Sunday, 30 November 2014

Wilderness as Patiency — Exploring Advent with Henry Bugbee 1

Leaves and bark in the Botanic Garden
Readings: Matthew 3:1-3

From: The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Reflection in Journal Form (University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 154-155) by Henry Bugbee

Thursday, August 20 (1954)
I have dwelt on the idea of unconditional concern in the hope of positioning ourselves for philosophical reflection. It has seemed to me that we are unable to think in terms of finality and necessity except as our actual mode of concern in the act of reflection be unconditional. It is not an attitude which we adopt or deliberately acquire. But it is an attitude to which we may be recalled; it may reawaken in us and bring us to ourselves. And there are things one may read, such as we have from Kant or Spinoza; there are things one may hear, certain music — it may be; there are men who live again in remembered deeds of theirs which revisit one as true; one may be struck clean by sunlight over a patch of lawn, by clouds running free before the wind, by the massive presence of rock. What untold hosts of voices there are which call upon one and summon him to reawakening. He remembers, and is himself once again, moving cleanly on his way. Some measure of simplicity again informs the steps he takes; he becomes content to be himself and finds fragrance in the air. He may eat his food in peace. He does not wish to obviate tomorrow’s work. He is willing to consider: not to suppose a case, but take the case that is. He becomes patient. Things invite him to adequate himself to their infinity. The passage of time is now not robbery or show; it is the meaning of the present ever completing itself. It is enough to participate in this, to be at home in the unknown.
          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.


There are many things about Advent, at least in it’s full blown Christian theological form, that we here are going to find unpersuasive and uncongenial. But, nevertheless, in the season there is an important theme that can, I think, still speak usefully and powerfully to us. It is the theme of patient waiting.

The value of exploring this struck me forcibly this week for two reasons. The first was that our church chairman and newsletter editor, Andrew Bethune, needed a few seasonally related words from me for the newsletter and something written by the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from his prison cell to his fiancée on December 13th 1943, immediately came back into my mind:

“Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten. It wants to break open the ripe fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot. But all too often the greedy eyes are only deceived; the fruit that seemed so precious is still green on the inside, and disrespectful hands ungratefully toss aside what has so disappointed them. Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting — that is of hopefully doing without — will never experience the full blessedness of fulfilment.”

The second reason the theme of patient waiting pressed upon me was occasioned by witnessing, from a distance, the relatively new phenomenon for us in the UK of “Black Friday”. As most of you will know it is a commercial “event” imported from the USA when goods are heavily discounted. You will all have seen or heard reports on the extraordinary disturbances, almost mini-riots, as shoppers fought over various items on sale. We saw here many examples of a singular lack of patient waiting.

Anyway, I’m sure you can see why the theme of patience pressed in upon me. The season of Advent is, of course, understood by Christians as a period of preparation in which the faithful wait patiently for the appearance of something new and fulfilling, namely, nothing less than the kingdom of heaven and the Messiah himself, the chosen one of God, the Christ-child, “Emmanuel” or “God with us”.

But, as I intimated at the beginning, left in the realm of traditional Christian thought the apparent theological implications of Advent (and then Christmas) are likely to be, shall we say, unpersuasive and uncongenial. The idea that God once actually came down from heaven in the form of a child, re-ascended to heaven after the crucifixion from whence he is judging the living and the dead before returning again some bright but apparently somewhat more apocalyptic morn, seems to us today vanishingly unlikely to be true.

Cue some more patient waiting . . .

Henry Bugbee
I was in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden last week — some of you will have seen on the blog the set of B&W photos I took on this occasion. As is often the case as I walked at one point my mind turned towards the particularly vexing question of what on earth I might say to you all on Advent Sunday that was of any interest at anyone — including me (after all, this is the fourteenth time I've gone through the season with you). In this kind of situation I find it’s best not to respond to the problem by becoming overly active but, instead, to engage in a bit of mindfulness, to stop and let go of my thoughts and not to suppose any kind of case but, as Bugbee suggests, take the case as is. I try to take time to notice my breathing, to relax my body and then, as I continue to walk, slowly becoming mindful of the sounds, smells, sights all around me, the birds and conversation, the smell of damp grass and leaves, the bright colours of the few remaining leaves and their contrast with whites, browns and blacks of the bare branches. It has been my experience that is precisely in these moments of letting go and patient waiting — something over which I do have some control — that something else, new and unexpected, freely enters the world as a graceful gift and helps my thinking and living on its way.
As I quietly walked, letting go and being patiently mindful, what came over the horizon and disclosed itself to me as something that might be worth talking about with you was an experience that the American philosopher, Henry Bugbee, noticed.

What was this experience? Well, to get a sense of it I need to begin by noting Bugbee’s take on patience is found in the context of our receptivity and response to nature — to the sublime attraction that all of us have felt when we have taken time to consider or encounter the natural world. Bugbee’s thinking is very rich and detailed here and I can’t go into all the detail I would like to but, in outline, he thought that one of the best ways of being made receptive to nature’s call is through the kind of walking which he called “a meditation of place” (Inward Morning p. 139). Bugbee writes:

“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).

Daniel W. Conway, writing about this passage, says:

“Walking is not [therefore] merely a calisthenic propaedeutic to the heroic labors of philosophizing. Rather, walking functions as the engine of immersion, which enables him to take the phenomenological measure of the wild he temporarily inhabits" (Wilderness and the Heart: Henry Bugbee's Philosophy of Place, Presence and Memory, ed. Edward F. Mooney, University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 6).

