Monday, 30 September 2013

Another brief note toward a Supreme Fiction - on how liberal religious people might now come to experience full pathos, full belief and a clean heart

Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison and doggy friend
Readings: Matthew 22:23-33

From Things merely are by Simon Critchley (Routledge, London, 2005 pp. 20-21)
What is romanticism? can arguably be reduced to the belief that art is the supreme medium for attaining the fundamental ground of life and that the problems of the modern world can be addressed and even reconciled in the production of a critically self-conscious artwork. This is what Friedrich Schlegel saw as the great novel of the modern world, a secular bible. Poetry written in the wake of romanticism — and I think that all poetry has to be written in romanticism's failure, but that's another story — is animated by the belief that poetry should take on to itself the existential burden of religious belief without the guarantee of religious belief. As Stevens expresses it at the beginning of his longest and most ambitious poem, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction', 'The death of one god is the death of all' (PM 207).

          Poetry has to be vitalized by the question of the ultimate meaning and value of life without claiming to know the metaphysical or theological answer to that question. Stevens makes this crystal in one of his Adagia, which were notebooks he kept in in the 1930s and 1940s:

After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption. (OP 185).

          Poetry takes the place of religion as that medium which offers the possibility, or at least pursues the question, of life's redemption. It does this by producing fictions that return us to the sense of the world.

From The Etiquette of Freedom: and the Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison (Counterpoint, Berkeley CA, 2010 pp. 52-53)

Jim Harrison (JH): I'm wondering what you think of reincarnation?
Gary Snyder (GS): I think it's a charming metaphor. It's an as-if proposition. That's all we can know, anyway. I got going on a particular idea about reincarnation when I was travelling in India. Say that reincarnation is the world we're in. Okay? Then, how am I different?
JH: Aha.
GS: Aha. It means that I have done everything already—I've had every possible experience already. I've been every possible form, I've been a woman, I've been a butterfly, I've been a mosquito. So, why be needy? Why be looking for new experiences? Instead, let's settle in and see what we can really think about now. It puts you in a different place. Reincarnation's charming to think about, and it is very poetic—I like to think of walking the ghost trail, walking the ghost trail in the stars. But I wouldn't count on it. 


Speaking to the students at Hills Road Sixth Form College last week I was reminded how important it is to be clear how full belief comes to us in this, our own, skeptical, liberal religious tradition. For all kinds of reasons that I won't rehearse here, we know it cannot come in the way most traditionally religious people think it comes. Indeed, a number of the students present on Thursday could not see how I could claim to have any kind of genuine religious faith without it coming from a) a traditional, theistic God, b), a divine Christ or, c), a divinely inspired Bible — three things I was implicitly challenged in my talk and in the Q&As afterwards.

Some of you will remember James C. Edwards suggested that for many of us as late twentieth and early twenty-first century European and North Americans, "full Pathos, full belief, comes only with intellectual or artistic inevitability" (James C. Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things, Penn State Press 1996 p. 231)  [see Note 1 below].

But what does this mean? I'll begin with a consideration of what might be meant by "intellectual inevitability" because it can be dealt with amongst ourselves reasonably briefly. For us "intellectually inevitable" full belief comes through the disciplines of the natural sciences and their many wondrous, visible and often obviously practical results. Full belief in this realm comes, not because all of the results of the natural sciences are always and forever true, but because we know that the scientific method requires a constant checking of findings against what is "over there" (i.e. with the physical universe). Because the physical universe is always calling them to account, the genuine scientist always feels herself to be firmly under the discipline of truth and she knows, again as Edwards notes, that "whatever she is doing she must get it right, must do it right. She is not, in the first instance, in the business of satisfying herself, and she can't change the rules in order to make her attempts at whatever she is doing more successful" (ibid. p. 224).

Thanks to the clearly trustworthy nature of this process and the many practical successes of scientific physical and mathematical endeavour, the universe now appears, shows up, or shines for us in countless ways in which we can experience with full pathos, full belief and a clean heart.

However, as human beings we encounter not only the physical *universe* as scientists but, as artists or people alert to the arts, we encounter a complex human *world* rich in all kinds of relationships and filled with feeling and value. [See Note 2 below.]

So, along with a need for the "intellectual inevitability" of the natural sciences, there is also a need for what we can call "artistic inevitability". But here we are not often able to be as clear as we are in the natural sciences about what we mean by this kind of "inevitability" and, consequently, it becomes hard for us to know what it might be so we can live out of it with full pathos, full belief and a clean heart. Consider this example.

Whenever you sit down to write a story or a poem you quickly discover, as one does in the sciences, that this activity is not simply about satisfying yourself or being able to change the rules in order to make your attempts at writing a story or poem more successful. To be sure some of the difficulties you face in your writing will have to do with the need to conform to (or sometimes deliberately break) certain rules of grammar or style, but here I'm not referring to these technical and stylistic matters. Instead I'm concerned with those moments when, even when the grammar and style of what you have produced is correct and/or appropriate to your subject or task, you simply know that what you have written is not right. You realise that you have no choice but to press on and continue to seek just the right word and, in this often difficult and deeply frustrating task, you come face to face with the recognition that you, too, "must get it right, must do it right" and that this is analogous to what a scientist is doing when they are checking their results against what is "over there". Very unusually - in fact I think it's only the second time - I've just allowed one of my own poems to see the light of day (it's in the current newsletter). I've let it out because on re-reading it I still felt that as I was struggling back in 2007 over a number of days to complete it, a right word did suddenly come, and when it came it came with the power of artistic inevitability. I knew that this was the right - not, of course, the eternally right Word of God, but simply the right human word that answered to the "over there" of being me on Beaumont Quay, to the later time of revising and editing, and to the set of natural, contingent circumstances in which one is always moving. This doesn't necessarily make it a great poem that can stand alongside, say, one by Wallace Stevens (to whom we'll come in a moment) - but that's not the point. The point is that, although we are not relying on a poet or writer to reveal to us the structure of the physical universe so as to ensure, for example, that buildings or aeroplanes stay up where they belong, we do require them always to ensure that their work is also, in fact, being carefully revised and checked against an "over there". The difference is that the "over there" of the artist is not just and only the discoverable, repeatedly testable "over there" of the physical universe but the moving, ever changing human ethical and moral world as it is marvelously appearing, showing up and shining for us now and then passing away. This kind of world is always changing and so there will always need for us to speak of it with either new stories and new poems or, in the case of already existent stories and poems, with ever new interpretations. The best fiction, the great fiction that speaks to us with "artistic inevitability", which makes us pay loving regard to world and which helps us to begin to act with compassion and justice is only found in that work which we feel can still be checked against the "over there" of the human world. It is this which make the words it contains feel right and in which we can experience full pathos, have full belief and act with clean heart.

