Sunday, 27 October 2013

Verwindung, verwindung, verwindung - surpassing, twisting and reinterpreting our way to complete spiritual freedom

Autumn leaves in front of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church
Readings: Mark 14:53-65

From the Prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Niezsche (trans. by Thomas Common)

The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman shall be the meaning of the earth!
     I conjure you, my brethren, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not.
     Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them!
     Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died, and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!

In the current Cambridge University Press edition (2006), translated by Adrian del Caro, this passage reads:

The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!
     I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth and do not believe those who speak to you of extraterrestrial hopes! They are mixers of poisons whether they know it or not.
     They are despisers of life, dying off and self-poisoned, of whom the earth is weary: so let them fade away!
     Once the sacrilege against God was the greatest sacrilege, but God died, and then all these desecrators died. Now to desecrate the earth is the most terrible thing, and to esteem the bowls of the unfathomable higher than the meaning of the earth.


Autumn moves into winter and, today, as the leaves fall and the clocks change, we are increasingly aware, as they say, that the year is beginning to die. This fact coincided with some of my own current reading and thinking and it offered me a way to point to the natural world and show how it can help us surpass, twist, and reinterpret old theological ideas; it allows me to show you an example of "verwindung", a way of proceeding that I think is something our family of liberal of churches should consciously be pursuing as it tries to bring into being a religion which takes the well-being and ultimacy of natural world with the utmost seriousness. But, before I can come to my actual example of "verwindung" I need to remind you of what that word means and how it is used.

After the massive changes in our European and North American outlook brought about, in part, by the scientific discoveries of people like Charles Darwin and, in philosophy, the thinking of someone like Friedrich Nietzsche, it has become increasingly difficult to believe in traditional understandings of of God, especially the God of monotheism - as Nietzsche shockingly said in the 1880s, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms". I've explored some of the implications of this with you in other addresses over the past few years so, here, I'll just let this statement stand. Today, it's God's shadow I want to address. A contemporary philosopher, Lee Braver, points out that Nietzsche writes, 'even after God has been killed and buried, it will take centuries to finish scrubbing his shadows from our minds, cutting out the vestigial concepts of earlier times.' Braver, and I, for that matter, 'take this to be one of the great projects of the last two centuries and one that still lies before us. (Lee Braver, Groundless Grounds, MIT Press 2012, p. 9).

But, since this is a religious community, and I am a minister of religion, affirming this as one of the 'great projects' is likely to sound very odd, especially if you are visiting for the first time. So, just to be clear about what I mean by the great project, here are Mark Wrathall's words on the matter (indeed they have their own place on the side bar of this blog):

'. . . 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)' (Mark W. Wrathall's introduction to "Religion after Metaphysics", Cambridge University Press 2003 p. 1).

So we must be clear that task, at least as I am expressing it, is to overcome our old ideas about God and not to get rid of religion per se; it is about finding more authentic possibilities for understanding religion and the divine and the sacred. Perhaps the most popular approach to this overcoming of God is a strong one. It has thought that the best answer is to replace, lock, stock and barrel, the old theology, metaphysics and language with some kind of scientifically purified vocabulary. Not surprisingly, one word that is right out is "God" - it most assuredly has to go.

It's really tempting to think that by refusing to use the word God - perhaps even banning it from all public use - one will immediately and easily move into a new, enlightened kind of world view purified of thoughts about God. But a story I heard Stephen Fry tell a few years ago during a radio interview shows why this is a highly flawed approach. Fry told how schools, for obvious reasons, tried to stop (ban?) children using words of abuse like "moron". The word was, remember, once used in psychology in a technical sense to denote mild mental retardation but when the term became generally well-known and used more commonly as an insult the profession, understandably, stopped using it. Children once labelled "morons" became labelled as, for example, "educationally challenged". Fry recalls walking across a school playground sometime after this attempt had been made only to hear a bunch of school children abusing another child by shouting at them the word "challenged". It is clear that banning a word from a world does not remove the shadow of that word's meaning from the world.

This means I often find myself at odds with generally traditional religious people because the way they *keep* the word "God" means that there is no way openly to address with them the different possible meanings of the word. But I also find myself at odds with the new atheists because of the way they *get rid of* the word "God". The way they want to overcome "God" means that, among them, there is also often no way openly to address the different possible meanings of the word "God".

The odd thing about all this is that old ways of understanding God remain present for both groups. God remains present in an obvious way to the traditionally religious person but, for the new atheist, God remains present in the form of a powerful shadow. Their atheism is not (in my opinion nor in the opinion of Denys Turner) really an atheism since it is a position highly dependent on the still shaping-shadow of God.

This is why I think it is so important to keep the word "God" out in the open and in some kind of public religious and civic use. When this is done we at least have a real chance consciously to address and challenge, not only explicit, traditional uses of the word, but also unconscious, sublimated uses of, if not the word word itself, then ideas associated with the word - the same uses that can pop up under different names, as Fry's story about "moron" and "challenge" reveals so well.

What I, and those who find the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo's thinking persuasive, want to do is overcome our old understandings of God, the divine and the sacred and our old theologies and metaphysics, not by overcoming them in a strong way, forcibly replacing in one fell swoop one word or concept with another but, instead, by employing a weaker, more subtle and creative way by consciously surpassing, twisting, and reinterpreting them. Vattimo borrows two German words from Heidegger to point to the difference. The hard, forcible replacing is called "überwindung" whilst the gentle way is called "verwindung".

Vattimo called this approach "il pensiero debole" - "weak thought". But, in the sense that counts for us its very weakness is, in truth, is very strength. Water is the obvious analogy as the Tao Te Ching knows (Ch. 78, Addiss and Lombardo):

Nothing in the world is soft and weak as water.
But when attacking the hard and strong
Nothing can conquer so easily.

