Sunday, 29 June 2014

The liberal church as prairie schooner (revisited)

A "prairie schooner"
Last week I gave an address in which I explored something of the idea that we best understand what we are doing in this church when we see ourselves as being "curators" of our rich, inherited religious tradition and also when we more confidently embrace our collaborative identity which is, simultaneously (and hand in glove) both Judaeo-Christian and Greco-Roman - an indissoluble mix of the approaches and stances modelled for us by Jesus and Socrates. This mix of Jesus and Socrates reminded me of an address I gave a year and a half ago which begins with a prayer of Socrates' and a promise of Jesus'.Given this, it seemed worth dusting that address off, lightly revising it, and bringing it before you again (the original - considerably less polished version - can be found at this link).


A prayer of Socrates':

“O dear Pan, and all the other gods of this place, grant that I may be beautiful inside. Let all my external possessions be in friendly harmony with what is within. May I consider the wise man rich. As for gold, let me have as much as a moderate man could bear and carry with him” (Plato, Phaedrus 279c).

A promise of Jesus':

“Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Tolstoy’s recasting of Jesus' promise:

“All people worry about the well-being of the flesh, they have loaded up a kind of cart that they could never pull away; they have placed a yoke on themselves which was not designed to fit them. Understand my teaching and follow it, and you will come to know peace and joy in life. I will give you a different yoke and a different cart: spiritual life. Harness yourself to it and you will learn calmness and blessedness from me. Be peaceful and meek in heart and you will find blessedness in your life. Because my teaching is a yoke designed to fit you; fulfilling my teaching is an easy cart to pull and a yoke designed to fit you” (Tolstoy, Leo: The Gospel in Brief, trans. Dustin Condren, Harper Perennial 2011, pp. 49-50)


This address began with me stumbling across Socrates' prayer. I was especially taken with the line in which he asks Pan and the other gods of the place: “As for gold, let me have as much as a moderate man could bear and carry with him” (Phaedrus 279c). His mention of carrying a burden that was bearable and appropriate brought to my mind one of Jesus’ most comforting promises that, unlike other teachers, his yoke was easy, and his burden light (Matthew 11:30).

Although one might be tempted on a first reading to think that these two teachings are not really about quite the same thing, after spending a little time with them, I began feel that, in their different ways, Socrates and Jesus were both trying to gesture towards the same thing, namely, the need to figure out what is the burden appropriate for the task in hand. It's important to try to ascertain because, as Tolstoy's recasting of Jesus teaching helpfully suggests, humanity is prone to loading its cart up with burdens so heavy that we never have any real hope of successfully pulling it away and this means we inevitably place upon ourselves and others a yoke which was never designed to fit us. It seems to me that the current neoliberal inspired consumer lifestyle is just the latest of these, ultimately, crushing burdens.

My thoughts about burdens and their appropriateness or otherwise eventually condensed around the Western movie. (Although, of necessity, in this address I speak in rather general terms I have particularly in mind John Ford's fine, but often over-looked, movie of 1950 called “Wagon Master”. I've added a short Youtube clip from this film at the end of this post).

Like many children of my generation I watched dozens of Westerns whose basic images and story-lines became thoroughly interwoven with my own. As you will be aware many Westerns focus on a group of settlers moving West and the image of their distinctive covered-wagons, “Prairie Schooners”, travelling through a variety of extraordinary, wild landscapes has become become iconic.

Most of these settlers (many of whom were Europeans) were leaving behind something that no longer satisfied them about the old world back east in order to create a better life in the west. Some of them were fleeing religious persecution, some former crimes and misdemeanours, others some simple poverty. Still others were not so much fleeing anything in particular, as simply setting off to find some kind new or greater excitement, fame or fortune, perhaps as gamblers, hunters, gunfighters, bounty-hunters, actors, or prospectors.

The mix of reasons for undertaking such a journey was always highly complex and, in the best Westerns, it is this volatile and unstable mix which provides the raw material and energy that drives along the story. One important thing worth observing is how in the genre's classic period there are far fewer gunfights than you might imagine. When they do occur there is often only one and even then it lasts only a few seconds. Although in the wilderness the potential for violence is ever present the classic Western does not fetishise violence and the gunfight is not the focus of the best films, rather the focus is upon the moral and ethical dynamics that lead up to the moment of violence and then upon the moral and ethical consequences which follow it.

Now, so far I've only been speaking about the people who appear in the Western but a central character in many of them is the landscape of the West itself - the wilderness through which the traveller must pass.

Monument Valley
To be sure nearly all directors realised the straightforward visual appeal of the landscape but the best of them also allowed it to play an absolutely central, narrative role. In their hands the landscape becomes the necessary place where the rules of old world laws and mores of the East not only no longer apply but actually cannot apply here. The sheer alien strangeness of the landscape (whether it is Monument Valley, Utah or the endlessly open and flat prairies of the mid-West) emphasises the fact that the people travelling through it are not acting in their former worlds where old moralities and law are known and in force but somewhere where these things are suspended and/or put radically into doubt. The landscape is the necessary context in which everyone in it - whether the good, the bad or the ugly - must learn anew how best to make the most basic decisions. It's vitally important to see that this wilderness is not that of the hoped for new world but the only place in which such a new world can be formed, where a new and more appropriate morality and law is forged and refined in the heat and friction that exists between the competing, and sometimes conflicting visions, of life that these settlers are bringing with them. It is this process of world-formation that the best Westerns seek to show us occurring.

