Sunday, 28 April 2013

Pinot Noir flavoured ice-cream - a "Sideways" look at our Unitarian, liberal Christian tradition before our AGM

Today is, as you know, our local church’s AGM. On this day we take the time briefly both to review the past year and also to take some opportunity to look towards the future. It can be for us a moment to refocus attention on our basis and core beliefs.

But this can be difficult for us to do with any confidence because, as a leaflet from the 1960s that used to be given out by this church says: “A feature of Unitarianism is that it is hesitant about speaking of its basis and beliefs. It has found that spiritual experience and growing knowledge lead to growth and change in religious outlook, and it therefore claims the right to be tomorrow what it is not today.”

Amen to that say I, and I’m sure many of you will say likewise. However, although openness to change is a generally good thing and certainly central to our liberal religious self-understanding, in order to have meaningful change you first have to be something real and substantive - you cannot only be change! You have to be something that can change. To rewrite an old proverb: “All flux and no substance makes Jack a nonexistent boy.”

So every now and then we have to make some conscious effort to remind ourselves of what we are. When we do this any changes that have occurred to us, and may occur to us in the future, can be understood meaningfully and creatively. What we are looking for in this critical and reflective process is a sense of continuity with the past rather than identity with it. This is not a complex thing to grasp – just think of yourself. My ten-year old self was Andrew Brown and this forty-seven year old man is still Andrew Brown. I am meaningfully continuous with my earlier self but I am not at all identical to it – thank God! My changes over the years mean something because I remain something substantive –  I’m not just all change but an individual human being who incorporates all those changes into a still living life. As with ourselves as individuals so, too, with this church.

But the trouble is we are sometimes tempted to over-emphasise or even fetishise our openness to change and to forget all about our substance. The best illustration of this I know turned up many years ago in an episode of the Simpsons.

Homer and Marge’s children, Bart and Lisa are going to a church fete at which the Revd Lovejoy is to serve ice-cream. Lisa asks: “Ice-cream at church?” Bart immediately adds, “I’m intrigued, yet suspicious.” When they arrive at the stall Lisa looks at all the different ice-creams and says, “Wow, look at all these flavours, black-virgin berry, command-mint, bible-gum . . . “ but the Revd Lovejoy quickly interrupts and says, “Or, if you prefer, we have Unitarian ice-cream” and immediately hands Lisa a bowl. She looks confusedly into it and then back up at Revd Lovejoy and says, “There’s nothing here.” The Revd Lovejoy crosses his arms and simply says, “Exactly.”

It’s a very good joke and every now and then it returns to haunt us. Back in 2005, there was a national flurry of concern in the UK about the implications of this and my own minister Cliff Reed, who was the primary influence upon me becoming a Unitarian and Free Christian minister, addressed the denomination on this matter in a letter to our national periodical, The Inquirer. He wrote:

Fans of “The Simpsons”, TV’s best and most perceptive cartoon, will know that Unitarians get the occasional mention there. It is, perhaps. the only peak-time. mass-audience, non-religious TV programme . . . where the word “Unitarian” ever crops up.
     How other people see us is both interesting and important. What does the empty bowl mean? Is it a Zen thing? ls emptiness the absence of mind-numbing dogma and soul-clogging superstition? Is it openness to truth and enlightenment? That would be a nice interpretation! Exactly how accurate – well, that’s another matter!
     Less comfortable is this. Our bowl is empty because, having discarded our intelligent, rational, humanist, liberal Christian faith, there's nothing left. With the original contents gone, what have we tried in their place? Nihilist post-modernism? Flaky, self-indulgent, New Age “spirituality”? Pick’n’mix eclecticism? But these lack any substance. So does the empty bowl represent spiritual and intellectual bankruptcy?
     That is a bleak view, but as [St] Paul warned: “We are no longer to be children, tossed about by the waves and whirled around by every fresh gust of teaching, dupes of cunning rogues and their deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 42:14). 
     And [what] about [our] children, though we rightly reject ideas of indoctrination, do we give our own youngsters a full bowl on which to build personal faith?

Cliff concluded his letter by asking: “Do we tell [our children] about the riches of our faith? Do we connect them to the roots of our tradition?” And, today, I would add do we, or rather, do I, tell you all enough about the riches of our faith and connect you with the roots of our tradition?

The answer is here, sometimes, yes. (You can find three examples HERE, and HERE, and HERE). But  I feel I do not do this as frequently as I should and I certainly do not do it in any systematic way. At the moment the best current general summary of what we are about is to be found on every order of service which you have in your hands right now. But this document can only hint at our tradition’s deeper, substantive riches.

For the truth is we do have a profoundly rich faith tradition and I’d like to ask you, here and now, how you would like me better to introduce you to it? I have to say that I think sermons are generally not the best place to do this because that would be to turn them into history lectures – but, perhaps, that wouldn’t matter every now and then. Would you like me to write some short pieces for the newsletter or perhaps put on a few evenings a year where I run through the basic heads of the tradition? I could even prepare an online course for you to work through at your own speed?

(Connected with these questions for the moment I have put up the following web page to give people a brief, good, general overall picture of our history It was written by Earl Morse Wilbur and is entitled The Meaning and Lessons of Unitarian History.)

The potential upside of doing this would be that people will come to have a clearer idea of the religious tradition and basic philosophy and theology that makes this liberal church distinctively what it is. Knowing this will help them better to decide the level of commitment and loyalty they may, or may not, wish to make to this small community.

The potential “downside” of being clearer about what this church is “all about” is that it will quickly become obvious that it cannot be all things to all people and that, for all the will in the world, it cannot be a catch all, completely open and empty bowl that can be filled with whatever a person who walks through our doors fancies filling it with. It’s is to discover that there is, in fact, sizeable dollop of ice-cream in our bowl and that it is not orthodox Protestant or Catholic Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Taoist or New-Age flavoured, but distinctively Unitarian and Free Christian flavoured. All the aforementioned flavours have their rightful place on the world’s ice-cream stall and in an individual faith community’s own bowl but they are not Unitarian and Free Christian flavour. I think it is clear that a more accurate description of what our ice-cream contains (the usefulness of which the recent horse-meat scandal has eloquently revealed) will mean that some people will be attracted to try a taste of our flavour but others won’t and some of them may well be repelled by even the mere thought of it. But that’s OK, that’s simply the way the world works and anyway, as I have reminded you only recently, we are clear that one key ingredient that makes up our distinctive flavour includes the deeply held belief that “We need not think alike to love alike.” This is where our liberal spirit is, perhaps, best articulated and displayed.

