Sunday, 31 May 2015

Dead deer in a fallen tree . . . meaning what?

Pine-woods in Wells-next-the-Sea
Reading: Acts 17:16-29

Also, in place of a conventional reading I distributed the pictures in this blog to the congregation and, without saying anything about them, invited those present to interpret their meaning in whatever way they could.


After service a couple of week’s ago I had an interesting, if all too brief, conversation about whether I had been using the word “God” simply to fill in the present gaps in human knowledge? The person was referring, of course, to the so-called “God of the gaps” position where the gaps in our scientific knowledge are believed, or taken to be evidence or even proof, of God’s existence. My conversation partner held the view that science could, in principle (although not necessarily in practice), fill up all the gaps and any that might, in the end, remain were simply going to be the result of irretrievable data loss.

I replied to him, “No” and that, although I was not using the word God to refer to the ultimate entity or super-being of theism, I was using it to gesture towards something that was for us as human beings foundational in some fashion and that I used the word God to speak of something more akin to the possibility of there being anything at all, including gaps to be filled that we can understand meaningfully as things we call gaps!

As I have thought through this question over the last couple of weeks I have found I still agreed with the German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote from his prison cell in Berlin in 1944:

“ . . . how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know” (29 May 1944).

Another way of saying “we are to find God in what we know” is to say that the word God might be used to speak of “the source of meaningfulness” (What, after all, was Heidegger about?, Thomas Sheehan, 2014) and “intelligibility”. Indeed, in a new translation of Tolstoy’s “Gospel in Brief” (where Tolstoy is giving his take on the words of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) we find that he arrives at a similar thought:

“. . . the true beginning of everything is comprehension. What we call God is comprehension: this is the true God and is the entire fundamental principle.” (Shubin)

Dustin Condren, another recent fine translator of Tolstoy’s Gospel translates this same idea as “Knowledge of life is God”

So, to sum up, I’m saying the word God might be used to refer to “the source of meaningfulness”, “comprehension” and “knowledge of life”.

But I realise all this can sound impossibly nebulous, even flaky, and certainly in desperate need of grounding. I hope my story which follows about something that happened on a walk in the woods near Wells-next-the-Sea in February will fit the bill reasonably well.

During what follows I quote a few passages from an important recent lecture by Thomas Sheehan called, “What, after all, was Heidegger about?” It’s important to say that I really did have these quotes mentally in mind whilst I walked and thought because I had been spending a great deal of time with it in the previous few weeks. Indeed, without Sheehan’s essay, I might not have seen what I did.

Pine-woods in Wells-next-the-Sea
As we were walking home through the woods I suddenly became aware that there was something odd about the fallen tree just off the path to my right — it had about it what I could only describe as a vague, animalistic aspect. I called Susanna over to come and have a look but, as I began to move towards it it’s unusual aspect began to fade and I could see nothing but the broken stump of what had been a branch. At that moment I very nearly turned away to return to the path but Susanna’s eager approach served to make me complete the half-dozen remaining steps to the tree.

Dead deer in the pine-woods, Wells-next-the-Sea
Up close, and for a good few seconds, we could see nothing unusual about the tree but, slowly, the features of a head and the fore-leg of a dead munkjack deer became increasingly discernible to us both. Once seen it became immediately apparent that someone had taken great care to bind them both together so as to be able to hang them over the stump of a branch and we could now see that on top of the fallen trunk, directly above the animal’s hanging remains, there was a careful arrangement of feathers, grass and leaves.

What was this? What did it mean? How was this to be interpreted?

Susanna and I had, of course, no assured way to proceed in answering these questions. There was no one around we could ask and we were without any signal that could have given us access to the internet to look up, . . . well, what on earth would we look up?

All we had to go on were the bare physical facts before us and our own feelings, imagination and general knowledge.

