (Latin: Deus-sive-Natura). Although this might sound to some as if I can't make up my mind whether we are standing in the presence of God or Nature, please remember that the "or" (the "sive") in this term is one of *equivalence*. It's Benedict Spinoza's term and I introduced it into our liturgy some five years ago because it spoke to my sense that that somehow God and Nature cannot be pulled apart and that in some way God *is* Nature and Nature *is* God.

The family resemblance I noticed between all these texts has for me been no better expressed than by the eighteenth-century Universalist George de Benneville (1703-1793) who said; "The inner spirit makes us feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things."

Is this not something like what John seems to have believed Christ’s inner spirit was feeling when he uttered his farewell words to his disciples and which John's own community came to see and feel about Christ? Namely, that in some meaningful way we may say that Christ is in us and, because Christ is in God we, together, are all one in God. Christ teaches us this - or so it feels - that we can come daily to live our lives more truly loving God and our neighbour as ourselves; to see God (or Nature) in the other regardless of apparently insuperable differences.

Is this not something like what Mary Oliver senses in her own inner spirit as she encounters the singing thrush? A feeling that there was not just a single thrush singing but "all his brothers, and also the trees around them, as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds in the perfectly blue sky — all, all of them" and, of course, so it seemed, Oliver herself. Out of that experience she finds that the thrush, like Christ, wants us to live loving Nature and our neighbour as ourselves; to see Nature (or God) in the other regardless of apparently insuperable differences.

And what of the text that is the book of nature - this actual, existent thrush that showed up outside the Manse back-door whose presence pushed back at me? Well, in the wholly unexpected meeting of texts that was occasioned by the thrush's arrival I found that, like Oliver, I "was filled with gladness - and that's when it happened" - when I saw something I had never seen before nor could ever have imagined I would see.

I looked up and the thrush singing outside my back-door was suddenly being read by me as “Christ the Thrush”, singing to me that God-or-Nature is in her, that she is in God-or-Nature and she is singing this song to me so that, together, we may know that she and I are both one in God-or-Nature. In the lighting strike of this moment it felt as if the very glory that God-or-Nature has given the thrush and Christ was being given anew to me and, at the end of this cold and long winter in which every spirit upon earth had until a few moments ago seemed fervourless as I, my own life suddenly began to shine again, refulgent with meaning.

As Oliver notes, although these are fleeting moments, "One of the things they say about it, that is true, is that, once you've been there, you're there forever." So from this moment onwards the whole world shows up to you, begins to shine, in a wholly new way - and, as the words on the little bronze plaque that hangs on the back-yard wall above Venus' head (see picture) says, I felt powerfully that, Yes! "Bidden or unbidden, God is present."

However, although *I* feel I can live forever by the truth of this encounter with the Christ the Thrush, it is important to realise that I do not (cannot) receive this truth, nor pass it on to you, as an 'eternal truth' of the kind so often sought by both religion, philosophy or the natural sciences. I neither can, nor any longer feel the need to, justify this truth to you either metaphysically or scientifically. If the resonance within me that was triggered by this mix of texts triggers a similar resonance in you then all well and good - and those of us who in our different ways (and with different texts) feel such an “interdependent unity of all things” can perhaps talk further about it - it is, after all a classic Unitarian and Universalist intuition (the religious tradition in which this church stands and I minister).

But via this telling of my story I am today much more concerned that I pass on to you a better understanding that we need to live by a more structurally important truth, namely, that everything in our world (you, me, texts, thrushes and the whole of nature) is as Thomson pointed out "deep enough — meaning-full enough — to continue to generate new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work[s] that previously guided us.” I am impelled by this encounter primarily to impart to you NOT it’s apparent contents but the thought that the structure of our world, of God-or-Nature, is never closed and fixed but rather always-already radically open and infinitely deep. This means that truth - the insights by which we find we can live flourishing, confident, joyful and ultimately hopeful lives - is not fixed and eternal but rather a constellation in which four elements are constantly moving about us and capable of revealing radical new readings to us as we live together in community. (I am deeply indebted to Julian Young for articulating the basic fourfold constellation of truth that follows - it can be found in his excellent and inspiring book "Heidegger's Later Philosophy". I, however, take responsibility for presenting it in the way and context I do.)

1) Firstly, truth about the world’s openness is revealed to me in the encounter with the ever-undisclosed, eternally creative and generative mystery of B/being itself - the profound, dark mystery of why there is something and not nothing. (Here “darkness” is understood as being like the darkness of the earth which nourishes the seed and enables it to move up out into the realm of light)

2) Secondly, truth about the world’s openness is revealed to me in the encounter with the actual natural universe in which, out of the mystery of B/being, are disclosed to me extraordinary shining natural entities such as Christ, the thrush and the bare trees in whose wild branches she perches and sings.