Now, before I close, I want to say something additional about our flavour that history seems to tell us is likely to remain true. It is that ours is an acquired flavour and the fruit from which it comes is a difficult one to cultivate. It is also true that this fruit is one that has never been suited to mass cultivation and general popular approval. But this is not, necessarily a bad thing and I cite, as an illustration of what I mean via my favourite exchange in the film “Sideways”. Maya and Miles have met on a wine-tasting holiday and this piece of dialogue about Miles’ favourite grape variety, Pinot Noir, marks the real beginning of their love for each other. Miles’ answer is, of course, also a metaphor for the kind of person and relationship he is seeking. The dialogue takes place on a veranda on a hot summer’s night . . .

Maya and Miles
Maya: You know, can I ask you a personal question, Miles?

Miles: Sure.

Maya: Why are you so in to Pinot?

Miles: [laughs softly]

Maya: I mean, it's like a thing with you.

Miles: [continues laughing softly] Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavours, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.

Pinot Noir grapes
The kind of complex flavour our particular liberal Christian tradition represents is a very hard one to achieve and, just like the Pinot Noir grape our fruit needs constant care and attention to achieve it. It, too, seems only able to grow in really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world – like us in this very small church on the corner of a city’s backstreet. It is also true that only the most patient and nurturing of growers can succeed in this and, even then, only those growers who have also really taken the time to understand our tradition’s potential are able to coax it into its fullest expression.

We are those people and so in addition to reminding ourselves to be patient and nurturing we must also make a real effort to understand both our tradition’s history and potential.

Now, I cannot claim that our fruit and it’s flavour is as ancient as the Pinot Noir grape, we are, after all, only some 450 years old. However, I am going to claim that the flavours of our liberal faith remain to me, and I hope to you and to a significant number of others, just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle . . . on the planet.

So, as we enter our AGM and another year of church life please remember that our church does not offer the world merely an empty bowl but actually something substantive, rare and truly wonderful – something which, for rhetorical purposes today, I have called Pinot Noir flavoured ice-cream.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Riprap Quartet playing at the Unitarian Church, Emmanuel Road, Cambridge - Thursday May 2nd @ 8pm and The Spice of Life, Soho, London - Thursday May 9th

I often get told off (rightly I think!) for not letting folk know when I'm playing next - especially when it is in Cambridge, so here's the press release for the next gig . . .

New CD from Riprap Quartet 
released February 5th 2013
on Ampublishing 

Cambridge Unitarian Church
May 2nd, 8 pm
5 Emmanuel Road, Cambridge, CB1 1JW

London CD Launch
The Spice of Life
Thursday, May  9th, 2013, 6-11 pm
6 Moor St, Soho, London W1D 5NA
Tel: 020 7437 7013

Listen on:

Watch on RIPRAP Video EPK: 

Riprap formed eight years ago as a group of like-minded musicians who wanted to explore some less common modes of composing and open-ended improvisation, sometimes working with spoken word in the form of readings with contemporary poets, encompassing the freedom that typified the early period of the original Beats. They take their inspiration from the Beat Poets, with their freewheeling lateral association, Miles Davis and his open-ended forms (which always had a solid street-informed rhythmic drive), and Kerouac’s idea of a ‘Holy Goof’ (spiritual trickster). This has now coalesced into a core quartet: Kevin Flanagan (saxophones), Dave Gordon (piano), Andrew Brown (bass) and Russ Morgan (drums/percussion).

Snow Blue Night explores a number of cross-fusions informed by an admittedly catholic range of tastes. Although purely instrumental on this recording, some of the compositions were originally conceived as commissions to accompany readings by poets such as Ruth Padel, Malcolm Guite, Grevel Lindop and the American alternative poets Gerry Nicosia and Chuck Perkins, whose range of styles demanded a look outside the usual jazz canon. This led to an exploration of sources such as Japanese Gagaku, Rameau, folk tunes and works by the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, to name but a few. The resulting music ranges from burning neo-groove jams and blues to haunting and atmospheric ‘free’ jazz that makes sense, where the musicians solo beautifully and sit in grooves like they’ve found a new place to live.

The group have performed in venues such as the Royal Festival Hall, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge University, Essex University, Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford Civic Theatre, Boxford Jazz Club, Brighton Jazz Club and Peterborough Jazz Club and festivals such as the TS Eliot Festival and John Clare Festival. Their music has been played on the BBC World Service and PBS in the USA. The quartet’s last CD Riprap, explored a series of settings inspired by the work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beat poet Gary Snyder.

For further information, promotional CD's, photographs and interviews please contact: Kevin Flanagan

Riprap Quartet Biography

Kevin Flanagan (soprano and tenor saxophones) comes from Lowell, Mass. USA. After dropping out of high school, he co-founded the group Antares, an improv and jazz-based cooperative which toured New England and the UK in the mid-70's to early 80's. During this period he was also involved in blues and popular music, both performing and recording. He settled in the UK in the mid-80's and worked on the London jazz and pop scene, playing and recording with Ben E. King, B.B.King, Paul Weller, and members of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols and Portishead, as well as various West African High Life and salsa groups. He gradually became primarily involved in jazz, playing with his own group and the Tommy Chase Quartet at festivals in the UK such as Glastonbury, Brecon, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Brighton and festivals in Europe in Milan, Paris, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and the North Sea Jazz Festival.  He spent much of the 90's collaborating with Chris Ingham in FIQ, releasing two highly acclaimed CD's, Zanzibar and Textile Lunch. A graduate of Goldsmiths University, with a post graduate degree in composition from ARU (where he lectures), he later studied composition at the University of Sussex with Martin Butler, and has had works commissioned and performed by orchestras in London and Cambridge.

Dave Gordon (piano) plays both with Riprap and with his own trio, and for him jazz and Baroque music have remained equally irresistible forces. He has played with the Theo Travis Band and the Pete Oxley Band, having performing at Ronnie Scott's and at numerous international jazz festivals, and has released a number of CD's. Dave also works as a solo improviser with the London Contemporary Dance School, as a harpsichordist with the Academy of Ancient Music and other Baroque orchestras and in New Zealand and Australia as a recitalist. As a composer, he writes not only for his trio, but also for BBC Radio 3, and has recorded CD's with his crossover band Respectable Groove and the band Zum. He recently won an AMI award for composing a community opera. Dave is currently also working with Chris Garrick and the singer Jacqui Dankworth." a richly gifted player, with a sparkling style and boundless imagination, able to move from one mode to another with great skill" - Phil Johnson (The Independent).

Andrew Brown (acoustic/electric bass) studied with Tony Hougham (Principle Double Bass of Covent Garden) and went on to play with such American players as Tal Farlow and Peter Erskine, as well as in bands with Pete King, Benny Green, Pete Oxley, Simon Vincent and FIQ with Kevin Flanagan, and Chris Ingham. He is also involved with the contemporary music scene, working with such players as Eddie Prevost and Lol Coxhill and, most recently, in free improvised/electronic trios with the Canadian composer Matt Rogalsky and American reed player Scott Rosenberg. He has worked as a session player in a number of rock bands including a period in Paris with Elise Romane and two years with Steve Harley. He is currently working with Kevin Flanagan’s Riprap Quartet, and Respectable Groove.