Prairie landscape
But, before setting out into the wilderness and the creation of a new world every traveller must decide what to take with them and what to leave behind. They have to decide what are for them the appropriate burdens they are to carry - the kind of burdens that will make the whole experience bearable and also ensure their wagon is not so heavy that it cannot be pulled away.

Of course, we’ve all been through a significantly less dramatic versions of this when packing for a simple holiday. How many pairs of socks and undies do we take, how many pairs of jeans, shirts jumpers jackets or shoes? How many, and which, books to pack (a perennial problem of mine - I mean do I really need to take with me everything Wittgenstein wrote just for a week's holiday!), how much food, how much ready cash (Socrates’ gold) to take and, whether or not we are to include the laptop or tablet?

Of course, most of the burdens carried in the prairie schooner consisted of food, clothing, tools and gold. But you would often find other burdens not so obviously necessary, uplifting, things like a girl’s pretty dress, a boy’s Sunday best, a guitar or harmonica. Then there were also to be found certain, more intangible, spiritual, religious, moral and ethical burdens. In the genre of the Western this latter burden is physically symbolised primarily by the Biblical text, often in the form of a heavy, black leather bound volume and in countless Westerns the words of the Bible are regularly heard under the open skies by a graveside, at mealtimes, in Sunday morning in camp and in the everyday speech of those in the wagon train. The words of the Bible are borne by the settlers as an appropriate burden because they are felt continually to give them sufficient spiritual strength and moral direction in a world often otherwise turned wholly upside down.

The question throughout is not whether there are burdens from our old world to be carried forward - there always are - but rather it is how do we ascertain that the burdens we are to carry with us on this journey are appropriate or not? We must also constantly ensure that we have loaded up the wagon in a way such that we can, in fact, continue to pull it away and are, therefore, taking up a yoke that is designed to fit us.

At this point we may return from the Western and ask ourselves what has this got to do with us as a liberal religious community?

Well, we may begin by observing that each of us here today will be able to tell a story about how we came to this church community because we felt that the old ways of doing religion back “east” were simply not working. So, we asked around for, or by luck or grace simply stumbled upon, this liberal church which openly recognises the need to “go west’ into a new wilderness toforge a new and good life. To join this kind of church is, then, to climb aboard a kind of prairie schooner. Now, if this analogy is correct (enough) it seems clear to me that one of our tasks from time to time is together to reflect upon what burdens we carry seem still to be appropriate and what are not and which, therefore, should be left behind.

However, it's important to realise that discerning our appropriate burden is always an ongoing activity. The unfolding journey together through an actual landscape (whether that is a physical, cultural, intellectual and/or spiritual landscape) is what will show us, as it did to the first settlers, what is now really appropriate to our journey and what is not.

In the four-hundred and fifty years of our religious movement's joinery of faith some things we initially took on board our prairie schooner have stayed on board whilst other things have been let go, still others have been brought on board. (In particular it is worth specifically noticing our willingness to take on board certain aspects of the Greco-Roman tradition which has bequeathed us the collaborative Christian and Socratic identity I mentioned last week).

These things have been done because our journey together has helped us see what, at present, is appropriate and which we are minded to call “light” burdens we are willing to carry. I do not doubt that at some point certain things we deem appropriate today will, one day come to feel to us inappropriate and heavy and they will be let go.

But, so far, I've said nothing about the wild landscape through which our own prairie schooner is presently journeying. It is clearly not the desert of Monument Valley, nor the open prairie, but it is one that in many ways is at least one as alien, strange and, sometimes, as threatening. Our current cultural landscape is often felt by many of us to be as alienating, disorientating, unmapped and wild as anything filmed by John Ford. So many of our old moral, ethical, legal, cultural, political, scientific, philosophical and religious certainties have just disappeared from sight and we know that we are in an increasingly wild and lawless place. This is the condition of “normal nihilism” about which I have spoken a number of times before (see for example here). This landscape cannot be ignored or avoided, we have to live and travel through it if we are to bring about a new world.

Here we can take heart from the visionary promise contained in the classic Western which is that only by traversing this dangerous, alien and alienating, landscape can we hope to forge new and genuinely shared moralities and practices appropriate for our own (highly plural) world and condition.

And, lastly, as every settler and refugee knows - on this kind of world shaping journey you can only take with you an appropriate burden, i.e. you only carry and keep what you really, really, really need and it is only those who successfully discern what this is will be able to pull their wagons away and make it to the end of the trail. Once there, only the really important things, the things we found to be truly appropriate, whose burden we found light and whose yoke was easy, will be with us on our first day in the new world.

Friday, 27 June 2014

REBOP - Playing at Hadleigh Jazz Club on Saturday 28 June @ 8pm

This Saturday, 28 June 2014, one of the bands I play with,  REBOP, is playing at Hadleigh Jazz Club in Suffolk (details below). It starts at 8pm, tickets £12. If you'd like to come do contact the club at the number below just to check if any tickets are left.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

A Third Epicurean Gathering

Last night at the Memorial (Unitarian) Church we held our third Epicurean Gathering, as part of an ongoing experiment in how one might actually engage in some active form of Epicurean life in the present day rather than just talk about it in an academic, detached fashion. There's a lot of talk "out there" about the relevance of Epicurus/Lucretius's philosophy - much of it excellent - but there seems to be a paucity of models available to help people into an actual practice among a community of like-minded people. This is just one experimental possibility - please feel free to use this if it's helpful in anyway and/or to let me know of any other similar projects on the go.

I have added below a further tidied up liturgy (mostly just making it typographically clearer than earlier versions), a link to the introductory text that sets has been setting our conversation off and a link to the short mindfulness meditation by Judith Day that we have been using.