3) Thirdly, truth about the world’s openness is revealed to me (and everyone else) only within the horizons of meaning we have been gifted by being born into a particular culture. In my case this has gifted me with a memory of Christ along with countless poems, and many philosophies, theologies and scientific world-views. Without these precious gifts, these fragments of holiness, these glimpses of eternity and brief moments of insight neither you nor I would never have got going in the world in the first place so as to be able to see and speak about anything at all.

4) Fourthly, truth about the world’s openness is revealed to me in my encounter with other human-beings who are themselves deep, living and ever-unfolding "texts" who are continuously able to disclose new meaning. I meet people desirous of seeking the truth of life primarily in this intentional liberal religious community as we consciously search together for meaningful and fulfilling contemporary ways to live in this extraordinary world we share.

Engaged in the search for this kind of truth this is why as we gather together each week we light the candle on our communion table and say:

Divinity is present everywhere: the whole world is 
filled with God, but in certain places and at certain 
times we feel a specialty of presence. May this be 
such a place and such a time.

We make this such a place and such a time by consciously entering into this constellation of truth, not only singing our own songs but by actively being open to the songs of our brothers and sisters and to the unexpected, Christ or Thrush like arrival of other songs of God-or-Nature. By so doing we entertain angels unaware (Hebrews 13:2)/

Anyway, in the same way the thrush perched on Venus’ head and gently pushed back at me in her song, all I have tried to do today, perched here on this step and behind this lectern, is sing back to you what I heard in her song which, like Thomas Hardy's “Darkling Thrush”, spoke to me of "Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew and I was unaware."

The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
    The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.



Having mentioned George de Benneville above I went back to look again at the book about him. To my delight and astonishment (though not surprise!) I found the following illustration. I add it here for your delight!

Monday, 11 March 2013

Further Fen Fun

This week I don't have an address to post as in this Sunday was Mothering Sunday and at the service my friend and colleague Claire Henderson Davis preached on the subject of "God as Mother." I'm pleased to say that this address, four others and the five she has recently given in the Memorial Church are in the process of being prepared for publication. When it's ready I promise to let readers of this blog know.

So, instead, here are a few pictures from a cycle ride (last Monday) and then a drive out with Susanna (last Tuesday) out to Wicken Fen. On the Monday I went on the Raleigh Superbe again and took the same route I used a couple of weeks ago. In my bag I carried my well worn copy of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura (translated by the wonderful David R. Slavitt) which proved to be the perfect accompaniment to my cheese rolls and bottle of Boathouse Bitter at the Wicken Fen Cafe (see one of the photos below). On the Tuesday Susanna and I did some garden related things and then took a spin out to the Fen for a gentle walk and cuppa.

Lastly, do check out John Hughes' blog. He's the Warden at Wicken Fen and his blog contains much of interest for those who love the Fen.

Heading towards Reach on the Raleigh Superbe
Drainage ditch on Adventurers' Fen
Reeds on Burwell Lode  
Reeds on Burwell Lode by Cock-up Bridge
Silver Birches in Priory Wood behind Burwell on Weirs Drove 
Drainage Ditch on White Fen
Crow on Baker's Fen looking towards Burwell
Little Fen Drove looking north east to the Lodes Way
Newly cut logs on Wicken Fen
Still life - Apple, Beer, Map and Lucretius, Wicken Fen Cafe
Rookery in the grounds of Bottisham Hall 
Tractor on Burwell Fen
Path, Wicken Fen
Wind pump, Wicken Fen
Kestrel on Wicken Fen
Flooding on Baker's Fen (black and white)
Flooding on Baker's Fen (in colour it almost looked like a seaside scene)
Flooding on Baker's Fen (same picture as above)
Reeds on Monks Lode
Reeds on Monks Lode
Reeds on Monks Lode

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Sandcastle builders and sailors - revisiting Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" and the "Sea of Faith"


Luke 12:54-57

Matthew Arnold - "Dover Beach" (written c. 1851, published 1867).

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

From Peter Thompson's Introduction to "Atheism in Christianity" by Ernst Bloch

These are time when competing Caliphates - both religious and secular - dominate the intellectual and political realms. We are passing through one such era at present, and evidence of this is manifold. The rise of popular and radical Islam on the one hand and the rediscovery of Christian evangelism on the other; the flight into New Age spirituality or New Atheist rationalism; the slow beating pulse of the Church of England, quickened by debates on sexuality and gender; against a background of unbelief, the re-emergence of faith in China, either in the form of traditional Confucianism, Taoism or Buddhism, or the New Christians and the Falun Gong, The list is endless and points to new levels of contradiction and tension in the ideological make-up of the world today. What all of these things show, however, is that religion as both debate and way of life has not crumbled in the face of an apparently inexorable rationalist, scientific, modernising Enlightenment and the globalisation of the market economy, but retains a potency and strength which remains far in excess of its ability to explain.