Taken together Bugbee’s words and Conway’s comments feel to me like a very good expression of what is so often going on when I’m walking in the Botanic Garden (or anywhere else for that matter) and working on something that I might bring before you on a Sunday morning. But, although this kind of walking clearly immerses a person in nature this immersion is only half the story. What needs immediately to follow is a response. Now, the way I have set it out may, at first, make it seem as if the patient waiting theme I want to talk about today is going to be found in the apparently passive, quiet patient and meditative walk whilst my response is going to be something else, something involving my active agency — some other kind of obvious doing. But that’s not quite right in this context because, as Conway notes, Bugbee wants to encourage in us a kind of response that might initially appear contradictory, namely, to engage in “an active receptiveness”. Conway goes on to say that this “suggests a condition we might call patiency, whereby the sauntering philosopher, having received the call of the wild, now invites wilderness to express itself through him” (Wilderness and the Heart, p. 12).

With the idea of patiency we have now arrived at the real theme of my address today. Patiency is the word which describes a certain kind of active response that Bugbee is encouraging us to engage in — it's not just an activity reserved for so-called professional philosophers. I’m bringing it up now, not only because I think it is obviously relevant in the season of Advent, but because I feel it may well be the most important, central activity a church such as this should be encouraging all the year round. In brief, Bugbee feels, as you heard in our reading, that:

“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” (Inward Morning, p. 155).

I clearly now need to add a word or two about the wilderness which is, of course, also an Advent theme, for as you know John the Baptist does his waiting for Christ in the wilderness. What is the wilderness, the wild or wildness for Bugbee? It seems that the wild is Nature itself in all its endless movements in and through all things; it is something like natura naturans, nature naturing. For Spinoza, whom Bugbee admired, natura naturans  may also be thought of as God — Deus sive natura, God is nature, nature is God.

Conway notes that for Bugbee patiency restores to a person this wildness that is nature naturing and it is this that helps a person see not only the ultimate unconditional value of all individual things but also the falsity of the idea that somehow we as humans have some kind of privileged status within the natural world. Indeed, Conway goes so far as to suggest that for Bugbee wilderness is patiency (Wilderness and the Heart, p. 13) and, by extension, this must mean patiency is also wilderness.

Patiency helps us gain a “sense of communion” with all things and also to experience “a concrete understanding of reality and our togetherness in reality” (Inward Morning, p. 123). Patiency helps us experience the many and the one, the one and the many.

To reintroduce a clearly Advent and Christmas thought, I want to say that patiency helps us see something that our final Advent hymn, written by the Unitarian minister Don Wayne Vaughn, speaks about, namely that that for which we are waiting with active receptiveness — given in the Christian myth the name “the Christ-child” — is, in truth patiently to develop the ability to see the divine in everything as it is and that, “with each new life, all life anew will start”. Together all this should help us see that all things, birds, trees, you me, flowers, rivers, mountains, nails and squeaky doors really are all in this together.

This insight, when fully internalised and lived daily has, of course, profound implications for our religion, philosophy, politics and commerce.

But we simply cannot get to see and experience all this if we are charging about in a frenzy of activity. Which thought brings me to a close today because it seems to me that, at this very early moment in our species’ history, religion really should be spending most of its time and energy in encouraging patiency. For too long religion has acted as if it knew the secrets of all time and space and has encouraged in us a destructive frenzy of intrusive activity far more unseemly and violent than anything we saw on Black Friday. Surely we need to learn how to leave things be and to do this in an actively receptive way that helps us move together gently and supportively with the whole of nature.

I think Bugbee's words about philosophy bear repeating but with reference also to religion. Religion, like philosophy, "is not the 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."

I wish you all a wild and patient Advent.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A gig with Tina May and the Chris Ingham Trio at the Hoste in Burnham Market, Thursday 27 Nov, 6.30pm–10.30pm

Tina May and Chris Ingham
I'm playing bass for Tina May with the Chris Ingham Trio at the Hoste in Burnham Market, Thursday 27 Nov, 6.30pm–10.30pm

Tina is a wonderful singer and, as the publicity for the gig says "her enthusiasm for the creative invention of jazz combined with her all embracing, engaging and joyful personality, make her one of the UK’s most in demand jazz artists both here and across the world."

The trio is made up of Chris Ingham (piano), George Double (drums) and myself on bass. We were chuffed a couple of years ago to have the saxophonist Art Themen say that playing with us was like “being driven around in a Rolls-Royce”.

Tickets and further details available at the following link:

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

A (mostly) black and white couple of days in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden

One of my favourite books of the last ten years has been Robert Pogue Harrison's Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 2008). As the publisher's blurb makes clear:

"Humans have long turned to gardens—both real and imaginary—for sanctuary from the frenzy and tumult that surrounds them."

Well, for that sanctuary — after a week of frenzy and particularly unpleasant tumult  I took myself, as I so often do, down to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.  Here are a few photos from the last couple of days, all but two in black and white. The healing and restorative power of gardens is, truly, astonishing and for it (both the power and the garden) I am hugely grateful.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Belief-in, belief-that and faith — Kierkegaard and Where's Wally?;

Søren Kierkegaard
One of the last lengthy, valuable and in depth conversations I had with my friend the philosopher of religion, Jonathan Harrison, before he died earlier this year was about faith. He always wanted to make a distinction between faith and belief and felt I didn’t talk enough about faith. In fact I agreed with him on this point but, I told him, the reason I didn’t speak about it was that I wasn’t sufficiently clear about what was meant by the words “belief” and “faith”.