Weak overcomes strong,
Soft overcomes hard.

This is why I advocate keeping in our liturgy and language a great deal that we are tempted to overcome in a strong way ("überwindung") - for example the Lord's Prayer. I feel that if we can find ways to keep these things present and consciously engage with them through "weak thought" in a dialectical conversation, through a process of "verwindung", then we will, with patience, truly have a chance of escaping many of our old and, to my mind, highly damaging religious thoughts and practices.

But everyone is in such a rush these days so it is not surprising that what I suggest is not a popular way to proceed. But, never the less, I persist, water-like, in suggesting that this is the way to go if we truly want to achieve the complete spiritual freedom promised by liberal religious tradition. OK. Now I can move to an example of what "verwindung" looks like in action.

I'm re-reading Nietzsche at the moment and have just come, once again, to his most famous work, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra". My re-reading of Nietzsche coincides with some thinking about the natural world partly occasioned by a book I intend to introduce you to next week, the biologist Ursula Goodenough's book, "The Sacred Depths of Nature" - already a religious naturalist classic.

This meant that I was particularly attuned to Nietzsche's lines we heard earlier where in the book's prologue Zarathustra says to the crowd:

"Once blasphemy (or sacrilege) against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died, and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!"

The power of Nietzsche's words relies upon us having a lively sense and understanding of blasphemy - a religious term and practice that many liberal religious people just want to get rid of or overcome. Surely, with regard to the dreadful blasphemy laws that still exist around the world required here is a good bit of "überwindung" and so the cry often goes up, "Let's abolish all blasphemy laws!"

But Nietzsche's genius here is to achieve this, not by "überwindung", but by engaging in a nifty bit of "verwindung". He does this by encouraging us to reshape the old religious conception by surpassing, twisting, and reinterpreting it such that we are directed gently, but powerfully, towards the earth, towards the natural realm - "To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!"

The word blasphemy, or sacrilege, survives in Nietzsche's vocabulary but the sense of it is no longer tied to a belief in a transcendent, metaphysical God. Nietzsche reveals that the word can be a used in a this-worldly, ethical way that is both relevant and persuasive to us and which, wonder of wonder, can also be used to challenge older, and I would argue, dangerous and unhealthy traditional religious uses of the word. Instead of now dividing theists and non-theists Nietzsche shows how the word "blasphemy" or "sacrilege" can be a genuine point of connection between them which keeps open lines of communication and the possibility for new moments of creative interchange in which a surpassing, twisting, and reinterpreting may continue anew.

Our second hymn is, itself, also an extraordinarily powerful example of "verwindung" - but again only if you know the religious reference the hymn makes. It speaks, in a powerful fashion, of the way we humans are currently blaspheming the earth.

It is an extraordinary surpassing, twisting and reinterpreting of the Passion Chorale, "O Sacred head, sore wounded" - if you turn to our green book, number 103, then you will the find two verses of this hymn that we still feel we can sing here. In the complete hymn, however, the sacred head is not the human, all too human Jesus highly valued in this church, but the metaphysical Christ, the second person of the Trinity who is believed, in the words of the Nicene Creed, to be:

. . . the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through [whom] all things were made.

The new hymn's power and the power of Nietzsche's use of "blasphemy" to help slowly and genuinely to dispel the shadow of the old metaphysical God which still hangs over us and enable us to see more clearly and brightly the sacred depths of nature would be wholly lost if, through impatient, thoughtless and careless "überwindung", we had simply banished and banned from our hymn books all trace of the most enduring of all Good Friday hymns and, from our general language, the word "blasphemy" or "sacrilege".

Make no mistake, in our culture we are all still very much in the shadow of God - theists and atheists alike. If we, as religious liberals, are to succeed in helping to bringing us out of the shadow and into some genuinely sunlit, natural, secular religious landscape, then some real patient, gentle, weak thought is required and our motto should, I think, always be “Verwindung, verwindung, verwindung.”

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Men and women without a position - a liberal religious path of salvation

Stony path near Bédarrides
Readings: The Journey by Mary Oliver
    One day you finally knew
    what you had to do, and began,
    though the voices around you
    kept shouting
    their bad advice – 
    though the whole house
    began to tremble
    and you felt the old tug
    at your ankles.
    “Mend my life!”
    each voice cried.
    But you didn't stop.
    You knew what you had to do,
    though the wind pried
    with its stiff fingers
    at the very foundations,
    though their melancholy
    was terrible.
    It was already late
    enough, and a wild night,
    and the road full of fallen
    branches and stones.
    But little by little,
    as you left their voices behind,
    the stars began to burn
    through the sheets of clouds,
    and there was a new voice
    which you slowly
    recognized as your own,
    that kept you company
    as you strode deeper and deeper
    into the world,
    determined to do
    the only thing you could do –
    determined to save
    the only life you could save.

Path near Bédarrides
Chapter One of the Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo (Hackett, Indianapolis 1993) 

Tao called Tao is not Tao

Names can name no lasting name.

Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.
Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

These have the same source, but different names.
    Call them both deep –
        Deep and again deep:

The gateway to all mystery.

Oak leaves near Bédarrides
Two short extracts from Paul Wienpahl's 1958 lecture An Unorthodox Lecture

As I see it, the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself. (Tautologies are, after all, true.) If you wish to persist by asking what reality is; that is, what is really, the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing. To see this is to be a man without a position. To get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian. I am a man without a position. I do not have the philosophic position that there are no positions or theories or standpoints. (There obviously are.) I am not a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist. I am simply a man without a position, and this should open the door to detachment.

