Sunday, 26 May 2013

Three angels - responding to the ethical demand on the streets ofWoolwich

Knud Ejler Løgstrup (1905-1981)
Reading: Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)

Jesus said: 'You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


I imagine that, like many of you this week, my mind has often turned to the shocking murder of the young soldier, Lee Rigby. My own thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends and colleagues at this time.

However, since it is still less than a week since the murder occurred, it is clearly too soon to know what may be the full social, political and religious ramifications of this act which, because of the perpetrators’ invocation of Allah, may turn out to be both very complex and, alas, also very unpleasant. But two things have struck me about this shocking event that I think can meaningfully be spoken to right now.

The first relates to the general cultural background of nihilism. The word comes from the Latin “nihil”, meaning “nothing”, and it refers to the deep sense within our Western European and North American culture as a whole that life is (or is threatening to become) without any objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. As Charles Taylor says in his recent book important book "A Secular Age" (Harvard University Press 2007):

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

Another author, James C. Edwards, succinctly sums up the consequence of this:

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

This nihilistic mood is our secular culture's primary mood. Many, perhaps most people (especially those in religious circles), regret this mood and see it as highly negative. However, I'm one of those who does not so view it. I see it as a real opportunity to bring about a much healthier and radically more democratic way of being in the world which can gift us new ways of understanding creation and of encountering what we call the divine and the sacred. Indeed, that positive way of being is where I am going to end up. But, firstly, let's look at the two major responses of those who see nihilism as negative: passive nihilism and active nihilism.

I've explored something of passive nihilism with you a number of times before because it has been the primary response in liberal religious circles. I appreciate that facing up to this tendency is not always comfortable for us. However, we must do it because whenever this passive nihilistic approach is adopted there develops what has, following Nietzsche, been dubbed a European or American “Buddhism” (not, of course, to be confused with other kinds of deeply located European and American socially engaged Buddhisms). To cite Simon Critchley, what this means is that “In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces, the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island” (Infinitely Demanding, Verso Books, London 2007 p.5). The result is a “contemplative withdrawal, where one faces the meaningless chaos of the world with eyes wide shut” (ibid. p. 39). By the means of certain kinds of dislocated “pure” meditation and/or excessive shopping the actual state of the world and its general nihilistic mood can simply be put to one side and forgotten.

Let's turn now to active nihilism. Simon Critchley notes that “the active nihilist also finds everything meaningless, but instead of sitting back and contemplating, he tries to destroy this world and bring another into being.” He feels that in our age the paradigmatic example of this is Al-Qaeda and he goes on to say,

“The legitimating logic of Al-Qaeda is that the modern world, the world of capitalism, liberal democracy and secular humanism, is meaningless and that the only way to remake meaning is through acts of spectacular destruction, acts which it is no exaggeration to say have redefined the contemporary political situation and made the pre-9/11 world seem remote and oddly quaint. We are living through a chronic re-theologisation of politics” (ibid. p.5).

The brutal actions and words of the two murders, both connected to modern Islamist movements, clearly fit into this category of active nihilism. (None of which, of course, is to say that in these men's horrific mix of violence and theology there are not some real, legitimate general concerns about what has gone on and is still going on in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine that should be addressed by us.)

Anyway, I think it is important to see that a deep structural relationship exists between passive and active nihilists.

Now I have outlined active and passive nihilism (though this outlining can and should be done in greater detail) we can move to the thing I noticed that I alluded to at the beginning of this address, namely a way of proceeding that doesn't ignore our nihilist mood but which, instead, uses it to locate and firmly ground a more active, loving just and democratic way of proceeding.

It seems to me that we saw a powerful glimpse of it in the actions of the three women who, in the immediate aftermath of the murder, clearly helped keep the situation calm and controlled until the Police arrived and were able to take these extremely violent men into custody.

Firstly, you will recall there was the mother and daughter couple, Amanda Donnelly and Gemini Donnelly-Martin who approached the two blood-soaked killers and demanded that they let her sit in the middle of the road next to the fatally injured man in order to comfort him because, as they said, “no man should die alone”. Secondly, there were the actions of a third woman, a Cub Scout leader called Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, who also began directly to engage with the men in order to stop them from committing any further violence.

Now for various reasons, including the fact that I'm re-reading some of Simon Critchley's work, at the moment I'm exploring the work of a little known (to us in the English-speaking world) Danish philosopher and theologian called Knud Ejler Løgstrup (1905-1981). In his 1956 book, "The Ethical Demand" (Notre Dame and London, University of Notre Dame Press 1997, p. 15) he wrote the following words that resonated powerfully with me as I was listening to the news reports from Woolwich:

"A person never has something to do with another person without also having some degree of control over him or her. It may be a very small matter, involving only a passing mood, a dampening or quickening of spirit, a deepening or removal of some dislike. But it may also be a matter of tremendous scope, such as can determine if the life of the other flourishes or not."

