Sunday, 30 March 2014

The blossoming of the World-Bud - A religious naturalist Mothering Sunday Meditation

Today is "Mothering Sunday", the traditional day upon which to visit, or send gifts to, our mother church wherever and whatever we thought it was. This earthly mother church was believed to be a symbol of, or even portal through which we could glimpse in the here and now, the heavenly Jerusalem above. As you heard in our reading (Galatians 4:21-31), Paul thought this free city was symbolised by Sarah - and she, he thought, was our mother. This idea of a heavenly mother later came to rest more securely for our culture in the image of the Madonna which has become beloved of and adopted as a symbol by both Christians and Humanists alike. I have prominently included the image of Raphael's Madonna di San Sisto (1512) in this post (and on the order of service) not only because of its obvious religious resonances but also because it was a key icon in Auguste Comte's non-theistic "Religion of Humanity". Given this, Raphael's image of the mother still seems to me to offer our present day culture, with its current, unhelpful theist/atheist, religious/secular splits, a powerful, potentially unifying symbol.

St Paul's words gesture, of course, towards the common and completely understandable hope that most of us will have felt at some point in our lives, namely, that behind our transient world - a world in which all actual mothers and all actual individual instances of mothering die - there lies a permanent, foundational true mother and mothering to which we can turn in our moments of greatest need and to which, at the end of our earthly lives, we will return.

But, as we are all acutely aware, though this thought remains a highly attractive one it doesn't have the real "inevitableness" (i.e. it just seems true) that it did for St Paul and his culture. Very few of us today can believe that when we die we will later find ourselves waking up in this heavenly city of Jerusalem - that is to say, waking up safely back home in the womb of our true mother. For we secular moderns the image of the "true mother" is today simply a powerful ideal that can inspire us both either to make of ourselves better actual mothers and to display better mothering to the world, and also to give proper thanks to our own human mothers for all they have done for us. It is at this point, of course, that we see how the theological celebration of "Mothering Sunday" has elided seamlessly into the humanist celebration of "Mother's Day".

In nearly every way I wholly support this humanist move towards the celebration of our earthly mothers - after all you'd have to be a real curmudgeon to think that celebrating and thanking them is something that shouldn't be encouraged. However, for all that, I find I'm reluctant entirely to let go something captured by the more theological celebration of "Mothering Sunday". I find myself agreeing with the Unitarian minister, economist, Dante scholar and fellow traveller of Comte's "Religion of Humanity", Philip Henry Wicksteed (1844-1927) who once said that, although he was "not sure whether the religion of the future will be strongly Theistic" he did feel that "it will have to embrace things that only Theism has hitherto reached" (quoted in "Philip Henry Wicksteed" by C. H. Herford, Dent & Sons, London, 1931, p. xx).

Well, thanks to certain forms of twentieth-century continental philosophy we, with our own scientific, skeptical non-Theistic mindset can, I think, still have access to something analogous to the theological Mothering Sunday that we might be persuaded to embrace as "inevitable" (i.e. showing up to us as true).

What I find when I work through the idea of Mothering Sunday is something that helps restore to our often disenchanted secular world a sense of surpassing wonder and awe and immense gratitude so that I, personally, feel impelled to give thanks for being, for being here, and for being here together. Those of you who regularly come to this church will know that I have just quoted the grace we use at every one of our shared meals and that Susanna and I use every time we sit down to eat. In a way this address is an indication of why I think that prayer is so apt and important.

Now, the kind of continental philosophy I'm referring to (- it's basically Heideggerian) always encourages us to look to the phenomena and, one thing we can see and can be clear about is that, whatever else any human mother is, she is clearly the very doorway through which each of us has come into this extraordinary natural world. This undeniable natural phenomenon is explicitly referenced in the Catholic tradition which has sometimes called Mary the "Gate of Heaven" because it was through her that Jesus entered into this world - as with Jesus so, too, of course, with us.

But the temptation is to then go on to interpret this language in an old-school theological way and understand Mary to be a gateway standing between two real worlds - a supernatural world above and natural world below. We can't go with this particular interpretation of the gateway image because most of us can no longer believe in the existence of two worlds. For most of us there is but one world - this present, wholly natural one. But there is another way to interpret the gateway image. To get to that interpretation let's return to the phenomenon of human birth as revealed by the natural sciences - a view simply not accessible to St Paul in the first-century.

Today, we know that, after the initiating event of sexual intercourse with the father, a human mother begins to bring-forth her child - we might say a child "bud" begins to form in her womb and, by degrees, this bud begins to blossom into a foetus and thence, on the birth-day, into a child. Surely one of the wonders of the modern age is, thanks to ultrasound technology, the ability to see this "bud" and something of its extraordinary blossoming as the pregnancy unfolds.

Now, let's return to my use of the language of "bringing-forth". A mother brings-forth a child in her womb in a very, direct un-self conscious, natural, physical way and, after birth, she (and other people, including fathers) then consciously begin to mother the child so as to bring forth their fullest human potential.

The Greek word for "bringing-forth" is, as many of you know, "poeisis" and from it we derive the English words "poet" and "poetry". In an image highly appropriate to this season of spring, Julian Young notes,

"The model for poiesis is . . . the blossom rising forth out of its bud. The blossoming of (let us say) a rose is something that happens *within* nature" (Heidegger's Later Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 41).

Now, let us replace the rose with the child. The child is the blossom rising forth out of its bud. The blossoming of the child is, like the rose, something that happens *within* nature.

OK, all very uncontentious. But now begin to ask yourself the much more difficult question of what is the bud of nature itself, what is the bud of the world? Young goes on to say:

"At its most fundamental level, however, poiesis is the sense of it as a blossoming forth, an 'upsurgent presencing' out of, as it were . . ., the 'world bud'" (ibid p. 41).

However, as Young notes, the rose (or the child bud) is very different from the world-bud:

"Whereas the rose bud is visible and known, the 'world bud' is utterly mysterious, incomprehensible. And in the majesty of its overwhelming creative power, it is breathtakingly awesome" (ibid p. 41).

The key point really to get is that the "world-bud" - even though we can give it a name - remains utterly mysterious and incomprehensible both to science and religion. It is NOT, repeat, NOT possible to say anything about it but that it is the mysterious bud of our world, the bud of all buds. This "world-bud" is not within our world like a rose-bud or a child-bud but it is does seem to be capable of being called mother-like as the Tao Te Ching explicitly says:

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

Our human mothers are the origin of child-bud but the "mother" of all mothers, of all selves and all entities and things animate and inanimate - the ten-thousand things in the language of the Tao - is this wholly mysterious and incomprehensible "world-bud".

As the Tao Te Ching says, this is "deep – Deep and again deep: The gateway to all mystery."

Our mother, our source, our home, the bud of our world always remains an utterly dark, impenetrable mystery. But this need not be read as a frightening darkness or mystery, for it seems to me to be more like the creative darkness of the earth out of which the rose blooms, or that of the womb in which the child grows. Out of the impenetrable darkness of the world-bud the world blossoms.