In terms of his own thinking about belief Jonathan was very influenced by his teacher at Oxford University during the late 1940s, a certain H. H. Price (1899-1984) who was at the time the Wykeham Professor of Logic. In so far as his work is still remembered, Price’s “best known” works were his 1969 Gifford Lectures collected together in a book called “Belief”. Jonathan would often point me towards a distinction Price made between “belief-in” and “belief-that”.
Wally being painted by Martin Handford 

Price thought belief-in was not empirical. That is to say belief-in was not based on the guidance of external evidence but was, instead, something like an inner conviction. A good, everyday example of this is the belief a parent might have in their child. John Byrne, writing on critical thinking for medical practitioners notes, “People can believe-in their children, meaning that they always consider them to be truly good people (even if their children have not demonstrated such qualities outwardly).” Byrne also adds these helpful examples of “belief-in”:

“People can believe-in an idea (such as democracy) without empirical evidence. One can believe-in a god or other supernatural forces even while acknowledging that such things may never, or could never, be proven. Most of us believe-in human rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech. Many believe-in freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.” 

“Belief-that”, however, is a very different animal. Byrne, again following Price, writes:

“Belief-thats can have measurable degrees of uncertainty. [So, for example] A meteorologist can believe that there will be a 70% chance of rain on Tuesday, based on observable facts today and applying scientific theory to come up with a prediction. When scientists use the words “believe” and “belief”, they are likely referring to believe-that and belief-that.”

Now, whilst it is impossible ever to be wholly free from some kind of belief-in, given the nature of this skeptical church tradition with it’s long commitment to the natural sciences, most of us here, when we use the word “belief”, are going to be using it primarily as “belief that” and we really should hold this in mind. I realise that to some this may seem overly technical and complicated but, as Price himself said,

“It is not trivial. Religious belief whether we like it or not is quite an important phenomenon. Those who have no religious belief themselves should still try to understand what kind of an attitude it is and they cannot hope to understand it unless they pay some attention to what is said by those who do have it.”

Living in an age when belief-in is coming back very much into play, whether it is the kind of belief-in of religious fundamentalists (of whatever religious flavour) or the kind of belief-in that is, for example, driving so much of the current murky politics concerning immigration or our involvement with, say, the European Union, we are becoming increasingly and acutely aware that this is not a trivial issue at all.

So let’s now turn to consider faith. However, this is not a turn that can be made without difficulty. This is primarily because most of us, coming from a generally Christian culture, tend to think of “faith” in terms of the famous passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews from which you heard an extract earlier and this text has come to be understood by most Christians — and Christian secular culture — as being belief-in something.

So, when the author of Hebrews said that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” the conventional Christian (theistic) believer will believe this refers to a list of propositions about those unseen things that they believe-in. Here’s an example of a typical list — I’ll just read the first four of eleven propositions of the things believed in (that cannot be seen) which are found in the Statement of Faith presented by the Cambridge University Inter Collegiate Christian Union (CUICCU):

We believe in:

  • The unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the Godhead.
  • The sovereignty of God in creation, revelation, redemption and final judgement.
  • The divine inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.
  • The universal sinfulness and guilt of human nature since the fall, rendering man subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.
  • etc. etc.

In this context notice that the word “faith” (remember it's supposed to be a statement of faith) "is clearly being used as a synonym for “belief-in” these propositions about unseen things, things which can be recited and listed and posted on a door or website or printed in red on a white shirt.

But, despite this common usage, is “faith” just a synonym for “belief-in” and is this really the insight the author of Hebrews was trying to pass on to us? Jonathan would certainly say no. Well, we can only have a hope of teasing out some kind of satisfactory answer if we can see that faith is something different from belief. The question is pressing upon me once again because the difference between belief and faith is so important to J. L. Schellenberg’s work to which I’ve started introducing you in recent weeks.

Serendipitously, just a yesterday morning my friend, the philosopher Ed Mooney, read a paper at the American Academy of Religion meetings in San Diego at a session on Kierkegaard. His paper is a very accessible and moving piece which draws on his book “Excursions with Kierkegaard” and in it he asks, what is faith? Given the fact that “faith” is so often misunderstood as “belief-in” we can see why he begins by telling us the following story:

“Let’s say we overhear a conversation about religious believers. The gist is that persons of faith are victims of massive self-deception. “Faith offers beautiful beliefs. God is perfect goodness; he grants forgiveness, and immortality. These are pipe-dreams, lovely thoughts, but nonsense.” The chatter continues: “There’s a simple reason why believers don’t see the nonsense of their lovely beliefs. They shield against the realties of cruelty, suffering, and death. The believer,” we’re happy to learn, “clings to these lovelies to blot out what are really ugly facts of life.” In some corner of consciousness, the believer, it seems, knows death is final, and only half-believes that God exists, and half-believes that God’s at fault for letting evil and injustice win. The believer, we’re told, is in the sad business of manipulating her belief as part of a massive cover up” (From It’s Impossible: Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith can’t be self-deceptive by Edward F. Mooney).

Whenever faith is understood like this, as part of a massive cover up, it is no surprise that in a place like this we get mighty nervous about using the word. It was this concern that certainly stopped me from talking about faith and which ultimately triggered Jonathan’s probing comment. But there is another way to understand what faith is and here’s a story that Ed uses to bring it out:

“Imagine a moment in ice dancing when the male releases his partner, throwing her into a leap (or letting her leap?) – and then watching as she lands. Or stumbles. If she falls, she does not return. But he has faith he will get her back. She spins full circle, and drifts back into her partner’s arms. Faith is the openness to contingency of an initial leap and trust in abiding this initial loss and separation – one trustingly awaits her return, assured one will gracefully get her back. Faith is action and release, and receptivity to the gift of return.”

