Sunday, 29 December 2013

Who believes that God has eyebrows? - moving beyond the atheist/theistdivide and towards a religious naturalism


Outside the Memorial (Unitarian) Church this morning
Readings:Psalm 43

From Religious Naturalism in a Unitarian Universalist Context 
Paper Presented to General Assembly by Jerome A. Stone

Normally I prefer to use “sacred” or occasionally “divine” as an adjective or adverb. However I find that other people (and I myself in the past) have used the term “God.” So I have developed what I call a minimal definition of God for purposes of conversation and common worship, a translation device for communication between various religious voices. “God is the sum total of the ecosystem, community and person empowering and demanding interactions in the universe.” Another way I have of speaking of God, when I have to, is to say, that God is the world perceived in its value- enhancing and value-attracting aspects, placing me close to Frederick May Eliot. The term “God” has power, while phrases like “situationally transcendent resources and continually challenging obligations” replace the power of the language of devotion with the clarity of the language of theory. (The languages of devotion and inquiry are different, but not separated by a fixed gulf.) The term God can put an end to thinking, either in the fanaticism of belief or of unbelief. My point is that the theoretical term “the transcendent” and the devotional term “God” (minimally understood) share the same reference to situationally or relatively transcendent resources and challenges.

-o0o-

On Boxing Day something that has never happened before occurred on the BBC's flagship Radio 4 "Today" programme, when not one, but two Unitarian ministers, offered a "Thought for the Day". Jim Corrigall from Ipswich and Framlingham gave the official "Thought" at 7.50am whilst, earlier at 6.50am, Andy Pakula from Unity Church, Islington and Newington Green, offered an unofficial "Thought" at the request of the guest editor for the day, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Sir Tim is, of course, best known for his "invention" (if that is the right word) of the WWW but, amongst us he is better known as the most famous contemporary Unitarian Universalist - he's a member of our group of sister churches in the USA.

Sir Tim initially invited Andy Pakula to give the "Thought" but the BBC Religious Broadcasting department would not allow a minister who had openly expressed his atheism to occupy the slot. They insisted that a "theistic" minister did that and so Jim Corrigall was asked instead.

This meant that the major religious topic discussed by the programme and, afterwards, in the various articles in the national newspapers (click here for the Telegraph, click here for the Independent, click here for the Guardian), was not really anything specifically and obviously connected with the Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian movement but rather with the ongoing theist/atheist, religious/secular split that so characterises our post 9/11 culture.

Before I continue it is important to say that, in my opinion, both Andy and Jim offered, different, but in their own ways some excellent and helpful thoughts for the day and they are both to be congratulated. You still have a few days to catch their words on iPlayer and I recommend you do. While the links lasts their respective contributions can also be found at the links below:



Today, I don't intend to comment specifically on Andy and Jim's individual words but, instead, I want to say something about this theist/atheist split as it relates to our own religious movement. I want to do it because, for a casual listener, the fact that there were two Unitarian ministers on the radio - one atheist and one theist - would simply have been confusing. It's confusing, well, because it is confusing!

To help me structure my reflections I'll begin with a story about something that happened to me during my summer vacation.

I was at an Anglican service at which it was known that I was a Unitarian and Free Christian minister. Before the service whilst waiting for the visiting priest to arrive I was talking with five of the parishioners. One of them expressed a deep concern about atheism and suggested that it was offering a very unwelcome threat to religion and asked my opinion on the matter. I said that for my part I did not actually see atheism as a threat to religion but rather saw it, potentially at least, as a co-worker in creating a much needed new religious paradigm. I pointed out that in my own church community (here in Cambridge) there were in fact a number of self-confessed atheists who were positively disposed towards religion. Extreme puzzlement was, naturally expressed. "How could this be the case?" they asked.

The visiting priest was just arriving to robe so I had only a minute or so to reply and I offer just these two, very brief, comments.

Firstly, I simply observed we shouldn't forget that many atheists understand and deeply appreciate religious language and symbolism and that they can still meaningfully connect with many, many aspects of religion without necessarily also holding formal beliefs about the existence of God. I pointed out that the writer Phillip Pullman was currently, perhaps, the best known example of this, This is the phenomenon known as "cultural" or "atheist Christianity". The phrase "belonging not believing" is also often used to describe people who feel this way about Christianity.

Secondly, I pointed out that the whole religious landscape changed whenever one stopped thinking about God as A BEING and started thinking of God as BEING. I reminded them that to be a (conventional) theist is to believe there exists a supernatural being who is God; to be a (conventional) atheist is to believe that such a being does not exist. But, if God is thought of as BEING, this is still not to believe in A BEING called God (so you are still, conventionally speaking, an atheist) but it IS to understand God as the mysterious "no-thing" which gifts every actual thing with existence and life. Such a move allows the mystery of why there is something not nothing to be given a name (either BEING and/or GOD) and for it to remain creatively at play in our everyday language.

A couple of the parishoners exclaimed enthusiastically, "That's an interesting thought - most helpful." There were smiles all around and then, at the very back of the church the priest entered, we stopped talking, stood up and the service began.

Things proceeded as expected until the sermon. The first part of this brought no surprises and we simply heard a good, very competent, standard encouragement to do good on the basis of Jesus' teaching. Had not something else been said following this I would have been able to add at the sermon's conclusion my own, genuinely felt, "Amen!" However, our priest did not stop with this basic moral point but started to add a problematic, theological addendum. He began by saying:

"But, in order properly to find genuine salvation in doing the good Jesus commands, we must be quite clear what it is that Jesus is telling us we must believe about God."

Hang-on, I thought, Jesus never said anything like that! Jesus' teachings are remarkably free from such metaphysical speculation and he clearly offered his words to help keep us focused on our moral and ethical duties and relationships to each other in THIS world. But, our priest continued - "Firstly, Jesus is saying God is a being and, more than that, he is a he - our Father." The priest went on to intimate that we could only trust that Jesus' words were true and must be obeyed if they could be backed up at some point with an ultimate divine force metered out by an actually existent, male being.

I confess that I was completely taken aback by this exceptionally literalist, theological turn. It was a turn of events that clearly framed me as the worst kind of heretic. All those to whom I had been talking cast quick (anxious or even accusatory?) glances back at me. Had our preacher over-heard our conversation? It seemed highly unlikely for we had been talking very quietly and, anyway, we were a long way from where the priest had robed.

But, whatever the reason for the priest's words, they certainly set up a situation after the service in which theists like him were to be lined up on one side and, across a broad and ugly impassible ditch, there were lined up atheists like me. As far as the priest was concerned ne'er the twain could possibly meet. As you might imagine the conversation we had over coffee was a little bit strained. But good old English social muddle meant that, via reminiscences of the previous week's fine weather, we parted on good enough terms. (This very English way of dealing with religious difference, though it is clearly problematic in certain ways, is certainly not to be be laughed at overmuch - after all it has kept us from engaging in inter-religious conflict since at least the Civil War.)