Below these are links to earlier blogposts about the history of this little experiments and to earlier events and, lastly, below you will find some additional links to various helpful sites/books/podcasts.

Earlier blog posts:

A good, general web resource

Translations of Epicurus' and/or Lucretius:

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

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen - Kierkegaard comes to wonderful, wonderful Cambridgeshire

Headtube badge on my Copenhagen Pedersen bicycle
Like many teenagers passionately interested in religion I became captivated early on by the work of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). His passion for the individual and his recognition that nothing was more dreadful than the thought of losing "the inmost and holiest thing of all in a man, the unifying power of personality" (Either/Or, II:135) was something that resonated extraordinarily strongly in the heart of a youngster growing up in an environment that wanted me to conform to certain middle-class, consumerist norms. I continued to read him into my mid-twenties and particularly valued a collection called "A Kierkegaard Reader: Texts & Narratives" edited by Roger Poole and Henrik Stangerup.

Anyway, a career in jazz and rock intervened as did a shift of interest towards the people regular readers of this blog will know I particularly admire, Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Bloch and Vattimo. The upshot being that, since at least 1990, Kierkegaard's works have languished unread on my bookshelves. And then, and then . . .

In a bookshop here in Cambridge, just a couple of weeks ago, in David's Bookshop I stumbled by chance across a copy of "Wilderness and the Heart - Henry Bugbee's Philosophy of Place, Presence and Memory" by Edward F. Mooney. (I wrote a short post about discovering Bugbee here). This led me to look at some other things Mooney had written and I quickly discovered that he is best known for his work on Kierkegaard. Sufficiently intrigued (and delighted) by his writing about Bugbee, I decided to get hold of a couple of his books on Kierkegaard:

On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemics, Lost Intimacy, and Time

Excursions with Kierkegaard: Others, Goods, Death, and Final Faith 

The Pedersen near Over
I have to say that it's been an astonishing and exciting revelation to me. Thanks to the wonderful way Mooney interprets and presents Kierkegaard's basic approach all of a sudden, and quite unexpectedly, I find Kierkegaard is off the shelf and back in my head, heart and saddlebag. (Here's a review of "Excursions with Kierkegaard" by Jeffrey Hanson that echoes my enthusiastic response to Mooney's take on on K).

Mention of my saddlebag brings me to the end of this post because, given that Kierkegaard was born, lived and worked in Copenhagen his whole life it seemed entirely appropriate that, yesterday (Monday), when I went out for a ride out to Fen Drayton Lakes and then back round through Willingham (to visit Belsar's Hill) and Rampton, I had to go on my beloved Dursley (Copenhagen) Pedersen bicycle - made in Copenhagen (as the photo at the top of the page reveals). In my saddlebag on this excursion into the sunny Cambridgeshire countryside (thankfully avoiding at the end a fairly intense thunderstorm) was, you might have guessed, Mooney's "Excursions with Kierkegaard" some of which I read lying in the shade by Fen Drayton Lakes whilst eating my sandwiches and drinking a flask of tea. Marvellous, simply marvellous. Here are a few photos I took along the way.

Fen Drayton Lakes where I had lunch
Over Parish Church
The road from Over to Willingham
The landscape near Willingham - storm clouds gathering
Rooks in field near Rampton
The storm gets closer - Rampton
Boathouses near Clayhithe
River Cam near Clayhithe

Sunday, 22 June 2014

"Curation" and "collaborative identity" - two helpful ideas for thecontemporary liberal church

Happisburgh Lighthouse, Norfolk
There is an old proverb which says that at the foot of a lighthouse it is always dark. It reveals something of what Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) called "the darkness of the lived moment."

Sometimes, however, we are fortunate to encounter other lights that illuminate the darkness of our own lived moment and this, in turn, can help bring something of our present moment sufficiently into view so we can authentically interrogate, critique and take it up.

Sometimes, of course, that which is revealed by another's light is not entirely pleasant. For example, a couple of times in the past visitors have helped us see that, despite believing we were a model liberal, welcoming and open-minded congregation we were, in fact, sometimes not quite all those things. For those visitors' graceful, challenging and redemptive lights, we have cause to be profoundly grateful. Sometimes, however, that which is revealed by another's light can be surprisingly exciting and encouraging. Today I'm pleased to bring you something seen of this latter kind.

Following the very generous donation we received at the beginning of the year, together we began to engage in a necessary process of self-reflection to help us better see who we are, what we are about, and what we might want to do both in the near-term and the future. This process was began as a necessary preliminary to the preparation of a new website because, after all, we want, to the best of our ability, to make sure we present to the world a correct (enough), and truthful (enough), expression of who we are.

It was Julian Holloway who, attracted by the light shining from our lighthouse, was able to shine another light into the darkness at the foot of our edifice and illuminate for us certain key things we were doing but which we had not yet been able fully to see and consciously articulate. These were offered to you in the form of the bullet points I put in my most recent letter in the newsletter. I am pleased to report that this collaborative articulation of what we are about has, so far anyway, been very well-received by members - including our minister emeritus, Frank Walker. These points have, since then, continued to be refined and reordered such that they read as follows:

What the Memorial (Unitarian) Church offers:
  • A liberal Christian tradition that is in line with contemporary, secular culture.
  • Opportunities to explore a wide body of philosophy as inspiration for living our lives well.
  • Access to the teaching of the human Jesus.
  • The freedom to change as our understanding of the natural world and society grows.