When one says that he is a man without a position, does this mean that he is without direction? Perhaps. But this is misleading. For it means too that I have a direction and that direction is my own. It will come from within rather than being imposed from without. It means that I will guide it, I will give my life its form. And  consciously too. Which seems to be hoisting one by one's bootstraps, but is not. It is just difficult. 


View from a hill near Bédarrides
Mary Oliver has so often helped me think through some of life's vexing religious and philosophical questions that when I find myself in the midst of a struggle with one of them I pull one of her volumes down from the shelves and read. She always helps me better to structure my own thinking into a therapeutic, narrative whole.

So what is the vexing question I have in mind today? Well, it's born out of the unavoidable need for religious labels we attach both to ourselves as individuals and, collectively, in community.

Do those labels refer to "traditions" or substantive theological content? Many people would say that it is a complex mixture of both. The "tradition" bit giving some indication of how one does the substantive, theological bit. So, for all the differences that exist between the Roman Catholic Church and the various mainstream Protestant churches, they believe they share enough tradition and substantive content to be "happy" also to share the label "Christian".

But we who belong to a church that gathers under the historically inherited label "Unitarian" often find ourselves actively excluded from this circle. Our problem is that, although we are clearly part of Christianity with regard to tradition, because of our commitment to critical thought and scholarship and especially the principle of "complete spiritual freedom", our substantive content is, today, certainly not that of the, so-called, mainstream churches. As our greatest historian, Earl Morse Wilbur said, this "complete spiritual freedom" means that the "doctrinal [Christian] aspect" of our churches was in truth only "a temporary phase" and that our Unitarian doctrines were only "a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom" (Read the essay from which these quotes come here.) This means that in many official and unofficial ecumenical and interfaith settings we are routinely refused the label "Christian". Here's a practical example.

The world of British inter-faith has been decisively shaped by our government's, somewhat questionable decision, only to recognise nine official faiths: Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism. In passing, but of great concern to many of us at the liberal end of the spectrum, the continued exclusion from this list of that sizeable group of people who gather together under the name of Pagan continues to be deeply problematic. Anyway, about seven or eight years ago I was asked to become the secretary for the East of England Faiths Council - the interfaith body which served this region until last year when lack of funding put an end to all that. However, when key Christian members of the Council discovered I was a Unitarian minister, the offer was quickly withdrawn. The claim was that I wasn't a Christian and also, therefore, not one of the chosen nine. Fortunately, the Faiths Council was headed up by the wonderful Jenny Kartupelis, and her profound good sense prevailed and I eventually took my place on the Council. I'm glad to say a happy and fruitful time followed.

But in all this one point should be clear - given the list of nine faiths the government uses, in what universe does our church tradition not come under the general heading Christian? As even the most cursory glance at our history shows - a history which contains some of the most influential religious, political, literary and scientific figures our nation has ever produced - the idea that we might belong to any of the other eight or even to some new, "other" religion, is plainly bonkers.

But, but, but . . . the rule of nine faiths, like all rules, only works by ignoring details and it is only when you turn to the details that things get very interesting if also somewhat vexing and confusing. The truth is we are neither inside nor outside Christianity. Yes, we are shaped in a primordial way by Christianity - this is undeniable by anyone, it's an historical fact - but, on the other hand, we cannot be reduced to Christianity. The Christian label when used in relation to us is both deeply right and deeply wrong and I struggle with this fact all the time.

Tree on path near Bédarrides
Keeping it personal for the next few paragraphs - to avoid the tricky third person plural "we" - I deeply feel that my commitment to the teaching and example of Jesus (which remains as strong as it ever was) and also my position as a minister in this church, fully entitles me to the label "Christian". Indeed, it's always been hard for me to imagine thinking about giving up that identity, not least of all because, to borrow an image from Oliver, it constantly "tugs at my ankles". But, on the other hand, I'm alert to the fact that in so many ways I'm clearly not a Christian - something repeatedly pointed out to me as, indeed I repeatedly point out to myself. After all, I'm openly prepared to add "atheist" to my portmanteau of labels and it, in its own way, tugs at my ankles, as do a couple of others.

Looking back on this state of affairs over the years the trouble was that, as I added more and more labels to my portmanteau in an attempt better to describe the detailed complexity of my own contemporary, lived, liberal religious life (indeed any such life) my portmanteau, my suitcase, began to get heavier and heavier. Also, when I opened it up and looked at the apparent conflicting mess it contained I began to conclude that, in truth, I must have lost my mind; because there was no longer any simple, single theological or philosophical label under which to file and order all this stuff, I really must have no meaningful individual religious identity at all. This realisation coincided with my sabbatical which, thanks to this church's generosity, I was fortunate enough to be able to take in 2008. (Susanna and I went to stay in the south of France in a small village called Bédarrides staying with the wonderful, welcoming Salles family, Carol-Leigh, Robert, Chloe, Claire-Louise and their dog Chippie).

Here I can come directly to the therapeutic, narrative value that Mary Oliver's poem had for me. I hope it and my story may be able to help you shape your own reflections about religious and philosophical labels.

Six years ago, a few months before the start of my sabbatical, I began to know that I had to begin a journey, I had to leave behind the loud voices of all those labels shouting what seemed to me to be becoming increasingly bad advice. But, even as I began to move, each of those labels began to tug powerfully at my ankles, appealing to me in different and subtle ways to "mend their lives". It was heart wrenching for me, but I had finally understood that I could not mend Christianity, not even liberal, Free or Unitarian Christianity, I could not mend Spinoza's thought (which I espoused at the time), nor could I mend pantheism or atheism.

