Monday, 26 May 2014

Is it better to be religious than spiritual? - Tom Shakespeare's excellent "Point of View" piece

Church after the evening service
NB: The week following this post I explored some of the implications of Tom Shakespeare's piece in a Sunday address. You can find that at the following link.

"Spiritual but not religious? Religious but not spiritual?" - On the need to develop a self-conscious, secular, religious minimalism


On Sunday morning, just before going next door to make my final preparations for the morning service, I listened, as I generally do, to BBC Radio 4's excellent programme "A Point of View". This week Tom Shakespeare asked "Is it better to be religious than spiritual?" Since I'm one of those ministers who has remained religious even though they no longer believe in anything approaching the conventional definitions of God, and because what he said points to the kind of secular religious community I hope we are developing are here in Cambridge, it seems important to draw you attention to his excellent and timely presentation. Click on the following link to read and hear this at the BBC website:

Sunday, 25 May 2014

"Who is the gaucho, amigo? Why is he standing In your spangled leather poncho and your elevator shoes?" - What Steely Dan tells us about reading St Paul

Gaucho by Steely Dan (1980)
Readings: from Paul's Letter to the Galatians 6:11-18

The lyrics to Gaucho by Steely Dan

For the technically minded there is an important note on materialism and naturalism at the end of this post that you might want to read first.


To jazz and rock musicians of my generation, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, collectively known as "Steely Dan", represent a very distinctive pinnacle of popular music; as my friend and colleague Chris Ingham, who interviewed them in 1980, put it, "Only two people in the world understand how jazz licks, R&B rhythms, pulp novels, and Napoleonic history combine to make great pop music."

Grandma's Christmas card to me in 1980
In 1980 I was fifteen and had just began my life as a musician and the fact that I had been given on my birthday that year both a double bass and an electric bass meant that I was seriously on the lookout for music that combined jazz and rock and that year Steely Dan brought out a classic example of this mix on their LP, Gaucho. I bought it with some money I got from my grandma for Christmas that year (see picture on right!) and was completely blown away by it. The music they produced quite simply went on to define for me the basic musical language and style that I eventually made my own, at least when it came to playing the electric bass.

However, although I found myself able instantly able to connect with the music, when it came to the lyrics the matter was very different and I often had very little idea what the songs were about. Even when I did feel I had some kind of handle on the basic story Becker and Fagan were telling me, I was always aware that I was puzzled by certain details that seemed important. But, at the time, I simply had to learn to be content with making up my own interpretations of them even though, at that time, I assumed that lying being them there was a simple kind of true story to be discovered. However, whenever I did let go of seeking the truth of the lyric I found myself drawn ever more deeply into their very peculiar, surreal, funny, bright but also very dark world.

Now, let's press the pause button on Steely Dan for a moment and turn to the other character in today's address, Paul of Tarsus. Paul's letters constitute the earliest part of the New Testament which laid so much of the theological groundwork for what eventually became Church Christianity. For those of us who particularly value the teaching and example of the *human* Jesus, St Paul is very much one of the bad guys in the story of the transmission of Jesus teaching and example. As Thomas Jefferson said in 1820 "Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and a firm corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus" (Letter to William Short, April 13, 1820). A Coryphaeus was the head of a Greek chorus, the one who led the song and, although it can sometimes be overstated, we can certainly say that St Paul led a song whose melody and lyric was, and is, very different from that sung by Jesus of Nazareth.

East window in St Michael's, Kirby-le-Soken
Aged 15 I had already begun dimly to recognise this. Not least of all because from my choir stall in the chancel of my local parish church in Kirby-le-Soken I had clear sight of an unusual east window. It did not show the crucifixion (as might be expected) but, instead, three touching scenes from the life of Jesus as he engaged compassionately with three women: the Mary who chose the “good part” (Luke 10:42), the woman with a haemorrhage (Matthew 9:20) and Martha (John 11:21). The window told a human, this-worldly story, that often contrasted strikingly with the complex, other-worldly metaphysical claims concerning original sin, crucifixion, resurrection, redemption and salvation that I heard preached from the pulpit - all copiously illustrated, of course, by extracts from Paul's letters. (If you are so minded you can read some some of the personal consequences of this if you click on this link).

But, whereas the human example of Jesus seemed to me to be relatively accessible, Paul's letters were not; in their own, very different way, they were at least as incomprehensible and dark as anything Steely Dan could serve up. As a teenager I took my Bible studies seriously and I spent a great deal of time trying to seek out the true story that I was told lay within, or behind, Paul's writings. Of course, in those days I didn't have to hand the kind of secular, historical, academic resources I eventually had access to, but one thing I realised very early on, and which clearly stood in the way of any easy, simple comprehension of Paul, was that these were *letters*; that is to say I could see that I had before me only had one side of, and one brief moment of, a complex, two-thousand year-old dialogue.

Now, as a way of bring us back to Steely Dan, imagine the following scene. You're a musician in first-century Rome and it's been a hard days night at the theatre. On the way home the need for refreshment overcomes you and so you swing into a busy downtown bar. You pull a stool up to the bar and order a beer and, while you wait, you notice that some guy next to you is excitedly going on to his neighbour about his bad handwriting, circumcision, the law and some bodacious guy called Jesus Christ. Weird eh? What the hell other guy is saying in response you have no idea for the bar is very noisy tonight. It takes you perhaps five minutes to finish your drink and then you head out into the city night. As you walk home you begin to compose in your head a crazy little ditty involving oblique references to bad handwriting, circumcision, law and a character called Jesus Christ, all the while imagining all kinds of possible back-stories and endings. If you had sung your crazy ditty to anyone at that point very few people would have been able to make neither head nor tail of it. You get home, lie down and immediately fall asleep and that's that.

