Sunday, 30 June 2013

Why is the simple command to "love one another" so boring?

A Philosophy of Boredom - Lars Svendsen

1 John 3:11-24

From St Jerome's Commentaries on the Epistle to the Galatians III:6 (on Galatians 6:10)

‘The blessed John the Evangelist, who remained in Ephesus to an advanced age and could scarcely be carried to the church with the help of his disciples. At each assembly, he used to say no more than this: “Little children, love one another!” Eventually, the disciples and brethren who were present grew tired of always hearing the same thing, and said, “Master, why do you keep on saying this?” He replied with a sentiment worthy of John: “Because it is a precept of the Lord [i.e. Jesus], and it is sufficient if this alone is done.’

From G. E. Lessing's The Testament of John (Brunswick, 1777)

‘. . . one so quickly tires of the good, and even of the best, once it starts to become commonplace! - At the first assembly at which John *could* no longer say anything but, “Little Children, love one another!”, these words were extremely well-received. They were still well received on the second, third, and fourth occasions, for it was said that the old man *couldn’t* say any more. But when the old man now and then had good and cheerful days again and still said nothing more, but simply concluded the daily assembly with his “Little children, love one another!” when they saw that the old man was not just *unable* to say more, but had *no intention* of doing so, the “Little children, love one another!” became flat, empty, and meaningless. Brethren and disciples could scarcely listen to it any longer without becoming sick of hearing it, and they finally asked the good old man: “But Master, why do you keep saying the same thing?” . . . John replied: “Because the Lord commanded it. Because this alone, this alone, if it is done, is sufficient, quite sufficient.”‘

From A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen

The concept of meaning I am referring to has a further perspective, because we are talking about a meaning that is inextricably linked to being meaning for someone. Peter Wessel Zapffe attempted to articulate a concept of meaning:

That an action or some other fragment of life has meaning means that it gives us a quite specific feeling that is not easy to translate into thought. It would have to be something like the action having a good enough intention, so that when the intention is fulfilled, the action is ‘justified’, settled, confirmed – and the subject calms down.

This is an odd sort of definition, but it contains the vital element – that this meaning is related to a person’s goal-orientated use of the world. At this point, I would just mention that an important difference between Zapffe’s and my concept of meaning is that he justifies it biologically, while I justify it more historically. As Zapffe also indicates, these actions also point forward to something more – to life as a whole. I do not intend to pursue Zapffe’s considerations here, but will content myself with stating that the meaning we are looking for – or even demand – is ultimately an existential or metaphysical meaning. This existential meaning can be sought in various ways and exists in various forms. It can be conceived as something already given in which one can participate (e.g. in a religious community) or something that has to be realised (e.g. a classless society). It is conceived as something collective or something individual. [. . .]
     Human beings are addicted to meaning. We all have a great problem: Our lives must have some sort of content. We cannot bear to live our lives without some sort of content that we can see as constituting a meaning. Meaningless is boring. And boredom can be described metaphorically as a meaning withdrawal. Boredom can be understood as a discomfort which communicates that the need for meaning is not being satisfied. In order to remove this discomfort, we attack the symptoms rather than the disease itself, and search for all kinds of meaning-surrogates (pp.29–30).


I have long delighted in the story told by Jerome (347-420) about St John and expanded upon some thirteen hundred years later by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) because it humourously reveals one of the dilemmas we have to be alert to in the religious life - especially the religious life of a church such as ours which is deeply rooted in the skeptical, always questioning intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment (one which has, of course, traditionally centred on the sermon).

Remember that St John was believed to have written the most complex, speculative and philosophically oriented of all the Gospels - the Gospel of John. It's a work that represents a high point in early Christian metaphysics and is full of signs, miracles, mystical insights and many other things all of which are designed to keep people intellectually interested and committed to believing in Jesus. In John's mind, and in the mind of the community he led, Jesus was understood as "the Word", the supernatural meaning giving intellectual abstract philosophical principle that had come into our world from God’s realm. A text like the Gospel of John is concerned to persaude a person that they can only truly secure this meaning by believing in the right things about Jesus, the very Word of God. The meaning of life (i.e. Jesus the Word) becomes something extra which is added to our lives from outside rather like salt is added to a dish to bring out its fullest flavour.

But abstract, speculative theories about the meaning of Jesus, because they can only be theories and cannot be shown to be self-evidently true, always generate other rival speculative theories about the meaning of Jesus and that is precisely what was going on at the time John was writing his gospel. We now know, thanks to the discoveries of other early Christian texts that have been wrongly, but sensationally (by publishers mostly) described as "hidden" or "secret" gospels, that John was embroiled in a fierce intellectual debate about the true meaning of Jesus with many other rival theorists. This heated debate mattered to them all because they had come to believe that if you didn’t believe the right things about Jesus, then you were lost and your life had no real meaning. But such complex technical debates always threatened to set the church apart from the everyday concerns of most people - the people to whom, after all, Jesus had come. How true this remains even unto today.

Jerome’s story, and we have (of course) no way of knowing whether it is in any way an historically true one, suggests that towards the end of his life John saw that his complex philosophising was helping to create and exacerbate this worrying problem. So he decides to abandon all that complicated stuff and simply preach what he thought was the heart of Jesus’ gospel, the simple message to "Love one another!" He seems to have understood that the real meaning of his and the community’s life was only going to be truly found by them in so far as they were actually *doing* Jesus’ gospel rather than theorising about Jesus person. This suggest (perhaps) that John had realised that the best his philosophising about the person of Jesus the Word could ever hope to achieve was to interest and intellectually persuade people they must *do* the kind of practical loving Jesus demanded and that his own gospel was not, itself, the gospel of Jesus. But the tenor of the story suggests that John felt that he had failed in this as his community simply wasn't doing the gospel of Jesus but only listen to the gospel of John. Since, in the end, it seems he felt that loving one another was alone sufficient he had to cut to the chase and, in the twinkling of an eye, St John moved from centring his preaching upon a highly abstract orthodoxy (which means right belief) to a very grounded and simple orthopraxy (which means right doing).

It was a brave and admirable thing for such a complex and subtle thinker as John to do. But what reward did he get for this? Well, as you heard it was nothing less than a congregation who could scarcely listen to his message any longer without becoming sick of hearing it. They quickly became bored of his message and their life in the religious community led by John, we may presume, began to feel to them meaningless.