Reading Paul Wienpahl near Bédarrides
It was this general kind of feeling that led one of my own personal intellectual heroes, the philosopher Paul Wienpahl, to pen his "Unorthodox Lecture" and go on his own very interesting journey. I have to say that during my sabbatical this lecture became for me a kind of holy scripture - I like to think of it as the Wienpahl Sutra - especially since he ended up addressing his issues in a Japanese Zen Monastery for six months (See his Zen Diary). In offering me his own experience in that lecture he really did save my own religious life by helping me slowly to begin losing my over attachment to labels - a process which is by no means concluded today.

(NB: the photos in this post were taken on a walk that I regularly took up a deserted hill on the edge of Bédarrides - either alone or with Susanna. In the photo above, which Susanna took, I have in my hand my notebook and Wienpahl's essay.)

But, as Mary Oliver notes, its not just about the simple act of leaving because, after opening the door, the next stage is to undertake a pretty scary journey through a wild and windy night on a way that is very dangerous indeed, covered with branches and stones any one of which could cause you to trip, fall and hurt yourself quite badly - which I did a number of times. Indeed I owe deep thanks to many members of this congregation for helping to pick myself up, dust myself down and start all over again.

I have discovered that it takes a long, long while (far longer than I expected) to journey sufficiently far to begin to experience results (though they are never anything like final results of course). But, as Oliver says, I did find that, little by little, as the raging wind of former labels' voices was left behind the stars did, indeed, begin to burn through the sheets of clouds and a new voice began to be heard, a voice which I can only now, just about, recognise as my own. To be sure, it's a voice that is always-already dependent on the voices I left behind, because language is always an inherited, social construct. But my admission today is that, in the silence I can now occasionally enter away from the cacophony of the old labels, I sense that, slowly, it is me who is now beginning to be able to speak to you. I have come to realise, to borrow from Wienpahl, that I would rather be a mediocre Andrew Brown than a successful type, say a successful Unitarian theologian and minister.

Susanna on wooded path near Bédarrides
I have discovered, as Mary Oliver says, that it is a journey which cannot but help take you deeper and deeper into the world or, as Wienpahl says it's a journey which gets you "out of the mind and into the world", gets you "beyond language and to the things". As he notes later in the lecture, it is to become a kind of mystic for a mystic is the person "who sees things for what they are, or as they are (in so far as one can speak of things as they are)" and to "see them in their particularity." Oliver and Wienpahl helped me see that the world, in this sense, is always beyond naming and labelling and that the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching says this perhaps better than anything else: "The Tao (that is to say the way) called Tao is not Tao, names can name no lasting name." As Wienpahl himself notes all this "seems to be hoisting one by one's bootstraps, but is not. It is just difficult." Difficult indeed.

After a long personal journey, just a couple of weeks ago on my public blog profile, I finally decided to come clean and replace all the labels I had been using with Wienpahl's words you heard earlier because they seem to be saying something right. Of course, I clearly do continue to use labels - they are in some way unavoidable - but I want to be clearer that, again to cite Wienpahl, "I'm trying to get away from knowing to living, from trying to understand and classify things to the things themselves".

Now, I want to pass this story on to you because it's a story about the only kind of salvation on offer in a church like this - a salvation brought about through the responsible exercise of "complete spiritual freedom".

But I need to do this with an important added caveat because I realise what I have just said can look worryingly like mere egoism - an outrageously selfish way of proceeding. This is a real danger but we can turn to Julian Young, a fine contemporary commentator on Nietzsche, to show us why this need not be the case. Nietzsche is often thought of as being a selfish egoist of the worst kind but Young shows otherwise:

Path near Bédarrides
"Nietzsche holds . . . that genuine happiness is a matter of having an other-directed, life-defining task, - a life 'meaning' - and feeling that you are making a good job of it; making, as we say, 'a contribution'. It is, then, truly enlightened egoism, rather than sighing with ineffectual, Christian pity or gritting one's teeth with Kantian dutifulness, that produces productive commitment to the welfare of one's community at large" ("Friedrich Nietzsche - A Philosophical Biography", CUP 2010, pp. 259-260).

In this sense, by encouraging each of you to go on your own distinctive, authentic religious journeys to save the only life you can save - yours - and making a good job of it, I strongly believe we do, in fact, contribute to the welfare of our community at large. This is to be honest men and women without a position, people responsibly living out in religious community our desire for complete spiritual freedom.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Openness to the future grounded in the giftedness of life received as a gift

Henry Nelson Wieman
Readings: Psalm 42

From Daniel C. Dennet's book Breaking the Spell – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Allen Lane, London 2006 pp. 208-210)

Mystery is declared to surround the various conceptions of God, but there is nothing mysterious about the process of transformation, which is clear for all to see and has been described (and often decried) by generations of would-be stewards of this important idea. Why don't the stewards just coin new terms for the revised conceptions and let go of the traditional terms along with the discarded conceptions? After all, we don't persist in the outmoded medical terminology of humors and apoplexy or insist on finding something in contemporary physics or chemistry to identify as phlogiston. Nobody has proposed that we have discovered the identity of élan vital (the secret ingredient that distinguishes living things from mere matter); it's DNA (the vitalists just didn't have the right conception of it, but they knew there had to be something). Why do people insist on calling the Higher Power they believe in “God”? The answer is clear: the believers in the belief in God have appreciated that the continuity of professing requires continuity of nomenclature, that brand loyalty is a feature so valuable that it would be foolish to tamper with it. So, whatever other reforms you may want to institute, don't try to replace the word “God” (“Jehovah”, “Theos”, “Deus”, “the Almighty”, “Our Lord”, “Allah”) when you tinker with your religion. In the beginning was the Word.
I have to say that it has worked pretty well, after a fashion. For a thousand years, roughly, we've entertained a throng of variously deanthropomorphized, intellectualized concepts of God, all more or less peacefully coexisting in the minds of “believers”. Since everybody calls his or her version “God”, there is something “we can all agree about”—we all believe in God; we're not atheists! But of course it doesn't work that well. If Lucy believes that Rock (Hudson) is to die for, and Desi believes that Rock (music) is to die for, they really don't agree on anything, do they?
  [An] eminent Episcopal cleric once confided to me that when he found out what some Mormons believed when they said they believed in God, he rather wished they didn't believe in God! Why won't he say this from the pulpit? Because he doesn't want to let down the side.