Well, Becker and Fagan are the kind of crazy guys who, when they get home from the bar - in downtown New York or LA rather than Rome - they don't forget such conversations but, instead, sometimes sit down and consciously write a song using that material. This is, by the way, not me making things up for in his interview with them my friend discovered that this is, in fact, one of the ways they compose lyrics. (For another indication of this click here to go to a 1980 interview with Becker and Fagan). They admit to enjoying bringing a listener into the middle of a conversation whose beginnings, overall context and ending remain, definitively, out of reach - even for them. The method they employ here intrigues us, makes us wonder and invite us, quite deliberately, to weave out of what we hear our own stories. In so doing Becker and Fagan enable the imaginative listener to make the song more their own than they could otherwise. It is important to see that this can happen because even Becker and Fagan don't know - and are not interested in - the "truth" of the whole story that may, or may not, lie behind the overheard conversation. They are not worried about truth but are, instead, encouraging collaborative good story-telling through the medium of great songs.

So, to finish, let's now turn to two questions, the first posed by Steely Dan, "Who is the Gaucho?", and the second continuously posed in various ways by Paul, "Who is Christ?" When we've done this let's also ask about the import of any answers we may arrive at.

"Who is the gaucho?" A gaucho, as I'm sure you know, is a South-American cowboy. So who is this man, this bodacious cowboy, and why on earth is he standing in a spangled leather poncho and elevator shoes? In one sense, for all the reasons I've gestured towards, we can't know. The story we are told is knowingly incomplete, it's deliberately and obscurely half told. The "answer" to the question relies upon us imaginatively combining our experience of the world with the experience of Becker and Fagan against the evocative backdrop of the music so as to weave various new stories which will give us some new and often unexpected take on the richness and extraordinary diversity of human life. An encounter with another Steely Dan fan will gift another possible story which, in turn, perhaps changes your own, or at least shows you that all may not be so cut and dried as you once thought it was. So who is the gaucho? Well, who knows?But one thing I do know. It is that, together, we can have a great deal of fun and learn a great deal about each other and the world by working through the possibilities and allowing them all to remain in play.

Let's now ask St Paul's question, "Who is Christ?" The problem is that we know St Paul, unlike Becker and Fagan, is convinced he knows both the answer, the back-story and the end of this and he is in the business of persuading a reader of his epistles to see his answer. So who is Christ? The trouble, for Paul and for those who, today, still believe they see in the epistles the same eternal truth as St Paul believed he saw, is that when we read his epistles we always discover that we've stumbled into a loud bar room conversation and can only ever catch the briefest, half-heard, two-thousand year old fragment of what was going on. It may come as a shock to some to realise this but, looked at this way, St Paul's epistles must begin to show up more and more like a Becker and Fagan lyric than they do as definitive, holy writ - the final, finished word of God to humankind.

And the import of our answers? Well, a great deal I think. We have emerged from a culture that has thought answers to theological and philosophical questions like "who is Christ" or "what is the (capital T) truth" can, somehow and at some point, definitively be answered.

St Paul is a person, and classical Christianity which followed is an institution, that has always thought like this. History - and alas, in some places in the world, present day events - has taught us the painful truth that too many people are repressed and killed on the basis of final answers made up after hearing such half-heard theological and philosophical conversations.

Becker and Fagan, on the other hand, are people who recognise and celebrate the ambiguity and incompleteness of all individual human existence. They know an important truth, namely that humankind (as a theological and philosophical being) is always in the noisy downtown bar room of life picking up only half-heard snippets of conversation, both trivial and profound, light and dark. The only sure (enough) way to proceed in such a situation is by committing to an ongoing, constant process of critical conversation with those around you (making sure they include a good mix of scientists, poets, musicians, philosophers and theologians) so as to avoid becoming the bar-room bore or Coryphaeus who believes they have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And so my basic message to you today is that, whenever any of us is tempted to think we have the answer to the question, "who is Christ?" - or to some similar question of supposed ultimate theological or philosophical import, we should instantly begin to sing a supplemental question, "Who is the gaucho, amigo? and why is he standing in your spangled leather poncho and your elevator shoes?" With any luck, the impossibility of definitively answering this should encourage us to buy another round of beers, to sit down and talk it through, one more time, with our trusted friends and colleagues. All around the world we'd all have a much better time if we did just this.



I want to be clear that the preceding address is designed to illustrate something I think is true (enough) about the human worlds of religion and/or traditional philosophy. I want to make it clear that I don't think what I say here can be used to speak of the scientific method which does, I think, show up certain very strong truths. In connection with this I feel the need to be clear that, personally, I've come to be very much a naturalist, i.e. I hold the view "that everything there is springs from the natural world and involves no supernatural intervention", and a materialist, i.e. I hold the view that "the whole of all there is can be accounted for in terms of matter and its interactions" (Peter Atkins: "On Being", OUP 2011, n. 1, p. xii). However, this need not be taken as necessarily implying a crude reductionism and I think that John F. Post is right in pointing out that "for to say that one thing [e.g.matter and it's interactions] determines another, in ordinary parlance, is to say the first delimits or fixes how the second can be; or that given the first, there is one and only one way the second can be" (John F. Post: The Faces of Existence - An Essay in Nonreductive Metaphysics, Cornell University Press, 1987, pp. 181-182). So, for example, the music of Steely Dan can, I think, be accounted for in terms of matter and its interactions but it cannot simply be reduced to that. But matter and its interactions really determines, in one and only one way, how this complex emergent "thing" is made, received and interpreted in the human world. It's all this latter stuff that occupies most of my time as a kind of theologian or philosopher but, but, but, I increasingly feel the need to be absolutely clear that I am doing this as a thoroughgoing naturalist and materialist.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

"The midmost hangs for love" - a very brief piece of autobiogrpahy

East window in St Michael's Kirby-le-Soken
Taking the time to look back at my own life of faith in order to write this piece I became aware just how deeply it is related to the beautiful, liminal, “in-between” physical landscape in which I grew up. The Essex coastal village of Kirby-le-Soken with its complex network of creeks, mudflats and salt marsh exists seemingly forever in between earth, sea and sky. The places where I most often walked and cycled were not quite solid land, the places where I learnt to sail were not quite sea. As I write I am struck by the fact that the Cambridgeshire Fens in the midst of which I now live and work are strikingly similar in so many ways.