What struck me about these women's actions was the extraordinary power of their small-scale, compassionate local interventions. Though they all will, undoubtedly, have their own different, deeply held philosophies or theologies of life, the women seem, simply and directly, to have responded primarily to the local, specific ethical demand that they encountered on the street in Woolwich. My point is that, unlike the murders and, to some extent our politicians and commentators (which must, of course, include me in the writing of this address), the women did not firstly line up all their philosophical, theological, political principles in order to see how they mapped on the situation before they then acted - they simply acknowledged the ethical demand of the situation and acted.

They did not act thinking that “by so doing my actions will promote my own philosophical, theological or political agenda”. No, they simply and immediately responded to this particular, local ethical demand. Then, when their work there was finished, they simply left on foot or by bus to get on with daily life. Notice, too, that neither did they turn to the many camera phones present on the day to say to the world, “look, we have done this because of belief x, y, and z and you all should pay attention to this and change your life accordingly”. No, once the local ethical demand had been responded to in the best way they could they simply went on their way. We only know about them and have now heard something from them because they were tracked down by our over ravenous, news-hungry newspapers and TV and radio stations.

What is particularly striking is that none of them, in their moment of decisive ethical response, seems to have shown any aggression nor made any immediate judgement of the murderers and by so doing, they were not only able to show love to the injured man and the innocent bystanders (which includes all of us) but also to the murderers themselves - people who by any stretch of the imagination one could call “enemies”. Their words and actions seem to me to have powerfully embodied a peaceful, Christ-like way of being in the world that we heard in Jesus' words from the sermon on the mount. One can only hope that this cannot have failed to impress itself upon the murderers and perhaps even have planted deep in their troubled and violent souls a saving seed that may yet flourish during what will almost certainly be life imprisonment.

But of more immediate importance to all of us is, I think, that the women’s small, compassionate interventions seem to me to be a matter of tremendous scope, such as can determine if the life of British society is to flourish or not. In this sense they may rightly be dubbed the “Angels of Woolwich.” This phrase was used firstly by the Daily Mirror - not my paper of choice I feel I should add - to describe their obviously brave and compassionate behaviour. Here we have a colloquial use of the word, in the way we may sometimes turn to someone who has showed us a kindness and say to them, “Ah, you're an angel.” But the word angel comes from the Greek word “angelos” meaning “messenger”, “envoy” or “one that announces”. So, yes, these women were angels in the popular secular sense of the word but more, much more than that, they seem to me to have been veritable messengers to us all of a way of acting that finds meaning in a highly plural world with all kinds of competing beliefs, not by ignoring them or by imposing on the world only their own beliefs, but by engaging in what Critchley calls, “an ethical practice that is driven by a response to situated injustices and wrongs” (ibid. p. 132).

Looked at this way, deep-human meaning, even what religious people such as myself want to call God, was displayed by those three women in their responses to the ethical demand made on that Woolwich street last Wednesday.

Nihilism opened the door to the highly plural and contingent nature of our world. It revealed to us what was a new and startling landscape that, at first sight (and culturally I think we still are in a time of “first sight”), was without question highly disorientating. However, for all that, I do not want us to loose our clear (if sometimes dizzying) sight of this radical plurality because it seems to speak of something true and important about our world. But it is clear that we have not yet learnt how to deal properly with this new view of the human landscape. Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount gives us what was perhaps our first glimpse at how to proceed. In the situated actions of these three women last week I think we might have just caught another glimpse of a way forward that is highly relevant to our own age and difficulties. May their loving, compassionate actions guide us well in the coming months and years. They may yet prove to be for us real angels, messengers of a secular Republic of Heaven in which we find meaning not in a God “out there” and beyond us in  heaven, but in the situated needs of both our neighbours and our enemies.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The secular, conversational spirit of democracy - a meditation on Pentecost

READINGS: Acts 2:1-13

It Matters What We Believe
by Sophia Lyon Fahs

Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged. Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies. Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies. Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern. Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world. Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.

View of Emmanuel Road from the front of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church this morning 
As I said in my address just before our AGM it seems important to introduce to you, every now and then, some important topics relating directly to why we are this particular kind of liberal religious community. Today is Pentecost Sunday and this fact allows me to bring before you one of the primary, motivational theological reasons why we have, historically, gathered as a liberal, democratic, voluntary association.