  • The means to build moral strength - courage and conscience.
  • The means to recognise Grace in our lives.
  • Development of intellectual and spiritual resilience for times of trouble.
  • A grateful understanding, rooted in science, of our place in nature.
  • Access to confidential and kindly counsel in times of need.
  • Practices of contemplation, prayer, meditation and study.

  • A clear-eyed and open-minded community of fellow travellers.
  • The Christian Year as the basic framework for our personal, family and congregational life.
  • Rites of passage that are focussed fully on the people involved.

Here, there is only one orthodoxy: 
a sincere desire to see how the world is and understand our place in it.

It was something that Julian said about this reordering that leads me now into the substantive body of this address, namely, that, although they were OK in their original form they clearly needed a bit of "curation".

His use of the word "curation" resonated very, very strongly with me because of another light that has recently been shone at the foot of my own and, by extension, our own lighthouse. It is a light which I feel helpfully illuminates something of what we seem to be trying to do here in this unusual church community.

This light is being shone by the work of a writer and philosopher, Edward F. Mooney, who is best known for having written, with great insight, eloquence and appropriate passion about, specifically, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) (see for example here and here) and, more generally, about the need to recover intimacy and the personal in philosophy. In the latter sphere his writing has often centred, not only on Kierkegaard, but upon Henry Bugbee (1915-1999), Stanley Cavell (b. 1926) and one of my own heroes, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) (see here).

In our first reading (these readings can be found at the end of this post) we heard Mooney remind us that "the artful critic, like the curator of invaluable archives or someone husbanding objects of great cultural worth, can bring that plenitude out and into life, saving it from extinction or from an only paltry half-life."

As a community we are ourselves the inheritors of a great collection - not the only great collection in the world, of course, but still, I think, a truly great and invaluable one - which our General Assembly Object calls the "liberal Christian tradition".

All the great collections in the world know that they cannot have on display, all the time, everything they contain. Consequently they have a duty to curate what they hold so as to bring out into life, to the best of their ability, their collection's "plenitude" so as to save it from "extinction or from an only paltry half-life". It's an always ongoing task. Even though every great collection has, what we might call a core, foundational set of objects - those which give it an initial recognisable, individual identity, shape and flavour - the full "identity" of every collection in truth remains capable of an almost infinite variation, presentation and interpretation. The curators of such great collections are constantly called upon and able, in the manner encouraged by Jesus, to bring out of their treasure what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52) and, thanks to this, an always astonishing plenitude of meaning is helped to pour forth into the world which can, at its best, help enhance and enrich our understanding of, and ability to live, the good life appropriate to our own age.

Likewise, we, too, need to take care and time to curate objects in our tradition's collection (canon is perhaps better?) so as to bring out something of their plenitude and into life, thus saving them from extinction or from an only paltry half-life. Like the curators of every great collection we, too, seek to bring before the world those things which we feel can help people lead richer and more fulfilled lives in the here and now.

It seems to me that the process we have just gone through as a community to understand ourselves better has been just such a curation. We have tried to bring out from our treasure house things both new and old that we feel can can speak meaningfully (and truthfully) to our present life. Of course, it's not the only possible way to curate our collection but it's the one we have come up with at this particular moment in our corporate life.

Another, related, thing struck me as I thought through all this. As I have already intimated, every great collection's recognisable identity is, of necessity, what we might call a collaborative one. So, for example, although when we think of the British Museum today we might immediately centre on the extraordinary room holding the "Elgin Marbles" - The Parthenon Sculptures from the Acropolis of Athens - it is clearly ridiculous to say that, alone, this major set of objects gives the museum its true, distinctive identity. No! It's a constantly evolving collaborative identity involving every part of the collection as it is lovingly curated always to bring forth something more of its plenitude. We can say something similar in relation to, say, the Louvre and the "Mona Lisa".

Now, a couple of years ago I introduced you to what I think is an important (and unjustly forgotten) book by the Unitarian minister and theologian John F. Hayward (1918-2012) who taught at the University of Chicago and then Meadville Lombard - "Existentialism and Religious Liberalism" (Beacon Press, 1962).

Even though he did not give it this name he was acutely aware of "collaborative identity" and, even as he continually encouraged members of our congregations - and in particular our ministers - to continue to learn from and teach the Bible, especially its wisdom literature, the call of the Hebrew prophets to social justice, and the story of Jesus, he was also quite explicit in saying that:

"Although we have not inherited directly from Greece any modes of worship which we can naturally and easily assume, we have her art, her drama and literature as a reminder of her profound influence on all our history and thought patterns. Liberal churchmen should carefully inject into the activity of the church the varied legacy of classical Greece, her celebration of natural beauty, her rationalism, her sense for the tragic, and her stoical courage" (p. 112)

It is clear that Hayward saw our identity as a liberal church as being in some way a collaborative one - one which was simultaneously, hand in glove, Judaeo-Christian and Greek. (Our occasional Epicurean Gatherings are but one example of how here we have tried to take him at his word.)

It's now time to remind you, as our second reading revealed (see below), that in the previous few paragraphs, I've been silently quoting Edward Mooney in talking about "collaborative identity" This is something he developed in connection with his work on Kierkegaard. He told me that in his book, "On Søren Kierkegaard", he wanted to help people into a consideration of Kierkegaard that was "as far away as possible from an image of Kierkegaard as a fanatic, unreasoning Christian" - a popular image which, alas, as many of you will know can still be quite hard to overcome. In consequence, Mooney began with something Kierkegaard had said, namely, that he thought his 'task' had always been Socratic. Mooney then went on "to reconstruct how one could have a Socrates streak and a Jesus streak" which required "getting a fix on religion that was flexible enough to make Socrates quite religious - (as well as an interrogator and critic)."

