Tuesday, 29 July 2014

". . . the readiness to receive is all. Without that what can be given?" — A summer cycle ride with Bugbee and Beethoven

The Raleigh Superbe in Babraham Park
Today I took the Raleigh Superbe out for a spin up to Wandlebury, along the Roman Road,  down to Babraham (where I stopped at the George Inn for a pint of shandy) and then back through the park to Stapleford, Magog Down and then home.

I had two particular things on my mind as I set off. The first was my ongoing encounter with the thought of Henry Bugbee and I knew I wanted to spend a little while on my back in the shade re-reading certain sections of the Inward Morning. The second was to try out a new (for me) combination of "film" (Uchitel) and "lens" (Watts) on my Hipstmatic setup. I'd just read an article in National Geographic by John Stanmeyer called "The Timeless Sands of Saudi Arabia" in which he had used this particular combination to great effect. Most of the photos below were taken using that combination but the colour ones were taken using the "C-Type Plate" film with the "John" lens.

When I stopped in the shade of the woods in Babraham Park for my sandwiches and flask of tea my copy of the Inward Morning fell out of my saddlebag and opened at the following passage:

"Last night the humidity kept dropping, the air is cooling, and a full moon rose. At mid-morning the day is still clear and fresh as it might be in the High Sierras. The effect of this day, and of Beethoven's Opus 135, to which I have just listened, is to make me conscious that the readiness to receive is all. Without that what can be given?" (Henry Bugbee: The Inward Morning, Saturday, July 25).

I had my mp3 player buried in the bottom of my bag and and on it I have the Medici Quartet's recordings of Beethoven's late quartets — although I almost never listen to music out on a walk/ride, following this chance reminder, it proved impossible not to listen to this short and quite beautiful quartet while I ate my lunch.

Bugee is surely right in saying that "the readiness to receive is all. Without that what can be given?" The whole day, and particularly this moment felt like a gift given — I was ready to receive and I gave thanks.

Along the Roman Road
Along the Roman Road
Along the Roman Road
Along the Roman Road
A pint of shandy and a bike at the George Inn, Babraham
Bridge over the River Granta in Babraham
Babraham Church
Babraham Church
Babraham Hall
Babraham Hall
Wayside flowers in Babraham Park 
The River Granta
Barn on the bridle path to Stapleford
On Magog Down 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Accepting the teaching of an angry, human Jesus — a meditation in the shadow of the conflict between Israel and Gaza

Jesus heals a leper - a sketch by Rembrandt
Reading: Mark 1:39-45 (Geneva Bible 1599)

And [Jesus] preached in their Synagogues, throughout all Galilee, and cast the devils out. And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeled down unto him, and said to him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus had compassion, and put forth his hand, and touched him, and said to him, I will: be thou clean. And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was made clean. And after he had given him a straight commandment, he sent him away forthwith, And said unto him, See thou say nothing to any man, but get thee hence, and show thyself to the Priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimonial unto them. But when he was departed, he began to tell many things, and to publish the matter: so that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter.


I don't know about you but, as I have followed the news over the past couple of weeks, I have found myself becoming increasingly angry as I contemplate the killing of so many unarmed, powerless civilians in Gaza at the hands of the extremely powerful and well-armed Israeli Defence Force; then there is also the anger I feel welling up within me as I contemplate the violent actions of Hamas that wants to eliminate the State of Israel. Having a number of close Palestinian and Israeli friends my anger is, naturally, also born out of the anger and distress I see arising in them.

Given that, in my role as a minister of religion, I am charged with bringing a small measure of hope into the world it is highly tempting simply to suppress my anger and to avoid mentioning these things  by choosing to speak of something considerably more pleasant and certainly less contentious and emotive.

But I hope you see that I can’t do this at the moment for our world is way too alive with the visceral anger connected with these events. Anger is too much ‘in the air’ on all sides for me not to be daily breathing it deeply into the lungs of my psyche and so I have to find some way to talk with you about it, not least of all because I know many of you are feeling anger too. (Despite this last point, please note I have chosen to write this address in the first person for, although I hope to say something useful to you all, I am speaking from my heart.)

But a real danger that quickly presents itself is that in speaking with you I will, all too quickly, try to distance myself (and you) from the visceral anger felt by all those involved as well as my own to go on to try and find an intellectual, theoretical and abstract way to proceed; to find a way of speaking in what we are minded to call a “measured and rational” way. It is a way of proceeding that avoids the immediacy of anger by concentrating on the impersonal act of weighing this piece of cold historical or contemporary evidence against that in order to come up with an “even-handed” set of comments about this situation.

But, what this process of abstractisation completely fails to allow itself to show up is a full appreciation of just how integral visceral anger is to all the outplaying of the events in Israel and Gaza (and in so many other events in our world). To avoid allowing myself to feel — and publicly acknowledge — something of this real anger would be to fail to experience, at a very basic level, something very basic and structural about this situation. (In connection with this I recommend that readers of this blog in the UK take time to watch the current BBC series entitled "The Honourable Woman" which helps us glimpse something of this. It is a measure of the sophistication of this series that the BBC has not chosen to pull it from their schedule at this most difficult time.) If I can’t myself feel (and acknowledge) something of the visceral anger felt by those involved deep in my own bones, then I cannot begin to hope to understand what’s truly going on around me and nor can I have a hope of finding a way out of the highly destructive impasses that anger always causes.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the philosopher Edward F. Mooney reminds us that what we share as human beings is ‘presence to particulars — not generalities’ (in Wilderness and the Heart, University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 205). Abstractisation connected with any conflict can all too quickly arrive at some hopelessly inadequate and inaccurate generalities and so the particularity I wish to point to today is the completely understandable anger felt by every particular human being who finds themselves at the sharp-end of an artillery shell, rifle bullet, rocket or wielded hand or fist. A person who finds themselves in any of these situations cannot find there anything approaching the even-handedness promised by the “rounded” picture of the world that is offered by any abstract, generalised picture.