The dancer has faith (it's somewhat like they "believe-that") the partner they have just thrown into a leap will come back into their arms.

Following Kierkegaard, Ed points out then, that faith is a double movement, namely, that “of giving up and getting back”. As he says:

“For the ballet dancer, it’s the leap up (resigning the security of the floor, letting go) and the trust that a safe landing awaits (she’ll get the oak-floor security back, transformed).  The dancer leaps with composure and courage and lands with openness and trust. Trust refuses to let the possibility of disaster have the last word. . . . Faith is rich in ways of moving and being, of giving up and getting back.”

So to “track faith” — that is to find out what it is and to find out if Jonathan was right to encourage me to talk about it more often — I/we need to look around us for this double movement. We see it, Ed suggests, when we “look for love, unflappable assurance and steadiness of purpose, for courage”, for “vulnerability and humility” and always noting “the absence of self-righteousness or of shouting truth from the rooftops.” He also suggests we should keep an eye open for “the modesty of Socratic ignorance.” Ed concludes by saying:

“If it didn’t sound like a patter song, I say we find character, carriage, comportment, and composure — with a dash of care, courage, and commitment.” 

You can see that Ed’s patter song of c-words is very different from the list of propositions presented by the statement proposed by the letter “c” heavy CUICCU. Whilst you can post statements like CUICCU's on a door or website or print it in red on a white shirt you can’t do this with a steady hand or a leap’s graceful descent because faith “concerns the marvellous movements, the ups and downs, of ways of being and becoming.” These are always living, new and changing things unique to this or that situation and person.

It should also be clear that the life of faith is a multifarious thing. It’s not only one narrowly defined thing — like that delineated by any kind of belief-in statements — instead it is a truly rich, moving, lively and incredibly plural phenomenon.

Herein lies, I think the wit of the cartoon strip below — click on the picture to enlarge it. (Source found here).

As I’m sure you know the “Where's Wally?” series of children's books by Martin Handford which challenge the reader to find a character named Wally who is hidden in picture along with hundreds of other characters. Of course, Handford uses all kinds of visual tricks to hide Wally but, in the end, Wally's very distinctive red-and-white-striped shirt, bobble hat, and glasses make him easy to recognise.

Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith”, on the other hand, is in some senses, much harder to recognise because he or she doesn’t a distinctive wear red-and-white striped shirt (which stands here as a kind as a visual equivalent to a list of propositions to believe in which can publicly be posted up somewhere). No, the Knight of Faith displays their faith very differently, namely in their steady hand and graceful leap, in their character, carriage, comportment, and composure, all topped off with a dash of care, courage, and commitment.

Faith understood this way can, in principle, be found in everyone everywhere — the Knight of Faith is, potentially anyway, everyone and everywhere. The knight can be the mother, the father, the shopkeeper, the train driver, the checkout assistant, the airline pilot, the engineer, the mathematician, poet, the dancer, musician, teacher, chemist, biologist, physicist secretary, footballer, doctor, librarian, translator, philosopher and even, at times, ministers of religion. It can, of course, also be found in Christian. Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Atheist and Humanist alike.

In the cartoon the difficulty of spotting the Knight of Faith is humorously revealed. He and she is there to find but only when we look well and hard enough through the double movement of faith — something beautifully and movingly displayed by so many people in their everyday lives.

I have a feeling that this might be one way of interpreting what the author of Hebrews may have been pointing to in the last two verses of Chapter 11. Once upon a time we were promised easily recognisable things — simply theological propositions to believe-in. But the faithful are promised something better, far better. Might he not be gesturing towards the phenomenon that through the double movement of faith — of giving up and getting back — people gracefully receive the only life that can truly be their own, one that comes with a steady hand and graceful leap, character, carriage, comportment, and composure all topped off with a dash of care, courage, and commitment?

I imagine most members of CICCU will say to me that I am wrong in this and say that belief-in is the "something better". But that’s OK. Each to their own and I bear no-one any ill-will as long as their belief-in is not imposed forcibly upon me or anyone else.

But, as for me, I’m interested in finding, and in helping you to find, that “something better”. What we find won’t be able to be posted on a door or website or printed in red on a white shirt because, of course, it can only be expressed through your own faithful double movements “of giving up and getting back” — of trusting that disaster, darkness and failure need not have the last word.

Have faith my friends, have faith.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Jazz At The Movies play "Meglio Stasera" from the film "The Pink Panther" (1963)

L. to r., Joanna Eden, Alan Barnes & Chris Ingham
One of the bands I'm enjoying playing with at the moment is "Jazz At The Movies". Last month we played at the Mumford theatre, Cambridge, England, (10th October 2014) and the gig was recorded. Below you'll find a video of the band playing "Meglio Stasera" from the film "The Pink Panther" (1963).

The band is fronted by the wonderful singer JOANNA EDEN ("the UK's answer to Norah Jones and Diana Krall" TIME OUT) and presents material ranging from Bond to Bacharach, Dankworth to Disney, Porter to Pinter. The band has played successful shows at jazz clubs and venues throughout the country including sold-out appearances at London's Ronnie Scott's in 2012 and 2013, St James Theatre Studio, Wavendon Stables, Bury St Edmunds Apex, Pizza Jazz Club Soho, Colchester Arts Centre and many others.

In addition to Joanna Eden the band playing in the video is made up of Mark Crooks on clarinet, Chris Ingham on piano, George Double on drums and myself on bass.