From Henry Nelson Wieman's 1926 book, Religious Experience and Scientific Method (pp. 9-10)

Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however, unknown, does certainly exist.
  Of course one can say that there are innumerable conditions which converge to sustain human life and that is doubtless a fact. But in that case either one of two things are true. Either the universe is a single individual organic unity, in which case it is the whole indivisible universe that has brought forth and now sustains human life; or else certain of these sustaining conditions are more critically, ultimately and constantly important for conditions are human welfare than are others. According to the first view God would be, or involve, the whole universe; according to the second he would be those most important conditions which, taken collectively, constitute the Something which must have supreme value for all human living. The word God, taken with its very minimum meaning, is the name for this Something of supreme value. God may be much more than this, but he is certainly this by definition. In this sense, with this minimum, God cannot be denied. His existence is absolutely certain. He is simply that which is supremely significant in all the universe for human living, however known or unknown he may be.
  Of course this statement concerning God proves nothing about his character, except that he is the most beneficent object in the universe for human beings. He is certainly the object of supreme value. Nothing is implied by this definition concerning personality in God; but neither is personality denied. In fact, personality is by no means a clear and simple term. But two things are made certain: his existence and the supremacy of his value over all others, if we measure value in terms of human need.

I'm not a great fan of the "new atheists" in general, that loose group of four writers, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and the man whose words we heard in our readings today, Daniel Dennett. However, despite their limited and often highly reductionist understanding of, and approach to, religion, they have clearly made many important points that need addressing, especially by those of us who remain connected meaningfully with a religious community. One critique that has hung over me since I read it back in 2006, is that made by Daniel Dennett concerning the use of the word God.

The phenomenon he points to is, of course, very real in every liberal Christian setting but, within the even more liberal setting of a church such as this, the phenomenon is so widespread as explicitly to be the norm. Most of us here are well aware that, when it comes to the word God, we really do seem - notice the use of the word "seem" - we really do seem all to be talking about something as different as Rock (Hudson) and Rock (music). Today's address suggests that this may not be the case and that behind the dizzying variety of surface languages of theism, atheism, non-theism, pantheism, pan(en)theism, and religious humanism and naturalism used here there exists among us a shared, empirically rooted, if highly minimalist, definition of God.

My thinking on this matter has been sharpened thanks to the opportunities I get to talk to groups outside this local church setting about what we do, or do not believe about God. Inevitably, at some point in the proceedings, a version of Dennett's criticism is made and I feel obliged to answer it in a more satisfactory way than is often done, that is to say with the simple shrug of the shoulders and a generally flabby line about the need within a liberal church for "inclusivity", "tolerance of different beliefs" and a general acceptance that, these days, everyone creates to some extent, to borrow a phrase from the sociologist Ulrich Beck, a "God of One's Own".

Don't get me wrong, I broadly agree that these are necessary marks of a contemporary liberal church, but left merely at this and without going on to explore what might be the intelligent, corporate theological way we are (or should be) using the word "God" then it may well turn out that Dennett is correct and that we are, in fact, talking to each other about something as different from Rock (Hudson) and Rock (music).

But, in our own culture, the word God today seems fated to be the vaguest of all words and in Dennett's mind (and perhaps, at times, even in our own minds) the word is simply no longer fit for purpose and should be abandoned. After all, he points out, in other important spheres of human endeavour (such as medicine,biology, chemistry and physics) we have most certainly done this. Consequently, Dennett asks, "Why don't the stewards [of the word "God"] just coin new terms for the revised conceptions and let go of the traditional terms along with the discarded conceptions?" As one of those stewards it's a good, if uncomfortable, question to address.

Dennett believes that all religious people simply keep using the word God because it helps them/us pretend that there is, at least one thing religious people can agree about, "we all believe in God; we're not atheists!" Sadly, this reveals that, just like the religious fundamentalists he so dislikes, Dennett seems to want to separate the world into two distinct groups, the wheat and the tares, the good and the bad and the enlightened and benighted. His good group (the wheat) is, of course, made up of those who have courageously developed an intellectual clarity which allows them to admit they are atheists. They are the enlightened ones - indeed Dennett is involved in a group which even calls itself "The Brights". His bad group (the tares) are those who continue to use the word God, whether wrongly but honestly (i.e. people who really believe in a supreme being) or wrongly but dishonestly (i.e. those who just use the discredited term to show they are not atheists).

So where does that leave a group of liberal religious people like us who value (and generally hold) a naturalistic world view but who still use the word "God" and other words in our culture's religious lexicon? On the face of it we seem clearly to be gathered together in Dennett's dark and dull bundle of tares. If we accept his division of the world then we're certainly amongst the most benighted and to be pitied bunch of tares because we keep using the word God even though we know it really refers to nothing existent or truly shared and meaningful. We should be pitied because, even as we keep talking to each other about our shared love of "Rock" the minister at the lectern is talking about "Rock (Hudson)" whilst the member of the congregation in the front row is talking about "Rock (music)". Meanwhile someone in the common room is speaking about "Rock (stick of)" whilst the person with whom they a conversing is really talking about "Rock (huge boulder of)". Oh yes, we must, indeed, be a dark, dull and deluded bunch of tares.