If the current economic crisis and the profligate years which preceded it and gave rise to it have shown us anything, iit is that the relationship between the social relations of production and the way we understand those relations remain as strained and as inseparable as ever. In the forum of religious belief, therefore, theists and atheists battle it out, each convinced they're on the back foot, each fighting against what they see as a combined tide of muddle-headedness, dogmatism and irrationality, threatening to overwhelm us with theocracies, technocracies, sterile democracies, faithless scientism, value-free liberality and fundamentalist regimes and movements. We seem trapped in a dualistic but essentially static way of thinking about the relationship between religion and science. As Derrida and Vattimo put it, 'We are constantly trying to think the interconnectedness, albeit otherwise, of knowledge and faith, technoscience *and* religious belief, calculation *and* the sacrosanct. In the process, however, we have not ceased to encounter the alliance, holy or not, of the calculable and the incalculable "  


An enduring childhood holiday memory is of my parents, my sister and I arriving at Mundesley beach in Norfolk along with our grandparents. The tide is going out and the golden sand of the beach is slowly being revealed. On its soft, welcoming surface, slowly warming in the sun, hours of fun await us: the playing of French cricket, the building of sandcastles, the playing with model boats and water pistols, the flying of kites, the reading of books, the telling of stories, the eating of Shipham’s fish-paste sandwiches, fruit-cake and cockles, the drinking of tea and, in accordance with a modern cliché born of children’s literature, imbibing lashings of ginger beer. To this day, though one or two things have equalled it, nothing since has ever surpassed the pleasure of those many summer hours spent on Mundesley beach.

But, as we all know, the outgoing tide eventually turns and begins its inexorably return up the shore. By degrees one is forced back up the beach and, as Jimi Hendrix poignantly sung, “castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually.” The sun goes down, it gets chilly and out come our cardigans and jackets. It is inevitable that the ending of such a wonderful day and disappearance of that the wide, sandy expanse which gave us such pleasure was often experienced as a great sadness. There was nothing to do, of course, except to pack everything away, get back in the car and slowly wend our way back to my grandparents bungalow in North Walsham. After a warm shower and tea my sister and I went off to our beds where I curled up with one of the many Beano Annuals that my grandparents kept in the chest of drawers at the end of the bed. Suitably and healthily tired-out, a sense of contentment would slowly return and, like the murmuring of the River Lethe’s, a remembrance of the sea’s song brought on a deep, deep sleep.

I realised that as a child toting a bucket and spade the outgoing tide had been something to be delighted about and the incoming tide was deeply to be regretted. Later, living on the Essex coast and as a budding young sailor and Sea Cadet, this feeling was completely reversed. The incoming tide meant I would soon be able to sail the beautiful and exciting creeks of the Walton Backwaters (the setting for Arthur Ransome's "Secret Water"). The outgoing tide, on other hand, always sent us swiftly homeward to the safety of Kirby Quay or Walton Marina for we were always a little fearful of getting stuck out all night on some muddy saltmarsh until the next tide came in. (The following Youtube video shows a boat following the creeks inland to Kirby Quay. Ah, a truly wonderful memory for me and, I hope a delight for you.)

Together, these experiences taught me about the relative value of tides. I learnt that as the physical reality of the world pushed back at me in different ways it helped show up very different possibilities and this elicited from me different ways of being in the world.

Now when Arnold penned his highly evocative and, for many of us, highly influential, poem "Dover Beach" I do not for one moment believe that he wasn’t himself aware of this and, even if it was not in the forefront of his mind as he wrote this poem, he must have known that using the image of a withdrawing tide would, inevitably, invite readers to imagine it returning. But, to continue using my images it is clear that when Arnold wrote his poem about faith he was writing with the mind-set of a “sailor.” His boat was "faith" and he wote his poem at the ebb tide, just as it is about to turn. Arnold was, of course, living in a time which was beginning to see traditional, cherished religious beliefs and practices loosening their firm hold upon us. Old, comforting certainties were disappearing and he could see that the opportunities to sail on the sea of faith were also going to disappear by degrees. The publication in 1859 of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” eight years after Arnold had written the poem (c. 1851) marks, perhaps, the moment when wider British culture first knowingly heard “the grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back”.

We know that in Victorian Britain there was much regret and anguish at the sea of faith’s withdrawal but, as I have suggested via my own story, with the loss of sailing opportunities there opened up for our culture the possibility of discovering the many delights of the wide open beach and the building of sandcastles. A whole new, exciting and liberating way of being in the world became possible for us, a way of being that has decisively shaped all of us here without exception.

The words "sea of faith" were, of course, most famously used in 1984 as the title of the six-part BBC documentary television series presented by Don Cupitt, the then Dean of Emmanuel College (available on Youtube - here's a link to one section of it. You can find the other sections from here). The programme dealt with the history of Christianity in the modern world and it focussed particularly on how it had responded to the challenges of the natural sciences, atheism and secularisation in general. It was incredibly influential and even led to the foundation of the "Sea of Faith Network" whose current strapline reads "Exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation...". Our church has it's own modest place in the history of this movement as our minister emeritus, Frank Walker, is a friend of Don Cupitt's and early supporter of the network. In our common room Frank has has over the years hosted many, many meetings of the network.

As Cupitt’s documentary revealed, once our culture began to get over the initial sadness of the tide of faith's withdrawal, it began to find much of value on the beach that was exposed. Upon it some truly wonderful sandcastles were built - sandcastles so spectacular that rather too many of us were seduced into thinking that they were now a permanent feature of both the natural universe and the human world. Chief among them were those above whose portals we had written: "Atheism", "Scientism" and "Secularism."

But then came an utterly horrific, iconic moment - 9/11. It did not, itself, mark the moment the tide of the sea of faith turned but, as with the publication of the Origin of Species, it was the moment when most of us realised that the tide most certainly had turned and, whether we liked it or not, that we were going to have to deal with its return.

As Peter Thompson puts it, in this moment of our history:

". . . theists and atheists battle it out, each convinced they're on the back foot, each fighting against what they see as a combined tide of muddle-headedness, dogmatism and irrationality, threatening to overwhelm us with theocracies, technocracies, sterile democracies, faithless scientism, value-free liberality and fundamentalist regimes and movements."

It's not at all a pleasant struggle to behold and, speaking for myself as a minister of religion committed to a certain kind of Enlightenment inspired private religion, it's often a frightening situation in which to to find oneself.

In my own, personal attempts to work through this I’ve often remembered an ancient story from British history about Cnut the Great, or King Canute (c. 985 or 995–1035). The twelfth-century chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, tells us the Cnut once placed his throne on the shoreline and from it commanded the tide to halt so as not to wet his feet and robes. However: "continuing to rise as usual the tide dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: 'Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.'"

Though this story has often been misread as displaying Cnut's hubris the account really displays his wisdom because, by doing this, he was able to show those around him that tides come in and go out regardless of our desires.

As I have already noted, in the matter of the "sea of faith", my life has been shaped decisively by the sea of faith’s withdrawal and our secular culture's recent beach life. I prize highly the open landscape upon which I have freely explored, wholly without formal religious constraints. So, naturally, like the little boy I once was, seeing the sea of faith coming back in makes me feel sad and regretful and, I admit, not a little afraid - I do not yet know what it is going to be like for our culture to have a sea of faith back in. But I think of King Cnut and I think back, too, to my teenage years and my discovery of the delights of sailing. I have in my heart a memory of how I learnt, in time, to conquer some of my fears about an incoming tide and how I found a way to delight in the world's watery ways. Looking at faith coming so strongly back into play in our society I know that, in my own way, I'm going to have to let some cherished sandcastles be washed away and that I’m going to have to learn how to sail once again. To believe it might be otherwise is to fail to heed Cnut’s lesson.

I wish to conclude these personal reflections with a simple point about what I think is the role of a church like this as the sea of faith seems slowly to be returning to our public spaces. Our openness to change means that we, together, can work at becoming a type of amphibian graced with the wisdom of King Cnut, becoming creatures equally at home on the beach of secularism and the sea of faith and able to recognise and celebrate the profound gifts and possibilities offered by them both.

Jesus once asked those around him: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" We might usefully rephrase this to pose a question to ourselves and our wider culture: “You know how to interpret the rising and falling of the tides, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?"

As a church which has consistently valued both faith and reason we can, I believe, play a limited but vital role in helping our own age to interpret the present time with its incoming tide of faith and to judge what might be a right response to this. We can do that by being ourselves a Cnut-like reminder that, as human beings, the sea of faith will forever be coming in and going out just as the beach of secularism will forever be being revealed and obscured. In a community such as ours we can help people learn how to live fruitfully and joyously in both domains, as skilled at building sandcastles on the open beach as they are at sailing on the sea of faith.