The next gig, part of the band's A SWINGING CHRISTMAS! tour, is on Friday 5th December at St James Theatre in London. Details available at the following link:


Monday, 17 November 2014

A sunny day in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden with Susanna and Epicurus

To our surprise, when Susanna and I woke up this morning the sun was out. We seized the moment and walked across town to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. While we had a cup of tea in the café I read a little bit of Epicurus. Sitting there in the sun with my wife, who is also my best friend, one of his "Vatican Sayings" (No. 52) jumped out at me:

"Friendship dances round the world announcing to all of us that we must wake up to happiness."

Yes, indeed! Here are a few photos taken during our visit.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Religion for pioneers — another look at Schellenberg's "EvolutionaryReligion"

Christ's Pieces opposite the church this morning
Reading: Luke 512:54-56

One of the most powerful criticisms of the liberal religious movement to which this church belongs, with its roots in liberal Christianity and the Enlightenment, is that it is too lacking in content and way too skeptical to be itself a meaningfully sustaining religious approach. The most well-known popular version of this was found in the Simpsons. Many of you will recall it.

Homer and Marge’s children, Bart and Lisa are going to a church fête at which the Revd Lovejoy is to serve ice-cream. Lisa asks: “Ice-cream at church?” Bart immediately adds, “I’m intrigued, yet suspicious.” When they arrive at the stall Lisa looks at all the different ice-creams and says, “Wow, look at all these flavours, black-virgin berry, command-mint, bible-gum . . . “ but the Revd Lovejoy quickly interrupts and says, “Or, if you prefer, we have Unitarian ice-cream” and immediately hands Lisa a bowl. She looks confusedly into it and then back up at Revd Lovejoy and says, “There’s nothing here.” The Revd Lovejoy crosses his arms and simply says, “Exactly.”

To give you a more nuanced flavour of this criticism, no pun intended, here is an extract from John B. Cobb’s influential book from 1973 called Liberal Christianity at the Crossroads (Westminster Press).

The image I have chosen for the title of this chapter is an all too obvious one for church people in these times. Consider the crossroads at which we stand as liberal Christians in terms of decisiveness of commitment on the one hand and openness on the other. [. . .]
          At the crossroads we can choose the way to the theological right. In the years after World War I, Karl Barth, recognizing the bankruptcy of liberal Christianity, pioneered that road. He showed that the turn to the right theologically could support courageous movements to the left in the political and social spheres. [. . .]
          Even so, despite the power and value of what can be found on the road to the right, for many of us it is too late. We are committed to openness to the truth that comes from multiple traditions and new discoveries in the present and the future. We cannot reaffirm one tradition against the others. However valuable the symbols and memories of the Christian heritage, they can no longer encompass the whole to which we must be open. The road to the right involves a going back, in however sophisticated a form, and we are committed to going forward, open to all truth and value from whatever source it comes to us.
          Hence we are more attracted to the road to the left than that to the theological right. That, too. is a well-traveled road. But the record of its travellers is not entirely inspiring. They begin with a commitment to openness wherever it may lead. But commitment to openness as such does not provide a place to stand, a place from which to evaluate the many claimants for our attention and belief. Hence the road to the left leads to one of two ends. One may adopt the academic stance of openness to all and commitment to none. [. . .] Alternately, openness may lead to the full acceptance of some vital and persuasive movement or vision, an acceptance that en-grafts one into a new history but ends the openness to which he was first committed. For decades liberal Christian churches have supplied the universities with uncommitted intellectuals and each new social and cultural movement with many of its most dedicated followers. This is not a shameful record, but it shows that the road to the left holds little promise for the future.
          The image of the crossroads, unlike that of a fork in the road, suggests that there is a third way we can go. Straight ahead. But whereas the roads to the right and the left are easy to make out and have well-known destinations, the road ahead is more like a goat path up a steep mountain. Only a few Christian thinkers have explored that trail, and their reports are conflicting. We do not know whether at the top we may reach a new plateau for travel or only more rugged cliffs. Even so, I am convinced that as liberal Christians we are called to scale the slope ahead.
          We cannot do this if our liberal openness and our Christian commitment continue to be in tension with each other. Openness can be sustained only where it is grounded in a faith that justifies and requires it. But we can affirm Christian faith wholeheartedly today only insofar as it opens us to all truth and value. Openness and faith must be brought for us into a new relation of mutual support.

I was profoundly struck by John Cobb’s book when I first read it back in the late eighties and it elicited from me a personal promise to try to take the road ahead.

For reasons obvious to most of us I felt sure as I could be that the route to the right was not going to work. However, a significant problem before me, then and now, was that as a liberal religious movement we had, for the most part, already gone a long way down the route to the left and it was clear that along the way many of us had discovered to our cost that “commitment to openness as such does not provide a place to stand, a place from which to evaluate the many claimants for our attention and belief.”

By the time I entered the full-time ministry in 2000 I had seen many examples of where liberal ministers and/or churches (in all kinds of denominations) had taken one of the two options that became available on the road to the left. To recap, the first option was to adopt an “academic stance of openness to all and commitment to none” whilst the second tended to lead “to the full acceptance of some vital and persuasive movement or vision, an acceptance that en-grafts one into a new history but ends the openness to which he was first committed.”

Neither of these options seemed acceptable but, on entering the professional ministry, I realised the path straight-ahead was considerably steeper than I had imagined. For many people it was, and still is, a very difficult path to get up.

However, I want immediately to add that, forty years on, we can see that it can be done and, should you choose to take it yourselves, along the way you will now find an increasing number of helpful and supportive signposts and guides along the way.