So I think it is vital that today I do not ignore the anger felt by the people involved in these events and neither must I try too quickly to distance myself from my own anger about these same events. Rather, I must find ways to inhabit the anger in a fashion that might just help me (and perhaps you too) even to find ways to build from out of this anger something of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Mention of the kingdom of heaven on earth brings me, of course, to Jesus who is one of the major well-springs at the centre of our own community’s religious life.

Now, usually, I generally avoid talking about a basic aspect of classical Unitarian theology because it can often be presented as an abstractisation — a theoretical generality that cannot truly be shared. But I need to point to it here in order to bring us back very much to particular human anger and its possible positive transformation into something else: it is our own religious community’s historic claim that Jesus was not God but was a human being like you and me.

But despite our important historical rejection of the doctrine of Trinity (and the idea that Jesus was, is, and always will be God) we have continued to be held captive by a certain picture of a human Jesus that is still very problematic. It is the picture of Jesus as a perfect man who expresses only compassion and goodness. For those of general Unitarian inclination Jesus may no longer be very God of very God, begotten not made but, in terms of virtue, he has tended to remain for us as near to God as you are going to get in a human being. So, for example, and related directly to the subject of anger, Jesus cannot model this for us; instead, as the perfect human exemplar, he is available to us only as a model of perfect compassion. And there’s the rub because, as human beings, we know only too well that we are a complex mix of possibilities and have tendencies as much to anger as we do to compassion. If Jesus was truly a human being like us then, surely, he, too, must display the same complex mix of possibilities and what Judaism calls the ‘yetzer hara’, or evil inclination, and the ‘yetzer hatov’, or good inclination.

But our foundational Christian texts, and the generalised Christian culture that has grown out of them, consistently presents us with a picture of Jesus as the paradigmatically perfect man in whom there is no inclination to evil and only the inclination to good. Because of this he has often remained an impossible model for us to follow — ideal and admirable, yes but, realistically speaking, impossible truly to follow because to be angry — as we so often are — is not to be “Christ-like”. But is this picture of a perfect, compassionate Jesus a true one? The simple answer seems to be, thank heavens, ‘No’. Here’s why.

Let’s turn back to our reading of Mark 1:39—45. There we read that, upon encountering a leper, Jesus instantly felt compassion and reached out to heal him. The book of Leviticus (13—14) reminds us that lepers were forbidden to live any sort of normal lives, they were considered dangerously unclean and were to be isolated and completely cut off from the rest of the community. But, God-like Jesus, moved with compassion for this particular leper, chooses a radically different, wholly compassionate approach. Given our inherited picture of Jesus what could be more natural for him to do?

Now our reading represents an accurate translation of the Greek text as it is found in most of our manuscripts of Mark’s gospel. But in one of our oldest surviving manuscripts, called the Codex Bezae (which is itself supported by three Latin manuscripts), we find a very different picture. There, instead of applying the Greek word ‘splangnistheis’ to Jesus, which translates as ‘feeling compassion’, we find the word ‘orgistheis’, which translates as ‘becoming angry’. Is this what Mark himself wrote?

I cannot go into great detail about his here but, as the New Testament scholar, Bart D. Ehrman, notes:

. . . the fact that one of the readings makes such good sense and is easy to understand is precisely what makes some scholars suspect that it is wrong. . . . [The scribes copying the gospel for others] would have preferred the text to be non problematic and simple to understand.The question to be asked is this: which is more likely, that a scribe copying this text would change it to say that Jesus became wrathful instead of compassionate, or to say that Jesus became compassionate instead of wrathful? Which reading better explains the existence of the other? When seen from this perspective, the latter [that the text was changed to make Jesus became compassionate instead of wrathful] is obviously more likely. The reading that indicates Jesus became angry is the “more difficult” reading and therefore more likely to be “original” (Bart D. Ehrman, “Whose Word Is It?”, Continuum Books, 2006, pp. 134-135).

Now this is not a knock-down argument that allows us to be absolutely sure Jesus was, in this instance (or any other), angry rather than simply compassionate, but it is highly suggestive and, I would argue, it is very likely to be true if you think — as I do — that Jesus was a human and NOT God and that, like us all, Jesus had tendencies both to evil and good.

Leaving aside, today, all questions about what precisely it was in his encounter with the leper that made Jesus angry (was it the leper himself, the situation as a whole or something else entirely?), I think that, for our own psychological well-being, we need to recover clear sight of this angry Jesus. If we wish to keep him as a meaningful and genuinely useful exemplar for our secular age then we need to see that what makes an exemplar a truly good and useful one is not that they never experience and express anger (whether justified or not) but that, in the totality of their particular lives, they come to show us a way to move through real anger in a way that helps birth more and more, and better and better expressions of compassion and forgiveness. It is surely more realistic and helpful to see Jesus as someone who, over the course of a whole lifetime, managed this and who became a person in whom the tendency to good won out to an exceptional degree over the tendency to evil. This wholly human model, though still exceptionally difficult to follow, is achievable in varying degrees by all of us.

But such a fully human “Christ-like” way of being-in-the-world cannot be achieved where there is no frank acknowledgement of the ever-present reality of human anger and that this anger must not be hidden from view but rather seen as something that is structural and integral to us as human beings which must always being worked through. I would argue that what makes Jesus such a valuable secular exemplar is precisely that he wasn’t God and that it was his creative human use of his own real anger that eventually helped him give birth and real depth to his eventually achieved, extraordinary compassion. In order to see this achievement in the making, and then properly to follow his example in the making of our own lives, we must, clearly and unsentimentally, acknowledge and accept that Jesus was like us, far from perfect and that he, too, was at times a very angry man.

