Sunday, 23 February 2014

An archaeologist of morning - Charles Olson as scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven

Charles Olson teaching
In July 2016 a more fully developed version of the idea at the heart of this address became part of a presentation I gave to the annual Sea of Faith conference in Leicester. If you would like to read that please click on the following link.

The freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today—becoming Free Spirits and Archeologists of Morning

Mark 1:35-38:
And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, Jesus went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed. And Simon and they that were with him followed after him. And when they had found him, they said unto him, All men seek for thee. And he said unto them, Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth.

Matthew 13:52:
Jesus said: "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

Henry David Thoreau from Walden, ch. 2 Where I Lived:
The present was my next experiment of this kind, which I purpose to describe more at length, for convenience putting the experience of two years into one. As I have said, I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbours up.

Charles Olson from "The Present is Prologue" in Collected Prose eds. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, University of California Press 1997 p. 205-207:

My shift is that I take it the present is prologue, not the past. The instant, therefore, is its own interpretation, as a dream is, and any action - a poem, for example. Down with causation . . . And yrself: you, as the only reader and mover of the instant. You, the cause. No drag allowed, on either. Get on with it.

In the work and dogmas are: (1) How by form, to get the content instant; (2) what any of us are by the work on ourself, how to make ourself fit instruments for use (how we augment the given - what used to be called our fate); (3) that there is no such thing as duality either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact in the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one (yrself done right, whatever you are, in whatever job, is the thing - all hierachies, like dualities, are dead ducks). 

[. . .] 

I find it akward to call myself a poet or writer. If there are no walls there are no names. This is the morning, after the dispersion, and the work of the morning is methodology: how to use oneself, and on what. That is my profession. I am an archaeologist of morning.


An image often found in spiritual writing is that of "the morning". Almost universally, getting up early to pray or meditate has been understood to be a good and cleansing practice, one which prepares one well for the necessary work to be done and the good life.

My own key texts which mention this "morning spirituality" are the passages you heard earlier from the Gospel of Mark (1:35-38) and Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" (Where I Lived - Ch. 2). Over the years both of them have powerfully and continually encouraged me to try it - not least of all in a number of visits to the Benedictines at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of White (and, boy do they do early . . .). Alas, natural proclivity plus a life spent as a professional jazz musician has always cut against early morning lifestyles. Consequently, it is true to say that in my own life early mornings have almost only ever been experienced after the long gig and subsequent drive home and, more often than not, I've observed the sun rise, not like Jesus, ready to go "into the next towns" nor like Thoreau to "brag as lustily as chanticleer", but simply to my bed and to a long, long sleep.

Given that such an actual morning spirituality seems definitively closed off to me, a question that has remained with me throughout my life is whether something of what is religiously or philosophically meant by "the morning" is available to more crepuscular creatures like me, perhaps under another practice or form? The question is what is being elicited when these writers use the image of "the morning"?

As I have noted in other addresses (for example here) I take it that authors like Mark and Thoreau wrote what they did because they experienced in the morning 'certain conditions in which their minds were set in motion' (Michael McGhee: Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice CUP 2000, p. 124) which allowed 'something [to] well up in the inner reaches of their consciousness' (William James quoted by McGhee p. 17). These authors then tried to communicate their experience to us through means of 'aesthetic ideas and images' - in this case those associated with early morning; in other words they 'gave us an approximation of this experience and, in so doing, gave it the semblance of objective reality' (McGhee p. 119).

What I'm trying to do today is to use Olson's phrase, "Archaeologist of morning", to help me to express in my own words something that approximates to the experience I feel Mark and Thoreau were gesturing towards when they talked about "the morning".

Olson's work as poet and prose writer has long been of interest to me since I picked up his early study of Herman Melville (called "Call Me Ishmael") in the Arts Council funded poetry bookshop in Colchester where I had my first job after leaving school in 1983. The manager was an extraordinary man - a poet himself - called John Row. I later went on do a number of wonderful, madcap tours around the UK, East Germany and Poland with his avant-garde music and poetry collective called "John Row's Sound Proposition". John, seeing my growing interest in Olson, early on lent me Martin Duberman's book about the experimental, interdisciplinary school set up in 1933 in North Carolina called Black Mountain College which, before it's closure in 1957, managed to attract a faculty that included many of America's most important artists, composers, dancers, poets, and designers. Olson became College Rector during the second half of its life and at the same time amongst the teaching staff were a number of other figures whose work became central to my own formation: the composers John Cage and Stefan Wolpe, the poet Robert Creeley, the dancer Merce Cunningham and the architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller.

If you click on this link you can see some excerpts from a documentary film called Fully Awake about Black Mountain College.

Olson wrote the words you heard earlier in 1952 whilst he was at the College. Going back to them after many years I can see how clearly they mark out the particular path I have come to follow since those days.

Now, the way I have just told this story comes, of course, very naturally because Olson's words, written sixty years ago and read by me nearly thirty years ago, are in some obviously real sense in the past and so could be thought of as forming a prologue to who I now am now, speaking to you in the present about this subject.

But it should be clear that telling my story in this way cuts completely against Olson's feeling that it is *not* the past which is prologue but the present, this moment now. What does he mean?