I'm doing this in part because if you are minded to take seriously Jesus' maxim that, "by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matthew 7:16 and 20), it must also be true in some way that "by their roots you shall know them". Every gardener knows that if you don't pay attention to care of the roots the fruit will suffer and I am continually struck by how this is all too easily forgotten in liberal religious, political and generally secular circles.

So, firstly, we need to do a tiny bit of theology that, although at first sight might appear pointlessly abstract - angels on a pinhead stuff, but I promise I will very quickly ground it in the actualities of our world.

Pentecost is, of course, a celebration of the day upon which the later Christian community came to feel that the Holy Spirit entered the disciples, an event which, in turn, came to be seen as marking the founding moment of the Christian Church as a distinct religious community. Whether Pentecost happened in precisely the fashion Luke tells us it did (Acts 2:1-13) - and that seems highly unlikely - is not really the point. What I want us to note is that the story is a reminder that following Jesus’ death the disciples experienced a decisive renewal and revivification that was powerful enough not only to send them out in the world as apostles to share something of their current understandings of the gospel , the good news proclaimed by Jesus, but also powerful enough to inspire people across two millennia.

Consequently, what we understand the Holy Spirit to be and how we understand how it comes to be among us is very important to the kind of liberal Christian community we both became and, I hope, are still becoming. As Sophia Lyons Fahs said, it matters both what we believe, both now and and what we have believed in the past.

The idea of the Holy Spirit is, in all Christian thinking, wholly tied up with the names of God the Father and Jesus as the son or chosen one, the Messiah, of God. Together these three names came to be understood within the majority of the Western and Eastern churches as eternally bound up in the Trinity.

Click on the picture for an enlarged view
Western Catholic and Protestant Trinitarian understandings of the Holy Spirit looked like the first diagram in the picture to the right. Notice that the Holy Spirit proceeds from BOTH the Father and the Son.

Eastern Orthodox conceptions of the Holy Spirit look like the second diagram. Notice that Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone.

This difference in interpretation caused one of the most decisive and bitter schisms in Christendom which still, to this day, divides the Western and Eastern Trinitarian churches. But this difference aside in both these models all three names are bound together in a Trinitarian conception of the Godhead. The direction of travel, the procession of the Holy Spirit and the Son is in both these models, ultimately one of eternal return into the Trinitarian Godhead. (I explored an aspect of this last week in A meditation on the death of God for Ascension Day).

But let’s move on to the third diagram. This is how the German philosopher Hegel understood the direction of movement or procession from God to the Son and the Holy Spirit. In Hegel’s model, God becomes wholly emptied (kenosis) into the Son and then God as the Son gets wholly emptied into the Holy Spirit, into this world. In this model divinity is not to be understood as essentially a movement of return to the Godhead but, instead, as a complete one-way, open-ended, creative out-flowing into the world. To speak of God in this model is no longer to speak of a being “up-there” but, instead, to speak of something that now happens in the world between people and in all creative events of becoming. The theological procession is one which moves from absolute unity into a single person and then, under the name of the Spirit, into an independent, free, open-ended plurality of persons and the world as a whole.

In one way or another, and often using very different terminology to that which I'm using here, our radical-reformation Unitarian tradition of churches began to follow various versions of this latter model (the seventeenth-century Dutch Collegiants are hugely important for us in this regard). Indeed, our own greatest nineteenth-century British theologian, James Martineau (1805-1900) came to say that: “The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly.” And so, today, in our tradition, it is all about incarnation, about understanding "God" or the "Divine" as something that, yes, was seen by us in Jesus in a unique way, but only as the self-giving, self-emptying way by which, now as a secular Spirit, God is known radically, and finally, to have entered into all life and I mean, ALL life. In our own congregations we try to mirror this understanding in our democratic ordering.

(Remember, too, that the English word “secular” comes from the Latin, “saecularis” meaning “worldly”. So, when I talk about the Spirit in what follows, even when I call it the Holy Spirit, I am referring to a this-worldly, secular Spirit.)

The carved plaque in our memorial garden
It is vitally important to see that a major consequence of this theological belief - of the spirit moving into ALL life in the world - is that there can be no absolute and necessary requirement that all human communities should either formally identify as Christian or even understand themselves as being formally religious or theistic. Indeed, today, in our secular age and culture, we can, I hope, clearly see that there exist countless non-Christian and non-religious organisations that the kind of liberal Christian community such as our own feels can be described as acting in highly admirable and inspiring ways - or, as we would say using our community's local religious language (or dialect), acting in “the spirit of Jesus.” For us to say this is not to make any of these other groups merely anonymous Christians (many, even most, of them are clearly simply not Christian) rather it is simply to have found a powerful and grounded way of saying in our own religious language (dialect) why we need not think alike to love alike. Anyway, it is not for nothing that every service here starts with the words “Divinity is present everywhere, the whole world is filled with God.”