This more complex picture of a flawed, human Jesus, gives me genuine hope that I, too, can find ways incrementally to move beyond my own anger and begin to offer myself up ever more compassionately to the world.

This leaves us with an unexpected thought which is that the full lesson contained in the story we heard from Mark is only accessible to us when we learn to read it both ways simultaneously and see that Jesus was both angry and compassionate — that in him was anger but that, somehow, this anger became compassionate outreach.

And in Israel and Gaza?

Well, yes, I believe that it this transformation is possible there too, as the interview with Yishai Frenkel (the uncle of one of the three young Israeli's murdered some weeks ago) surely reveals. But as I say this I have to acknowledge that there is almost nothing I can do in a direct way to help this come about —I am not there and I cannot fully comprehend the anger, pain and grief of those involved.

But one thing I can do, and that is find a way to transform my own anger because, in the end, our brothers and sisters in Gaza and Israel need around them only compassionate friends if they are to be helped to settle their dreadful differences – they do not need their own anger fuelled and encouraged by mine, or anyone else's.


Monday, 21 July 2014

"No intimacy: no revelation. No revelation: no givenness of things." (Henry Bugbee) — On becoming modern "Green Men and Women"?

A modern "Green Man"?
On Sunday I didn't have to give an address because a member of the congregation, Julian Holloway, gave a very fine one indeed entitled "Past Arcadia and Kingdom Come". Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) talks about the need for us to develop an "educated hope" (docta spes). This is especially necessary when it comes to maintaining a genuine hope for a better future world when one can no longer believe in the metaphysical hopes offered up by conventional theism. In his own way (without explicit reference to Bloch I should add) Julian modelled in a very clear way something of this "educated hope" and I found what he said valuable and very uplifting.

Now, because Julian was giving the address this meant that I was given the chance, at the end of Saturday, to spend some time properly to relax with my wife, Susanna, in the shade of the church garden with a cold G&T in our hands. We talked, read and sat quietly for a very pleasant hour.

As is my want I also took a few photos including a few double exposures just for fun. Even Susanna got in on that act and took one of me superimposed on a "Choisya Ternata" that is growing in the garden. It had something of the "Green Man" about it (see photo above) — that strange and evocative symbiosis of human and vegetable, simultaneously and indissolubly Pagan and Christian. In and of itself this might have been no more than a simple, fun image but, because it was created shortly after having read a wonderful passage in a very perceptive essay about Henry Bugbee (1915-1999) entitled "Presence, Memory and Faith" by Steven E. Webb, the photo resonated much more powerfully than it might of done.

Webb's words sent me excitedly back to their source in the Inward Morning. Bugbee's words there seem to me to offer us one way we might understand what it would take to become in our own, naturalistic (i.e. non-supernaturalistic) age, Green Men and Women, creatures intimately participating with all other things:

". . . the truth of the independence of things should not lead us to succumb to a sense of isolation and insularity among independent existents. The independence of things is not warrant for an objectivizing mode of thought about them, for taking an abstract point of view toward them and ourselves. For concretely, experience of the presence of things is also complete intimacy with them, the opposite of estrangement from them and ourselves. The gift of things in their independence is also the gift of ourselves together with them. And here [Gabriel] Marcel seems to me very clear and just right: In the experience of presence that estrangement between self and other, that tension between self and other, which supports the representation of the other as over against the self, that estrangement and that tension are dissolved. To be aware of the other as a presence in its independence is an experience of participation in reality with the other, and such experience concretely resists the reduction of the independence of the other to the terms of objectivity (the German term for objectivity, once again, seems most precise: Gegenständlichleit: "standing-over-against-ness") (Inward Morning p. 164).

Friday, 18 July 2014

Is it really, self-evidently true, that that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"?

The view from the lectern in Cambridge
Over the past few weeks I have been exploring a mix of Judaeo-Christian thinking and that of the Greeks — a powerful combination that the Unitarian minister and theologian John F. Hayward presented so well in his 1962 book, Existentialism and Religious Liberalism. A helpful aide-mémoire is to see us as taking our basic religious and ethical cue from the figures of both the human Jesus and Socrates and with neither of them taking precedence over the other.

But, here, I just want to bring to the table a reminder of perhaps the most important aspect of Socrates’ teaching, the implications of which run somewhat counter to a great deal of our inherited patterns of thought in liberal religion. Socrates’ questioning was designed to bring us — not to certain knowledge but to a state of aporia, that is to say to serious perplexity and what feels like (and to some extent is) confusion. Yet, for various reasons, we have been taught that the only truly useful kind of thinking is that which brings with it simple clarity and assured, final knowledge. This is, of course, the kind of thinking that allowed one of the most famous (and admirable) sentences in the English language to be written (and one that, in some way, I'd like still to affirm):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

But, had Socrates been present at the drafting of the American Declaration of Independence, I doubt he would have easily assented to these thirty-six words, no matter how fine they sounded. He would have probed further and asked in various ways, ‘are these things truly self-evident?’

He would have questioned whether we really can have any such simple, easy, self-evident certainty in these areas, not least of all because all the empirical evidence runs wildly counter to this. The truly dreadful events in Israel-Palestine and the Gaza Strip (and also the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine) are, as I write, simply those which press most painfully and immediately upon me in the here and now.

The truth is that we have never seemed to be living under the rule of a God/gods who gifts equality and inalienable rights to all and, as I watched those children on that Gaza beach running away from one rocket strike only to be targeted, and hit, by another, I could not but think of a story told by the French anthropologist Pascal Boyer. A week after the 9/11 attacks in New York he was watching a memorial service on TV with a friend in which the congregation was singing the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd”, for those who had been killed. His friend turned to him and said, “Wow, some shepherd” (Interview in "A Rough Guide to Disbelief" pt 1, at 3'55").