And now I can bring you the headline good news, on getting to the top myself (if, indeed, I have . . .) I have found, as have many others, to borrow a phrase from Cobb, at the very least “a new plateau for travel”. Not only this but at the top one of the guides I met introduced me to a way to travelling  which I think successfully maintains a balance between “liberal openness” and, if no longer precisely “Christian commitment” (in terms of Christian belief), then at least a new and genuine kind of “religious commitment” that still allows us to take something forward from our inherited Christian tradition.

A Prairie Schooner 
To help you through what follows it’s worth keeping in mind the image of the early pioneers travelling across the North American. Back in February 2013 and June 2014 I also suggested that we might usefully think of our liberal church as resembling a prairie schooner — one of those iconic wagons with a white cloth cover that they used to make their extraordinary journeys. It is important to remember that, as large as they were, they could only carry a minimal amount of stuff — just the essentials and with nothing extra that might unnecessarily weigh them down and grind them to a halt. I want to suggest that for those of us who choose to take the path ahead we, like the pioneers of old, need to ensure we go light, very light indeed.

With this thought in mind I can now return to the work of J. L. Shellenberg to whom I introduced you a couple of weeks ago through his 2013 book, “Evolutionary Religion”, the penultimate chapter of which is called “Religion for Pioneers”. I do this because he is the guide who has offered me a very light, minimalist religion that seems entirely appropriate to the path ahead, one that balances openness and commitment.

Schellenberg, you will remember, wants to place everything in the evolutionary perspective — into the context of deep time. I’m choosing to re-tell the basic story now because, as the Harvard biologist and paleotontologist, Stephen Jay Gould put it: “an abstract intellectual understanding of deep time comes easily enough — I know how many zeroes to place after 10 when I mean billions. Getting it into the gut is another matter” (cited in Evolutionary Religion p. 3). This address is designed to help, in a small way, to get this perspective into our guts.

So, let’s remember, we live on a planet that is approximately 3.5 billion years old which has, all things being considered, a possible further billion years of existence before the sun gives out on us. Squeezed in between the deep past and the deep future lie us, who, as Homo sapiens, have only been around for about 200,000 years. Of this figure only 50,000 years have seen us producing what we can call distinctively human culture and only 6,000 years have seen us engaged in the kind of religious and philosophical thinking we inherit today. The history of the natural sciences is, by a considerable degree of course, even shorter still.

Is it likely then, Schellenberg asks, that our best religious and philosophical ideas are behind us? The answer, surely, has to be “No”. Is it also likely that the natural sciences have already discovered everything there is to know about the universe, it’s make up and operation? Again the answer is, surely, “No”. This means that in the areas of religion and philosophy, and in the natural sciences, we must acknowledge that we know very little indeed and should, therefore, adopt a properly skeptical attitude that is firmly committed to an openness to the possibility that for an almost unimaginable period of time to come “new light and truth” will continually be discovered and emerge.

At this point, you may be forgiven for thinking that this radical openness simply sounds like Cobb’s road to left only reached by a different route. But Schellenberg does not stop here for, like Cobb, he realises our need, not just for openness, but for commitment and, more specifically for something that we can call religious commitment.

Remember, for Schellenberg, any religion (at this early stage in our development) must live itself out by committing to three general assertions:

  • Firstly, that “Divine” reality needs to be “a more fundamental fact about reality than any identifiable natural fact”. (Metaphysical transcendence)
  • Secondly, that “Divine” reality’s splendour excellence and value also needs “to exceed that of anything found in nature alone” (Axiological transcendence)
  • Thirdly, that our relationship with “Divine” reality “will make for more well-being, fulfilment, wholeness, and the like for creatures than can be naturally attained” (Soteriological transcendence)  (Evolutionary Religion p.94).

The natural sciences, as we currently practise them, certainly buys into the possibility of the truth of the first of these assertions and so, on this very general level, there need be little or no conflict between science and religion. However, the way science is currently understood by many of its practitioners and advocates means that science is all too often co-opted by people  who want to rule out the possibility of the truth of the other two, clearly religious, assertions. But go back to Schellenberg’s point about being at an early stage of development, can the natural sciences really be said to have shown, confidently and absolutely, that we can rule out the possibility that there might be in the universe some, as yet, undiscovered fundamental value and/or wholeness and set of relationships? The answer is, of course, “No”.

But, at this point, please don’t misunderstand Schellenberg (or me) because it is also absolutely clear that neither can these things be confidently and absolutely ruled in. The point here is simple, at this early stage in our development, we can neither rule any of these three assertions in, nor out. We must adopt an appropriately agnostic and skeptical stance.

Again you may complain that is still sounds like the road to the left by another route — it’s all just openness, it’s all just an empty ice-cream bowl. But now let’s hear Schellenberg ask us an important question: How can we — at this early stage of our development — best find out whether these three assertions are true or false?

Well, we can begin to get to an answer by considering a very down-to-earth human example. Let’s go back to our image of the pioneers and imagine ourselves travelling across the open prairie in our wagon. Suddenly we come across someone walking alone whom we have never met and about whom we know nothing. How do we find out if we can trust them? After all, we think to ourselves, an extra pair of honest hard-working hands would be a wonderful thing. So, you pull up, stop, get down and begin to talk with them over coffee and beef jerky. They seem nice enough and during the conversation they assure you that they are indeed trustworthy, hardworking and will prove to be a worthy companion and help. But, as they stand there before you, you realise you have no way of finding out whether their assertions are true except by taking the risk that what she claims will turn out to be true. The best — in fact the only — way to find out is not to leave them behind on the prairie but to invite them to join you, to take them on board, in faith. Notice that I speak of having “faith” in, and not “belief” in, them.