And here we come face to face with perennial question of philosophy, the mystery of why there is something not nothing? The mother of mothers is a mystery that simply won't go away, it is the mystery that the new atheism cannot clear off the table and it is the mystery that for too long only Theism has hitherto reached for.

In this address I am trying to reach for this mystery but without recourse to any kind of super-naturalism or theism and all I really want to do today is leave you with the suggestion that we can say, with a clean heart and full belief, that our true mother, the mother of all mothers is this utterly mysterious, no-thing, this world-bud that is not within the world but which is rather the 'upsurgent presencing' of all things. We are all children, blooms of the world-bud, this mysterious but natural mother that is analogous to St Paul's mother above.

My hope is that on this day as we remember our earthly mothers and celebrate Mother's Day we don't, at the same time, forget the utterly mysterious, incomprehensible mother of all mothers, Being itself, and to take time to celebrate her breathtakingly awesome creative power; it is this that I think we should celebrate on Mothering Sunday.

As (the Heidegger scholar) Richard Polt helpfully suggests, maybe the 'why' in the question is not a search for a cause but, instead, an act of celebration. Mothering Sunday is, I want to suggest, just such a celebration and it is why I feel compelled, particularly on this day, to say the prayer I said earlier:

We give thanks for being,
We give thanks for being here,
We give thanks for being here together.


Happy Mothering Sunday to you all.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

An M. R. James inspired set of photos taken on an evening stroll around Cambridge

At the beginning of the week, after a tiring, but delightful and rewarding few days looking after her three-and-a-half year old grandson, Harrison, neither my wife, Susanna, nor I could face the thought of preparing a meal and doing the washing up afterwards so we decided to go out and eat somewhere in town. It was a lovely evening - wonderfully crepuscular. I could not resist taking a few photos as we walked choosing to use Hipstamatic and their cyanotype-inspired colour plate film. The result, as you will see below, was very "M. R. Jamesian." Now what do I mean by that?

Well, for many years Cambridge was the home of M. R. James. He was provost of King's College, a medieval scholar and the writer of some of the most famous ghost stories in the English language - these stories are, perhaps, my favourite pieces of fiction and are never not to be found by my bedside. The photos below have, I think, something of the atmosphere of those stories and I thought I'd share them with you.

James also translated the New Testament Apocrypha which caught my interest when I was in my teens and I owe to him my knowledge that Christianity was always-already a very diverse and complex human creation. I cannot but think that this must have had some influence upon me eventually ending up on the roll of ministers of the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches who finds himself very much in the Sea-of-Faith "camp" with its stated aim to ‘explore and promote religious faith as a human creation’. Although it has been superseded by the excellent edition of the apocrypha prepared by J. K. Elliott I'm still very fond of my copy of James' edition.

Anyway, enough said, to the photos . . .

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

A ride to Fulbourn Fen, on to the Roman Road and Wandlebury Rings

Below are a few photos taken on a ride today (on the Raleigh Superbe) over to Fulbourn Fen, along Hindloders path, on to the Roman Road and then on to the Wandlbury Rings. I've also posted a short film of the Roman Road I took during a brief stop to drink a flask of tea. "Hindloders" is, apparently, an ancient name derived from two Old English words, "hiwan" or "hine" which mean "community", and "loddere" which means "beggar". According to "A Walking Guide to the Fulbourn Area" (which I recommend and which you can buy from the CPPF office at Wandlebury ) the path "is a site where gypsies and travellers gathered for centuries,perhaps for events such as Stourbridge Fair held at Barnwell on the banks of the River Cam every summer from 1211)."

The photos were taken with my iPad mini using the Hipstamatic app with the "C-Type plate" film and the "Americana" lens. 


Sunday, 23 March 2014

Another attempt to short-circuit the parable of the mustard seed

Mustard still-life
Matthew 13:31–32 in John Dominic Crossan's presentation in the Essential Jesus (Castle Books 1998, p. 51).

The Kingdom of God is mustard
a seed small enough 
to get lost among others
a plant large enough
to shelter birds in its shade.

A couple of weeks ago I looked at the very odd saying of Jesus' preserved in the Gospel of Thomas. Given that I thought it was worth re-visiting another of his parables of the kingdom, this time the more familiar, and apparently easily interpreted one of the mustard seed.

But, like all of Jesus' parables, just what he was on about here was, and is, far from self-evident - indeed his whole teaching style seemed designed, not to offer simple answers to the problems of life but, by encouraging us to *look* at the world differently; his was a teaching aimed at changing our *whole* way of life, our whole way of being-in-the-world so that things in it showed up, shined, for us in not only new and different ways but also, on occasions, showed up for the first time.

In this parable Jesus makes us look at a very small thing indeed. But what most of us *see* when we look at this seed is really only what tradition silently bequeaths us. It has come to read off the surface of the story a simple and straightforward lesson about growth - i.e. something which will be large and expansive begins with something very small and compact.

But it is clear that this ways of seeing what the story means - though not untrue - can stop other important ways of interpreting the parable from emerging into view. With this thought in mind I can begin to move us to a way of reading the parable that can help us see just such an obscured and, for us, unthought thought that, in my opinion at least, might usefully be recovered by us. That marvellous modern encourager of unthought thoughts, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, points out that:

" . . . one of the most effective critical procedures [is] to cross wires that do not usually touch: to take a major classic (text, author, notion) and read it in a short circuiting way, through the lens of a 'minor' author, text or conceptual apparatus ("minor" should be understood here in Deluze's sense: not of 'lesser quality', but marginalized, disavowed by the hegemonic ideology, or dealing with a 'lower', less dignified topic). If the 'minor' reference is well chosen, such a procedure can lead to insights which completely shatter and undermine our common perceptions" (Slavoj Žižek in "The Monstrosity of Christ", Slavoj Žižek and John Millbank, MIT 2009 pp. vii-viii).

Žižek thinks that this process doesn't simply bring to light something new in the text or tradition, but also serves to make us 'aware of another - disturbing - side of something [we] knew all the time' (ibid p. viii).

We can turn now to a fine example of the art of short-circuiting in connection with the parable of the mustard seed offered by the NT scholar John Dominic Crossan. The first "minor" author Crossan uses as a lens to look at Jesus' parable through is the Roman author, naturalist, natural philosopher, naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD). Crossan reminds us that Pliny wrote:

'Mustard ... with its pungent taste and fiery effect is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once' (Natural History: 19.170-171)

The second "minor" author, or rather authors, Crossan uses as a lens to look through are those who redacted the early third-century AD Jewish text, the Mishnah - this text later formed part of the much better known Talmud. In the Mishnah the authors tell us that, because of its tendency to run wild, the planting of mustard seed in a garden was forbidden in Jewish Palestine (Mishnah Kilayim 3:2). There is a very high degree of probability that Jesus would have been aware of this teaching and, given this, Crossan feels, along with the historian of first-century Palestine Douglas Oakman, that: 'It is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus deliberately likens the rule of God to a weed.' Crossan, continuing to look through these lenses concludes that the point of Jesus' parable:

". . . is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, but like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover qualities. Something you would want only in small and carefully controlled doses - if you could control it" (John Dominic Crossan, Jesus - A Revolutionary Biography, Harper San Francisco 1994, pp. 64-66).

Now, before I go on I want to make a distinction between the kingdom of God and religion which, in its various extant forms, has sometimes thought it was itself (in practice or in principle) a sufficient and complete concrete incarnation of the kingdom of God. (Naturally the phrase "kingdom of Heaven" is associated with the Christian religion but there are analogous ideas in many other religions and, of course, secular ideologies such as Marxist-Leninism).

The first thing that the parable as short-circuited by Pliny and Mishnah seems to say to me is that the kingdom of God and its pungent and fiery values (e.g. justice, love and compassion for all including those perceived as enemies) will always be perceived by those who oppose such values as a weed with dangerous takeover qualities. Also it may be said that, filled with a passionate desire to see the kingdom's values enacted in the world, it's supporters will always seem to the "powers that be" to be very much like unwanted birds in the areas of influence cultivated by those same powers. This is, I think, one possible and obvious reading of parable once you know how mustard was viewed in first-century Palestine.

But as someone once wisely quipped, although Jesus promised the world the kingdom of God, what the world actually got was the Church. It did not get the kingdom but, instead, got religion.

So, what might the parable say to religious communities and traditions in our contemporary secular, civic culture whose members are still trying to express and help actually to bring about the kingdom of God in the world? I think that our own secular Western culture helps to bring out another possible reading that stands as a necessary warning. Here's what I mean.

The first thing the parable suggests to me is related to mustard's 'pungent' and 'fiery' qualities. Mustard is wonderful stuff and no good kitchen and dining table is complete without it. Religion has always had some fiery ideas and insights that over the centuries have contributed enormously to the overall flavour of the complex dish that is our contemporary secular Western culture. But it should be clear that no one in their right minds would want mustard (the condiment) to become, itself, the main ingredient of any meal. What is true of mustard seems to me true about religion. I'll return to this thought in a moment.

The second thing the parable suggests to me relates to mustard's 'tendency to take over where it is not wanted and also that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired.' Every society has an innate tendency to want to impose on its citizens a certain kind of ordering and to cultivate in them regular and generally efficient ways of proceeding. This is not something simply to be sniffed at or mindlessly rejected; think of the incredible usefulness of laws that insist, for example, that we drive only on a certain side of the road and not the other. Also never forget the wonderful comic illustration of the positive aspects that can emerge in a society that is capable of bringing about a certain order and conformity given by the Monty Python team. You will remember that Reg, the leader of the revolutionary "People's Front of Judea" (PFJ) asks his members "What have the Romans ever done for us?" And the answer? Well, it was 'sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, public baths and brought peace.' But it should be clear that the kinds of societies which can bring such helpful ordering, cultivation and efficiency, when they are left wholly unchallenged, all too easily become synonymous with the promotion of values that run wholly counter to those of the kingdom of God. Religious communities have, at their best, consistently fulfilled the role of challenging every system that has descended into such dysfunctional patterns of behaviour; they have successfully sprung-up in all kinds of unwanted places - unwanted that is from the powers that be - and have, thankfully, proven impossible to get rid of. We have ourselves, at times, been such an unwanted mustard bush.

But this positive point brings me to mustard's 'dangerous takeover qualities' and here I can return to my earlier point in which I said that, despite it's indispensable quality as a condiment, no one would want mustard to become, itself, the main ingredient of a complete meal.

Fiery religious pungency is a good and necessary addition to the common Western secular table and religion's hard to get rid of radical presence ensures that it can always be ready to play a necessary corrective role in the life of our wider secular society. However, the passionate energy that is required to play this corrective role in our society is always in danger of getting way out of control; all of us know that, at times, various religions (or major expressions of that religion) have succumbed to the hubristic belief that what they have to offer the world should take over the whole of society and become itself the "main course". This tendency is even visible in our own liberal Christian tradition. So, for example, the leading nineteenth-century British Unitarian and Free Christian, James Martineau, once wrote in an essay on Joseph Priestley:

"Unitarianism, we think, must avail itself of more flexibility of appeal, must wield in turn its critical, its philosophical, its social, its poetical, its devotional powers, before it gain its destined ascendancy over the mind of Christendom" (Essays, Reviews and Addresses, London, Longman Green and Co., 1890 - emphasis mine).

All of the above leads me to paraphrase some of John Dominic Crossan's words I quoted earlier for it seems to me that formal religion (even my own preferred liberal form of it) is something, like mustard, that as a whole society we only want in small and carefully controlled doses - if we can control it.

To extend the food metaphor a bit (as I was encouraged to do by a member of this morning's congregation), what I think this means is that, in our contemporary secular, highly plural civic context, religious bodies must always be encouraging our own members and those of other religions to recognise that we are at our best simply different condiments which can usefully and pleasurably help flavour in different ways the main ingredient (the "carbohydrate" and "protein") that is Western secular, civic society.

And what, you may ask, is this main dish of "Western secular civic society? Well, along with Don Cupitt, it seems to me that "the secular 'West' is Christianity itself now emerging in its final, 'Kingdom' form" (from the blurb to "The Meaning of the West: An Apologia for Secular Christianity, SCM Press, 2008).

Many formally religious people feel that secular culture is, just like mustard, taking over society in all kinds of unwanted ways. But what if it has achieved this because in all it's radical plurality it is, in fact, a better expression of the kingdom of God, than any single religion - including Christianity in all its church forms?

Now there's a thought.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

"I will be what I will be" - weird ontology

Mist on Christ's Pieces opp. the church on Friday

Exodus 3: 7-15

From Slavoj Žižek's preface, Bloch's Ontology of Not-Yet-Being in The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia (eds Peter Thompson and  Slavoj Žižek, Duke University Press,  2013, pp. xvii-xviii).

When we want to simulate reality within an artificial (virtual, digital) medium, we do not have to go to the end; we just have to reproduce features that make the image realistic from the spectator's point of view. Say, if there is a house in the background, we do not have to construct the house's interior, since we expect that the participant will not want to enter the house, or the construction of a virtual person in this space can be limited to his exterior no need to bother with inner organs, bones, etc. We just need to install a program that will promptly fill in this gap if the participant's activity will necessitate it (say, if he will cut with a knife deep into the virtual person's body). It is like when we scroll down a long text on a computer screen: earlier and later pages do not preexist our viewing them; in the same way, when we simulate a virtual universe, the microscopic structure of objects can be left blank, and if stars on the horizon appear hazy, we need not bother to construct the way they would appear to a closer look, since nobody will go up there to take such a look at them. The truly interesting idea here is that the quantum indeterminacy which we encounter when we inquire into the tiniest components of our universe can read in exactly the same way, as a feature of the limited resolution of our simulated world, that is, as the sign of the ontological incompleteness of (what we experience as) reality itself. That is to say, let us imagine a God who is creating the world for us, its human inhabitants, to dwell in. His task "could be made easier by furnishing it only with those parts that its in-habitants need to know about. For example, the microscopic structure of the Earth's interior could be left blank, at least until someone decides to dig down deep enough, in which case the details could be hastily filled in as required. If the most distant stars are hazy, no one is ever going to get close enough to them to notice that something is amiss” (quoted by Žižek from Nicholas Fearn).
          The idea here is that God who created our universe was too lazy (or rather, he underestimated our intelligence): he thought that we would not succeed in probing into the structure of nature beyond the level of atoms, so he programmed the Matrix of the universe only to the level of its atomic structure - beyond it he left things fuzzy, like a house whose interior is not programmed in a PC [i.e. computer] game.”


Let's begin with Žižek's strange story (in which he drew upon the work of Nicholas Fearn). Žižek tells it because he is very concerned, as are we, to ensure that our philosophical and religious thinking is taking properly into account the current state and implications of our scientific knowledge. In the example we are considering he is particularly concerned about how we might deal with the very odd suggestions about the nature of reality being thrown up by those studying quantum mechanics.

For the layperson - and I am such a person - for today's purposes it is sufficient simply to know that quantum mechanics is a branch of physics which deals with physical phenomena at what is for most of us the almost unimaginably small, nanoscopic scale and that one of the chief problems that has been thrown up by quantum mechanics is how we are to interpret what has become known as the "uncertainty principle" which "prohibits us from attaining full knowledge of particles at the quantum level" and so be able to "determine the velocity AND position of a particle." This is something we either can't do or can't yet do.

The question is why can't we do it?

On the one hand Einstein thought "this principle of uncertainty proves that quantum physics does not provide a full description of reality [and] that, [therefore] there must be some unknown features missed by its conceptual apparatus."

However, on the other hand, people such as Heisenberg and Bohr thought that, on the contrary, "this incompleteness of our knowledge of quantum reality points to a strange incompleteness in quantum reality itself" (p. xvii).

Now some of you may have vaguely heard about what is called the "Copenhagen Interpretation" - well Heisenberg and Bohr's interpretation of the problem is it, and one of the stories illustrating something of it's implications is that of a very famous, controversial and often misunderstood cat, the cat with no name of it's own, Schrödinger's Cat.

Now, as Žižek points out this latter, Copenhagen, interpretation of quantum mechanics - if true - leads us to a very weird ontology. "Ontology" is simply the name given to the philosophical study of "the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations" (wiki) - in other words it's about how our world is and how it hangs together. Well, quantum mechanics suggests something pretty weird about our world and how it might be hanging together - it suggests that reality, our world is, at a certain level, incomplete.

Of course, neither Žižek, I, nor, bar a couple of people currently in the congregation here who are working professionally in this field, are in any way capable of fully understanding, let alone contributing to the solution of the matter at the scientific level.

Instead, our job as intelligent, and responsible liberal religious thinkers is to consider and think through the religious, moral and ethical consequences of such a weird ontology and try to see - if it is true - what creative, meaning, worth, and life enhancing opportunities might be suggested by it. (We achieved something similar to this in the nineteenth-century after the work of Darwin revealed the inadequacy of certain aspects of our religious understanding so I'm sure we are capable of doing something similar after Heisenberg and Bohr.) As I note every week in the order of service in doing this "we are affirming but one orthodoxy, namely, a love of truth that is a sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it."

Žižek begins, as you heard, by "imagining a God who is creating a world for us . . . to dwell in" (p. xvii). Such a kind of imagining lies, of course, at the heart of our religious culture - with a story about a supreme being who has both designed and created our world. In anybody's book (or imagination) - even the most powerful, omni, omni, omni God we can imagine - that's a huge task, one that would be made a hell of a lot easier, as Žižek notes by quoting Nicholas Fearn:

" . . . by furnishing [the world] only with those parts that its inhabitants need to know about. For example, the microscopic structure of the Earth's interior could be left blank, at least until someone decides to dig down deep enough, in which case the details could be hastily filled in as required. If the most distant stars are hazy, no one is ever going to get close enough to them to notice that something is amiss" (p. xvii-xviii).

If nothing else this way of proceeding with the world would certainly spread out the amount of work that God would need to do to create a satisfactory world for us.    

Žižek's goes on to state explicitly that the idea here is that the:

" . . . God who created our universe was too lazy (or rather, he underestimated our intelligence): he thought that we would not succeed in probing into the structure of nature beyond the level of atoms, so he programmed the Matrix of the universe only to the level of its atomic structure - beyond it he left things fuzzy, like a house whose interior is not programmed in a PC [computer] game."

Žižek notes that this story suggest that we might interpret quantum mechanics to be saying that we do, in fact, "live in a simulated universe" and that the basic idea of the movie "The Matrix" was right. In this scenario the incompleteness of our lived in world is reassuringly (or in the case of "The Matrix", paranoidly) explained by recourse to a highly technically competent God or divine-programmer who has deliberately constructed reality in this way. In the more optimistic version of this thought we don't need to worry about the incompleteness of the universe because behind the scenes there exists a complete, and perfectly good and just God will, forever, eventually fill in the blurry bits of the picture for us as we continue to explore the present limits of his or her created world.

But, Žižek asks, do we have to interpret quantum mechanics and the indeterminacy principle in this theologico-digital way?

The answer is, of course, no. But the solution suggested by Žižek, following the work of Ernst Bloch - to whom I will come in a moment, may seem to some people even more unlikely and difficult to take than the Matrix-like idea. It is to accept the ontological incompleteness of reality, God-or-Nature, itself. It strongly suggests that the world is like it is and that it hangs together as it does because of, and not in spite of, its incompleteness, its radical openness and its not-yet-ness.

It should be clear that this cuts strongly against so much of the thinking about God and reality that has predominated in our cultural traditions for many, many centuries.

But, for all that, there are indications within our tradition of thinking that have been open to the possible incompleteness and radical openness of reality or God-or-Nature. These sources may help us deal creatively and religiously with the thought that incompleteness, fuzzyiness and uncertainty may be structural qualities of reality.

In the Greek tradition we inherit perhaps the most famous example of this is found in some of the surviving philosophical fragments of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535–c. 475 BCE). He is well known, thanks particularly to Plato, as the philosopher who stressed the "flux" of all things rather than their stability (cf. Robin Waterfield, "The First Philosophers - The Presocratics and the Sophists", OUP, 2000, p. 33). Heraclitus is most famous for his saying, "It is impossible to step twice into the same river . . . it scatters and regathers, comes together and dissolves, approaches and departs" (Plutarch, "On the E at Delphi" 392b10-c3 Babbit - cited in Waterfield, p. 41).

The most powerful example of this in our Biblical tradition is the way God is named in Exodus 3. The chapter begins with the famous story of God speaking to Moses from out of the burning bush. God there describes himself as "the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". Moses then asks God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?", to which God replies, "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh".

In our English Bibles the Hebrew, "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh", is generally translated as "I Am that I Am". This translation has contributed to, and fitted well with, the thought that ultimate reality or God was static - that "He" is the perfect, complete, unchanging, designer and creator of the universe. But the tense of the Hebrew (as the Rabbi and Biblical scholar W. Gunther Plaut points out) "is not clear; it could mean 'I am' or 'I will be' (or 'I shall be')" (W. Gunther Plaut, "The Torah: A modern commentary", Union of Hebrew Congregations, New York 1981, p. 405). If you take a look at the footnotes of most reputable Bible translations this fact is clearly noted.

In a general way Heraclitus and the author of Exodus are opening the door to, or actually suggesting, that God, or Nature or Reality, is not an "I am" but a "not-yet" or a "will be".

And here we come to Ernst Bloch, a key figure in my own thinking about life, the universe and everything. Peter Thompson writing about Bloch in his introduction to Bloch's important book (pub. 1968, Eng. trans. 1972) "Atheism in Christianity" notes the following:

"The 'Am' which will exist at the end of the process is not the one who sets off on the journey in the first place, but the one who arrives at his genesis at the end of the journey. In the process of becoming, Nietzsche and Bloch contend, one becomes an 'Am' which is not yet visible, not yet complete, nor even conceivable. As Arthur Rimbaud puts it in another context, 'Je suis un Autre (I *is* someone else)" (Peter Thompson's introduction to Ernst Bloch's "Atheism in Christianity", Verso Books, London 2009, p. xiii).

Now what if Bloch, Nietzsche, Heraclitus, the author of Exodus, Heisenberg and Bohr are all correct in saying reality is always-already incomplete? What real consequences exist for us?

For many, of course, a negative one is that we no longer have recourse to a fixed, stable, completely bottomed out reality. Bloch, and all the other people I have mentioned, certainly offer some kind of challenge to the idea that reality is done and dusted, that God or reality is Alpha and Omega, an ultimately unbroken circle of perfection, that in the beginning was God's perfect word and, in the end, there remains God's perfect word.

But, on the positive side, all these thinkers offer us a way to free our world, even our history, from these circular limitations of complete perfection and ultimate "finishedness". The new ontology helps us begin to see that, to cite and paraphrase the words of our final hymn, there really is always more light and truth to break forth from God, Nature or Reality. Everything in our world is unfinished, even ourselves and our history. If this is true then everything becomes truly alive with potentiality.

This speaks powerfully to our own liberal, dissenting, religious tradition's basic desire and vision about which I have spoken about a couple of times in recent months, namely, "complete spiritual freedom" - the freedom to become what we are not yet and to say along with God, or Nature/Reality, "I will be what I will be."

This new ontology may help us to recover our courage to act upon our historic radical religious and political utopian hopes and beliefs that a real possibility exists for us to create a better future for all. Our world is not fixed and closed but always-already open and unfolding. The task of making of the kingdom of heaven on earth real always-already awaits us.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Solar Ethics - Don’t hide, come out like the sun. Pour yourself out. Burn!

Today's evening sun on Christ's pieces, opp. the church

“Exaltation” by Linda M. Underwood

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

Philippians 2:5-8 (NRSV)

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Gospel of Thomas, saying 97, as presented by John Dominic Crossan in his “Essential Jesus” (Castle Books, New York, 1994) 

The Kingdom of God is like this

A woman journeying homeward failed to notice that her
cracked jar trailed grain behind until, by the time she finally
arrived, the jar was empty, the grain was lost.

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?) 

From “Solar Ethics” by Don Cupitt (SCM Press, London, 1995, pp. 8–9)

"The sun sees no reason at all to apologize for making such an exhibition of itself; it simply is its own outpouring of self-expression. It puts on a good show. It has no "inwardness", that is, it is not inwardly subject to something unseen that is authoritative over it. It does not experience the moral orders as something distinct from itself and its own activity. It is not driven, either by anxiety or by resentment: it is purely and only affirmative. It coincides completely with its own joyous, headlong process of self-exteriorization — and what's wrong with that? A powerful moral need nowadays drives people to seek just such an ethic of self-declaration. They want publicity, they want to demonstrate, they want to come out of the closet and into the open. I think they are right.”


A woman journeying homeward failed to notice that her cracked jar trailed grain behind until, by the time she finally arrived, the jar was empty, the grain was lost.

But just how is the kingdom of God like that?

Of course, many of Jesus teachings invite us to ask this question and collectively these teachings are known as the “parables of the kingdom” — so the kingdom of heaven is like a sower of seeds, the good or growing seed, a lamp, a mustard seed, hidden treasure, leaven etc.. Whilst no one can ever be absolutely clear what precise message Jesus hoped or intended his hearers to take from these sayings, we can say that the sayings that made it into the canonical gospels were, at the very least, those which were capable of bearing for the gospel authors some fairly straightforward interpretations - straightforward at least to their own minds and what later became the Christian mindset. But the particular saying we have before us today is somewhat different.

Firstly, it is not preserved in the canonical gospels but in the very early text known as the “Gospel of Thomas” — a text that many scholars believe may be slightly older than the earliest extant canonical gospel, that of Mark, written c. 70CE.

Secondly, it's a highly puzzling saying, not least of all because we have been taught to think of the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God in only obviously positive terms, such as growth, fulfilment and wholeness. This saying, however, seems to speak of the kingdom of God in apparently negative terms, of fracture and of an emptying out. Consequently, it has the power to disturb and challenge us in a unique way. As the NT scholar John Dominic Crossan notes, this is:

"A parable whose image is as obvious as its meaning is obscure. Where precisely is the point of comparison? Is the Kingdom of God something one can lose so quietly and unobtrusively that its absence is not even realised until it is far, far too late?" (The Essential Jesus, p. 167).

The sheer oddness of the saying is, by the way, one of the reasons that make some scholars think that it is likely to be an authentic teaching of Jesus'. However, I want to be absolutely clear that I'm examining this saying today without being at all concerned about whether or not the historical Jesus really said it. I'm looking at it simply because it carries with it its own odd, impelling force and that's reason enough to take its question seriously - how is the kingdom of God like this? Even if Jesus did say it, this would be no guarantee that the saying is in any sense authoritative or even useful. Jesus was a human-being and, like all human-beings, I take it as read that he was as capable of missing the mark and saying something wrong or misguided as the best of us.

Before I go on I also want to be clear I neither think, nor claim, that the interpretation I'm going to offer here is THE real meaning of the saying. That would be a nonsense as it's clearly capable of delivering up in different contexts a very wider spectrum of possible meaning and value.

But as I've been thinking about it over the last few weeks one possible interpretation has consistently shone out from it that seemed to me to offer some illumination on how we might live as liberal, religious people in our own age and culture.

So, back to the question: "How is the kingdom of God like that?"

Well, the first difficulty we face in trying to answer this question is that the kingdom of God is not a place that exists in our world such that a description of it could be written, a la some kind of Michelin Guide. As already intimated, we cannot compare the parable's image to anything we know. It's not like Matthew Arnold (in Thrysis) saying, "And that sweet City with her dreaming spires,/She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,/Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!" where this memorable image can be compared by you to the real, existing, Oxford by catching the X5 bus one afternoon in June. Consequently, it seems to me better to take the saying as speaking of a way of being-in-the-world - it suggests that the kingdom of God is not a place but an attitude or stance one can adopt.

So what stance is encouraged by living like the parable of the broken jar?

Taken together, the image of a broken jar, the trailing grain, and the fact that the woman is not aware of what is going on strongly suggests to me that Jesus - or whoever said the saying - might be saying something like "the kingdom of heaven is an un-selfconscious emptying out".

Perhaps, surprisingly, for a religion that became increasingly uptight and desirous of control, the saving of souls and the maintenance of the (fullness of the) status quo this idea is not totally alien to the Christian mind even if it has clearly become peripheral. As you heard in our readings (Philippians 2:5-8) Paul sees in God and Jesus just such an emptying out. The word Paul uses to speak of this emptying out is "kenosis".

I first came across this wonderful thought thanks to the Revd Dr Arthur Long who died only a few years ago. For those of you who don't remember him, he was Principle of Unitarian College, Manchester for many years and also a fine liberal Christian theologian and historian (You can read his Current Trends In British Unitarianism, his Fifty Years of Theology 1928-1978 and his Faith and Understanding - Critical Essays in Christian Doctrine by clicking on these links). Early on in my association with Unitarians, Arthur strongly pointed me to the work of the distinguished Cambridge theologian, Geoffrey Lampe, most notably his book called "God as Spirit" which explores this idea of "kenosis". In this book Lampe clearly emerges as a critic of the doctrine of the Trinity and argues, as Arthur said, "that there are far better foundations for the essential insights of Christianity than those furnished by affirmations of Trinitarian dogma."

It was Geoffrey Lampe's kenotic Christology that first opened a door for me onto what is perhaps an even more radical way of understanding both Christianity and what it might mean to be a follower of Jesus in our own highly secular culture of the late-twentieth, and now twenty-first, centuries.

Here I can come to the work of the English philosopher of religion Don Cupitt. In his later work Don has been exploring this idea of self-emptying in a variety of ways and in particular by using two key images, the sun and the fountain.

Both the sun and the fountain are everyday images that capture well and instantly the basic this idea of an un-self conscious and generous emptying out into this world. The truth and meaning of the sun and the fountain are to be found, not in another realm (such as heaven) in which they are conserved in some stable, essential form (a platonic sun or fountain) but, instead, in this dynamic world in their generous living which is also a generous dying. To echo the words of Linda M. Underwood's wonderful "Exultation", the sun and the fountain are not meant to be saved (for another world) but used up and played out into our own extraordinary transient world.

For Don, the word "God" - if and when it is still to be used at all - cannot be used refer to some kind of stable, eternal, essential being but rather only to the dynamic, continuously self-giving, self-emptying, self-outing nature of the universe. To some this may sound wildly "cosmic" and ungrounded but, when a person starts to say to themselves that perhaps they should imitate this basic modus operandi of God or Nature (Deus-sive-natura) in their own lives, then it has some highly practical and profound ethical implications.

Don thinks we should live in just this fashion and his short and accessible book "Solar Ethics" is an encouragement to adopt just such a stance. Don chose this everyday, natural image of the sun to present to the world an ethical stance - even a  kind of moral theology - that did not have to rely too much (if at all) upon any specific, contingent, historical religious tradition. I think he is right in this and I hope it is obvious that, for example, a naturalistic, atheist could explicitly come to live by such a "solar ethic".

However, as Don explicitly states, there is a sense in which one may say that "solar ethics is a version of Christian ethics". The reason for this has nothing to do with the Christian metaphysics that neither Don, the atheist, nor I can any longer accept, but simply because this solar way of living was shown in action in our culture most memorably by Jesus. In Jesus's life we begin to see a real glimpse of what solar living might be like. In what for me was a powerfully moving statement made at last years Sea of Faith London Conference Don said the following:  

"The moral teaching of the original Jesus, critically reconstructed, was entirely concerned with human relationships and human self-expression, or, as we’d now call it, ‘self-outing’. He seems to be surprisingly secular, a point hard to explain until we remember that in the Last World there is ‘no Temple’, as the Revelation of John says, no religious system, and no centralised or ‘focussed’ divinity. In the Kingdom, God is dispersed into a universal ‘brightness’, a luminous intelligibility in which there is no darkness and everything is plain to view. It’s a purely human world in which everyone is equal, and every heart is open. There is no Beyond and therefore no ulteriority and no deception or duplicity, because we can try to deceive people only if we can envisage a future in which we may profit from our deception. We are not immortal souls, with a very long-term future: we are nothing but our own living of our own brief lives. We shouldn’t be hoarders, because we cannot do it successfully. Instead we should pour ourselves out into life unreservedly. As the popular saying has it: ‘Use it or lose it’. Don’t hide, come out like the sun. Pour yourself out. Burn! Don’t make comparisons, don’t claim your rights. Just put on a good show. Burn!"

Don just seems to me to be right here and, like him I find that, for someone like me and a church such as this which stands in the liberal Christian tradition, such a solar ethic brings with it an extra kind of joy, namely that through such an ethic it become possible for me and us to find that we can be "beliefless Christians who are still Christians (and all the more so, indeed) even after having shed all the ragged and rusty old burden of dead doctrinal beliefs" (cf. "Solar Ethics", p. 28)

Now is it towards a just such a solar ethics that the parable of the Empty Jar points? I cannot give a definitive "Yes!" to this but do I have to? It seems clear enough that the parable can be interpreted this way - especially since Jesus' whole way of being-in-the-world also expresses such a selfless giving to the world.

Taken together, the jar, the sun, the fountain and Jesus compel me to come out to you myself and say along with Don, "Pour yourself out! Burn!" and, with Linda Underwood, to insist that our souls are not for saving but for pouring out like rain on cracked, parched earth or the passing on of the flame of life. The kingdom is something like this.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

"Riprap" at the Fleece Jazz Club in Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk

Riprap is playing at the Fleece Jazz Club in Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk tomorrow night, Friday 7th March 2013. Doors open at 7.30pm.

Tickets at 01787 211865 or is always up to date.

Meals and accommodation at the hotel at 01206 262836

Here's their spiel (incorporating our spiel) about the gig . . .

RUSS MORGAN ~ Percussion

RIPRAP formed more than eight years ago from a group of musicians who wanted to explore more open-ended improvisation and include modern poetry in their compositions, inspired by the music of Miles Davis and the Beat Poets of the 1950s. They released an album in 2009 which featured the work of the award-winning poet Gary Snyder; their latest release in 2012 is ‘Snow Blue Night’ which is purely instrumental.

"Haunting and atmospheric ", "Acoustic jazz of the highest order" - Sue Edwards, Bookings manager, Royal Festival Hall.

Kevin Flanagan is from Lowell, Mass. USA. He co-founded an improv and jazz-based co-operative which toured New England and the UK in the 1970s & 80s. He has lived in the UK since the mid-80s and worked on the London jazz and pop scene, gradually becoming primarily involved in jazz, playing with his own group and the Tommy Chase Quartet at UK festivals. In the 90s he worked with Chris Ingham in FIQ.

Dave Gordon plays both with Riprap and with his own trio. He has performed at Ronnie Scott's and numerous international jazz festivals, has released a number of CDs and has recorded CDs with his crossover band Respectable Groove and the band Zum. He is also currently working with Chris Garrick and Jacqui Dankworth.

Andrew Brown has played in bands with Pete King, Benny Green, Pete Oxley, Simon Vincent and FIQ with Kevin Flanagan, and Chris Ingham. As well as Riprap he also works with Respectable Groove.

Russ Morgan is currently playing with the Chris Ingham trio, and Trio East as well as Rip Rap. He has toured and recorded around the UK and Europe with many Fleece Jazz favourites ... there is not room to name them all! FLEECE JAZZ is non-profit making, receives no external funding and is run entirely by unpaid volunteers.

"The resulting music ranges from burning neo-groove jams and blues to haunting and atmospheric 'free' jazz that makes sense"

You can see and hear Riprap by going to and clicking on "Riprap Quartet".

A few photos from a ride out into the Fens along the Lode's Way

A few photos taken with Hipstamatic and my iPad mini on a ride out into the Fens on Tuesday along the Lode's Way after what seems like an outrageously long winter hibernation. What a joy to get the Pashley Guv'nor out and experience the sun once again.

A somewhat painterly version of the previous shot using Hipstamatic's
"Robusta" film with the "Lucas" lens. The previous shot uses the "Robusta" film
but with the "Lowy" Lens. 

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Just a reminder that there is a Sea of Faith Meeting in Cambridge tonight - 5 March 2014 - On Pope Francis' attitudes to non-believers

Pope Francis (Photo: Wikipedia)
During a conversation with Don Cupitt at the end of last year he suggested to me that we might have a SoF meeting looking at something connected with the new Pope's thinking. Shortly after this an Italian friend of mine alerted me to a letter Pope Francis wrote in response to several questions posed by the founder of La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, in a number of recent articles.

Since the Pope makes direct reference to the need for "a sincere and rigorous dialogue with those whom, like you [i.e. Scalfari], describe themselves [as] “a non-believer for many years interested and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth”, it seems like a good topic for a Sea of Faith evening.

The Pope's letter, in an English translation, can be found at the link below.

Don Cupitt has kindly made a few notes for us that he has said we can use at the meeting. Please click on the following link to get a pdf copy of these notes:

The meeting takes place on Wednesday 5th March, 2014, in the church hall of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church,Cambridge and will start promptly at 7.30pm and finish at 9.30pm.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

A real existing Elsewhere - On being intelligently and devotedly religious - A Unitarian Lent course

Newly painted ceiling and restored floor in the
Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge
The Lent Course I mention in this address is being made accessible to members and friends of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church. Please contact me using the form on the right hand side of this blog if you wish to know more.


Readings: Mark 1:10–15

From the introduction to Donald Szantho Harrington's Unitarian Lent course "Outstretched Wings of the Spirit - On Being Intelligently and Devotedly Religious" based on the work and thought of Henry Nelson Wieman. This begins with a quote from Hans Kung ("On Being a Christian")

"Faith must not be blind, but responsible. We ought not to be mentally coerced, but rationally convinced, so that we can make a justifiable decision of faith. Faith must not be void of reality, but related to reality. We ought not to have to believe simply, without verification. Our statements should be proved and tested by contact with reality, within the present-day horizon of experience of individuals and society, and thus be covered by the concrete experience of reality." 

The primary purpose of churches and fellowships is to help people become intelligently and devotedly religious, to be so convinced of the truth and rightness of a particular way of life as to be compelled to place oneself under Its command, to live with It and for It, to dedicate to It all that one has, all that one is and all that one may become.

Such a total dedication of oneself is obviously dangerous. One may give oneself to a way that is evil, indifferent, small, inadequate, idolatrous, irrational. Hitler gave himself totally to a cause which was initially partial and which became increasingly demonic, especially because of his total dedication, which he believed had the blessing of divine Providence. The power of religious dedication is great, the danger equally so.

This is why reason and intelligence are important for religious devotion. Faith is too dangerous and too important to be accepted on anyone's say-so, whatever the source of authority. All of us must be convinced that our faith is sound, true, reasonable, just, and that its rightness is ascertainable by some external, objective criteria, evidence drawn from our own and shared human experience. Faith may venture beyond the limits of reason and hard, scientifically-validated evidence; it should never be irrational or anti-science.

Henry Nelson Wieman, forty years ago, introduced me to the concepts of process theology - God in and as the universal process. At a moment when my intelligence and scientific world-view had led me to reject both the idea of God and most traditional theological concepts, Wieman's naturalistic philosophy and theological explications restored them to me as the foundation for a vital, living faith, capable of undergirding a lifetime of urban ministry. In the hope that his insights may help others as they did me, I have prepared this Lenten Manual based on his approach. "God," says Wieman, "is the integrating process at work in the universe."

From the opening of Plato's Symposium

This was the style of their conversation as they went along. Socrates dropped behind in a fit of abstraction, and desired Aristodemus, who was waiting, to go on before him. When he reached the house of Agathon he found the doors wide open, and a comical thing happened. A servant coming out met him, and led him at once into the banqueting-hall in which the guests were reclining, for the banquet was about to begin. Welcome, Aristodemus, said Agathon, as soon as he appeared-you are just in time to sup with us; if you come on any other matter put it off, and make one of us, as I was looking for you yesterday and meant to have asked you, if I could have found you. But what have you done with Socrates?
          I turned round, but Socrates was nowhere to be seen; and I had to explain that he had been with me a moment before, and that I came by his invitation to the supper.
          You were quite right in coming, said Agathon; but where is he himself?
          He was behind me just now, as I entered, he said, and I cannot think what has become of him.
          Go and look for him, boy, said Agathon, and bring him in; and do you, Aristodemus, meanwhile take the place by Eryximachus.
          The servant then assisted him to wash, and he lay down, and presently another servant came in and reported that our friend Socrates had retired into the portico of the neighbouring house. "There he is fixed," said he, "and when I call to him he will not stir."
          How strange, said Agathon; then you must call him again, and keep calling him.
          Let him alone, said my informant; he has a way of stopping anywhere and losing himself without any reason. I believe that he will soon appear; do not therefore disturb him.
          Well, if you think so, I will leave him, said Agathon. And then, turning to the servants, he added, "Let us have supper without waiting for him.”


Given that we have just completed a major piece of redecoration and restoration in the church (see picture above) and that this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday my mind began to be open to the possibility that a meaningful connection might be made between our church building and the season of Lent.

The possibility of this connection began to arise after reading something in Peter Sloterdjik's recent book "The Art of Philosophy" (Columbia University Press, 2013) There he reminds the reader of Socrates' legendry strange behaviour of "sinking into thought". As you heard in our readings one well-known example of this was when he arrived noticeably late for dinner because he had stopped in the doorway of a neighbouring house to think.

Sloterdjik briefly explores this phenomenon in the first part of his book and I present here certain elements of this for you. Sloterdjik notes that:

"Seeing a savant during one of his absences means being a witness to a special kind of abandon. We do not know what is happening inside him: is he hearing voices or seeing images, is he grappling with a demonic presence or even receiving a ray of divine light? One thing is certain: he is standing still in front of us and is very far away. Anyway, we are inclined to think this is something different from ordinary hanging around. Rather we assume it is a matter of the thinker keeping calm in response to a roll call that reaches him from a place somewhere else that cannot be clearly defined" (p. 29).

As I have explored with you in other contexts, this phenomenon came to be explained, by Platonic metaphysics, as the thinker migrating to an alternative world - a transcendent, really-real world that was, for them, "the homeland of the better part of our soul" (ibid. p. 29). But, for reasons I have also explored with you over the years, belief in the reality of such another world has become increasingly difficult for our own culture and so we have to find a different way of talking about this kind of absence that we still acknowledge as being a real phenomenon. In a chapter called "Where are we when we think?" found in her final, postumous, book "The Life of the Mind" (1978), Hannah Arendt stressed the point that it is impossible to define the place of thinking using everyday topology, This means that we moderns have to be content with a different answer to the one which satisfied the ancients. She used the word "nowhere" but Sloterdjik offers, to my mind, a more satisfactory word for this, he suggest that the answer to where a thinker is when they are thinking is "short and to the point: they are in a place Elsewhere that we are unable to give any more detailed information about for the time being" (ibid. p. 31).

Sloterdjik points out that, as this idea developed in ancient times, there followed from this certain important social and political consequences. He notes that these were manifested:

". . . in the dramatic discovery that every highly developed society has to deal with the existence of counter societies of thinking persons. For over two and a half millennia, a small but not insignificant part of the population of our hemisphere has always been elsewhere in thought. Academies, schools, monasteries, church buildings, and retreats show how this Elsewhere is articulated in architectural terms" (ibid. p. 30).

Then, as now, many people have envisage the ideal retreat as being found outside the city in the countryside, but, in founding of the "Academy" in 387 BC in Athens, what Plato did was to bring the retreat right into the heart of the city. The Academy became, to cite Sloterdjik "an excluded place that fits into the normal . . . surroundings of the polis, yet totally obeys its own laws that the city finds incomprehensible, even outlandish."

Sloterdjik adds an important caveat at this point in his discussion which is to remind us that the academy is not a utopia, "it is not a structure in Nowhere that people might go searching for in vain like the civilisation of Atlantis. It is an entirely concrete place very close to the city, within walking distance of its walls, a real existing Elsewhere that we can enter once we have satisfied the admission requirements . . ." (ibid. pp. 33-34). And what those admission requirements? Well, for Plato's Academy they were "a good grounding in mathematics and the good-will to take instruction from persons who are 'unconcealing' or 'non-deceiving'" (p. 34).

But firstly let me briefly summarise the foregoing: (1) sinking into thought a person goes away and becomes absent in some fashion; (2) we have to be content not to try and locate the absent thinker in some metaphysical, utopian place (topologically speaking) but to be content with simply saying they are Elsewhere; (3) Academies, schools, monasteries, church buildings, and retreats were set up so that in them people could be Elsewhere even in the heart of a city and that these buildings are an architectural expression of Elsewhere; and, lastly (4) that we, ourselves, can enter such an Academy, school, monastery, church building, or retreat once we have satisfied the admission requirements of that particular community.

Before I go on I need briefly to connect these points to the season of Lent which begins this coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Within Christian culture the season of Lent, which runs into Holy Week and Easter, is understood to be a time during which a person withdraws and reflects in some fashion on their life and the world in imitation of the "forty days" Jesus spent in the wilderness doing likewise. I hope it is clear that in the wilderness Jesus was himself thinking and so was as "absent" as was Socrates. Even had you been able to go out into the wilderness and actually find Jesus in that place you would still have not found him because he would still have been Elsewhere.

Now with the idea of “sinking into thought”, Elsewhere and Lent before you I can begin to draw my threads together and I’ll do this by pointing to the Unitarian Lent course prepared in 1980 by the Revd Dr Donald Szantho Harrington, minister of the Community Church, New York between 1944 and 1982.

The first thing to say is that it should be clear that our church building is "a real existing Elsewhere" in the city - "an excluded place that fits into the normal . . . surroundings of the polis, yet totally obeys its own laws that the city finds incomprehensible, even outlandish.” As a radical, dissenting liberal religious tradition we have historically always formed just such counter cultural societies.

What is and has been particularly outlandish about our counter cultural laws is that, at our best, we have never been prepared to take at face value, nor unthinkingly affirm, the current values and mores of our society - whether in its religious or secular forms - but instead we have always insist that our members should all take time to go Elsewhere, to sink into thought to consider them critically. This remains, without doubt, one of the admission requirements of our own contemporary communities. As Harrington says - echoing the words of Hans Kung that he places prominently on an opening page of his book - we require this of our members because we feel:

“All of us must be convinced that our faith is sound, true, reasonable, just, and that its rightness is ascertainable by some external, objective criteria, evidence drawn from our own and shared human experience. Faith may venture beyond the limits of reason and hard, scientifically-validated evidence; it should never be irrational or anti-science.”

Thought is not everything of course for from thought there must always follow action - as the author of 1 John wisely instructs: “Little children, let us love, not in word of speech but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). Harrington is well aware of this but is insistent, as I am, in saying:

“The primary purpose of churches and fellowships is to help people become intelligently and devotedly religious, to be so convinced of the truth and rightness of a particular way of life as to be compelled to place oneself under Its command, to live with It and for It, to dedicate to It all that one has, all that one is and all that one may become.”

But this mix of intelligence and devotion in religion is a hard one to achieve for, on the one hand, our secular culture values critical intelligence highly but does not value religious devotion; on the other hand, so much religion in our culture values religious devotion highly but does not value critical intelligence. Our outlandish, counter-cultural stand is to say, absolutely clearly, that intelligence and devotion can, and should, belong together.

But to develop this mix takes time and discipline, it requires a person to sink into thought about this and to go Elsewhere. In this church building - an architectural expression of Elsewhere in the midst of the city, now beautifully redecorated and restored - we have a very special place apart in which, together, we can to sink into thought. But a building alone doth not make a church, nor does it make intelligent, religious people. No! We have to work at that by engaging in some kind of disciplined practice which brings together intelligence and devotion. Harrington’s Lent course does just this and I can do no better than conclude my address with some words and a prayer of his which form part of his opening, Ash Wednesday, meditation:

Religion is a way of growing. Growth is the increase in the complexity and organization of sensitivity and responsiveness to such forces as foster life and give it value. Sensitivity and responsiveness provide the avenue by which the outer life of nature and society can enter the inner life of the individual. Conscience appears when values begin to function as habits and ideals.

We begin, then, by consciously cultivating a spirit of devotion, an ever increasing sensitivity and responsiveness to the universal forces which surround us and operate within us, in order that we may accommodate our lives to their requirements. A feeling for these requirements becomes our conscience. 

There is no escape from religion. All human beings are inevitably religious. Their religion is what they are living. The only question is whether it is thoughtful or inane, deep or superficial, good or evil. 


God, open us wide in awareness of the creative urgency which You have set within us. Help us to understand that only when we stop growing into harmony with Your Larger Life do we begin to die. Open us to what this implies in all our relations with living beings, near and far. Let that new awareness change our lives. Amen.