The fact is that the simple, self-evident liberal religion promulgated by our optimistic forebears was always a chimera but, today, we can see more clearly that they were, alas, barking up the wrong tree. It falls to us, therefore, rigorously to question, Socratically, our inherited liberal religious optimism and our all too easy desire for naive, simple, self-evidently true religious and ethical answers to the problems of our age. Deconstructing our old religious certainties and patterns of thought inevitably brings with it serious perplexity and confusion but, unless and until we have lived with and worked through this we cannot begin to offer the world a new, meaningful and effective liberal religious alternative.

Yes, the kind of thinking that goes on here at the church's lectern about these matters is at times hard, perplexing and confusing - perhaps like last Sunday's address. But, as Spinoza said at the very end of his Ethics:

If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found. And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard. For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare (Bk 5 P42 translated by Edwin Curley)

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

VASILIS XENOPOULOS (saxophones) @ Headhunters Jazz Club, Bury St Edmund's, Friday 18th July 2014, 8pm

Just to let you know that along with my friends and colleagues Chris Ingham (piano) and Russ Morgan (drums) I'll be playing this Friday 18th July 2014 in Bury St Edmund's at Headhunters Jazz Club with . . .

Bury St Edmund's
Friday 18th July 2014 
Doors 7.30pm, Music 8pm

The young sax hero taking the London scene by storm with his exciting styling of stirring jazz classics and striking originals.

“Dashing Greek tenorist…real passion…full-blooded, hard swinging solos”

"World-class calibre, as are the tunes and arrangements"

Chris Ingham piano
Rev. Andrew Brown bass
Russell Morgan drums

Sunday, 13 July 2014

“Equality-Before-God” — A true prayer to be answer for men and women

Henry Bugbee
Readings: Genesis 1: 24-31

Henry Bugbee in The Inward Morning, University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 71-72:

"For a moment just now I could remember some times at sea: especially the grey Christmas day of 1944 on our little ship, as thirty-five of us sailed on alone over the endless swells. The land of Manus Island in the Admiralties lay behind us by some days of open sea. The Philippines lay ahead, but far beyond our seeing, like whatever was in store for us there, or from there on. All that we knew of our position was like the ship’s position approximately fixed on the chart. It was something else again to be there looking out over the grey sea under the grey sky, steering a course that took its direction more from the world of the chart than from the world we beheld. It was Christmas in the wilderness.

As the day drew to a close nearly everyone not on watch was sitting about on deck up forward of the pilot house. The sound of the engines was muted up there, and the wash of the seas under the bows made it seem quite still. Only the faintest tinge of colour crept into the sky as the sun set. The men who talked were talking very low. Someone in a steady, quiet voice began to sing, and there were soon others singing with him. In the closing light of that day, riding to the endless swells, they sang the song of men in our position. And it was Christmas in the wilderness."



This week I was joined by Betty, a student at a local school, for a week's worth of work experience. We did a fair mix of all the things one does as a minister of religion including a visit to a church member, Jonathan, who is currently unwell at home. Now Betty is fifteen and I’m forty-nine. Jonathan is ninety, whilst his carer is in her mid-twenties. The question that emerged during our time together — given our very real differences — was what might be the common link between us? This address comes out of my own reflections on this question made whilst continuing to read Henry Bugbee's Inward Morning.

In a church community like this — which in the first instance inherits a religious vocabulary to speak of these things — we will be tempted to begin, as does Henry Bugbee, by speaking of “equality before God”, a concept which finds it’s first expression among us in the book of Genesis in it’s mythical account of the sixth day of creation in which the author suggests we are made in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). We should also point to Jesus’ teaching that, although the greatest commandment is to love and worship God, equally great is the command to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31). We might also cite St Paul’s memorable verse found in Galatians in which he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28-29).

But this grand insight does not play out easily. We all know only too well that there exist countless examples where whatever what we might mean by “equality before God” seems to be utterly non-existent. We need only think of the horrific, anger-making examples epitomised by what seems to be the revelation of yet more child abuse here in the UK or of the violence and brutality currently being metered out in Iraq, Syria, Israel-Palestine, the Central African Republic and the Ukraine. The idea of equality before God seems to be at best a mere fantasy, at worst, the most deluded piece of self-deception.

As Henry Bugbee says, in a gentler and more reflective key, “In all those respects in which we may be legitimately compared with one another it is reasonable to point out that we may differ” (Inward Morning p. 66 — henceforth IM). He goes on to say:

"In a perfectly intelligible sense we may be said to differ with respects to endowments, skills, giftedness, and our degree of cultivation and accomplishment. One of us knows a great deal more than another of us in a quite testable way. It is obvious that opportunities of all sorts are unequally distributed. Men [and women] are of unequal stature according to many ways in which the measure of stature might be taken. And so on. Some [people] ‘go far’, others ‘go nowhere.’ Some are born with a silver spoon in their mouths; others find themselves holding the dirty end of the stick. Some are called upon to bear adversities which seem out of all proportion with what we would consider their just deserts; others seem to slip smoothly along on a sea oiled by good breaks. Men [and women] have been taxed beyond the bearing point by what they have construed as the injustice of it all" (IM pp. 66-67),

In the hierarchical, monotheistic scheme of things, God is, of course, the one who tops out this list of beings who range from the most unfortunate and badly endowed to the most fortunate and fully endowed. Such a God, we might say, has the mother of all silver spoons in its mouth and with it has come all-power, all-sight and seeing, all-knowledge and knowing. If this is the case, in what meaningful, morally good sense, can we continue to speak of us being equal before God? After all, every thing is unequal before such a God.