Mooney said that, although the "idea of 'collaborative identity' came rather late in the game", once he had "hit on it, it seemed very intuitive, that we have 'pictures' of people we admire within us, different pictures, yet they needn't clash and we don't need to pick one over the other - there can be 'collaboration,' like the collaboration among members of a string trio or quartet."

This is, I think, a very powerful and beautiful image that immediately struck me as articulating admirably clearly something that we (I) have been struggling to articulate here in our attempt to make real Hayward's vision of a liberal church that confidently and simultaneously shows its love and admiration for Jesus and for Greek thought in general, and Socrates in particular.

So, to conclude, may I be so bold as to suggest that I think it's worth us spending some time in the coming months thinking through the idea that we might best serve the liberal church by coming to understand ourselves as curators, and that it is only through our own careful and loving curations of our inherited tradition that we are, ourselves, capable of making essays in good living and intellectual love that can bring with them a certain kind of real salvation.

May I also suggest that we take time further to explore the idea that Kierkegaard may well turn out to be a very good (and perhaps for some us, unexpected) model for the liberal church to consider as we continue our attempt to create the collaborative identity spoken of by John Hayward and bring about something that Kierkegaard also desired, a life both fully Christian and fully Socratic.



Ortega calls his Meditations on Quixote "essays in Intellectual love." As he puts it "[these essays] . . . have no informative value whatever, they are not summaries, either - they are rather what a humanist of the seventeenth century would have called salvations." But what can we, of the twenty-first century, make of the idea that essays can be salvations? Ortega writes that a salvation - for example, his salvations of Don Quixote - will take up "a man, a book, a picture, a landscape, an error, a sorrow and then seek to carry it by the shortest route to its fullest significance."
          We should expect, then, that some essays are expressions of love, a kind of preservative love, a love that cares for persons and things and gives them life. Such essays can carry out a generous, even pious criticism or elaboration that brings a theme or person or object to its next and fuller meaning. Without such attentive care, fields of significance we now take for granted fall into disuse, decay. Like ill-treated living things, they slowly die, or stay fallow, awaiting summer's rain and seeding. Texts or paintings, trees or figures from our past, can carry undiscovered plenitudes. The artful critic, like the curator of invaluable archives or someone husbanding objects of great cultural worth, can bring that plenitude out and into life, saving it from extinction or from an only paltry half-life.

In a late notebook Kierkegaard said: “The only analogy I have for what I am doing is Socrates. My task is the Socratic task of revising the definition of what it means to be a Christian. Therefore I do not call myself a Christian (keeping the ideal free), but I make it plain that nobody else is either.” (Trans. George Pattison).

[Kierkegard said] his vocation . . . has been "the Socratic task of revising the definition of what it means do be a Christian."  This should startle us in at least two ways.
          First, how could Kierkegaard, an ordinary parishioner, presume to go about altering or amending a doctrinal definition of the Christian faith? That would be the exclusive prerogative of `ecclesiastical authorities. Yet the Socratic task is to disabuse others of untruth, so to revise a definition might mean to unseat a going definition, to deflate a current assumption. If the conventional definition reads, "To be a Christian is to be born in a Christian country and attend church at least once," then that definition needs revision. Kierkegaard-Socrates could mock and deflate and so "revise" a mistaken definition without providing a replacement. This reading gives us a Kierkegaard-Socrates concerned to expose untruths, to attack pride, to mock the presumption to intellectual mastery. He unsettles anyone who remains complacent in a commonplace conceptual bed.
          A space less cluttered by shoddy presumptions permits a better definition of Christianity to appear - in some shape or form. Perhaps Kierkegaard does more than expose bad definitions. But if he remains true to his Socratic ignorance, an emerging positive definition can't shape up as a verbal formulation or anything like a dictionary or encyclopedia entry for "Christianity." Is there another way one could be revising the definition of what it means to be a Christian? Potters and sculptors give their clay definition. That's not lexical revision. Perhaps a "revised definition" of what it means to be a Christian means giving a better shape to the contours of the unfolding character or way of life we'd want to call "Christian." A definition so construed is a narrative, a life defined through narrative, whose living has a narrative structure. As we imagine a painter giving better definition to an elusive countenance before her, so Kierkegaard would give better shape and contour to the shifting countenance of an elusive Christian life. The way Plato attends to the Socratic life, and the way the Gospels attend to the Christian life, so Kierkegaard could attend to Gospel and Platonic life-narratives (as well as the cautionary life-narratives of Faust or Don Juan). Taking up this task of revising a definition would amount to sketching out a collaborative Socratic-Christian identity.

[. . .]

There is textural evidence – I think it’s decisive – that Kierkegaard takes his Christian and Socratic identities to be linked like hand in glove in sub-zero weather. Lacking a glove, the hand is useless; lacking a hand, the glove is useless. Ranking their comparative indispensability makes no sense at all. Since neither Christ nor Socrates is dispensable, both are indispensable.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Chris Ingham Quartet play the music of Hoagy Carmichael, Headhunters Jazz Club, Bury St Edmunds, Friday 20th June, 8pm

Just a quick reminder that The Chris Ingham Quartet (in which I play bass) is performing at the Headhunters Jazz Club, Bury St Edmunds this Friday 20 June 2014. Tickets £10, doors open 7.30pm with music from 8pm. We will be playing material from our recent CD, "Hoagy".

