Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A farewell until September 10th . . .

The Buddha in our Cambridge backyard
Well, it's that time of year again to down tools and take a rest from blogging for a month.  I'm back in the saddle from the 10th September and, I imagine, my first post after that will be on Sunday 14th September.

As always this break gives me the opportunity to thank all of you for taking the time to read the stuff that gets posted here and for your many and various comments, some on the blog, but mostly in personal communications whether face-to-face or via email. They are all hugely appreciated.

It's been an exciting year in many ways not least of all because of the very generous donation to the church community where I am minister and the first fruits of that should be seen in early October with the launching of a new church website. Keep your eyes peeled for that. But it's also been an exciting year in terms of my own intellectual journey thanks to the discovery of the work and thought of Henry Bugbee and Edward F. Mooney which has helped me in all kinds of unexpected and joyful ways. I've been sent back by them with new insights to some of the key influences in my own life — Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Plato, Jesus, Thoreau, Wienpahl — and also been introduced to a couple of new names, I'm thinking especially of Bruce Wilshire, Gabriel Marcel, and Herbert Fingarette.

In relation to the latter, Herbert Fingarette, you will have noticed that I have adopted some of his words under the title of my blog as they seem to express so well something I aspire to do on this blog:

"These studies are outcomes rather than realised objectives. In making the journey, I have no aims. These studies are intellectual footprints, not blueprints" (The Self in Transformation).

So, to some rest, reading, cycling, walking and reading. I'll be spending time (as I always do) with Jefferson's "Bible" and Epicurus' works but I'll also be re-reading Bugbee's Inward Morning and going through a manuscript of book on Thoreau by a colleague of mine. I also intend to dip into another old friend of a book —A Buddhist Bible by Dwight Goddard. This volume was the constant companion of many of the early Beat Poets and also of mine whilst I was studying for the ministry at Harris Manchester College, Oxford between 1997 and 2000. Anyway, for various reasons over the past few months, I've been thinking more about the Beat's thinking and so it's clearly time to revisit this extraordinary and important text.

So, just for a while, au revoir and see you all again in September. I wish you all a good and restful summer.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Learning from Boccaccio's humanism — “Umana cosa è aver compassionedegli afflitti" — It is human to have compassion for those in distress

Illustration from a ca. 1492 edition of Il Decameron
Readings: Song of Songs 4:16-5:2

From Robert Pogue Harrison: “Gardens—An Essay on the Human Condition”, University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 71).

What is one to do in so-called dark times, when the world that "comes between men" no longer gives them a meaningful stage for their speech and actions, when reasoned discourse loses its suasion, when powerlessness rather than empowerment defines the citizen's role in the public sphere? There are times when the thinker, patriot, or individual has no choice but to withdraw to the sidelines, as Plato did when he gave up the idea of becoming a statesman and founded a school on the outskirts of Athens. In her book "Men in Dark Times" Hannah Arendt writes: "Flight from the world in dark times  of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped. The same could be said of the sanctuary that gardens have traditionally offered people when their human condition is under siege. A garden sanctuary can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on the degree of reality it preserves within its haven. Some gardens become places of escape that try to shut out reality . . .. Other gardens, by contrast, become places of humanization in the midst of, or in spite of, the forces of darkness (From the chapter "The Garden School of Epicurus").

(From Robert Pogue Harrison: “Gardens—An Essay on the Human Condition”, University of Chicago Press, 2008, pp. 94-95).

Giovanni Boccaccio
Boccaccio was no moralist. He was not a reformer or would-be prophet. He was not especially preoccupied by human depravity or humanity’s prospects for salvation. He did not harangue his reader from any self-erected pulpit of moral, political, or religious conviction. If the ethical claims for the Decameron which he lays out in his preface are finally extremely modest (the author hopes through his stories to offer diversion and consolation to those in need of them), it is because the human condition itself is a modest one. The plague demonstrates as much. To be human means to be vulnerable to misfortune and disaster. It means periodically to find oneself in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification. Our condition is for the most part an affair of the everyday, not of the heroic, and our minimal ethical responsibility to our neighbour, according to Boccaccio’s humanism, consists not in showing him or her the way to redemption but in helping him or her to get through the day. This help takes many modest forms, not least of which is rendering the sphere of social interaction more pleasurable through wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability. To add to the pleasure rather than the misery of life: that is the arché or first principle of Boccaccio’s humanism, which is not the  triumphalist humanism of later eras (which saw self-reliant humankind as the glory of all creation) but the civil humanism of neighbourly love. (It is not by chance that Boccaccio begins his preface with the word umana, or human: Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti [It is human to have compassion for those in distress]) (From the chapter "Boccaccio's Garden Stories).