This brings me to a point made by the philosopher Simon Critchley in his book about the poetry of Wallace Stevens - a poet who I, and Critchley, can read with something approaching full belief and a clean heart. Critichley says:

"Poetry takes the place of religion as that medium which offers the possibility, or at least pursues the question, of life's redemption. It does this by producing fictions that return us to the sense of the world."

Critichley is, I think, similarly suggesting that poetry can only be authoritative, of religious significance and able to bringing redemption - to be true - when it "return[s] us to a sense of the world". In other words it only works, gifts us full pathos, full belief and a clean heart when it can be checked with an "over there".

But Critchley is concerned not simply with fiction in a general sense but with something Wallace Stevens called a Supreme Fiction. What might that be? Well, at the very least, it is a poem or story which you experience viscerally (pathos) and out of which you find you can live, truly live, because in it you can fully believe with a clean heart and which, importantly, also doesn't conflict with intellectual inevitability and its "over there".

This point allows me to turn directly to the reading taken from a conversation between the Buddhist poet and writer Gary Snyder and his friend, the author Jim Harrison. I use this illustration because it is such a clear example of how for us intellectual inevitability must be kept indissolubly bound up with artistic inevitability.

When I heard Snyder tell this story I thought two things simultaneously. Firstly, there was the thought occasioned by the intellectual inevitability that presses in upon me through the natural sciences, namely that like him I, too, cannot believe re-incarnation to be true. Neither can I believe in any related beliefs concerning a literal life after death - something that even Jesus seemed to think was unlikely as our ambiguous reading from Matthew especially in his conclusion that God "is not God of the dead, but of the living." Alas, the ambiguity of Jesus words were not left alone by later Christian theology and so, today, I'll simply leave the implication of this for Christianity floating freely in the background. But Snyder is a contemporary religious naturalist of a Buddhist kind who has, for me and many others of my generation, consistently been able to show us how we might live with both the intellectual inevitability of the natural sciences and yet still be able to find the right word and to articulate an artistic inevitability that, as both Wallace Stevens and Critichley demand, "bring[s] us back to a sense of the world".

So, when I heard Snyder go on to talk in the way he does of re-incarnation as an "as-if" my second thought was, "You know what, I think that is something I can live by with full belief and a clean heart."

Intellectual inevitability really does say to me that re-incarnation cannot be lived by with full belief and a clean heart because it simply doesn't seem to answer to the physical universe "over there". (This is open to revision, of course, as is everything which has shown up to the natural sciences.) However, artistic inevitability, via Snyder's right word, powerfully says to me that re-incarnation can be lived by with full pathos, full belief and a clean heart because he has showed me how, as a poetic, fictional metaphor, it can, in fact, powerfully answer to the human world "over there."

I can see clearly how it helps me ask and really respond to the question, "Why be needy?" and to ask why should I constantly be looking for new experiences in the selfish, thrill seeking entertainment obsessed way our present day culture insists we should be in the world? Snyder’s Buddhist inspired fiction really did help me settle in and see what I can really think about now. As Snyder says, this puts us in a different place. It means I can say, and mean with all the power of intellectual inevitability, that "there is no other world". Yet I can also say, and mean with artistic inevitability, that of course "there is another world", *this world* seen differently, a world in which I can really live "as-if" I were re-incarnated - or, to use a Christian fiction, that I am already in the kingdom of heaven of which Jesus spoke. Held thus, this charming, but very powerful poetic metaphor really did bring me, at least, a kind of redemption - that is to say a deliverance from a bad, selfish and sinful way of living and offered me a kinder, more compassionate way of living (a new life in fact).

Does this mean I am admitting to you that I believe fully in re-incarnation? Well, yes and no - but this is not, I think, the usual equivocal "yes or no" of the confused liberal. Like Snyder, I don't at all count on it being true intellectually but still, poetically, I find I can act as-if it were. It's a powerful reminder to me at least that for us, full pathos, full belief and a clean heart in this time and culture cannot be a simple it's true/it's not true matter, but something which only comes to us when we keep intellectual and artistic inevitability tightly bound in a wholly new dance of life.

I think that in Snyder’s little story we are seeing an example of a line being added to a growing, modern, secular religious work that may yet turn become part of our own age and culture's religious, but not superstitious, Supreme Fiction - one through which we can experience full pathos and, once again, believe with a full and clean heart.


Note 1 - A point of clarification which the conversation in church after the address suggests I should have made. I'm using the word "inevitable" to refer to what might really show up for us as true and trustworthy in our own time and culture. There is no hidden sense that what shows up was always true, and will always be true. I'm one of those writers who does not think that there are eternal, unchanging religious, moral or ethical truths just waiting out there to be discovered by us. It seems possible that such truths might be said to exist in the physical universe but I'm content to let the natural sciences do their slow work and await both the data and analysis to come in.)

Note 2 - Please note here the distinction I'm making between "universe" and "world" - something I've borrowed from Hubert Dreyfus. The "universe" revealed by the natural sciences always "underlies" human "worlds", but human "worlds" need not - and I think are not - reduced to *nothing but* the physical universe. X can be dependent upon Y but not reducible only to Y.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Religion after the death of God and a note about the Sea of Faith Conference on "Secular Religion" in London on 21st September 2013

l. to r. Richard Holloway, Stephen Batchelor & Don Cupitt
In this post I reproduce a talk I have been asked to give next week for a second time to the students at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, UK to help begin a forty-five minute session of questions and conversation. This piece is also to be found at the top of this blog as I think it's not a bad introduction to the kind of theology being explored by me and the congregation of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church in Cambridge, England.