This point allows me to return to another of our readings, that taken from "A Philosophy of Boredom" by the contemporary Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, who noted that:

"Human beings are addicted to meaning. We all have a great problem: Our lives must have some sort of content. We cannot bear to live our lives without some sort of content that we can see as constituting a meaning. Meaningless is boring. And boredom can be described metaphorically as a meaning withdrawal. Boredom can be understood as a discomfort which communicates that the need for meaning is not being satisfied. In order to remove this discomfort, we attack the symptoms rather than the disease itself, and search for all kinds of meaning-surrogates" (p. 30).

We can see that in Jerome and Lessing’s story the community around St John were clearly addicted to meaning and upon John's change of preaching from the complex and "interesting" to the simple and "boring" they began to experience the discomforting pangs of meaning withdrawal.

But, as John’s decision to preach what he thought was the simple heart of the gospel reveals, he seems to have understood that his own interesting and complex philosophy (the gospel of John) had in this context simply become a meaning-substitute (for the practical gospel of Jesus).

So John decides to help them experience real meaning by centring on the need to do the straightforward, unglamorous work of loving one another - work they weren't doing because they were spending so much time seeking meaning from outside by engaging in complex philosophising. As we heard they were charmed by St John’s simple message for a short while but they became bored by it very quickly. It was for them not at all an intellectually stimulating message, it didn't seem to them to be enough to provide from the pulpit the kind of meaning that seemed to be promised via the entertaining excitement of philosophy.

And here we run into the dilemma I want us to notice.

On the one hand a simple call to love one another which would, if we were actually to do it, be sufficient to fill our life with meaning, seems in the mere telling from the pulpit to be a very boring, dull and even prosaic message. To preach this every week would be to risk boring any congregation to death and slowly put everybody off from coming. After all, you'd know exactly what the preacher was going to say every time you came.

We cannot kid ourselves that if we, if I, were only to offer up this simple message then people would quickly get very bored and wouldn't bother coming to church any more. Whether we (I) like it or not today we are in some kind of competition with the countless very attractive and entertaining meaning-surrogates with which our present day culture is worryingly awash. We (I) have to find ways of being at least as interesting as, if not shopping then, say, a good non-fiction programme on Radio 4 or BBC 2. If we (I) were to offer less than this well, why would anyone bother getting up out of bed on a Sunday morning when they could simply flip open their laptop, fire up iPlayer, and stay entertainingly and educationally put beneath the warm sheets?

Hosea Ballou
But for all this it remains true that our basic message must be that the meaning of life is only genuinely to be found in the deeply boring and often unrewardingly hard work of simply "loving one another"; a love that Jesus reminds us is also to be offered to God and, rather more challengingly, also to our enemies. The meaning of life is not to be found in formulaic theorising, no matter how interesting or eloquent it is. As the great early nineteenth-century Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou (1771–1852) said:

We must not look for religion in creeds or formularies of human invention. 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.

De Benneville Window, First UU Church, Reading, PA
We also need clearly to express to the world something which another of the great Universalists, George de Benneville said in the eighteenth-century, that "God judges men by their deeds and not their creeds. The language of eternal love is expressed in actions. These speak more than words..." (Bell 1953). He also said:

The spirit of Love will be intensified to Godly proportions when reciprocal love exists between the entire human race and each of its individual members. That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in color, language, and worship, even as we appreciate and accept with gratitude the differences that tend to unite the male and female of all species. We do not find those differences to be obstacles to love (Bell 1953).

Our goal in life as a community (and remember that Svendson reminds us that meaning is found in our goal-oriented use of the world) is to play a real and effective part in creating a world where this loves actually comes to reign everywhere. These simple words from Ballou and de Benneville, words based, of course, on Jesus plain teaching and example are, in truth, the only thing that we have to preach. If we, if I, ever forget to remind people of this fundamental simple, and somewhat "boring" message then we are in trouble.

But even as we acknowledge this simple message we must also remember that many intelligent liberal-minded people in our culture are, today, deeply resistant to committing fully and publicly to Jesus' simple, "boring" call. The reasons for this are many and various and I hope that my own more challenging and, perhaps, even occasionally interesting and entertaining addresses are simply aimed at showing in various ways why liberal inquiring, skeptical, thoughtful people can and should commit unashamedly to following the example of Jesus and why, in the end, enacting his most boring religious message is the only way they will truly find the meaning of life they are seeking. But, in the end, even the best and most entertaining address can itself only be a meaning-surrogate in relation to Jesus basic teaching. Every address in the church must always be in the service of the simplest message of all, that we must love one another and that this alone is sufficient to fill our lives with meaning.

To remove from our lives, and the lives of others, the highly prevalent and discomforting feeling of meaninglessness we must, as Svendson notes, learn to attack the disease itself and not merely the symptoms. We attack the disease by admitting to ourselves that from the point of view of today's average meaning-junky we have a bounden duty to preach what will appear a very boring message indeed:

"Little children, love one another."

Friday, 28 June 2013

"And malt does more than Milton can / To justify God's ways to man" - a ride out to Wicken Fen, beer, Jesus, a poem by A. E. Housman and a connected thought about Heidegger . . .

Beer and Jesus at the Wicken Fen Cafe
The poems of A. E. Housman are hugely important to me. Indeed, since being introduced to them whilst at school, I have come to share particularly Houseman's love of nature, his admiration for the human Jesus and for the poetry and the thoroughgoing naturalism of the Roman poet Lucretius. But I don't reference Housman's poems much in my Sunday addresses because to many people in a formal religious setting - even one as open as that in which I minister - they appear too fatalistic and melancholy. However, from my own point of view I have always found his fatalism and melancholy - caused by his rejection of Christianity and its metaphysics in the 1870s - creatively provocative and his poems were key in encouraging me to think through what might be the positive consequences of such a rejection. Readers of this blog will know I feel that a way to work through this rejection can begin to be discerned in Heidegger’s thinking. It's a way that leads to a more optimistic, joyful and still religious (even Christian) stance towards the world than was (or could be) held by Housman. (I'd particularly recommend in connection with this general thought Julian Young's Heidegger's Later Philosophy.)

But, although Housman's actual words don't often figure in my public utterances, they often fly into my imagination. On Tuesday 18th, I took a spin on the Pashley Guv'nor on a regular ride of mine out to Wicken Fen. It was a lovely, sunny day and, given it's my day off, certainly one not to be wasted indoors. Arriving at the cafe I bought a local beer (Boathouse Bitter) and drank it along with the cheese and ham sandwiches I'd brought with me. I'd also brought with me a favourite book called The Gospel of Jesus” by an American Unitarian biblical scholar called Clayton R. Bowen published in 1916 - a reading of the Gospels that, naturally, comes down on the side of Jesus' humanity. The combination of blue skies, sun, good beer, good food and the human Jesus was a heady mix which brought to my mind one of Housman's poems from A Shropshire Lad. I'll leave you to make of it what you will but here's a link to an annotated version at the Housman Society web page that may help you get the most out of it. I also add below the poem a few pictures from the ride.

‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now.
To hear such tunes as killed the cow!
Pretty friendship 'tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad!
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad!"

Why, if 'tis dancing you would be,
There's brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not.
And faith, 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
The mischief is that 'twill not last.

Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
'Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul's stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
- I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

The River Cam from Stourbidge Common
Stourbridge Common
Rode leading from Burwell to the Lodes Way
Cock-up bridge over Burwell Lode
Burwell Lode
Burwell Lode
Pollarded trees by Burwell Lode
Looking west across Bakers Fen from the Lodes Way
Looking east across to Burwell Lode
From the Lodes Way looking east towards Burwell
Reach Lode
Reach Lode
Looking south-west along the Lodes Way from the bridge over Reach Lode
Swaffham Bulbeck Lode
Swaffham Bulbeck Lode

Sunday, 23 June 2013

All aboard for stations to Jerusalem, Athens and beyond - the Christian humanism of the Unitarian tradition

Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge
Readings: Acts 17:16-28 and from Martin Heidegger's journal “Sojourns – The Journey to Greece” (SUNY Press, 2005, pp. 1–2):

But the thrones, where are they? 
Where are the temples, the vessels, 
Where, to delight the gods, 
brim-full with nectar, the songs? 
Where, then, where do they shine, 
the oracles winged for far targets? 
Delphi’s asleep, and where now 
is great fate to be heard? 
Hölderlin, “Bread and Wine,” Fourth strophe

This “where,” raised out of an immense abandonment, a painful cry this question, what is it looking for? What does the poet see when he cries out? He sees the flight of the gods and along with that, the desolation of men’s dwellings, the emptiness of their work, the vanity of their deeds. He dares to turn his gaze towards the Greece that has already been, although he does not find support in the actual experience of the world of the islands. Why did Hölderlin have no need of such an experience? Perhaps because his gaze was reaching farther, towards the arrival of the coming god, so that only in the region of this fore-seeing that which has already been could reach its proper present. Then, the poetic cry sprung forth not at all from a mere abandonment but, instead, from the confidence in that which is coining and is able to leap over any need? What is coming only draws near and lasts for an insistent call. Are we today still hearing the call? Do we understand that such a hearing, at the same time, must be a call, even more for a human world that borders on self-destruction, and whose machinations drown out and annihilate any call?


At the beginning of last week I posted on my blog a short essay that I had been asked to contribute to a new book of theology to be published by the Hungarian Unitarian Church entitled, "No image, no passion - why this liberal continues to stand up for Jesus". It is an argument to show how and why we can (and, indeed, I think should) keep our church's primary focus upon, as the notice in our vestibule says, the teaching and example of Jesus and its application in the modern world.

It received a lot of page views and also a couple of comments, one of which required me to talk a little about the other chief influence upon us other than Jesus and the Biblical, i.e. the Judaeo-Christian, tradition, namely, the philosophy, art and stories of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In my reply I cited an important twentieth-century Unitarian theologian, John F. Hayward who said:

"I am bold to counsel the leaders of the liberal church the ministers and all laymen in responsible positions [that] . . . Their own personal tastes and decisions relating to theological matters are unimportant compared to their duty as guardians of an ancient institution. They must make available to future generations that basic Jewish and Christian substance from which the power of the church has arisen. They are also under obligation to broaden the conception of heritage by relating the church's life to sources of spiritual insight. They are free to teach and celebrate more than the Bible; they are not free to teach and celebrate less" ("Existentialism and Religious Liberalism" p. 114).

Hayward's call, one which our minister emeritus (Frank Walker) personally passed on to me before became the minister here, I take with the utmost seriousness. Indeed, as a Unitarian minister, I'm in agreement with the American President and Unitarian, Thomas Jefferson, in thinking that:

"Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others" (a letter to William Short, 1819).

In connection with this and before I move on to the substance of the address it’s worth repeating something I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, namely that the design of this church building is concerned explicitly to reference this mix of the Judaeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman (see picture at the beginning of this post). I'm sure it is clear we are meeting and worshipping in a building that is simultaneously referencing both church and classical temple and, were we so minded, architecturally speaking it would not look out of place to put on our altar a cross, a statue of Zeus or Athene, or indeed (thinking of our reading from Acts 17) an inscription saying “Agnostos Theos” (Ἄγνωστος Θεός) - “to an unknown god”.

In short, although our initial primary shaping and power as a religious community - how we got going in the first place - came about wholly because of our desire to follow the example of the human Jesus, our *way* of following him caused us also to help develop, and then fully commit to, the humanist ideals of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Our tradition is, therefore, essentially a Christian humanist one.

Now, given this deep connection we have with the Greco-Roman tradition and the interest my reply elicited online it seems worth exploring this a little today. By way of introduction I’d like briefly look at what is a small scale, but nevertheless, interesting cultural and social movement in Greece called "The Return of the Hellenes" founded in 1996 by a philosophy professor called Tryphon Olympios. It's a movement (another article about it can be found here) which wishes to bring back in some fashion the religion, values, philosophy and way of life of ancient Greece. I want to take a quick look at this movement because some of the things expressed by its members seem to me to speak to a general, present, human need in Europe and North America that a Christian humanism such as our own is, in my opinion, able meaningfully to address.

Not surprisingly a spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Church described them as, "a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion". However, it seems that relations between the movement and the Church have improved somewhat and, in a recent interview, Olympios said that: "They have understood that we are not dangerous and we are not pagans and Satanists. . . . We are peaceful people and come with ideas that are useful for society". All of this labelling (whether of self or others) is a complicated business and not always very helpful in revealing what's going on but one thing that Olympios said did strike me as being very helpful and on the money, he said that the "economic crisis in Greece should be a time of reflection about the values that should govern a society".

This point is, I think, very important for we are clearly living through an age when across Europe all our major public institutions, the Christian church in all its forms, political parties, parliament, intelligence services, the police, hospitals and schools, banks, broadcasters and newspapers, are all in various states of crisis. There seems to me to be no doubt that we have no choice but to spend more time reflecting upon the values that should govern society and, as both “The Return of the Hellenes” movement feels, and Hölderlin and Heidegger felt, the ancient Greek way of being in the world has never stopped powerfully calling to us in this regard.