I hope that it is clear that thinking about God in this incarnational linear, downward, open-ended way (from God, to Jesus, to a secular Spirit coursing through the whole of creation) had a profound political impact on British, European and North American culture. This is because it makes a great deal of difference to the way you will come to structure your societies if you come to think that authority is vested in a perfect, transcendent, divine unitary authority back to which you must always be referring or whether you think that authority is, in truth, vested in many diverse, open-ended, unfolding, this worldly communities who must learn to govern themselves well and get on together through a process of engaged, critical conversation with each other - in, short, living through some some kind of “parley-mentary” process. Our word parliament comes, of course, from the Old French “parlement” (11 century), which means "a speaking" coming from "parler" meaning "to speak".

We are fortunate, indeed, that, although this radical theology of the downward, incarnational procession of God into the Holy Spirit did not win the day in most of our formally constituted Christian churches, it did win the day in the wider radical religious circles who became increasingly committed to the creation of what were  to become our civic, secular democracies. In England this decisively began after the Civil War (the English Revolution), in Europe after the French Revolution and, in North America, after the American Revolution.

The spirit of genuine democracy, of liberté, égalité, fraternité is, for our radical tradition, an expression of the very spirit of Pentecost. It is, as the author of Acts so memorably recounts, a Spirit which gives people of different views and beliefs the “ability” to speak meaningfully with each other “in other languages”. It is nothing less than a collaborative, binding Spirit that is best honoured and acknowledged in some kind of genuine, conversational and dialectical setting - a "parley-ment".

But I am deeply worried that, because we have become understandably (and in my opinion often quite rightly), disconnected from, and suspicious of, the theological language we once happily used to root and inspire our commitment to a secular conversational, democratic system of ordering, our fruit is no longer meaningfully connected to its original life-giving root and is, in so many ways, seemingly in danger of withering on the vine. It is clear as the day is long that there exists a huge motivational deficit at the heart of our secular, liberal democracies (and at the heart of many of our own Unitarian and Free Christian communities).

(Simon Critchley has addressed a number of things connected with this in his books Infinitely Demanding - Ethics of Commitment , Politics of Resistance and also The Faith of the Faithless - Experiments in Political Theology.)

Most people don't (cannot) see that there might be something deeply religious or better, spiritual, about a genuine, conversational democratic process that needs disciplined, dutiful tending. Instead it's just become a fruit to be taken for granted, merely taken or left on the market stall of ideas as it suits the individual in the present moment. The idea that a genuine conversational and democratic self-ordering might be something worthy of calling sacred, as something deeply connected with the way we have understood "God" or the "Divine", just never seems to come into sharp, collective focus for us. It is painfully clear to me that the idea that committing to secular, conversational, democratic living might be to perform a kind of "religious" duty, as I think it is, is very, very far from being a mainstream view.

It is obvious that this is, in part, because of the way formal religions, historically, have dysfunctionally involved themselves in the life of the state or nation - always seeking to create in the people a doctrinal, belief-led, false unity. But I remain convinced that our own religious tradition's radical secular understanding of the Spirit can contribute an important insight to our present-day society to help it find ways to develop some kind of genuine secular, civic spiritual consensus that can Pentecostally re-energise and revivify us all as sons and daughters of the free-Spirit, free citizens of nothing less than a secular republic of Heaven.

May the Holy Spirit, that genuinely free but powerfully motivating Secular Spirit be rekindled in and among us today.


Following the main service a service of communion was held. You can read a pdf copy of this by clicking on the following link:

Sunday, 12 May 2013

A meditation on the death of God for Ascension Day

Click on the picture to read the 1966 article
This address has come out of a number of things. The first is that my father has been seriously ill in hospital for nearly two months. On a couple of occasions during this time he appeared (both to us and the medical staff) potentially very close to death. I'm delighted to tell you that, yesterday (Saturday) afternoon, he found himself back at home with the real possibility that he'll make a full recovery.

That led me three weeks ago to tell you a story about how I had interpreted a story he told me when I was a teenager about how he and a mate briefly considered becoming lumberjacks in Canada. One important lesson we may take from this story (and others like it) is that what makes our foundational stories and texts great (whether they are personally and/or culturally foundational) is, as Iain Thomson reminds us:

". . . 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).

Lastly, in the middle of all this I was asked to speak to Hills Road Sixth Form college on the subject of Religion after the death of God.