Learning from Boccaccio's humanism — “Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti" — It is human to have compassion for those in distress

This week a song by Loudon Wainwright kept coming back into my mind, its chorus goes as follows:

          It's been a hard day on the planet:
          How much is it all worth?
          It's getting harder to understand it
          Things are tough all over on earth.

These lines have certainly been true every day of the past few weeks and none of us can failed to have heard, over and over again, the harrowing reports of the most awful kind of violence being metered out upon countless numbers of innocent people in Gaza and Israel/Palestine, Ukraine, Libya, and Iraq and, if that were not enough, we are also likely to have been alarmed by the increasingly dangerous Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Those of you who follow the news carefully will know that, although these are the events that are currently making the headlines, there are plenty of other grim stories out there just waiting their own turn in the limelight some of which are to be found right here on our own doorstep.

Now, I'm just about to go away for my summer vacation and I can assure you that I fully intend to try and put wholly to one side most of these events for the duration of my break.

This thought meant that, when it came to writing this, my final address before leaving, there was an immediate, almost overwhelming temptation to produce what we might call a “flight from reality sermon” by concentrating on some obviously pleasant topic which had a chance of leaving you (and me) with a certain sense of contentment and hope even if, ultimately, it achieved this by simply ignoring all the current horrors. But, ultimately, I didn't feel that this was at all the right thing to do because, whether we like it or not, these events are clearly pressing upon all our psyches and I think it would be foolhardy, and perhaps even psychologically dangerous, to pretend otherwise.

So what to do? Well, it took me three days and the writing of two failed addresses before it came upon me how I might be able to offer up a right (enough) word for this situation. On Friday night as I began to fall asleep Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313–1375) “Decameron” (1353) came quietly into my dreams.

The year is 1348 and there is a terrible plague running unchecked in Florence. As Robert Pogue Harrison says:

In the city, civic order has degenerated into anarchy; love of one’s neighbour has turned into dread of one’s neighbour (who now represents the threat of contagion); the law of kinship has given way to every person for himself (many family members flee from their infected loved ones, leaving them to face their death agonies alone and without succour); and where there was once courtesy and decorum there is now only crime and delirium (Gardens, p. 84).

To escape this horror a group of seven young women and three young men decide to go to out of the city for two-weeks to a secluded villa within a wonderful walled-garden and there "to engage in conversation, leisurely walks, dancing, storytelling, and merry-making taking care not to transgress the codes of proper conduct" (Gardens, p. 84). What could be more different from the horrors of Florence than this garden idyll.

At first sight it might seem that their retreat to this villa and its gardens was precisely the flight from reality that I have admitted to being wary of. But, as Harrison points out:

While their escapade is indeed a ‘flight from reality’, their self-conscious efforts to follow an almost ideal code of sociability during their stay in the hills of Fiesole are a direct response to the collapse of social order they leave behind. In that respect their sojourn is wholly “justified” by Hannah Arendt’s standards [when she says]: “flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped (Gardens, p. 84).

This seems to me to be a vital insight to hold on to — not only by myself, as I go on vacation but also by us in our day to day life as a church.

That this is so became apparent to me because this address was finally begun the day after a conversation with a colleague in which I had just admitted that, after my sabbatical of 2008, an important change had occurred in my own outlook.