I felt certain that this was not designed merely to shock townies unused to seeing dead and rotting animals, nor, given the care with which the ensemble had been made, did it seem to be an accidental melange created by the mere disposal of leftovers from a straightforward kill by a hunter. Without overplaying it, and although I may be completely wrong about this, when all things were considered, it was difficult not to see here something religious and ritualistic. But ritualistic in what way, for what purpose? In other words, what did it mean?

Was it, perhaps, an offering to some perceived ancient spirit or spirits of the place? If so, was this an offering of thanks or one designed to appease?

Was it something created with subtle integrity by a person deeply embedded in a sophisticated, neo-pagan tradition, or was it the improvised product of a single mind or group of people with only a vague, surface, clichéd sense of in what might consist a pagan offering?

Could we take it as a sign that the maker/s thought people could walk on through these woods with a feeling of safety and gratitude in our hearts or, instead, with a keen sense of danger and apprehension? Perhaps both were intended? Perhaps none?

These, and many other possible meanings, ran through my mind as Susanna and I pondered what we saw and I began to realise my that my personal responses to this, let’s call it an ‘offering’, were very complex.

As a child of the Enlightenment I have to say that my deep-seated, initial response was simply that of straightforward, and somewhat detached, intellectual curiosity. By which I mean I wasn’t, in the first instance, at all viscerally and emotionally effected by this ‘offering’. As I had looked upon it, carefully and gently examined it with the end of my walking stick, and taken a few photographs, I experienced no fear, no tingling down the spine, no strong nor even any vague sense of what we are tempted to call the supernatural, normal or physical; but then, of course, these are categories that, by and large, simply don’t show up in the world in which I daily live and move and have my being.

It was initially very tempting to me to think of the matter in terms of a riddle, one to be solved cooly and empirically. I might, for instance, be able to discover who had made the offering and, through a series of interviews with them, discover something about their beliefs and motives. These, when combined with other kinds of sociological, psychological, anthropological and brain-science studies would allow me eventually to say that I now understood, in some (claimed) objective way, the meaning of this ‘offering’. I could even imagine how I might be able to write an interesting and nice and tidy old-school monograph or conference paper on the matter entitled, say, “Modern Pagan beliefs and practices in the woods of Wells — a case study”.  

But this would be a solution, an answer — even if it were vaguely close to some imagined objective truth (which I doubt) — that left something very significant out of the picture, namely, something existential that goes to the heart, or perhaps better, to the source or foundation of all religion and, in fact, of all human cultural life for the past 50,000 odd years.

It would be a “solution” that left out the uncanny, existential fact that, despite my own deep-seated, intellectual skepticism which made me believe there was absolutely no supernatural deity (or dieties) of this place whose actual existence could underwrite the ‘offering’ and give it what I wanted to call real meaning and intelligibility as an ‘offering’, despite all these factors, there was still “real” meaning to be found.

Now here’s the subtle point in all this that we must be very careful not to miss if this address is to make any sense at all.

It is very important to see that the offering’s very lack of what I wanted to call “real” meaning and intelligibility according to one frame of reference (in this case the existence of a supernatural God or Gods), did not stop it from having “real” meaning and intelligibility to me according to another frame of reference (namely, my own religious naturalist, non-theist understanding of the world).

The really important point to grasp here is that was no escape from meaning and, as Heidegger once noted:

“When we live in the firsthand world around us, everything comes at us loaded with meaning, all over the place and all the time. Everything is within the world [of meaningfulness]: *the world holds forth” (What, after all, was Heidegger about?, Thomas Sheehan, 2014 p. 8),

Heidegger also once noted that,

“Even the most trivial thing is meaningful (even though it remains trivial nonetheless). Even what is most lacking in value is meaningful” (ibid p. 8).

Heidegger’s words reveals a startling truth, beautifully summed up by Thomas Sheehan, that

“there is nowhere else for a human being to live except in meaning”
(ibid. p. 8).