This point brings me to the immediate trigger for today's address, namely, that this week orthodox Christian churches around the world recounted and celebrated the story of the Ascension (Acts 1:1-11). How this celebration relates to my father and the death of God will become clear very soon.

But let's begin by reiterating that my father has not died - amen and alleluia to that! Having said that it is clear that I - all of us - would be kidding ourselves if we simply left it at that and just let the matter be squirrelled away unreflectively until the next time. My father, your father, you and me and mothers, brothers and sisters too, all of us are going to die one day and we have no choice but to find some way to face up to and deal with this incontrovertible fact of life.

The death of one or both parents is often the most powerful symbolic moment when feel we are finally given true independence and responsibility for our own lives and those lives who, at this moment in time, depend in some way upon us. Whilst it is true that some of us are lucky to achieve genuine psychological independence apart from the actual death (or near death) of our parents, the truth is that for most of us it is only the actual death (or near death) of a parent that begins truly to ground us in this independence. Some deal with this well, some do not. Some find ways creatively openly to acknowledge that this has happened, others find ways of denying it completely and, of course, all shades in between.

Unsurprisingly over the past few weeks I've been thinking about all this in relation to our own culture's traditional understanding of God which is intimately bound up with the idea of God as the big, really big father. This God is the "omni, omni, omni God" of monotheistic theologies:

* Omniscient - God is all-knowing
* Omnipresent - God is all-present/all-seeing
* Omnipotent - God is all-powerful

You will also be aware, and this is key to today's address, that monotheism's big father never dies - God is eternal. In this religious schema we can never, therefore, ever really be gifted true, grounded and embodied independence and responsibility as God's children. Dad is always going to be there to pick up the pieces and restore us and all things to his eternal wholeness and perfection.

Now, I do not in any way deny that this idea can be hugely comforting and it is clearly one which has helped countless people through the worst of times. But at the same time it brings a certain present comfort it inevitably also brings with it a definitive disempowerment such that no important decisions we make in our actual lives can ever be said to be real. We are fated to remain forever merely children under the ultimate, absolute control of father.

This ultimate, absolute disempowerment is very powerfully expressed in the story of the Ascension as it is told in traditional Christian circles. There Jesus is, of course, understood as God, the second person of the Trinity. God as Jesus comes down to live among us, apparently sharing our human joys and concerns and walking and suffering with and for us. This sharing of our life is displayed most poignantly and movingly on the cross where, midmost between two criminals, Jesus is finally hung for so clearly displaying a deep self-less love to our world.  But then comes the "resurrection" which, however it is interpreted, birthed a powerful, living sense of hope for the future, that somehow something creative, vital, even Pentecost-ally fiery, survives death in us. Now I find that I can still affirm these two themes. But we now come to the moment where I find myself parting company with orthodoxy. Hope may have been restored to this very earthy, present world by the "resurrection" but what then does Luke claim happened? Well, as you heard in our first reading from his book of Acts, Jesus leaves the earthy, present world and returns into the fold of the omni-omni-omni-God. Jesus the crucified human, our true bother and comrade, suddenly becomes before our very eyes something very inhuman and alien, namely the "glorified Lord", a forever perfect part of a forever perfect and deathless father in heaven.

With sincere apologies to those who do not think likewise I find myself utterly incapable of not rebelling against this reading of the story because it seems to cut definitively against the real independence, freedom, responsibility and hope promised to us by Jesus. It seems to me that one can only be said to have become genuine sons and daughters of God, real flesh and blood human sons and daughters with true freedom and independence when the reality is that our father in heaven has died.

Fortunately, as I hope the story about my father and Iain Thomson's words revealed, our foundational stories are always-already open to variant readings and are always-already capable of propelling people on quite different life trajectories - as different from each other as is the insurance broker and the jazz musician.

In orthodox Christian readings of the story the trajectory of life we are encouraged to follow must be circular - God, to Jesus and the world (us) and then back to God. God is eternally Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, perfect in beginning and perfect in end. All of life, all our human, joys, concerns and experience can, in the end, contribute nothing to the always-already perfect Godhead of monotheism.

But St Paul, so often the most radical of the early Christian thinkers, from the start intuited in the story of Jesus the possibility of following a radically different trajectory (although he does not ever fully follow through his intuition) In one of his most striking statements, found in Philippians 2:5-8, he says that God emptied himself (kenosis) out into the world in the form of Jesus and actually died on the cross:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

These words reveal why there is  good reason to see St Paul as being an important precursor to "death of God" theology.