Well, we may begin by observing that one of Olson's major concerns throughout his career was how to get himself, his students and his readers away from theories about the world and back into a lived and experienced world. A key way he thought this could be affected was breaking down what he came to think were the many artificial barriers that existed in our North American and European culture. It has long seemed to me that one of the reasons he took the post of Rector at Black Mountain College was because the anarchic interdisciplinary nature of the place deliberately transgressed traditional academic boundaries and brought together an astonishing range of endeavours from both the so-called humanities and the so-called sciences. Olson thought they all belonged together in a kind of geography, a complex horizon of human life within which one could, and should, be free to wander.

When he says "If there are no walls there are no names" it is to this interdisciplinary geography that he is referring. He personally resisted being called a poet or a writer because he could see that if there were no walls then these names, "poet" and "writer", didn't tell you much about what he was really up to - namely being an "archaeologist of morning." What this is, or might, be we'll come to in a moment.

Now, as I've just said, in terms of the split between disciplines, Olson wanted to pull down all artificial walls to allow for the possibility of there being a free and instantaneous movement between them. But things didn't stop there because Olson wanted to pull down *all* the walls in our culture which created dualisms - especially those which created the apparently separate realms of the "body" and "soul" and the "world" and the "individual." (Please note as I say this that there is, however, a great deal of difference between "differences" and "dualisms" - Olson is challenging dualisms, not differences.)

For him one important wall that came tumbling down was that which divided in a dualistic way what we have learnt to call "past" and that which we have learnt to call the "present". Olson was became acutely aware that in every living, alert whole human being the memories of the past (so-called) were not really past at all but always-already present and capable of gifting us something now that would take us into the future in a new way. Like Gianni Vattimo, although some forty years earlier, Olson saw that reality, our world, is always-already 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others, and others beside us such as other cultures' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9).

It was into this rich always-already present cultural soil that, in his poetry and prose, he sought to dig, just like an archaeologist, in order to find and reveal things that were both new to us but which were also, paradoxically, in some fashion old. In undertaking this task Olson seems to me to be enacting that which is gestured towards in Jesus' teaching that "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (Matthew 13:52).

Olson called this "treasure", this always-already present soil "morning" because, when paid attention to and without beforehand dividing it up artificially into science here and the arts there, the past behind us and the future before, this soil's natural complexity was always capable of gifting us some unique combination of different things which could suddenly and unexpectedly show up and shine for us in new ways that called us, irresistibly, to our work, whether that was to an act of new justice and compassion, the composition of a new poem, piece of music or a dance, to see a new way to build a house or construct a dome and also, like Jesus, to be impelled to tell about what you have seen to the "next towns" or, like Thoreau, "to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake [your] neighbours up."

Olson's educational point was to say to everyone he met and taught, either in person or indirectly through his work that, to anyone who cared to look and to dig, our rich cultural soil was always ready to gift us something radically new and relevant - that our present is always prologue to some new vision or insight. In short, every day, every hour and every minute of our life was, potentially at least, a new morning and not just when our natural sun was rising. All we had to do was "get on with it" and become ourselves an archaeologist of morning.

If you want to hear some recordings of Olson reading his own poetry then click on this link to go to the wonderful PennSound poetry resource.

If you want to know a little more about Olson click on this link to see the short film made about him called Polis is This. It is made available on Youtube by the director himself, Henry Ferrini:

And, lastly, below is a well-known clip of Olson reading his wonderful poem, Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld]. If the the poem leaves your puzzled but intrigued then click on the following link to go to a podcast in which the poem is explored in what I think is a helpful way.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Lao Tzu meets Jesus - a story of accepting the gift of the liberal Christian tradition.

My Way of Life necklace
A foreword of sorts

I am only too aware that I have a reputation for being an "overly intellectual" minister. This address, at least in its published form below, is unlikely to change anybody's mind about that. But I hope that what follows will clearly reveal that, at the back of it all, lies a old-fashioned, "down-home" religious experience - one that was, at the time, felt viscerally in the deepest and, I suppose, in the simplest and most immediate of ways. It did nothing less than set the course for the rest of my life. My trouble has been what on earth to do with it? The truth is that everything I write on this blog, with all it's complexities (whether necessary or simply caused by poor thinking and bad style) finds its well-spring in the experience I recount below. In many ways I wish it were otherwise - but it's not. So, on with the show . . .

Readings: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

Chapter One of the Tao Te Ching 
trans. by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo (Hackett, Indianapolis 1993) 

Tao called Tao is not Tao

Names can name no lasting name.

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

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

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

The gateway to all mystery.

From James Luther Adams and the Transformation of Liberalism
Presented at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, June 2005,by George Kimmich Beach

James Luther Adams . . . said: More important than any particular idea of God is a belief that history has meaning, and its corollary: our responsibility to be engaged. Or there’s hell to pay—it’s that awesome. In sum, Adams’s life-long quest was to articulate a faith that “takes time seriously.”

If we “take time seriously” we will know ourselves as rooted in a sacred tradition—a tradition that is both our “gift” and our “task.” Adams characterized his faith in these few words: “The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth.” That is the gift. He continues: “In a world that has with some conscientiousness turned against this kind of witness and its vocabulary, the effect of this witness will in a special way depend upon the quality of its costingness in concrete action and upon its relevance to the history that is in the making.” That is the task.