However, as Victor Roudometof, a professor of sociology at the University of Cyprus, and an expert on religion in Greece notes, “The Return of the Hellenes” is not a movement the majority of Greeks would support and that it is Orthodox Christianity that remains a primary "cornerstone" of Greek identity. To this he adds that those who worship the ancient Greek gods are generally regarded as no more than "interesting curiosities".

It is not only sociologists who are doubtful about this movement but also a number of historians. Robert Parker, a professor of ancient history at the University of Oxford says that, "I don't think you can roll the clock back . . . You can't import an ancient religion into a completely different environment and social system" and he uses two words to describe those who attempt to do this: "kooky" and "ridiculous".

But even as I think Parker is absolutely right in saying you cannot revive an ancient religion in a completely different environment and social system I do not think that the members of this movement are necessarily kooky and ridiculous. In fact I would go so far as to say that they've hit upon something very important for our age that an intelligent Christian humanism such as our own can explore well and bring to the fore - namely that, as Jefferson said, Greek philosophy may still be able to give us appropriate laws for governing ourselves - laws better than the ones we are currently operating under. (In this church I hope something of this work is being done with, for example, our recent "Epicurean Gathering" and via addresses such as that centring on Socrates.)

However, (despite my general openness to it) I'm fairly convinced that the “Return of the Hellenes” movement is proceeding in a way that is not likely to succeed and to show you why I'm going to give you an example that, at first sight, will I’m sure, appear to be bizarrely unconnected with the subject in hand. But hang in there with me!

B12 locomotive on the North Norfolk Railway
I love steam engines and the romance and the lure of a preserved steam railway is irresistible to me. When you arrive at the best of them you find that hundreds of dedicated enthusiasts have created for you an almost seamlessly complete alternative world. You quickly find yourself drawn deeply into it and it becomes easy to think that there you are in touch with the true, authentic tradition of British railways. It can be quite overwhelming. The chief give-away - if you are not too bewitched to notice it - is always the length of your train journey, often-times very short. This always wakes me up and reminds me that, as wonderful, delightful and captivating as it is this is a created “golden-age” world, a simulacrum. Here there is, quite literally, no meaningful, living continuity with the extant railway system. If you want to find that, and many people preferring their dreams to realities don't, then you have to breathe deeply and head down to Cambridge station with all its less than “golden age” qualities.

A Class 365 leaving Cambridge
A diesel or electric train may not be what you desire in an ideal world but, whether, you like it or not the trains currently hauling us and our goods up and down the land are in a continuous living procession with the steam engines of old. The living truth and knowledge of the British railway is for us to be found, not on the North Norfolk Railway being hauled by a London & North Eastern Railways 1928 B12 steam engine but leaving Cambridge Station behind a First Capital Connect Class 365 or 321 electrical multiple unit.

The “Return of the Hellenes” movement is, it seems to me, somewhat like a preserved steam railway. Wonderful and captivating, yes - I think I'd genuinely love to attend one of their festivals in a toga and laurel wreath - but, in the end, it is something that, for all the will in the world, is not in a living procession with our present day culture.

Just as we can see that if we want to find a living continuity with the age of steam then we must climb aboard a multiple electrical unit we should be able to see that in terms of finding some meaningful continuity with Greek and Roman thinking then we must climb aboard those institutions that have actually remained continuously connected with it. The Christian Church which, even though in its Orthodox and Catholic forms it often suppressed this thinking as effectively as diesel and electric replaced steam, is, along with our secular universities, a site of this continuity (remember Acts 17 shows Christianity has always been engaged in dialogue and debate with Greek and Roman thinking). Now, clearly not every current expression of Christianity is going to be open and welcoming to such a project which actively seeks to reassess Greek and Roman thinking but I hope you can see that we most certainly are. Here are some more words by the Unitarian theologian John F. Hayward:

[A]lthough we have not inherited directly from Greece any modes of worship which we can naturally and easily assume, we have her art, her drama and literature as a reminder of her profound influence on all our history and thought patterns. Liberal churchmen should carefully inject into the activity of the church the varied legacy of classical Greece, her celebration of natural beauty, her rationalism, her sense for the tragic, and her stoical courage (ibid p. 112).

I wholeheartedly agree and think that in our current European crisis we do need to reconnect with certain aspects of Greek and Roman thinking, especially those offered up by the Epicureans and Stoics with whom Paul debated two millennia ago. From where I stand as a liberal churchman I have to say that basic desire of the members of “The Return of the Hellenes" does not seem to me to be kooky and ridiculous and I find that I share their basic desire. But, as committed representative of our liberal church tradition and a supporter of a secular public culture, then I have a duty to say that if we genuinely want to revive something of Greco-Roman thinking today then we shouldn't be putting our weight behind a movement like the “The Return of the Hellenes” but behind liberal churches such as this one or behind other, secular philosophical clubs and gatherings such as those organised within our universities or through groups such as the “Socrates Cafe” movement. In choosing this unglamorous practical route we may well appear to many people as the philosophical and religious equivalents of modern electrical multiple units and so appear less attractive than the steam trains of old but at least we have the benefit of still running real services to real places for real people, right here and right now.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

A liberal still standing up for Jesus - a reply to a comment on my lastblogpost

An early image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd
A very important point was posted on my last blogpost No image, no passion - why this liberal continues to stand up for Jesus by Tim Bartik. Thanks, Tim, for taking the time to post a comment it is much appreciated and I'm very happy to engage with you on this.

(Update 23 June 2013 - the Sunday address following this post picked up on themes introduced here.)

Tim wrote:

This is a well-written piece. However, in the end, I'm afraid I find your message to be somewhat contradictory. Apparently you accept that other bassists may find other models more interesting, engaging, inspiring, exciting, relevant, etc. than your role model of Carol Kaye. But you do not apply the same thinking to your approach to religion. Personally, I find Socrates to be a good role model for liberalism. But your mileage may vary.

So, I'd like to begin with a defensive stroke by pointing out that in the piece I explicitly say that:

"It is true, of course, that there are other models or prototypes one might follow rather than Jesus, and I am not making here some covert claim for his absolute uniqueness and value of him over all other great religious teachers. All I am saying is that Jesus is, without doubt, our own particular culture’s primary religious model and, for all kinds of straightforward, sensible historical and cultural reasons, his example remains the best and most obvious place for us to begin to learn how to live a genuinely liberal religious life" 

I emphasise here the word "begin."