Not only this but, as Paul suggests elsewhere, the resurrection of Christ is not that of Jesus as a soon to be glorified aspect of an omni-omni-omni-God but, instead, a corporate completely earthly human community - the community of those who continue to meet in the spirit of Jesus now called "the body of Christ" (see Romans 12:4-5 and 1 Corinthians 12:12).

The trajectory Paul begins to reveal to us through this reading of the story of Jesus is most certainly not circular - as it wholly enters ever more deeply into the world we see it is radically linear and open-ended. This interpretation of the story says that God, in the form of Jesus, really has died on the cross; he has wholly emptied himself out into the world and into the new radical and definitively human community now called Christ. This new community's father, indeed Our Father, the big other, the omni-omni-omni-God, has died and that real dying is precisely what gifts us our new life as genuinely free and independent sons and daughters of God. It should be added that the full implications of this reading of the Christian story are today being played out not, for the most part, in the Christian churches, but in many secular communities.

At this point one might be tempted to say that the death of God means we can now just forget about him and get on living without the concept. But, in my opinion (and those of some thinkers connected with Thomas J. J. Altizer) our job as an extant liberal Christian community is to keep the story alive in our culture to stand as a powerful theological reminder not to betray this gift of genuine freedom and independence.

(At the end of this post I've added two Youtube links to a two part 1966 documentary about Altizer and here is a link to a newly published summary of his Radical Theology)

Whenever this life- and freedom-affirming story of the death of God is forgotten there is for humanity a powerful temptation either, on the one hand, to slip ever deeper into leading a life with no narrative meaning or, on the other hand, to try to sneak back into play other versions of the big father. The former gives us only a terrible kind of empty, nihilistic consumerism, the latter seeks to bring meaning back in by bringing back various versions (liberal and conservative) of old monotheistic religion. Both of these attempts in their own distinctive ways deny us the genuine life of freedom, independence and responsibility promised to us by Jesus.

It seems, again to me, that only by consistently and patiently working through the death of God can we truly secure true freedom and human meaning at this time in our culture's history. As to what a future secular religion will look like, well, only time will tell.

But, to conclude for today, I will miss and grieve deeply my father when he dies. But he will at that moment gift me with a new independence and freedom - an independence and freedom that he embodied beautifully in his own life. I would be a poor son of his if I were ever to forget the lessons and gifts of his living and dying.

We, too, should miss and continue appropriately to remember (and at times still grieve) the death of God. But his dying gifted us with a new independence and freedom - an independence and freedom that he embodied beautifully in his life in Jesus. We would be poor sons and daughters of God if we were ever to forget the lessons and gifts of his living and dying.

God's divine work is now here in the world and the only true ascension is a descent, a down-going into the open-ended world of history as servants of a continually, selfless, self-giving love. God's hands, Jesus Christ's hands are now humanity's hands, our hands. May we learn to use them well as befits true children of God.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Looking at the moon without long-distance spectacles - a Universalist affirmation and warning


From: The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology by Forrest Church (Beacon Press, Boston 2009, pp. xi-xii)

We are standing on the shoreline of a mountain lake, moonlight against our boot tips, mesmerized by the golden carpet laid lapping out over the water as if lowered from the heavens to meet us at the very place we stand. Before us, along the moon's glorious trail, we can see all the way to the lake's rocky bottom. Above the sunken branches, we watch the water dance and sparkle, a rack of moonbeams on each ripple's crest. Across the lake, where the moon is rising, our path turns to liquid gold. Standing on the shore some distance to our right, a man contemplates the same view yet appears shrouded in darkness. To our left stands a woman, her silhouette all but obscured by the blackness that envelops her. Pondering these two apparently benighted people, we wonder to ourselves, "What can they possibly be thinking? Encompassed by darkness, the lake before them flat and lifeless, if only they would join us at the foot of the moon's luminous path, they, too, could bathe in celestial light." Henry David Thoreau once chastised the Florentine artist and adventurer Benvenuto Cellini for mistaking the aura he saw surrounding his shadow on a dew-drenched day as a special sign of divine recognition. In the moonlight, we experience a like illusion, and woman to our right and left, who share our vision though we perceive them to be in darkness. Judging only by what they see they, too, may feel themselves uniquely illumined. To their eyes, it is we who appear to languish in darkness. Expressive of both the wonder and danger of religion, on the one hand, the moon's golden light extends a path across the lake to the feet of everyone who stands under the spell of its supernal glow; on the other, given that each onlooker sees only his or her own golden pathway, all others standing in apparent darkness, we are left with the impression that we walk the one true path alone, whereas those who fail to join us are lost. Here nature can serve as our theological tutor. She reminds us that, in almost every way that matters, we and our most distant neighbour, sprung from a single source and sharing the same destiny, are one. This revelation encapsulates the essence of universalist theology. To perceive things as they are, not merely as they appear, we must view them with parallax vision. We must imagine seeing them through others' eyes as well as through our own. 