Russ Morgan (drums/percussion) studied at the Guildhall School of Music before his "perfect time keeping” and his “ability to tell a story" (so described by Paul Wertico) took him out of school into a varied career. He has worked extensively on the British scene as an accompanist in numerous live gigs and on recordings, and worked and recorded in groups with Simon Vincent, Pete Oxley, Laura Zakian, Kevin Flanagan, Chris Ingham, Tim Whitehead, and Dave Gordon.  Russ is also an accomplished teacher of Tai Chi and a trained Accupuncturist.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Religion after the death of God - a lunchtime talk and discussion at Hills Road Sixth Form College

What follows is the text I used to introduce a very lively student lunchtime discussion held today at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, UK. My thanks to them for inviting me to talk. I enjoyed trying to answer the many very well put questions that the students asked.

Religion after the death of God

In order to make sure our conversation together begins in the right place I need to begin by telling you a very short and simplified version of a complex story that lies at the heart of our culture. I will read from this text just to keep this bit short and tight. Once I’ve done I hand over to you – and please ask me what you like. All I will say here is that my answers to you will be made, not to persuade you I’m right but, instead, simply to introduce you to an important, if not very well known, strand of contemporary theology. 

Once upon a time God was the kind of God spoken about in the stories we find in the Torah, the first five books of Moses. There God is often presented as if he (and it is a he) were a literal being. The Old Testament - the Jewish Scriptures - is a remarkable collection of books that, as a whole, is always undercutting this picture but, nevertheless, it retains in many of its stories this early conception of a god who is a being somewhat like us but, of course, infinitely more powerful.

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

Turning then, for a moment to Greece we can see that at least from Plato (424/423 BC–348/347BC) onwards philosophers have proposed various ideas of a transcendent supreme being who was the ground of existence and intelligibility of the world. In the works of St. Augustine (354–430) this Greek metaphysical conception of god became identified with the creator God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This ensured that we inherited, not a conception of a literal providential being called God, but rather a Christianised version of the Platonic idea in which ultimate reality is that of the ideal Forms. God was the Good, the True, the Beautiful, the world’s ultimate ground, structure, purpose and meaning.

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

In his work we see our culture begin to develop the feeling that God and the Forms were “known” to us only as representations upon our own ego-consciousness. To help grasp this idea, think of a seal and sealing wax. Descartes is saying we only know the seal (God) is real because of the impression it makes upon us (the wax). However, although we have this impression of God we still can’t produce the seal itself (God) in a way that we can grab hold of the little metal seal that sat upon Descartes’ desk. God was not like that little seal at all. So, if all we could only know for sure “Cogito ergo sum” and, therefore only our own *representations* of reality, how could we know for sure that they were true *representations* of reality?

As a culture we were beginning to discover, rather disturbingly, that the once secure ground of God and the Forms was rapidly disappearing from under our feet.

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

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

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann).

Lastly, for our purposes today, there comes on to the scene Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). The important thing to know about him in this context is that he was the first philosopher to notice what he called the ontological difference - that there is a difference between Being and beings. He pointed out that although, on the one hand, we (seem to) know a lot about beings (and up until this point in our history remember God had been one - the supreme being), on the other hand, we know very little about Being.

One very simple way of seeing the difference between beings and Being is to consider a genus. A genus is, of course, a class, kind, or group marked by common characteristics or by one common characteristic. So we can explain, with real clarity and definiteness, the genus animal by pointing to, say, an ox or a donkey. Once I’ve done this for someone they’ll be able to go out into the world and recognise all beings that are oxes and donkeys whenever they see them, even when there are quite marked differences in, say, colour and size.

However, to explain the concept of Being it doesn’t help much to point to an ox or donkey and say “Look, that is what I mean by is (to be)”. This simple but striking example reveals actually how very mysterious to us is the most basic thing in our world - that things are, that there is anything at all. (This example is Magda King's and can be found in her "A Guide to Heidegger's Being and Time".)

Now the theological position I inhabit takes Nietzsche and Heidegger’s insights very seriously and a whole tradition of thinking has developed from it (see select bibliography below). It thinks our old idea of God is, indeed, dead and that, when we start thinking about what we might mean today when we use the word God or wish to talk about the divine and the holy and the sacred, we need to stop thinking about a being, a supreme being, and start to think about Being which mysteriously allows all things to be - you, me, donkeys, oxes, schools, desks, everything.

So, to draw to a close: To be a theist is to believe a supreme being exists. To be an a-theist is not to believe that such a being exists. I don’t believe in such a being and this makes me an atheist. However, the story I have just told is one that has been played out through the centuries within a culture primarily (but not exclusively) shaped by the Christian story. I am wholly a product of this culture and this makes me a kind of Christian. But the two together makes me, not just any kind of atheist nor just any kind of Christian but, quite simply, a Christian atheist. I find, as the contemporary philosopher Mark Wrathall’s says, that:

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

Right, that’s my introduction done and so now, as exam papers love to say: “Discuss.”

Short Bibliography 

Thomas J. J. Altizer: The New Gospel of Christian Atheism (Davies Group Publishers, 2002) - First version of text published in 1966

Thomas J. J. Altizer, William Hamilton: Radical theology and the death of God (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966)

Stephen Batchelor: Buddhism without Beliefs (Riverhead Books 1998)

Stephen Batchelor: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (Random House, 2010)

Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity: the religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom (Verso Press, 2009)

John D. Caputo: The Weakness of God - A Theology of the Event (Indiana University Press, 2006)

John D. Caputo: What would Jesus deconstruct? (Baker Academic 2007)

Don Cupitt: Taking Leave of God (SCM, 1980)

Don Cupitt: The Sea of Faith (BBC Books, 1984)

James C. Edwards: The Plain Sense of Things - The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).