I would like to add before moving on that in this blog (which I most certainly don't expect you to know in any detail) you will find that I, too, cite Socrates as being for us a particularly good role model and I also repeatedly reference the thinking of Epicurus and Lucretius. (In a moment I'll come back to this mix of a Judaeo-Christian model - centred on Jesus - and various additional models from Greek and Roman philosophy.)

Anyway my basic aim in writing this piece was to articulate the need for a model that begins to get us going in the first place, a model that we concentrate on for an initial passionate period and which helps us (and I'm talking here about us as a church tradition which gathers individuals together) actually to ground and shape our desires to be a good and effective religious liberal.

Whether we like it or not there is always the first model (or in some cases, a nexus of models) in any particular domain we are talking about. That model (or nexus of models) ineluctably shapes us in a particular way and gives us an initial grounded identity or *style* (this is important) that is authentically our own and means we are this or that bass player or religious liberal and not another. Of course, as we develop, we can (should) add nuances and even quite major additions to our style but there is something about the initial shaping that never leaves us (even if it sometimes leaves only a negative impression).

In Unitarian circles (whether in the North American Unitarian and Universalist tradition, in my own British Unitarian and Free Christian form or in the Hungarian Unitarian Church) that initial model was Jesus and we can't change that. This is an utterly undeniable historical fact. From it flowed an enormous number of consequences that I simply cannot list here (though I will try if you ask me to) but they were consequences which gave us a radically different style (or shape) from, say, Buddhists or Hindus or Muslims etc. etc.. It doesn't necessarily make us better (or worse) than these other faiths (or shapes), and from them all we can (and should) learn much but, to repeat, following Jesus as our initial model was what began to get us going in a particular way and not another. I've explored something of this in a number of addresses including Our Human Vocation - complete, but not absolute, spiritual freedom and The Edict of Torda, Francis David, Arne Naess and a distinctive way to do liberal religion (far more than just a history lesson . . .).

Now the Unitarian style of following Jesus opened us up to the world in a way that was very different from the style of following Jesus that was pursued in what became Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism (especially in its magisterial forms). It allowed us to be much more open to other ways of being in the world particularly, in the first instance, to classical Greek and Roman thinking.

In my opinion there has been no better modern articulation within Unitarian circles of this mix of the Judaeo-Christian with the Greek and Roman than John F. Hayward's excellent (sadly long out of print) 1962 book called "Existentialism and Religious Liberalism". But even there Hayward says:

"I am bold to counsel the leaders of the liberal church the ministers and all laymen in responsible positions [that] . . . Their own personal tastes and decisions relating to theological matters are unimportant compared to their duty as guardians of an ancient institution. They must make available to future generations that basic Jewish and Christian substance from which the power of the church has arisen. They are also under obligation to broaden the conception of heritage by relating the church's life to sources of spiritual insight. They are free to teach and celebrate more than the Bible; they are not free to teach and celebrate less" (p. 114).

The trouble is that within contemporary North American and British Unitarian circles there has developed a real tendency to teach and celebrate significantly less than the Bible by increasingly marginalising (and even in some cases actively excluding) our primary, initiating model, namely the Jewish rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth. This denial of Jesus has, in my opinion, not helped our communities become more liberal, flexible and open to other ways of being in the world but often precisely the opposite. We have lost our authentic way of being liberal in the world and, therefore, we struggle to be a strong, disciplined partner walking and campaigning with other religious (and secular) liberals to foster a genuinely plural, liberal secular democracy.

The reasons for our abandonment of Jesus are complex (and often very understandable) but this does not make it the right thing for us to do. All my piece is intended to do is offer our own community just one illustration to show why we need not abandon Jesus as our primary, corporate model. Additionally, I hope it can help reveal why following Jesus in the way our tradition has historically encouraged us to we are, thereby, in fact helped more clearly to see why and how we should open ourselves up to other influences.

To conclude, just a word about with your point concerning the wonderful Carol Kaye. I was only able to "get" her playing and respond to it - figuring out what she was doing in a pop and rock context etc. - because I had grounded myself first in the jazz playing of Chuck Israels which had really captivated me. She could have come first (to me) but she didn't (another model other than Jesus could have come first to our Unitarian tradition but they didn't). It is vitally important to see here that I'm making no hidden metaphysical claim about the primacy of Chuck Israels (or Jesus) - just a claim about how we got going in the first place and how that gave us a certain real and actual authentic style or shape and, therefore, real traction in the world.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

No image, no passion - why this liberal continues to stand up for Jesus

Jesus depicted on a Polish Socinian/Unitarian medallion
The following piece is a revision of an address I've given a couple of times in Cambridge during the past few years. I've revised it for inclusion in a new book for the Hungarian Unitarian Church and thought it might be worth posting here. The Hungarian translation is being done by the Revd Pap Maria with whom I spent some time at Harris Manchester College in 1998.


This brief piece is born out of the fact that for many European and North American liberals (especially in Unitarian and Universalist circles) religion has increasingly become for them just a general, abstract theory about life that doesn’t require for its full flourishing a deep, personal commitment to some specific role model. As the following poem by Stephen Dunn poignantly reveals many people have developed crippling fears particularly about our own culture’s central, inherited model of the ideal religious life, Jesus of Nazareth, in whose footsteps we used to be able to follow with complete confidence. As Peter wrote in his First Epistle: ‘For to this [life] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps’ (1 Peter 2:21).

At The Smithville Methodist Church by Stephen Dunn

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week, 
but when she came home 
with the “Jesus Saves” button, we knew what art 
was up, what ancient craft. 

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs 
they sang when they weren’t 
twisting and folding paper into dolls. 
What could be so bad? 

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith 
in good men was what 
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism, 
that other sadness. 

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home 
singing “Jesus loves me, 
the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk. 
Could we say Jesus 

doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible 
is a great book certain people use 
to make you feel bad? We sent her back 
without a word. 

It had been so long since we believed, so long 
since we needed Jesus 
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was 
sufficiently dead, 

that our children would think of him like Lincoln 
or Thomas Jefferson. 
Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief 
to a child, 

only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story 
nearly as good. 
On parents’ night there were the Arts & Crafts 
all spread out 

like appetizers. Then we took our seats 
in the church 
and the children sang a song about the Ark, 
and Hallelujah 

and one in which they had to jump up and down 
for Jesus. 
I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain 
about what’s comic, what’s serious. 