Of course, a certain way of thinking about a monotheistic God allows some people to agree with this inequality and to go on to say — to our horror — that human suffering and inequality is a sign that the sufferer is experiencing some kind of just deserts, they were experiencing what “they had coming to them.” In this community we cannot follow this route. Perhaps, therefore, it would be better if we were just to let all this “equality before God” stuff go and frankly admit to ourselves that we cannot really “concern ourselves over apparent injustices because really there is no injustice in the universe” (IM p. 67). But this seems to be going too far in the other direction.

We are forced to ask ourselves whether or not we are really prepared to let go of the inspiring vision of collective human flourishing that is gestured towards in the phrase “equality before God”? But, do we not feel deep in our bones that there is something profoundly true about this vision? In my own life, in religion as well as politics, I find I am completely committed to living a life that acts out of the faith that there does exist something we have called “Equality-Before-God” (as one single, hyphenated, word). But, please note carefully what I have just said. I said I have faith that something called “Equality-Before-God” exists; I did not say “God exists.” It may seem odd but one can believe in the former without, necessarily, believing in the latter. In fact this must be the case otherwise the religious ideal could not be understood and taken up in a non-religious way by secular culture. Today I will leave this thought freely floating in the air and simply move straight on to say that, given the marked differences that exist between men and women that I've already mentioned, what might it mean to say “Equality-Before-God” exists?

It strikes me that Henry Bugbee is right in saying that it is something to do with the fact that, even with all our differences, and though we might try many things, “we can live the life of only one person” (IM p. 68). Betty can only live Betty’s life, I can only live my life, Jonathan can only live his life, Jonathan's carer can only live hers and you can only live yours. Nowhere in the world is this any different and, although it is right to remind ourselves “never to say never,” it seems that, for the kinds of beings we are, this has never been any different nor ever will be any different.

Notice now something else, namely, that we do not (cannot) choose the primordial things that make us the one person we are (namely, where, when and by whom one is brought into the world and raised). As wise old Omar Khayyam said in one of his ruba'i (XXIX in Fitzgerald’s 1st Edition):

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

We are thrown willy-nilly into the world and this thrownness (Geworfenheit) gifts us with all kinds of unassailable differences that makes us who we are in a radical and irrevocable way “with respect to endowments, skills, giftedness, and our degree of cultivation and accomplishment.” As Bugbee notices, “We vary indefinitely with respect to the resources which one or another of us may have at [their] disposal.” But, he goes on to say,

". . . we are radically equal to each other, and to ourselves (from time to time), in that the demand to act devolves upon us, such as we are, and it is never in essence repetitious, or normal, or abnormal, however much we remain constant amidst constants of our situation and resemble, or differ from, other persons. The disclosure of our radical equality seems native to the simplicity and innocence which there may be in us. Sometimes in the moment of our settling into sleep, with what gentleness this becomes clear. Here all of us are, together and alone. In the solitude of each one of us, it is we who are blessed. As Meister Eckhart says, all paths are even; though it may seldom seem so” (IM p. 71).

Immediately following these words Bugbee goes on to tell the story about being at sea on Christmas Day 1944 that you heard earlier. Following Pearl Harbour Bugbee became Captain of a minesweeper and during this time he experienced and survived both typhoons and kamikaze attacks. His story is about being part of a group of people thrown together by circumstances into a particular position on a particular place on the globe on a particular day. In that position we can see clearly that although they cannot call (all) the moves —not the circumstances that made them the one kind of person they were,  not those of the sea, the sun, the wind, currents or the arrival of enemy ships, submarines or planes or the sudden encounter with a mine — they are, however, all called upon in the position they find themselves to act in this or that way. All of them on that boat were, undoubtedly, with respects to endowments, skills, giftedness, and their degree of cultivation and accomplishment, radically unequal in so many ways but they were radically equal in that they all had no choice but to act as they were in that situation. In this, Bugbee (via Meister Eckhart) suggests, they were all sailing on an even path across the sea.

Now stop for a moment and think of our planet earth spinning through the darkness of space. Is she not just like Bugbee’s ship crossing the Pacific and are not the earth’s inhabitants not like it’s crew? That crew, Betty, me, Jonathan, you, the whole of humanity are, undoubtedly, with respects to endowments, skills, giftedness, and their degree of cultivation and accomplishment, radically unequal in so many ways. But in one vital way we are radically equal, namely that none of us have any choice choice but to act as we are in the actual situations we find ourselves — together in existence. As Edward F. Mooney suggests, what we share is presence to particulars — not generalities (in Wilderness and the Heart, University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 205). At this deep, primordial level is it not easier to begin to feel that we are all “Equal-Before-God”?

I realise many people will think that this is close to being a completely empty concept — merely a statement of how things are naturally and that, therefore, it hardly offers a person any real, lasting comfort, moral direction and meaning to life. Well, it is true it doesn’t offer the kind of lasting comfort, moral direction and meaning to life that belief in the conventional God of monotheism might but, to my mind and heart, it most certainly does offer these things if in a radically different key. Bugbee, illustrates something of this in a powerful and moving example in which he draws upon his wartime naval experience:

"I think of the suicide planes which I witnessed; oh! they still call out to me, and what I make of them, of the lives perishing in the flames, is still unfinished business which I feel I shall have to take upon myself until my dying day. What, what, indeed can I make of them? Oh, I must be answer for these men. Men I never knew. Living men. How can I find answer except as I can articulate a true prayer? Is it not true that we were not enemies? And who will believe this, how can it be believed?" (pp 225-226).

It can only be believed — that we are not enemies, none of us, and that we must love one another — if in some way we are truly all "Equal-Before-God". Bugbee seems to see that this equality only becomes true in the lived prayer, when we pray, let the prayer change us and we become the prayer itself. As I often say at the end of our own prayers, and have said again today, though we may often doubt our prayers change anything we must never doubt that prayers change people, and people change things.