Here's the most recent review of the CD in Jazz Journal by Dave Gelly,

JAZZ JOURNAL Hoagy review
June 2014
Even the cover of this album is a classy product - cunningly disguised to give the appearance of a well-thumbed book, slightly foxed at the edges. Inside are 15 of Hoagy Carmichael's best-known songs, plus Dear Bix, Dave Frishberg's little gem which could almost be the work of the Old Music Master himself.
        It's hard to believe that Hoagy rarely wrote the lyrics of his songs. When he sings them, the words sounds so Hoagy-ish, with their weird, potent mixture of aching nostalgia and whimsy, and they fit the melodies so well that one assumes they must be the work of one mind. Stranger still, some of the most Hoagy-ish of all, such as Memphis In June, have words by Paul Francis Webster, a lyricist famous for his willingness to turn his hand to just about anything. Another regular collaborator was Johnny Mercer, which is far less surprising.
        Anyway, the contents amply fulfil the promise of the cover. Not only does Chris Ingham sing with the requisite easy grace, he's a very good pianist too, with a crisp, light touch and plenty of the right kind of swing. Paul Higgs, the ex-NYJO trumpeter who went on to become a successful composer of film, TV and theatre scores, sounds so right for the part that I went back and checked Bix's solo on Rivereboat Shuffle to make sure Paul wasn't playing a transcription. He wasn't. Similarly, Andrew Brown and Russell Morgan play in perfect stylistic accord, especially Brown's solo accomaniment to the voice in Baltimore Oriole.
        I shall keep this elegant production next to In Hoagland, by Georgie Fame and Annie Ross. That's more than 30 years old now. It was about time it had a worthy successor.

featuring Paul Higgs trumpet


"One of Britain's best singer-pianists...sophisticated tribute...charming work" **** JACK MASSARIK -LONDON EVENING STANDARD

“Classy product…with plenty of the right kind of swing” **** DAVE GELLY - JAZZ JOURNAL

“Hits the sweet spot every time” **** GARRY BOOTH - BBC MUSIC

“Paul Higgs…a gorgeous tone, unflagging inspiration” DIGBY FAIRWEATHER - JAZZ RAG

 Outstanding quartet...inspired solo forays...nifty and concise arrangements...a fine delectation of Hoagy delights conveyed masterfullyFRANK GRIFFITH - LONDON JAZZ NEWS 

“Mighty fine piano... 'Dear Bix' is one of the most emotional pieces I've ever listened to...perfect outstanding CD" BEBOP SPOKEN HERE

A swinging evening packed with the songs and stories of one of America’s most enduring and endearing songwriters. Wry, wise, sentimental, down-home and sophisticated, Hoagy Carmichael’s songs are beloved for their warmth, wit and melodic beauty. Shot through with the hot jazz style of Hoagy's friend, legendary cornettist Bix Beiderbecke, this joyful celebration of the Old Music Master features tracks from the Chris Ingham Quartet’s acclaimed CD Hoagy including well-loved hits (Stardust, How Little We Know, Georgia On My Mind, Skylark, Ole Buttermilk Sky, Lazy Bones, et al) alongside obscure nuggets and delightful curiosities from Hoagy’s rich and varied songbook.

An excellent night by any criteria…the music was of the highest calibre...highly informative and entertaining 

Monday, 16 June 2014

"There's A Place" and "Imagine" - What we learn from John Lennon's change of world-view - that we must love one another or die

The five bar gate overlooking Shobrooke
I'm sure you the phenomenon. You are out for a quiet walk when a song suddenly pops into your head for no obvious reason. As it goes round in your head you wonder why on earth you're singing that particular song?

Recently, on a long quiet walk whilst in Devon, I stopped to lean on a five-barred gate at the top of a hill to look south-west across a low, sunny valley, to the village of Shobrooke when, in quick succession, two songs arrived in my head, John Lennon and Paul McCartney's song, "There's a Place", from the first Beatle LP (Please, Please Me), and John Lennon's big solo hit from 1971, "Imagine." Why? As I walked back through the woods to the cottage where Susanna and I were staying I tried my hand at crafting a helpful enough answer.

Bill Ander's Earthrise photo from Apollo 8
Although on that hill I was at no great height it was possible to see, or at least get a real sense of, the curvature of the earth upon which we spin our jewelled way through the darkness space. I realised that I had almost sensed this without being fully conscious of it because, since Bill Anders took his, not quite every-day holiday snap of the earth as he and his comrades in Apollo 8 rounded the moon and began to head again for home on December 24, 1968, knowledge of our planetary condition has become part of the everyday background given of every child. We all now simply know that we live upon an extraordinary globe floating through the darkness of space.

Although we hardly comment on this today, this knowledge was not always so everyday. Startlingly, it was not even fully obvious to the astronauts of Apollo 8 until after launch. That this was so was revealed when, as Anders memorably said of that mission, "We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth". Thanks to their brave and adventurous journeying, this picture of our home planet, for all its awesome wondrousness, is now as familiar to us all as a picture of 'home' as is, to me, a picture of the street where I live in Cambridge.