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes. 
You can’t say to your child 
“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks 
of extinction and nothing 

exciting happens for centuries. I didn’t have 
a wonderful story for my child 
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car 
she sang the songs, 

occasionally standing up for Jesus. 
There was nothing to do 
but drive, ride it out, sing along 
in silence. 

As a British Unitarian and Free Christian minister I remain convinced that in both secular and religious liberal circles it is vitally important to rediscover the value and need to commit to a role model – especially to the human Jesus.  The best way I can show you why I think this is the case is via an example drawn from my own work teaching people how to play jazz and, particularly, jazz-bass. Before I entered the ministry I worked professionally as a jazz bassist and today I still find time to continue to play, record and teach music. One of my own key role models when I was learning to play was Chuck Israels, especially his playing in the trios led by the pianist Bill Evans between 1961 and 1966. Israels’ summarises an experience many of us working in this field have had:

Over the years, as I have assumed the role of “Jazz Educator”, both within and outside of “institutions of higher learning” . . . I have learned to ask [of students] a revealing question. “Who is your favourite musician?” It is remarkable that more often than not, I get no clear answer. There is sometimes a period of uncomfortable silence broken by occasional throat clearing noises, while the prospective student searches for a name or perhaps tries to guess what name might create the most effective impression. Sometimes an embarrassed silence yields nothing and occasionally there is an equally uncommitted claim to have listened to and liked “everything” (from an unpublished essay, An Unpopular Perspective on Jazz Education).

Like Israels, every year a number I find a number of such students standing before me. So what is going on here? Well, despite the obvious very negative aspects of this situation, Israels believes (and I agree with him) that the student is in fact motivated by something very worthwhile, namely, the ‘idea of the potential pleasures of performing with and for other people, with the attendant rewards of attention and shared activity.’ These are, he notes:

. . . worthwhile values and have served as a part of the motivation of many artists. But this is a broad image which is insufficiently concrete to serve as a focus for attainment. There is no clear place to begin and the mentor is reduced to helping the applicant to find something to love. Get a model. Find a prototype. Without this there is no image and no passion (ibid).

After thirteen years of professional ministerial experience in the United Kingdom I know intimately that people who come to find out about a liberal church tradition, such as the one I serve in Cambridge, are also motivated by many worthwhile things. For example the belief that they will gain here a certain sense of mental and spiritual stability and insight, a sense of belonging to a community with a long and venerable history and lastly, but not leastly, that they will be able to achieve a creative, confident openness to the wonderful, plural, complex and contingent nature of our world. But, as good as all these things are, together they form such a broad canvas that, alone, it is wholly ‘insufficient to serve as a focus for attainment.’ If an individual church or minister allows people to remain at this general level there is simply no clear place for someone to begin to learn how actually to be religious liberally.

Consequently, as mentor – whether as a music teacher or minister – I often find my role is in the first instance simply to help people find something to love, to get a model and find a prototype.

In the case of my music students I have to give them some recordings and then, when they find a particular bass player they actually like, I ask them to come back to me so we can begin the first important step, namely, the task of imitating that model and of figuring out just exactly how he or she is playing the things they are. (If you’re interested, my great female role model was the wonderful Carol Kaye who played bass on many Motown hits of the 1960s as well as on some of the classic Beach Boys recordings.)

To the disappointment of many of my students this turns out to be harder work than they imagined. However, it is absolutely clear that if a student doesn’t get a role model about whose playing they are truly excited then they will have ‘no image and no passion’ and what is already a huge task quickly becomes for them far too difficult to see through to the end. Although the student rightly desires all the fruits of being a jazz player if they never do any of the required foundational work (which includes imitation) then they will turn out to be directionless players with no substantial grip on anything real about the music. At best they will become mediocre players and, at worst, they will simply come to experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure. In an attempt to get out of this difficulty one solution, often unconsciously adopted by some of my students, is to begin believing that the really good jazz players have simply had something like ‘magic dust’ sprinkled on them at birth! They foolishly begin to turn their human heroes into little less than gods and themselves into merely second-rate human beings. As we in Unitarian circles know only too well, many religious traditions have turned their own founding figures into something little less than god and, in the case of Jesus, even into ‘God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God’ (Nicene Creed).

It seems to me that all that I have said above about jazz is also true in many Unitarian and Universalist circles. The liberal who merely desires the fruits of a liberal religion but who then fails seriously to follow a religious prototype or model of that faith-in-action will never get a real grip on what they need to be doing themselves in their own liberal religious life. Everything will remain for them terribly unfocused and unfulfilling; there will be no attainment and no progression. At best they will be mediocre in the matter of living a liberal life, at worst they will experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure.

It is true, of course, that there are other models or prototypes one might follow rather than Jesus, and I am not making here some covert claim for his absolute uniqueness and value of him over all other great religious teachers. All I am saying is that Jesus is, without doubt, our own particular culture’s primary religious model and, for all kinds of straightforward, sensible historical and cultural reasons, his example remains the best and most obvious place for us to begin to learn how to live a genuinely liberal religious life.

Now, I am aware that some liberals may seek to resist the message of this address because they believe it would tie them down and unduly restrict them. But a model only ties and represses when it becomes absolutely fixed and formalised, merely to be slavishly repeated without any variation and creativity. However, the true model, when taught about appropriately, frees us because it is precisely in the process of modelling ourselves on something tangible that we are helped to be able to push out into the real world to test and experience reality ourselves. In short, the conception of following Jesus I have in mind, and which encourage in the church where I am minister, is much more like the exciting, fruitful and open relationship I continue to have with my musical heroes than it is like the rigid, dogmatic relationship to Jesus envisioned by most Christian orthodoxies.

I try to make it clear that it was only by, in the first instance, imitating my jazz heroes that I was able to learn how to move from a vague idea or theory about how to play jazz to actually playing jazz. By extension, when I then go on to play for them I can also show that, despite all my copying, I don’t today sound like any of my heroes but only like me, Andrew Brown, jazz bass-player.

What is true in the world of jazz is also true in the world of liberal religion but the tragedy of Christianity in its global, institutional, and more conservative and orthodox forms is that it turned, and still turns Jesus from being a startling and inspiring human role model into a dead, dogmatically held metaphysical theory about the world. Standing up (like the child in Dunn’s poem) for this latter kind of Jesus (with an associated slavish support of the institutions that support these theories) is something I remain profoundly uncomfortable about. But, unlike the parents in Dunn’s poem, I try to show that we in our own Unitarian and Universalist traditions are not forced merely to ‘drive on, ride it out and sing in silence’ with this song – no! We can, instead, choose to show our children, ourselves and others another way to stand up for Jesus by singing a different kind of song.