The prayers of countless people who have gone before me, such as Bugbee, have changed me such that even on the darkest of days, when the news from home and around the world is as distressing as it can be, at the moment of settling into sleep, with what gentleness the truth of our “Equality-Before-God” becomes clear to me and I feel, deep in my bones, that this is a truth native to the simplicity and innocence which is in every human being.

It is to this task we are called — that through true prayer we must be answer to this world. Our true prayer is articulated in our willingness to be living embodiments of a truth that still trembles at the heart of the words which say “before God all are equal.”

Saturday, 12 July 2014

"We cannot know in advance what we must do." — Henry Bugbee

"We cannot know in advance what we must do. With whatever knowledge we truly stand forth, we stand forth beyond the frontier of knowledge, beyond, indeed, where we have been. Only so do we find out where we have always been, in all creation, a true wilderness. That is the home in which things other than ourselves are welcomed as guests, where innocence is sacred, and helplessness moves us not to abandon the helpless, in spite of our not knowing how to help."

Henry Bugbee in The Inward Morning (p. 224) 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

"Philosophy is not a making of a home for the mind out of reality. It is more like learning to leave things be: restoration in the wilderness, here and now." - Henry Bugbee

As regular readers of this blog will know, over the last month I've been reading Henry Bugbee's Inward Morning and finding it one of the most inspiring books I have read in many years. Well, once again, I took it with me in my bag today when Susanna and I went today for a lovely, restful walk around Wandlebury.

When we stopped for rest by the stables Susanna read her book, and I read mine. I wanted particularly to re-read the entries between Thursday, October 2 and Friday, October 10 , 1952 where he speaks of Socrates. Given the shared theme of my last two addresses (here and here) this was, naturally, of great interest to me.

As I finished them, put the book down and looked up I was quickly taken up in the wonderful play of the wind in the trees and grasses, the buzzing of bees and the silent sky-dancing of butterflies, and the ceaseless movement of the clouds. On returning home to my desk it seems that the following words from the entry of Thursday, August 20, 1953 seem entirely appropriate for this post of a few photos I took on the walk:

"Philosophy is not a making of a home for the mind out of reality. It is more like learning to leave things be: restoration in the wilderness, here and now."

Amen to that.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Le Tour de France caravan passes by the Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge

Here are a few photos from the Tour de France as it set off from Cambridge today. Five members of the congregation hung out together for the morning to enjoy the festivities.

A splendid time was had by all.

The first few photos show the caravan passing by the front of the church on its way to the start and the penultimate one shows the riders passing down St. Andrews Street where we headed for the actual start of the race. The final photo shows us relaxing after our intense exertions!

The caravan begins to pass the front of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church
And keeps going for a long, long time . . .
It's not every day that this kind of thing passes by the front door!
Faux cyclists 
A gendarme passes by 
Our first sight of real racing bicycles
Encore une fois . . . 
And again . . .
And still more . . .
Luisa (left) and Andrew (right) look on from the church front door 
At last they're off . . .
Sharing a glass of chilled white wine in the church garden after le départ

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The reflection worth indulging doesn’t know where it is going — leaving behind only footprints and never blueprints


From: Herbert Fingarette: The Self in Transformation, Basic Books, New York 1963, p.1

In practicing and cherishing the old,
he attains the new;
 Attaining the new, he reanimates the old;
 He is indeed a teacher (Chuang-Tzu).

This book arises out of a journey of self-exploration and self-teaching. has this journey been a professional one or a personal one? Indeed, the distinction between the two seems to dissolve. In making the journey, I have had no aims. These studies are outcomes rather than realised objectives. They are intellectual footprints, not blueprints. The reader will eventually identify their shape and dimensions to his own satisfaction; he will find their place on the intellectual map and the existential position in which they point. (A preceptive review of this book can be found here.


As I see it, the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself. (Tautologies are, after all, true.) If you wish to persist by asking what reality is; that is, what is really, the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing. To see this is to be a man without a position. To get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian. I am a man without a position. I do not have the philosophic position that there are no positions or theories or standpoints. (There obviously are.) I am not a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist. I am simply a man without a position, and this should open the door to detachment.


From: Henry Bugbee: The Inward Morning, University of Georgia Press, Athens 1999 [1st ed. 1958]

Let it flow: Fluency is the stylistic counterpart of the way present experience is invaded with authentic meaning. Basic meanings are not anticipated: they dawn on one. This is the point of keeping up the flow: If one works out the thoughts, the perceptions that press upon him with the demand from completion, as they lead to one another, in time the actual themes of his philosophy may have a chance to define themselves. Such a philosophy will not be set up like the solution of a puzzle, worked out with all the pieces lying there before the eye. It will be more like the clarification of what we know in our bones. Against the professional insistence that one can and should be clear from the start about what he starts from (premises, assumptions), that the procedure and the direction of thought worth understanding should be equally clear, I am going to try to be faithful to the intimations I have had: That the reflection worth indulging doesn’t know where it is going, just as the life that is lived underlies anything the individual is able to patent for himself. There need be no obscurantism in this; if philosophical truth is engendered in depth, we must not expect it to come to light except out of relative obscurity 


The Address

Reflecting in Devon earlier this year
“[T]he reflection worth indulging doesn’t know where it is going”, so said Henry Bugbee.  As I have got older, the truth of this presses upon me ever more strongly. But, culturally, what has pressed upon me with almost equal pressure, is precisely the opposite. When it comes to the class of people known as ministers of religion — which is the capacity in which I stand here this morning — we are taught that the reflection we are supposed to indulge in does know where it is going. How could it be otherwise? Knowing where our reflections are going is expected of us and, anyway, what religious community worth its salt would allow itself to be led by someone who admits that they don’t know where they are going? To allow this to occur would, surely, be to allow the community to be lead by one of the “blind guides of the blind” of whom Jesus spoke when he said “if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15.14). 