In two sentences Jim Adams sounded two notes together—the tradition in which “the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth” is a central symbol and our gift—something given out of love—and the present, costing commitment that is our task. A transforming liberal faith is a faith that “takes time seriously,” that does not view faith as an escape hatch from the vicissitudes of personal life or communal history, but as pathway into the community of God. Its faith is both “gift and task,” a gift of grace and a task of personal and social responsibility.

The James Luther Adams essay Beach cites above can be found at the following link:


Every now and then a conversation begins in this church in which someone sheepishly, even embarrassedly, admits that they have had what can only be described as a religious experience.

This embarrassment exists, I'm sure, because we are a religious tradition that has come to value and trust particularly highly the more rational, intellectual and abstract aspects of religion. The concrete, visceral religious experience, the mystical if you like is, on the other hand, something that feels way too subjective and out of our rational control. It is something to be viewed with the greatest of suspicion. It has been my experience that most people who come into fellowship with us share this suspicion even when they have had some kind of religious experience themselves which has given their life a certain kind of real power and direction. But often the truth is that such experiences provide the real energy that sustains and directs a person through their whole life - the lived experience is way more important and energising than many of the rational theories about the world a person may hold.

So, whenever I encounter someone embarrassedly trying to sound out whether or not they can talk about and explore their own religious experience in this community I try to put them at their ease by telling something of my own and how it eventually helped me both to discover and accept the gift of the liberal Christian tradition. This religious experience continues to be the well-spring of my own religious life as your minister.

It is, of course, a very personal story and if you take nothing else from it please do take it as granting permission for you to speak of your own religious experiences that have brought you here into our church community.

Practising my Tai Chi in deepest Suffolk
I grew up wholly in an liberal Protestant, Anglican context and it decisively (though not absolutely) shaped the person I am today. However, on leaving school in 1984, I immediately entered the quite different, bohemian world of the arts, working in a poetry bookshop by day and as a jazz bassist by night. It was a wonderful, heady time during which I was introduced to and became passionate about, amongst many other things, the San Francisco Beat poets of the late 1940s and 50s. They and their associates had developed a deep interest in Zen Buddhism and Taoism and it was only natural that I, too, should become interested in these traditions and to study them as seriously as I could. This inevitably led me to the books of Alan Watts (1915-1973) - most importantly his 1959 book on Zen, "The Way of Zen" and his posthumous book on Taoism called "The Watercourse Way" written with Al Chung-liang Huang. (It was through this latter author that I discovered Tai Chi - something I still practise to this day.) Eventually I also came across Watts' very first book, published in 1948, called "Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion", in which I read some words that were to prove pivotal in my own religious development. In 1971, about a year before he died, the book was republished with a new preface in which Watts took time to look back at its writing. I discovered, to my great astonishment, that he'd once been an Anglican priest and an examining chaplain for candidates to the priesthood in the Diocese of Chicago. What came as a great surprise and shock was that he concluded his new preface by saying that what he found in Zen Buddhism and Taoism he now felt he could always have found, in some form, within his own Christian tradition. In short, he need never have left it behind. After reading this - and despite my particular passion for Taoist thinking, at least as he and Huang presented it - I felt that I had no choice but to go back and do some proper, conscientious study of my own religious tradition.

My prayer-book with my promise written on the left 
In 1987, a year or so after this discovery, I was staying with some friends near the Angel of Islington - surely an apt place to have a Christian vision! There, for three nights on the trot, I could not sleep properly. Why not? Well, who knows? One thing I do know was that, at the time, I was not having any kind of obvious religious or material crisis. Sometime late on the third evening, I had an extraordinary sense of what at the time I could only call "Presence" - something which was powerful enough to get me out of bed. I found myself saying into the dark, "All right, I'll do it." The sense of Presence slowly left, I lay back down, opened my prayer-cum-note-book and wrote, in the stylised, grandiloquent way one does as a serious twenty-two year old needing to record some profound experience: "It is on this evening, the 23rd October 1987, that I vowed to dedicate my life to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen" (see photo above). I closed the book and quickly fell into a deep and peaceful asleep. When I woke up I immediately remembered my experience. Was it just a dream? I opened my book and, to my dismay - and it was dismay - I discovered that I had, indeed, written the words you have just heard. Even then, completely alone, I was highly embarrassed by their explicitly Christian flavour - this was especially acute given my deep love of Taoist thought and Tai Chi. (I'm fairly certain I feared that some kind of negative, narrowing might have just occurred.) Not only was I embarrassed by my words but, because, I'm one of those people who believes in honouring the promises I make, I was highly alarmed at the possible consequences of having made such a commitment. What, on earth, had I done? What did my words mean? Whatever the answer to those questions was to be, from that moment on, I had an uncomfortable promise to fulfil, one which I eventually discovered I could only properly fulfil within a Unitarian, liberal Christian, context.

Now I can't tell you every practical consequence that followed from my experience - all you need to know was that by 1990 it had taken me to the verge of the Anglican priesthood and then, in 1991 when I realised I could not go down that route, to the door of the Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House and then, in 1997, to Oxford University, to study theology and train for the ministry. But what does need to be told - in a highly compressed way - is something of the thought process that unfolded during the ten years between 1987 and 1997.