Dennett's argument has power because the word God has so often been used by religious people to theorise about a *thing* or a *being* that either does, or does not, exist. Dennett and the other three nay-saying horsemen of the atheist apocalypse line-up on one side of the divide whilst assorted religious figures, whether deluded or disingenuous, line-up on the other. As we know, the ensuing unedifying skirmishes between theses two sides characterise our contemporary culture's primary public way of proceeding in matters of religion and we, embarrassingly, seem to be implicated in this spectacle in a particularly problematic and disingenuous way.

But for us there is, in fact, another way of proceeding that has become increasingly central to the kind of liberal religious tradition I try to pass on to you here - one which, even as it seeks a meaningful continuity with, and understanding of, the past it doesn't, at the same time, require anything like identity and agreement with the past. It was first clearly articulated among us by a twentieth-century American theologian who, between 1927 and 1947, was Professor of Christian Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School; his name was Henry Nelson Wieman (1884—1975). It is highly significant that, as his thought developed he left behind the Presbyterianism of his youth and spent the last twenty six years of life as a Unitarian/Universalist. There is a huge amount I could and would like say about him and his thought but today I'm just going briefly, all too briefly really, to introduce you to two things he suggested that can help us respond effectively to Dennett's critique. I'm not going to lay-out here any of the supporting arguments for his position - though I can later on if you wish - instead I'm just going to give them to you very simply and straightforwardly so we can get an initial conversation going.

Before I get to those two things it is important to know that what Wieman was himself a convinced religious naturalist. This meant he thought it was perfectly possible (and, in fact, was desirable) for religion to contain no supernatural elements at all. In the context of this address this means that, whatever the word "God" meant, or to what it "refers", it was for Wieman something natural and this worldly.

Firstly, he wanted to clarify our religious terminology. He, too, knew the word "God" had been, and still was, used in all kinds of unclear and ungrounded conjectural ways. Consequently, he set about articulating a very minimal definition of "God" that he thought could clearly, and empirically, be shown to exist. What he thought existed was, "that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance." He was of the opinion, as am I, "[t]hat there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however, unknown, does certainly exist."

Although in the early (1926) passage we read earlier he, throughout, uses the pronoun "he" to refer to this "Something" it should be clear from the whole section that this is merely a grammatical convention and even here he makes it clear that personality is not at all necessary aspect of this Something.

The second thing Wieman was concerned about was to encourage us away from asking the normal highly speculative questions about what kinds of qualities God must have to deserve our absolute devotion or worship [such as omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience]. These questions are, of course, the kinds things that Dennett and conventional religious believers get stuck on. Instead Wieman wanted to encourage us to talking about God in a functional way. That is to say we should try to define God in terms of "his" function as that toward which we ought to direct our final devotion and loyalty" (Hardwick: Events of Grace pp. 21-22).

As Wieman's thought developed into the 1930s and beyond he increasingly began to associate the notion of God (that Something) with "creativity". God became for him the "creative event" - that constantly refulgent Something, that "World Bud" which constantly gifts us, not with just an extraordinary natural universe but, within it, a life of value and meaning - a world filled, at least always potentially, with ever new "created goods". This "creative event" was God and to it we ought always to direct our final devotion and loyalty. We should never commit the mistake of directing our final devotion and loyalty to any created good, even such created goods as the exemplar Jesus or the Christian Church. This is idolatry. Only the "creative event" itself was worthy of being called God and of commanding our final devotion and loyalty.

To repeat, that this "creative event" exists can be seen to be a natural fact of the universe and, moreover, something accessible to our empirical, scientific methods. Our religious question, i.e. that which concerns the, for us, ultimate value and meaning of life, is answered when we understand how best to respond and commit to God, to this "creative event" with complete devotion and loyalty. Charley Hardwick, a contemporary commentator and advocate of Wieman's basic theology, sums this up what this looks like in a very simple and powerful way:

"Openness to the future grounded in the giftedness of life received as a gift."

In the fourteen years I've been the minister of this church I have listened to and conversed with many people whose maximal definitions of God I have struggled to find credible. By the same token I know that there are many people over that same time who have struggled to find credible my own occasional maximal definitions of God. But I can honestly say that those who have stayed here and who have been able to commit in an ongoing way to this liberal religious community - which includes me of course - have all strongly held to something very akin to Wieman's minimal definition of God as the "creative event" and they have shown this by their openness to the future and their grateful reception of life as a gift.

I think Dennett's wrong - here in this liberal church we are, in this minimal way, very much talking about the same God.

Over to you . . .

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Harvest Festival - XTC and the worlding-of-the-world

Susanna's Harvest arrangement in church this morning
Readings: Leviticus 23:34-44

Two extracts from the film Being in the World

Hubert Dreyfus: Heidegger had to work out a new notion of “world” because he was clear that it’s not “ideas” in another realm that Plato was thinking about, and it’s not the sum total of objects, which is what Descartes was thinking about. Well, what is it? What is it to be open to the world in the way we are? What is it that we are open to when we’re open to the world? What is it to have a world at all? There are lots of worlds. There’s the world of jazz, the world of carpentry, the world of cooking, there are sports worlds, and there’s our world, ours meaning the academic world.