Well, this morning, I’m here to admit, quite frankly, that in my own reflections — some part of which I offer you each week — I never know where I’m going. However, as I tell you this I want to suggest — as a footprint of my own journey and not as a blueprint for yours — that  this approach doesn’t necessarily lead into “a pit” but rather it can tend towards the development of a strong, liberal religious discipline which can help us become men and women “without a position” who feel, along with Wienpahl, no need “to identify reality with anything except itself.”

This address points to just four footprints, the making, and/or following of which did not in any way anticipate what I have just said but which, instead, allowed it, only in the past year or so, to emerge into the light out of relative obscurity. Of necessity, this is an incomplete account of a personal “journey of self-exploration and self-teaching” but I hope that what I tell you here will be of some use to you as you try to find your own “place on the intellectual map and the existential position in which [you] point.” 

So to the footprints . . .

In terms of religion my initial position, bequeathed to me at birth, was (as it was for many of you) shaped by Christian belief. But, early on, even as I continued to value, almost beyond measure, Jesus’ human example, I also began increasingly to value another initial position gifted to me via Greek philosophy, namely, that offered by Socrates. This gifted me with the freedom to inquire and discover. And so here we arrive once again at the collaborative identity (that mix of Jesus and Socrates) that I’ve been bringing before you in various ways now for quite a while (see here).

Before moving on it’s worth spending a brief moment reminding ourselves of what it is that by following his method (elenchus) Socrates helps us discover. The Socratic method moves through the following four basic steps. 

  • Firstly, Socrates’ conversation partner asserts a thesis, for example “Courage is endurance of the soul”, which Socrates considers false and wishes to refute (see The Laches)
  • Secondly, Socrates then gets his conversation partner to agree to further premises, for example “Courage is a fine thing” and “Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing”. 
  • Thirdly, Socrates then argues, and gets his conversation partner to agree, that these further premises contradict the original thesis, in this case it leads to, for example, “courage is not endurance of the soul”. 
  • Lastly, Socrates then claims that he has shown that his conversation partner’s thesis is false and that its negation is true (source here).

Each working through of the method leads to some new and, hopefully, more refined examination of the concept under consideration. But it is vitally important to see two things here: 1) that a full Socratic inquiry requires the ongoing use of the method — it’s not a one-time fix and, 2) that we end up, not in possession of the final truth of the matter but, instead, with what is called “aporia”, that is to say doubt or puzzlement. And so we arrive at the wonderful thing Socrates helps us discover, namely, that the one thing we know we know is that we don’t know. In this consists a major part of our wisdom.

To pursue philosophy in this Socratic fashion is, therefore, to drink deeply of a strange mix of disappointment and wonder; disappointment that one’s initial ideas have turned out to be mistaken, but an even greater wonder at the process by which (and the person through whom) one has discovered this and been able to learn something new or, at least, something more nuanced about our world. Philosophy, the love of wisdom, begins not just in wonder, but in disappointment and wonder.
So here is the first footprint I wish to point at: Although early on my commitment to the example of the human Jesus made it appear to me — and to others — that I was holding to a Christian position, in truth, thanks to its combination with the approach of Socrates, I discovered I had really been gifted with an odd but clear kind of “position”, one that simply did not not allow me to hold a simple, fixed “position” in which I could say to myself or others that “I knew the truth” and that, in my reflections, “I knew, indubitably, where I was going.” 

But, as I have already intimated, a potentially entrapping aspect of our culture is the idea that ministers of religion should know the truth in some way and know where their reflections are going and where, therefore, they are leading their community. When you are young and new to the job of being a minister it’s truly frightening to begin to admit to yourself, let alone to others that, as far as you are concerned, you really did not know either of these things. To have admitted this at the time seemed very close to being an admission of weakness and terminal confusion and so, like most people who find themselves in this situation, I mostly kept quiet about it and let it be thought that I really knew where my reflections were going. To admit otherwise would, it seemed, be to admit that I was lost. However, the truth is that I have never felt lost on this journey — I’ve felt profoundly anxious, certainly, but that was because for the first twelve years or so of my professional ministry I simply couldn’t find a strong and confident way to say that, although I knew I didn’t know anything and did not know where my reflections were going, on balance this seemed to me to be a jolly good thing and something central to the whole liberal religious project. 

We can now move to my second footprint, the words you heard from Paul Wienpahl written in 1956. During my sabbatical in 2008 his writing helped me begin to understand — in a startlingly sudden and life-changing way — that this mix of Jesus and Socrates had for years quietly been helping me “to get away from knowing to living, from trying to understand and classify things to the things themselves” and, to feel directly, as Spinoza felt (Wienpahl was a great lover of Spinoza's philosophy), that “The more we understand singular things, the more we understand God” (Book V, Prop XXIV, trans. Wienpahl). Wienpahl helped me articulate the feeling that, the closer I was able to get to things themselves, the more I was going to be able “to get out of the mind and into the world [and] beyond language” and this, in turn, meant I could see I was ceasing to be “an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian . . . a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist.” This was a great relief in many ways (see here) but, for a minister of religion, an admission that I was losing of all my once cherished labels was still a very scary and risky thing to admit to.

Now I come, for today, to my last two footprints, both of which have been made in quick succession in only the last month as I prepare to enter my fiftieth year of life. 

At the beginning of June I stumbled across and bought a remaindered copy of a book of essays about Henry Bugbee’s 1958 book The Inward Morning. I was so captivated by what I read that I immediately ordered Bugbee’s book; it was truly a revelation. Quite unexpectedly I was encountering a writer who, in the most powerful and poetic way, was able to gather up and present to me quite beautiful and helpful reminders from his own life about how better to live and talk about the kind of life Wienpahl’s words had introduced me to back in 2008. 