Charley D. Hardwick: Events of Grace: Naturalism, existentialism and theology (Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Klaas Hendrikse, Dutch Protestant minister, who holds a similar position to my own:

Richard Holloway: Doubts and Loves: What is left of Christianity (Canongate Books 2003)

Richard Holloway: Looking into the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning (Canongate Books 2003)

Brian Mountford: Christian Atheist: Belonging Without Believing (John Hunt Publishing, 2011)

John F. Post: The Faces of Existence - An essay in Nonreductive Metaphysics (Cornell University Press, 1987)

John Robinson: Honest to God (SCM Press, 1963)

Gabriel Vahanian: The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era (New York, George Braziller, 1961)

Gianni Vattimo: After Christianity (Columbia University Press, 2002)

Gianni Vattimo: Belief (Polity Press, 1999)

Gianni Vattimo, John D. Caputo: After the Death of God (Columbia University Press, 2010)

Gianni Vattimo, René Girard: Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith (Columbia University Press, 2010)

Gianni Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovatti (eds): Weak Thought (SUNY Press 2012)

Mark A. Wrathall (ed): Religion After Metaphysics (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Julian Young: The death of God and the meaning of life (Routledge, 2003)

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The story of a man who nearly became a lumberjack - the necessary fictions by which we live

Copperas Woods
READINGS: John 14:1-14 - I am the way, the truth, the life

A Walk by Gary Snyder

Sunday the only day we don't work:
Mules farting around the meadow,
                            Murphy fishing,
The tent flaps in the warm
Early sun: I've eaten breakfast and I'll
                              Take a walk
To Benson Lake. Packed a lunch,
Goodbye. Hopping on creekbed boulders
Up the rock throat three miles
                              Puite Creek –
In steep gorge glacier-slick rattlesnake country
Jump, land by a pool, trout skitter,
The clear sky. Deer tracks.
Bad place by a falls, boulders big as houses,
Lunch tied to belt,
I stemmed up a crack and almost fell
But rolled out safe on a ledge
                              and ambled on.
Quail chicks freeze underfoot, color of stone
Then run cheep! away, hen quail fussing.
Craggy west end of Benson Lake – after edging
Past dark creek pools on a long white slope –
Lookt down in the ice-black lake
                             lined with cliff
From far above: deep shimmering trout.
A lone duck in a gunsightpass
                             steep side hill
Through slide-aspen and talus, to the east end,
Down to grass, wading a wide smooth stream
Into camp. At last.
            By the rusty three-year-
Ago left-behind cookstove
Of the old trail crew,
Stoppt and swam and ate my lunch.


One of the things that can all too easily cripple the liberal religious mind is when it becomes obsessed with the idea that, if only we could get back to an “original” story, we would have secure access to something approaching the (capital T) “Truth.” This obsession may be summed up as “the earlier, the more authentic, the truer.” (In my “Strawberry Fields Forever” sermon  couple of years ago I took a look at this question in another way.)

For our liberal Christian tradition this obsession has often centred particularly on the person of Jesus. The fantasy has been that if only we could only get behind all the fiction about him that we know is found in the gospel stories then we would be able to access the authentic, True story about Jesus and, in consequence, we would be enabled to make a rational and, therefore, truly trustworthy decision about whether we should or should not be prepared to make a life-long commitment to living by his example and teaching. Whenever this approach has been followed it has, of course, for the most part been taken as a gamble that Jesus WAS a truly great man and that his full and real greatness WOULD be revealed most perfectly once we striped away all the dogma and rituals that have accrued around his name and also all the imaginative fiction that the gospels accounts of Jesus' life clearly contain.

However, centuries of attempting to do this stripping away has shown that we cannot do it with any assurance we have been successful and that the picture of Jesus we may have ended up with is not simply another interpretation of Jesus. By the mid twentieth-century we were forced to acknowledge that our pictures of Jesus are always interpretations. In other words we have to rest content with the realisation that these interpretations began, not just with gospel writers who had to make sense of the stories they were told about Jesus, but with those who actually heard Jesus and had to interpret for themselves what his stories meant.

But for many liberals this admission means that, because we know our inherited story of Jesus (in the gospels) is not historically true, as a foundational story actually to live by it must, therefore, be abandoned for something more fully known and secure. But to reason this way seems to me to be the height of folly. Clearly one must be free to choose not to follow Jesus and to refuse to take him as your primary, human, exemplar but to make this choice on the basis that the gospels contain so much that is fictional or interpretation should not be one of them. The substance of this address is a personal story which, I hope can help to illustrate how fictions are both necessary and appropriately able to fill a whole life with authentic passion and meaning for these are stories which get us going in the world.

As you know my father has been very seriously ill in hospital and I've recently spent a few days staying with mum while we visited him. I'm glad to say that he has significantly improved since then and is making some good progress. However, a very serious illness such as this inevitably encouraged me to reflect back on my relationship with my father and, of course, to have a few conversations with him (and mum) about life, the universe and everything.

One story dad told me when I was a teenager, about which I wanted to talk with both of them because it was so important to me, concerned the period immediately after dad had finished his National Service with the RAF. He and a mate, Reg simply couldn't settle back down into civy-street so, together, they concocted a plan to become lumberjacks in Canada. It appears that they got as far as visiting the Canadian Embassy to inquire about just what exactly they needed to do. However, other events intervened (not least of all in the form of the lady who was to become his wife and my mother) my dad and his mate stayed in Britain, and both of them ended up working in the insurance broking business for the rest of their working lives.

Gary Snyder
Now dad told me this story at a time when I had become passionately interested in jazz and also the writers and poets who contributed to, or were actually involved in, the San Francisco Renaissance of the late 1940s and 50s - among them Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Important tropes in many of their writings was the "wild" and also the "woods". Indeed, one of my particular favourites, Gary Snyder, wrote extensively about his time in the woods as a lumberjack, trail-cutter and fire watcher.

Their's was a lifestyle and set of values to which I was, and still am, very attracted to, and this way of being in the world seemed to me to run counter to the kind of life that would be lead by an insurance broker - a profession into which I was being encouraged to consider going. (Although as some of you will know Wallace Stevens' life goes someway to challenging this idea.)

But, given my passion for jazz and poetry, at the time I could not but read my dad's story as an expression of veiled regret and, by extension, I took him as subliminally saying to me that I should risk following my dreams so I wouldn't, like him, get "trapped" for life in insurance-broking. I took his message to heart and leapt, feet first, into a wildly bohemian world. I succeeded in becoming a jazz musician and the first day job I took after leaving school to support me in this apparently lunatic project was to work for a pittance in an Arts Council funded poetry book shop in Colchester Arts Centre with the wonderful poet and story-teller John Row. A poet who shared the same literary inspirations as me.

My job interview consisted of him reading out loud Allen Ginsbergs' poem "Howl" which he concluded with a question: "So, what d'ya think of that?" I replied "Fucking, amazing!" To which he responded: “You've got the job.” And so began a wonderful three and a half years of taking our bookshop to poetry festivals, tree fairs and arts centres both here and in Western and Eastern Europe.

And so, in one way or another, it has carried on and, to this day, I've never had a proper job. One of the high points for me in the story so far was getting the chance to collaborate - albeit only via email and CD - with one of the San Francisco poets who had so inspired me as a youngster, Gary Snyder, in the making of  a CD of pieces setting some of his poetry. I contributed one composition to this project - a setting of the poem you heard earlier about what he did on one of his days-off whilst working as a lumberjack. Why I chose this poem should by now be clear. (For those of you with Spotify click on this link to hear the full track).

With my lumberjack jacket in Copperas Woods
Now my folks place on the Essex coast is very, very close to the River Stour (John Constable's river) and between their house and the shoreline is the wonderful Copperas Wood - a still working coppice wood which everywhere shows signs of the lumber trade. Every morning and evening after mum and I had visited dad in hospital I'd go for a long walk there to clear my head and to think. Now quite by chance (or was it quite so by chance?) I had taken with me my authentic American black and red lumber-jacket. Walking in the woods so attired and thinking about dad the story I have just told you, naturally, came flooding back into my imagination.