Like many people of my age (I'm 48) I was profoundly influenced to explore the new ways of understanding religion, touched on in my piece, by Don Cupitt in his 1984 BBC television series called The Sea of Faith which gave birth to the movement of the same name - something for which many of us are hugely grateful. So, yesterday (Saturday 21st September 2013), it was exciting to have six of us from the Memorial Church, a neighbour, and a former member of our evening conversation group (now an Anglican priest) all take the journey up to London to hear Richard Holloway, Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt speak on the subject of Secular Religion. The speakers were all given the following list to help them frame their talks:

  • Secular Religion: an oxymoron or the future?
  • Is the definition of ‘secular’ ‘that which is not religion’?
  • Is the definition of ‘religion’ that which is not secular?
  • Is ‘secular religion’ a contradiction of terms, an oxymoron; or is there a definition or re-definition of ‘secular religion’ that makes the phrase useful in describing an attitude, outlook, or way of life, that is relevant in today’s godless society?
  • Can one be a Buddhist and not believe in karma and re-incarnation?
  • Can one be a Christian and not believe that Jesus is God and our Saviour; not believe in heaven, life after death, or God?
  • Can one be a secular monk, priest, or bishop?
  • Is our plenary session panel a trinity of heretics, or an aggregate of insight and wisdom?
  • How can we positively and practically re-define religion (if necessary) to be satisfying, life-enhancing and valuable?
  • Is it necessary to conserve the form, or substance, or both of traditional religion?
  • If not, what form or substance could replace or progress traditional religion.
As a church group we all thought it was an excellent, thought provoking and uplifting occasion and here in the local Cambridge church we are picking this up as the theme of our next series of evening conversations starting with a talk by Don Cupitt himself on Wednesday 16th October 2013. Full details of this series can be found at the following link:

Given our visit to the conference, this upcoming series of conversations and the fact that next week I am to give my little talk on an allied subject it seemed appropriate to offer it up to the congregation themselves so they could add their own thoughts on the matter.  So here's the talk:

Religion after the death of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Bibliography 

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

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

Stephen Batchelor: Buddhism without Beliefs (Riverhead Books 1998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gianni Vattimo: Belief (Polity Press, 1999)

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 September 2013

This and that, physis and poesis — on losing one's ball

From the blog "Riverdaze" - worth checking out
Readings: Matthew 16:24-26

The Ball Poem by John Berryman (1914-1972)

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball,
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over—there it is in the water!
No use to say 'O there are other balls':
An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy
As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down
All his young days into the harbour where
His ball went. I would not intrude on him,
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
Balls will be lost always, little boy,
And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.
He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up
And gradually light returns to the street
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight,
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy. 

(You can hear Berryman read this on the accompanying CDs of the book Poetry Speaks)

Exaltation by Linda M. Underwood

All this talk of saving souls!
Souls weren't meant to save
like Sunday clothes that give out at the seams.
They're made for wear.
They come with lifetime guarantees.
Don't save your soul!
Pour it out like rain on cracked, parched earth.
Give your soul away, or pass it like a candle flame.
Sing it out, or laugh it up the wind.
Souls were made for hearing breaking hearts,
for puzzling dreams, remembering August flowers,
forgetting hurts.
These "folk" who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies who blow out candles
before you sing Happy Birthday—
and want the world to be in alphabetical order.
I will spend my soul playing it out
like sticky string into the world,
so I can catch every last thing I touch.


During the Heritage Open Day event yesterday here at the church a number of people took the time to engage me and others in conversation about matters theological. Naturally, many of the questions came from various versions of standard Christian belief which tend to think that life's true value and meaning is located somewhere other than in this world — i.e. in some other transcendent God, or realm. One's soul is to be saved for this future day and realm. Inevitably this brought to my mind some of Jesus words about losing and saving one's life that we heard in our reading. But I have long felt that Jesus may not have been speaking about "saving" ourselves as disembodied souls for some future life in a heavenly place and time but, instead, about helping us find salvation through seeing how value and meaning are to be discovered, not outside our natural world, but as constantly showing up and being made within it.

As Susanna and I were leaving the church to go home John Berryman's, perhaps best known poem, "The Ball Poem", sprang to my mind as saying something helpful about this. Now, those of you who know about Berryman will know his life was extremely complex and difficult and that, after years of alchoholism, he eventually took his own life. How, you might ask, can we take as a reliable guide someone who, in a very literal sense, was not saved but lost? I could say more about this but, in brief, a poet (like a  prophet — and I think the poets are the bold prophets of our our own age) — a poet can many times see and tell us something true about our world that they cannot, in their own lives, fully grasp and embody. They, in a very special way, have their cross to bear and their struggles to articulate what they have seen should be received by us gratefully as a precious and soul saving gift.

Anyway the "Ball Poem" is a poignant and moving piece which gestures towards one way by which a young child begins to understand the ways by which value and meaning show up in this world. But it begins, apparently, not with a gain of these things but their loss; and not simply a generalised sense of loss, but a specific and very tangible loss — the loss of THIS ball and not THAT ball.

I find this thought important to engage with because it pushes against our own, money orientated, capitalist, present-day culture which is seeking in so many ways to create a highly efficient technological world of infinite replaceability. You lose X, well, no matter, for in the grand shopping malls around our world you will be able to find another X and that "You'll never know the difference between them" — or so the manufacturers and sales-staff say. (I'm not saying there is nothing good in this — having just had my iPad stolen I am, just this week, very grateful for its replaceability). However, I think most of us, just like the young boy in Berryman's poem, still intuitively know that, in so many ways, there are always going to be real differences between "this" and "that" X — and they are unique, irreducible differences about which we care (sorge) a great deal. It is precisely in these differences that the most powerful values and meanings show up. 

Berryman's placeholder for technological, highly efficient, infinite replaceability is money and he states boldly and tersely that "Money is external". In passing, I think it is interesting to observe that we are taught to save money for the future in an external bank just as we are supposed to save our souls for a future in an external world. Of course, in truth, money is very much a human power — so in this sense not "external" to us at all — but I think we can all recognise our understanding how our concept of money has become increasingly detached from other key, and I would argue more primordial, existential, creative and healthy human sources of value and meaning. Technological capitalism is always tempted to try and stamp a unified scheme of valuation and meaning upon the world rather like the head of an emperor or king is stamped on a coin and, when this is the case, it's an external colonial, imperial power that needs to be resisted.

