Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Wishing you all a very happy and fruitful summer

Taken in the Memorial Church garden this summer
Just a quick post to thank all the members of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church in Cambridge and readers of this blog for their many helpful, powerful and interesting insights over the past year. I have appreciated all your contributions.

As always I'm taking a break from blogging until 1st September in order to take time to rest, read, cycle and spend some time walking, talking and eating with my wife Susanna.

If you are coming to this blog for the first time and want to get an overview of what I'm thinking and writing about here may I suggest you go to the "About this blog" page - a link is available at the top of this page or simply click on the link below. On it you will find a general overview and a selection of posts that are fairly representative.


I hope you all have a very happy, restful and fruitful summer and I look forward to meeting you again either online or in person in the congregation in September.

Christ's Pieces opposite the church during the heatwave

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Pale Blue Dot – Un-humanizing our view of the world: A meditation in anticipation of the new photograph of the Earth taken by the Cassini spacecraft beyond the orbit of Saturn

Earthrise - 1968
One of the important things about going away on some kind of holiday as I will be doing next week (apart from the obvious reason of rest)  is to get a new perspective on things.

This is not, of course, to go away in order to try to find some view from nowhere, the imagined perfect viewpoint from which your own life or, indeed, life itself is understood. Of course, once upon a time we thought such a view existed - it was a God's eye view and, if you believed the right things about the right kind of God then you, too, could come to share some real knowledge of this view.

But, thankfully, we live in an age when more and more people are realising that this is a false belief and that every view is always a view from somewhere. We've  slowly come to agree with Nietzsche in thinking that the most "complete" picture of the world anyone of us can have is always going to be a complex, collage-like affair - made up of multiple perspectives.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries there have come along a number of new perspective on the world which have impacted upon millions of people simultaneously. Not because they all went on holiday together to the same place (thank God!) but, thanks to modern technology, because we were momentarily gathered together through the viewpoint of a single lens.

My life began just three years before the first and most famous of these, namely, a photograph taken on Christmas Eve 1968 by the crew of Apollo 8 crew which showed us for the first time the Earth as it appears from space. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders had become the first humans to leave Earth orbit and had entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. During that orbit an historic live broadcast took place in which Lovell said, "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth." The crew then took turns reading from the book of Genesis and Borman concluded the broadcast by saying, "We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth."


The photograph, now called "Earthrise", is credited with giving the whole human race a new sublime and awe inspiring perspective on our place in the universe. We were, it seemed, beginning as a whole species more fully to recognise just how beautiful, and how fragile, was our home - spaceship earth.

But one of the oddities I have long noticed about this picture is how its beauty all too quickly and easily seems to have trumped it's sublime aspect. To show you what I mean let's turn to the following words by Albert Gelpi about beauty:

'The beautiful refers to the landscape whose physical conformation and psychological affect welcomes, responds to, and nurtures the human. It is characterised by a modest scale that accommodates the human presence, regularity and symmetry of elements, smoothly curving lines, gentle gradations of height and depth, steady light and harmonious shades of colour. The cooperative participation of the human transforms the beautiful into the pastoral: sun irradiating a fertile and cultivated landscape dotted with family farms, divine beneficence manifest in reflections of the heavens above in the rivers and lakes below. Beautiful nature reveals the divine as the maternal ground, the source and sustenance and resting place of life' (From Albert Gelpi’s introduction to The Wild God of the World – An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford University Press 2003, p.13).

I'm sure you have all many of you will have experienced how the "Earthrise" photo and photos of the earth in general are, today, often received in our culture as a beautiful even almost pastoral images. Visits to the moon became regular affairs until 1972 and after that there were the many Space Shuttle flights and so, in consequence, the image of the whole earth from space very quickly become to us a comprehensible and human-scaled and, perhaps, even modest. Of course in 1968 we hadn't yet accommodated ourselves to this perspective and, at the time, it could only appear to most of us as a sublime, vertiginous and awesome image. Try, for a moment to put yourself back in time to 1968 and hear these words by Gelpi about the sublime:

'By contrast, the physical conformation and psychological affect of the sublime landscape dwarfs the physical presence of the beholder so overwhelmingly that he or she feels psychologically reduced to the point of annihilation or absorption into the awesomeness of what he or she beholds. Characteristic features of the sublime include vastness of scale that suggests infinity, jagged and broken lines, extremes of soaring heights and dizzying declivities, intense contrasts of brightness and dark, the light either blinding or obscured by cloud over a harsh and dreadful landscape in which the irresistible energies of earth and wind, fire and water surge and collide. . . . The beholder at this pivotal and precipitous moment of epiphany is at once thrilled and threatened by the erasure of his frailty in the transcendental Other' (ibid p.13).