On one bus journey into hospital I asked mum about it. It turned out that I had remembered the basic facts perfectly correctly but what I had got wrong was that dad had, in truth, had no regrets at all about not becoming a lumber-jack. Being in insurance suited him just fine. In addition to being a good and socially useful thing in which to involve oneself it was a secure job that enabled him to get married to mum, buy a house and a car, have two kids - my sister and me - and always adequately to provide for us. It also allowed him to pay into a good pension scheme and to have a good, comfortable and enjoyable retirement. For all these things I am infinitely grateful.

During my walks it became abundantly clear to me that my father's story was, from his point of view, not told as an expression of veiled regret nor a piece of disguised encouragement to risk following my crazy dreams. Far from it! My antics, though I was always lovingly supported through them, were the cause of more worry and puzzlement to him than they were occasions of unalloyed delight and excitement. From his point of view the story was a simple recounting of something he and a mate had once considered doing. It was most certainly not central to his life and nor was it defining or pivotal for him in any way. My conversation with mum had stripped away my interpretation of his story and, if you cast you mind back to what I said at the beginning of this address, it was tempting to say that I was closer to a more authentic, truer version of the story.

But this raises a question - because I have lived by a very different interpretation of my dad's tale - one which helped powerfully energise and inspire me to leap fully into a bohemian life in the world of jazz and poetry - does this mean I have been living a lie and that I must now tear up my version of the story as false and untrue?

I don't think so at all. You see, all the stories we really live by are never only made up of simple, authentic, originary facts because stories - even the most factually based ones - will constantly be being told and re-told, heard and re-heard, received and re-received, interpreted and re-interpreted. However, it will forever be true that the fashion in which I first heard, received and interpreted my dad's tale gave me a meaningful and legitimate way to proceed, a truth to follow and a life to lead and I came by these things by no other way than through my father. For giving me a story that was capable of bearing this interpretation I am also profoundly grateful.

Now, as a particular Unitarian and Free Christian community the way we have received the story about Jesus is not going to be very different from the way I received my dad's tale. It's clearly going to be full of interpretations and emphases that Jesus himself almost certainly never intended to give. But, even so, it remains legitimate for us to say that in our interpretations of the story gave us a meaningful way to proceed, a truth to follow and a life to lead and that we came to these things by no other way than through Jesus.

To say, either as individuals or as a church tradition, that Jesus (or rather the story about Jesus) forms for us our primary way, truth and life is to say no more, nor any less, that what I am saying when I tell you that my dad, in his story, has been for me the primary, way, truth, life. These stories are vital to us and remain so even when later on we realise (for whatever reason) that they contain much that we call fiction. Let us not fear the fictitious story rather let us learn to judge our stories by their fruits.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

In memoriam Kevin Cribb (1928–2013) - A newly built glider's wing and the graceful, sweeping fresh-cut tail of a letter Y

Kevin Cribb at work
Opening Words

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.

In memoriam Kevin Cribb 

The true artist does not merely manufacture a piece of work instead they understand their natural materials so well that they are able to bring something forth from those materials that is unique and appropriate to them. Years of experience helps the artist see, in a way that many of us often cannot, the unique possibilities lying within the particular materials in front of them and their skill and love is able to bring forth a hitherto hidden, appropriate possibility into our world. When we look at such an artist's work we are, rightly, amazed and full of wonder that such a thing was, indeed, is possible to bring forth. I experienced this amazement and wonder in connection with Kevin's work twice in quick succession when, in the summer of 2000 just after I had just become the minister of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church in Cambridge I went over to visit Kevin and his wife Barbara.

The first experience will, given his profession as a master letterer and stone carver, perhaps be a surprise to some of you. When I arrived, I found Kevin working in the little hut right outside the back door. As he turned around to say hello I could see behind him the large, graceful wing of a beautiful model glider. Like most boys as a child I had dabbled in model-making but my own efforts had extended no further than one, only half-successful, attempt to build my own glider. Consequently, I knew just enough about model-making to know how hard it was to do well. When he handed me the model I could see clearly just how well Kevin had made it. The art of turning heavier than air wood, metal, paper and canvas into something that could fly with such natural ease is a good example of how, as an artist, Kevin understood his materials so well that he was able to bring something forth from them that, even as it was astonishing it was also seen to be entirely appropriate to them.

Inscription for the Cambridge Memorial (Unitarian) Church
Lettered by Kevin Cribb and cut by his son, Noel.
As the three of us sat down to drink tea in the sunny garden the conversation stayed with gliders for a while but both Kevin and Barbara are interested in and knowledgeable about so many things that this did not for long remain the subject of our conversation. Naturally, the subject of the arts quickly came to the fore and I began to discover their shared passion and skill in this domain. When I found out that Kevin was a letterer and stone carver whose lineage stretched back to the Gill Workshop and on into the Kindersley Workshop I could barely suppress my delight. One of my own heroes was the poet and artist David Jones who had a particular passion for painting letters and who had also been associated with the Gill Workshop. I was so enamoured by Jones's work that in my twenties I had also been tempted to try my hand at lettering though, alas, I had had as much (or little!) success as I had in my glider-building endeavours. But once again I knew just enough about it to know how hard it was to do well. After finishing our tea I was invited into Kevin's workshop and then into Kevin and Barbara's lovely home to look at some examples of his work. It quickly became apparent that Kevin was clearly someone who knew, really knew, what he was doing – a master of his art.

The art of bringing forth from the surface of otherwise silent stone or wood a text which was capable of speaking with such clarity and grace was for me the second example of how, as an artist, Kevin understood his materials so well that he was able to bring something forth from them that was unique and appropriate to them but which was also astonishing.

At the beginning I said that "Every true artist does not simply make things happen rather they are able to bring something forth."  So far I have been talking about bringing something forth from materials like wood and stone but Kevin was also able to bring forth something from more animated matter – namely ourselves. Because he was able, himself, to continue to delight in his materials and his life and work this helped him to pass on that same delight to others. Even though one might never share the particular skill and knowledge Kevin had, he always seemed able to share with me the sheer delight of the flying glider and the wonderful letterforms and text which flew off the stone's surface, into my eyes and thence into my imagination and heart. I found, again and again, that to hang out with Kevin was once again to become a young boy and, many times, I found myself simply laughing with joy at the beautiful, curving lines of a newly built glider's wing or the graceful, sweeping fresh-cut tail of a letter Y.

It was this extraordinary, life-enhancing, ability for wonder and delight that I shall forever treasure and this seems to me to be something that will never be wholly lost to Kevin's beloved family nor to us, his friends.