Now why do I tell you this? Well, it has been my experience that in our own group of liberal churches nearly everyone I have come across thinks that when we talk of God we are most certainly NOT referring to A BEING, the old Father God in the sky with a beard but, instead, something much more akin to BEING. Our religious language is understood to be metaphorical - when we say "Our Father" here I am fairly certain that no one really thinks there is an actual (male) being up in heaven. We just know that's not how religious language works. The initial enthusiastic response to my words about this by the two parishioners mentioned above also indicates that there may be many people who are minded to think likewise in what are, otherwise, orthodox religious settings.

An amusing but insightful example of how we just know that religious language is generally to be understood as metaphorical was given by Wittgenstein in an ad hoc comment recorded by one of his students during the 1930s just over the road in Trinity College (You can find this towards the end of his Lectures on Religious Belief).

Wittgenstein pointed to the use of the phrase "God's eye sees everything". Now I'm sure we can all intuitively understand how we might use this phrase even without a belief in a God who is an actual being. Perhaps the obvious one being its use when we have done something in secret that pricks deeply our conscience. It feels as if we had been seen and it's a feeling that won't go away. In consequence we have to address the fact that we have been "seen" and do something about it even when we know we have not been seen. It's a metaphorical way of speaking. Wittgenstein points out that when the phrase "God's eye sees everything" is used everybody understands that "eyebrows are [not] going to be talked of in connection with the Eye of God." Surely, this is true even for the priest I mention above . . . I hope so!

Anyway, this language point aside, the major point I want to make today is that, whenever in an individual or community there has been a CONSCIOUS theological turn towards BEING (and away from a God who is A BEING), the absolute (and to my mind dangerous and unhealthy) difference between those who want to continue to use God language (and are minded to call themselves theists) and those who don't want to use God language (and are minded to call themselves atheists) immediately collapses. So, too, does the religious/secular dichotomy because BEING is obviously relevant to every thing that exists and whether you call it religious or secular. All of a sudden the simple surpassing wonder and mystery that there is something and not nothing has the power to make everything shine in some way and capable of showing up as divine and/or sacred. In short the possibilities for articulating a new, naturalistic religion begins to show up that just doesn't see a dichotomy between so-called theism and atheism and the sacred and the secular.

Jerome Stone is one Unitarian thinker that has fully understood this and this is why I read a brief section from his paper given at the UUA's General Assembly meetings in 2006. I would also recommend taking a look at his books "Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative" (State University of New York Press, 2008 and "The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion" (SUNY Press, 1992.)

To my mind a conscious turn towards religious naturalism and to BEING could help us fulfill our historical claim that our tradition is one of rational mysticism - and (when we add to the mix our historic concern for issues of social justice) we would have a better hope of becoming, in Tom Owen Towle's felicitous term, "free-thinking mystics with hands."

But a significant problem is that not only can our wider culture not see this naturalistic religious possibility emerging but that we in the international Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian churches often don't seem to see it either. We are also all too easily seduced into thinking, like the priest who addressed me in the summer and the Today programme, that somehow its all an either/or matter - you are either a theist or an atheist or a religious person or a secularist; that if you use the word God you are a theist and if you don't you are an atheist. This is all so unhelpful and does not serve us well.

So, if I may, I am going to suggest a collective New year's resolution for us all in Unitarian, Unversalist and Free Christian circles. Let's try and see how consistently and intelligently thinking through God as BEING (and not A BEING) and adopting some kind of religious naturalist viewpoint may help to heal, not only one of the most destructive current divides in our wider culture, but also in our own family of liberal churches.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

A Lost and Found Christmas - Christmas Day Address for the Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge

Christmas Eve in the Memorial (Unitarian) Church
A poem I return to, again and again, during the Christmas period is R. S. Thomas' well-known poem Lost Christmas (from Young and Old, 1972):

He is alone, it is Christmas.
Up the hill go three trees, the three kings.
There is a star also
Over the dark manger. But where is the Child?

Pity him. He has come far
Like the trees, matching their patience
With his. But the mind was before
Him on the long road. The manger is empty.

Given that I am someone deeply committed to the use of the mind in religious matters, Thomas’ call to pity the unnamed man in the poem who does not find the Christ-Child because “the mind was before him on the long road” always causes me to pause and—and with a certain irony—to think hard about what he might be saying. This brief address is simply an account of my current response to his words in which I want to disagree with him and to show that the manger need not be empty to those whose minds go before them.

It’s important to stress just how committed I am to the importance of carefully thinking through religious matters. Ever since reading him in my late teens, I’ve been a follower of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) on the “long road” and have fully adopted his belief that:

“The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.” (concluding words of Walden, Chapter 2).

When it comes to Christmas, and its meaning and reality for me and for our culture, I have always found it impossible not to do some burrowing with my head not least of all because, early on, it helped me strike a rich vein of gold. The man who first guided my snout and fore paws in religious matters was Don Cupitt in his 1984 television series called The Sea of Faith. He pointed out how people like David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), who wrote the first modern life of Jesus in 1835, realised that, given their beliefs about Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah, it was natural for Matthew and Luke to use the Old Testament as a source of information about Jesus' birth. Matthew and Luke were not, of course, present at Jesus’ birth and so when they came to write their accounts they simply thought that it must have been as the Old Testament had said it would be and, in order to express their faith in this, they boldly created a wholly new, fictional, mythic narrative. Here, for the curious, are the key elements of our nativity story from out of the Old Testament that Don Cupitt put before me thirty years ago:

Micah 5:2—“But thou, Bethlehem . . . out of thee shall he come forth . . . that is to be ruler in Israel”

Numbers 24:17—“there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a sceptre out of Israel”

Isaiah 7:14—“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (God with us) ”

Isaiah 9:6—“unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”

Isaiah 1:3—“The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib”

Isaiah 60:3— “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising”

Psalm 72:10—“The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts”

It was for me the beginning of a journey that led, eventually, into a Unitarian & Free Christian church and thence into it’s ministry. Today, as one of it’s ministers and as an historian and rational, religious thinker, I have to say that as I arrive on Christmas morn the manger is, in a very important sense, indeed empty. Why? Well, because there was no manger, except, of course, in the wonderfully creative mind of Luke—remember that there is no mention of a manger in Matthew’s account nor, of course in the gospels of Mark and John who have no account of Jesus’ birth.

It may still be to some a matter of sadness to have discovered that the Christmas stories are fictions—I cannot help that—but, for me, the power of historical and literary research to free us from earlier false understandings and beliefs is something greatly to be celebrated, and the birth of the disciplines of historical and literary criticism is, surely, as much to be celebrated as is the birth of Jesus because their presence in our culture keeps us focused on the truth; and, as Jesus may himself have once said, “the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

Given all this, not surprisingly, I do not feel R. S. Thomas is at all right in pitying me. The manger may be empty but it’s empty for all the right reasons.

But that’s not, by any means, the end of it because, for me, what this “lost” Christmas means is a newly “found” Christmas in which the manger can be re-filled in a different fashion than before and, perhaps more importantly, it can be re-filled for all the right-reasons.