In my early years as your minister I brought into play — with varying degrees of success and failure — the tradition of political, social and religious activism I had inherited from my youth. It was a stance which brought with it a global vision and hope and, whenever I needed to explain this (either to myself or others), I generally said something akin to Karl Marx’s eleventh thesis found in his “Theses on Feuerbach”: “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it”. In this effort to change the world the large-scale, nineteenth-century Christian Socialist movement was my basic starting point, it was an activist tradition shared by own own liberal religious movement. (At the end of this address I’ll return to Marx’s aphorism and offer it up again but in a very different key.)

But it is clear that the world today is not what it was in the nineteenth-century, it is not even the world of the 1960s into which I was born and which had its own fair share of radical activist movements. In the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries we have all become increasingly suspicious of those who promote, and attempt to enact, the kind of grand, world-changing schemes I had been so strongly influenced by. Technology and globalisation have brought with them new kinds of fragmentation and democratisation — some aspects of which we will feel to be good, some bad — and they have all definitely cut against the old style political and religious activism I inherited. Boccaccio’s humanism, at least as it was presented to me by Harrison, played a key role in the process of reassessment I have had to undergo since 2008.

This process helped me begin better to see that “[o]ur condition is for the most part an affair of the everyday, not of the heroic” and, in turn, this allowed me to begin to move away from what Harrison calls “the triumphalist humanism of later eras (which saw self-reliant humankind as the glory of all creation)” and decisively towards “the civil humanism of neighbourly love.”

The primary consequence of this has been a recognition of the need to live out, again as Harrison notes, some kind of “minimal ethical responsibility to our neighbour” which, “according to Boccaccio’s humanism, consists not in showing him or her the way to redemption but in helping him or her to get through the day” and to state strongly and clearly: “Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti" (It is human to have compassion for those in distress).

Given that we here have begun to hold from time to time “Epicurean Gatherings” it is worth remembering in passing that Boccaccio’s “Decameron” is considered by Harrison to be “one of the most elegant, if non-doctrinal, expressions of Epicureanism in its genuine latter-day form.”

Anyway, the news of the last couple of weeks — and our own everyday lives with their own real vicissitudes — shows clearly that in order to achieve this, “periodically” we all find ourselves “in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification” in which we can “escape reality”. But, and it is a hugely important but, this escape must always be undertaken according to Hannah Arendt’s standards, namely, that “flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped”.

Contingent historical events have meant that we are now a very small community and, whilst we can still from time to time display a successful activism (e.g. in the support of same-sex marriage legislation), we have to acknowledge that we are no longer an effective, single activist force for change in our society.

Consequently, I think that, today, this liberal church community best placed to offer, at least once a week, something like the garden to which Boccaccio’s ten youngsters escaped when they made their way into the hills six-hundred and sixty-six years ago.

Today, we are clearly at our most effective in our ability to render one to another “the sphere of social interaction more pleasurable through wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability” and “[t]o add to the pleasure rather than the misery of life” and, as I hope this address has made relatively clear, we are able to do this to Hannah Arendt's standards. The real (if modest) hope is that those who come here on a Sunday morning or evening, when they return to reality on Monday morning, will find they are better able to get through the next day and week. At the very least we can provide some kind of meaningful support for the modest activism each individual is able to undertake themselves.

It’s important to realise that after two weeks the ten storytellers in the "Decameron" also make a return to reality. Although it was as true for them, as it is for us, that time spent together in fellowship — sharing story, song and conversation — may seem to have little or no immediate, direct effect on the “outside” world, it is not true that nothing has changed. What the ten friends, and we, do together is something we may call “recasting reality” and, as Harrison notes,

By recasting reality in narrative modes, they allow what is otherwise hidden by reality’s amorphous flow of moments to appear in formal relief” . . . [and the magic of stories and gardens is that] they transfigure the real even as they leave it apparently untouched.

As I have put it at other times, whilst it is true there is no other world than this one, there is another world, namely, this world seen or interpreted differently. To paraphrase what I often say about prayer, though we may doubt our interpretations change anything, let it never be forgotten that interpretations change people and people change things.

With this point I can begin to draw to a close today by returning to Marx’s famous words I mentioned earlier, that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” Those of you who know me well know that I am a great admirer of the contemporary Italian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo. He, and his colleague Santiago Zabala, feel that in our new situation and condition Marx’s statement needs to rephrased as follows:

“The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it” (Hermeneutic Communism, Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 5).