The first thing I slowly came to realise was that every person who has a "religious experience" is forced to record it in the religious or philosophical language they speak most fluently. Despite the powerful and enduring influence upon me of Taoist thinking and Tai Chi, in the short time available to me on that evening I was only ever going to succeed in appropriately recording my experience if I did it in the language in which I was, and am, completely fluent - namely that of Christianity.

The second thing I slowly came to realise was that my words could only have been what you might call an initial "grasp" at expressing what I had experienced. I realised that such words, if they are to remain of any real use, must remain open to being surpassed, twisted, and reinterpreted (this is "verwindung" again) and that they must never be taken literally nor thrown out on literalistic grounds. I saw that I always had to be careful to seek out, as St Paul encouraged, the living spirit that informs every written letter - even my own letters. (Even the meaning of our own words is not always - if ever - wholly clear to us.)

The third thing I slowly came to realise was that, when not taken literally, my Christian religious experience did not close me down to my experiences of Taoism and Tai Chi but actually gave me a more grounded and rooted way to think about and engage with them in a coherent, creative and life-enhancing way. In fact, as you will shortly see, I discovered that they would prove to be key in helping me understand and accept the gift of the liberal Christian tradition.

The reason I found I could not unfold all the above (and much more besides) in an orthodox Christian setting was the constant demand made upon me to interpret my experience too literally and to a pre-determined measure - an act which I felt always distorted the open, creative and living spirit of my experience and which cut me off from its depth. Here's one, amusing example of what I mean. I remember telling my story to an ecumenical group of Christian ministers here in Cambridge sometime in 2000. On finishing, one of them said to me, knowing I was a Unitarian minister, "That's marvellous, you had a personal encounter with the second person of the Trinity, our risen, crucified Lord!" I demurred and said, well no, actually, from my perspective my experience seemed better described simply as an encounter with some kind of sacred or divine, creative power felt as "Presence". He replied, "No, you're wrong, you've had a personal encounter with the Trinitarian God." He simply wouldn't accept my rather more open interpretation had any validity at all and he got especially irritated by my evident desire to allow my experience - and my promise to follow Jesus - to keep me open to expressions of the divine and sacred, of creative presence in religious and philosophical traditions other than Christianity. We began to have a very heated argument as he tried to show me how wrong, wrong, wrong I was. It was a timely and salutary reminder of just why I had become a Unitarian minister.

I began my journey into the heart of our own liberal Christian tradition because of something that happened shortly after joining the Ipswich Unitarians in 1990/1991. Their minister, Cliff Reed, introduced me to the work of James Luther Adams (1901-1994), one of the most important Unitarian theologians of the twentieth century. Lots of things immediately fell into place for me after this encounter. As much as I'd love to I simply cannot in this address rehearse fully his rich and powerful thought - here I will only refer you to the key words you heard in our reading which are found in his 1959 essay "Neither Mere Morality nor Mere God". You will recall that he wrote:

"The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth."

At last I had found some words which, in a highly compressed way, gave me a liberal interpretation of my religious experience that I could live by with full belief (pathos) and a clean heart - one which allowed my passion for a certain Taoist influenced way of thinking and acting to remain meaningfully connected with my promise to follow Jesus. (Adams' words are today pasted into the cover of my book of daily meditations by my colleague John Morgan (Awakening the Soul), my little pocket Bible, and my edition of Jefferson's "Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" - the so-called "Jefferson Bible".)

What I called "Presence" back in 1987 felt as if it were better described as "a Power that is living". (These days - i.e. 2014 - I have good Heideggerian reasons for wanting to avoid using the language of "presence" too much, but I'll leave them to one side today and simply say that, today, I'd perhaps speak about this power more in terms of Wieman's "Creative Event".) I think that, for me, Adams' genius in coining this line was that, even as it reminded me constantly of the need to identify (name in some way) this Power so I could better direct myself to it, his words simultaneously allowed me to articulate what I had learnt from the Tao Te Ching, namely, that it was not a good idea to try to define such a Power (Creative Event) too narrowly by giving it some fixed, doctrinal form or even insisting that it must always and everywhere be given the name "God" - for even the name "God" is not a lasting name. Adams' words also allowed me to find a way of saying, in a Christian context, that such a living, creative Power would, across the centuries, always be known in countless ways and have been given many names. Anyway - in short - I found, at last, an interpretation of my experience that helped centre me in, and keep me focused upon, something (in the language of the Tao Te Ching) deep, deep and again deep, mysterious and nameless, something which constantly gives birth to ten-thousand things - namely all that is.

And what about the response to my experience of this Power that is living, namely, my vow to follow Jesus? Well, Adam's words helped me see that, given my upbringing in a generally liberal Protestant setting, it made perfect sense to acknowledge that I found the decisive response to this Power in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth. Adams, mixed with my reading of the Tao Te Ching, allowed me to articulate the thought that, for all human beings, the deep, mysterious source, the "Power that is living" (the Creative Event) must find its manifestation in some kind of actual, concrete form, something that we could see and be filled with a desire to imitate. For me that was and remains the man Jesus.

This mixture of a certain kind of (Western) Taoist inspired thinking (the word Tao means, of course, "Way") and a deep commitment to Jesus after a kind of mystical experience explains, I think, why I have worn very publicly for many years a symbol called "The Way of Life" (see picture at the top of this post). It is for me a perfect symbol of my own (ongoing) journey of faith within our liberal Christian tradition. As my blog's strapline says ". . .just travelling hopefully . . ."