This thought gave me pause and it brought into view something that all of us nearly always miss seeing — myself included. It helped me to be lead back, again as Heidegger put it,

“. . . back from the apprehension of a thing [this offering] . . . to the understanding of the being of the thing [this offering]: understanding the thing in terms of the way it is disclosed” (ibid. p. 5).

In other words, I began to glimpse not the ‘offering’ itself but, instead, at the background truth that meaning and intelligibility is showing up all the time for everyone involved in an encounter with this ‘offering’, both for me as the ‘Enlightenment skeptic’ and for my imagined ‘neo-Pagan believer’ — indeed for everyone all the time in everything we experience. We all experienced this in our open exploration and discussion of the picture that we undertook earlier in place of a conventional reading.

So, to conclude, I’m sure you all know the story about how the fish can’t see the water in which it always-already swims. Well, this address today is simply an attempt to help us to glimpse something of the “water” in which we human beings daily swim — namely meaning and intelligibility.

Glimpsing this extraordinary, and ultimately very mysterious fact, suddenly made my hair stand on and send a tingle down my spine and it impelled me quietly to pick up a feather that was lying close by and to place it carefully and reverently above the head of the hanging deer. And so, in the end, I found I had, despite my initial scepticism, a real need to make my own kind of grateful offering to an "unknown God" in whom/which, as St Paul once said, we live and move and have our being and, as I would now add, we always-already gracefully experience meaning and intelligibility.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

A walk across Magog Down, to the River Granta and back via Wandlebury — a set of photos and a few words about Knud Ejler Løgstrup (1905-1981)

Knud Ejler Løgstrup
Yesterday I cycled up to Wandlebury and then took a lovely walk across Magog Down towards Stapleford and the River Granta, and then back up to the Roman Road and home. I've become rather fond of it since reading about it here. You can find a map of the walk at this link.

I took with me on this occasion a book called "The Ethical Demand" by the Danish philosopher and theologian Knud Ejler Løgstrup (1905-1981) which I came across couple of years ago and which I have come to admire greatly and which I've been meaning to re-read from a while.

Anyway, there is a lovely picture of Løgstrup lying in a relaxed mode in what looks like a field of spring flowers (see above) and, as I began my walk across Magog Down, itself strewn with spring flowers (see first two photos below), I could almost imagine that I might stumble across him! Anyway, it was a perfect way start to my walk and, after finishing my lunch by the River Granta, I lay down in a field of cow parsley and re-read the first chapter (see last photo below). Here's a well known extract from that chapter (p.18):

Trust is not of our own making; it is given. Our life is so constituted that it cannot be lived except as one person lays him or herself open to another person and puts him or herself into that person’s hands either by showing or claiming trust. 

By our very attitude to another we help to shape that person’s world. By our attitude to the other person we help to determine the scope and hue of his or her world; we make it large or small, bright or drab, rich or dull, threatening or secure. We help to shape his or her world not by theories and views but by our very attitude towards him or her. Herein lies the unarticulated and one might say anonymous demand that we take care of the life which trust has placed in our hands.

I took my Ricoh GR with me and, as usual, took a few photos which I add below. Click on them to enlarge.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Pentecost —The democratic state as a descendent of the Free Church of the Spirit

Readings: Acts 2:1-21

Our responsibility in Society (The Essential JLA, Skinner House Books, 1998, pp. 163-164)
by James Luther Adams