Many of the astronauts who experienced first-hand this view of the earth have used this kind of language to describe their experiences (On this point it is well worth seeing the excellent and moving short film I've embedded below this paragraph called The Overview Effect). But the fact remains as we have become more and more used to seeing it, pictures of the earth from space have increasingly become in our culture simply beautiful, decorative images suitable for bed-sit posters or desktop images and they have become to us more beautiful than sublime.


Pale Blue Dot (click to enlarge)
But such easy accommodation to recognisably human-scales was much harder to achieve in relation to the next important photograph of our planet taken between February 14, 1990 and June 6, 1990 by Voyager 1 at a distance of 3.7 billion miles which showed Earth as no more than a pale blue dot. To see our home planet as something so small, so insignificant in the vastness of space made a very powerful impression upon millions of us - it called forth once again, not so much the language of beauty, but the language of the sublime. The most famous expression of this was made by the astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan who had requested that the photo was taken in the first place. On October 13, 1994 he was delivering a public lecture at his own university of Cornell. He put up on the screen a photo of earth taken by the Voyager space craft at a distance of 3.7 billion miles and said the following words:

'We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. 
          The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.'

Looking back on my first sight of that photo accompanied by Sagan's words I can see it was a pivotal moment in my life which triggered a development in my own thinking that allowed me slowly to let go of a traditional theistic conception of God and to begin to walk a path which has led to the kind of religious naturalism I hold to today.

Rothko's paintings in The Rothko Chapel
But, as with the "Earthrise" photo I have long noticed something odd about the Pale Blue Dot photo. Once again its sublime and awe inspiring quality has also proved all too easily trumped by beauty. But this time the beauty was not found (made?) by turning it into a modern "landscape", wholly accommodated to a (space-age) human scale of things, but by assimilating it as a kind of abstract art-work. The truth is when you don't know what the picture is - i.e. if you saw it first of all without any additional caption or commentary you would not look at it and say in an unprompted way, "Oh my God, look, it's the earth! And, oh my God, how small it is!" No, un-annotated, it's simply a blue dot in a sea of blacky brown crossed with some faint bands of colour - beautiful, yes, but no longer obviously sublime. Seen like this it takes on an almost Rothkoesque quality.

Computer simulation of the forthcoming Cassini photograph
Now we can move to the as yet unreleased photograph that was taken this Friday by the Cassini spacecraft somewhere just beyond Saturn. At a distance of about 898 million miles.

UPDATE 22 July 2013. Click on this link to go to the NASA site to see them.

It is interesting to try to glean from the words of the Cassini team why they wanted to take this picture. There are, as you might expect, some fairly straightforward scientific reasons in the mix. Because at the time of the photo Saturn was eclipsing the sun from Cassini's point of view this provided a special opportunity to look at the planet's rings and see some otherwise invisible structure.

But that’s not the only reason in the mix. Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California says:

'While Earth will be only about a pixel in size from Cassini's vantage point . . . the team is looking forward to giving the world a chance to see what their home looks like from Saturn.' 

Cassini's 2006 photo of earth
Actually, this is not the first photo of Earth taken by Cassini from Saturn. So why do it again? Well here is Carolyn Porco’s take on the matter. Porco is the Cassini imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado and she says:

'Ever since we caught sight of the Earth among the rings of Saturn in September 2006 in a mosaic that has become one of Cassini's most beloved images, I have wanted to do it all over again, only better. This time, I wanted to turn the entire event into an opportunity for everyone around the globe to savor the uniqueness of our planet and the preciousness of the life on it.'

(The above quotes can be found in by clicking this link)

I feel, but cannot prove of course, that these words reveal the scientists involved in this project have recognised some of what I have been talking about in this address. That this might be so is indicated by what seems to be a willingness within certain scientific circles to take seriously the importance of the beautiful and the sublime. Only two years ago Oxford University Press published a book written by a number of leading natural scientists called "Beyond the Finite - The Sublime in Art and Science."