Standing in the midst of that Essex landscape was the parish church of St Michael’s where I became a faithful choirboy and bell-ringer. Within its walls I imbibed deeply the stories and prayers, music and hymns of a very English kind of Christianity.

Although this could easily have led me to develop a rather conventional, traditional Anglican Christianity, from my choir stall on the south side of the chancel I had clear sight of an unusual east window. It did not show the crucifixion but, instead, three touching scenes from the life of Jesus as he engaged compassionately with three women: the Mary who chose the “good part” (Luke 10:42), the woman with a haemorrhage (Matthew 9:20) and Martha (John 11:21). The window told a human, this-worldly story, that often contrasted strikingly with the complex, other-worldly metaphysical claims concerning original sin, crucifixion, resurrection, redemption and salvation that I heard preached from the pulpit. In my choir stall week by week I found myself sitting in between these very different visions of Christianity and, like Jesus’ mother, I kept all these things, and pondered them in my heart.

My schoolboy edition of Housman
Of course, not all of my pondering took place in the choir stall; much of it occurred in the landscape I have already mentioned and beneath its wide-open skies, on my bike or in a little sailing dingy, I developed a deep and enduring love of the natural world. Inevitably, a great deal of my pondering also took place in school where I was gently inducted into the sceptical but, nevertheless, exciting world of secular modernity. While there, although I developed an interest in the natural sciences I was drawn most strongly towards English Literature. The key figure to whom I was introduced was the poet A. E. Housman. His poem “Easter Hymn” (one of only two he wrote about Jesus) had a profound effect upon me because in it he articulated the same kinds of thoughts about Jesus I was beginning to have. It is not insignificant that the poem was described in my schoolboy edition of the text as being a liminal work, “a suspended judgement, which threatens at any moment to come down on the other side”:

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain, 
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain, 
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright 
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night 
The hate you died to quench and could but fan, 
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.   

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by, 
At the right hand of majesty on high 
You sit, and sitting so remember yet 
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat, 
Your cross and passion and the life you gave, 
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.  

By the time I reached the age of twenty-one I had, however, come down on the same side as did Housman: Jesus had died upon the cross, he was not resurrected, he was not God and he did not, nor ever would, “Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.” Like Housman, my picture of the universe had begun to look and feel more like that expressed by his own classical hero, the Roman poet and follower of EpicurusLucretius, whose sublime poem “On the Nature of Things” expresses the transient joys and wonders of a completely natural universe in which our redemption as mortal beings is not from the world, but one found in it. Since that time, along with Housman’s poetry, both Lucretius’ poem and Epicurus’ philosophy became as important to me as the gospels.

When I left school I pursued a career in music and, in the countless in-between places which as a professional musician I so often found myself (hotels, tour-buses, planes, green-rooms, pubs, clubs and concert halls), I had plenty of time to continue my pondering. During that period I discovered that the only churches where one could serve faithfully and openly such a human Jesus were Unitarian and Free Christian ones. I was extremely fortunate that by this time (1990) I was living in Suffolk and so was able to join the congregation of the Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House under their minister Cliff Reed. Inspired by what I found, seven years later I began to train for the ministry at Oxford University (Harris Manchester College).

Beneath its dreaming spires I had the time to ponder even more deeply than before questions of faith and belief and I particularly took to heart the work of Benedict Spinoza. Then, as I was leaving the city for that other place in the Fens, my attentions began decisively to turn towards NietzscheHeideggerWittgenstein and Ernst Bloch. My encounter with their thinking and its profound consequences (especially “death of God” theology) coupled with the realities of a contemporary western European liberal religious ministry slowly led me to see that the absence of a foundational (i.e. a monotheistic, metaphysical) God, rather than being a disaster, actually began to open up access to what felt, and still feels, to me to be richer and more relevant ways to understand creation, and to encounter and talk about what we call the divine, the holy and the sacred.

I have come to see that, even when all of the metaphysics of conventional Christianity have been let go, there still remains the bright and shining example of the human Jesus, the one who, as Housman wrote in “The Carpenter’s Son”, “midmost hangs for love” between two poor fellows hung for theft. His example of selfless human love for others is, for me, enough, and I have found that Jesus continues powerfully to claim my loyalty and discipleship. However, I recognise that this is a very liminal kind of faith; that I have come deeply to inhabit it in yet another liminal physical landscape, the Cambridgeshire Fens, seems somehow very fitting. All I can say is that this in-between world of a very English kind of Christian atheism (or religious naturalism) feels for me like the right place to be and I can say that its boundary “lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage” (Psalm 16:6).

Good Friday
29 March 2013

Santayana on Lucretius - a naturalistic conception of things

"A naturalistic conception of things is a great work of imagination, – greater, I think, than any dramatic or moral mythology: it is a conception fit to inspire great poetry, and in the end, perhaps, it will prove the only conception able to inspire it."

George Santayana (1863-1952) in Three Philosophical Poets, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1910, p. 21

The photo is a view from Raddon Top, Devon, taken last week.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Nature's greatest gifts are simple . . .

The hillside above the cottage where we were staying
Susanna and I have just come back after a week of leave down in Devon on the edge of the Exe Valley. I only took with me the Penguin edition of Epicurus' works, Lucretius' De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) translated by David R. Slavitt and Jefferson's "Bible".

I hope to take a sabbatical next year in order, finally, to get round to writing something more extensive on what a practical, modern religious naturalism might look like that centres on Epicurus, Lucretius and the human (i.e. non-supernaturalist) Jesus that so inspired Thomas Jefferson. I made a good start on this during my time away. I won't put any of that before you here and just offer you a couple of passages from Lucretius that I read to Susanna while we were out walking together along with a few appropriate photos taken at the time.

Nature's greatest gifts are simple. She does not care
for fancy decorations, gilded torchères in the shape
of human arms that light long corridors that lead
to grand salons where nightly revels take place. She does not
delight in elaborate gewgaws, garnitures of silver
and gold, or paneled crossbeams overhead that resound
from the plucked strings of the lyre. She has no need to improve
on the simple pleasures of friends stretched out on a grassy knoll
beneath the arching branches of living trees near water
purling in some brook. What riches can equal that?
Let it be spring when the weather is perfect and flowers bloom,
Punctuating the meadow with various colours.
(Book 2, trans. Slavitt, p. 49)

My wife and best friend, Susanna, on a grassy knoll beneath
the arching branches of living trees at Cadbury Castle
And here is one of the earliest texts which accords animals real awareness and feelings and which begins to help us see our real kinship with them. This passage is, of course, also part of Lucretius' (and Epicurus') challenge to any form of supernaturalist religion.