Schellenberg suggest, given our early stage of development, that the situation is similar with regard to the three assertions I mentioned earlier. We cannot rule them out but neither can we rule them in and this means it’s way too early for us to believe they are all true because we simply don’t have the right kind of evidence to allow that.

But we can, at this moment in evolutionary time, choose to live faithfully with, and commit fully to, these assertions. It is important to see that we both can, and need, to make this commitment for good, rational and skeptical reasons because we know the only way to find out if the three assertions are true is to live with them for a while, to invite them, in faith, onto our prairie schooner. We can see it would be highly irrational and foolish, at this stage in our development, to leave them behind "on the prairie."

In short, what Schallenberg offers those who make it up the path to the plateau for further travel is “a form of religion appropriate to our place in evolutionary time” (Evolutionary Religion p. 4), one that lives ”on imagination rather than belief” and which “keeps open the door” to evolution in both cultural and physical terms (Evolutionary Religion p. 5).

I realise that for many people, Schellenberg’s skeptical, evolutionary religion for pioneers is going to be too thin and minimal, not least of all because it is a kind of religion that must not be thickened up into the kind of religion we have practiced until now — including even our own old beloved forms of liberal Christianity.

This doesn't mean, of course we have to let everything go. We can, for example continue to keep on board Jesus but only in so far as we do not take the heavy and thick "theological Jesus" but only the lighter, leaner human teacher, guide and companion. But, to my mind at least, that is sufficient unto the day.

To conclude today, I think it is worth remembering that Jesus seems once to have criticised people for being able to interpret the appearance of the sky but not the signs of the times (Luke 512:54-56). Let us not commit the same mistake and fail to see the signs of our own times which are beginning powerfully to reveal to us the extraordinary implications of deep, evolutionary time.

Our own times are surely saying to us: have faith only in the most simple, minimal and light religious assertions and let all the rest go. Only then will we have an appropriate religion for pioneers one capable of helping us humbly and faithfully setting out for perhaps a billion year long journey of discovery across the new plateau stretching ahead of us.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Our sentimental addiction to "Paths of Glory" — A Remembrance Sunday meditation

Edgell Rickword (1898-1982)
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

Trench Poets by Edgell Rickword, MC (1898-1982)

I knew a man, he was my chum,
but he grew blacker every day,
and would not brush the flies away,
nor blanch however fierce the hum
of passing shells; I used to read,
to rouse him, random things from Donne —
like ‘Get with child a mandrake-root.’
But you can tell he was far gone,
for he lay gaping, mackerel-eyed,
and stiff, and senseless as a post
even when that old poet cried
‘I long to talk with some old lover's ghost.’

I tried the Elegies one day,
but he, because he heard me say:
‘What needst thou have more covering than a man?’
grinned nastily, and so I knew
the worms had got his brains at last.
There was one thing that I might do
to starve the worms; I racked my head
for healthy things and quoted Maud.
His grin got worse and I could see
he sneered at passion’s purity.
He stank so badly, though we were great chums
I had to leave him; then rats ate his thumbs.


Archilochus (c. 680–c. 645 BC), the soldier and ancient Greek poet who is credited by some with the invention of the Elegy, wrote:

No man dead
Feels his fellows’ praise.
We strive instead,
Alive, for the living’s honour,
And the neglected dead
Can neither honour
Nor glory in praise.

(Fragment 231 trans. Guy Davenport: 7 Greeks, New Directions, 1995 p. 61)

“No dead man feels his fellows’ praise.” Indeed not. Not only this, of course, for no dead man feels any fear at the terrifying sound of passing shells and neither do they feel delight at the poetry of Donne, Gray and Tennyson, something Edgell Rickword found out whilst keeping company with his dead chum in a trench on the Western Front during 1918.

The leaders of nations, neither those of ancient Greece, those who held power during the two World Wars of the twentieth-century, nor our own present day politicians, have ever liked to admit this truth and the picture before you today allows us to see a perfect illustration of this.

In March 1918 an exhibition called “War” was about to open in the Leicester Galleries in London. It proved to be a very popular show.  Due to be included in the exhibition was this painting by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946).

"Paths of Glory" by Christopher R. W. Nevinson (1889-1946)
However, at the beginning of 1918 Nevinson was told by the official censor of paintings and drawings in France, Lieutenant-Colonel A . N. Leethat, that his painting would not be passed for exhibition. Nevinson ignored this but decided to display it but with the addition of a brown strip of paper stuck across it upon which was written a single word, “CENSORED”. For this he was reprimanded, not just for displaying the painting, but for using the word 'Censored' without authorisation.

The painting was entitled "Paths of Glory". The dark irony of these words is, I think, obvious, but the full weight weight and resonance of these particular words, especially when attached to this image, would have been far greater to our early twentieth century forebears than it is for many of us today. Why? Well, as some of you will already know the words come from Thomas Gray’s (1716—1771) once well-known “Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard” — a poem learnt by heart by countless children even into my own day. It was, as you have heard, the second poem that Rickword reads to his rotting chum.

Gray’s poem is a sustained meditation on what he feels he learnt whilst contemplating one night the "rude forefathers of the hamlet" who lay sleeping in their unadorned graves in a village church graveyard. The two stanzas particularly relevant to us today are as follows:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:—
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Gray sees like so many before and since, that death is the great leveller but he sees more than this. He sees, as did Archilochus, that the dead are not going to be moved by either our praise or honour. As Gray writes in a later stanza:

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

No, they cannot and it is this fact that has been central to my own Remembrance Sunday meditations in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War.