In other words, in our wholly new historical, political, religious and social situation, it seems to me that the best and most effective way a small liberal religious movement like our own can change the world today is to continue to gather together with wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability” in order to offer ourselves and the world more creative, compassionate and civilising interpretations of the world than those we are currently being offered by reality.

We were pleased to welcome to the service this morning the Revd Dr. Kenneth Torquil MacLean who is the minister emeritus of the UU Church of the Desert, Rancho Mirage, California. He is an old friend of our own minister emeritus, the Revd Frank Walker. After the service we thought it would be fun to have our photo taken together and I add it here. Below that I have also posted a photo of the sky outside the church taken shortly afterwards and just before the heavens opened.
L. to r.: Andrew, Ken and Frank
Outside the church just before the heavens open on Emmanuel Road

Past Arcadia and Kingdom come — a guest posting by Julian Holloway

Nicolas Poussin's Et in Arcadia ego
On Sunday 20 July 2014 a member of the congregation, Julian Holloway gave the address. I'm very pleased to be able to post it here.


Reading 1
Ted Hughes Tales from Ovid 1997

Though all the beasts
Hang their heads from horizontal backbones
And study the earth
Beneath their feet, Prometheus
Upended man into the vertical - 
So to comprehend balance.
Then tipped up his chin
So to widen his outlook on heaven.
In this way the heap of all disorder
Was altered.
It was adorned with the godlike novelty 
Of man.

And the first age was Gold.
Without laws, without law’s enforcers,
This age understood and obeyed 
What had created it,
Listening deeply, man kept faith with the source.

Men needed no weapons.
Nations loved one another.
And the earth, unbroken by plough or by hoe,
Piled the table high. Mankind
Was content to gather the abundance
Of whatever ripened.
Blackberry or strawberry, mushroom or truffle,
Every kind of nut, figs, apples, cherries,
Apricots and pears, and, ankle deep,
Acorns under the tree of the Thunderer.
Spring weather, the airs of spring,
All year long brought blossom.
The unworked earth
Whitened beneath the bowed wealth of the corn.
Rivers of milk mingled with rivers of nectar.
And out of the black oak oozed amber honey.

Reading 2
Isaiah 25:1-8 

For thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall.
Thou shalt bring down the noise of strangers, as the heat in a dry place; even the heat with the shadow of a cloud: the branch of the terrible ones shall be brought low.
And in this mountain shall the LORD of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.
And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the LORD hath spoken it.

Reading 3
Matthew 13:33-35

Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.

Address — Past Arcadia and Kingdom come

We moved here from a village on the coast of northwest Scotland as far from Iceland as it is from Cambridge. In the 70s and 80s it was a port for the “Klondykers”. These fish processing ships serving the Eastern Block trawlers then massively over harvesting the international waters of the North Atlantic.

In the village lived a quiet retired civil servant — who, local rumour had it —was a retired MI5 officer keeping an eye on the comings and goings in the port. I met him a few years ago, when the Cold War was over the rusty ships had gone.

One of the things we talked about was the neolithic tombs in the wilderness nearby. I’d just visited one of them — rather damaged by peat cutting, I’m sorry to say. It is in a place where the wind howls in from every direction. I said how ‘nasty, brutish and short’ I imaged the lives of those early farmers had been — raiding parties from other tribes, cold — and wet — and lonely — and hungry.

The old gentleman said very politely that it wouldn't have been like that at all: At that time, around 5000 years ago, the climate was far warmer than now; the population density was so low that there was masses of space to forage and hunt and do a little farming; that the families in that community would have had nothing to fear because they were practically alone in a fruitful landscape, and everyone else had all that they needed so there was no cause for conflict.

This startled me a little because he was seeming to bath the harsh landscape that surrounded us in the golden light of Arcadia. But, afterwards as I thought about it I felt that I would be a better man if I could share this old spy’s willingness to believe the best about mankind and our past.

Last night I rang an archaeologist friend. He assured me that the northwest Scottish Highlands in the Neolithic period would still have been a pretty cold and windy place, and that even in the Mesolithic period — when we were hunter gatherers, before the discovery of agriculture — there had been plenty of war.