As I was preparing this address for this blog I realised that an appropriate postscript could be added in the form of a poem by the wonderful Mary Oliver which points well to the task that simultaneously comes with the gift (as Adams knew).

 'What I Have Learned So Far' 

    Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
    not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
    looking into the shining world? Because, properly
    attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
    Can one be passionate about the just, the
    ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
    to no labor in its cause? I don't think so.

    All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
    story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
    Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
    light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.

    Be ignited, or be gone.

            (From New and Selected Poems, Volume Two)

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Hoagy and chalk hill-figures - what liberal religion can learn from Hoagy Carmichael

This address was prefaced with Hoagy Carmichael's song "Memphis in June" and was concluded with his song, "Georgia On My Mind". The service as a whole was concluded with his song "Skylark". All the recordings came from the CD mentioned in the text below.


This week Georgia has very much been on my mind, not only Georgia, but also Memphis in June. Why? Well, on Friday one of the bands I still play and record with - the Chris Ingham Quartet - launched a new CD at the wonderful, still very new central London venue the St James Theatre. The CD is simply called, "Hoagy", and in it we celebrate the songwriting of the wonderful and extraordinary Hoagy Carmichael.

Anyway with the gig coming up the music of his songs and the words of his various lyricists were running round my head when, on Monday, I went for a long walk around Wandlebury Hill Fort up on the Gogs and then along the Roman Road.

Another thought that was in mind as I rambled around was one offered up by the contemporary neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty. I was reminded (by Gianni Vattimo in his "Nihilism & Emancipation" Columbia University Press, 2004, p. 23) that Rorty felt writers like Nietzsche and Hegel, "exactly like Proust, are the authors of novels, since all philosophies are no more than extended redescriptions of the world on the basis of a system of images and metaphors, forms of subjective expression similar to literary creations". In fact, according to Rorty, "Proust . . . is superior to Hegel and Nietzsche in one point at least: he was aware that he was writing a novel, whereas the other two, even Nietzsche, wanted to proclaim truths. They were still putting forward metaphysical claims".

Now I don't propose to discuss or defend Rorty's basic claim here and now in this address - I can do that another time if you wish - here I'm only going note that, basically, I agree with him and so, throughout the day up on the Gogs, the ramifications of this thought were also mingling with Hoagy's timeless songs.

Before I can begin to weave these two threads together into some (possibly) meaningful fabric I need to tell you a little about a couple more threads that make my cloth possible. The first of these is T. C. Lethbridge's oh, so strange, hill-figure.

In 1919 Lethbridge had gone to Trinity College, Cambridge where he began to become very interested in archaeology such that, on completing his degree, he began working as a volunteer digger for Louis Clarke who was, at the time, the curator of the Archaeological Museum in Cambridge. Despite having a private income, Lethbridge became for a while the keeper of Anglo-Saxon antiquities at the museum and he remained in the city until 1957.

During the autumn of 1954, Tom Lethbridge was the director of excavations for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society by which time he had got it into his head that he should search for the missing chalk-figure, the "Wandlebury Giant." The story goes that his interest in this had earlier been peeked by a conversation with a certain a museum assistant whom he had worked with, Sammy Cowles. This colourful figure told Lethbridge that, as a child he had spoken to an old man who remembered from his own childhood days being able to see the Giant from Sawston (T. C. Lethbridge: Gogmagog - The Buried Gods, Book Club Associates 1975 - first printing 1957, pp. 5-7).

Following this Lethbridge became aware of the other allusions to a hill figure that had once been carved into the slopes of the Gog Magog hills and he became increasingly obsessed, not only with rediscovering it, but also of restoring it to its former glory. In our readings you heard a short précis of this very strange, intricate story (please do click on this link to read this short précis. It is called The Myths and Legends of Wandlebury which you will find half way down the page).

And now my final thread. As a thirteen year old I was captivated by a BBC TV series written and presented by James Burke called "Connections". The conceit of the series was simple. To quote from the concise description of the series at Wikipedia: "It took an interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and invention" in which Burke contended that we could not "consider the development of any particular piece of the modern world in isolation. Rather, the entire gestalt of the modern world is the result of a web of interconnected events, each one consisting of a person or group acting for reasons of their own motivations (e.g., profit, curiosity, religious) with no concept of the final, modern result to which the actions of either them or their contemporaries would lead."

Burke's TV series profoundly influenced me and since then I've always been on the alert for possible real connections that might be made between even the most unlikely of bed fellows, such as Hoagy, chalk hill-figures, and philosophers as novelists. This explains why the basic question that showed up before me as I walked was whether there was any meaningful connection between them and, if so, what was it and was it of any practical import?

Although there are likely to be possible alternatives, the interpretative (hermeneutic) key that serves for this address suddenly showed up when I remembered the story the pianist and singer Chris Ingham tells during our concerts about the writing of tunes like "Memphis in June" and "Georgia On My Mind". The extraordinary thing is that when Hoagy wrote these songs with his co-writers Hoagy himself had never been either to Memphis or Georgia - in short, his songs create imaginary, archetypal  worlds. It's important to hang on to this thought. Although, as Chris points out, "Hoagy always claimed he was a discoverer of tunes rather than a composer" I think that, by this, he meant he understood himself to be discovering something true, not about music in some abstract absolute sense, but rather about music's extraordinary power to evoke in listeners (and, we may presume, in himself) certain moods that helped attune us to perennial aspects of the human condition - of what it is to be in the world. In the imagined localities of Memphis and Georgia he touched upon something that it feels appropriate to call "universal" - (or, at least, universal for the kinds of beings human-beings are).