Anyway, standing by the river looking at his lost ball, the young boy has begun to understand, in an deep, existential fashion, that there are other ways meaning and value show up in our world — ways that are highly particular and contextual, which cannot be bought, sold or saved up for later; gift-like ways which can never fully be in the power of humankind.

But for the boy to feel this loss so deeply he must have first experienced one of these primordial, existential, ways meaning and value shows up for us in this world. It experienced in the mysterious way they simply whoosh up within the world, shine, hang around for a while and then — in their own mysterious and unpredictable way — disappear. (This language is borrowed from Hubert Dreyfus — see especially the wonderful book All Things Shining he co-wrote with Sean Kelly.) The gods of ancient Greece and Rome were doing this all the time as did, of course, Yahweh, the god of the ancient Hebrews in the form of the Shekinah (lit. "the dwelling") — for example in the cloud and thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19) an the fire in the burning bush (Exodus 3).

So, we may imagine that when the boy was first given the ball its value and meaning was for him just suddenly and miraculously there — it whooshed up — and he involuntarily said out loud, "Oh my! What a wonderful ball!" I'm sure we can all remember such an event in our own early lives whether connected to a ball or something else. Playing with THIS ball, in THIS moment, was simply the most shiningly wonderful time the boy had ever experienced. His shining ball did nothing less than gather a wonderful and intelligible world of value and meaning.

But, we may imagine — at least in relation to balls — that two or three years hence the ball would no longer have shone so brightly for him. We say, colloquially, but highly appropriately, that the shine has rubbed off it. His ball no longer gathers for him a whole intelligible world of value and meaning. We imagine that his world was now being gathered by something else, perhaps, by his bike, his local church community, a football or baseball team, a girl or, maybe, some complex combination of them all. Had the boy's ball bounced merrily into the river at this moment of time then he may have simply have been able to shrug his shoulders and allow it to drift down-river, perhaps with a sense of regret, but certainly not with an "ultimate shaking grief".

But, of course, Berryman's message relies upon the boy loosing his ball at the brightest moment of its shining — when the ball was at the centre of his world.

Now this whooshing up and shining, being there for a while and then going away, characterises our relationship with things that shine more lastingly, powerfully and brightly than a child's ball. For example, perhaps the paradigmatic example for us all, in the people whom we count as our best friends and lovers. They are the people who have whooshed up into our lives and who shine with an intense brightness, a shining presence that, in certain cases, we hope will be shared for a life-time. They, in their shining presence, gather for us a wonderful, intelligible world of meaning and value.

But life's experience — such as losing a ball — shows us that even our friends and loved ones will have their own moments of departure in the river of time, moments in which we most certainly will experience again an "ultimate shaking grief". How could it be otherwise?

A lost ball is, of course, not a lost friend or lover but, by the river, the boy in the poem learns something very real about a primordial, existential structure of humanly being and human value that technological capitalism (and I think certain kinds of monotheism) simply cannot understand and which money cannot buy and monotheistic theology cannot save. The boy encounters a natural, phenomenological truth central to all human existence — he learns, as Berryman says, about the "epistemology of loss" through the free gifting of a beautiful, shining ball which God (or nature) has given and which God (or nature) has taken away.

Now the Greek word for this "whooshing" up and "shining", of being around for a while and then disappearing, is "physis" and from it we derive, of course, the word "physics". The early, Homeric Greeks, understood the being of all things in this way. To be any kind of thing was to whoosh up, be around for a while, and then go away. A poplar sense of this is still found by us in the way we will talk about how a sportsman or woman or a musician, has put in a "shining performance".

Later Greek culture had another way of understanding how meaning and value primarily showed up to us. This time it was expressed by the Greek word "poeisis" — the "making" or "drawing forth" of something from the natural, material world. Perhaps the most accessible and popular expression of this idea we retain to this day is found whenever anyone suggests that the Renaissance artist Michelangelo was able to "draw forth" from the uncarven block of stone his astonishing sculpture of "David". It's not that "David" was always-already hidden in that block of stone (a platonic David) just waiting to be found, no! Rather, it was that natural events, certain contingent circumstances (such as someone commissioning it) and the developing skill of Michelangelo all came together in a way which enabled the bringing forth THIS extraordinary statue.

Here we are beginning to get a sense of how we can draw forth, or craft, meaning and value from out of both the material world and the circumstances of life, including those of loss. Berryman's poem speaks of this making, too. At the end he says:

Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.

Having been so focused on the child and his experience we suddenly realise that the narrator is a grown-up man who, after having seen this boy — and having (I think we may assume) had the same kind of experience himself — is going to draw forth from the experience THIS poem. At his writing desk his adult, made, crafted perspective not yet available to the child , allows him simultaneously to explore the "deep and dark" feeling of this loss even as he knows that,  gradually light will return to the street and he will be awakened by a blowing whistle. Of course, one of the fruits of the narrator's drawing-forth is THIS very poem. As I am sure you are all aware, the English word "poem" comes from the Greek word "poesis". In short the ball's whooshing up (physis) with its inevitable later loss becomes for the narrator — and for us — a significant gain as poesis.

But notice that none of this meaning and value could have shown up if the boy could have been made happy by merely being bought a new ball or told that it had been saved for him in some future transcendent realm. Money cannot buy this kind of experience and it cannot theologically be saved up for later eternal consumption.

To live fully, authentically, — to be saved — is for me, I think, to learn both how to be grateful in the here and now for the constant whooshing up and passing by of nature's gifts and, simultaneously, to learn how to craft out of our experience of this constant gifting and loss our own lives, lives which are not meant to be saved for the future but properly worn out and given away as themselves gifts - something Linda Underwood so poignantly expressed in our opening words.

Meaning and worth is always about THIS life, not THAT life, and was not Jesus' own life a shining example of just THIS kind of life?

All this talk of saving souls!
Souls weren't meant to save
like Sunday clothes that give out at the seams.
They're made for wear.
They come with lifetime guarantees.
Don't save your soul!
Pour it out like rain on cracked, parched earth.
Give your soul away, or pass it like a candle flame.
Sing it out, or laugh it up the wind.
Souls were made for hearing breaking hearts,
for puzzling dreams, remembering August flowers,
forgetting hurts.
These "folk" who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies who blow out candles
before you sing Happy Birthday—
and want the world to be in alphabetical order.
I will spend my soul playing it out
like sticky string into the world,
so I can catch every last thing I touch.