Look at any of these with care, and you will discover 
subtle differences in shape or size or appearance. 
How else could a newborn know its mother? Or how could the mother 
distinguish her own offspring? But we see that they can do this, 
and they know one another as clearly as men do. Think of a shrine 
where a calf has been slain on the altar, the smells of gore and incense 
mixing together. The mother, bereaved, wanders the meadow 
searching the greensward for any trace of the cloven hoof 
of her dear calf. She surveys, looking everywhere for the lost 
creature and fills the air with grievous lowing and wailing, 
and again and again she returns to the stall, each time with hopes 
that are always disappointed. And the tenderest willow branches 
she spurns, and the freshest fodder, grass still wet with the dewdrops. 
Nothing can divert or delight her troubled mind 
or lighten her burden of woe. The sight of the other happy 
calves in the pasture cannot lessen her grief as she mourns 
her own, her only child that she knows so well and seeks 
without respite. 

(Book 2 trans. Slavitt, p. 62)

New-born calves with their mothers near Brampford Speke 
And just a few more photos . . .

Sunday, 11 May 2014

A guest posting by Dean Reynolds - Pilgrimage for the 21st century, still a valid form of spiritual practice?

This morning, Dean Reynolds, a member of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church gave the address during the service and I'm pleased to publish that below.

I was particularly grateful to Dean for giving the address this morning because I had to an early morning interview for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire's "Sunday Breakfast with Suzy Roberts". The topic was same-sex marriage, which we as a church have just registered to perform. If you missed the programme you can listen (for the next 7 days only - until Sunday 18th May) on 'catch-up' at the following link:

The interview starts about 2 hours 8 minutes into the programme and runs for about 6 minutes.

So, now to the main event, Dean Reynold's address, "Pilgrimage for the 21st century, still a valid form of spiritual practice?"

I’m here to talk to you today about pilgrimage it might be a strange word and one that no doubt immediately conjures up other words like catholic or ritual or perhaps it makes us think of Islam and the Hajj. I wonder if many of us can Identify this word with ourselves having either been on a pilgrimage or perhaps we are intending to go on one. Unfortunately like many great ideas pilgrimage has also been nabbed by our neo-liberal culture so that people talk of going on a pilgrimage to the shops or such like. I will admit that in out multifaceted society there are indeed many kinds of pilgrimage but I intend to focus on one form of this ancient practice and one that I have had the privilege of experiencing twice in the last two years.  Namely the Camino de Santiago or in English the Way of St James. The Camino has many routes winding all across Europe and |Spain leading to the Spanish city of Santiago in the north western corner of the Iberian Peninsula the most commonly walked way is the Camino Frances which is the main way to Santiago from France. most modern pilgrims start somewhere along this route with a traditional starting point being a French town called St Jean pied de port on the French side of the Pyrenees.

The first days walk then is an arduous climb over the mountain range from about 200m in town to the summit around 1500m, this is possibly the hardest day of the whole walk and you soon see the things pilgrims had left by the roadside unable to carry their heavy possessions up the mountain. A pilgrims bag should be as light as possible and this first day is a cruel lesson in that.  For me and for Emily my wife we began the climb in the afternoon summer’s heat after a mad day of travelling from Paris beginning at 4am. We were definitely in no fit state to tackle the blazing sun and the endless ascent, but we set off in a most naïve fashion hoping to stay half way up at around 800m. Our walk was initially enjoyable but became steeper and hotter and we didn’t really know if we were on the right path, we were just following a road up the mountain and there was very little shade it was midsummer and very hot Emily was exhausted and I wasn’t far off either. We found a tree and sat under it we prayed for some aid. A car stopped offering a lift, but how could we accept it on the first day, they assured us it wasn’t too far and then we saw an eagle hovering close by a sure sign that things would be OK. It lifted both our moods and we continued on it was hard but the thought of a warm supper was a good motivator and we arrived around sunset to eat with a group of 10 or 12 pilgrims around a long table. Our adventure had begun.

That was our first day already we had faced some danger already we had learnt a lesson about respecting the sun about travelling in the afternoon this was to be no gentle stroll this was going to be a challenge. The ensuing days and weeks were just as eventful but there were far too many things worth talking about to share in twenty minutes, it was only 3 days in, that we had to walk 40km in one day in order to arrive in Pamplona in time for San Fermin the legendary Basque festival involving the infamous 'Running of The Bulls'. It was very hectic like the whole Glastonbury in a town centre but going on for 7 days and nights complete madness really.

Along the way we met several of our friends who joined us two from Emily’s training college and one close friend of ours it felt sometimes like the Canterbury tales we also made new friends en route. When we were Just outside of Pamplona we were tired and hungry had been walking for a long time it was the stranger, a policeman named Santiago, that offered us food and drink. Accepting it was a lesson in humility and receiving, there was no time for British reserve here, we were all pilgrims together epitomized by the phrase “buen camino” uttered instinctively upon passing or departing from another pilgrim. This translates as good way but it seemed to mean a whole lot more and at times felt more like a prayer of the heart resonating with the shared experience of the way but also that of life. Tributes to people who had passed through and then passed on were there by the wayside, a reminder that this journey had an end, that we could not walk forever. This reality became even more real to us when we received news of the death of a friend who we had lived with in community before coming to Cambridge.

Walking is really an amazing thing, there was so much space, times of quiet, times to reflect, no escape from yourself or those around you, forced to confront your body hungry and weary and your mind full of ideas and fantasy. The heat was relentless and it made some days gruelling especially around halfway in the Meseta an area of dry upland plains that rolled on and on between the historic cities of Burgos an Leon. Wheat fields were everywhere and there was no natural stone so the houses were made from mud bricks.