We of the Free Church tradition should never forget, or permit our contemporaries to forget, that the decisive resistance to authoritarianism in both church and state, and the beginning of modern democracy, appeared first in the church and not in the political order. The churches of the left wing of the Reformation held that the churches of the right wing had effected only half a reformation. They gave to Pentecost a new and extended meaning. They demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church. The new church was to make way for a radical laity – that is, for the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers. “The Spirit blows where it lists.”
          Out of this rediscovery of the doctrine of the Spirit came the principles of Independency: local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state. Power and responsibility were to be dispersed. In a fashion not unlike that of the primitive church, the doctrine of the Spirit became the sanction for a new kind of social organization and of social responsibility. A new church was born, and with it a new age.
          Once released, the new spirit poured forth into all areas of society. It could not be kept within the bounds of church life. First it was carried over into the sphere of the state. The Independents began to say, ‘If we are responsible to God for the kind of church we have, we are also responsible for the kind of state we have. If it is wrong to be coerced by church authorities, it is wrong to be dominated by political authorities. As children of God, we ought to have a greater share of power and responsibility in the state as well as the church.” By analogy the conception of the new church in a new age was extended to include the demand for a democratic state and society. Thus the democratic state is in part the descendent of the Church of the Spirit.



There is a well-known story that I first heard in educational circles about a sailing ship setting-off for a long voyage to a distant, promised land. The crew begin the journey with passion, clarity and purpose and undertake all their tasks in this light whether they are coiling ropes, setting sails or cleaning decks. However, after many, many months at sea slowly they begin to forget their beginnings and, without them fully noticing it, their tasks become increasingly detached from the initial, enabling passion, clarity and purpose and the crew begin only to coil ropes, set sails and clean decks and emptiness, listlessness and dissatisfaction begins to set in; in a word, “ennui”.

I have noticed that, whenever this story is told, most people believe that the solution to this problem is to be found simply by somehow restoring the original conditions of the voyage. If this can be done, so the argument goes, then the meaning of and passion for their present tasks will suddenly be restored, all will be well and, re-energised, and the journey can proceed as before. But this reading fails to take into account the fact that the present state of the journey, with all it’s ennui is, in fact, a fruit of the same original conditions.

It is important to see that it is impossible to restore to the crew the initial conditions that obtained at the start of their voyage because, thanks to the experiences of the journey, they are now very different people from those who originally set-off. Additionally, they are now, quite literally, in a different place and time.

Consequently, the matter of how to restore meaning and passion to the current crew is, therefore, more complicated than it first appears because the only thing that might be capable of restoration is something about their faith in the original promise even though, right at this moment, the current fruit of that promise — their ennui and lack of passion, clarity and purpose — tastes to them bitter and bad.

Let’s now translate all this into the story of Pentecost as we have understood it in the Free Church tradition.

The strange account of the giving of the Spirit is the mythical story of the initiating moment when we were gifted with our initial passion, clarity and purpose which, in turn, sent us out into the world to proclaim a new message of hope: namely, the promise that the Spirit of God, which would bring with it the new, fulfilled and free life of which Jesus spoke, would be poured out on all flesh. This Spirit, it is important to understand, was primarily a community-making power which the early Christians spoke about as “living in Christ”.

But Christian community can be made in all kinds of ways and “at different times Christians have demanded the rule of the free-Spirit of God (pneumatocracy), theocracy, absolute monarchy, sectarian communism, constitutional democracy and democratic religious socialism” (The Essential JLA p. 161).

Our own, Free Church conception, centred on the words of Joel cited by the author of Acts: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh”.  

Not least of all this was because by the sixteenth-century we felt that this promise had been utterly stymied by the monolithic, medieval institution that Christianity had become. As some wit later said, Jesus may have promised us the kingdom of Heaven but what we got was the Church, and the Church most certainly did not want the community-forming power of the Holy Spirit to be shared openly and freely by all.

But, as James Luther Adams reminds us, during the Radical Reformation, along with many other small, independent communities, we were inspired to re-kindle the Spirit so it could continue to spread truly into all flesh. We “demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church.” For us the “new church was to make way for a radical laity – that is, for “the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers.”

As the centuries continued to unfold the Spirit re-kindled by churches on the left-wing of the Reformation was, indeed, poured out upon more and more people and not just in churches. However, it is important to realise that in this process the Pentecostal flame that was passed from person to person was not in the form of literal tongues of fire but rather in the form of the tongues of men and women who, in an increasingly conversational, democratic spirit began to create what became our modern, secular democracies. As Adams says, “Thus the democratic state is in part the descendent of the Church of the Spirit” (ibid. p.164).