So was the old man wrong? I think he was so wrong he was right. And we are in a church here, where we look to the power of ideas and sometimes soften the precision of our gaze to see what stories actually mean.

My ‘nasty brutish and short’ attitude came out of Hobbes on the political side and is powerfully buttressed by Darwin. Its a pretty standard modern point of view — that the natural condition of mankind is anarchic, a condition of violent competition, if not fundamentally evil.

I’m currently working, very slowly, through Don Quixote. And was struck by one part where where he ludicrously lectures a group of kindly goat herds, saying:

“Happy the age, happy the time, to which the ancients gave the name of golden… no labour was required of any save to stretch forth his hand and gather from the sturdy oaks their sweet ripe fruit… Then all was peace, all friendship, all concord…”

Of course the deluded old Knight is apeing the passage from Ovid that we heard earlier.

Ovid himself set out a whole structure — a wretched slow-motion fall of man…

We have a sense of the Golden Age. In addition to peace and plenty, there was no need for justice because all was in balance… and ‘Man kept faith with the Source’.

The Age of Silver was harder to survive in, but mankind was still good.

“The Age of Brass
Brought a brazen people,
Souls fashioned on the same anvil
As the blades their hands snatched up
Before they cooled.”

Then the Age of Iron… “the day of Evil dawns”. Gold, war, commerce. “The brides heirloom is a piggybank for the groom to shatter. Brothers who ought to love each other prefer to loathe…”

Finally the giants — seeing how man behaves — assault the Gods and are ‘squashed like ripe grapes’.

Its quite a spiral down.

Then Ovid makes something happen that speaks to the fears of today: Ecological disaster falls. Jove decided to drown mankind — the ice-cap melting, perhaps.

Which of these ages do we live in?

I think most of us believe we live in the Age of Iron. And isn't there something a bit pathetic about this assumption — an assumption Ovid had already noticed when he wrote — that most people think they live in a time so unsatisfactory they have fantasies of it all ending, as if life isn't good enough. Evidence of this fantasy is found in the success of novels like Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ or the film ‘The Day after Tomorrow’ when suddenly, like the flick of a switch a violent ice age falls.

Don Quixote has his weaknesses - most obviously that he is potty - but (putting that aside) you do have to admire his courage and, above all, his optimism. At one point he says to dear old Sancho Panza “I — by Heaven's will — have been born in this our age of iron to revive in it the age of gold…” This is an almost messianic declaration. He’s mad, but by saying it Don Quixote shows us that some people in every age still look at the future as being worthy of becoming Golden again. And he thinks he can make it happen.

In Judeo-Christian culture, the Garden of Eden has its equally persistent twin: A heavenly last stage of history, when the Messiah comes down and imposes God’s order on earth. Like Ovid, Isaiah (in the reading) presents it to us as a feast where God and the earth’s bounty is given without sadness and toil.

Jesus — the new testament is peppered with references to Isaiah — uses the image of the banquet persistently. Both of them promise that God will “swallow up death for ever”. This happy apocalypse was central to what the Jesus offered his followers, and the Kingdom of Heaven was even more imminent for the early church than the ecological catastrophe is to us. That said, the Kingdom of Heaven didn't come in the most extravagant sense. And that sense doesn't mean much to me, except that it shows me a fallible Christ which worries me. And if Christ’s literal Kingdom meant much to you, you’d probably be worshipping at a very different church this morning. For us the apocalypse is likely to be moral or physical.

But there is a Kingdom which we — at the progressive end of the religious spectrum — can help to persist.

As the parable said “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” This I take to mean that part of Jesus’s Kingdom is to be lived here on earth and that somehow processes are at work for the greatest of all possible goods. We can really live with that and for that.

Now the point of what I am saying is this:

Everybody believes that the age they live in stinks. Jesus did. Cervantes the creator of Don Quixote did — he was enslaved for some years. Most of us do — though in many ways this the best time that there has ever been to be alive.

Many people also believe that human beings are too ‘natural’, evolved through Ages of ruthless competition, to be really benevolent, or really deserving of benevolence.