Mark Wrathall: Heidegger thought that our highest dignity as human beings, what really set us apart from everything else in the universe, was our capacity to disclose whole new worlds; to open up whole new possibilities. Heidegger coined this idea of “disclosure” to capture something that we’re not used to thinking about and that is the way that things only show themselves when all the conditions of skill, and all the relationships between them, are possible and then the experience there is of something opening up. A space of possibilities opening up, a way of inhabiting the world opening up. And it’s not like it was there all along. It’s not like the world of jazz music was somewhere there in the middle ages, say, or the Greek world, just waiting to be discovered. It was something that had to have a space provided for it. 

Andy Partridge (composer and member of XTC) speaking about his song Harvest Festival

As a kid, I had no idea what the harvest festival ceremony at school was supposed to be about. This bizarre mix of Christianity, Paganism, Help the Aged, a jumble sale and fridge raid, all seem to crash together (with schoolboy lust interest) in the lyrics of this song.
I decided to move the arrangement from acoustic guitar to piano simply because of the evocation of an English school assembly. Music master seated at the grand in the hall, girls one side, boys the other. Furtive but powerful glances shooting between the ranks of confused white shirted trainee adults. A smile from a girl across the room can have an atomic blast impact on a spotty, shy lad of thirteen. Ground zero at your heart.
I'm very proud of the lines “see the children with baskets, see their hair cut like corn, neatly combed in their rows”. This, for me, is the whole confused dream of school harvest festival distilled into a few words.

Harvest Festival by Andy Partridge

See the flowers round the altar
See the peaches in tins 'neath the headmaster's chair
Harvest festival
See the two who've been chosen
See them walk hand in hand to the front of the hall

Harvest festival
Harvest festival
What was best of all was the
Longing look you gave me
That longing look
More than enough to keep me fed all year

See the children with baskets
See their hair cut like corn neatly combed in their rows

Harvest festival
Harvest festival
What was best of all was the
Longing look you gave me
That longing look
Across the hymnbooks and the canvas chairs
The longing look you gave me
That longing look
More than enough to keep me fed all year

And what a year when the exams and crops all failed
Of course you passed and you were never seen again
We all grew and we got screwed and cut and nailed
Then out of nowhere invitation in gold pen

See the flowers round the altar
See that you two got married and I wish you well


What I want to do today through the song "Harvest Festival" is try to point to something distinctive about ourselves as creatures who have the "capacity to disclose whole new worlds. To open up whole new possibilities". My initial illustration is very English and I am aware that it will not resonate with all of you in the way it does for me, an Englishman. However, this is not a problem, because it will help me make the odd kind of globally relevant harvest point I will conclude with today.

The disclosed world (or really an world within a world) I want to begin with today is the English harvest festival. This only came into being very late in the day after the Anglican priest, the Reverend Robert Hawker, held a special thanksgiving service for the harvest in his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall in 1843. Whatever the ultimate intention of Hawker, by the time of my childhood in the 1970s, the harvest festival he helped revive, far from becoming a contradiction-free Christian one, had developed into a highly eclectic, ad-hoc mix of Jewish, Christian, Roman, Greek and Pagan traditions. As you heard the songwriter Andy Partridge is well aware of this, and that, as a whole, it is a "confused dream" of an affair, a "bizarre mix of Christianity, Paganism, Help the Aged, a jumble sale and fridge raid" but I, like him I think, love it to death. The basic service Hawker developed, seen here primarily in the harvest gifts, decorations, and our opening and closing hymns, sets the general form not only for most church celebrations today but, because the celebration spread into both English State and Public schools, it also provided the background for Andy Partridge's song, "Harvest Festival".

I am aware that there are some people who regret that the celebration of harvest in England turned into such a jumble and this has led to longing dreams of an imagined past or future time when harvest was, or will be, celebrated in a doctrinally and theologically pure and coherent way. But, for myself, I've always enjoyed the fact that for the most part, in England, the festival seemed to be about trying to sum up and hold together in a wholly non-doctrinal and inclusive way the myriad ways different peoples and cultures across several millennia have tried to express thanks for an infinite variety of nature's fruits ranging from grain and fruit on the one hand to, as our song suggests, even a longing look which was more than enough to keep you fed all year.

It is vital to understand that "Harvest Festival" is a song that can only have come to be, to be disclosed to the song writer and then to listeners like me, when certain conditions of skill and all the relationships between them had come together. Then "the experience . . . is of something opening up. A space of possibilities opening up, a way of inhabiting the world opening up." This is precisely the experience of the narrator in the song - a young boy who, thanks to the English world of school and harvest, begins to experience himself new possibilities and to find a world opening up for him in which, as an adult, he can begin to inhabit and find authentic meaning and purpose.

As we proceed, remember, it’s not like this song was there all along. It’s not like the world evoked by "Harvest Festival" was somewhere there in the middle ages, the Greek world or even the Victorian world of Hawker, just waiting to be discovered. Rather it is something that had to have a space provided for it. Andy Partridge inhabits this space, this clearing, and it this which gifts him, and us, with the song.

So let's turn to the song itself. Remember that we listen to it almost certainly first knowing its title. This means, before we begin that we're already gently placed in the world of harvest festivals.

The song begins with a couple of introductory bars of piano followed immediately by the scraping of chairs as they are pushed back across a floor. These two sounds are intimately connected with the world of English school assemblies and suddenly we are there standing up with the children ready for proceedings to begin.

When you know the world of the English harvest festival, with its iconic emphasis on decoration and gifts of food, the next lines are immediately able to evoke a more specific world, not just of school assemblies in general, but of a school *harvest* assembly: "See the flowers round the altar/See the peaches in tins 'neath the headmaster's chair". Of course, we know there isn't really an altar in a school assembly but we do know there was often an altar-like top-table behind which the head and other members of staff sat.