Realising that the Christmas stories are myth, and not history, freed me better to live in the present and also to look for a Christian expression of faith that took history and literature seriously and fully into account and which didn’t require me to worship Jesus as a God but, instead, with surpassing wonder and thankfulness to follow him as an exemplary human being. As I have already indicated I found that place in a Unitarian and Free Christian church under the inspiring ministry of the Revd Cliff Reed.

Cliff helped me properly to reconnect with the Christmas stories and allowed them to speak to my own human condition and age even more powerfully than they had done before. He introduced me to one of the Unitarian movement’s greatest figures, James Martineau (1805-1900) who, movingly, had expressed a belief that:

'The incarnation of Christ is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there, and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine' (cited in J. E. Carpenter, James Martineau, Philip Green, London 1905, p. 404).

Amen, Alleluia to that, said I. Cliff also introduced me to the work of a contemporary Unitarian minister, John Andrew Storey (1935-1997) who, in the hymn we have just sung, perfectly summed up for me what I was beginning to feel ever more strongly:

Around the crib all peoples throng
In honour of the Christ-child's birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
'Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.'

But not alone on Christmas morn
Was God made one with humankind:
Each time a girl or boy is born,
Incarnate deity we find.

This Christmastide let us rejoice
And celebrate our human worth,
Proclaiming with united voice
The miracle of every birth.

Round every crib all people throng
To honour God in each new birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
'Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.'

After joining a Unitarian church words such as these slowly helped me to realise that I could both keep my mind before me and find the manger filled on Christmas morn.

While I was a member of the congregation in Ipswich Cliff was writing a small book called “Unitarian? What’s That?” and in it, in response to the question “Do Unitarians celebrate Christmas?”, Cliff Reed wrote some words that I continue to hold to myself:

The answer is yes. Why? It marks the birth of a religious leader of seminal importance. The birth of Jesus stands as a symbol of the divinity inherent in every human birth. It stands for the perennial rebirth of innocence and hope in every new child. It calls to mind the values of peace and goodwill that should be with us all the year. It coincides with the winter solstice, the turning of the earth towards the light and the warmth of a new year. All these factors play a part in the Unitarian Christmas.
  Unitarians do not, in the main, let it worry us that we do not know the precise date of Jesus' birth. Nor do we worry that the two quite distinct Gospel Nativity stories probably have little or no historical basis. As myth they express later beliefs about the significance of Jesus and other, more timeless, truths.
  Unitarians believe that Jesus was conceived and born in the usual human manner, which in no way diminishes him—quite the contrary. Many, though, are willing, for the season, to suspend disbelief, enter into the Christmas myth, and find at its heart a message of divine love for a world that needs it.

Now, by a wonderful, graceful coincidence the last few days offered me a particularly powerful example of this at work. Last Friday I conducted a funeral of an extraordinary neighbour, Mimin Falkner (1927-2013) at which we sang the carol, “In the bleak mid-winter”. During the funeral service her grandchild, holding her newly born great-grandchild, Joseph, lit a candle in remembrance and in celebration of the fact that life had begotten life. Seeing the new-born child in that context and then singing the lines:

Once more child and mother
Weave their magic spell,
Touching hearts with wonder
Words can never tell:
In the bleak mid-winter,
In this world of pain,
Where our hearts are open
Christ is born again.

I can truly say at that saddest of mid-winter moments I suddenly felt my heart opened and, in the presence of that new life, I felt that Christ was, indeed, born again in our midst.

Today, as we celebrate together on Christmas morn, amongst us is another new-born child, her name is “Stella”—Star. May her newly shining life and light help guide us all to the truth that the stable and manger are always here and right now and, even though as a religious tradition we insist on the need always to be burrowing with our heads and keeping our mind before us, if we also take care to keep open our hearts, then on Christmas day the manger will always be found to be filled with the miracle of divine life and we can say, and truly mean that, among us now, in our hearts, "Christ is born again!"

Happy Christmas!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas Eve Communion Service 2013

The Memorial Church before the communion service in 2012
On Christmas Eve at 6.30pm at the Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge we will be celebrating, by candlelight, a service of liberal Christian communion. It lasts about fifty minutes and is followed by mulled wine, mince pies and some festive conversation. Below I have posted a link to the full order of service in case anyone out there wishes to look at it before hand or even, should you wish, to use it yourself. The liturgy is entirely composed from Unitarian and Free Christian sources except for the table prayer at the beginning which comes from the Dutch Remonstrant Church. Over the years I've met a few of their ministers and been very impressed by them and their liberal, tolerant way of doing things. As I did last year, I paste below the link to their current (2006) Confession which I, personally, find very congenial.


Please also join us for our Christmas Day service at 10.30am.

-o0o-

New Confession of the Remonstrant Church, 2006

We are aware and we affirm

that we do not find our peace in the certainty of what we confess,
but in wonder of what befalls us and what we are given;

that we do not find our destination in indifference and greed,
but in vigilance and in connection with all that lives;

that our existence is not fulfilled by who we are and what we possess,
but by what is infinitely greater than we can contain.

Guided by this awareness, we believe in God's Spirit
who transcends all that divides people
and inspires them to what is holy and good,
that in singing and in silence,
in prayer and in work,
they worship and serve God.

We believe in Jesus, a Spirit-filled human,
the face of God, seeing us and disturbing us.
He loved humanity and was crucified
but he lives, beyond his own and our death.
He is our holy example of wisdom and courage
and he brings God's eternal love close to us.

We believe in God, the Eternal,
who is love unfathomed, the ground of being,
who shows us the way of freedom and justice
and beckons us to a future of peace.

We believe that 
weak and fallible though we are,
we are called to be church,
connected to Christ and all who believe,
in the sign of hope.

For we believe in the future of God and the world,
in a divine patience that gives time
to live and to die and to rise,
in the kingdom that is and will come,
where God will be for eternity: all in all.

To God be the glory and honour
in time and eternity.

Amen

My Christmas Letter for the church newsletter

Herrnhuter Stern in the Cambridge Manse
Many years ago I came across a book of epigrams written by Angelus Silesius (1624-1677) called The Cherubinic Wanderer and, in a moment, I’ll leave you with what is still my favourite. Silesius was one of those writers who is often described as a mystic and, perhaps he was, but I prefer to see him primarily as someone who understood that it is never sufficient only passively to consider our religious stories but, instead, we should be prepared to let them change us in some way.

Because they are so familiar to us the Christmas stories can easily fail to challenge and change us. The temptation is always there just to sit back on the sofa with a fine port and some great stilton to hand and passively listen to the story told in the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College and then leave it pretty much at that – essentially indulging in a piece of grand, nostalgic entertainment. But, in our heart of hearts, I think most of us feel this way of celebrating Christmas somehow misses the mark.

The Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke speak, of course, about the incarnation, a moment in which the writers want to suggest that, somehow, God became human. Now we are a church that was formed out of a ferment about what these scandalous stories might mean and, historically, we didn’t interpret them in the way most Christian churches eventually did. One of the great Unitarian theologians of the late nineteenth century James Martineau (1805-1900) summed-up our general take on the incarnation as follows:

'The incarnation of Christ is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there, and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine'
(cited in J. E. Carpenter, James Martineau, Philip Green, London 1905, p. 404).