The Cassini team seem to have realised that as a human race we aren't good at properly internalising what people like Sagan were saying about the fragility of our planet and the pressing need to look after it and each other better, much better.

They have seen that if the picture they present us with to help us to change our ways is too recognisable and human scaled (like Earthrise) or too awesomely abstract and un-humanly scaled (like the Pale Blue Dot) then we all too quickly reduce the sublime element of their message to the beautiful.

This human tendency reveals the need always to be finding a balance between, on the one hand, a human-centred and human-scaled beauty and, on the other, an un-human and utterly overwhelming, incomprehensible sublime. We need to see and deeply internalise the truth that our day to day human-centred views of the world, while important, are alone neither healthy or sustainable perspectives to live by for they encourage us into acts of destructive dominion rather than expressing a love for the preciousness of all things.

The human centred perspective always needs the balance of the sublime perspective to keep us in appropriate check. As the poet Robinson Jeffers said at the end of his poem Carmel Point:

                                                                       As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

When later this week the Cassini photo is finally published please spend some time with it, imbibing both its beautiful and sublime aspects. Please, as you do this, remember that it is only when we are prepared constantly to move between human and unhuman perspectives that there can spring forth within us the right kind of energy and spirit that will help us truly fulfil our role, not as dominators and rulers, but as gentle and wise custodians of our fragile, beautiful home - the good earth.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

There is only the dance, and we rebound back into simply saying yes to life while life lasts.

Rabindranath Tagore (in white) at Manchester College,
Oxford in 1930. To the right sits the Revd Dr. L. P. Jacks
(Unitarian minister and College Principal) and
next to Jacks sits Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
(who preached in the Cambridge  Memorial Church in 1930)
Readings:

The Hymn of Jesus (in Gustav Holst's translation)

From The Meaning of the West – An Apologia for Secular Christianity by Don Cupitt 

[T]he practice of religion involves one in a sustained effort of self-examination, and a strenuous pursuit of personal integrity, that over the long years demythologizes believer. Believers see more and more clearly that their own 'Faith' is just a stack of metaphors, laid down with one layer above another. The metaphors, move our emotions and encourage us to action; but what is behind them all: what are they metaphors for? When challenged, people will sometimes affirm to me that they think there really is something there — where? Beyond, or on the far side of the metaphors. But what is this 'beyond', and how do the metaphors succeed in telling us something about it? Nobody can say, of course. In practice, almost all my lifelong friends will confess themselves to have become thoroughly demythologized by the long years during which they have always interpreted religious dogmas ethically and have never actually had occasion to give them real and intelligible descriptive meaning. In short, realistic interpretations of beliefs go rusty and fade away for lack of use. 
     Along such lines as these the end of the religious life for all of us is nihilism, as the great mystics indeed say. The most serious Christians — all of them — eventually go beyond their own faith. One 'sees through' it all. The images are only human images: helpful, but leaving us with no way of knowing how they can be informative. But the Nothingness to which the religious life always leads us can be interpreted in at least three very different ways. It may lead us to depression and pessimism, and talk of 'the dark night of the soul'. Or it may lead us to argue that beyond the images there is not anything, not even nothingness, because the images (of course) have no beyond — an argument that leads us to the realization that our language has no outside, and our life has no outside. There is only the dance, and we rebound back into simply saying yes to life while life lasts. There is nothing else: the 'worldlings' were quite correct all along. 
     And third, we may argue that because God always was supposed to be simple, infinite and incomprehensible, the believer will never be able to tell the difference between God and Nothingness, or 'Nirvana'. So why not join St John of the Cross, and choose to experience the Nothing as love in pitch darkness, the Spiritual marriage, blissout? We can do so if we wish (pp. 91-92).

-o0o-

Andrew Brown and Julia Dale
This address has two immediate causes. The first is that after the Medaille Trust fundraising concert a couple of weeks ago held in this church Julia Dale kindly agreed to come and play and sing a couple of Rabindranath Tagore's songs for us. The second was an, as always, interesting conversation with the philosopher of religion Don Cupitt over at Emmanuel College.