Monday, 9 September 2013

On Unitarian Baptisms and Baseball Gloves - a sermon for the (adult) baptism of Irish Sirmons

L. to r.: Andrew Brown and Irish Sirmons, and then Irish's
sponsors, Sabrina Lewins and Susanna Brown
Readings: Luke 14:25-33

From The Etiquette of Freedom – an essay by Gary Snyder given at the Wilderness and Civilization conference in August 1989:

An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly, and has style. Of all moral failings and flaws of character, the worst is stinginess of thought, which includes meanness in all its forms. Rudeness in thought or deed toward others, toward nature, reduces the chances of conviviality and interspecies communication, which are essential to physical and spiritual survival. Richard Nelson has said that an Athapaskan mother might tell her little girl “Don’t point at the mountain! It’s rude!” One must not waste, or be careless, with the bodies or the parts of any creature one has hunted or gathered. One must not boast, or show much pride in accomplishment, and one must not take one’s skill for granted. Wastefulness and carelessness are caused by stinginess of spirit, and ungracious unwillingness to complete the gift exchange transaction.

Introduction to The Size of God — The theology of Bernard Loomer in Context by William Dean

Bernard Loomer’s father was a sea captain. He was acquainted with his small place in an uncontrollable nature. In a talk in 1974 Loomer described his father's in about the uses of a baseball glove. The father had just overheard his son’s sandlot [playground] complaints about the thinness of a glove inherited from his older brothers. When his father asked him what a baseball glove was for, young Loomer had said that it was to protect the hand. In the words of Bernard Loomer in his sixties, his father replied: 

Willie Mays' baseball glove
"Son, I never have played baseball, but it seems to me you ought to be able to catch the ball bare-handed. The way I look at it, you use a glove not to protect your hand, but to give you a bigger hand to help catch balls that are more difficult to reach. I assume that in this as in all walks of life there are tricks to the trade. I suggest you learn how to catch with that glove for two reasons. First, because you are not going to get another one, and second, because you don’t need protection from life. You need a glove to give you a bigger hand to catch baseballs you might otherwise miss."

As the decade of the 1970s progressed, Loomer reflected increasingly on the fact that what you might otherwise miss was irrational, even evil, but must be caught anyway, Loomer grew increasingly dissatisfied with those who seemed to restrict their reach—even Whitehead was faulted, And, increasingly, it appeared that Christian theology was the theology Loomer had—that he was not going to get another one—and so, although it was thin in places, he attempted to use the one theology he had, to catch all he could.

A few words from Irish Sirmons about her service of baptism:

I asked Andrew a couple weeks ago, after much prayer and consideration if he would conduct an adult baptism. My mother and father did not have my sisters and I baptized whilst we were children.  They wanted us to choose the right church and the right time.

Until a little while ago, I was quite opposed to baptism. My personal feelings about God and following the teachings of Jesus had nothing to do with anyone else. It seemed like a show, a spectacle, unnecessary. I would not be dunked! But, over the past few years as Ryan, my husband, prepared for ministry in the United Church of Christ, a (mostly) liberal denomination in the US, and especially over the past year whilst I've studied an MA in Literature and the Environment at the University of Essex, I've come to realise the importance of this spectacle. It has to do with the importance of the material aspect of our being in the world. Much of the destruction of the environment has come from our disassociation from nature, even though we are formed of it, we are a part of it.

This public act of discipleship with water and a flower is an important event in my life as a Unitarian Christian and I thank you for allowing me to be baptised in your midst. I could not imagine trusting this event to any other church. I thank Andrew, Susanna and Sabrina for sponsoring me. And I thank you all for being here and witnessing this event even if you had no idea that it was going to happen, today. Thank you!

The Address 
(the service of baptism we used can be found at the end of the addresss)

Given what is for us the unusual nature of today's service of adult baptism, it is important to start today with a bit of our own history as a church tradition. Remember we sprung into being during the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation in Poland and Transylvania where there occurred a unique blending of a late Renaissance Christian humanism (which highly valued the use of reason in religious matters) with a kind of mystical anabaptism (which highly valued personal, existential religious experience). It's why we have, at times, been called "Rational Mystics".

People today generally have some idea of what the rational, Renaissance humanist part of our tradition was concerned about but fewer people know anything at all about the anabaptist part.

The word comes from the Greek "ana-", meaning "over again" and, "baptismous", that is to say "baptism" which means ritual-washing. So, an "anabaptista", was a person "who baptizes over again" or more simply, "re-baptises". Our sixteenth-century forbears felt it was vital that baptismal candidates, i.e. those wishing to join a Christian community, must be able voluntarily and knowingly to make an authentic confession of faith based on their own personal, mature experience of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit - the three major headings under which Christian experience is most often described. In consequence, they rejected Roman Catholic and Protestant infant baptism because they could see children had no way of rationally reflecting upon any kind of experience (religious or otherwise) so they could freely decide themselves which particular church they felt they should be joining. I hope you can see why this stance would also appeal to the rationalist side of our tradition.

Generally speaking, in Britain anyway, we retain to this day something of this anabaptist concern and, consequently, our services for new-born or very young children are today, for the most part, not baptisms but, instead, services of blessing, dedication and/or naming. They are services in which we as adults welcome the child to the world to the whole human family and, of course, to our own voluntary, free-church tradition in which we dedicate ourselves to the upbringing of the child so that, later on in their more mature years, they may freely choose themselves to which religious or philosophical community, if any, they desire publicly to commit.

This later, existential moment of adult, religious commitment has, however, been for the most part replaced by us with some kind of formal membership procedure, such as the one practiced here - it is, if you like, akin to a kind of very low-key "confirmation" service. In short, membership has generally become for us primarily an intellectual assent to an ideal rather than to undergo some corporate and individual psycho-physical experience of commitment to, or initiation into, a particular religious community and way of being-in-the-world.