Having just spent a great deal of time listening to and playing through the songs of Hoagy and his collaborators I am powerfully aware of their extraordinarily consistent ability to create fictions and moods by which we can genuinely live - fictions and moods which remain capable of delivering up to us vision of the kind of hope, joy and laughter that are so necessary for the living of a good and satisfying human life. It simply doesn't matter that he had never been to Memphis or Georgia or, of course, flown on a Skylark's wings because what he saw (or "discovered") in his fictions were things universally relevant to us all in our humanly-being. This is statement is based, not only on my delight and that of the other members of the band, but also the evident delight and enjoyment that we have experienced in our audiences. The themes and moods of Hoagy's songs are clearly as relevant today as they ever were - true, they may not be to the taste of every listener, but taste, well, that's another matter.

So, to begin to sum up. Hoagy may have thought he was discovering tunes but he was always well aware he was writing fictions and, in this sense, his work is clearly closer to that of Proust than it is to Nietzsche and Hegel. His songs are clearly not presentations of fixed and eternal metaphysical truth but are, to go back to Rorty's point, wonderful redescriptions of the world on the basis of a system of images and metaphors (drawn in this case from the southern states) and forms of subjective expression (Hoagy and his co-writer's personal feelings about what had meaning and worth).

What I like about great fiction - and make no mistake Hoagy and his collaborators produced some truly great fictions - is that they are always open to reinterpretation and adaption. It is this that makes them still living and relevant texts. As I am fond of reminding you, I wholly agree with Iain Thomson who said that:

". . . what makes the great texts "great" is not that they continually offer the same 'eternal truths' for each generation to discover but, rather, that they remain deep enough — meaning-full enough — to continue to generate new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work that previously guided us" (Figure/Ground Communication interview).

The problem with Lethbridge, on the other hand, was that he completely failed to see he was creating and presenting a fiction to himself and his audience. In this sense his work is closer in intent to certain philosophers in that he thought he was proclaiming, if not a full-blown absolute metaphysical truth, then at least an absolute historical truth about the ancient Gods. His book is full of this attitude expressed in the use of phrases like "It seems certain" (cf. T. C. Lethbridge: Gogmagog - The Buried Gods, Book Club Associates 1975 - first printing 1957, p. 158) and "I feel quite certain" (Ibid, cf. p. 159). Lethbridge is in the business of closing down openness because he believes he is heading unerringly towards the final truth of the matter. This is why, in so many ways, the text of Lethbridge's book, "Gogmagog: The Lost Gods" is not an open and living text in the way Hoagy' songs still are (and why, of course, you will only find second-hand copies of Lethbridge's book and yet Hoagy's songs are still played and reinterpreted by countless jazz bands around the world).

So what lesson might we learn from this unexpected connection between chalk hill-figures and Hoagy? Well, I think it is that, in religious circles - even liberal religious circles, we are always in danger of being "Lethbridge-like" in believing we can discover and present to others final truths. The tendency to believe this is becoming ever more prevalent in our contemporary world with the resurgence of fundamentalist religion and politics.

But we can help head-off this danger whenever we take care consciously to remind ourselves that in religion (at least the kind of religion we try to espouse here) we are always-already in the business of creating redescriptions of the world on the basis of a system of images and metaphors and forms of subjective expression. What we are always-already doing is to try to write for our own age and time what Wallace Steven's called "supreme fictions" - stories by which we can live with full belief (pathos) and a clean heart. Here in Cambridge I hope we are consciously trying to discover, not absolute metaphysical truths, but simply stories we can live by and learn from and, in this task, we have much to learn from Mr Hoagy Carmichael.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Remembering the religious roots of liberal, secular thought - a case for continuing "to uphold the liberal Christian tradition"

Outside the Memorial (Unitarian) Church this morning
Readings: Luke 12:54-57

Selections from Larry Siedentop's op-ed article in the Financial Times (17 Jan 2014) entitled "Remember the religious roots of liberal thought"

The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches Object:

We, the constituent congregations, affiliated societies and individual members, uniting in a spirit of mutual sympathy, co-operation, tolerance and respect; and recognising the worth and dignity of all people and their freedom to believe as their consciences dictate; and believing that truth is best served where the mind and conscience are free, acknowledge that the Object of the Assembly is:

To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition.

To this end, the Assembly may: Encourage and unite in fellowship bodies which uphold the religious liberty of their members, unconstrained by the imposition of creeds; Affirm the liberal religious heritage and learn from the spiritual, cultural and intellectual insights of all humanity.


It is no secret that within the contemporary British Unitarian movement as a whole there continue to come very strong calls for us, finally to abandon any kind of living, explicit  relationship with the liberal Christian tradition. The argument is often made that only by doing this will our denomination survive its continuing, disturbing, decline. Indeed our own national denominational newspaper, The Inquirer, has recently published another flurry of articles and letters on this subject.