That Tagore's words were to appear in this service immediately suggested to me that perhaps I should say something about Tagore's own religious beliefs and how they intimately connected with those of our late nineteenth and early twentieth century Unitarian and Free Christian forebears. This caused me to look again at some of Tagore's writing, especially his 1930 Hibbert Lectures entitled The Religion of Man (1931). These lectures were given at Oxford University at my alma mater, Harris Manchester College. Indeed, next to the place where I used to sit in the college library were some photographs of the event one of which I have reproduced at the top of this post.

The trouble was that to do this in a conventional way would require a reasonably detailed piece of historical comparative theology. Interesting? Perhaps. Relevant to today? Well, in one very important respect, no. This address is concerned as a whole to indicate why the answer is no. Anyway, I pressed the pause button on my reading of Tagore and put the idea to one side for a while.

Then, on Monday I spent a highly convivial hour and a half with Don Cupitt to arrange the restarting of the Cambridge Sea of Faith group next term at this church with a series of conversations centring on the theme of their forthcoming conference entitled: "Secular Religion?"

Naturally, our conversation centred on what, in the Christian context, such a secular religion might look like? (Some of you You will have noticed that the subtitle of Don's book, "The Meaning of the West" is "An Apologia for a Secular Christianity") It's important for a church such as ours standing firmly in the liberal Christian tradition to think about this because it is clear that across Europe, and the UK in particular, all formal church-type Christian affiliations are in very, very serious decline indeed and we are required to think about how we, as a radical kind of Christian church, might find a way to make our Christianity more secular. Now please, please, please remember that the word "secular" means "of the world" - it does not mean anti-religious. I am simply talking about articulating a Christianity that is both appropriate and relevant to our highly complex, plural and sceptical modern world, a Christianity capable both of challenging and sustaining us with an educated and reasonable hope.

At this point that I can bring back into the picture Tagore and the Unitarians. Historically speaking discussions between them centred on their general shared *belief* that God was some kind of being-like "divine unity" and that some kind of, if not quite a universal religion, then at least a universal religious consensus might become a real possibility. As Tagore says in "The Religion of Man":

"The civilisations evolved in India, China, Persia or Judaea, Greece or Rome are like several mountain peaks having different altitude, temperature, flora and fauna, and yet belonging to the same chain of hills. There are no absolute barriers of communication between them; though foundation is the same and they affect the root meaning of the great teacher who said he would not seek his own salvation if all men were not saved; for we all belong to a divine unity, from which our great-souled men have their direct inspiration; they feel it in their immediately in their own personality, and they proclaim in their own life, 'I am one with the Supreme, with the deathless, with the Perfect'" (pp. 54-55).

D. S. Sharma has noted six other fundamental beliefs held by Tagore that are worth noting:

1) that the universe in which we live is a partial manifestation of the infinite Spirit;

2) that there is no hard and fast line between Nature and humankind and between humankind and God;

3) that evil and suffering are not absolute realities, but only temporary expedients of the evolving spirit;

4) that the Absolute Spirit is all ineffable joy and love;

5) that true knowledge is that which perceives the unity of all things in God;

6) that the emancipation of humankind consists in an absolute surrender in service and love.

Many of you will know enough about Unitarian theology to know that these kinds of assertions resonated very strongly with our late nineteenth and early twentieth-century forebears and, on this basis of this shared *belief* in a divine unity (see here for a contemporary Unitarian expression of this), liberal Hindus and Unitarians were able strongly to get behind the cause of seeking to develop some kind of universal religious consensus. Some of this energy was directed into the work of a body known as the "International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers" (1900) which, today, is called the "International Association for Religious Freedom". This body have been, and continues to be, an important contributor to the cause of peace and understanding between religions and we should be rightly proud of the part we played in it.

But it is important to see that this was a project which at the time proceeded, primarily, on the basis of some kind of shared *belief* in the objective existence of an underlying divine, unified reality or absolute.

Now, although I personally still resonate strongly with the general liberal, inclusive, universalist attitude, "vibe", "tenor" or "mood" of much of what Tagore and my Unitarian forebears said there is for our own culture in play a vitally important element that was simply not in play to the same extent in the hearts and minds of Tagore and our forebears.