But this is a hopeless position. If the sense that man had a Golden Age — either behind him or in front of him — were entirely extinguished in every heart our civilisation we would surely be in the Age of Iron, and… back to Ovid: ‘The inward ear, attuned to the Creator’ would be trodden underfoot, and Astraea “the Virgin of Justice, the incorruptible — last of the immortals — [really would abandon] the blood-fouled earth.” Goodness would be extinguished in the world, because we would have lost faith entirely in our human goodness.

I can see the magic for those people who wait, expectant for a literal Kingdom of Heaven to arrive on earth. And I think it has evident value, because preparation for the supernatural Kingdom, helps many many people  live with goodness and kindness and care in the world. I certainly don’t hold onto these supernatural aspects of a future Kingdom of Heaven. But I do believe in the goodness and the need to live our lives with benevolence and fellowship… and the need to hope — as poor mad Don Quixote hoped — wish for the revival in this, so often, sad world of ours the Age of Gold.

The ‘hope’ that we were once truly happy and can be again is I believe the leaven the parable speaks about. And that is what I began to learn from an old spy on a stormy evening as we talked about neolithic burial sites.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Weighing everything by the measure of the silent presence of things . . . each step a meditation steeped in reality.

I decided to try a new circular walk today that I was introduced to by another Cambridge-based blogger whose blog is called "Keep Pushing Those Pedals".  If you want to try it yourself you can view the route here. I cycled up to Wandlebury and left the bicycle locked up at the cycle parking there and headed out on foot.  Yet again I took with me Henry Bugbee's "The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form" and once more during my walk I stopped to eat, drink a ginger-beer and re-read some selected passages. On this round of re-reading I came upon the passage I quoted back on 4 June just after I had discovered him:

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 — entry for Aug. 7).

It is just so true that I find myself needing to bring it before you again here. It is really only on foot (or in my case also on the bicycle) that I can do any proper thinking. (When I am at my desk — especially on a Saturday writing my address for the following Sunday — I find I can only write in so far as I am able to draw on the meditations of place that have occurred earlier in the week.) A pencil note of my own in the margin a few pages later sent me on to the entry of Sept. 17 (ibid. p. 194) in which Bugbee quotes Thoreau from Walden:

"Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track then."

Of this Bugbee says, in part:

"The Way can be but one unique way for each person. Yet this is no way, no clear prospect, or marked path ahead: neither straight and narrow nor broad and meandering" (ibid. p. 194).

These import of these words accompanied accompanied me on my walk home.

As always I add here a few photos from the day.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Becoming watchmen & women warning people not to go back to barbarism and bestiality

Czech Unitarian Symbol
Reading: 1 Corinthians 13 

For interested readers below is a link to various English language resources made available by the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians:


Because of its superficially pretty qualities the Flower Communion service can all too easily become a dreadfully sentimental affair which expresses little more than a vague, ungrounded and unstable desire simply to get along with others and a somewhat vacuous expression of the beauty of nature. This danger is particularly acute against the backdrop of the violent and destabilising events currently unfolding in the Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, Libya and Iraq.

In consequence, whenever I have conducted a Flower Communion, I have found it necessary to preface our celebration with some words which can help understand the hard particularities of this service which are, in fact, grounded in the underlying durable, liberal, religious-humanist hope which grew to maturity in the extremely difficult historical context faced by our sister church in the former Czechoslovakia during the early years of the twentieth century.

Čapek during a moment of quiet thought in the woods 
Although the founder of the Unitarian community in Czechoslovakia, Norbert Fabián Čapek (1870-1942), felt that in his sermons and prayers of the 1920s he had successfully begun to articulate an effective, contemporary liberal theology, he realised that his community in Prague needed a service which embodied this theological stance in a more tangible, concrete way. Because traditional forms of Christian communion had all kinds of problematic theological and social resonances for many of his community's members, Čapek realised that it was insufficient for him merely lightly to revise the Christian communion service and so he began to devise the Flower Communion service which was finally introduced to the congregation in Prague on 4 June 1923.