The genius of our shared tradition is found in that over nearly four and a half centuries it has been able consistently to help people to see that when Jesus is followed, as a true human exemplar, this enables a person to begin to experience, not a pale imitation of Jesus’ life nor that of some dogmatic religious institution but, instead, their own beautiful, complex, contingent life in all its fullness and abundance.

It should be clear that the current rise of conservative and fundamentalist Christian ideologies around the world requires us to show that there is, in fact, another way to stand up for Jesus – a way that is liberal and open-hearted and which tends towards, not dogma and coercion but, instead, a genuine love for freedom of conscience and toleration in religion. A way that shows, as Ferenc Dávid once said: “We need not think alike, to love alike.”

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

An Epicurean Gathering and a cycle and walk along the Roman Road with Epicurus and Lucretius in my bag

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

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

Last night three of us gathered to try out the Epicurean "liturgy" I had compiled a few years ago that I mentioned in a recent post called "An, as yet, only imagined Epicurean Gathering to meditate, to philosophise, and to eat together." It was, I'm pleased to say, a successful and rewarding event. Having  now done it for real a few minor changes have been made. The revised form can be found at the links below:

This morning, with thoughts of Epicurus and Lucretius very much in my mind (and with an edition of their works in my bag) I went out for a cycle and walk along the Roman Road near Cambridge. In a beautiful flower strewn meadow I ate my sandwiches and drank a flask of tea before lying on my back for half an hour to rest and read their wonderful words. Below are a few photos from the ride/walk.

Clock-tower at Wandlebury

Varley's Field Wandlebury

Looking east from Wool Street

Looking north-east from Wool Street

Looking north-east towards the Roman Road along Beech Avenue 

Looking south-east along the Roman Road 

Looking south-east along the Roman Road 

Looking south through a gap in the hedge

The track leading from the Roman Road to Babraham Road 

A farm track looking south 

Roman Road looking south-east

Roman Road looking south-east near Copley Hill

The track off the Roman Road leading to Copley Hill

Roman Road looking north-west back towards Wandlebury

Roman Road looking north-west back towards Wandlebury

On the footpath between the Roman Road and Fleam Dyke looking south-east

Wild-flower meadow where I ate my sandwiches, drank tea, rested and read  

Wild-flower meadow where I ate my sandwiches, drank tea, rested and read  

Looking north-east towards Fleam Dyke

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Our Human Vocation - complete, but not absolute, spiritual freedom


Exodus 3:13-15 The Divine Name Revealed:

But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’ (or I will be what I will be). He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am (I will be) has sent me to you.”’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.

Galatians 5:1, 13-15 

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. . . . For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 

From George Kimmich Beach’s essay "The Covenant of Spiritual Freedom" in Redeeming the Time (Skinner House Books, Boston 1998)

. . . as a potter you form a lump of clay, you make many decisions, exercising your freedom both consciously and instinctively, to one end, a finished ceramic. [. . .] The original decision in pottery making is not unlike the original decision in faith: once a direction is set, soon it will be too late to change your mind. Choosing a bowl excludes a pitcher. Now choices are being made within an ever narrowing range; necessity is closing in on the maker. But this is the miracle of creation: a reversal is also in progress, for the embrace of necessity gives birth to a greater freedom. With each new choice, new, more refined choices arise; creative freedom I growing exponentially. [. . .] The perfect end to the exercise of freedom is perfect necessity. We think: This bowl, or this life, can only be what it must be!

From Chiara Bottici’s essay "Black and Red: The Freedom of Equals" in The Anarchist Turn (eds. Jacob Blumenfeld, Chiara Bottici, Simon Critchley, Pluto Press, London 2013 p. 13–14)

 [F]reedom is at the beginning, because at the beginning there is the ’who?’ question, and thus every being endowed with the capacity to say ’I am’. 
     The ego is at the beginning as activity, as a capacity to move and speak, and here lies the root of its capacity to be free. And yet, if this interpretation is correct, and the being who says ’I am’ cannot but be endowed with language, then it follows that . . . A radical individualism, which depicts continual war between the individual and society, is potentially contradictory. To put it in a nutshell, the individual cannot be at ’total war’ with society . . . Because the individual is to a large extent it's own product. 
     Freedom is . . . the capacity to do what I want, to act in conformity with my convictions, but . . . in order to know what my own convictions are I need the mediation of the ’equally free consciousness of everybody.


Last week I indicated to you that what a liberal church such as this is about is not really the doctrines that, once upon a time, it propounded but rather something I, following the most important twentieth-century Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur, called “complete spiritual freedom”. You will recall from last week that in 1920 he thought the "doctrinal aspect" of our churches was in truth only "a temporary phase" and that our Unitarian doctrines were only "a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom". A spiritual freedom which, later in the essay he calls “complete.” It is important to notice that neither Wilbur nor I said “absolute” but only “complete” spiritual freedom.

I left this point uncommented upon at the time in order not to distract from last week's substantive point, namely, that I think we in this church do not have a straightforward religious brand to sell the world but, instead, a method of open-ended religious conversation akin to the kind promoted by Socrates. Another way of putting this is to say that ours is a tradition of enquiry, a critical and intelligent way of living out of, and thinking through, the liberal Christian *tradition*.

However, this week, I think I need to return to the phrase “complete spiritual freedom” because the word “complete”, especially when attached to the word “freedom”, is prone to a great deal of misunderstanding. It can quickly become confused with something imaginary called “absolute” freedom - a freedom that has absolutely no boundaries or limits.

But, in order to understand what I mean by the word “complete” we need, firstly, to look at what is meant by “freedom”, only then can we move on to see what might be a “complete” version of that.

The concept of freedom was important to us from our very beginnings in the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation and it has remained a central concern of our communities even as it has often become hidden under local, passing, doctrinal expressions of this same freedom. As Chiara Bottici notes “freedom is at the beginning, because at the beginning there is the ’who?’ question, and thus every being endowed with the capacity to say ’I am’.”