Well, today, I would like to place something before you which I hope will persuade you why - as individuals and as a local Unitarian church - we should remain confident in throwing our whole weight behind our denomination's national object which, as you heard earlier, calls upon us to "uphold the liberal Christian tradition." As I hope will be come evident this is not something relevant only to the ultimate health of our own denomination and individual churches but something which is highly relevant to our whole culture.

Before I continue I need to add something that should be held in mind throughout what follows. Although I'm not going to address this in any detail today I think it is important to be clear that it is perfectly possible to continue to "uphold the liberal Christian tradition" without maintaining much (if anything) in the way of Christian, metaphysical belief. The supernaturalist, Christian metaphysical story has for many people in our culture - including myself - become impossible to hold in any way, shape or form. However, as our minister emeritus ably illustrated in his sermon last week, this does not close us down to continuing to be inspired and positively and creatively influenced by the secular, liberal, humanitarian story of Jesus.

So, my words today are occasioned by two things that happened during the last couple of weeks. The first was a very interesting and valuable Wednesday evening conversation had by seven members of the congregation in our common room. The conversation eventually settled on the theme of our own church's identity and I'll return to this in a moment but, firstly, I want to look at the article by the political philosopher, Larry Siedentop which was afterwards circulated amongst the group by one of our number because it contained so many important public, secular themes that overlapped with the themes we were discussing.  

Siedentop had been invited to write this op-ed piece for the Financial Times because he is just about to publish (on the 4th February) a book entitled "Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism" (Penguin Press).  The book, this op-ed piece and the various public lectures he is giving at the moment are all designed, according to the official blurb from Penguin Press: "to ask us to rethink the evolution of the ideas on which states in the West are built". We are told that in this new book Siedentop tries to describe:

"How a moral revolution in the first centuries AD - the discovery of human freedom and its universal potential - led to a social revolution in the west. The invention of a new, equal social role, the individual, gradually displaced the claims of family, tribe and caste as the basis of social organisation." 

The blurb continues by noting Siedendop argues that:

"The roots of liberalism - belief in individual liberty, in the fundamental moral equality of individuals, that equality should be the basis of a legal system and that only a representative form of government is fitting for such a society - all these . . . were pioneered by Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages, who drew on the moral revolution carried out by the early church. It was the arguments of canon lawyers, theologians and philosophers from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, rather than the Renaissance, that laid the foundation for liberal democracy."

This mention of liberal, representative democracy brings us to what is, perhaps, going to be the major challenge of this book and one that we must, I think respond to. Here is the basic challenge, again from the official publisher's blurb:

"There are large parts of the world where other beliefs flourish - fundamentalist Islam, which denies the equality of women and is often ambiguous about individual rights and representative institutions; quasi-capitalist China, where a form of utilitarianism enshrines state interests even at the expense of justice and liberty. Such beliefs may foster populist forms of democracy. But they are not liberal. In the face of these challenges, Siedentop urges that understanding the origins of our own liberal ideas is more than ever an important part of knowing who we are."

Now, it stikes me that, as a church rooted in the liberal Christian tradition but which is, at the same time, fully open to wholly secular and humanist understandings of religion it should be clear that we are - in theory anyway - ideally placed to play a key role in both spreading and fostering this understanding.

But you will have noted that I said we are ideally placed to do this only "in theory". What do I mean? Well, as you heard in the extract from his FT piece Siedentop notes that, for various reasons as a culture, today we "lack a compelling account" of the development of liberal, western attitudes and institutions. This, in turn, has meant, as Siedentop says, that "[o]ur self-image comes dangerously close to equating liberal secularism with non belief" and that "a sophisticated version of that view is that our political and legal systems aim to achieve 'neutrality'." But, he continues, "that does not do justice to the moral content of our tradition."

With this point I can return to our Wednesday evening conversation because in it we all acknowledged, in our different ways, that there has been over the last century a pervasive tendency in our own liberal religious tradition as a whole to mirror this (forgetful) move and to try to create some kind of "neutral" liberal religiosity - one that no longer has any meaningful, living connection to the liberal Christian tradition. All too often this self-image of neutrality has eaten away at our own corporate religious commitment and has increasingly rendered us morally incapable of appropriately grounding and vigorously defending certain kinds of liberal religious, social and political ways of proceeding over other, competing, illiberal ways of proceeding.

(In passing, but importantly, I want to make it clear that I think an "appropriate" grounding is always going to be found in our contingent historical realities - it is no longer appropriate to try to find a ground in some permanent unchanging metaphysical reality such as God. I'm, personally, too imbued with Nietzsche, Heidegger and Vattimo's  thinking to believe this is, anymore, either possible or desirable.)

That's the bad news, but the good news is that this situation has not obtained in every liberal setting and it has certainly not obtained here in this local church. We are very much a community that still has a meaningful, living connection to the liberal Christian tradition. Consequently, we can respond in some meaningful effective way to Siedendop's challenge.

But before continuing it is worth indicating a bit more clearly how the secular liberalism Siedendop is talking about is related to us as a church standing in the liberal Christian tradition. The key is found in the title of his book "Inventing the Individual". In the middle of the FT article Siedendop writes:

"It was the Christian movement that began to challenge the understanding [of "society" as an association powerful families rather than of individuals]. Pauline belief in the equality of souls in the eyes of God – the discovery of human freedom and its potential – created a point of view that would transform the meaning of "society". This began to undercut traditional inequalities of status. It was nothing short of a moral revolution, and it laid the foundation for the social revolution that followed. The individual gradually displaced the family, tribe or caste as the basis of social organisation."

