Sunday, 17 November 2013

"Is it a sharp sword of God, or just some other wild body, loving its life?" - a religious naturalist meditation following Tyhoon Haiyan

Typhoon Haiyan on November 7, 2013
Readings: Genesis 6:1-13

Mary Oliver – Black bear in the orchard

It was a long winter.
  But the bees were mostly awake
in their perfect house,
  the workers whirling their wings
to make heat.
  Then the bear woke,

too hungry not to remember
  where the orchard was,
and the hives.
  He was not a picklock.
He was a sledge that leaned
  into their front wall and came out

the other side.
  What could the bees do?
Their stings were as nothing.
  They had planned everything
  except for this: catastrophe.

They slumped under the bear’s breath.
  They vanished into the curl of tongue.
Some had just enough time
  to think of how it might have been—
the cold easing,
  the smell of leaves and flowers

floating in,
  then the scouts going out,
then their coming back, and their dancing—
  nothing different
but what happens in our own village.
  What pity for the tiny souls

who are so hopeful, and work so diligently
  until time brings, as it does, the slap and the claw.
Someday, of course, the bear himself
  will become a bee, a honey bee, in the general mixing.
Nature, under her long green hair,
  has such unbendable rules,

and a bee is not a powerful thing, even
  when there are many,
as people, in a town or a village.
  And what, moreover, is catastrophe?
Is it a sharp sword of God,
  or just some other wild body, loving its life?

Not caring a whit, black bear
  blinks his horrible, beautiful eyes,
slicks his teeth with his fat and happy tongue,
  and saunters on.

The Riddle of Epicurus

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
     Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
     Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
     Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
     Then why call him God?

The Riddle of Epicurus taken from Jonathan Miller's excellent BBC 4 series called 


The devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines just over a week ago is, for people like us who live in a temperate climate, almost completely beyond comprehension. The scale of physical damage was so great that even those with great experience of typhoons have expressed surprise and astonishment at the power of Haiyan. Despite this lack of comprehension on our part I have no doubt all of us here will be, or already have been, supportive of the various aid programmes to the region and we will be particularly supportive of the Clara Barton Fund given its Unitarian connections.

But, even if in the current situation, we do manage to give all we reasonably can and in a fashion we feel will be genuinely helpful, there is a danger that in our own land and culture one question will remain collectively unaddressed - a question which always appears at these moments even though, in our highly secularised society, there are few places it can adequately openly be raised and discussed.

The problem of evil and of suffering is, of course, often directly addressed in our country's various religious communities. However, these communities are increasingly becoming marginal within our culture, not least of all because their general answers to the question of evil and suffering increasingly fail to be persuasive to most of us, and certainly to me.

Because of this failure, in our secular, civic fora (whether that is television, newspapers or parliament etc.) it is believed that the question of evil and suffering almost never need openly be discussed. The only secular place you might hear it rehearsed is in a specialist, minority radio programme such as the BBC's "Moral Maze". The reason for this is simple. Because the prevailing secular view is that, when it comes to events like the recent storm, there is no longer any need to refer to God or the gods we, as a culture can, therefore, safely ignore the question all together. After all, "everyone knows" a storm like Typhoon Haiyan is a natural event, the natural consequences of which we must all simply learn to live, and sometimes die, with.

Now I happen to agree with this basic answer but, unusually for someone who thinks like this, I am also a minister of religion and, because of this, I'm aware of an important pastoral issue. My experience as a minister is that even with a generalised loss of belief in a conventional God many — perhaps even most people — from time to time and at key moments in their life still find the pressing need to think and talk through the question of evil and suffering. The question of why bad things happen to good people will remain, perhaps for ever, a question that arises and which needs careful talking through and reflecting upon. This is something that, over the years, I have done many times with many people.

Given this it is, I think, helpful to lay out now, very briefly the question of evil and suffering and then remind you of the chief possible ways of answering it. (The section in italics below comes from Loyal Rue's excellent book, "Nature is Enough".)

The classical problem of evil can be simply stated in the following argument:

1. If an all powerful, all-knowing, and beneficent God exists, then there would be no unnecessary evil or pointless suffering in the world.
2. But there are instances of unnecessary evil and pointless suffering in the world.
3. Therefore, it is not the case that an all-powerful, all-knowing, beneficent God exists.

There are basically six options for making this problem go away:
1. Deny the existence of God
2. Deny the reality of evil
3. Modify the divine attributes 
4. Reject the relevance of logic in theological matters
5. Theodicy (justification of God)
6. The mystery defence

The first option accepts atheism; the second option takes a non-realist approach to values (which seems to imply that the universe is not a moral order); the third option essentially accepts the argument, but reinstates God with reduced attributes; and the fourth option merely asserts that the argument is unfair. Most theological attention has been focused on the fourth and fifth options. "Theodicy" (Greek: theos + dike) means "justification of God". The strategy here is to argue that what may appear to be unnecessary evil or pointless suffering really isn't unnecessary or pointless. God allows evil and suffering, but he does not do so without good reason. Theodicy, then, attempts to demonstrate that every case of apparently pointless suffering has its point in relation to a greater good. By analogy: abdominal surgery may entail suffering, but the suffering is necessary for the achievement of a greater good (restored health). If a theodicy succeeds, then the problem of evil is explained away. The mystery defence is the trump card. It doesn't even try to explain away apparently pointless suffering (NIE pp. 141-142).  

Now each of us has no choice but to adopt at least one of these six solutions and all I'm really asking you today is to take some time considering where you feel sit with regards to this question. Naturally the invitation is there, as it always is, to talk the matter through with me whatever you think.

But one thing is worth saying now. If you find yourself adopting an answer relating to points 4, 5 and 6 then I think it is important to be honest that there is a high chance that the kind of religion and understanding of God that is on offer here will not, ultimately, prove satisfying to you. You will, of course, still be welcome amongst us because we really do subscribe to the idea of complete freedom of thought in matters of religious belief. However, it is fair to say that nearly all contemporary British and American churches will generally be exploring answers relating to points 1, 2 and 3.

Speaking personally, the problem of evil was the single most important reason why I ended up in this church tradition and have slowly come to adopt a religious naturalist viewpoint and I'll conclude, very briefly, with where I find myself today on this question. I do this for two related reasons. Firstly, because you might like aspects of what I say and wish to adopt something like it yourself. Secondly, even if you don't like what I say, it can at least stand as a case study giving an example of the kind of freedom found here, openly and freely, to think through such religious and philosophical questions and this, in turn, may provide you with the impetus to work out for yourself a more acceptable alternative.

My take on this is a mix of points 1 and 2. As most regular attenders (and readers of this blog) know, I do not, cannot believe in God, at least when the word "God" is understood to refer to a supernatural being who created the world and continues to intervene in, or direct it, in some way. This necessarily makes me a kind of atheist.

But, and it is a major but, it seems to me that the word God remains a helpful, perhaps even vital term in human language that refers to something very real. Along with a number of other religious naturalists - especially Henry Nelson Wieman (1884–1975) and Karl E. Peters (both Unitarians by the way - the latter author still being very much alive and working – see especially his books Spiritual Transformations and Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God) - I find that by modifying God's attributes it is possible to make God not a "being" but rather "Creative Event". As Bruce Southworth notes:

"For Wieman God was not a philosophical proposition to be proved or disproved. God is a given, a datum of reality. More precisely in Weiman's language, God is an event, a Creative Event, an event of Creative Interchange. God is creativity. As such God is trustworthy, reliable, and sustaining. God is that which can transform and save humans in ways we cannot transform ourselves, provided that we understand and fulfill the required conditions" (Bruce Southworth: At Home in Creativity: The Naturalistic Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman, pp. 3-4).

Wieman wanted an answer to the question of how do we know and/or experience God? He answered in "creativity". This response was simultaneously to answer another question, namely, how we might be saved? His answer was "By faith - by ultimate commitment to God, which is commitment to the Creative Process, a commitment that necessitates our co-creativity" (ibid p. 8).

I find myself feeling that the various committed human responses we are seeing to the typhoon in the Philippines and which are directed at building better, more resilient, sustainable loving and healthy communities are powerful expressions of faith in God as "Creative Process".

But it should be clear to most people here that changing "God's" attributes (point 3, making the word "God" refer not to a supreme being but rather to "Creative Event" or "Creative Process") is to make "God" less than "God" once was and, to many people, this sounds suspiciously more like point 1 than point 3 – i.e. it's atheism by another name. As Epicurus said, if God is neither able nor willing to prevent evil and unnecessary suffering then "why call him God?" It's a very good question indeed. (I do have my reasons for retaining the word "God" but, here, I'm deliberately going to leave it unanswered. I'll return to this on another occasion.)

Such an answered question brings us, finally, to Mary Oliver's poem, "Black Bear in the orchard." I value this poem so highly because as she addresses the problem of evil and unnecessary suffering she manages to hold, in an easily understood narrative form, the delicate balance I want to maintain between points 1 and 3 - between not believing in God (at least as conceived in monotheistic circles) and finding ways to change one's definition of God so that God becomes "Creative Process" and, as such, an intimate part of Nature itself.

We can see that "Creative Process" is found in the event that is bees' collecting of honey and the making of honeycomb - the creation of honeycomb and honey is an extraordinary process. But the "Creative Process" is found too in the bear's waking from hibernation and in it's need to eat so that it can begin create its own new, spring life. "Creative Process" is also found in the fact that "Someday, of course, the bear himself will become a bee, a honey bee, in the general mixing." (Whilst I was writing this address I was re-listening to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album Déjà vu on which they perform Joni Mitchell's song Woodstock. It includes the line "We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon" which, surely, carries an echo of Mary Oliver's point.) And, lastly, "Creative Process" is displayed beautifully in Mary Oliver's poem itself - her creative response to the catastrophe which creates a creative interchange between her and us which offers us a way to think and talk through catastrophe.

And, in all this creativity, what is catastrophe? What is the bear's sledge hammer through the hive, what is the typhoon in the Philippines, what is the evil and suffering all of us will have to face at some point in our lives?

Oliver gives her answer in the form of a question and a display of fact. The question is as follows:

"Is [catastrophe] a sharp sword of God, or just some other wild body, loving its life?"

Her display of fact is simply to show the black bear leaving the orchard:

Not caring a whit, black bear
   blinks his horrible, beautiful eyes,
slicks his teeth with his fat and happy tongue,
   and saunters on.

Typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and many other disasters will, forever, come to pass and saunter on not caring a whit. We know this to be true and it is never less than hard to deal with. But we can, with growing knowledge, come to understand them all as part of a "wild body, loving its life" and we can respond as another wild body, loving it's life by creatively caring for those who have been hurt in the movement of Nature. When we do this I feel it is right to say something like "Look! There is God!" Such a God, the "Creative Event" is an emergent aspect of Nature whose wild body, loving its life, will always, from time to time, appear to us as a black bear in the orchard. The religious task is, I think, to learn to love the Creative Process not only in ourselves but also in bears and typhoons. For me only such a loving acceptance of Nature's wild body, loving its life, can bring any kind of meaningful solution to (or perhaps final abandonment of) the old, old problem of evil.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Olympia Brown's "Great Lesson" - A Remembrance Sunday Meditation

Olympia Brown (1835-1926)
Readings:  Some words of Olympia Brown (1835-1926) - "The Great Lesson" 

We can never make the world safe by fighting. Every nation must learn that the people of all nations are children of God, and must share the wealth of the world. You may say this is impracticable, far away, can never be accomplished, but it is the work we are appointed to do. Sometime, somehow, somewhere, we must ever teach the great lesson.

Daniel 5:1-12

Fabulae 143 from the 2nd century BCE Roman mythographer Hyginus:

Men for many centuries before lived without town or laws, speaking one tongue under the rule of Jove [Zeus]. But after Mercurius [Hermes] had explained [or created] the languages of men (whence he is called ermeneutes, ‘interpreter’, for Mercurius in Greek is called Ermes; he too, divided the nations), then discord arose among mortals, which was not pleasing to Jove [Zeus].

From A dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an inquirer by Martin Heidegger

Interpreter: [. . .] The expression “hermeneutic” derives from the Greek verb hermeneuein. That verb is related to the noun hermeneus, which is referable to the name of the god Hermes by a playful thinking that is more compelling than the rigor of science. Hermes is the divine messenger. He brings the message of destiny; hermeneuein is that exposition which brings tidings because it can listen to a message. Such exposition becomes an interpretation of what has been said earlier by the poets who, according to Socrates in Plato's Ion (534e), hermenes eisin ton theon - "are interpreters of the gods."

Japanese: I am very fond of this short Platonic dialogue. In the passage you have in mind, Socrates carries the affinities even further by surmising that the rhapsodes* are those who bear the tidings of the poets' word.

Interpreter: All this makes it dear that hermeneutics means not, just the interpretation but even before it, the bearing of message and tidings.
* A rhapsode was a performer of epic poetrry 


Old College, Sandhurst
In November 2007 I found myself chairing a NATO sponsored conference at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst on the subject of "Engaging with religion for building peace: The Experience of Afghanistan and Iraq".

The plenary sessions of the conference took place in the main ceremonial hall of the Old College and the day began with a "keynote speech" given by Lieutenant-General Lamb, at the time Commander of the Field Army at Land Command. After introducing him and sitting down to listen, I vividly recall why I then completely failed to hear the first minute or so of what he said.

To his right, was one of the many large stained-glass memorial windows in the hall and, as bright sunlight briefly streamed through it on that grey November day, the name "Waziristan" was suddenly shining down upon me and the Lt General in a fashion not unlike the sudden appearance of "mene, mene, tekel, parsin" on the wall of King Belshazzar's palace (see Daniel 5:1-12 and Daniel 5:20-30). It was, I felt, a word - or better, an event - that required interpretation. What did it mean?

Now if, like me, you do not have a belief in any kind of supernatural personal, interventionist god or gods, you might be tempted to say it meant nothing - it was, after all, just a coincidence of natural, contingent facts. But does that do real justice to the experienced phenomenon? Was it really possible to say that the word "Waziristan" now shining down upon me and the Lieutenant-General at this conference, right at *that* moment with me, in the role of chairman, really meant nothing?

I don't think so because, whenever striking events like this occur (and whether you want to accord them a natural or a supernatural cause) we are all, suddenly and wholly unexpectedly, thrown into the world in an active, interpretative mode. In that kind of situation there no longer exists any neutral, unadorned, natural and historical facts because we find ourselves actively living, moving and having our very being amongst them. When that happens we have no choice but to try and find in that complex activity some kind of a way to move forward, some kind of meaning and intelligibility. We have to interpret what is going on and ask whether in this event there are any tidings that take us to a new understanding, even to a whole new way of being in the world. (Don't forget the straightforward power of chance events - of whatever kind - as MacMillan is claimed to have said when asked what he feared most of all, "Events, dear boy, events.")

My interpretation began with some facts, or at least the few facts I thought I knew because I did not, of course, have recourse at that moment to an encyclopaedia. I knew that Waziristan was a remote province in Northern Pakistan and had played a part in three costly Anglo-Afghan conflicts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (1839-1842, 1878-1880 and 1919). I also vaguely remembered the Flashman novels were set during the first of these and that Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional character Dr Watson, Sherlock Holmes' companion, had been injured in the second of them. I certainly knew enough about the contemporary history of the region to know Waziristan shared a border with Afghanistan and that, after the allied invasion in 2001, many Taliban fighters escaped there. It is this fact, of course, that provides the United States with a reason for their current, highly controversial, drone strikes in the region.

I was also quickly becoming aware of the general dark irony that a highly relevant word was shining down upon us from window which memorialised former campaigns fought in the very same region that was about to be addressed by the conference.

For me, who for all kinds of religious and political reasons opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, this word, this event, was silently interpreted such to bring forth the following headline message: "We have tried to conquer and suppress this region by military means since the early 1800s and we have failed, even unto this very day. So let's stop it now. We must change our outdated imperialist attitudes and foreign policy now!"

But this was, nor is, the only possible interpretation of what the word might mean and it was immediately obvious to me that the Lieutenant-General, had he been aware of the event, of the word or message  "Waziristan" now shining down upon him (and I do not believe he was so aware), he would be likely to interpret it differently. Perhaps the message he heard would be connected with the need felt by every serving soldier to remain loyal in the present fight both to his comrades and to the sacrifice, honour and memory of his predecessors who had lived and died that region in the service of King/Queen and Country.

I was also keenly aware that other members of the international audience - mostly involved in military intelligence and various political think-tanks such as Chatham House - if they had been aware of the event, this word shining down upon their keynote speaker and chairman - they would have brought forth still other headline messages involving amongst other things the need to develop better intelligence gathering methods, counter-insurgency strategies, skills and weapons so as better to control or manage the region in some fashion.

I remember thinking all these things and many more in pretty quick succession and this is why, a) I didn't hear Lieutenant-General Lamb's first few paragraphs and b) why, for reasons I now come to, it seemed as if this event, this single word message was delivered by the god Hermes.

We come to him via the word "hermeneutics". Heidegger, referring to "playful thinking that is more compelling than the rigour of science", understood the origin of the word "hermeneutics" to be found in the god's name. The simple dictionary definition of "hermeneutics" is that it is the theory of text interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts. In short hermeneutics is about how we figure out what texts mean and don't mean - even single word texts like "Waziristan".

What might be the reason popular, playful etymology looks to Hermes? Well, firstly his role in the Pantheon was as the "messenger of the gods". Connected with this role you heard earlier a story from Roman mythographer Hyginus.

Hermes may have dutifully brought the gods' messages to human kind but the language he created for us to receive these messages was, to use a modern idiom, hardly "fit for purpose" - it has always been the case that everyone who heard him heard him say something different. What's more, Hermes was believed to take great pleasure in this state of affairs.

Given that, from time immemorial, humankind has known all words are always-already ambiguous and have the power simultaneously to reveal and/or conceal, it is not surprising that Hermes was thought to make a very suitable, realistic representative figure for the art of interpretation - hermeneutics.

For some reason this week, six years on (I don't know why), I found myself asking once again, what might the word "Waziristan" shining down from that memorial window have meant? Could there be anything like a shared interpretation of this event, this word and memorial which genuinely honoured the difficult diversity of opinion I experienced at the conference?

By following the usual strong methods of interpretation the answer is, I think, no. The usual method relies upon wheeling out some latter-day "Daniel" to interpret to the world the "true", heretofore hidden, meaning of the message. These latter day Daniels are not today called prophets but, instead, expert analysts. But, as we all know, before long, this strong approach quickly generates different communities of interpretation each of whom believe they have brought out the "true" meaning of the message. These different interpretations begin to conflict with each other, further discord is sown between the groups, and the spectre of conflict arises once again. At the conference I certainly saw plenty of examples of this strong, even macho, dynamic and I can honestly say that chairing the plenary sessions with more than their fair-share of very heated exchanges was one of the most challenging and stressful experiences of my public life. Throughout that long day I felt as if Hermes was constantly standing at my shoulder delighting in the scene.

Thinking about this experience during the week (and with the benefit of six further years of  theological/philosophical reflection) I want to suggest today, very tentatively - in the "weak" way offered us by Gianni Vattimo pensiero debole I spoke about a couple of weeks ago - that in Hermes' always highly ambiguous messages we may, in fact, be able to espy some tidings that can form for humankind a modest, unifying message.

Now the word "tidings" is especially important here. It means something like "the announcement of an event". So tidings are not just concerned with the immediate interpretation of this or that word or text - what this or that particular word (such as Waziristan) may or may not mean *now* - but rather tidings concerns our future destiny. Tidings speak of a future event in which our whole way of being-in-the-world is radically changed. So changed, in fact, that if and when it happens it as if a new world has come about - a new creation has come. 

If Heidegger is right then hermeneutics is primarily the difficult art of listening to tidings which speak of some possible future destiny.

I think that, as a culture, we've consistently been looking in the wrong place for the unifying meaning of Hermes' always confusing messages. We've tried to find it lying *behind* the ambiguities of our language in some kind of pure, unitary, eternal, true meaning that only God or the gods and certain prophets and expert analysts have access to. But what if the ambiguity and plurality of meanings found in all our texts is precisely Hermes' message?

In relation to war memorials, what if their very ambiguity is precisely the tidings of our destiny that we need to hear? What if the ambiguity revealed in the conference I chaired is precisely the tidings of our destiny that we need to hear? What would happen if, in our remembrances today, we were deliberately, explicitly, to acknowledge that this kind of ambiguity of meaning is structural and unavoidable in human life and that we are just going to have to find a way to live with this that doesn't involve violent conflict.

If this ambiguity is part of our future destiny then in order to move forward together in peace we must become beings committed to, and comfortable with, the art of endless interpretation, gently solving our differences and creating meaning and community through ongoing conversations - always allowing ambiguity to be, not a problem, but a limitless source of creative energy. You may say this is impracticable, far away, and can never be accomplished but, as Olympia Brown (1835-1926) saw, we can never make the world safe by fighting so what other way is there than the way of interpretative conversation?

Is this the work we are appointed to do? Is the necessity of such a conversation what the word "Waziristan" meant (its "great lesson") as it shone down upon me six years ago? Well, we'll have to talk about that . . .