Today, even if we genuinely feel immediately in our own personality and proclaim in our own lives that we are all "one with the Supreme, with the deathless, with the Perfect" and that there is a meaningful unity of all things with an underlying objectively, real, divine unity called God, we are simultaneously profoundly aware that this can only be a metaphor which is trying to articulate our feeling about the world and out of which we act. We may share something of this feeling and metaphor with others but today we know in a profoundly deep way that we cannot know, *really know* in any way that would satisfy us absolutely, that our feeling and metaphor assuredly speaks more accurately and truthfully about some conjectured objective reality than the different feelings and metaphors of other religious, philosophical, social or political groups. As I am fond of reminding you, Charles Taylor said in his important book "A Secular Age":

"We live in a condition where [now] we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals [of the world's structure and of what is meant by words such as "natural", "divine", "sacred" and "God"], 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" (Charles Taylor: "A Secular Age", Harvard University Press 2007, p. 11).

More needs to be said about all this but, in a nutshell, there is present in our minds today a profound structural doubt, anxiety and scepticism that was simply not in the minds of Tagore and our forebears. It is relevant to cite here some words from the opening words of a chapter entitled "Religion in Britain and the United States" by David Voas and Rodney Ling found in the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2010. They read:

"Religion is a cause of perplexity to the British. On the one hand it is associated with Christian virtue, traditional values, the Dalai Lama and all things bright and beautiful. On the other hand it brings to mind violent fanaticism, reactionary morality, Osama bin Laden, abuse and oppression. After a long history of religious turmoil and mistrust we no longer mind whether our leaders are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or agnostic, but strong commitment makes us worried. Tolerance is the great commandment of the modern age - and hence we find it hard to tolerate exacting belief."

For people like me - and I imagine like many of you - strong commitment or exacting belief, even our own belief in a divine unity that binds everyone together in love and joy, makes me worried. No matter how attractive to me are the kind of Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian beliefs that I have inherited and which in various ways I try to offer here, it is absolutely impossible for me to present it to you in as strong a fashion as was possible for my forebears because I know our religious language is only metaphorical. Consequently just knowing about our forebears *beliefs* (and those of Tagore) is for us no longer completely helpful because the deep doubt I have pointed to is now structurally part of who we are as modern religious people and it cuts against exacting belief, even our own.

As Don Cupitt points out this new secular religious attitude can be interpreted in at least three different ways:

"It may lead us to depression and pessimism, and talk of 'the dark night of the soul'. Or [secondly] it may lead us to argue that beyond the images there is not anything, not even nothingness, because the images (of course) have no beyond — an argument that leads us to the realization that our language has no outside, and our life has no outside. There is only the dance, and we rebound back into simply saying yes to life while life lasts. There is nothing else . . .. And third, we may argue that because God always was supposed to be simple, infinite and incomprehensible, the believer will never be able to tell the difference between God and Nothingness, or 'Nirvana'. So why not join St John of the Cross, and choose to experience the Nothing as love in pitch darkness, the Spiritual marriage, blissout? We can do so if we wish."

In terms of belief a member of a liberal church such as this can only now hold our historic belief in an underlying divine unity in this weak, metaphorical way. But it is vitally important to hear the real strength found in this weakness - a weak strength that is vital to the development of a successful secular Christianity - indeed vital to the development of any kind of secular religion.

One of the strengths of this weak faith is that it is incapable of becoming a totalising and bullying faith. You cannot imagine it becoming a strong dominating ideology which could, or would even want to, rule the whole world and make everyone believe likewise. The kind of rule such a weak faith hopes to see come to pass which, using one of our Christian metaphors we call the kingdom of Heaven, must be one based upon an ever developing and open-ended commitment to take to the dance floor of life with people who think and act out of metaphors very different from our own - to try to move them with ours and to be prepared to let them try to move us with theirs. Once again we find it's all about developing a gentle faith that can show we need not think alike to love, or dance, alike.

What I like about the extra-canonical Christian text "The Hymn of Jesus" is that it echoes this thought - Jesus encourages the creation of the kingdom of Heaven on earth not through exacting belief but through a willingness to dance and being open to the push and pull, the wu and the wei, the give and take of existence.

So I'm with Cupitt in feeling that loss of certain belief need not lead to depression and pessimism but, instead, to a belief that "There is only the dance, and we rebound back into simply saying yes to life while life lasts."

Shall we dance?

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The stuff of life to knit me / Blew hither: here am I - on coping with the transience of life

My grandmother's copy of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Readings:

From The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1st ed.) by Edward Fitzgerald:

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing. (XXIX)

And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press,
End in the Nothing all Things end in – Yes –
Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be – Nothing – thou shalt not be less. (XLVII)

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows! (LXXII)

My schoolboy edition of Housman
From A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman

II

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

XXIII

From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.