(As I gave the address, in connection with the previous thought, I noted that people may be interested in exploring Simon Critchley's recent book "Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology" A review of the book for the LSE can be read at this link.)

But, as this democratic fruit of the Spirit matured, it began to acquire a hitherto fore unfamiliar taste. The new “taste” that emerged was the important recognition that every illuminating vocabulary (including our own Christian derived one) is only contingently useful — i.e. useful “here” in such and such conditions but not necessarily “there” in such and such conditions.

And so, today, each of us knows deep in our bones that had we been born, say, in Saudia Arabia, India or Soviet Russia rather than in Western Europe or North America, our basic, illuminating vocabulary would, in all likelihood, not be Christian but Islamic, Hindu, or Atheistic.

And so an important fruit of the Spirit’s recent movement among and within us is this powerful recognition that no voice, ideology or belief (not even our own) can any longer dominate the whole in an absolute way — single voices and illuminating vocabularies can only properly play their part when they engage conversationally in the ongoing process of discernment (enlightenment) that is a genuine, pluralist democracy.

But the recognition of such a pluralism as a gift of the Spirit has not been easily received and accepted by many kinds of Christian thinking. Let me tell you of one example of this that happened to me.

I trained for the ministry in Oxford and our college, Harris Manchester College, in addition to being a full college of the University, is also one of the University’s Theological Colleges. This meant we were always invited to contribute to an annual ecumenical service in the University Church. In 1999, as the only full-time Unitarian and Free Christian ministry student that year, I was duly sent along to the preparatory meetings to play my part.

I was asked to contribute a pastoral prayer to follow the singing of Psalm 130 by the monks of Ampleforth Abbey who attended St Benet’s Hall; that psalm begins: “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine” — “From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord.” Given this theme I wrote a prayer which spoke about the darkness we often experience in the lived moment and I concluded with the line: “And so we pray for the wisdom to acknowledge the flame of truth wherever we may find it.”

I read this prayer to the preparatory meeting and, for a few seconds, thought all was well until one of the representatives from Wycliffe Hall began to speak. Some of you will know that in 2007 that this notoriously conservative Anglican theological college was finally “placed on notice that it must improve its academic standards and not succumb to narrow conservative evangelicalism if it [was] to remain part of Oxford University.” The university told it that “it must maintain the values of a liberal education and will be monitored to ensure it does.” 

Well, in this unmonitored room, Wycliffe’s representative insisted that I should tell him exactly where I saw the flame of truth? I replied that I didn’t think it was necessary for me to spell this out because, surely, we would all acknowledge the flame of truth wherever we thought we had found it? He insisted I answer. I refused to accept that it was necessary to provide an answer. This carried on until the hapless convenor also insisted I answered. And so answer I did. I spoke of the flame of truth seen in both men and women, in Christian saints and sages and the saints and sages of other faiths and, if I may be forgiven for putting it this way, in all the humanist and atheist saints and sages. I spoke of the flame of truth found in the Bible and the whole panoply of holy books and secular literature in all human culture. I spoke, too.  of the flame of truth found in the insights and discoveries of the natural and social sciences. The representative from Wycliffe Hall was horrified by all this and threatened to boycott the whole event and then promptly left the meeting. Over the next few days a number of letters were sent to me and my College Principal asking for the prayer to be dropped or significantly altered. It was all very unpleasant.

You will, I hope, be pleased to hear that I did not change my prayer and, in the end, Wycliffe Hall did not boycott the service but I did add the line of Jesus where he is reputed to have said “In my house there are many rooms” (John 14:2). As I left the church at the end of the service the representative from Wycliffe whispered angrily in my ear: “You know full well that’s not what Jesus meant”. Oy vey! 