As I have observed the various centenary events so far — including the 888,246 ceramic poppies installed at the Tower of London — I have been left with a nagging feeling that, as moving and powerful as many of these events have been, they are too much about us, the living, and, as such, they are sentimental.

What I mean by this is best expressed by the philosopher Roger Scruton in his book “Culture Counts — Faith and feeling in a world besieged” (Encounter Books, 2007, p. 50) where he observes that:

“Sentimentality . . . is habit-forming. And those to whom it appeals are frequently unaware of its principal characteristic, which is that it is a pretence. Sentimental words and gestures are forms of play-acting: pretending to noble emotions while in fact being motivated in another way. Thus real grief focuses on the object, the person lost and mourned for, while sentimental grief focuses on the subject, the person who grieves, and whose principal concern is to show his fine feelings to the world. Hence, it is a mark of sentimentality that the object becomes hazy, idealised, observed with no real concern for the truth.”

Scruton’s words remind us of the stark truth that lies behind so many of the big public events surrounding the commemoration of the outbreak of World War One, namely, that the dead soldiers themselves become hazy, idealised and observed with no real concern for the truth.

Rickword and Nevinson are important artists because they do not succumb to sentimentality and they bravely and honestly bring  sharply back into focus those dead soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Please don’t mishear me at this point. I’m not here thoughtlessly to dismiss everything about our current public remembrances; nor am I making some hidden argument for a pacifism which is unable properly to honour the dead of war. Not at all, for though I often wish it were otherwise, I feel that old Ecclesiastes’ words remain for us, at least at this very early moment in our species’ development, painfully and depressingly true. There are, alas, still times to kill and times for war. I also find myself thinking that there remain  many significant moral and ethical values that should be defended by us — even unto death, even though exactly when and how this should be done is never simple nor clear. There is also still a time to speak of honour and to praise the war dead for their bravery and sacrifice made on our culture and society’s behalf.

But surely, surely, we must never let all these things that concern us, the living, obscure the real object of our remembering today, namely the dead themselves, the absolutely dead of all our human conflicts and who, as the Kohima Epitaph so powerfully says, gave their todays for our tomorrows.

Rickword’s poem and Nevinson’s painting help here because they are so effective at taking us away from fuzzy sentimental generalities that concern us to real individuals, the real object of our concern. Before us in Gevinson's painting are two of them now.

They have no more today . . .

no more tomorrows . . .

no more feelings of fear, that is true, . . .

but neither have they any more feelings of love and delight . . .

and no more ears to hear of honour, praise or poetry . . .

In referencing Gray, Rickword and Nevinson seem to me to be right in strongly suggesting that the paths of human glory have a disturbing tendency to lead us all too swiftly to the endlessly repetitive realising of the picture before us.

But, what continually disturbs me about so much of our public culture’s remembering is that it still seems to be encouraging us to continue to walk down paths of glory. Sentimental remembering is precisely what helps this state of affairs flourish and continue, and this is why we should be so openly critical of all such remembering.

It is sentimentality that obscures a central fact about war, namely, that it kills real living individuals. Millions upon endless millions of real living individuals. And, though an impressively large number, the 888,246 poppies are but the tiniest fraction of those killed in war. To be truthful to the truth the installation wishes to gesture towards, the sea of red would have to spill unstoppably out of the moat and into every home in the land, the commonwealth and, eventually, into the whole world and the homes of friend and foe alike.

The strange thing is we can only properly approach the truth the poppy installation seeks to reveal when we have courage to reduce these large numbers to ones and twos. Today I have tried to reduce it only to Rickword's chum, and to Nevinson’s two dead soldiers.

But this is a truth that is really still “CENSORED”.

I would venture to suggest that there may be no more fitting a way to remember the bravery and sacrifice of the war dead than for us to build a memorial made out of all the brown strips of paper that have been and still are used to obscure us to the brutal truth of war and to the dangers of our continued sentimental addiction to paths of human glory.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

A walk to Meg's Mount from Wandlebury along the Roman Road and a note about "divine hiddenness" and the "argument from non-belief" for atheism

Below are a few pictures from my walk yesterday from Wandlebury Country Park along the Roman Road to Meg's Mount.

Much of my thinking on the walk was connected with J. L. Schellenberg's powerful (and to my mind persuasive) argument from non-belief for the non-existence of a theistic God (I talked a little bit about Schallenberg's idea of Evolutionary Religion on Sunday). This argument appears in his 1993 book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason. You can also hear him talk about it in a short filmed interview found at this link.

Laid out in full it looks like this (taken from the wiki page Argument from non-belief).

  • 1 If no perfectly loving God exists, then God does not exist.
  • 2 If a perfectly loving God exists, then there is a God who is always open to personal relationship with each human person.
  • 3 If there is a God who is always open to personal relationship with each human person, then no human person is ever non-resistantly unaware that God exists.
  • 4 If a perfectly loving God exists, then no human person is ever non-resistantly unaware that God exists (from 2 and 3).
  • 5 Some human persons are non-resistantly unaware that God exists.
  • 6 No perfectly loving God exists (from 4 and 5).
  • 7 God does not exist (from 1 and 6).

Of course, this is not to say that "Divine reality" (Schallenberg's own term) may not be real and experienced by us but it is (very strongly) to suggest that this Divine reality is unlikely to be the personal God of theism.

It was with this thought in mind that I strolled along . . .

Entrance to the coppice wood on Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount
Meg's Mount