At a particularly difficult time in the family's life, following the death of Kevin and Barbara's son Joe, I read for them in this parish church (All Saints, Haslingfield) some words by the writer and philosopher George Santayana. They were appropriate then and I feel they are especially appropriate now for Kevin. With them I will conclude.

Santayana said:

"When a man's life is over, it remains true that he has lived; it remains true that he has been one sort of man and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history that bit has its unfading colour and its perpetual function and effect. A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him, and knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the movement of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is a part forever in the infinite context of [existence]."

Requiescat in pace. Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Eternal God,
giver of life and death,
accept our deep gratitude
for the life of Kevin.

Words cannot express all that we feel,
all that we would like to say.
Help us to know that silence
is sometimes more eloquent and true.

And so, we rest now in quietness,
together in remembrance,
alone with our memories . . .

Silence . . .

. . . Thank-you for a life well lived,
thank-you for work done, things created,
for love given and received.

Thank you also for the healing of grief.
May those who bear its burden today
feel their spirits rise tomorrow
with thanksgiving.

This we ask in the spirit of Jesus our brother,
who trod the way before us. Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Prayer for Peace

O Loving God, spirit of hope and peace,
Lead us from death to life, from falsehood to truth.
Lead us from despair to hope, from fear to trust.
Lead us from hate to love, from war to peace.
Let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.
Peace, Peace, Peace.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Edict of Torda, Francis David, Arne Naess and a distinctive way to do liberal religion (far more than just a history lesson . . .)

Revd Pap Maria
On Friday Andrew Bethune (the Vice-Chair of the Memorial Church) and I went to Nottingham for the day to our family of churches' General Assembly. One of the people with whom I met for the first time in a few years was the Revd Pap Maria a minister of the Hungarian Unitarian Church (HUC). Maria and I had studied together at Oxford in 1999 and she also came to stay for a while with Susanna and me at our home in Suffolk during the long vacation. This time together provided us with plenty of opportunity both to get to know each other very well at a personal level and to engage in some in-depth theological conversations especially relating to the contemporary challenges facing our respective communities. It was in conversation with Maria in Oxford all those years ago that I began to be able to articulate the basic stance I offer in this address and for her wisdom insights in this area I am profoundly grateful. On Friday, as we said goodbye to each other, with typical Hungarian generosity, she gave me a present for Susanna and also one for me. Susanna can show you her's a little later on but mine was the lovely copy of the Edict of Torda which reads as follows:

His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he, together with his realm, legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.

King János Zsigmond Zápolya of Hungary
Torda, January, 1568.

Plaque in the Cambridge Church memorial garden
This document was primarily the work of the HUC's first Bishop, Ferenc Dávid (c.1510–1579) (Francis David). As you know every one of our orders of service and our memorial garden is graced with his words that "We need not think alike to love alike." The HUC primarily gathered around Francis David's deeply held belief that God was One and that Jesus was human. But this was, and is not, simply to say that Jesus was *just* human for, as their current catechism says, when as a community they say they "believe in Jesus" these words express their "conviction that Jesus is the greatest child and prophet of God, and his teaching is the surest way by which we can come to a real knowledge of God." Following Jesus in this fashion they felt they had, and still have, a reliable guide to how they should behave in the world. One of the key behaviours they feel they have learnt from Jesus is that "We need not think alike to love alike." The foremost example of this teaching is, of course, found in Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan which we heard earlier. Here's how they currently sum up this insight:

"The very essence of Unitarianism is religious tolerance and a consistently firm attitude in support of liberty of conscience. Francis David constantly emphasized that religion must be free, that in question of faith there is no place for compulsion and that the spreading the Gospel (God's words) requires no weapons or violence, because Faith is the gift of God. In other words, Unitarianism is inseparably bound up with freedom of conscience and faith. There is no greater mindlessness and absurdity than to force conscience and the spirit with external power, when only their creator has authority over them."

But it is important to understand that this openness and tolerance of difference arise from a community that most certainly did, and still does, "think alike". As you have just heard they have a catechism, the contents of which their children must learn before confirmation and their first communion. We need, therefore, to understand how it is possible, even though as a community they "think alike" they were and are able understand to articulate so strongly how and why they are absolutely committed to the idea that "we need not think alike to love alike." A misunderstanding of this dynamic between thinking alike and not needing to think alike lies at the heart of so much of the damaging confusion that exists in so many of our own contemporary British Unitarian and Free Christian communities. So what's going on here?

Well, the best illustration of this dynamic at work I know of is to be found in the Deep Ecology Movement. Deep Ecology is "a contemporary ecological philosophy distinguished by its advocacy of the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs." One of its founders was the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912–2009) who formulated a diagram which showed how the Deep Ecology movement (which was made up of many people with a huge variety of beliefs) could meaningfully act together.

(Those of you who have attended the Wednesday Evening Conversations and or other informal meetings down the pub will know I often draw this diagram to illustrate some point or another. To the right is my pub sketch - just click on it to enlarge or right click to download the image. Being able to refer to it as you go along will help what follows make sense!)

So let's start at the bottom with level 1. Here you can see just a few of the perhaps almost countless religious and philosophical positions and communities that exist in the world. Although many of them will overlap and interpenetrate with each other it is vital to see that none of them can be absolutely reduced to or completely comprehended by any other. For example, it should be clear that you cannot reduce Islam to Christianity nor vice versa. At this level there is a great deal of disagreement.

Let's move up to level 2. Despite these fundamental differences we are all aware that these very different groups are capable of articulating ideas that can begin to show up as forming the basis for "common platforms." Notable examples of these include, the United Nations, Hans Küng's "Global Ethic", Karen Armstrong's "Charter for Compassion", Médecins Sans Frontières, Greenpeace, our secular democracies, the National Health Service and many others. But, for the purposes of this address, I'll stick to a fictional ecological example, say the protecting of "Foresty Forest". Let's also say that this fictional forest lies at the heart of a wider civic community made up of a variety of religious and secular groups all of whom in some key areas think very differently to each other. However, despite these fundamental, irreducible level 1 differences, many of the groups in this wider community all begin to articulate the desire to save "Foresty Forest" from being cut down and redeveloped and so a common platform develops "Save Foresty Forest." At level 2 there is, of course, a great deal of agreement.

Let's now move to level 3. Here the various groups involved in the common platform now have to sit down to discuss how best to proceed. Each group, rooted in and acting out of their own fundamental beliefs, will have developed, often over centuries, certain deeply held norms and values which help guide them in engaging in appropriate "right" actions. Let's now say that one group decides to suggest that the best way to stop "Foresty Forest" being cut down is to spike the trees. Tree-spiking is when you drive into the trunk of a tree metal, or mostly ceramic, spikes. This doesn't harm the tree itself but it does do two other things. One, for obvious reasons, it instantly reduces the commercial value of the timber and, two, it wrecks any chainsaw that happens to strike a spike. The problem with this second consequence is that a violently disintegrating chainsaw can cause serious injury to the operator. Naturally because of this there are many philosophies and religious positions whose norms and values will rule tree-spiking out of court. At level 3 there is often, as with level 1, a lot of disagreement here and you can easily imagine the kind of heated and difficult conversations that might follow the tabling of this proposal. However, here, let's simply say that the majority decide that tree-spiking is the way to go even though a couple of groups feel they have to resign from the common-platform.