It is only Irish's heartfelt desire and need (for the reasons she outlined earlier - see above) physically to be baptised amongst us and by us that gifts us, firstly, with the opportunity to perform a service that is wholly derived from our radical, liberal Unitarian Christian tradition and, secondly, to prompt us to ask the question of why it is that have we not generally retained some recognisable physical form of adult baptism and simultaneously to ask whether this is this a good, or bad, thing?

I think it is clear that a major reason for the abandonment of adult baptism amongst us is to be found in the historical moment when, with the rise of the natural sciences, we began to feel that no external, tangible, material things can, in and of themselves, change a person's existential way of being-in-the-world. We see this viewpoint explicitly expressed in a seventeenth-century footnote to the original Polish Unitarian Racovian Catechism of 1605 in the section dealing with baptism. Benedykt Wiszowaty (c.1650–after 1704) wrote:

"It is rightly stated that this external rite alone cannot effect our salvation. The water itself avails us of nothing, - but the benefit results from the observance of our Lord's [i.e. Jesus's] command".

Although Wiszowaty and his fellow Polish Unitarians felt that, alone, actual water did nothing you can see, however, that it was still being used by them in their service meaningfully to aid a person's existential commitment to, and initiation into, the way of Jesus.

But a thought had arisen that since then has resolutely refused to disappear from view, namely, that if actual water doesn't really effect any change in a person's existential being then, really, why bother continuing to use it? Is it really necessary at all? Can't it just be dispensed with as an unnecessary and, perhaps even, superstitious practice? We see occurring here a shift of emphasis in what was considered by us to be truly  real and important to humanly-being, away from the natural, physical world and towards what was perceived to be a truer and more really real, spiritual, transcendent realm.

Quite simply the felt *need* to be baptised by actual water slowly stopped pressing upon us as "required as a necessity requires" (Wallace Stevens).

So far, so appropriately rational. But, as we all know, in human life there is always in play what is known as the "law of unintended consequences."

Keeping tightly to the theme of baptism, we were saying, on the one hand, that being touched by real water didn't count for anything or change us in any significant way and, on the other, saying that the symbolic idea of water did effect a change in us and was, therefore, more real (or more to be valued) than real water. The unintentional effect was to create a radical mind-body split.

But think about this . . . you try to tell this story to anyone (including yourself) who has had cause to travel on a hot, hot day and for whom a refreshing drink or a dip in a cool river has just changed their whole mood, attitude, perspective and understanding of what it is to be human and what should be valued in life!

Despite this recognition - which we can still make in certain extreme or near extreme situations - the mind-body split remains very real to most of us, especially in our formal, liberal religious services of worship which can often be veritably disembodied and "corpse-cold" (as Emerson once memorably noted).

It should be clear that there is likely to be a direct connection between this attitude and our own rationalist, European and North American culture's often highly aggressive and invasive attitude to the natural world as a whole and also with the often rude, brutal and violent way we have dealt with so many indigenous peoples around the world who have never forgotten that there is no absolute distinction to be made between the mind and the body, and between humankind and the natural world.

Gary Snyder’s essay from which we heard an extract, and indeed much of his work as a whole, constantly attempts to remind us about what it means consciously to live deeply intertwined in nature and he offers us many memorable examples of the consequences of this kind of living which can help us feel, as our reading today noted, the truth of the idea that "Rudeness in thought or deed toward others, toward nature, reduces the chances of conviviality and interspecies communication, which are essential to physical and spiritual survival."

Elsewhere in that same essay Snyder quotes the wonderful and often witty founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, Dogen (1200-1253), who once said:

"Whoever told people that 'Mind' means thoughts, opinions, ideas and concepts? Mind means trees, fence posts, tiles and grasses."

And I'll add, in connection with today's service of baptism, that mind also means water - not some abstract transcendent, Platonic idea of water, but the kind of physical water that is essential for all life on this planet, a water that we mustn't poison or waste and which we have a duty to share and distribute freely and fairly to all. I want to ask where does water end and inner, existential commitment begin? Where does inner, existential commitment end and water begin? Can you draw the line? I cannot - mind is water, water is mind.

Might not our own existential commitment to God and the whole natural world in this liberal Christian community be better and more effective if were able to keep mind and water together and could understand both as essential and, in the end, indivisible? I cannot prove this is the case but, pun intended, in "my waters", I strongly feel it to be so.

It seems to me that we have to find ways from within our own denomination's complex, liberal Christian tradition that help us both see, and deeply feel, once again our profound interconnectedness with the natural, material world. We must not forget that we are ourselves nature - mind and body, spirit and water, together.

If we don't achieve this realisation in the depths of our very being we are, I think, all in real trouble. But we need to recognise that we cannot quickly and simply make up new psycho-physical rituals which allow this realisation to occur. Neither can we simply appropriate those of other cultures, such as those practised by the Athapaskan Indians mentioned by Snyder.

It is this point that brings me back to the story I told the children about Loomer's baseball glove though I told it as much for our benefit as for theirs.

It seems to me that what has gone on in this service today is that Irish has modelled in her own baptism a willingness to put on the baseball glove of our own liberal Christian tradition. To be sure it's thin in a few places but, recalling the words of Bernard Loomer's father, neither she, nor we, are going to get another in the foreseeable future. It is also important to realise that, like Loomer's own baseball glove, this service of baptism is not "put on" to offer Irish protection from life like some divine, insurance policy. No, it is a service which, by indissolubly combining mind and material, helps her (and us) to catch more of life's meaning than we would otherwise catch. It is a service which enlarges our sense of being (to include mind and body, spirit and matter) such that it becomes obvious and essential to us that we must live "an ethical life . . . that is mindful, mannerly, and has style" that is not mean nor rude towards others, towards nature.

In a dream, just before falling asleep last night, I imagined that this sermon would be followed by a general rush from you all to be re-baptised here and now in a wonderful, liberal revivalist up-welling of the Holy Spirit. Old time religion writ anew! Of course, I know that this is vanishingly unlikely to occur. But we'll see . . .

But whatever happens immediately after this address I ask that next time you wash your hands and face, take a shower or bath, or drink a glass of cool, cool water I hope it will play a real part in re-baptising you, not only to the cause of liberal religion as it is practised here but also to a commitment to serve the ultimate well-being of nature herself - our creative and holy mother.