It was as I finished this thought that "There's a Place" came into my head:

There is a place
Where I can go
When I feel low
When I feel blue
And it's my mind
And there's no time when I'm alone

I think of you
And things you do
Go 'round my head
The things you said
Like "I love only you"

In my mind there's no sorrow
Don't you know that it's so
There'll be no sad tomorrow
Don't you know that it's so

Now, you need to know that I'm a pretty committed Beatle fan and so, for better or worse, I carry around in my head a lot of extra information about their songs. The important and relevant extra information connected with "There's a Place" is that it was inspired by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's song, "Somewhere (There's a Place)", from West Side StoryBernstein and Sondheim were highly sophisticated composers and Paul McCartney recalls that their sophistication inspired both him and Lennon to be a little more adventurous in their own song-writing. McCartney recalls that "the place [in their own song] was in the mind, rather than round the back of the stairs for a kiss and a cuddle. This was the difference with what we were writing: we were getting a bit more cerebral" (Barry Miles, "Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now", Secker & Warburg, 1997, p. 95).

As the song ran through my head I recalled McCartney's words and was struck by the fact that, in 1962/1963, this inward turn towards the mind or some other ideal realm in order to find true solace and security, was very much an expression of a world-view that was already seriously beginning to lose its absolute hold over many people within Western culture. However, in this Lennon and McCartney song they reflect well our culture's old background and the essentially Christian Platonic, cerebral idea that our true home is not to be found in this earthly place, where we so often feel "blue, "low" and "alone", but "up there" in some timeless, safe "place" where "there's no sorrow", "no sad tomorrow", - in nothing less, of course, than "heaven above".

As "There's a Place" finished, I was surprised that it was so quickly followed in my imagination by Lennon's song, "Imagine":

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

The change of world-view displayed by Lennon is, I think, striking. Whilst another place is still clearly being referenced - namely, the better world Lennon is imagining is possible - it is clear that this other place is not to be found in his mind or, by extension in God's heaven above or even in Plato's more cerebral ideal forms, it is going to be found, or made, right here on earth, amongst the people "living for today". Lennon is, therefore, still seeing a kind of another world but here, a decade later, it is not so much really "another" world as it is "this" natural world seen differently.

I do not think that it is entirely accidental that "There's a Place" and "Imagine" bookend the year 1968 and Bill Anders' Earthrise photo. In the West during the nineteen-sixties human religious and spiritual self-understanding was going through an extraordinary period of change and one of the things that was clearly changing was our idea of God.

Don't forget that in 1963, the year "There's a Place" was released, John Robinson, the Bishop of Woolwich, published his now famous and influential book, "Honest to God." This book was controversial even before its publication because an interview in the Observer newspaper with Robinson bore the striking and, to many, shocking headline, "Our Image of God Must Go" (17 March 1963) [Please Please Me was, incidentally, released on 22 March 1963]. The book's basic contention was, as many of you will remember, that having rejected the idea of 'God up there', modern secular people need to recognize that the idea of 'God out there' is also an outdated simplification of the nature of divinity. Instead, Christians should take their cue from the existentialist theology of theologians like Paul Tillich and consider God to be 'the ground of our being' (cf wiki article on Honest to God).

During this period old religious beliefs and certainties had crumbled to such a degree such that it became possible for Lennon to say in a 1966 interview something which, even just a few years before, would have been utterly unimaginable and forbidden. He said:

"Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first—rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."

Of course Lennon, as was his wont, somewhat overstates things here (but not by much I think) - and he got into a great deal of trouble for saying it, But I quote him here because it helps us see how quickly the world - and, therefore, also Lennon - was changing its view of God and the world.

Today we can see that the world of 1962 and the writing and recording of "There's a Place" was not even the world of 1963 and the publication of "Honest to God" and release of the Beatles' first LP. Remember Philip Larkin's (1922-1985) wonderful observation of this fact in his poem, "Annus Mirabilis":

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

We can also see that the world of 1966, and Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" quote, was not the same as that of 1968 after our first shared view of planet earth hanging there in space. Lennon's song "Imagine", without it's heaven above is, surely, a song that speaks from out of this new, world view.

His song clearly played its part in helping many of us begin to focus ever more keenly on the fact that, if we truly want to experience a place where "there's no sorrow", where there's "no sad tomorrow" - at least none of the unnecessary sorrows and sad tomorrows willfully caused by human stupidity, hate and brutality - then this was not going to come to pass either by retreating into our minds or into some transcendent, heavenly place with a far-away God, but only in so far as we kept our feet firmly on the ground and began to work towards making this possible in this place, right here and now, on the good planet earth.

It is important, I think, to realise that Lennon did not see this song as being anti-religion per se, so much as being anti all dogmatic, totalising religion; of the more peaceful world he was dreaming about, he once eloquently said:

"If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion — not without religion but without this my God-isbigger-than-your-God thing — then it [i.e. what the song hopes for] can be true" (ref. here).

Lennon seems to have seen that if we are going to make this world a genuinely better one then one thing we most certainly must get rid of is the dangerous religious hubris that is so often promulgated by dogmatic monotheism which is the classic expression of the idea that "my one God is bigger than your God". This totalising idea - copied by, of course, certain political mono-atheisms (such as Nazism and Soviet Communism) - has, over the centuries, done, and continues to do, more than almost any other idea to ensure that all around our home planet there remains both great "sorrow" and almost countless numbers of "sad tomorrows". (The extremely brutal group ISIS in Iraq that we are hearing about in the news at the moment is just one of the most recent incarnations of a totalising religious and political monotheism.)

So, as I came down from that Devon hill I found myself comforted by the thought - though you may say I'm a dreamer - that there *is* a place, where I can go, when I feel low, when I feel blue. But it is not in my mind, it is not in heaven above with the classical God of monotheism, No! It's on this hillside in the natural world, it's with the people I love, my wife, family and friends, it's with my neigbours (who Jesus reminds us must include even our enemies) in every village, town and city across our home planet. It's here, too, I know, in this church community I share with you, full of those still willing to dream and where I know "I'm not the only one."