One day we were in the heat all day with no shade and then we saw off the path a place with trees, we knew from the guidebook this was a rest stop and it was full Of lush green grass and tall trees a real oasis, with a sacred spring supposed to cure blisters. I had acquired several of these on the journey and it became commonplace for first introductions to include the question how are your feet. Our friend John became our foot doctor and I was extremely humbled when he tended to my smelly blistered feet one morning reducing my pain and discomfort significantly, it was in this context that I was up for any cure God or nature could provide. They had made a great stone bath of the ice cold spring water and I gave myself an impromptu full submersion baptism, I then left my foot in the icy water for at least 15 minutes hoping that the healing powers of the pool would have maximum efficacy however when I jumped out my foot was so cold and numb that I couldn’t walk properly and rolled my ankle, proving that you can always have too much of a good thing.

Later that day I was well behind the group they thought I wanted some space but it was my ankle that had slowed me. I was tired and the sun was still hot the farmers were harvesting and there was yellow dust everywhere. Our target was Hontanos a small village in a little valley on the Meseta it was impossible to see until very close by and I had lost sight of everyone. The path just seemed to roll on and on. I was worried then but my fear turned to relief after seeing just one house and knowing I was nearly home for the night.

After the Meseta our group changed we met our friend Lauren in Leon which had the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen. I actually wept seeing the light streaming through the glass, reflecting thousands of colours dancing on the stone floor it was mesmerizing. The Camino can be such a strange journey, full of joy and sadness. It wasn’t long before me were due to meet up with one of my best friends Mark but 2 days before he was due to come, he rang to tell me his dad had died very suddenly and that he wouldn’t be able to join us. This was a real turning point of the trip for me, the weight of my friends grief my inability to comfort and support him it was a real struggle. A day later was St James day and we were at the highest point of the walk, there was a festival up at the Cruz de Ferro (the iron cross) where traditionally walkers have placed a stone they have carried with them as a burden to be set down. About 3 miles on there is a semi abandoned village called Manjarin which was where we intended to stay the night. while the group set down for the afternoon I went on up to a highpoint lookout about 2 miles further. There on the top I sat and meditated for a couple of hours eventually constructing 3 stone crosses for the people who had died or fallen seriously ill during our trip. Meanwhile the group were all ready to leave Manjarin, The only Albergue is run by a guy who is in some way convinced he is the last Templar knight and he Carries a sword and wears a tabard. The others made me a sandwich so when I got back id agree to leave, but as it turned out I was in a very agreeable mood and we trekked the 7km to the next village in failing light arriving around 9pm just in time to get some dinner and then sleep.

Because Mark couldn’t come I ended up doing the Camino again with him the next year in October 2013. We started in Leon and walked for 2 weeks to Santiago following the same route, or so I thought. One of the main aims was for us to visit the memorial on the mountain and pay tribute to his dad who was a great lover of Spain. However it was on the 5th day of our walk which had a more rustic feel than my first pilgrimage that we arrived at Rabanal one night away from the cross. we had already camped outside a village and also stayed at the Casa del Dios (House of the Gods) an old farm building on a hill in the middle of nowhere! With David a man who has dedicated his life to the dream of a Camino where friendship and our shared humanity inspire free hospitality and generosity. It was a different economics and was powerfully witnessed by his giving of food drink and shelter to the passing pilgrims. Things seemed to be going to plan and that night in Rabanal I invited two fellow pilgrims to a late supper with us they were Harve and Elisia.

Harve was a kind of Spanish new-age wanderer he had a very complex and piercing gaze wrapped in a kind of towel thing he always wore and he was almost always smoking something. Elisia was Italian and very energetic she seemed to be brimming over with a kind of youthful optimism and joy. Harve was insistent in his broken English that we should all go together to a rainbow movement village on the next day. Well we weren’t so sure. We knew we had to get to the cross and Mark’s dads monument, but we were intrigued by this detour and Harve kept saying “solo tres kilometres” so we took a gamble and went. About 10km later we arrived first to the scene of a work party in ragged shirts dripping with sweat in the sweltering sun trying to fix a cratered track that served them as a road. It felt very strange like stepping into another world in a different age then after rounding the bend we saw the rainbow village Matavenero. Nestled into the hillside it was very beautiful with a kind of Rivendell like backdrop. It was also very alternative not much electric natural water all rebuilt from ruins by different families. There was a school and a food hall a proper community there was no religious cult I could spot, something I was assuming would pop up and ruin the utopian vision. In stark terms one of the residents said to me “its lovely in the summer but if you really want to live here try surviving the winter”. The house in the middle of the village was like a guest house anyone could stay for free. The stoves were ancient it was like a surreal dream. We had lunch from a huge mushroom Elisia had found on the walk but we didn’t stay long after. Harve had a new plan that got us even further from 'the way' and we were well and truly off our maps and off the grid. At this point the question what is the Camino became stark, is it about following a meticulous route to the letter without a lift on schedule. It felt like wed been led astray, but had we?

It was both frustrating and exciting, Harve’s English was pretty poor as was our Spanish it was only Elisia that had a reasonable grip on both languages so naturally she became the mediator in our discussions, we ended up rather than turning back pushing on along a river track that led past an impressive waterfall and eventually led to a village where Harve knew someone. It was dusk and we were shattered, knocking on doors eventually one opened to us and we came in and shared a meal, our hosts were generous and we stayed the night. Harve’s friend Sanan who we suspected might be some kind of coke-dealer came over for a while promising to return in the morning to give us a lift in his car.

We were really in the thick of it now no real idea where. The next day was a frustrating mix of emotions, we danced in the lounge in the morning listening to rock and roll on the radio and drinking coffee while Harve and the others smoked in the kitchen. Sanan took us to the next town and he went off swimming. We had a bit of a falling out with Harve and pushed on by bus to the large town of Ponferrada he decided to come too and we all checked into the hostel and he started to cook. We had bought food for our hosts from the previous night but had no way to give it to them so we cooked a big dinner. We had now passed the monument and I was doubtful that we’d be able to get up there, the bus service were very ropey through the mountains wed probably have to walk all the way back! We were back on the Camino but the jump had cost us something important. Harve had promised that Sanan would take us up there, I doubted it!