The Service of Adult Baptism we used:

Andrew: To request Unitarian Christian baptism is to make a solemn promise to be a disciple of Jesus, to learn the way of life which he taught, and with God’s help to follow him as best you can. It also means taking personal responsibility for working out an authentic faith to live by, remaining open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and treating the faith and feelings of others with respect, tolerance and compassion.

Irish Sirmons, do you wish to be received into membership of the universal church by baptism, pledging yourself to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and all who have revealed God’s will for humankind?

Irish: I do.

Andrew: Susanna, and Sabrina on behalf of this church community, do you as Irish’s sponsors promise to support her intention to follow the Christian way of life?

Susanna and Sabrina: I do.

Sabrina: Andrew, do you as one of Irish’s sponsors promise to support her intention to follow the Christian way of life?

Andrew: I do.

The sponsors now have an opportunity to express their support in their own words.

Andrew: Irish Sirmons, I baptise you in the name of God. In so doing we formally welcome you to the whole human family and to the earth, our common home. We welcome you with water, symbol of the purity with which you were born; and with a flower, symbol of the beauty which is yours. May God bless you as we bless you, and may the divine spirit in your heart guide you, comfort you and strengthen you all the days of your life. Amen.

Let us pray.

O God, the Life of all our lives, we are thankful for your spirit, dwelling within us, liberating us from bondage to every inner compulsion and from every constricting care. We give thanks at this time for the freedom of the human spirit in which we share.

O God, in your unimaginable image we are made. Its outlines are traced by the heritage of good men and women who have gone before us and in movements of the natural world of which we are part. Its pattern is vivid in friends and neighbours around us. We give thanks at this time that this vision of a world made whole is communicated between us, reanimating our faith.

With the gifts of the spirit we are blessed. By it we are strengthened to do the commonplace and the extraordinary tasks of the day for the greater good of all. We give thanks that in this service we have been enabled to exchange with each other the gifts of the spirit we have been given and so, at last, to say our benedictions to all life. Amen.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Flower Communion - publicly expressing our liberal religious commitment in contemporary Europe

Symbol of the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians
Readings: 1 Corinthians 13 and some words by Norbert Fabián Čapek:

My conviction is that my life has meaning and purpose if I live in God and for God . . . Anytime I want something only for myself, and anytime I hesitate to forgive, tolerate, suffer for truth, or sacrifice for goodness – it is me in separation from God. But anytime I want only truth and goodness and enjoy goodness and truth wherever it appears, and anytime I roll up my sleeves to start work that will serve the human whole and the world to progress so that everybody will live and breath in a better way – it is God in me, who is in all other people in the same way. Then God’s spark glimmers in me which is connected with all others in the whole universe as the source and substance and manifestation of the eternal fire, the fire of God. (Doláck, P., "The Theology of Norbert Fabián Čapek", Faith and Freedom 54, part 2, no. 153, London 2001, p. 129-130).

For interested readers below is a link to various English language resources made available by the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians:


The Flower Communion service, because of its superficially pretty qualities, is one which can all too easily (at least in the British context) become a dreadfully sentimental affair which expresses little more than a vague, ungrounded and unstable desire simply to get along with others and a somewhat vacuous expression of the beauty of nature. This danger is particularly acute against the backdrop of current events connected with Syria.

In consequence, whenever I have conducted a Flower Communion, I have found it necessary to preface our celebration with some words which can help understand the hard particularities of this service which are, in fact, grounded in the underlying durable, liberal, religious-humanist hope which grew to maturity in the extremely difficult historical context faced by our sister church in the former Czechoslovakia during the early years of the twentieth century.

Although the founder of the Unitarian community in Czechoslovakia, Norbert Fabián Čapek (1870-1942), felt that in his sermons and prayers of the 1920s he had successfully begun to articulate an effective, contemporary liberal theology, he realised that his community in Prague needed a service which embodied this theological stance in a more tangible, concrete way. Because traditional forms of Christian communion had all kinds of problematic resonances for many of his community's members, Čapek realised it was insufficient for him merely lightly to revise the Christian communion service, he began to devise the Flower Communion service which was finally introduced to the congregation in Prague on 4 June 1923.

Čapek asked members to bring to church a flower of their choice and, when they arrived, just as you were today, they were invited to place it in a large vase or basket. This simple act was understood to be symbolic of each individual’s free desire to join with others in a voluntary, liberal religious community. The vase that contained the flowers was itself understood to represent the church community itself (this, in turn, was represented by the "U" in their church's symbol - see photo at the top of this post). Speaking of the vase in which the flowers were gathered Čapek said:

"For us in our Unitarian brotherhood the vase is our church organization. We need it to help us share the beauties and also the responsibilities of communal life. In the proper community by giving the best that is in us for the common good, we grow up and are able to do what no single person is able to do. Each of us needs to receive in order to grow up, but each of us needs to give something away for the same reason" (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 145).

There followed some hymns, a reading of 1 Corinthians 13, a sermon, a prayer of consecration and one of blessing. At the close of the service each member was invited to take with them a different flower, as Čapek said, ‘just as it comes without making any distinction where it came from and whom it represents’. The taking of a flower also stood as a public confession that they accepted ‘each other as brothers and sisters without regard to class, race, or other distinction, acknowledging everybody as our friend who is a human and wants to be good.’ (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 144).

Now it is vitally important to realise that the situation in Czechoslovakia during the 1920s was far from easy as the new state had only been founded in 1918 and everyone was engaged in the extremely difficult and highly fraught process of articulating what might meaningfully become its distinctive political and religious identity. If you publicly attended and took part in this Unitarian service you were, therefore, saying something with real risk attached to it, not least of all because it was openly to challenge the orthodox Christian status quo of the time and to commit to a radical, alternative religious and social movement that promoted an inclusive and tolerant approach to life and religion that was markedly absent from the majority of churches of the time, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.

So you have a clearer idea of the kind of religious community to which people were committing when they participated in the Flower Communion during those first years, here is how Čapek defined it:

What kind of religion is this Unitarianism? It is humanity lightened by divinity. It is humanism and theism combined. It is not the kind of humanism without God and without a soul, but the humanism of those great men who from time to time called our nation to a new life. When John Hus appealed to reason and conscience against the authority of the pope, it was work for humanity. When Comenius conceived school as a workshop of humanity, it was the continuation. I specially quote his words: “man finds himself best in his own innermost, nowhere else, for then in himself he easily finds God and all.” What else is it but to begin with man when seeking God? The opinion that religion is outgrown can be held only about the religion that was not human enough, that remained [either] under the level of humanity or remained, so to say, hanging in the sky, and could not answer the needs of men in their daily life. . . . While worshipping the liturgical Christ people could not hear the human Jesus who asked for love to men. Unitarianism is the religion of humanity in the best sense of the word. It has rejected the inhuman and barbaric conception of God and by this brought God nearer to human understanding; it has established a more intimate relation of Jesus [by emphasizing] the value and sovereignty of man. Today it looks as if mankind was on the crossroad not knowing in what direction to move. . . . Our age calls for watchmen who would stand on the crossroad and warn people not to go back to barbarism and bestiality, but to go from views only terrestrial and selfish to cosmic views, from Humanity to Divinity (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 195-196).

But we make a terrible mistake if we think that by just putting a beautiful flower in a vase, saying some nice liberal sounding words about community and inclusivity, and then taking one out later, our own lives will be transformed in the way they were for Čapek and his church members. No! The service can only help bring about such a transformation in us if there is some real connection between the original hard particularities of the service, the hard particularities of its celebration since 1923 and the hard particularities of its celebration amongst us now in a highly secularised United Kingdom in the 21st century.

You have heard something about the original particularities of the service but before we go on it is important to remember in the years which followed its introduction there came first the Nazis (who arrested and killed Čapek as an enemy of the regime in one of their so-called 'medical experiments') and then, when that unimaginable nightmare finally ended, there came a further one under a highly oppressive Communist regime. Today, of course, as a separate independent Czech Republic, our brothers and sisters face new and still extremely challenging particularities as a new member state of the European Union (2004).

(For those interested, in connection with this last point, in 2007 I contributed a chapter called "The Religious Society of Czech Unitarians (RSCU) and the Construction of Czech National Identity" to a book entitled "The Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity." My paper argued that the RSCU offers us all a powerful model of liberal religious community which balances the need in Europe to develop a corporate identity whilst still allowing for a variety of very particular regional/national identities.)

But what of our own twenty-first century British particularities to which we must carefully relate this service if it is to be truly transformative for us? I'll restrict myself today to but one example which relates to the dangers facing all of us across Europe living as we do in highly secularised, neoliberal dominated societies which, as a whole, are increasingly losing any corporate understanding that there is something creatively ultimate about existence of ourselves and the world that is neither in the gift, nor power, of humankind; that is not a commodity than can be traded or bought and sold. The traditional placeholder for this "ultimate creativity" in our culture is, of course, the word "God". Here are some words by a leading contemporary Czech Unitarian minister, Jaroslava Dittrichová, which she offered up to a Unitarian and Universalist theological symposium I help arrange in Oxford during 2000 just before becoming minister here in Cambridge. Dittrichová words (and her own personal example) made a profound and lasting impression upon me that has, without doubt, significantly shaped my own concerns as a minister in our tradition:

[B]elief in one God - is certainly the main Unitarian principle from the historical point of view. We think that this principle is also one of the main principles in contemporary Czech Unitarianism. Many of you are of [a] different opinion. Perhaps those of you who are non-theists do not find language about God useful. You may think the word God is much abused, and often used to refer to a kind of personal God. You may believe that the fruits of our life matter more than beliefs about God. This may be partly true, but there is a possible, hidden danger in this idea. We who lived under the communist brand of totalitarianism were able to see and experience the consequences of a system without God, a system that considered man to be the centre of the world, without responsibility to something higher than himself - or even without a sense of responsibility to "the order of being." [. . .] We believe together with Vaclav Havel that in our contemporary world, we should respect what is beyond us. It seems to us that it is not important whether we call it the order of nature, the absolute or God. We are not afraid of the word "God." We use it because Dr. Capek and [his successor] Dr. Haspl used this word in their sermons and books, and because the word "God" is used in other churches in our country which are close to us more now than at any previous time. We believe that a humanism which considers human beings the centre of the world without respect to something higher allows humans to be driven by their particular interests rather than governing their behaviour in a way that takes account of general interests. This results in the plundering of natural resources and other dangers existing in our civilization. What we have told you does not mean that we set belief in God against humanism. What we want to emphasise is that humanism should be open to transcendence. Such a humanism may be called religious humanism" ("A Global Conversation", A. Hill, ICUU Prague 2002, pp. 197-199).

Flora in Calix Light by David Jones
So, should you chose to take a flower from this vase today, as I will invite you to do as you leave, it is not to engage in some pointless piece of nice, liberal, fluffy-bunny stuff and nonsense but to bear public witness to your real intention to work for the success of the kind of open-hearted, liberal religious humanism articulated so well by Dittrichová and our Czech Unitarian brothers and sisters. Also, it is to signal your intention that, like Čapek, you are willing to become watchmen and women standing on the crossroads of our own age warning people *not* to go back to the barbarism and bestiality still espoused by so many forms of religion and politics today and, at the same time, to offer people a visible and, I hope, beautiful and uplifting expression of how to be compassionately and intelligently religious in our own place and age.

Čapek's prayer consecrating the flowers:

Infinite Spirit of Life, we ask thy blessing on these, thy messengers of fellowship and love. May they remind us, amid diversities of knowledge and of gifts, to be one in desire and affection, and devotion to thy holy will. May they also remind us of the value of comradeship, of doing and sharing alike. May we cherish friendship as one of thy most precious gifts. May we not let awareness of another's talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that, whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do thy work in this world. Amen.

Čapek's communion prayer:

In the name of Providence, which implants in the seed the future of the tree and in the human heart the longing for people to live together in love; In the name of the highest, in whom we move and who makes the mother and father, the brother and sister what they are; In the name of sages and religious leaders who sacrificed their lives to hasten the coming of peace and justice; In the name of all these, let us renew our resolution – sincerely to be real brothers and sisters regardless of any bar that might estrange us from one another. In this holy resolve may we be strengthened, knowing that we are God's family, that one spirit – the spirit of love – unites us, and may we endeavour for a more perfect and more joyful life. Amen.