From The Myths of Christianity – The End of Religion by Richard Holloway

[Many religions] want to sell us their special spectacles, which have been theologically tested by experts to give us maximum power for long-distance looking. Given the extraordinary energy and variety of the human species, none of this should surprise us - but buyers should always beware of sellers. By definition they want to move their product, whether it is a Mercedes or a metaphysic.

To punish the metaphor a little longer, in the culture of global capitalism everything has become a commodity, including religion. The most blatant exponents of religious consumerism are the television evangelists, the best of whom are brilliant salespersons.

But even the subtler and more traditional religions try to push their brands. None of this would particularly matter if it were the case of rival systems inviting us to view reality from where they are sitting: "Come, try our view and see if you'd like to build your dwelling place at our bend in the river". More of that is going on today and I shall return to it in a moment.

In the past, however, religion. like everything else, was dealt with in an authoritarian way. We were told, for our own good, what to think and what to look at. And we were told, for our own good, what not to think and what not to look at.


As I mentioned before our AGM here in Cambridge last week, I think it is important to find ways of bringing to our regular gatherings little bits of distinctive Unitarian and Free Christian history and theology to help us to be better and more confident in who were are.

One important strand of our church tradition is that of Universalism. For us this word has two connected meanings. The first relates to salvation. The early Universalists believed, quite literally that God was a being whose primary characteristic was love. Such a supreme, loving being was for them never going to allow any human soul to experience endless suffering in hell but would, somehow, find a way to ensure that salvation was available and achievable for everyone. As one of the earliest Universalists, John Murray (1741–1815), once said to a congregation in the late eighteenth century:

"You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men [and women]. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.  Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God."

In an age which was filled with communities preaching damnation to those who didn't belong to their sect or church this was, indeed, a powerful message of hope.

This message of universal salvation was, at that time, primarily articulated in Christian terms but it should be clear that once you have become captured by such a belief you will begin to embody and articulate a religious practice and a theology that is necessarily going to become much more open to other ways of being religious. Our forebears began, therefore, to look more closely, not for differences between religions, but for commonalities. Not surprisingly, given their emphasis upon God as love, the primary test of this commonality became not one dependent upon beliefs but upon practice (not orthodoxy but orthopraxy). Out of this came a variety of ways to say that which appears on everyone of our orders of service: "We need not think alike to love alike." Consequently, another of the early Universalists, Hosea Ballou (1771-1852) could say:

"We must not look for religion in creeds or formularies of human intervention. We must look for it in the honest, the pious, the devotional heart; in the heart which truly loves God, loves its [sister and] brother also. The principle of love to God and goodwill to all is true religion."

These points now bring me to story told by Forrest Church we heard earlier in his recent Universalist theology called "The Cathedral of the World" that we heard earlier. I hope it is a memorable one that will stay in your mind so that you can use it yourself when someone asks you about this church, "So what do your lot believe." BUT, and its a big, if subtle but, when we tell this story I think we need to be careful to avoid a certain understanding of it that Forrest Church momentarily seemingly allows us when he says: "Here nature can serve as our theological tutor."

This sentence, I have to admit, gave me more than a little frisson of concern because, as it has been wisely noted elsewhere (in 1931 by Wittgenstein - MS 112 221: 22.11.1931, Culture and Value 25e) there is a major difference between what a natural object like the moon can legitimately be said to "teach" or show us and what we *want* to learn from the moon when we let our words (or "lesson plan") go on theological holiday.

So the vital question we need to ask is, what Universalist lesson can we legitimately take from nature here?

I'll begin by saying that, I think Church is spot on when he says that we can take nature here to be reminding us that:

"To perceive things as they are, not merely as they appear, we must view them with parallax vision. We must imagine seeing them through others' eyes as well as through our own."

Amen, brother, say I. But my big, if subtle, BUT, comes into play when we allow the words in Church's story to go on holiday and let them start acting theologically, or at least theologically in an old-fashioned way. We catch a glimpse of this when he prefaces the words you have just heard by the claim that nature says that:

". . . in almost every way that matters, we and our most distant neighbour, sprung from a single source and sharing the same destiny, are one. This revelation encapsulates the essence of universalist theology." 

This is, for me, the moment when he reveals he is in danger of allowing himself (or rather encouraging us) to think that the moon in his illustration can, in fact, act as a stand-in for God. Not only this but that, from where he is standing, he seems to suggest he does in fact have sight of God and that God looks like, in this case, the moon. And not only all this, but also that his story is, by extension, saying that this same God that he sees *IS* going to look similar to other people standing on either side of him. He seems to be suggesting (to me) that he has moved (silently) from making a call to cultivate "parallax vision" and instead has put on Universalist spectacles which give him "maximum power for long-distance viewing" to see beyond, way beyond the moon, to God him(her)self.

To show that this move has happened let's firstly note that we can "produce" the moon, in the sense that we can actually show that it *is* a natural, celestial object. We were able to do this firstly thanks to many careful earth-bound observations and measurements and then, in 1969, by actually paying her a visit.

Because the moon is a natural object that reflects the sun's light back at us, that light is scattered through our atmosphere and onto the lake's surface such that, thanks to the laws of physics, the light's path seems to come across the water only to our feet and not to those of our neighbours on either side of us. These laws are known to us in such a way that we are enabled to say we know, with great confidence, that the moon's light is reaching our neighbours feet on the lakeside. This is, to repeat, a powerful reminder that: "To perceive things as they are, not merely as they appear, we must view them with parallax vision. We must imagine seeing them through others' eyes as well as through our own."

But with God the matter is very different. God is not a natural object like the moon. We cannot produce God like we can the moon. We cannot be said to be able to do any careful earth-bound quasi-scientific observations and measurements of God and we have most certainly never paid God a visit as the Apollo astronauts paid a visit to the moon.

In our own Judaeo-Christian tradition we are powerfully reminded not to objectify or reify God. As the second commandment clearly says:

"You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Exodus 20:4–6 and Deuteronomy 5:8-10).

By my reckoning, that must include picturing God as the moon - even if it is only supposed to be an illustration/metaphor of what kind of God your long-distance spectacles seemingly reveal to you.

To think that anyone could ever know God in this "moon-like" fashion and then go on to suppose, on the basis of such a story, that down the lakeside this same (Universalist) God is really going to be known in a very similar fashion by those on either side of us is, it seems to me, at best spurious and, at worst, to bring silently into play not a true universalism but, once again, merely our own beliefs and desires in the kind of way that so worries Richard Holloway - and me. To say we can be absolutely sure we see this (Universalist) God is to find ourselves looking at the world with Universalist spectacles that have been "theologically tested by [our] experts to give us maximum power for long-distance looking." To do this in any extensive way would merely be to slip into "pushing or brand" just like many other traditional monotheistic religious communities.

Now I don't happen to think that, when taken in overview, that this is what Forrest Church is trying to do in his book. I think he was, in fact, trying to doing what Holloway hopes to encourage every religion and religious community to do, namely simply to invite people to "Come, try our view and see if you'd like to build your dwelling place at our bend in the river".

I also want to say that the theological bit of Forrest Church's story is fine as long as it is in its strong form primarily intended for internal consumption - i.e. simply an encouragement to us to live confidently by our Universalist intuition that, as yet another early Universalist, George de Benneville (1703-1793) said that, "the inner spirit makes us feel behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things." To be sure this can then be offered to the wider world but only as long as it is simply couched in the form of a gentle invitation to others to "Come, try our view and see if you'd like to build your dwelling place at our bend in the river".

But what we must not do is extend what we feel is our Universalist theological insight to the whole of reality. We must remember that the only thing nature teaches us in Forrest Church's story is the vitally important insight that, again to repeat with a couple of important additions:

"To perceive [natural] things [like the moon] as they are, not merely as they appear, we must view them with parallax vision. We must imagine seeing them through others' eyes as well as through our own." 

This lesson is, without doubt, a vital one to learn but another lesson, and the one I want to foreground today is that we must be very, very, very careful not to confuse natural lessons from the moon with the lessons we learn (or rather want to take) from the moon when we are wearing our own community's (Universalist) spectacles.

Never forget that the moon is a thing and God is not. 

None of this means that within this local liberal Christian community which lives out of a Universalist perspective we cannot draw a theological lesson from looking at the moon's light and to derive from this the courage and inspiration to live a life committed to our perspective. But when we tell this story to others as an illustration of our particular perspective on the world we must remember only to offer it up to them as an invitation to come and see if they like our view and would, in turn, like to dwell with us on our little bit of the shore. Theologically the moon DOES NOT teach us any absolute, secure lessons about the nature of God.

But whether or not our neighbours chose to come and visit and/or stay with us (or we with them) on our stretch of the coast we can all at least raise a glass of wine to the wondrous natural fact that, despite appearances to the contrary, we all, even though we see God differently, will always find the beautiful natural light of the moon run right up to the feet of every human being who stands by the shore.