Then around 6 he showed up ready to move out, Mark was in the shower it all seemed crazy, after a while we all piled into the car, much to the disdain of other ‘Pure and proper pilgrims’ and burnt off up the road at great speed into the mountains. We managed to park nearby and climbed up the last few meters to the summit. The sun was nearly down and the view was breath-taking. Mark was able to reflect and grieve for his dad and we all sat for a good half an hour on the quiet ridge listening to the wind before driving back. It felt like we were on a wild super Camino where friendship and trust were all we had to go on to keep us safe. When we arrived back another pilgrim Jesus was there looking after the dinner stirring the pots. It was 10pm and we all ate together in a kind of last supper. It had been a wild ride but we knew if we had any chance of reaching Santiago on time we’d have to leave Harve behind. It felt like wed learnt something about trust about the Camino and about ourselves, it reminded me of the Apostles going out without much on them just on some kind of mission, we thought we’d go on in a conventional fashion. but then we started walking with Jesus who was now on the Camino for the third time with no money just a backpack and his clothes. He seemed to be even more like those Apostles. He knew about herbs and mushrooms, where to get some food from the woods. He knew how to sneak into a hostel when the hospitalero had left at 10PM and he knew how to wake up to an espresso with a shot in it. He was an ex lorry driver and an excellent chef he taught us Spanish and had a wonderful sense of humour. A real gentle spirit he didn’t seem crazy or unhinged not some kind of mad beggar he was a relaxed and reflective a man with friends on the way, someone to be trusted. he was our new guide and chef for us it was out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Unfortunately that's all we’ve got time for today I'd like to wrap it up with some reflections:

So what’s the point of pilgrimage in the 21st century is it just another adventure holiday? Why is it important? Arriving in Santiago gave me some clue neither time completing the walk was particularly mind blowing. Its true that the first time I wept on the cathedral steps only to be overcome the next day by a numbness and a dissatisfaction with my life at home. I hadn’t received the answer to life the universe and everything I was flat and disappointed. The second time I felt even less enlightenment from actually reaching the goal but it became clearer that it was the journey that mattered, the being in it. Attentive to the present, alive to the concerns of fellow pilgrims in the moment. Faith was alive there in way it need not be here at home. Trust was paramount as was cooperation. Some people seemed to view the Camino as a race to be won but I’m not sure if they might have missed the point. It felt to me like some of the times when I was most out on a limb on a detour or dealing with something unexpected, those were in the end the times when I felt most on 'The Way'.

The grand metaphor it provided allowed me to reflect on my life, my friendships, my marriage, the journey I was on. It helped me change some things and perhaps showed me what I was good at it as well as where I struggle. It also revealed another way to live guided by friendship, donations and charity, without transactional relationships if only for a time. All of this stuff seems to me to be relevant now perhaps more than ever as our busy technological world leaves less and less time for space and reflection. Maybe that’s why more people are travelling the Camino every year. Not just religious people but atheists and agnostics, old and young, from so many places,  new-agers and maths teachers, police officers, trainee vicars and falafel sellers, all passing each other and proclaiming.

Buen Camino
Dean Reynolds

Friday, 9 May 2014

Decay, Beauty, Patina - a ruined fenland chapel

On Monday I went on a ride out into the fens through Upware, across to Wicken and then back into Cambridge along the Lodes Way. Just to the north of Upware, and genuinely in the middle of nowhere (nearby is the very aptly named "Five Miles From Anywhere No Hurry Inn") I came upon this ruined and decaying wooden chapel. I must have cycled this road a dozen times in the fourteen years I've lived in Cambridge but, somehow, until then, I had just sailed by it. It's amazing what one misses. As I took these photos I was reminded of something that the artist Urs Fischer once said: "Life is one long decay, no? There's a lot of beauty in it. Like the patina in an old city." Well there's decay, beauty and patina here in abundance.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Elargissez Dieu - setting God free. Accepting the gift of "weak theology" and "weak thought" in the contemporary Unitarian movement

Detail of window in Harris Manchester College, Oxford
Reading from: “Philosophic Thoughts” No. XXVI
by Denis Diderot (1713–1784)

Les hommes ont banni la Divinité d’entre eux; ils l’ont réléguée dans un sanctuaire; les murs d’un temple bornent sa vue; elle n’existe point au delà. Insensés que vous êtes! détruisez ces enceintes qui rétrécissent vos idées; élargissez Dieu; voyez-le partout où il est, ou dites qu’il n’est point.

Men have banished God from their company and have hidden him in a sanctuary; the walls of a temple shut him in, he has no existence beyond. Fools that you are, break down these limitations that hamper your ideas; set God free; see him everywhere, as he is everywhere, or say that he is non-existent. 


Diderot, by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767
Some of you will recall that during the conversation after last week's address, I mentioned that, in some of the fine Burne Jones stained glass windows of Harris Manchester College, Oxford, attended by both me and Frank, our minister emeritus, there are to be found words by one of the great philosophers of the Enlightenment, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) — "Elargissez Dieu" which means both "set your God free" and "enlarge your idea of God".

Well, after the service in the common room during coffee Frank came up to me and declaimed magnificently, "Les hommes ont banni la Divinité d'entre eux." For a moment, in the confusion of suddenly being spoken to in French, I thought he was telling me off for having banished God from amongst us. This was something, I was about to protest, I didn't think I had done but Frank was in full flow and it was not until a couple sentences later when he said, with extra force, "elargissez Dieu" that, with great relief, I realised he was citing Diderot.

Now, although I have cherished those two words since my time at Oxford, I had never before heard or read the full passage from which they came. I thank Frank profusely for encouraging me to track down their source in Diderot's short early work, "Philosophic Thoughts" which I enjoyed reading in the Botanic Garden last week.

Frank said one other thing to me last week which powerfully struck me, namely, that their placement in a church window meant they functioned as a kind of theological time-bomb.