Now – for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart –
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-14

-o0o-

One of my own deepest held intuitions as a liberal minister of religion is that a sound, critical knowledge of the Biblical texts is a good thing and something to be encouraged. I think it is good for both cultural and religious reasons and, as you heard a couple of weeks ago I agree with the Unitarian theologian John F. Hayward that, whilst a liberal minister is free to teach more than the Bible they are most certainly not free to teach any less.

Now, intellectually speaking it is, perhaps, not too difficult to persuade most people that reading and learning something about the Bible might be a good idea. However, what I have found nigh on impossible to achieve is to persuade people actually to open up the book somewhere and begin reading it themselves. This is especially so for those who have not grown up in a religious, and specifically Christian or Jewish, context.

My illustrated Children's Bible
I count myself lucky in this regard because, as a child, I did not need persuading for, not only did I go to church twice on a Sunday and so hear the major stories of the Bible read out-loud week by week, but my grandmother also bought me my very own Bible, a captivating illustrated children's edition which I spent many hours happy reading.

However, on leaving secondary school and becoming a full-time musician I didn’t continue to spend a great deal of time reading the texts because by then they had become well-remembered “background” stories. However, whenever I thought about them at any length, I became aware that the "meaning" of them had to me become increasingly puzzling. After leaving school I had, like many people, grown more and more sceptical about the truth and value of formal religious belief and the meaning (or supposed meaning) of the Bible’s contents were intimately bound up with that belief. Consequently, for me the stories had no existence outside formal belief that was able to bring them alive in the here and now. All in all this meant that I opened the Bible far less often than I had done in my childhood and early teens.

When I went back to university in the 1990s formally to study theology and to train for the Unitarian and Free Christian ministry I imagined that in my Biblical Studies studies I was going to be reintroduced to the stories in a way that would restore to them some kind of conventional monotheistic meaning. As you will hear, for me, things turned out very differently indeed.

Father John Davis
There were about twenty of us who gathered that fine, sunny October day of 1997 in a classroom on the ground floor of St Stephen’s House just off the Cowley Road. Known popularly as “Staggers” it was, and remains, the home of British Anglo-Catholicism and so, as non-conformist ministry student, it was a strange place in which suddenly to find myself. But my own college, Harris Manchester, had for quite a while been sending its ministry students to Staggers because of an academic link that had been formed with their Old Testament tutor, Father John Davis.

When he came into class a nervous, but expectant, quiet descended upon us; our Oxford education was about to begin. Now, and remember this is an Old Testament class, Father John began, not by reading from the Bible but, by closing his eyes and reciting from memory some verses from Edward Fitzgerald’s translations of Omar Khayyam.

This was a surprise twice over. Firstly, because of its somewhat old-fashioned, eccentric, donnish quality but, secondly, and more importantly, it was because I both knew and adored old Khayyam’s verses. I had learnt them from my grandmother, the same one who had given me my illustrated Bible. At her death, I had inherited her own very battered, but still lovely, pocket edition.

Not content with bowling us one googly Father John immediately sent down another. This time, again from memory, he began to recite from Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad.” I could not have been more surprised because these poems were also very familiar to me. I had studied them for my “O” Levels and over the intervening years had come to love them very much indeed.

It was only after this extraordinary and wholly unexpected opening that Father John finally said to us, “Now, dear boys, open your Bibles at Ecclesiastes”. When we were ready he pointed to one of us and said, “Can you read to us chapter one, verses one to eleven.” When the student had finished Father John then quietly repeated part of verse two in English and Hebrew, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” - "hevel hevelim, hakol hevel" and pointed out to us that the word “hevel” is breath- or wind-like in its sound and it was better translated, not as “vanity”, or “futility”, but as “transience” and suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, the whole meaning and weight of the text was transformed. For the remainder of the class he introduced us more fully to the general theme of transience as it is found in Ecclesiastes. He concluded by saying that, in order fully to understand the book and its key theme in our own time we could do no better than spend most of our first week of Biblical Studies reading, not Ecclesiastes, but some poetry inspired by an heretical Persian Sufi-inspired mystic and a highly unconventional English atheist. Housman actually described himself as being “In philosophy . . . a Cyrenaic or egoistic hedonist” who “regard[ed] the pleasure of the moment as the only possible motive of action” (Norman Page, p. 159). Father John set us a tutorial essay on the subject of transience and sent us on our way.

I was completely captivated as I could see that my studies could be a, natural, human matter concerning philosophy and literature. Not a word had been spoken about formal Christian belief and we had, instead, been immediately directed, not only to two texts that I knew and loved but, more importantly, towards a timelessly relevant question of human existence - transience. It is fair to say not everyone in the class was as delighted as I!

And so began a relationship with my teacher that would eventually become a friendship that lasted until the day he died. Indeed in his will he specifically asked that at his requiem mass I was to read from Ecclesiastes. I did so with pleasure.

Oxford, as viewed from South Hinksey Village (19th Century)
Learning Hebrew through that wonderful, sceptical text in his study at New Hinksey looking across at the wintry-ridge memorialised by Matthew Arnold in the company of St. John his cat and accompanied by copious quantities of tea which was always followed by a concluding stiff gin and tonic, was one of the most defining intellectual - and I have to say, hedonistic - experiences of my time in Oxford.

Via his own life experiences and great knowledge and love of poetry Father John never failed to find a way to show that so many key Biblical themes which, in other hands appeared only as dry as dust or indissolubly tied to conventional religious belief were, instead, universally relevant human themes that pressed with real urgency upon my own life and its transient nature. Part of the secret was, of course, that I was doing this in highly convivial company. Those one-to-one tutorials, in so many ways, truly became a matter of life and death.

Every time we met I learnt something new about the pains and joys of human life, its loves and hates, fears and hopes. I learnt something about the desire for a better this-worldy world than the one in which we living, of the fear of death and dying, of the joys and woes of living in the natural world and the encounter with what we have called the divine and the sacred. I learnt, too, about the pain of exile and homecoming, of victories rightly and wrongly won, and defeats justly and falsely metered out upon us all.

But, perhaps the most important thing I learnt relates to another of Khayyam's verses:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent 
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument 
About it and about: but evermore 
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

Father John’s engaged and highly personal way of teaching the Old Testament texts ensured that my time study with him was never like this. I was always gently led to a door through which, when it was opened, I saw a previously unseen vista that gave me a new perspective on human life. I valued Father John as a teacher and friend so highly because, upon opening the door, he never once said to me that the vista opening up before me on that occasion was either the best or final one but simply one to be delighted in and considered for what it was. Some of you will be of an age to remember the children’s cartoon series “Mr Benn” (for those who do not know this cartoon I add a Youtube link at the end). Going to New Hinksey vicarage was just like going to costume shop. I was Mr Benn and Father John was the shopkeeper (who appeared "as if by magic") and who was capable of ushering me to a doorway into a new experience and view of the world. I always left inspired to look ever more appreciatively at the transient beauty of the cherry tree’s blossom and to enjoy, to the last drop, the fine wine (or gin and tonic!) that was currently in my glass. He taught me the same unsectarian, open-hearted and minded message as Ecclesiastes:

“And I commend enjoyment, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and enjoy himself, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of life which God gives him under the sun” (8:15).

The basic subject matter of all my classes and tutorials on Ecclesiastes, the transience of all created things, became particularly real to me when he died and was scattered to the wind's twelve quarters - “hevel, hevelim, hakol hevel” indeed. But at his funeral, toasting his memory with a full glass of wine in my hand, I was able to be profoundly grateful, too, that those same winds had blown him hither into life.

Now, I tell you this story today for two reasons. Firstly, because Father John’s advice to read Khayyam, Housman and Ecclesiastes TOGETHER changed my life for the better. It gave me a living practical and poetic way, not only to enter deeply into some of the important ancient texts of our culture, but also to deal well with the transience of life.

Secondly, because to my surprise and delight a group of five people in this congregation have, all at the same time, told me they would like to study some of the Bible’s wisdom literature, especially Ecclesiastes. We’ll be starting that in October.

I hope you can see that in preparation for this I can do nothing other than try to pass on something of the wonderful legacy I received from Father John and say to you all, dear boys and girls, please take some time to read Khayyam and Housman. It might, just (I hope), persuade you to open your Bibles and read Ecclesiastes - you will not be wasting your summer if you do.