We next hear of the "the two who've been chosen" and how they walk "hand in hand to the front of the hall". This immediately suggests two things. Because they are holding hands the first thing we "get" is that between them there exists a special intimacy which inevitably excludes us in some way. The second thing we "get" is a sense that they are to play some kind of central role in this festival.

It is in the chorus which follows that we are introduced to what, for the song's narrator, turns out to be the real Harvest gift: "What was best of all . . . was the longing look you gave me" - shot across the hall by the chosen girl to him, a white-shirted, trainee adult. As Partridge says, "A smile from a girl across the room can have an atomic blast impact on a spotty, shy lad of thirteen. Ground zero at your heart." This glance was one more than enough to keep him fed all year.

One of the things that makes Andy Partridge such an interesting songwriter to me is that he is situated between the modern world of English suburbia and a much older, primordial, rural world. He is highly alert to the ways, traditions and sights of both. If the tinned peaches are designed to evoke something of modern English suburban life the next line is surely designed strongly to evoke this older, and more primordially rural, life: "See the children with baskets/See their hair cut like corn neatly combed in their rows". Note, too, how the out of tune recorders help locate us even more strongly in the world of the school assembly.

The chorus returns to reinforce the harvest gift of that longing look, but notice the additional line, "Across the hymnbooks and the canvas chairs" which, in a wonderfully economic way, adds for us two details highly specific to the local time and place.

The middle eight, again with remarkable poetic economy, allows our intuitive knowledge of what a failed harvest feels like to a farmer to be tied powerfully to a school child's experience of failure in their exams. Though I have been fortunate to have brought one harvest home I'm not a farmer, but I am an experienced failer of school exams, and so I can viscerally feel the pain of this line in my gut: "And what a year when the exams and crops all failed".

We immediately discover that the failed harvest for our narrator includes, not just failure in their exams, but the failure of the harvest seemingly promised by that "longing look". He failed and stayed; she passed her exams and left, never to be seen again, or so he thought.

And so the young boy becomes a man, a complex process which is summed up in the wonderful line, "We all grew and we got screwed and cut and nailed". Astonishingly, Partridge manages simultaneously to evoke both a highly negative reading, understanding "screwed and cut and nailed" as about being hurt and injured in various ways (and Christ on the cross is surely the image underlying this) and a positive reading with screwed and cut and nailed being understood as the process of being built into something sturdy and secure. Every human being is in varying degrees of course, screwed and cut and nailed in both senses.

"Then out of nowhere invitation in gold pen". Unexpectedly, years later, a wedding invitation arrives and the narrator finds himself in a church setting whose general layout, decoration and ritual powerfully echoes that school harvest assembly all those years ago. Past and present are suddenly brought very close together in the line: "See the flowers round the altar/See that you two got married and I wish you well". The special intimacy which existed between the couple way back then and which, despite the longing glance, excluded him at the time is now sealed in their wedding. He knows that their world is not his but he can and does wish them well. (Note the introduction in the music of an organ and wedding bells).

So what remains for our protagonist, screwed and cut and nailed in both senses I alluded to? Well, we know, thanks to its repetition  that, "What was best of all . . . was the longing look you gave me". The recollection of it still feeds him and for it he seems to have remained grateful, after all, it fed him for a year, a gift not to be sniffed at by anyone. On this hopeful note the song goes out on a joyous repetition of it's title, "Harvest Festival."

The first thing I need to say as I begin to draw to a close is that all the detail and meaning I've drawn out from this highly compressed lyric is utterly dependent on humanity's astonishing and miraculous ability to disclose whole new worlds, to open up whole new possibilities; in this case, a complex English world which allowed the blossoming forth of the chaotic English harvest festival celebrated in Partridge's song. But, of course, it need not have been like this - our English world could have taken many different forms and our Harvest Festival would have, perhaps, a wholly different shape and vibe. After all, Hawker wanted us all to become Tractarian, Anglican High Church men and women who would have found no place for the joyful, inclusive, doctrinal chaos that lies behind Partridge's song.  We also know through direct experience that it IS very different elsewhere in the world - harvest shows up around the globe with countless different colours, sounds, smells, tastes and liturgies.

This general realisation can help us begin to ask some very important general questions (asked by Hubert Dreyfus) which are always-already relevant to every culture on the planet, namely:

"What is it to be open to the world in the way we are?

What is it that we are open to when we’re open to the world?

What is it to have a world at all?" 

But we so often fail to reap this globally relevant (Heideggerian) harvest of questions because it is so easy for us to be seduced into thinking our own local, disclosed worlds with their particular flavours of festival are the only truly meaningful games in town, and that somehow they represent reality better than any other. It can cause many people to become so wrapped up in the intoxicating meaning, depth and richness of their own worlds that they forget there are countless other worlds of disclosure sitting just across the school assembly room that is this shared planet of ours; worlds that are likely to be as intoxicating, subtle, deep and rich as our own.

We know we cannot truly inhabit those other worlds (and festivals) with all the subtlety, depth and richness we can inhabit our own but we can choose to look up and risk experiencing a shooting glance across the room from one of them and let it have "an atomic blast impact" on our spotty, shy, adult selves and experience a "ground zero at our heart".

In my own life that "atomic blast" has been felt by me four times, once thanks to Judaism, once thanks to Zen Buddhism, once thanks to ancient Greek and Roman religion and, once, thanks to contemporary English paganism. I was changed positively and creatively by all the mutually exchanged "longing glances" and this helped me, in the positive sense of the line, to become better "screwed, cut and nailed." For all my basic English, Christian (atheist) fabric I know I am held together by many Jewish, Buddhist, Greek, Roman and Pagan screws, cuts and nails. For them all, I give harvest thanks.