So now we move to level 4. Action. The trees are spiked and . . . well you can imagine the various scenarios that could follow including success with no injury, success but with an injured or killed chainsaw operator, failure with or without injury and a variety of other more complex outcomes.

The point is that once the action has been derived via a journey from core beliefs, through common-platforms, through an intense discussion concerning norms and values, the consequences of the action demand a further process of philosophical and theological reflection by going back down through the levels (see arrow on right of diagram). What ever the final outcome every group involved has to ascertain whether the action upheld their norms and values, was true to the aim of the common-platform and, lastly, whether it was consistent with their core beliefs and principles? During every journey through this process some change within a group nearly always occurs as it becomes clear that some ideas need to be held more firmly, some more loosely, whilst some may need to be modified or more subtly nuanced, and so on.

But when this process is working at its best it does not result in the reduction of one set of fundamental religious or philosophical beliefs to another. Rather, firstly, it helps those different groups better to work together at the level of common platforms. Secondly, this better, practical working relationship (i.e. which is a kind of "loving alike"), has the beneficial side-effect of helping these very different groups sit better with their basic differences and disagreements (i.e. it helps a group see,say and mean that "we need not think alike to love alike").

One particular advantage of this approach is that, to use what is I hope an appropriate parallel, it keeps the genetic pool of human thought and action healthily large - different and often helpful perspectives, as well as subtle different nuances of meanings, are kept alive and, therefore, at least potentially accessible to human kind.

The point of all this is that it helps all level 1 communities (whether big or small) see that they most effectively express their liberalism by committing to common platforms and to a public secular space in which these shared platforms can be articulated and acted upon. This means that their commitment to a liberal society doesn't require them to be excessively internally plural and open themselves to every kind of belief and philosophical position. This means - and I want to shout this out loud to my own group of liberal churches:


The Hungarian Unitarian Church is a perfect example of an historic liberal church that knows this truth deeply - it is clearly Unitarian Christian and nothing else yet it consistently articulates a coherent religious liberalism. This is something that I am profoundly grateful to Maria for showing me. (Please click here to read Maria speak herself on a connected topic.)

But, for all our deep connections with the Hungarian Unitarian Church we at the Memorial Church are not exactly what they are - we have a very different history and culture. But we do, of course have our own core liberal Christian identity found, in summary, in the texts contained in our order of service. But it's a stand which I, and our minister emeritus Frank Walker, think is perhaps best and most fully expressed in John F. Hayward's 1962 (alas out-of-print) book "Existentialism and Religious Liberalism".

But any religious or philosophical community goes seriously wrong whenever it seeks - whether consciously or not - to colonise level 2 and pretend it is *itself* the common platform. There are countless historical examples of such attempts from obviously illiberal positions - for example Nazism, Stalinism, neo-liberalism, various theocracies and many others. But it is often forgotten that liberal religion often sins greatly in this regard. Here is how a misreading of Francis David's words can contribute to this.

Whenever a *liberal* religious group starts to think that the phrase "we need not think alike to love alike" refers not only to the wider, secular context but to itself as being a perfect model and precursor of an ideal universal inclusive, highly pluralistic common platform, then that community very quickly begins to lose its own coherence and strength. It very quickly finds that it can no longer agree on what are its shared rituals nor  what is its shared religious, moral, ethical language, its shared disciplines, norms and values. Consequently, it is no longer able to bring to the common table of secular society its own distinctive, nuanced ideas, positions or insights that can contribute creatively to a healthily wide human gene-pool. Neither can it any longer dialogue meaningfully with another group because it can no longer properly recognise, nor can it deal creatively and life-enhancingly with, real human differences of belief and praxis - of which there are many. All this may be summed up in the wonderful joke sometimes told about us. It goes like this: "Did you ever hear the one about the Unitarian who tried to convert the Native American Indians to Unitarianism by dancing Native American dances?"

The plain truth of the matter is that to be an effective liberal religious community we have to see that we must not be seduced into thinking we can be ourselves the common platform. It is vital to be clear that the project of liberalism must always be a highly plural and collaborative one in which no single group is ever allowed to dominate and colonise level 2.

We have to see that we cannot (nor need not) be all things to all people for us to remain a liberal religious community - this is something the Hungarian Unitarian Church eloquently shows us.

So let us, like them, confidently embrace our own core tradition, be content to recognise our limits and take our distinctive place down at level 1. And then? Well, then it's all about constant collaboration with others who do not think like us so that together we can show the world, in countless common platforms, the truth that "we need not think alike to love alike."

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Walking with Henry David Thoreau in mind and a "prayer" of Heidegger's in my heart

Once again this week I was staying at my parents' house in Ramsey, Essex as my father is seriously ill in hospital. Such times are, for every family, difficult. Every person deals with this differently but I deal with them best by walking or cycling. As I mentioned in a post from last week my folks live very close to the River Stour and so every morning and evening, before and after my mum, sister, niece and I visited dad, I went for a walk in Copperas Wood. Walking in a wood is a timeless activity - by which I mean for the most part you would not be able to distinguish any difference between the walk you were currently making and a walk made at almost any previous time (except of course differences in season). In my own imagination the paradigmatic walker in woods was Henry David Thoreau who lived and worked during the early days of photography. Thanks to modern technology, today one can reproduce (rather ironically) old photographic techniques with relative ease and, what with Thoreau very much in my mind, I came home one evening and processed a few pictures from the morning walk in homage to that early period of photography. It was at one level, perhaps, a pointless exercise but the walk was wonderfully restorative and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing it reflected back to me in a way that seemed viscerally to connect me to the times of dear HDT. Copperas Wood is, of course, not Walden Wood but, if Walden is understood not as a place but more of a state of mind, then maybe it is. Anyway the walking, thinking and the taking of photographs all helped me get through those days with a measure of Epicurean ataraxia. Below are some of those photos.

Also in my heart whilst walking in the woods was what can only be described as some prayer-like words of Heidegger's which, over the past couple of months, have been of increasing help to me:

"May world in its worlding be the nearest of all nearing that nears, as it brings the truth of Being near to [our] essence, and so gives [us] to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own." 