Čapek asked members to bring to church a flower of their choice and, when they arrived, just as you were today, they were invited to place it in a large vase or basket. This simple act was understood to be symbolic of each individual’s free desire to join with others in a voluntary, liberal religious community. The vase that contained the flowers was itself understood to represent the church community itself (this, in turn, was represented by the "U" in their current church's symbol — see photo at the top of this post). Speaking of the vase in which the flowers were gathered Čapek said:

"For us in our Unitarian brotherhood the vase is our church organization. We need it to help us share the beauties and also the responsibilities of communal life. In the proper community by giving the best that is in us for the common good, we grow up and are able to do what no single person is able to do. Each of us needs to receive in order to grow up, but each of us needs to give something away for the same reason" (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 145).

There followed some hymns, a reading of 1 Corinthians 13, a sermon, a prayer of consecration and one of blessing. At the close of the service each member was invited to take with them a different flower, as Čapek said, ‘just as it comes without making any distinction where it came from and whom it represents’. The taking of a flower also stood as a public confession that they accepted ‘each other as brothers and sisters without regard to class, race, or other distinction, acknowledging everybody as our friend who is a human and wants to be good.’ (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 144).

Now it is vitally important to realise that the situation in Czechoslovakia during the 1920s was far from easy as the new state had only been founded in 1918 and everyone was engaged in the extremely difficult and highly fraught process of articulating what might become its distinctive political and religious identity. If you publicly attended and took part in this Unitarian service you were saying something with real risk attached to it, not least of all because it was openly to challenge the orthodox Christian status quo of the time and to commit to a radical, alternative religious and social movement that promoted an inclusive and tolerant approach to life and religion that was markedly absent from culture of the time.

So you have a clearer idea of the kind of religious community to which people were committing when they participated in the Flower Communion during those early years, here is how Čapek defined it:

What kind of religion is this Unitarianism? It is humanity lightened by divinity. It is humanism and theism combined. It is not the kind of humanism without God and without a soul, but the humanism of those great men who from time to time called our nation to a new life. When John Hus appealed to reason and conscience against the authority of the pope, it was work for humanity. When Comenius conceived school as a workshop of humanity, it was the continuation. I specially quote his words: “man finds himself best in his own innermost, nowhere else, for then in himself he easily finds God and all.” What else is it but to begin with man when seeking God? The opinion that religion is outgrown can be held only about the religion that was not human enough, that remained [either] under the level of humanity or remained, so to say, hanging in the sky, and could not answer the needs of men in their daily life. . . . While worshipping the liturgical Christ people could not hear the human Jesus who asked for love to men. Unitarianism is the religion of humanity in the best sense of the word. It has rejected the inhuman and barbaric conception of God and by this brought God nearer to human understanding; it has established a more intimate relation of Jesus [by emphasizing] the value and sovereignty of man. Today it looks as if mankind was on the crossroad not knowing in what direction to move. . . . Our age calls for watchmen who would stand on the crossroad and warn people not to go back to barbarism and bestiality, but to go from views only terrestrial and selfish to cosmic views, from Humanity to Divinity (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 195-196).

But we make a terrible mistake if we think that by just putting a beautiful flower in a vase, saying some nice liberal sounding words about community and inclusivity, and then taking one out later, our own lives will be transformed in the way they were for Čapek and his church members. No! The service can only help bring about such a transformation in us if there is some real connection between the original hard particularities of the service, the hard particularities of its celebration since 1923 and the hard particularities connected with its celebration amongst us now the United Kingdom of the 21st century.

You have heard something about the original particularities of the service but before we go on to consider our own particularities  it is important to remember in the years which followed its introduction there came first the Nazis (who arrested and killed Čapek as an enemy of the regime in one of their so-called 'medical experiments') and then, when that unimaginable nightmare finally ended, there came a further one under a highly oppressive Communist regime. Today, of course, as a separate independent Czech Republic, our brothers and sisters face new and still extremely challenging particularities as a new member state of the European Union (2004).

(For those interested, in connection with this last point, in 2007 I contributed a chapter called "The Religious Society of Czech Unitarians (RSCU) and the Construction of Czech National Identity" to a book entitled "The Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity." My paper argued that the RSCU offers a powerful model of liberal religious community which successfully balances the need in Europe to develop a corporate identity whilst still allowing for a variety of very particular regional/national identities.)

So what of our own twenty-first century British particularities to which we must carefully relate this service if it is to be truly transformative for us?

Today, I'll restrict myself to but one example which relates to the dangers facing all of us across Europe living as we do in highly secularised, neoliberal dominated societies which, as a whole, are increasingly losing any corporate understanding that there is something mysterious, creatively ultimate about the existence of ourselves and the world that is neither in the gift, nor power, of humankind; something that is not a commodity than can be traded or bought and sold. The traditional placeholder for this "mysterious ultimate creativity" in our culture is, of course, the word "God". Here are some words by a leading contemporary Czech Unitarian minister, Jaroslava Dittrichová, which she offered up to a Unitarian and Universalist theological symposium in Oxford during 2000:

[B]elief in one God - is certainly the main Unitarian principle from the historical point of view. We think that this principle is also one of the main principles in contemporary Czech Unitarianism. Many of you are of [a] different opinion. Perhaps those of you who are non-theists do not find language about God useful. You may think the word God is much abused, and often used to refer to a kind of personal God. You may believe that the fruits of our life matter more than beliefs about God. This may be partly true, but there is a possible, hidden danger in this idea. We who lived under the communist brand of totalitarianism were able to see and experience the consequences of a system without God, a system that considered man to be the centre of the world, without responsibility to something higher than himself - or even without a sense of responsibility to "the order of being." [. . .] We believe together with Vaclav Havel that in our contemporary world, we should respect what is beyond us. It seems to us that it is not important whether we call it the order of nature, the absolute or God. We are not afraid of the word "God." We use it because Dr. Capek and [his successor] Dr. Haspl used this word in their sermons and books, and because the word "God" is used in other churches in our country which are close to us more now than at any previous time. We believe that a humanism which considers human beings the centre of the world without respect to something higher allows humans to be driven by their particular interests rather than governing their behaviour in a way that takes account of general interests. This results in the plundering of natural resources and other dangers existing in our civilization. What we have told you does not mean that we set belief in God against humanism. What we want to emphasise is that humanism should be open to transcendence. Such a humanism may be called religious humanism" ("A Global Conversation", A. Hill, ICUU Prague 2002, pp. 197-199).

Flora in Calix Light by David Jones
So, should you chose to take a flower from this vase today, as I will invite you to do as you leave, it is not to engage in some pointless piece of nice, liberal, fluffy-bunny stuff and nonsense but to bear public witness to your real intention to work for the success of the kind of open-hearted, liberal religious humanism articulated so well by Dittrichová and our Czech Unitarian brothers and sisters. Also, it is to signal your intention that, like Čapek, you are willing to become watchmen and women standing on the crossroads of our own age warning people *not* to go back to the barbarism and bestiality still espoused by so many forms of religion and politics today and, at the same time, to offer people a visible and, I hope, beautiful and uplifting expression of how to be compassionately and intelligently religious in our own place and time.


Čapek's prayer consecrating the flowers:

Infinite Spirit of Life, we ask thy blessing on these, thy messengers of fellowship and love. May they remind us, amid diversities of knowledge and of gifts, to be one in desire and affection, and devotion to thy holy will. May they also remind us of the value of comradeship, of doing and sharing alike. May we cherish friendship as one of thy most precious gifts. May we not let awareness of another's talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that, whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do thy work in this world. Amen.

Čapek's communion prayer:

In the name of Providence, which implants in the seed the future of the tree and in the human heart the longing for people to live together in love; In the name of the highest, in whom we move and who makes the mother and father, the brother and sister what they are; In the name of sages and religious leaders who sacrificed their lives to hasten the coming of peace and justice; In the name of all these, let us renew our resolution – sincerely to be real brothers and sisters regardless of any bar that might estrange us from one another. In this holy resolve may we be strengthened, knowing that we are God's family, that one spirit – the spirit of love – unites us, and may we endeavour for a more perfect and more joyful life. Amen.