As a church tradition we are deeply bound up with everything Siedendop is talking about here. We are a church born out of this movement for we are self-consciously made up of individuals who choose to come together on a voluntary basis to form a congregation whose lives together are structured through democratically arrived at covenants. The verb "choose" is particularly important here for it comes from the Greek word "hairesis" meaning a taking, or choosing. From it we derive the word "heresy". Liberal democracy, as is the Unitarian movement is, quite literally a heresy! (As one of my heroes, Ernst Bloch says, "The best thing about religion is that it makes for heretics"). Our covenants are not a once and for all dogmatic statements concerning the beliefs and rules which it is believed forever govern our community's (and all other communities) relationships with each other and God, as is a creed but, instead, a covenant is a humanly constructed, constantly revisable, evolving framework which helps us shape and guide our relations with one another and the world around us. It is a bond of union that takes seriously the call Jesus made to us when he asked "why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?". Well, in democratic covenantal relationships we do so judge - we do choose.

It should be clear that our own GA Object is covenantal in structure as is our own current, local church covenant (adopted in 1904 and formally written into our constitution in 2002) which reads: "In the love of truth, and the spirit of Jesus, the members of this congregation unite for the worship of God and the service of humankind."

Now in the Wednesday evening conversation I suggested that it was vitally important for us to begin to talk more often about what kind of covenant might we choose today. It's not that I feel the current one is wholly unsuitable but rather that now might be the time produce or adopt something that is more wide-ranging and more clearly specific to our own age's needs and concerns. This is why I suggested we look again at George Kimmich Beach's covenant which has graced our main noticeboard for the last five years. I noted in the conversation that such words would carry much more weight if, as a whole congregation we were consciously to adopt it or, if not this precise text, then at least something as similarly wide-ranging and more clearly specific. (I have copied the text of his covenant at the end of this post).

This mention of being more clearly specific allows me to come back to Siedendop and begin to draw my remarks today to a close. During that evening conversation, and in an increasing number of others I have had with various members of this church, I have come to detect a growing desire, firstly, to be much clearer, crisper and firmer in our expressions of in what consists the liberal Christian tradition and, secondly, not to pretend that we practise here some kind of liberal neutral religion but to admit and clearly commit to, as Siedendop describes it, religion based on a rights-based culture of principles rather than of rules. After all, I sense that many of you, like Siedendop, believe that this "our enormous strength, reflected in [for example] the liberation of women and a refusal to accept that apostasy is a crime."

And I, of course, feel this too but, being the kind of person I am, i.e. one temperamentally predisposed not to engage in polemics (and, to steal a line from M. R. James, always "to have everything Pleasant about me") I can assure you that I'd really prefer not to be one of the people called upon to stick my head above the parapet and get a lot tougher and clearer about the value and desirability of liberal secular thought in general and our liberal Christian tradition in particular. I don't particularly want to do it because I know it will draw considerable criticism from many quarters (both within and outside the Unitarian movement) - it will, in short, get us (me) into trouble. But the time has come for me to admit that my reasonably extensive experience in the fields of liberal religion, inter-faith and politics has brought me today to the point where it seems liberal secularism and our own liberal Christian tradition must be much better and more clearly promoted and defended in public by people like me and a church like this.

The time for maintaining an easy-going liberal neutrality is rapidly coming to an end and the future of secular liberal democracy assuredly depends on people like me, and church communities like this one, saying, as once did Luther, "Here we stand, we can do no other." As Siedendop says at the end of his FT piece:

"We should acknowledge the religious sources of liberal secularism. That would strengthen the west, making it better able to shape the conversation of mankind."

"Amen!" to that.

A Covenant proposed by George Kimmich Beach 

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We covenant: We freely commit ourselves to high and holy aims, aims that transcend us, aims of the Spirit. Not in freedom from obligations to others, but in freedom to enter into common endeavours for the common good. Not in freedom from the nourishing roots of our faith in ancient ages, but in freedom to give fresh interpretation to ancient symbols and stories. Not in freedom from being called to aims that surpass us, but in the freedom that springs from knowing that “we've caught a moving train” (Johnny Ray Youngblood), and, together, we're on our way. 

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We find at the centre of our faith an energizing mainspring, a drive for meaning and dignity implanted in every soul in every land—the wonder of being alive and awakened to life, the grace of beginning anew. Not in the self-enclosing isolation of the self, but in the quest for a more inclusive covenant. Not in narrow-mindedness or in mean-spirited debunking of things cherished by others, but in listening for the spirit of life and truth wherever it arises. Not in fearfulness that life runs out and nothing can be done, but in the courage to turn every crisis of life into an opportunity for growth and spiritual depth. 

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We seek a better world where all peoples can flourish, sharing in the resources of planet Earth and sustaining her natural ecology, a new humanity within the covenant of being. Not closing our eyes to the awesome tasks that stand before us, but committing ourselves to labour tirelessly for the physical, moral, and spiritual well-being of all. Not despairing of the human prospect, but affirming hope, and the sacredness of the image in which we are made. Not stonyhearted when we are called to make a new beginning, nor giving up when our need is to persevere, but affirming our quest for wholeness and holiness.