Now, Bottichi is not talking specifically about us, but I hope that most of you here will be aware that as a religious tradition we have consistently been concerned to find ways to affirm the freedom of the individual,  the ’I am’, to decide for themselves in matters of faith and belief. As it says in the preamble to our General Assembly’s Object we recognise “the worth and dignity of all people and their freedom to believe as their consciences dictate” and believe “that truth is best served where the mind and conscience are free.” However, this stand has inevitably caused, and almost certainly will always cause, a certain tension to arise between a person’s individual needs and experiences and the needs and experiences of the church tradition such that, at times the individual and society can even seem to be a “war” with one another. Chiara Bottici, continues:

“The ego is at the beginning as activity, as a capacity to move and speak, and here lies the root of its capacity to be free. And yet, if this interpretation is correct, and the being who says ’I am’ cannot but be endowed with language, then it follows that . . . A radical individualism, which depicts continual war between the individual and society, is potentially contradictory. To put it in a nutshell, the individual cannot be at ’total war’ with society . . . Because the individual is to a large extent it's own product” (AT p. 13).

This relates to the idea of “freedom” because the concept and the word is gifted to us through the language of our tradition and no one is free either to be themselves nor talk about freedom in isolation. We can only be free ’I ams’ through a complex “web of reciprocal interdependence”. Again Chiara Bottici helps us here:

“Freedom is . . . the capacity to do what I want, to act in conformity with my convictions, but . . . in order to know what my own convictions are I need the mediation of the ’equally free consciousness of everybody’” (AT p. 14).

The point is that, in order to be free (in any meaningful, grounded sense of the word), we need some communal language gifted to us and spoken by some kind of actual existent community in which we are living an actual life. In other words “freedom implies recognition, to be recognised and to recognise the other as free” (AT p.15).

In another nutshell: WE CANNOT BE FREE ALONE.

“Complete” freedom is then something that must be a communal and, in some way, a consensually developed human activity - an activity that is necessarily bounded and finite. This means there can be no such thing as “absolute” freedom because there are always limits. It is important to see that despite the existence of these limits complete freedom includes both the societal permission to explore and critique these limits in the first place and also the possibility of changing, moving and/or nuancing them through a process of dialogue. Yet for all this limits will remain it is just that they will always be shifting in some way. Notice that complete freedom does not lead inexorably to absolute freedom but only to a different kind of complete freedom, with different kinds of limits.

This, it turns out, has profound implications for the ’I am’ - that is to say for us as individuals. Living in a state of complete freedom we come to recognise we are not really an ’I am’ but rather an ’I will be’. In the thinking of Ernst Bloch, humans are Not-Yet, they are unfinished and the completion of their being always lies in the future. I read from Genesis 3 to suggest to you, importantly though in passing today, that there exists a similar Biblical conception of God. God, too, may be best thought of as Not-Yet, God is an always-already future ‘I am’ continually calling all of us hopefully and freely into an ever new life of service to the other in community.

This point brings me to the second, brief part of this address which is to revisit George Kimmich Beach’s parable which appears in the same essay from which our opening words last week were taken and which I have reproduced on today’s order of service. This essay begins with Beach saying:

“The twentieth century is the age of the crisis of liberal democracy. The prospect of our liberal faith is intimately bound up with that crisis. We face one question in many guises: Is freedom the right of individuals to think and do as they please, or is it the human capacity to respond creatively to the possibilities and limits of existence?”

Later on Beach states:

“We are not free to believe whatever we want, any more than we are free to do whatever we want - unless, of course, we choose instant gratification and utter transience. We are free to believe what we must and to do what we must, in order to fulfil our human vocation, our calling to a larger humanity. The phrase, “in order that,” signals an often-forgotten truth: freedom is only meaningful within a framework of purposeful action. The word covenant signifies a framework within which intentionality takes effect. Spiritual freedom seeks authentic self-transcendence [in community]. Within this framework we enjoy much latitude for individual expression. Our religious communities should enjoy a diversity as various as humanity itself. But the covenantal framework itself is not optional: it is necessary, fated and inescapable” (p. 102-103).

Beach grounds this somewhat abstract insight with his parable of choosing to make a bowl not a pitcher. The point being that the perfect exercise of your complete freedom to make any kind of ceramic you wish does not lead you to absolute freedom and to the eventual creation of some kind of Platonic, god-like ideal ceramic but to the perfect necessity of this or that very singular real bowl in front of you. Some bowls, some pitchers will turn out wonderfully, others will crack and break or dissatisfy us in other ways because complete freedom will always bring us to new and different limits. But, because complete freedom is always exercised within a limiting framework we are allowed and enabled to try again and again to push creatively against different limits in different ways. Because of this complete freedom is, as Beach wisely observes, “both humbling and exalting.” It is always humbling because it we never achieve anything approaching absolute ends and we are always miss the mark in some way or even failing. But, and this is a life saving but, it is exalting because we can always try again and there is always “the miracle of having had a hand in making a new thing.” As Samuel Beckett memorably said in ‘Worstward Ho’: “Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

In a liberal church such as this our human vocation is found in the attempt to achieve this complete spiritual freedom in ever larger communities and in its exercise we find that there is always-already to be found genuine hope and good reason to continue to work together for the creation of a new and completely free humanity covenantally bound by a complex web of reciprocal interdependence.


I conclude this published version of today's address as I did last week's with a call to consider adopting George Kimmich Beach's covenant which graces our own noticeboard:

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We freely commit ourselves to high and holy aims, aims that transcend us, aims of the Spirit. Not in freedom from obligations to others, but in freedom to enter into common endeavours for the common good. Not in freedom from the nourishing roots of our faith in ancient ages, but in freedom to give fresh interpretation to ancient symbols and stories. Not in freedom from being called to aims that surpass us, but in the freedom that springs from knowing that “we've caught a moving train” (Johnny Ray Youngblood), and, together, we're on our way. 

We covenant in spiritual freedom. We find at the centre of our faith an energizing mainspring, a drive for meaning and dignity implanted in every soul in every land—the wonder of being alive and awakened to life, the grace of beginning anew. Not in the self-enclosing isolation of the self, but in the quest for a more inclusive covenant. Not in narrow-mindedness or in mean-spirited debunking of things cherished by others, but in listening for the spirit of life and truth wherever it arises. Not in fearfulness that life runs out and nothing can be done, but in the courage to turn every crisis of life into an opportunity for growth and spiritual depth. 

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We seek a better world where all peoples can flourish, sharing in the resources of planet Earth and sustaining her natural ecology, a new humanity within the covenant of being. Not closing our eyes to the awesome tasks that stand before us, but committing ourselves to labour tirelessly for the physical, moral, and spiritual well-being of all. Not despairing of the human prospect, but affirming hope, and the sacredness of the image in which we are made. Not stonyhearted when we are called to make a new beginning, nor giving up when our need is to persevere, but affirming our quest for wholeness and holiness