I was so impressed by what I read that I wrote to the editor of the book of essays, Edward F. Mooney, who has, since then, graciously been engaging with me in conversation. To my surprise and delight it turned out that he had studied briefly with Wienpahl and that he found his sketch of being “a man without a position” pretty much his own stance even though he had “never heard it laid out as plainly as he does.” Professor Mooney also told me that he had gone to UCSB (where Wienpahl taught) because he wished to study with Herbert Fingarrette who had thanked Wienpahl in his book, The Self in Transformation. 

I felt I had to read this and so I ordered a second-hand copy which landed on my doorstep only this week. In the acknowledgements Fingarrette wrote that Wienpahl had brought him “to wrestle, in the right way, with points of view I had either dismissed as plainly wrong or else had too quickly taken for granted with only a surface appreciation. He has forced me to see freshly.” “Yes, yes, me too!”, I involuntarily uttered out loud at the kitchen table, and how wonderfully like Socrates this sounded! And then, at the very beginning of the book proper, I read the words you heard earlier. 

It was another “Eureka!” moment because he says there what, in a nutshell, I have been trying to say to you for a long while now, namely, that in making the reflections I offer you each week from this lectern I have never really had any kind of aim, I have never known where they are going. Despite occasional lapses (for which I apologise) everything I have said for the last couple of years was intended simply to be an intellectual footprint and not a blueprint. I am trying to offer here my reflections (some successful, others less so) in the simple hope that they will begin to help us all better to identify their shape and dimensions to our own satisfaction so that we can better find our own place on the intellectual map and the existential position in which we individually point. My reflections are offered to help us in ways appropriate to our individual conditions, “to get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things”, to help us all cease to be idealists or pragmatists, or existentialists, or Christians . . . sceptics or agnostics or atheists. They are offered simply to help us become ourselves, men and women without a position in the hope that this opens the door to detachment. This is, I think, the best way to achieve the complete spiritual freedom that our greatest historian, Earl Morse Wilbur, thought was the most distinctive general quality of our liberal religious movement.

Now, you may say that, despite my protestations, together all the above constitutes an aim. Well, yes and no. It is true that in my role as minister I am aiming to help us all be in the world in an authentic way but, as Wienpahl noted, because reality is a multifarious thing, and since “what is really” is what we individually experience it to be, how we see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as we live it, I cannot meaningfully be said to be aiming at anything definite for you because I am not you. And anyway, as someone who has been gifted with the combined methods of living and learning offered by Jesus and Socrates, I have been forced to admit that since I don’t know even where my own life and reflections are going how, on earth, can I aim to tell you where yours will lead or what to aim for?

And the point of all this — this aimless aim, this knowing unknowing and position of no-position? Well, surely it is to allow it all — our life and reality — to flow naturally as the Taoists (e.g. Lao-Tse and Chuang-Tzu) have always known.

Bugbee could see, as could the Taoists, Spinoza, Wienpahl, Fingarette and Mooney, and now even me a little bit, that it is only when you genuinely let things flow and we allow ourselves to move with them, without being fixed in one position, that we begin to develop a truly flexible, living philosophy that is not “set up like the solution of a puzzle, worked out with all the pieces lying there before the eye” but something that is “more like the clarification of what we know in our bones.”

But this clarification is always coming into the light out of the relative obscurity of existence itself and this means, as Bugbee saw, that the basic meanings of our unfolding lives can never be anticipated — they can only dawn upon us. We can never know, as Socrates saw, where our true reflections are going to lead us. 

So surely it is good idea for us in this liberal religious community consciously to develop a religious and philosophical discipline that helps us become men and women without a fixed position who will endeavour always remain open to the extraordinary creative and sublime flow of life as it is lived; to become together a pilgrim people who leave behind for those who follow us in the journey of life only footprints and never blueprints.


Friday, 4 July 2014

Chris Ingham Quartet presents "Celebrating Hoagy Carmichael" in London, 9 July at the Pheasantry, Kings Road

Just a quick reminder that The Chris Ingham Quartet (in which I play bass) is performing on: 

Wednesday 9th July 
The Pheasantry, 152 Kings Road, London, SW3 4UT
Doors: 18.30, Music: 20.30
0845 6027 017

The poster for the event is below and, below that, you'll find the latest review of our new CD
See you there!

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.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

You can get your kicks on Route 66, but you might just get to heaven on Route 11

The Dursley (Copenhagen) Pedersen on Burwell Fen
As Nat King Cole sang, you can "Get your kicks on Route 66", but on a day like today, as I cycled the Lodes Way from Cambridge to Wicken Fen, it felt like riding to heaven on Route 11 - that's Route 11 of the National Cycle Network here in the UK. A splendid, sunny, summer's day, not too hot and with a gentle breeze for most of the day.  Perfect for the Dursley (Copenhagen) Pedersen.

At Wicken Fen I bought a bottle of Boathouse Bitterfound some shade, quietly ate my sandwiches and slowly read a dozen pages of Henry Bugbee's Inward Morning. Discovering this book really has been incredibly exciting for me as it is helping so many things fall into place in my own personal philosophy. Some of Bugbee's words will almost certainly play a part in next Sunday's address but here, in the near heavenly surroundings of Fenland, I could just let them flow through me and water my soul.

As always, I took a few photos on the ride and post a few of them below for your enjoyment.

Stourbridge Common
Swaffham Bulbeck Lode
Poppies and field Reach Lode
Bridge over Reach Lode
Cycle path over Burwell Fen 
View across Burwell Fen
Burwell Lode 
Cattle near Burwell Lode