It was for me a salutary lesson and taught me of the pressing need to keep alive and burning bright the Pentecostal flame that was our Free Church community's first empowering promise — that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh and that this would open our world up to multiple languages, visions and dreams.

James Luther Adams is one of the few people I have read within our own tradition who saw this clearly and who powerfully reminded us that we must accept that Christianity, at least as we in the radical Free Church tradition have been living it for over four-hundred years, has consistently been revealing to us that our world is plural and that the modern, secular democratic state is a descendent of the Church of the Spirit. It’s priesthood and prophethood is one to be shared by all people which, in turn, means that power and responsibility in our society must continue radically to be dispersed among us.

In consequence, Adams thought that our “peculiar responsibility in society” was

“. . . to offer a church in which there is an explicit faith in the community-forming power of God, a practice of the disciplines of liberty, and eliciting of the participation of our own membership in creative fellowship. From such a fellowship, concerned to extend the community in which all persons may be encouraged to make their own contribution, our members can meet their social responsibilities by expressing in the other areas of life — in the state, the family, the school, the voluntary association, and industry — the response to the love that will not let us go” (ibid. p. 174).

If we can begin to feel again “the vocation placed upon us by the promise of old, [that] ’I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh’”, then I have hope that all our activities as members of the crew that is this liberal Free Church community, and as citizens of a secular democracy, whether we be coiling ropes, setting sails or cleaning decks, we will, once again, begin to be filled with a passionate fire that can give our lives direction, meaning, passion and purpose.

Happy Pentecost to you all!

Following the service those who wishes stayed behind for a brief communion service. The liturgy for that can be found at this link.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

“Tribunus plebis from first to last” — an Ascension Sunday meditation on the democratisation of Heaven

Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer by B. Barloccini, 1849
READINGS: Acts 1:6-11

“Tribuni Plebis”, from the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1970 and wikipedia:

Tribunus plebis, rendered in English as tribune of the plebs, tribune of the people, or plebeian tribune, was the first office of the Roman state that was open to the plebeians, and throughout the history of the Republic, the most important check on the power of the Roman senate and magistrates. These tribunes had the power to convene and preside over the Concilium Plebis, or people’s assembly; to summon the senate; to propose legislation; and to intervene on behalf of plebeians in legal matters; but the most significant power of these tribunes was the power to veto the actions of the consuls and other magistrates, thus protecting the interests of the plebeians as a class. The tribunes of the plebs were sacrosanct, meaning that any assault on their person was prohibited by law. In imperial times, the powers of the tribunate were granted to the emperor as a matter of course, and the office itself lost its independence and most of its functions.


Something that’s becoming more and more important to me as I look for an effective way we as a liberal religious community might help our contemporary culture and society to reinterpret and change itself in ways consonant with present secular understanding and knowledge, is to ensure (a la Gianni Vattimo) that we engage, not in a process of overcoming (überwindung) — that is to say attempting to affect change by the wholesale defeat of certain aspects of our former religion — but by finding ways to incorporate, twist or weakening those same aspects of it (verwindung). To sum it up: “Overcoming is worthy only when we think about incorporation” (M. Heidegger: “Overcoming Metaphysics” in the End of Philosophy, trans J. Stambaugh, New York, Harpur and Row, 1973, p. 91).

Next Sunday is Pentecost (Whitsunday) and I’m going to be speaking more about our radical, liberal vision, both where it comes from and what it seeks to achieve but here, in nutshell and in the words of our own great twentieth-century theologian James Luther Adams, we may say that out of our rediscovery during the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation of  “. . . the doctrine of the Spirit came the principles of Independency: [that is to say] local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state” (James Luther Adams: “Our Responsibility in Society” in The Essential JLA ed. George Kimmich Beach, Skinner House Books, 1997).

Knowing this is important because it helps us see how we might usefully incorporate the otherwise frankly very odd and off-putting story of the Ascension into our own contemporary liberal narrative by giving it an interpretation that helps us achieve the aims Adams mentioned.

When understood and depicted in an excessively literal way the Ascension Day account can appear comic in an almost Monty Pythonesque way. I remember well the first time I visited the Anglo-Catholic shrine at Little Walsingham. Unexpectedly I came across a little side-chapel dedicated to the Ascension where, above my head I saw two near life-size feet disappearing into the chapel ceiling.

But understood metaphysically the Ascension is no longer vaguely comic but somewhat disturbing for it speaks of a kind of divine ennoblement from on high which simply removes Jesus from our world. As Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) suggests this is to see Jesus as a “Kyrios/Son of God, a super-Hercules in a super-firmament.” Bloch points out that this picture is “of the dynastic solar variety, with the chariot of the sun-god and the general style assumed by ascending heroes when they quit the earth” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164).

Another common way of thinking metaphysically about it is to understand it as an example of the profoundly problematic doctrine that became known as Docetism. It is derived from the Greek words “dokein” (to seem) and “dókēsis” (an apparition or phantom) and refers to the idea that Jesus only seemed to be a human being and that, in consequence, his physicality — his humanity — was merely an appearance.

In both these cases the problem — for me anyway — is that the whole story of Jesus actual life’s work of teaching and healing the poor, sick and excluded in society and his subsequent death for challenging the coercive and exclusionist power-structures of his own day, becomes something which occurred at no cost to God. God came all-powerfully from on high and after only appearing to be human merely returns, unharmed to on high. Net gain and change to God? Zero, zilch, nada. And, for us? Well, in these interpretations we are reduced to mere spectators of and pawns in a drama, through-scripted by a distant, infinitely perfect, disengaged divine author.

In consequence the Ascension story looks to many liberals like a dangerous piece of ancient mythology that really can’t be salvaged by a process of verwindung and incorporation and, consequently, is one that must be wholly overcome (überwinden). At first sight it is admittedly very hard to see how one might incorporate it meaningfully into our own, contemporary mythology — i.e. the story through which we might ourselves can come to live more fully.

But Bloch has a reading of the the myth that doesn’t proceed by overcoming (überwinden) but, by incorporating, twisting and weakening aspects of it (verwindung). In so doing he opens up for us a way of using the story that is for us creative and helpful.

To get to this interpretation we need to be aware of two things that are important to Bloch when he reads the Christian story. Firstly, he points out again and again that Jesus’ own prefered title was “ben Adam” — Son of Man and that Jesus, himself, never used the title the Son of God. Secondly, Bloch draws our attention to Jesus’ claim that “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30; cf John 17). This claim might make it look like Jesus is really saying he’s the Son of God but everything here hinges on the overall direction in which Bloch thinks this story is heading. Culturally we are used to seeing the direction as being “downwards” from a God “outside” the world travelling towards the human. Bloch, however, turns this upside down and he makes humanity, in the person of the representative Son of Man, head firmly and courageously in the other direction into realms once reserved for God alone. The Ascension story is for Bloch one place where we see this happen. He says:

“The Son of Man not only broke through the myth of the Son of God, but also through that of the throne “at the right hand of the Father”: now a Tribune of the people sits upon that throne, and so revokes it. For all his celestial dignity after the Ascension, Christ is still, even for Paul, the man Adam — indeed Paul is explicit: ‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven’ (1 Corinthians 15:47). And his human character stays with him there: that of a Tribunus plebis from first to last” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164).

Bloch continues:

“The model of ascension here, even if it is still the ascension of Christ that is in question, is no longer the departure of a mighty lord for high places, but is, instead, one of the most striking images of hope — that archetypal anchor pulling us home” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164-165).

The image of an anchor drawing us home Bloch borrows from the author of Hebrews who says “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered” (Hebrews 6:19-20a).

Bloch offers us here an interpretation of the Ascension that transforms the story into one where we bear witness to an extraordinary moment of a revolutionary hope and freedom. The celestial palace, the seat of disinterested unchanging power, has finally been incorporated by us by being taken over for the use of the peoples of the earth with Jesus leading the way as our Tribune. A Tribune, you will recall, was an officer who had been elected by the plebeians of Rome to protect their rights from the arbitrary acts of the patrician magistrates.

Now some of you may now be saying well, OK, but really what’s the point of this reinterpretation? Who really cares? And since, in offering this to us in the way he does he's more or less admitted that he doesn't believe the Ascension story in any literal way, so why can’t he, and we, simply move on and ditch the story entirely?

It’s a tough question that requires a clear answer. We begin to get that when we acknowledge that only someone with their head plunged deep into the sand can fail to see, in the words of Peter Thompson:

“. . . that religion as both debate and way of life has not crumbled in the face of an apparently inexorable rationalist, scientific, modernising Enlightenment and globalisation of the market economy, but retains a potency and strength which remains far in excess of its ability to explain” (Peter Thompson’s introduction to Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. ix).

Whether we like or dislike this fact matters not the least because it would be politically naive, foolish and dangerous not to take this fact of our age into account. So the question is not whether or not we are to deal with our religious inheritance it rather is how are we going to deal with it?

The new atheists and hardcore secular humanists want to tackle religion by a fairly straightforward process of overcoming (überwinden). Of course, many newly active religious believers of all stripes also want to tackle atheism and humanism in the same way. It is this "all or nothing" approach that has given rise to the unfortunate culture wars we are beginning to see all around us in the unedifying spectacle of the often angry bitter and recriminatory debates between atheists and theists in all human spheres of endeavour, science, politics, literature, education etc., etc.. This desire for overcoming (überwinden) also lies behind the growing number of violent religious conflicts of our own age all of which are being encouraged by leaders of both small terror groups and nations who are increasingly committed in strong metaphysical ways. Everything in this sphere is about defeating the perceived “enemy” with a more powerful metaphysics or more powerful tactics of violence. But it is clear that this kind of power play cuts clearly against our own liberal desire for the existence of a plurality of voices within our society and, in consequence, I do not believe we should be supporting, in any shape of form, such tactics.

In my mind this requires us to commit to an ongoing attempt to affect change by finding ways to incorporate, twist or weaken aspects of our inherited religious culture (verwindung). (This is the “weak thought” of Gianni Vattimo — il pensiero debole). It seems to me that only by doing this that will we genuinely achieve the kind of liberal society we desire. Verwindung, verwindung, verwindung should be our public proclamation at every step along the way.

We need to be smart about this because religion is not going away, so let’s take the Ascension story, the story of Pentecost and all the other religious stories we inherit and show how we may reinterpret them in ways that pull us towards local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state.

But to conclude I want to be absolutely clear about something. I’m not just offering you my comments merely in the spirit of political expediency — though I hope my comments are, indeed, politically expedient. No, in the end I offer them because, when it remains open to kind of reinterpretation, transformation, incorporation, twisting and weakening that Bloch and the other thinkers I bring before you engage in, I think there is something about the Christian tradition that can help us move consistently and determinedly towards the conversationally driven democratic, freedoms I have already mentioned. Such a movement is still the closest thing to truth I know.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Benny Rides Again! A Tribute to the King of Swing @ Headhunters Jazz Club, Bury St Edmunds, 15 May 2015, 8pm

Greeting Jazz Fans! I'm playing bass with the wonderful Mark Crooks and Roger Beaujolais in a salute to the King of Swing, Benny Goodman tomorrow, Friday 15th May, at the Headhunters Jazz Club in Bury St Edmunds. Full details in the poster above (just click on it to enlarge).

As this is part of the 2015 Bury Festival tickets are only available via the Festival Box Office on 01284 758000 or online HERE.

If we can squeeze in a few on the night, we’ll let you know. But personally, I wouldn’t risk it.