(From the essay The Turning in The Question Concerning Technology p. 49)

And, lastly, a faux-Cyanotype of some very late-appearing wood anemones (anemone nemorosa)

Monday, 8 April 2013

The blossoming forth of the World Bud

As a minister of religion - albeit far from a conventionally religious one - one of the most pressing questions I spend my time thinking about and trying to address is the cultural phenomenon which has come to be called the "disenchantment of the world" (Weber). It was so-called because as our culture has developed over the last couple of hundred years the gods have, quite simply, fled from us and today no god, visibly and unequivocally, is able to gather us and all things to him or himself and, by such a gathering, dispose both our collective and individual histories (cf. Heidegger, What is the Poet For?). Another way of expressing this disenchantment is to say that, collectively, we have lost the sense of the holy in general and that we no longer respond to nature as being, itself, a sacred place.

However, one of the puzzles of this phenomenon is that, despite this disenchantment and the fleeing of the gods, within our contemporary culture the names of our divinities are still very much known to us because they are preserved in our heritage. Some of these preserved names are today being used in all kinds of ways by an extraordinary variety of religious groups ranging from monotheistic fundamentalists to poly-theistic neo-pagans and new-agers but, despite this, the fact remains that for our culture *as a whole*, because our loss of a shared sense of the holy and sacred, the bearers of these divine names are for the most part 'absent.' In short, we may say that for us these names have lost their 'radiance' and their ability to shine. As Julian Young puts it is not that our culture lacks holy *names* but rather it lacks *holy* names.

Today, we see that many people around the world think it is possible to re-enchant our world by forcing the gods back to the centre of our culture by human will-power and/or legislation alone. But, to my mind, this is a project which is going to end very badly indeed because, for the most part, it isn't seeking to put the *holy* back into our contemporary culture but only one or another *name* for the holy. This approach will ensure that we won't end up with real meaningful, creative, life-enhancing living gods at the centre of our collective culture but instead only dead names or idols in whose name some profoundly totalitarian religious ideologies can be articulated.

But there are others, sensitive to the creative, life-enhancing possibilities that were once found in our formal religions who have begun to understand that genuinely to re-enchant our culture in a way appropriate to our own age we require a much gentler, more irenical approach to the matter.

But before we go on we need to be clear that there is no straightforward way simply to invite the gods back to dwell among us. After all you can't just sit down and write them a letter, nip down to the local Post Office (if you still have one), and send it to some known specific geographical address, say, No. 1 Olympian Heights with a request to RSVP (répondez s'il vous plaît). Neither can you telephone or Skype the gods nor pen them a quick email, post something on Facebook, or sign-up to Friends Reunited. So how on earth do you invite the gods back?

Well, many of us feel that at least in what consists the first step is clear - the gods must first be given some space to return. After all, there is little point in inviting any kind guest to come and stay with you if you don't first prepare a room in which they can dwell among you and also make an extra place at the dinner-table so they are able to eat and converse with you.

So the first task must be to create spaces or clearings within our culture that are specifically designed for the dwelling of and the meeting with the gods. Perhaps, surprisingly, this does not always and necessarily include spaces currently labelled as religious for they can often be filled to the gunwales with dead idols - both tangible, physical ones and also those ideological ones of the heart and mind. It is obvious that many of our current religious spaces are not empty spaces at all. Of course, here I am speaking not only of the creation of open, physical spaces for the gods' return but also about the creation of open, internal, psychological spaces within ourselves.

But now we need to attune ourselves to what is meant when we speak in this context about "emptiness". The "emptiness" of these spaces is not emptiness as it is most often understood by us - i.e. that complete and utter absence of anything. Instead it is more akin to the "emptiness" of, say a granary, whose late winter emptiness speaks expectantly of the awaited harvest which will fill it at the end of summer; it is an emptiness akin to that of a mug which speaks expectantly of its being filled with hot tea. So, even though when the spaces of which I am speaking are first opened up the gods are most certainly absent from them, they are spaces filled with expectancy in which we are encouraged directly to feel the presence of the gods through their very absence. In such places we are encouraged to attune ourselves to a mood of expectation in which the absent gods can meaningfully be invoked. The hope is that when we find ourselves in such a space an invitation to the gods to dwell in our midst comes forth or blossoms within and among us quite naturally.

This is one of the reasons why I read the wonderful, if admittedly strange and opaque poem, by Friedrich Hölderlin called "The Poet’s Vocation" (Dichterberuf). The final stanza is, of course, crucial to the thing I'm trying to get at today:

But if he must, the poet remains fearless.
     Alone with god, simplicity keeps him safe
         And needs no weapons and no cunning,
             As long as God’s absence comes to his aid.

Hölderlin (and his much later follower Heidegger) thought that great poets were able to produce the kind of work that . . . and this is so hard to say clearly . . . poets were able to produce the kind of work which, when it's really working, some how withdraws and becomes primarily a space or clearing in which the gods or the holy, can once again blossom forth into our world. Think here of your own encounters with a great poem (or another great work of art) - when it is working you enter the space it creates in such a fashion that the actual poem or painting disappears.

In all this we must recall here that the word "poet" is derived from the Greek word poiesis which means a bringing forth.

Understanding what a bringing or blossoming forth is that the great poets help us see occurring needs to be clarified a bit further. Take this easily understood image offered by Julian Young:

"The model for poiesis is . . . the blossom rising forth out of its bud. The blossoming of (let us say) a rose is something that happens *within* nature. At its most fundamental level, however, poiesis is the sense of it as a blossoming forth, an 'upsurgent presencing' out of, as it were . . ., the 'world bud'. The two 'buds' are, of course, very different. Whereas the rose bud is visible and known, the 'world bud' is utterly mysterious, incomprehensible.  And in the majesty of its overwhelming creative power, it is breathtakingly awesome" (Heidegger's Later Philosophy p. 41).

The true poet's work helps us see the 'world bud' blossom. Out of the mysterious abyss of Being itself (which to us is the absence of anything at all that we can name, point to, imagine or describe) wonder of wonder all things continually come forth - roses, people, landscapes, churches and temples and *even the gods*. (Hold on to this last thought). Seeing this upsurging presencing is suddenly to be aware of the majesty of the abyss of Being's overwhelming creative power and it is breathtakingly awesome - *far greater even than that which I have, so far been calling the gods*. In the space or clearing that is the working work of art we can suddenly find ourselves saying along with Jacob "Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (Genesis 28:16-17). The poets thus show us to achieve the words we say at the start of every service:

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.

You see what I am trying to gesture towards is the idea that the *absence of the gods* is not something to be felt as to be regretted, but for the true poet (and for we who today are willing to engage with their poetry) it is experienced as the source and very condition of the possibility that true, living gods can still come to our aid. 

But please see that what the great poets help us experience is something infinitely greater than the greatest of gods - namely the blossoming forth of the utterly mysterious and incomprehensible 'world bud' - the Being of beings. The poets help us see that this is always-already everywhere and that the sacred and holy underwrites our whole world. In the clearings or spaces we make (whether as buildings, in our hearts or in poems and paintings) is what allows us to achieve a specialty of presence and say, at times, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."