Once, when Susanna and I were walking in the Lake District around Wasdale Head we stopped into the small church there (the smallest in England they say) and came across some lettering in a single pane of glass quoting the psalmist who said that he was going to "lift up his eyes unto the hills" from when would come his strength and help in the form of a single, supernatural God from on high, the "Lord who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 121:1).

I realised that the "strength" which came down for me from this Devon hill was no longer that believed in by the Psalmist but, instead, it was nothing less than the strength of the natural hill itself (or in a "God" that is Nature and a Nature that is "God") which helped me to see more clearly than I had before how, on this shared home planet (with no hell below us and above us only sky), that we are truly all in this together and that, as Auden realised in his poem, "September 1, 1939", "We must love one another or die."

This same poem ends as follows:

May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

It seems to me that Lennon, in what is, perhaps, his most famous song, clearly showed us such an "affirming flame". May we, in this church community, carry this forward better to light and warm this beautiful world of ours, our common home.


Friday, 13 June 2014

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Walking and thinking some more with Henry Bugbee

Frank preaching in Ipswich two years ago
In my last blog post I pointed readers towards the work of Henry Bugbee found in his book "The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form".  I came across Bugbee's extraordinary book thanks to a chance stumble upon a companion volume edited by Edward F. Mooney called "Wilderness and the Heart - Henry Bugbee's Philosophy of Place, Presence and Memory". This graceful event has suddenly opened up for me a previously unknown, rich and exciting seam of thinking, writing and living that seems highly relevant to the kind of liberal religious community I hope is being created here at the Cambridge Church where I am privileged to be minister. Having done a little more research and reading around this subject this week I can particularly recommend readers to take a look at Mooney's "Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell"

I was fortunate to able to spend a little more time than usual last week reading Bugbee et. al. because last Sunday was my colleague, the Revd Frank Walker's 80th birthday - Happy Birthday Frank! Frank is the minister emeritus of the Cambridge Church and it was a genuine delight to have him conduct the service, give the sermon and then for the about ninety of us present to retire to the church hall for a splendid birthday buffet.

For me the first beneficial side-effect of this splendid and happy occasion was that I did not have to write a sermon myself - hence the extra time for reading. The second beneficial side-effect was that this reading gifted me with some rich and provocative ideas that I could take with me into the countryside as I walked along the Roman Road and on Magog Down under some beautiful, sunny, early summer skies on Monday and Tuesday.

In the coming weeks I have no doubt that I will be bringing some of the fruits of this before you for your consideration but, until then, I just add here a few photos that I took while I walked.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Henry Bugbee - an atheistic mysticism, free of mythical trappings

Henry Bugbee (1915-1999)
On Tuesday morning I found myself desperate to go out for a long walk. This feeling regularly comes upon me but it was particularly strong on this occasion because over the previous couple of days I'd been reading Henry Bugbee's "The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form" and also a companion volume to this book, "Wilderness and the Heart - Henry Bugbee's Philosophy of Place, Presence and Memory". Here's the pertinent passage:

During my years of graduate study before the war I studied philosophy in the classroom and at a desk, but my philosophy took shape mainly on foot. It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely while walking, but through walking that was essentially a meditation of the place. And the balance in which I weighed ideas I was studying was always that established in the experience of walking in the place. I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified by racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality (The Inward Morning, p. 139).

As Daniel W. Conway says of this:

Walking is not merely a calisthenic propaedeutic to the heroic labors of philosophizing. Rather, walking functions as the engine of immersion, which enables him to take the phenomenological measure of the wild he temporarily inhabits (Wilderness and the Heart, p. 6).

Like Bugbee, and Thoreau before him, I feel have done my best philosophizing whilst walking and on Tuesday I needed to continue seriously to think through what is becoming increasingly important to me - namely, how to move towards and express a completely naturalistic, secular religion - something about which I spoke on Sunday. Bugbee is proving to be a great help in this but, without actually being myself immersed in nature as I think about it, it is obvious to me that any responses which show up are not going to be of the appropriate kind. I need to be out there, immersed in nature. Of course, I realise that the wilderness that surrounds Cambridge is hardly the kind of wilderness which surrounds Missoula (where Bugbee lived and worked) but one has to take whatever kind of 'wild' one has, so I headed out to Wandlebury and on to the Roman Road. As I thought and walked, walked and thought, I also took, as always, a few photos and add them here. But, before we get to them. Here is W. V. Quine's short piece entitled "In Celebration of Henry Bugbee":
Henry came to Harvard in 1947 for five years as assistant professor. Thirty-seven years later, in The Time of My Life, I described him as "lean, contemplative, and best visualized in leather jacket with pipe, rod, reel, and creel. He had a mystical sense of the poetry of being."
          Henry is the ultimate exemplar of the examined life. He walks and talks slowly and thoughtfully, for he is immersed - a Bugbee word - in the wonders of the specious present. The Inward Morning, true to form, is a day-by-day compilation of his philosophical reflections, each fresh that day. His thoughts conform to the discreetness of the concrete, eschewing the factitious continuity of abstraction. His is an atheistic mysticism, free of mythical trappings. Like mystics before him, he is drawn to the mountains and wilderness. In and about Missoula he found the ideal blend of academe and wilderness, and after some forty years I made my way there as Henry Bugbee Lecturer.
          He was the authentic Henry Bugbee for all his years, and we walked and talked along the banks of a trout stream flanked by the Rockies and the Bitter Roots in their autumn splendor ((Wilderness and the Heart, p. vii)