With these words in mind we can turn now to Silesius’ epigram. He took the stories of Christ's birth and distilled one implication of them brilliantly and pithily into four lines which he threw back to the reader in a quite startling fashion – demanding of us that at Christmas we make some kind of radical change in our own way of being-in-the-world. Here it is in Frederick Franck’s wonderful translation (‘The Book of Angelus Silesius’, Bear & Co., Santa Fe, 1985 - Reprinted as Messenger of the Heart):

Christ could be born
a thousand times in Galilee
but all in vain
until he is born in me.

Franck places next to this text a few suggestive lines from the sixth and last Patriarch of Chán Buddhism, Hui Neng (638-713):

‘In what I have shown you, there is nothing secret or hidden. If you reflect within yourself and recognise your own face which was before the world, the secret is within yourself.’

Now what you do with this tiny little stocking filler this Christmas is not for me to say but all I can say is that most other presents given to me at Christmas have long gone and been forgotten but this one I still have and it never fails to wake me from my port and stilton induced slumber to a startling recognition of the season’s radical message – that, together, we must somehow become ourselves the incarnation of God.

Susanna and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Monday, 16 December 2013

The quest for spiritual freedom - some further thoughts about "the point of Jesus".

Winter clearing and pruning in the Botanic Gardens
In reply to my last blog post What's the point of Jesus? - Advent 3. Emerging, integrating, expanding and deeping - Henry Nelson Wieman and "Creative Interchange" a long term, thoughtful conversation partner of mine called Harvey posted the following helpful comment:

Harvey said...
Hello Andrew: My response is that what you have presented from Wieman today seems so general ("open-ended creative interchange" )as to be without much meaning. I have been finding an interpretation of Jesus that while very non literal makes that interchange more specific. I am referring to John Spong's "The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic" and Cynthia Bourgeault "The Wisdom Jesus." Both interpret Jesus from the Jewish Wisdom Tradition, with an emphasis that I find very similar to your favorite, Tolstoy's "The Gospel in Brief." All stress a change in "consciousness" in Jesus' teaching and way of life that promotes an interchange beyond all our usual boundaries of tribe, nation, gender,sect, etc. that if integrated will be very expanding and deepening, and defines how radical (explosive)this can be for our human community.
     Thank you for your continuing work in making Jesus relevant for us today. Be Well, Harvey

It needed, of course, a thoughtful reply but what I wrote proved too long to fit into the comments section so here it is as a separate post. As always, I'd value any feedback people are minded to make, either here or in person. It's part of the process of "Creative Interchange" about which I was talking . . .

Dear Harvey,

Good to hear from you. Thanks for your best wishes which I return to you. I hope you have a very happy Christmas and New Year.

Thank you, too, for posing your question because it has quite unexpectedly helped me clarify something important in my own thinking. Of course, I will quite understand if you think that what I write below doesn't really answer your question in a way that satisfies you.

The reason, I think, that you feel there is little meaning (content) in what I wrote is because I'm beginning to think through and act on the implications of something suggested by the great Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur (1886-1956), namely, that the "Jesus tradition" as it played out in Unitarian contexts wasn't what we once thought it was - that is to say some kind of (Unitarian) substantive, theological doctrine or essential meaning.

In 1920 in his essay "The Meaning and Lessons of Unitarian History” (which I have recently put up on the menu bar of my blog) he felt that the history of Unitarianism did at first sight appear to teach us that "the principal meaning of the movement has been a purely doctrinal one and that the goal we have aimed at has been nothing more remote than that of winning the world to acceptance of one form of doctrine rather than another."

But Wilbur also recognised that, when understood as a whole, the "doctrinal aspect" of our churches was, in truth, only "a temporary phase" and that Unitarian doctrines were only "a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom" (my emphasis). Indeed, his essay begins with a clear statement that "that the keyword to our whole history . . . is the word complete spiritual freedom." The conclusion he delivered to his own day was that, thus far, we had hardly done anything more than remove certain "obstacles which dogma had put in our way" and had only just begun to "clear the decks for the great action to follow."

When I began to work in the ministry I had in mind that I might be able to help discern, and then directly to engage in, some kind of obviously meaningful and substantive “great action” (what ever that turned out to be). Now, after seventeen years of ministry (three as a student, fourteen as a professional pastor) I find that the meaningful task that seems to have befallen me is the rather more unglamorous (but I hope still vital) task of clearing the decks - something that I cannot see has been properly done in the intervening eighty-three years since Wilbur wrote his essay. The major part of that clearing-up involves getting rid of a great deal (perhaps even most) of our old, substantive Christian theological meanings and content - not, as too often has been tried in the Unitarian movement, by simply overcoming them by rejection, but instead by the slower, long term process of surpassing, twisting and reinterpreting them (for an indication of what I mean by this please take a look at my address entitled Verwindung, verwindung, verwindung - surpassing, twisting and reinterpreting our way to complete spiritual freedom.)

Until we can affect this appropriate kind of clearing (where "clearing" is understood verbally - i.e. as an activity - and not a noun) I don't think there is enough space (or the right kind of space) available for much needed new and, I think, more healthy meanings and content to show up.

This is why, I think, I find myself increasingly attracted to the thinking and example of Paul Wienpahl (who, by the way, wrote so intriguingly about Spinoza and Zen) and why I have added his words to the “About Me” section on the right hand side of this blog and on the “About this blog” page found at the top.

Right at this moment I find that it is important to try to be, as Wienpahl wanted to be, “a man without a position” because only then can I do my clearing of the decks in a properly detached fashion. (The clearing away of things once so loved and cherished can, at times, be unbearably painful so the right kind of detachment is absolutely necessary.) This detachment will also, I hope, help me better to see what new kind of religious life and action is made possible (shows up) through such a clearing.

This “clearing” image is very strongly in my mind at this time of year because in the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens (see photo at the top of this post), where my wife and I often walk, there has recently been a major clearing out of trees and flower beds. It can appear quite shocking to the uninitiated to walk there at the moment - it is as if someone is destroying the garden rather than caring for it. Of course, we know that this clearing-out and hard pruning is vital to the long term health of the garden. I can only pray that in my own field I'm being a good and responsible gardener.

In the Gospel of Luke (13:6-9) Jesus tells the following parable:

‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”'

Although I find it hard, I find I have to say that, to my gardener’s eyes, the tree that is the substantive Christian theological tradition (with most of its meanings) no longer bears fruit. I have tried putting manure around it and have done so for a lot longer than a single year. It has still not fruited. It’s time to cut it down, to clear a space so something else - some new religious life, action and meaning - can begin emerge and flourish.

On the other hand the creative event Jesus triggered, the explosive event of open-ended creative interchange I spoke about in my earlier post still seems to me to be capable of bearing great fruit - namely the complete spiritual freedom of which Earl Morse Wilbur spoke.

The open-ended four-fold process of emerging, integrating, expanding, and deepening Henry Nelson Wieman articulates (and which seems to fit with Wilbur's concern) I believe helps us see how following Jesus in a certain way can genuinely free us to be ourselves and so enter fully into our own life, world, time and place. After all, did not Jesus say: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10)?

With warmest wishes,

Andrew

Sunday, 15 December 2013

What's the point of Jesus? - Advent 3. Emerging, integrating, expanding and deeping - Henry Nelson Wieman and "Creative Interchange"

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church
before this morning's service
Readings: Luke 12:54–57

From the preface to The Plain Sense of Things – The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism (Penn State University Press, 1997 p. ix) by James C. Edwards:

This book is no apology for any form of religious belief; far from it. But it does suggest we need, and luckily still have available to us, practices that can concentrate, and transmit the sacramental energies – energies for limitation in the face of hubris and for transformation in the face of complacency – that used to be bound up in the stories of the gods. If the distinction were not both too crude and too familiar, one might say that the book is about what it might mean for us to be religious without explicit religion.


-o0o-

A couple of weeks ago I gave an address which asked the question, "what, for us today, is the point of Jesus?" I asked it, of course, because we are in the season of Advent, the period of preparation for Christmas, the season when we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I tied this question in with the two key sacramental religious energies James C. Edwards thinks remain available to us.

The first energy is that which can limit us in the face of hubris. The second energy is that which can transform us in the face of complacency. My aim two weeks ago was to suggest what might be the point of Jesus for us today in relation to the first energy.

I took you, very briefly, through the main points of our liberal Christian genealogy as it unfolded during the course of our four-hundred and fifty years of existence. What we saw was our move from understanding the point of Jesus as being "very God of very God" to, in the late sixteenth-century, understanding him as God's unique, divine *human* representative on earth and then, from the mid-nineteenth on, to understanding him more and more as a wholly human teacher and exemplar. This has allowed us to say to come to say that we feel the point of Jesus is not as an absolute, authoritative divine figure but rather an inspired human teacher who is, in terms of the other great wisdom teachers of human kind, for us a "primus inter pares" - a first among equals.

The hubris that is limited by the energy released by our genealogy is the dangerous human tendency to believe that Jesus (or any other religious teacher) could or should ever be thought of as an infallible, "strong" divine figure - even God himself - who brings with them only unchanging, eternal religious truths that could, and should, be imposed upon all human-kind. That kind of hubristic religion has been shown to be highly destructive and dangerous.

I suggested that this weakening of old absolutist religious certainties about a divine Jesus in favour of the "weaker" human wisdom of the man Jesus surely has more hope of bringing to pass the joyous message Luke imagines the angels brought to the shepherds at this season: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men" (Luke 2:14).

This week, I'd like to turn to the second sacramental energy of religion available to us, namely that which can transform us in the face of complacency. What might be the point of Jesus for us in helping to access this energy?

For me, no one in our own circles has managed to suggest what this might be better than Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975) who taught for many years at the University of Chicago. In 1929 (Methods of Private Religious Living) he placed before his readers a question that he never lost sight of during the next fifty years of his life:

"What [he asked] operates in human life with such character and power that it will transform men and women as they cannot transform themselves, saving them from evil and leading them to the best that human life can ever reach, provided they meet the required conditions?" 

He came to think the answer lay in something he called "Creative Interchange" or "Creative Process" which Wieman saw as equivalent to understanding God as "Creative Event".

Wieman thought this creative process could be divided into four parts or "sub-events":


  • 1) emerging 
  • 2) integrating 
  • 3) expanding and 
  • 4) deepening. 


Here's how they relate to each other.

Firstly, he thought that new experience or information helped us gain an *emerging* awareness of the world - of people, relationships, culture, plants, animals and all other kinds of things. Particularly through our use of language and other kinds of symbolic sharing of *quality*, we seem to have been able to make huge leaps in awareness above that which can occurs in the natural world where such language seems not to have emerged.

The second sub-event involves us in the process of *integrating* this new awareness; it is when our "[n]ewly acquired meanings are integrated with others previously acquired" (Charley D. Hardwick, Events of Grace, Cambridge University Press, p. 244). Wieman thought that this moment of integration was "largely unconscious, unplanned and uncontrolled by the individual" except, and in so far as, we may consciously, "provide conditions favourable to" this integration occurring - for example in a university setting or, I hope, a liberal, openly critical church like this. Wieman felt that it was at this level of integration that what he he called God as "Creative Event" most powerfully worked to transform us we cannot transform ourselves.

Thirdly, following this integration we are next enabled to begin to experience an *expanding* appreciation and understanding of the world as a complex, dynamic whole. Wieman wrote that there occurs an "expanding and enriching of the appreciable world by a new structure of inter-relatedness pertaining to events." He's talking, of course, about those moments when new paradigms suddenly show up which radically expand our understanding of how everything and event in the world and universe hangs, or might hand together and interrelate.

Fourthly, and lastly, these various sub-events help us to achieve a level in which, in community, we can begin to ask better kinds of questions, know better what we might listen for, look at and seek out and, in the process, we may say our individual and community understanding undergoes a "deepening".

These four sub-events do not, of course, simply stop at the moment of deepening but continue to cycle around.

This overall paradigm is central to Weiman's philosophy. Given the subject of today's address we must now see how for us this relates to the "point of Jesus". I hope the extended quote which now follows from his important 1946 book "The Source of Human Good" makes the relationship clear:

Jesus engaged in intercommunication with a little group of disciples with such depth and potency that the organisation of their several personalities was broken down and remade. They became new men, and the thought and feeling of each got across to the others. It was not merely the thought and feeling of Jesus that got across. That was not the most important thing. The important thing was that the thought and feeling of the least and lowliest got across to the others and the others to him. Not something handed down to them from Jesus but something rising up out of their midst in creative power was the important thing. It was not something Jesus did. It was something that happened when he was present like a catalytic agent. It was as if he was a neutron that started a chain reaction of creative transformation. Something about this man Jesus broke the atomic exclusiveness of those individuals so that they were deeply receptive and responsive to each other. He split the atom of human egoism, not by psychological tricks, not by intelligent understanding, but simply by being the kind of person he was, combined with the social, psychological, and historical situation of the time and the heritage of Hebrew prophecy. Thus there arose in this group of disciples miraculous mutual awareness and responsiveness toward the needs and interests of one another.
  But this was not all; something else followed from it. The thought and feeling, let us say the meanings, thus derived by each from the other, were integrated with what each had previously acquired. Thus each was transformed, lifted to a higher level of human fulfillment. Each became more of a mind and a person, with more capacity to understand, to appreciate, to act with power and insight; for this is the way human personality is generated and magnified and life rendered more nobly human.
  A third consequence followed necessarily from these first two. The appreciable world expanded round about these men, thus interacting in this fellowship. Since they could now see through the eyes of others, feel through their sensitivities, and discern the secrets of many hearts, the world was more rich and ample with meaning and quality. Also - and this might be called a fourth consequence - there was more depth and breadth of community between them as individuals with one another and between them and all other men. This followed from their enlarged capacity to get the perspectives of one another and the perspectives of all whom they might encounter. Of course, this apprehension of the other's perspective is never perfect and complete. But the disciples found themselves living in a community of men vastly deeper and wider than any before accessible to them.
  Thus occurred in the fellowship about Jesus a complex creative event, transforming the disciples as individuals, their relations with one another and with all men, and transforming the appreciable world in which they lived".

Wieman concludes this passage insisting that we remember that the creative transformation "was not in the man Jesus" rather "[Jesus] was in it".

In all this I think that Wieman is clearly suggesting that, for us, the point of Jesus is not, precisely, the man Jesus, nor even the specific content of his surviving teachings but, instead, it is the creative event he triggered, an explosive event of open-ended creative interchange that as a liberal religious community we are still committed to today. This explains why we neither can, nor should, believe precisely what Jesus believed, nor can we, nor should, believe precisely what our forbears thought and believed. The open-ended four-fold process of emerging, integrating, expanding, and deepening has thankfully freed us to be ourselves and enter fully into our own world, time and place.

Jesus is for us today the trigger and paradigmatic model of how always to be open to and encourage creative interchange ourselves. This is why here, in our local church's covenant, it says that we meet together, not in the "beliefs of Jesus" but, instead, in the "spirit of Jesus" - a spirit that shows how in a free-religious community we release the second sacred energy which transforms us in the face of complacency.

So to summarise what I say here and in the address from two weeks ago, the point of Jesus for us today, I would argue, may be conceived as follows:

Firstly, remembering and rehearsing together our church's genealogy of weakening belief in Jesus as God and a strengthening belief in him as a human being challenges the human hubristical tendency to think our founding religious figures must be infallible and God-like. Internalising this story of weakening gives us access to the first sacred energy.

Secondly, understanding Jesus as the trigger and paradigmatic model of how as a community we need to be open to and always encourage creative interchange helps us access the second sacred energy that can transform us in the face of complacency.

In this community it is the birthday of this kind of Jesus that we prepare to celebrate in this season of Advent.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

What's the point of Jesus? — Advent 2. Let there be no child who comes into the world without some hope, some joy in him

Nativity scene on the Cambridge manse mantelpiece
Readings: Luke 2:12

"This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 

From the Fourth Eclogue by Virgil (trans. J. B. Greenough)

Assume thy greatness, for the time draws nigh, dear child of gods, great progeny of Jove! See how it totters—the world's orbed might,earth, and wide ocean, and the vault profound,
all, see, enraptured of the coming time!

-o0o-

Today's address is not, quite, the promised second part of last week's even though they both share a number of themes. I'll try and finish "part two" for next week.

But the reason for not finishing it for today and producing this one instead is, I think, legitimate. As you heard in the notices, yesterday I was honoured to receive a Christmas Card from the Bishop of the Hungarian Unitarian Church which contained a verse from Luke and also a few lines from Virgil's fourth Eclogue. These lines of Virgil have, since Constantine's times, been understood within Christian circles as a "pagan" pre-echoing of the Christian tidings which centre on the Christ-child.

But they are not, of course, really a pre-echoing of the Christian story at all, instead they simply reveal how widespread was, and is, the idea that one day there will come to us some saviour who will bring peace on earth, goodwill to all and usher in a new and golden age.

Now, when I eventually sat down on Saturday afternoon to begin writing my address I simply couldn't get those two texts out of my mind. This was primarily because, on opening the card, I had immediately pulled off my shelves, not only C. Day Lewis' well-known but fairly straightforward 1963 translation of the text but also David R. Slavitt's much more adventurous and, I believe, relevant interpretation of 1970:

Virgil: Fourth Eclogue (trans. David R. Slavitt, 1970)

The ages of the world will not turn back. 
The iron rusts and will not shine again 
like silver, will not be silver, and the gold . . .
Who believes that? Still there are golden dawns, 
springs with their promises. 

   We try to believe 
as we do with a deadbeat debtor relative, 
forgetting the smog of evenings, the brown of August, 
the whining stalls that we shall hear again. 
And yet we believe, we lend, we lend belief. 
At the birth of a baby, then, who can resist 
that act of faith? Springs, sunrises lie, 
but he has not lied. Not yet. He has not promised 
falsely or at all. And if his yowl 
demands the whole world, who is to say 
he has not the right? Someone must come along 
to get us an out of this mess, to make it right, 
to save us from what we have been, from what we are. 
And so, at the baby's birth, Virgil dreams 
of in the rough places smoothed to match the brow 
of that tiny creature, all the crooked, flabby 
hearts made taut and tight as that new heart 
in the delicate chest beneath those flexible ribs. 
We will have miracles! Promises will be 
kept, even this—that the cradle itself will sprout 
ivy, foxglove, acanthus. He dreams of the time 
we all yearn for, like men in a desert who yearn
so much for water they see it. 

   No ploughs, 
but the earth will offer up crops. No ships on the sea 
risking the savage storms, but every land 
will produce all things. No tints and dyes for wool, 
but sheep will be blue and purple and yellow and green. 
The dreams are familiar, but then the need is familiar 
and always with us. 

   It was all supposed to begin 
in Virgil's time, with Pollio, his friend, 
as consul, presiding over the new beginning. 
And the baby . . .  

   But Virgil had to cheat on that. 
The trouble is, with these poems, that they take time, 
and he had to write it before the baby was born. 
And the baby cheated him. 

   Marc Antony lost 
in the struggle with Octavian, and from his loins 
came daughters, daughters of daughters, and then Nero.
Octavian, the other possible father, 
also had a child at the right time, 
the child that could have been the expected one—
but it was a daughter, Julia, who grew up to be 
the notorious whore Tiberius had to banish. 
    The babies were wrong, but the longing for a baby, 
for health, for innocence, for the freshness of starting, 
beginning again with nothing yet gone awry, 
continued, continues. 

   Later, the poet of Naples 
gave Virgil into the hands of St. Paul. And Dante 
took Virgil with him. The dreams were close enough—
a new beginning. 

  But the sheep are not yet blue 
nor any of those colours. And ships and planes 
scurry and wreck. Ploughs wound the ground 
and a field smells of sweat and diesel fuel . . .

"Oh, if my life could only be longer!" he wrote, 
but what would he have seen? What was there new 
or better or different? Only his own poem, 
itself another promise, another assurance, 
beautiful, false, false and still beautiful 
as the smile of that little Julia. 

   The poem ends: 
“Begin, then, child. Recognize your mother, 
give her a smile, a sign . . .”

   The sex was wrong, 
the baby was wrong, it was all wrong hut the hoping, 
and we must always hope. 
 
  Let there be no child 
who comes into the world without some hope, 
some joy in him. And we shall have begun . . . 

I got to know and admire Slavitt's work, firstly through a translation of some of the Psalms and then, through his glorious 2008 translation of Lucretius' poem, De Rerum Natura, "On the Nature of Things". What particularly appeals to me about Slavitt is that, because he openly acknowledges how easy it is for virtue and worth of some of the classics wholly to pass us by - especially when they are translated too literally - he takes great pains (some would say liberties) to make them available to us in a way that allows them to resonate meaningfully in our own time and condition. Here's Slavitt speaking of Virgil in general:

"To read Virgil is to experience a deadly feeling of overwhelming virtue. It is like brushing one's teeth after a great meal, for all the tastes of the repast yield to the bland bite of the dentrifice. Or to be less fancifully metaphorical, in reading Virgil - even voluntarily - one has the notion that one is fulfilling an assignment, if only because Virgil is mostly read that way by unwilling boys in secondary school" (Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil pp. 13-14).

And, in relation to the business of translating the Eclogues themselves Slavitt says:

"Virgil's Eclogues looked to be every bit as bad as [Robert] Graves had said they were. . . . The poems made almost no sense. They were a babble of unconvincing shepherds. . . . It was only perversity on my part and sheer willfulness that kept me at this unpromising business. Finally, I worked out a desperate kind of attack, which was to ask of each Eclogue: If you were ever a living breathing poem, what could you conceivably have been about?" (ibid. p. 14).

It strikes me that in so many ways, for all their obvious familiar beauty, the Christmas stories (at least as we have been taught to receive them by Christianity) also, today, really make almost no sense and they too, like the Eclogues, have their contingent of unconvincing shepherds. In our own, modern, critical and skeptical age, there inevitably now hangs over them (and the festival they accompany) the same question that hangs over the Eclogues - "What could they conceivably have been about?" A failure convincingly to answer this must, in part, explain why as a religious festival Christmas has less and less appeal to so many people today.

Slavitt, who is very much a poet of our modern world, openly acknowledges the connection to be made with Christianity when he notes that:

Later, the poet of Naples 
gave Virgil into the hands of St. Paul. And Dante 
took Virgil with him. The dreams were close enough—
a new beginning. 

I think it is fair to say that Slavitt's presentation of the Fourth Eclogue is as much about our culture's problematic relationship with the hopes of Christianity as it is a translation of Virgil's poem with its own hopes about Rome.

In so many ways our own contemporary culture has come to feel that the baby Jesus, at least as the baby Jesus has been presented to us by the Christian Church for two millennia, has, like Virgil's baby, cheated us. After all, the Christian promises of a new beginning in Christ in which the rough places have finally been smoothed to match the brow of the tiny child, in which all crooked and flabby hearts have been made taut and tight as that child's new heart, and in which there is no need even for tints and dyes for wool because the sheep will themselves be blue and purple and yellow and green, has simply not come to pass. Far, far from it for, as we know, over the centuries and in the name of the Christ-Child there have been committed at least as many crimes as Nero and the Roman Republic and Empire ever did.

In making the small child in manger God, very God of very God, Christianity was, like Virgil, holding itself hostage to fortune, and fortune has not been kind either to Virgil or to Christianity. Believing that child in the manger was God was wrong, all wrong and it has led human kind into some dreadful and dark places. This is why as a radical religious tradition we have always insisted that Jesus was not very God of very God but a natural, human being, like you and me.

But, for all this, as Slavitt notes, even though such a divine conception of a baby was wrong (pun intended) "the longing for such a baby, for health, for innocence, for freshness of starting, beginning again with nothing yet gone awry, continued, continues." As he says at the end, "it was all wrong but the hoping, and we must always hope."

I became a member of a Unitarian and Free Christian church, and  then became one of its ministers, because it was made clear to me that within such a community, the Christ-child in the crib for whom we awaited at Advent and whose birth we celebrated at Christmas stood as a placeholder for the hope and divinity that we can see in every new born child and in every golden dawn and spring. As we will sing in our final hymn written by a Unitarian minister called John Andrew Storey (who was an inspiration to many of us considering entering into the ministry during the late 1980s and early 1990s) "Each time a girl or boy is born, incarnate deity we find" and that because of this we desire to proclaim with united voice "The miracle of every birth." (The full text of this hymn and a link to a book of his writings can be found at the end of this post).

Storey is, of course, here consciously echoing the leading nineteenth-century Unitarian James Martineau's oft quoted words that:

"The incarnation of Christ is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there, and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine" (cited in J. E. Carpenter, "James Martineau", Philip Green, London 1905, p. 404).

In this liberal Christian community we continue to celebrate Christmas and it's stories because we feel they help us to proclaim, hopefully and powerfully, as Slavitt so beautifully put it:

 Let there be no child 
who comes into the world without some hope, 
some joy in him. And we shall have begun . . .

-o0o-

THE UNIVERSAL INCARNATION by John Andrew Storey (1935-1997)

Around the crib all peoples throng
In honour of the Christ-child's birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
'Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.'

But not alone on Christmas morn
Was God made one with humankind:
Each time a girl or boy is born,
Incarnate deity we find.

This Christmastide let us rejoice
And celebrate our human worth,
Proclaiming with united voice
The miracle of every birth.

Round every crib all people throng
To honour God in each new birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
'Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.'

You can download a copy of a selection of John Andrew Storey's writing at the following link:
The COMMON QUEST Selected writings of John Andrew Storey

Sunday, 1 December 2013

What's the point of Jesus? — Advent 1. To begin, a positive genealogy of weakness

Outside the church this morning on Emmanuel Road 
Readings: Luke 2:8-14

The other readings can be found by clicking this link.

(NB: 15 December 2013 - the proper second part of this address can be found by clicking this link)

As I have noted many times over the past fourteen years, I think it is important for us to be clear about our genealogy as a liberal religious movement. I particularly mention this today because it is the first Sunday in Advent, the season when our attention begins, once again, to turn towards the birth of our founding figure, Jesus of Nazareth.

It is a time when we attempt to hear once more what might be the tidings so memorably spoken of by the writer of the gospel of Luke who has the angels say to the shepherds watching their flocks by night: ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people’ (Luke 2:10).

You will recall that I spoke of the importance of tidings in the context of interpretation at our Remembrance Sunday service. Tidings speak of a hoped-for future event in which, as human beings, our whole way of being-in-the-world is radically changed. So changed in fact that, were to happen, it would be as if a joyous new world has come about.

In all Christian traditions — even in one such as our own which has dissented radically from much of traditional Christian belief — Jesus is central to these tidings of joy. The question is, therefore, in what way, if at all, is Jesus still central to our religious community? Another way of putting it is simply to ask what today, for us, "is the point of Jesus?"

The problem is that, because our liberal Christian tradition is a very complex and still unfolding mix of Classical, Renaissance, Enlightenment and modern scientific and naturalistic elements, we cannot here, in twenty-first century Cambridge, look upon, understand and appropriate our founding figure in anything like the same way we did even a hundred years ago, let alone four-hundred-and-fifty years ago when the first openly Unitarian congregations began to form in Poland and Transylvania. We certainly cannot look upon, understand and appropriate Jesus in the way the New Testament writers did some two millennia ago.

To traditional, orthodox forms of Christianity our stance is profoundly problematic because we are quite clear that we simply do not think as the author of Hebrews did, that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever" (Hebrews 13:8). The empirical evidence for this is fully on our side and that, with regard to Jesus, we can see, as Jaroslav Pelikan noted in his book Jesus Through the Centuries, that it is "not sameness but kaleidoscopic detail that is [the] most conspicuous feature."

It is worth noting at this juncture that the passage in Hebrews about Jesus Christ's unchanging character continues with the following words: "Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings". Because we have never sought *identity* with our past and only, instead, some kind of living, meaningful and relevant *continuity* with it, the way our tradition as a whole has looked upon, understood and appropriated Jesus has always seemed to the many Christians who seek only eternal sameness in Christ a very strange teaching indeed. Our strange religious teaching is, in a nutshell, that the example of Jesus somehow helped us - and, I will argue, still helps us - claim the freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today.

But, in order, genuinely, to understand this freedom, and to be tomorrow what we are not today, we need to have some sense of what we were and how we got to today. So we need, now, to go back through a bit of our genealogy with regard to Jesus. I could give a fine grained history of the way we have changed our view on "the point of Jesus" but for all the obvious reason here I must stick to a few, very brief, examples.

After the fourth-century, and before our communities began to form in the the first half of the sixteenth-century, the prevailing view of Jesus within Christianity had been decisively shaped by the highly metaphysical idea that Jesus was very God of very God, the second person of the Trinity. The "point of Jesus" was easy to grasp — he was the supernatural God in human form and, therefore, in order to secure a fulfilled life, you simply did what you thought he taught or desired you to do (or at least what you were told by the Church he taught and desired you to do).

However, once our communities began freely to read the Biblical texts independently of all formal Church authority, they found a very different picture of Jesus from the one they had been taught. They found, not God, but a man, best thought of as a divinely inspired, human teacher and exemplar. Although he was no longer himself God, he was still believed by our forebears to be God's unique representative on earth, the promised Messiah. Jesus' divinity, and therefore his authority, was for them now found in his office, not his person. This was, of course, a step change from understanding Jesus as God but the "point of Jesus" was still absolutely clear to our forebears: as God's divine representative on earth you still did what you thought Jesus taught or desired you to do.

As we move through the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries this view, very slowly, began to change. Jesus's status as a human being began to grow in our forebears' minds as, too, did their understanding of the highly plural nature of religious belief in the world. As a religious tradition we began to appreciate more and more that great and lasting wisdom was contained in other religious traditions and that their founders and prophets should be held by us in the highest regard. Consequently, Jesus increasingly began to show up to us, not as the *only* true teacher and prophet to human kind but as a representative, general type of human teacher and exemplar. Our forebears still thought him to be remarkable and worthy of respect and emulation and, until at least the early twentieth-century, Jesus remained for Unitarians clearly their central, normative and authoritative religious teacher and exemplar. The "point of Jesus" was still clear but it was now not an unchanging theological one but rather a shifting and culturally determined one. Because Jesus was still their respected teacher our forebears still did what they thought he taught or desired them to do but they now recognised that this central, exemplary, role was for "Christians" only and was not at all theologically necessary for the whole of human kind across the whole of time.

Alongside this development, especially by the mid-nineteenth century, there was, of course, also a slow ebbing away of belief in the truth of the idea of the Christian God, in fact in the truth of any kind of absolute, supernatural deity. In our forbears' minds and hearts God, or better the divine and the sacred, was slowly coming down more and more to earth and penetrating ever more deeply into the natural world. The fulfillment of life was becoming this- and not other-worldly. Religion increasingly became for them a natural, rather than supernatural, phenomenon.

So in our own time, with no absolute divine authority left in heaven above and only culturally relative, human authority left below the question is, what is for us the "point of Jesus" in our own liberal communities?

It might seem that a person can only commit to Jesus out of either mere cultural habit and/or nostalgia or because they simply prefer the general sub-brand of liberal religion that Jesus' teachings may be said to promote over, say, the general sub-brand of liberal religion that seems to be promoted by the teachings of the Buddha. Many people here today (and reading this blog) will, of course, look at both teachers, and more besides, and take a little from each.

It's clear from this that a real blurring of the central "point of Jesus" for us has occurred such that it seems there is now way he can be seen, understood and appropriated as being central to our communities in any important, structural way. Given this it should come as no surprise that during the twentieth-century many of our churches no longer wanted to discriminate in any way between followers of Jesus and the Buddha or, for that matter, most other teacher of other religious tradition.

I want to make it clear that I'm not dismissing, nor am I laughing at, this move. After all, once the old theological, metaphysical, structural point of Jesus had gone for us there was — indeed is — a real logic in throwing open our doors to all other spiritual teachers and traditions.

But please note an important dynamic in this genealogy that is often missed or ignored. The argument often runs that what we see fulfilled in the throwing open of our churches' doors to other traditions and teachers is a wonderful *leveling-up*; all are now welcomed, with equal, high regard into our company. The height of this leveling-up being measured by the high-regard with which we hold (or, rather, held) Jesus.

But I hope it is clear that the general, felt mood of our genealogy has been, throughout, chiefly characterised by an *ebbing away* of confidence in Jesus's divine authority. Our regard of and confidence in Jesus, metaphysically speaking, has been going down and not up. Consequently, when our doors were flung open to other religious teachers and traditions the act was, subliminally, more often than not simply an act of general theological leveling-down. Naturally, for politenesses sake, we generally don't admit this even to ourselves let alone to the followers of other teachers and traditions.

Now one might hear what I have said about a levelling down as wholly negative but in it I hear some wonderful, positive Advent tidings of joy which speak to the two key sacramental energies of religion about which I have spoken many times since 2009. The first energy is that which can limit us in the face of hubris; the second is one which can transform us in the face of complacency (James C, Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things - The fate of religion in an age of normal nihilism, p. ix).

Next week I will look at something connected with a non-metaphysical "point of Jesus" that is full of the second energy, the one which can transform us in the face of complacency. But today I want to conclude with an indication of how our genealogy is powerfully filled with the first energy, that which can limit us in the face of hubris.

In the highly edited version of our genealogy I have just given we see develop a radical challenge to human hubris in the field of religion and belief. We see in it the growing recognition that no religious teacher or tradition can look into a supernatural realm beyond this world and bring back a universal, unchanging, true and perfect, one-size-fits-all religion that can, or should be imposed upon all people through all time. So one positive "point of Jesus" for us today, that is of central concern to our communities, is, I would argue, related to the need constantly to be reminded of this important truth.

And I think there is something very, very good and joyful indeed about this (strange) kind of tidings and today I value highly and encourage the weakening of all such ultimate theological and metaphysical claims (see this link to read more about the Weak Theology of John D. Caputio  or click here to read something of about Weak Thought of Gianni Vattimo). Followers of such "weak" kinds of religion — of a "weak" Jesus or a "weak" Buddha — are much more likely to live peacefully with each other than those who believe they are following infallible "strong" divine teachers who bring them only unchanging religious truths. So, another important "point of Jesus" for us today, that is of central concern to our communities is his very weakness, epitomized most memorably in the stories about his birth in a stable and his death upon the cross.

If nothing else this weakening of our old absolutist religious certainties about a divine Jesus in favour of the "weaker" human wisdom of the man Jesus has more hope of bringing to pass the joyous message Luke imagines the angels brought to the shepherds: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’ (Luke 2:14).

(NB: 15 December 2013 - the proper second part of this address can be found by clicking this link)