Recall, that in a church context the casual, but religiously educated visitor, is likely to see these words and, at least the first-time round, translate them as does a BBC history page, "Praise God!" or, perhaps, something like, "Magnify the Lord!" On a first, perhaps even a second or third glance, all seems well, orthodox, safe and secure. We can imagine our visitor thinking that, although this is a Unitarian chapel (i.e. theologically a bit suspect), they seem to be saying the kinds of thing that should be said in church—OK, they are saying it in French, which is a little eccentric and perhaps, even, somewhat pretentious, but let's forgive them that—God is still being praised.

But, as you now know, this is far from being a correct translation "Elargissez Dieu". The fact is, whether accidentally or knowingly, the use of the original French words in an English context created what, in the language of journalism, is called a "delayed drop" in which the substance of the story is deliberately kept from the reader in order to create a feeling of suspense.

The theological substance of Diderot's words is not immediately given to the reader so that when (if) it does come (which it doesn't yet seem to have done for the writers of the BBC website I just mentioned), it does so with even greater force than would have otherwise been the case.

What you see first time round with the language of "praise God" or "magnify The Lord" is, of course, the language of the institutional church with all its (claimed) certainties and authority. This is the same institution which, over the centuries, and for all kinds of complex political and social reasons, has nearly always wanted to control and contain people's ideas about God.

But Diderot, along with many others in the Enlightenment, came to think this authoritarian, controlling approach to God was wrong, profoundly wrong. He wanted to break down the walls of institutional religion and allow the conception of God to be expanded into every nook and cranny of the world. As he wrote in the extract we heard, "see him everywhere, as he is everywhere, or say that he is non-existent".

What we saw in the work of people like Diderot had a profound effect upon our own religious tradition and, as one of our own, Ralph Waldo Emerson later memorably said in his Divinity School Address of 1838, "Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil." This thought is consciously and explicitly repeated, of course, in our own service's opening words, "Divinity is present everywhere. The whole world is filled with God."

This is a great achievement and it should neither be underestimated nor forgotten for it helped birth a wholly new world, our secular, post-Christian world. But no major revolution in thought such as this can be affected without incurring any costs. An indication of what, for us institutionally anyway, was an initial cost, may be glimpsed in some words of John Henry Muirhead (1855–1940). In 1885 Muirhead began training for the Unitarian ministry before eventually deciding, in 1889, to pursue what became an extremely successful and influential career as a philosopher. He, too, undertook his training and study at Manchester College (though this was in London before the college moved to Oxford in 1893). Here is how, in his autobiography (pub. 1942), Muirhead writes of the Unitarians and the college after its move to Oxford:

If its Unitarianism may be said to be one of the “lost causes” which proverbially find their home [in Oxford], this cannot be said for the principle of absolute freedom of thought for which it still, alone there among theological institutions, immovably stands.
Now why might he say this and be so positive about the college and it's general stand but so down on the Unitarians - a veritable lost cause?

Well, you need to realise that Muirhead was a kind of Hegalian (a British Idealist in fact - a follower of F. H. Bradley and especially his "Concluding Remarks" found in his "Ethical Studies") and so, like many other people in his own age, he desired to find some kind of single, strong, over-arching, or underlying, absolute truth. The trouble for him was that the Unitarian movement during the Enlightenment, and beyond, really had heeded Diderot's explosive words and had radically set about freeing God. In consequence, it could no longer wall God up and define the Divine in the way philosophers like Muirhead wanted. The cat, as they say, was out of the bag.

The absolute freedom of thought in religious matters that Manchester College had long encouraged in its ministers (which Muirhead liked) was passed on in each generation by those same ministers to their local religious communities - like this one - and, by degrees, this meant it became increasingly difficult, and I think now impossible, to create any kind of strong, corporate ideology, for the theology of "elargissez Dieu" is a weak one. Because of this it was inevitable that, as a conventional religious institution, we became a lost cause.

It is very easy indeed to hear this negatively, God knows for many years I have. But twenty-four years of living and carefully thinking within this movement (fourteen of them in the ministry), it increasingly seems to me that our most beautiful and valuable treasure may well lie in our weak theology and that it is this, paradoxically, that may be the strong, cosmopolitan message of religious and inter-religious hope we need to pass on to our world.

Why? Well, in world which in so many places wants, once again, to imprison God (or an understanding of the Divine and the sacred) behind the walls of repressive doctrine, all supported by frightening ideological and theological strength, Diderot's call to "elargissez Dieu" and the inevitably "weak theology" that follows from it, may be precisely the powerful message of hope we need to speak loudly and confidently to our increasingly interconnected, yet hyper-plural world.

Another way of putting this is to borrow an idea from the contemporary sociologist of religion, Ulrich Beck, and suggest this way of proceeding may help to promote a new type of tolerance whose goal is not old-style metaphysical truth but peace (cf. Beck's "A God of One's Own").


With this re-call to "elargissez Dieu" and to peace my address ends today. However, as but a small part of such a diverse liberal religious movement, our problem is how, together, we might be more effectively evangelical about the strength of our "weak theology" and "weak thought". One place this question is faced is at our own Annual General Assembly meetings. This year we were fortunate that four members of our congregation were prepared and able to attend some of these meetings. After the musical offering they will offer you their own thoughts about what they found in the ongoing attempt of our churches to live out the full implications of the call to "elargissez Dieu."


A postscript . . .

After the report back and the congregational bring and share lunch, Susanna and I made our way down to the Clarendon Arms for a nice, quiet pint in the sun. While we were there we were visited by a beautiful robin. I took a photo (below) of what is, surely, a perfect example of a manifestation of the divine outside the walls of a church. That I felt this touch of the divine in a tavern put me in mind of the verse from Fitzgerald's "translation" of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

And this I know: whether the one True Light
Kindle to Love, or Wrath-consume me quite,
One Flash of It within the Tavern caught
Better than in the Temple lost outright.   

Robin at the Clarendon Arms
The Church Garden in the sun after this morning's service

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Pantheisticon - a forgotten eighteenth century liturgy

A couple of days ago I posted something about the "Epicurean Gathering" we held in the church common room on Wednesday. During the course of that evening I mentioned the existence of a pantheistic liturgy devised by John Toland (1670-1722).

I came across him when I did some work on his "Christianity Not Mysterious" (1696) whilst I was studying in Oxford. I particularly enjoyed discovering his "Pantheisticon" of 1720 which includes, in three of its chapters, a wonderful liturgy that I once thought might be fun to try one day just simply to see and feel what it was like to do - a kind of "theological-historical recreation" - rather like Civil War reenactment. Odd though it may seem one can actually learn useful things from this kind of activity. One thing one might learn is whether it actually works! Not least of all because there seems to be some doubt about whether, in fact, it was ever used. Many scholars think it was simply a literary device.

John Toland
For those minded to follow this liturgy up, you can have a great deal of fun over at Librivox where we must thank Alessandro Gagliardi, Anna Simon and Ruth Golding for recording an audio version of the book. In the liturgy itself Anna Simon and Ruth Golding read the text responsorially so you can get a better sense of what might have been like "in action". Of course, this cannot make up for the lack of good company and food and drink that forms such an important part of this liturgy.

In its mix of prayer/meditation, food and conversation it was, of course, a major inspiration for our own Epicurean Gathering held this week.

Anyway, for those interested here's the link to the Librivox recording:

Thursday, 1 May 2014

A second "Epicurean Gathering" and a little bit of it's history

Update 26 June 2014. Please click on this link to go to a page where you will find the most recent revision of the Epicurean Liturgy and also links to all the various posts on this little project to create a modern Epicurean practice. 

Yesterday, nine of us met in the church common room for another enjoyable "Epicurean Gathering" - cooking, eating, meditating and then looking together at Epicurus' "tetrapharmakos" (four part-cure).

Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easily to endure. 

The text we used to guide our conversation was by D. S. Hutchinson which you can get at the link below:

At the end of this post I have also put up just a few introductory links to various helpful sources of things Epicurean.

Anyway, after last night, it seems worth telling here the basic story of how this gathering came about.

It is, however, perhaps worth beginning by briefly noting an important place in which Epicurus appears in the Unitarian tradition. The third American President, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who was himself a Unitarian, said in a letter to William Short in 1819 that "I am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greek and Roman leave to us." In the same letter he wrote: "Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others."

I'm very much with Jefferson on this and the two central examplars for me in my own religious (naturalist) and philosophical life remain Epicurus and Jesus. (Should you be interested, the Smithsonian has produced a beautiful facsimile edition of Jefferson's "Life and Morals of Jesus" - the so-called "Jefferson Bible". It's available from most bookshops). Anyway, back to the story . . .

In 2000 I was very fortunate, if only for a short time, to have been a student of the philosopher, Timothy Sprigge. (It is entirely coincidental, but highly fortuitous, that he was for many years a member of St Mark's Unitarian Church in Edinburgh.) On getting to know him I was particularly struck by his concern to articulate the "religious availability" of certain philosophies - i.e. to see whether they could function for an individual as an actual, practical religion. Although initially I went to him to study the work of Josiah Royce (1855-1916) in the end it was his work on Spinoza (1632-1677) that began increasingly to capture my imagination, not least of all because of the way Timothy made his thinking religiously available to me (see his last book "The God of Metaphysics"). All in all he inspired me in 2008 to try my hand at composing a Spinozistic liturgy and, here in Cambridge, we used it in the evening service for about six months. Alas it never quite seemed to work and, in my opinion, it may be considered a failure, albeit or a very constructive kind. I learnt a lot from the attempt but I leave it to someone other than me to see if it can be done properly, more succinctly and beautifully. But, for the record, here is a link to that service.

However, another religious naturalist philosophy which had interested me since my teens was that of Greek philosopher Epicurus and his Roman follower, the poet Lucretius. (I came across the latter thanks to my passion for A. E. Housman's poetry whom I studied for my 'O' levels). As I spent more and more time with Epicurus and Lucretius - all the while becoming more and more struck by the contemporary relevance of what I found - I began to consider the religious availability of their philosophy. Perhaps something could be done with their work that I couldn't do with Spinoza's.

But it was only in 2011 that I found both the time and the appropriate inspiration to prepare for myself a little liturgy that I thought would work. However, for various reasons, I never got round to trying it out and it so for a couple of years it languished on my hard drive.

Now, here in Cambridge, on many Wednesday evenings throughout the year, we gather to spend a couple of hours together in open conversation about life, the universe and everything. Often the conversation starts (though rarely finishes) with something connected to the theme of the previous Sunday's address and, since I would often speak of Epicurus and Lucretius, their philosophy was, naturally, discussed many times. One evening in February 2013, after a BBC radio programme on Epicurus had been aired, I admitted that, were I able to "start afresh" in religion, I'd probably encourage the creation of a community that met in a fashion akin to that presented by my little Epicurean liturgy. With that thought in mind I published a blog post about the programme and also my liturgy. You can read that here:

On reading this post a couple of the people present that evening were sufficiently interested in the idea to suggest we gave it a go. So, in June 2013, three of us met and actually tried it out. You can read a little about that occasion at the following link.

It was a most enjoyable and fruitful occasion and the two people involved, Dean Reynolds and Lewis Connolly, made the very constructive suggestion that the opening section should involve those attending more explicitly and so a revision of the text into responsorial form was put in place. (This is the text you can find at the top of this post).

As you can see, nearly another year has passed since that first gathering but I'm pleased to say interest in Epicurus, Lucretius and this liturgy remained alive and so I was particularly delighted when a couple of people in the current congregation suggested we hold another another. We were three, but this time we were nine. It makes me ask whether next time we'll be twenty-seven? Unlikely, to be sure, but who knows? Stranger things have happened and, perhaps, something like this might catch on . . .

So, that's the story so far. Please feel free to use the liturgy yourself and/or let me have any thoughts you have either about it, the contemporary relevance of Epicurus' and Lucretius' philosophy, or about other ways we might make it religiously available today.

As promised, below are a few links:

A good, general web resource

Translations of Epicurus' and/or Lucretius:

Two recent, helpful, popular and entertaining, introductory texts: