Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Charles Eisenstein's Sacred Economics and some other "provocative documents for thought"

On the advice of an old and trusted friend I've just got hold of Charles Eisenstein’s book "Sacred Economics". I look forward to reading it and seeing what he has to say. Here's the basic blurb about the book:

Sacred Economics traces the history of money from ancient gift economies to modern capitalism, revealing how the money system has contributed to alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth. 

Today, these trends have reached their extremebut in the wake of their collapse, we may find great opportunity to transition to a more connected, ecological, and sustainable way of being.

It was this latter thought in mind that I walked around Cambridge this afternoon taking a few street photographs. This kind of photography is, inevitably, set in a untransformed, highly capitalist context and, as I looked at the people around me I wordlessly felt that, Yes! how much better their lives, and mine, would be were we able to change our relationship to and with money.

But, as I've just intimated, on the street and right now as I post this piece I don't have the necessary words to speak of this powerful feeling. So, I fall back on my photographs and remind myself of the Manifesto of the “Provoke Group” (1968) signed by Kohi Taki, Takuma Nakahira, Takahiko Okada, Yutaka Takanashi, and Daido Moriyama:

“Today, when words have lost their material base—in other words, their reality—and seem suspended in mid-air, a photographer’s eye can capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is. He can submit those images as a document to be considered alongside language and ideology. This is why, brash as it may seem, Provoke has the subtitle, ‘provocative documents for thought.’” 

A set of photos from an early autumn walk at Wandlebury Country Park

A single, suspended autumn leaf
On Sunday I used the following words as a meditative reading in our religious naturalist evening service of mindfulness meditation. They were still very much in mind when I set out by bicycle to Wandlebury Country Park for an early autumn walk.  I add them below and, for your enjoyment, below them, a few of the photographs I took along the way. I used my Ricoh GR throughout; they're all unprocessed jpegs straight out of the camera.

Harbingers of Frost by Robert T. Weston

Autumn, we know,
Is life en route to death.
The asters are but harbingers of

The trees, flaunting their colours at 
     the sky,
In other times will follow where 
     the leaves have fallen,
And so shall we.

Yet other lives will come.
So may we know, accept, embrace,
The mystery of life we hold a 

Nor mourn that it outgrows each 
     separate self, but still rejoice 
     that we may have our day.

Lift high our colours to the sky! 
     and give,
In our time, fresh glory to the 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Sacred Depths of Nature — Ursula Goodenough's religious naturalist devotional

View from outside the Memorial Church
I did not have to give today's address as we had a visiting preacher, James Barry.

However, since I have been talking about religious naturalism recently I thought it would be worth republishing an address I gave a couple of years ago about Ursula Goodenough's wonderful book, "The Sacred Depths of Nature".  It had a big influence upon me and I can thoroughly recommend it to you all.

Since then I've become actively involved in the Religious Naturalist Association (of which Ursula is the president) and am now helping to run for them a clergy internet discussion group.

So, here is that address from 2013 . . .


Just before leaving for the summer break (in 2013) I began to read a number of books by four leading religious naturalists, Jerome Stone, Donald Crosby, Charley Hardwick and Ursula Goodenough (her lab page at Washington University can be found here). (It's worth mentioning in passing that the first of these authors, Stone, is directly associated with the Unitarian Universalists (for example here) and the third, Hardwick, centres his own thinking on a Unitarian religious naturalist to whom I introduced you a few weeks ago, Henry Nelson Wieman.) [I've since discovered that Donald Crosby is also a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.]

Today's address aims simply to encourage you to look at a book called The Sacred Depths of Nature (SDN) by the fourth author and cell biologist, Ursula Goodenough because it addresses, in a very practical and beautiful way, the human need for stories which help us to reflect upon who we are, what we feel, what we know, and what it is we should be doing with our lives.

But, before we go on, it is important to be clear what the term "religious naturalism" means. A wide variety religious naturalisms exist but all of them 'assert that the natural world is the centre of our most significant experiences and understandings’ and that nature is felt to be ‘the ultimate value in assessing one's being.’ Religious naturalists share a deep ‘sense of Nature's richness, spectacular complexity, and fertility’ and, secondly, in the ‘recognition that Nature is the only realm in which people live out their lives’ and that ‘humans are…interconnected parts of Nature’. Of course, in all forms of religious naturalism the natural sciences are considered to be a ‘fundamental, indispensable component’. (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_naturalism)

Now, as one of those authors, Charley Hardwick notes, since today, whether or not we hold traditional theistic, religious beliefs, we are all ‘willy-nilly’ living within a scientific worldview any reasonable, genuinely truth-seeking, contemporary religion has to take this fact into account and, whilst I have no choice but to accept that there are many people and communities who don't think like I do, in a universe whose primordial reality is increasingly perceived to be wholly *natural* and not *supernatural*, as a representative of a four-and-a-half century old rational religious tradition I find I have no choice but to try and articulate what one form of flourishing, meaningful religious naturalism might look like for us today.

Stories form an important part of any such articulation and, as I have already intimated, Goodenough acknowledges this. In the book she explicitly says that "humans need stories - grand, compelling stories - that help orientate us in our lives and in the cosmos" and for her the "Epic of Evolution is such a story". It is a story that, she says, is "beautifully suited to anchor our search for planetary consensus, telling us of our nature, our place, our context". Not only that but she also feels "responses to this story - what we are calling religious naturalism - can yield deep and abiding experiences" (all quotes here from SDN p. 174). These are the experiences of awe and wonder that all of us had when encountering either directly through experiment or through texts and photos the sublime macro and micro-cosmic world of nature. The gasp of astonishment and wonder at our first sight of the Alps, a darting kingfisher, a photograph of distant galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope or the tiniest organism through a microscope, the spiralling pattern of DNA, or the merest trace in a sea of data that allows someone to say, "Higgs-Boson!"

Goodenough's book is designed to tell something of this scientific, natural story, a story which is for her the *core* narrative. She recounts this in twelve brief, clear and shining chapters: "The Origins of the Earth", the "Origins of Life", "How Life Works", "How an Organism Works", "How Evolution Works", "The Evolution of Biodiversity", "Awareness", "Emotions and Meaning", "Sex", "Sexuality", "Multicellularity and Death" and, finally, "Speciation". She has a masterful way of introducing the current scientific thinking on these subjects that is able to elicit from a lay-reader like me, over and over again, the involuntary need to say "My goodness, that's amazing!"

But, although for her this is the "core narrative" it is not, by any means, the whole story. To illustrate why this might be the case let's consider Stephen Dunn's well known poem, "At the Smithville Methodist Church". Read it at the link below: 

It recounts a modern, naturalist couple's feelings upon seeing their child return from a Christian Sunday school beaming and singing "Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so". This causes their heart to sink as they experience a terrible kind of recognition; they know that "evolution is magical" but they also feel it's "devoid of heroes" and that they cannot, in fact must not, say to their child, "Evolution loves you". They cannot and must not say this because, of course, it's not true, evolution doesn't love their little child - any little child. The parents know, as Dunn says, that in an important way "the story stinks of extinction and nothing exciting happens for centuries". Off the back of this natural fact he allows the parents to express a commonly held view, namely, that a scientific world view leaves them religiously voiceless and without any of their own emotionally engaging religious stories to tell. For Dunn's parents "there was nothing to do but drive, ride it out, sing along in silence."

But what I find so valuable about Ursula Goodenough's approach is that she offers us a way to begin to emerge, naturalistically and religiously, from out of this silence. Although she is herself not a believer in God - she explicitly calls herself a "religious non-theist" or "religious naturalist" - she was profoundly influenced by her father, whom she loved dearly. Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough (1893-1965) started life as a Methodist preacher but went on to become Professor of the History of Religion at Yale University. He apparently used to begin his undergraduate course on the Psychology of Religion by announcing "I do not believe in God" and yet, despite this, he was still able to end one of his last books by saying "I still pray devoutly, and when I do, I forget my qualifications and quibbles and call upon Jesus - he comes to me" (SDN p. ix).

His example of how naturalism can combine with some kind of real, living Christian religious understanding clearly played a powerful role in helping Goodenough to ask and think through her father's question of "Why are people religious?" and then to ask of herself "Why she was not religious?" (SDN p. x). This led her, in turn, to ask whether that was true? and to ask whether it was "possible to feel . . . religious emotions in the context of a fully modern, up-to-the-minute understanding of Nature?" (SDN p. xi).

The answer for her was, "Yes" and part of that answer was The Sacred Depths of Nature. Her answer holds together three integrated responses to the modern understanding of Nature. In one of her public talks she points out that the core naturalist narrative cannot simply stand alone but requires, 1) an interpretation of the story, 2) some kind of spiritual response, by which she means "internal feelings" of, for example, wonder and gratitude and, lastly, 3) some moral responses.

In the same talk Goodenough points out that in our theistic, religious, core narratives these responses are indissolubly bound up in the narrative itself. However, in the story of nature the responses are not built in. Consequently, those who, to borrow another of her felicitous phrases, "take nature to heart", have to find ways together, in community, to articulate these responses in both words and in deeds.

(In the following Youtube film entitled "Does Evolution Imply Atheism?" Ursula Goodenough offers, what seems to be a primarily Christian group at Washington University, St Louis, a basic précis of her religious naturalist position. Her contribution starts at 14'20" and finishes at 24'50").

But the thing is, and this is something I will never cease from pointing out, "reality, our world, is always-already 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others, and others beside us such as other cultures' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9). None of us can ever start articulating our responses to anything from a blank, neutral, supposedly objective position. Goodenough, thanks to her father's life and work, knows this intimately. So in addition to the "Epic of Evolution" she says:

". . . we need other stories as well, human-centred stories, a mythos that embodies our ideals and passions. This mythos comes to us, often in experiences called revelation, from the sages and the artists of past and present times" (SDN p. 174).

Her book takes this insight beautifully into account in its basic structure. A conventionally religious friend of hers, a Lutheran, saw an early draft and pointed out to her that her book was "set up like a Daily Devotional booklet" (SDN p. xix).  Not being a Lutheran she hadn't noticed this. The structure of the book is simple: "core text" (in this case a scientific and natural rather than a religious and supernatural one) followed by a section entitled "Reflections". She says of the latter that:

". . . for the most part each response is personal, describing the particular religious emotion or mental state that is elicited in me when I think about a particular facet of the evolutionary story. For example the evolution of the cosmos invokes in me a sense of mystery; the increase in biodiversity invokes the response of humility; and the understanding of the evolution of death offers me helpful ways to think about my own death" (SDN p. xx).

She concludes by saying:

"If religious naturalism is to flourish, it will be because others find themselves called to reflect on the dynamics of Nature from their own cognitive, experiential, and religious perspectives - in which case this book will become one of an emergent series of Daily Devotionals" (SDN p. xx-xxi).

I find that I am one of those people called to reflect on the dynamics of Nature from my own cognitive, experiential, and religious perspective. I also believe that our own liberal Christian tradition with its historic affirmation of the natural sciences and the natural world is likewise called. Also, through conversations with many of you, I believe that most of you here today are also called to reflect on the dynamics of Nature from your own cognitive, experiential, and religious perspectives.

My question is, what would such a religious naturalist, Daily Devotional book (or Sunday service liturgy for that matter) look like that came from this community, one rooted, as it is, in a liberal Christian cognitive, experiential, and religious perspective?

I have some ideas - I've even tried a few of them out, especially in the context of our evening service with its central practice of mindful meditation - but I'd very much like to hear yours.

But whatever emerges in our conversation about this I unhesitatingly encourage you get hold of Goodenough's "Devotional" book and spend some time with her in prayerfully, devotionally, meditating upon the wonderful story of Nature.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

What is one to do in so-called dark times?

Pond in a garden, Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes 
Readings: I wanted to read the following short passage from the Song of Songs for a number of reasons. The first is simply because it is set in a beautiful garden in the Near East — the region from which so many of the refugees entering Europe at the moment hail. I cannot but help wonder how many such beautiful and peaceful Near Eastern gardens have been utterly destroyed by war in recent decades? I chose it, secondly, because it speaks of love and that causes me to wonder how many lovers have been killed or forced to flee this region and, of course, how much love has been lost or completely destroyed? Lastly, I chose this passage because, for the third-century BCE Greek philosopher Epicurus, a garden was the place where one could most fruitfully spend time with friends in goodly conversation learning how to live and die well. It was this Epicurean garden that lies behind Boccaccio's poem "The Decameron", a line from which which we shall turn in a moment. 

Song of Songs 4:16-5:2 (NRSV)

Awake, O north wind,
   and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden
   that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
   and eat its choicest fruits. 
I come to my garden, my sister, my bride;
   I gather my myrrh with my spice,
   I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
   I drink my wine with my milk. 
Eat, friends, drink,
   and be drunk with love.
I slept, but my heart was awake.
Listen! my beloved is knocking.
‘Open to me, my sister, my love,
   my dove, my perfect one;
for my head is wet with dew,
   my locks with the drops of the night.’

From The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)

To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others.

From Robert Pogue Harrison: Gardens—An Essay on the Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 71, and pp. 94-95

What is one to do in so-called dark times, when the world that “comes between men” no longer gives them a meaningful stage for their speech and actions, when reasoned discourse loses its suasion, when powerlessness rather than empowerment defines the citizen’s role in the public sphere? There are times when the thinker, patriot, or individual has no choice but to withdraw to the sidelines, as Plato did when he gave up the idea of becoming a statesman and founded a school on the outskirts of Athens. In her book “Men in Dark TimesHannah Arendt writes: “Flight from the world in dark times  of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped.” The same could be said of the sanctuary that gardens have traditionally offered people when their human condition is under siege. A garden sanctuary can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on the degree of reality it preserves within its haven. Some gardens become places of escape that try to shut out reality . . .. Other gardens, by contrast, become places of humanization in the midst of, or in spite of, the 
forces of darkness. 
[. . .]
Illustration from an edition of the Decameron (c.1492)
Boccaccio was no moralist. He was not a reformer or would-be prophet. He was not especially preoccupied by human depravity or humanity’s prospects for salvation. He did not harangue his reader from any self-erected pulpit of moral, political, or religious conviction. If the ethical claims for the Decameron which he lays out in his preface are finally extremely modest (the author hopes through his stories to offer diversion and consolation to those in need of them), it is because the human condition itself is a modest one. The plague demonstrates as much. To be human means to be vulnerable to misfortune and disaster. It means periodically to find oneself in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification. Our condition is for the most part an affair of the everyday, not of the heroic, and our minimal ethical responsibility to our neighbour, according to Boccaccio’s humanism, consists not in showing him or her the way to redemption but in helping him or her to get through the day. This help takes many modest forms, not least of which is rendering the sphere of social interaction more pleasurable through wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability. To add to the pleasure rather than the misery of life: that is the arché or first principle of Boccaccio’s humanism, which is not the  triumphalist humanism of later eras (which saw self-reliant humankind as the glory of all creation) but the civil humanism of neighbourly love. (It is not by chance that Boccaccio begins his preface with the word umana, or human: Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti [It is human to have compassion for those in distress]).



In addition to the brief address you are about to hear, this week I ended up completing two other, very different addresses.

The first was a gentle, but I hope still meaningful, autumnal piece reflecting on something we might learn from the walnut tree in the church’s back yard. However, the continuing refugee crisis and the associated the religio-political inspired wars and conflicts in and around the middle and near-east, the continuing problems in the financial systems of Europe and China, and the astonishing series of political events surrounding the election of a new Labour leader, made me feel my first address was in danger of being heard merely as a case of fiddling while Rome burns (I don't thinks it is that but I'll return to this thought in a moment).

Abandoning it, I realised that there was something about the general situation that could usefully be foregrounded since it might help us better to understand something of the exceptionally challenging problem a liberal, free-religious church such as our own is facing in the current situation. So I wrote a second address exploring something that has become increasingly clear to me, namely, that the very useful and highly effective fiction that was the post-war British and European consensus concerning our civic, religio-political and economic life together has begun, if not yet completely to unravel, then at least to show signs of potential, serious structural failure.

The way we are dealing, or failing to deal with the refugee crisis, the global crises in finance and banking and also those more locally in the eurozone, the crisis with how to deal with religious extremism at home and abroad, the crises in mainstream social democratic political parties, the crises connected with national identities across Europe, and many more besides, reveals this worrying trend in spades.

It seemed appropriate to raise this matter because in our modern form a church such as this has, at least in my reading of the matter, been significantly shaped and sustained by this post-war consensus. In my abandoned second address I argued that the slowly building crisis in the consensus has brought about a parallel, slowly building crisis in our own identity and role. In part this is because today we don’t like extremes (or extremists) and feel it is important always to be nuanced and balanced as possible (avoiding simplistic either/or situations or paradigms)and  preferring to move forward slowly, carefully weighing and reflecting on all things over an extended and, we hope, stable period of time.

This approach, naturally, works reasonably well when it is embedded in a wider stable culture of consensus but it quickly becomes highly ineffective when we discover ourselves in a wider world that is throwing up all kinds of unstable, “in-your-face” events that need dealing with right now, and are the kind of events which very quickly produce highly polarised, non-consensual answers. The refugee crisis is one very powerful international example of this.

As we know Harold Macmillan was once supposedly asked by a journalist, “what is most likely to blow governments off course” to which he reputedly answered, “Events, my dear boy, events”. Well, few people can doubt that after a long period about which Francis Fukuyama (b. 1952) could proclaim “the end of history”, we are now fully back in a world of highly unpredictable and serious, status quo challenging events that are contributing to a wind which is seriously threatening to blow away so much of the old post-war consensus.

As a consensual and diverse community (diverse in religious, theological, political, social and temperamental terms) in these increasingly polarised times it becomes very hard to know what on earth it is we should collectively be doing and it seems to me that, whether we like it or not we, too, are being forced into something that feels like our own either/or moment.

On the one hand, we could attempt to plump for one of the many polarised positions that are whooshing up around us all over the place and, in so doing, leap fully and explicitly into the current fray on the political, religious or economic left or right (or whatever terms you wish to use). Hypothetically speaking, I think that, under certain conditions, this option should be followed and could be strongly justified. However, in our immediate time and context, it’s not at all my preferred option because I don’t think this approach would be able successfully to keep alive the kind of liberal religious and ethical thought I both want to see, and I think needs, to survive beyond these dark (and seemingly darkening) days.

My preferred option is consciously to plump for an approach with both ancient Greek and Renaissance roots that I first explicitly explored with you just over a year ago with the help of the fourteenth-century Italian writer, poet and humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375).

To remind you, one day the July before last, as I began to fall asleep, his poem “The Decameron” (1353) came quietly into my dreams. The year is 1348 and there is a terrible plague running unchecked in Florence. As Robert Pogue Harrison says:

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

To escape this horror a group of seven young women and three young men decide to leave the city for two-weeks, go to a secluded villa with a beautiful walled-garden and there “to engage in conversation, leisurely walks, dancing, storytelling, and merry-making taking care not to transgress the codes of proper conduct” (Gardens, p. 84).

What could be more different from the horrors of plague-ridden Florence than this garden idyll? It is seemingly so different that, at first sight, it might seem as if that their retreat was merely an escape from reality. But, as Harrison points out:

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

As it was a year ago this seems to me to be a vital insight to hold on to in our day to day life as a diverse, consensual voluntary church community because I’m sure we can all see that, in order just to keep going, we are all going to need a place of appropriate retreat and are likely to be increasingly “in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification.” But, and this is a hugely important element in the overall picture, this escape must always be undertaken by us according to Hannah Arendt’s high standard I've just mentioned.

In consequence, I strongly feel this community should primarily be concerned to understand itself as offering something analogous to the garden into which Boccaccio’s ten youngsters retreated six-hundred and sixty-seven years ago where all kinds of different people may continue “to engage in conversation, leisurely walks, dancing, storytelling, and merry-making, [and are able to take] care not to transgress the codes of proper conduct” whilst always keeping well aware of what it is we are trying to escape. This address is directed at the latter; my address about the walnut tree would have been an example of the former. 

The real (if extremely modest) hope I have is that those who seek us out on a Sunday will, when they return to reality on Monday morning, find they are just slightly better able to get through the next day and the next week. At the very least a place like this might be able to provide just a little meaningful support for the preferred activism each of us as individuals feels called upon and able to undertake in our own, personal lives so as to "show compassion for those who suffer" — whether that activism is religious, social and/or political in orientation.

It important to remember that in the Decameron, after two weeks retreat, the ten storytellers then make a return to reality. Although for them, as for us, the time spent together in fellowship, sharing story, song and conversation about all kinds of things (including walnut trees) may seem to have little or no immediate, direct effect on the “outside”, “real” world, it is not true that nothing changes in our time together. This is because what the ten friends, and we, do together here is something we may call “recasting reality.” As Harrison notes,

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

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

In other words, in the present, darkening, extremely unsettling historical, political, religious and social situation we find ourselves in, one with less and less consensus, it seems to me that the best and most effective way a small liberal, free-religious community like our own can play a meaningful role in the world is to continue to gather together with “wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability” in order to offer ourselves and the world more creative, compassionate and civilising interpretations of the world than those we are currently being offered by reality.

This is clearly not the only thing that needs to be done, but it is the only thing I think that together, in this very small, and highly specific community, we can and should be trying to do right now.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Trees, kettles, ladles and bottles of wild sauces as answers to the question: “What is the meaning of life?”

This week, as I often do, I spent some time reading and reflecting upon a number of Mary Oliver’s poems. My meditations settled upon a single stanza (section 4) from her poem “Something” (in “Red Bird”, Beacon Press, 2008):

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

And her poem “Answers” (in "The River Styx, Ohio and Other Poems", Harcourt Brace, 1972):

If I envy anyone it must be
My grandmother in a long ago
Green summer, who hurried
Between kitchen and orchard on small
Uneducated feet, and took easily
All shining fruits into her eager hands.

That summer I hurried too, wakened
To books and music and circling philosophies.
I sat in the kitchen sorting through volumes of answers
That could not solve the mystery of the trees.

My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged my lofty career:
So to please her I studied – but I will remember always
How she poured confusion out, how she cooled and labeled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.

Together these poems made me think carefully this week both about the kinds of religious or philosophical answers that I once sought and also the kind of answers I now not only continue to seek but also have reason to think I find.

Like most people within our culture I was brought up thinking that all the important religious or philosophical answers were propositional in form. To remind you, a proposition, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, is:

“That which is proposed or stated; the content of a declarative sentence, capable of truth and falsity. To grasp a proposition is to understand what is said, supposed, suggested, and so on.”

So, as a child growing up in a protestant Christian context, the answer to life was essentially a belief in the truth of the propositions found in the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is,
seen and unseen. (etc., etc.)

The argument was that if I believed in these propositions — which were, I was taught, of the kind that were capable of truth or falsity (though, of course, their truth was always assumed and proclaimed) — then all would be fine. I was told they provided the fundamental, necessary answers to the question of the meaning of my life and, indeed, all human lives.

Lest anyone think that this address is going to be a simplistic, one-sided swipe at creedal forms Christianity then it is worth reminding you that non-creedal forms of the Christian tradition (such as the one in which this church stands) have also traditionally defined themselves in propositional terms about an abstract object of thought. The only difference being that their propositions have attempted to define that abstract object, i.e. God, differently. So, for example, in the Unitarian tradition the chief propositions were that “God is One” (whatever that meant or might mean today) and that, therefore, “Jesus was not God but a man”. One might be more or less inclined to agree with these propositions but my point is they are still propositions designed intellectually to be understood and capable of truth and falsity.

Those who promote such a way of articulating and offering-up religious or philosophical answers to people, in general seem to be saying that religious belief is all about identifying an abstract object of thought, generally given the same of God, and they are very little, if at all, concerned about our orientation to towards “more worldly objects” which, today, I shall represent by those listed in Oliver’s poem, namely, trees, kettles, ladles and bottles of wild sauces. It is worth noting that Jesus, too, concentrated on more worldly objects as the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast reminded us. Also worth noting is that the first-century Jewish world in which Jesus lived the concept of ‘belief’ or a ‘believer’ is entirely absent. Instead of a believer in the Hebrew Bible (which Jesus knew) we find only the idea of “y’re shamayim”, that is to say “someone who stands in awe of heaven” (c.f. Howard Wettstein in The Significance of Religious Experience, OUP, 2012).

Anyway, as we know, for many people today, propositional based religious belief is becoming problematic because such religious propositions have become increasingly hard to understand and which now show up, to many of us anyway, as false propositions.

Of course, it’s not that propositions about about actual things and/or states of affairs obtaining in the world are, per se, going to be wholly wrong or misplaced — they clearly have a real and important place —, it is just that they are now singularly failing to do the job required of them when it comes to providing satisfactory answers for questions like “the meaning of life.”

But this propositional way of proceeding is so hard to challenge. Over and over again in my role as your minister — and especially on Open Days like yesterday — I get asked by people interested in the meaning of life, their own and others, “what do you and your community believe?” or, “what is Unitarianism?” and they expect to hear from me, of course, a list of propositions that define this imagined “-ism.”

As most if you know, I don’t think that, today, there is any such thing as Unitarianism because we are a free religious movement centred today on complete spiritual freedom which can't meaningfully understood to be any kind of "-ism". So, although it might at first seem bizarre — even to some of you here today — these days I can really only give my questioners an answer by way of reference towards our various attitudes and orientations towards things like trees, kettles, ladles, bottles of wild sauces, mustard seeds and yeast and other “worldly objects”.

This is because it increasingly seems to me that the meaning of life is best to be found in a form of life in which we, as whole beings, take full account of our relationship with these more worldly objects rather than focussing on the highly abstract conceptions of God that have hitherto claimed our religious focus and loyalty. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that my focus and loyalty these days is, not at all to an abstract God but, rather, to the kind of divinity and sacredness that emerges in our encounters and relationships with these worldly objects because it is among them that the meaning of life, at least my life, is found. Again it is worth reflecting upon the fact that Jesus reminded us that the kingdom of God (howsoever this is to be understood) is to found among (or within) the people and the things of the world.

A modern illustration of in what this kind of answer might consist is found in the beautiful vignette that is Oliver’s poem “Answers”. We see there enacted a tiny moment in her grandmother’s actual form of life that is, itself, an answer. It is an answer that is found in the actual act of hurrying between the kitchen and the trees of the orchard “on small uneducated feet”, in the “easy taking of shining fruits into her eager hands”, and expressed “among her kettles and ladles” as she makes, cools and labels “all the wild sauces of the brimming year”. It is a form of life that Oliver feels viscerally is able to “pour confusion out” — both, in fact, in her grandmother’s life and, potentially, in her own in so far as she can herself imitate this kind of living.

One thing Oliver already knows during this green summer as she, too, hurries in seeking her own answer to life — not on this occasion by physically hurrying between kitchen and orchard but, instead by engaging in an abstract hurrying between “books and music and circling philosophies” all whilst sitting in her grandmother’s kitchen — is that all her hard, propositionally orientated seeking (good though it may be in other areas of her life) “could not solve the mystery of the trees” and, likely as not, was not going to be able to “pour confusion out”.

Oliver’s genius as a poet is to have found in her writing ways of asking and answering the question of the meaning of life in a manner analogous to the way her grandmother asked and answered it. Indeed, it seems to me, that Oliver’s poems are her versions of her grandmother’s wild sauces, they are made only after having gone out into the trees of the orchard of the world on uneducated feet (that is to say without any foregone conclusions and theories) to collect the fruit of experience so as to come back to her kitchen (her desk) and her pencil and paper (her kettles and ladles) so as to cool (that is to say reflect and meditate) and label (that is to say write a first draft of a poem) from what she has found so that it can be published and brought to us as a kind of jar of wild sauce (her published poems). Like a jar of wild sauce a poem has to be tasted, imbibed by us as whole beings. A poem, as you will know, simply cannot be reduced to mere propositions about the world! No, you must taste them and on tasting them you begin to sense how confusion is poured out and meaning enters life.

This whole activity, this form of life of poem making from the wild fruits of experience, has helped pour confusion out for Mary Oliver as wild sauce making helped pour out confusion for her grandmother.

To achieve this Oliver has consistently followed the simple method expressed in that single stanza from “Something” we heard earlier:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

But a major problem for most of us comes in the telling about the pouring out of confusion we have experienced in paying attention and being astonished. This is because it is so easy to think we have to do the telling propositionally (mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). But it seems to me that what we need to do in our own individual ways, as Oliver’s grandmother did, as Jesus did, and as Mary Oliver continues to do, is find ways to tell by showing others a form of life that has meaning.

Our telling — as individuals and a community — needs somehow to be come a showing; to show our own versions of running between kitchen and orchard, of our collection of shining fruits held in our eager hands, our kettles, ladles and cooled and labeled wild sauces — a showing that can somehow solve on a day by day basis the mystery of the trees and, indeed the mystery of our own life.

All of these thoughts finally bring me back to one of my favourite poems by the eight-century Chinese poet and religious, Layman P’ang (740-808), who beautifully wrote:

My daily affairs are quite ordinary;
but I’m in total harmony with them.
I don’t hold onto anything, don’t reject anything;
Nowhere an obstacle or conflict.
Who cares about wealth and honour?
Even the poorest thing shines.
My miraculous power and spiritual activity:
Drawing water and carrying wood.

(Quoted in Stephen Mitchell’s "The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry", New York: Harper Perennial, 1989)

There is, of course, no single way this miraculous power and spiritual activity that gives meaning to life is experienced and can then shown to others. This means we have to accept an almost unimaginable plurality of life-expressions in a free-religious community like this, none of which can be passed on to another person via propositional statements of the kind, "Unitarians’ believe a, b, c, and d" — No! Instead, the meaning of life must be shown in our own relationships and dispositions to towards, not only other people's miraculous power and spiritual activity but also towards the wondrous trees, kettles, ladles and bottles of wild sauces, mustard seeds and yeast.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The biologist E. O.Wilson's foreword to Loyal Rue's "Everybody's Story — Wising up to the Epic of Evolution"

Yesterday I gave an address in the Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge suggesting we consciously adopted the Epic of Evolution as our community's central story and it was fascinating to see that, in terms of folk who spoke to me afterwards (which was more than usual), it split folk pretty much down the middle; one half thought the suggestion was wildly misguided and/or plain wrong, the other thought I had hit the nail on the head. I expected some kind of push-back but not one that was so polarised. One point that came up from those not well disposed to my suggestion was that they could simply see no need or point for such a story within a religious setting.

So, by way of providing additional food for thought on this matter, I reproduce the eminent biologist, E. O. Wilson's foreword to Loyal Rue's book "Everybody's Story — Wising up to the Epic of Evolution" both for it's intrinsic interest and in order to encourage some readers of this blog to get a copy to read themselves.

Homo sapiens can justly be called the mythopoeic species. Human beings must have an epic, a sublime account of how the world was created and how humanity came to be part of it. The brain’s architecture automatically makes up stories; and the mind it creates is a theater of competing scenarios. The brain is not confined, animal-like, to instant sensory impressions followed by rough associations of these impressions with past reward and punishment. Instead, it searches continuously backward across time to re-create past events, real and imaginary, and forward to invent future scenarios. Stories that are pleasing to reason and emotion outcompete others less so. Replacing them, they serve thereafter as maps of future action. During this process the self, the central protagonist of the scenarios, is perceived within the present-moment scenario as having reached a decision. 
          The primal instinct of narrative, of continuous scenario invention, is what makes the human brain superior in performance. In dreams we construct stories of unconstrained fantasy. In gossip we evaluate others with tales of their exploits and foibles. And in religious myths we repeat the epics that ennoble our lives, our tribe, and our species. Religious epics satisfy another primal need. They confirm that we are part of something greater than ourselves. They say, Death may claim your precious self, and those you most love, but it will not claim the tribe or sully the benefits that empower the tribe. 
          To have credibility, the religious epic must be thought superior to the stories of competing tribes. Even to think otherwise is, in the eyes of fundamentalists, heretical, blasphemous, and traitorous. Superiority of one’s religious epic is a sacred imperative. 
          To justify religious epics, the two connate properties of human nature, the narrative and spiritual drives, have always served to divide humanity. They create a terrible dilemma: How are we to satisfy them, even enrich them, without the continuance of falsehoods that promote divisiveness and conflict? Is there a way to evolve a great epic that is at once universal, spiritually satisfying, and, above all, truthful? The quest for such an epic is the subject of Everybody’s Story. Loyal Rue’s argument is as bold as it is brief: The way to achieve an epic that unites humanity spiritually, instead of cleaving it, is to compose it from the best empirical knowledge that science and history can provide of the real human story. Spirituality is beneficent to the extent that it is based on verifiable truth. I find his argument persuasive. 

And, lastly, for the moment anyway, here's a recent short interview with E. O. Wilson on the BBC Newsnight programme in November 2014.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Where are you from? Earth!—A religious naturalist response to the current refugee crisis

Thomas Berry (1914-2009)
Readings: The opening three paragraphs of "The New Story" by Thomas Berry (in "The Dream of the Earth", Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988, pp. 123-124):

It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story. Our traditional story of the universe sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purposes, and energized action. It consecrated suffering and integrated knowledge. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children. We could identify crime, punish transgressors. Everything was taken care of because the story was there. It did not necessarily make people good, nor did it take away the pains and stupidities of life or make for unfailing warmth in human association. It did provide a context in which life could function in a meaningful manner.
          Presently this traditional story is dysfunctional in its larger social dimensions, even though some believe it firmly and act according to Its guidance. Aware of the dysfunctional aspects of the traditional program, some persons have moved on into different, often new-age, orientations, which have consistently proved ineffective In dealing with our present life situation. Even with advanced science and technology, with superb techniques in manufacturing and commerce, in communications and computation, our secular society remains without satisfactory meaning or the social discipline needed for a life leading to emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual fulfilment. Because of this lack of satisfaction many persons are returning to a religious fundamentalism. But that, too, can be seen as inadequate to supply the values for sustaining our needed social discipline. 
          A radical reassessment of the human situation is needed, especially concerning those basic values that give to life some satisfactory meaning. We need something that will supply in our times what was supplied formerly by our traditional religious story. If we are to achieve this purpose, we must begin where everything begins In human affairs—with the basic story, our narrative of how things came to be, how they came to be as they are, and how the future can be given some satisfying direction. We need a story that will educate us, a story that will heal, guide, and discipline us.

This piece was first published by Teilhard Studies in 1977 which was later revised for it's inclusion in the 1988 collection, "The Dream of the Earth" mentioned above.

Here's a trailer for a film about Thomas Berry and "The Great Story" i.e. "The New Story"

You can hear Thomas Berry talk about nature and humans in the following short interview.

Every Morning by Mary Oliver (from Dream Work, 1984)

Every morning 
the world 
is created. 
Under the orange

sticks of the sun 
the heaped 
ashes of the night 
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches— 
and the ponds appear 
like black cloth 
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies. 
If it is your nature 
to be happy 
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination 
alighting everywhere. 
And if your spirit 
carries within it

the thorn 
that is heavier than lead— 
if it’s all you can do 
to keep on trudging—

there is still 
somewhere deep within you 
a beast shouting that the earth 
is exactly what it wanted—

each pond with its blazing lilies 
is a prayer heard and answered 
every morning,

whether or not 
you have ever dared to be happy, 
whether or not 
you have ever dared to pray.


Where are you from? Earth—A religious naturalist responds to the current refugee crisis

Whilst (my wife) Susanna and I were away the dreadful refugee crisis connected particularly with the conflict in Syria finally began, finally, to make it into our collective European consciousness, a process that, in the last few days, has been speeded up and deepened by the shocking images of the three-year old boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on the beach at Kos and the long march by refugees from Budapest to the Austrian border.

This situation is, I’m sure, so present in our minds that, today, it seems impossible for to me not explicitly to address the matter in what I hope is some meaningful and genuinely useful way.

Firstly, I’m sure like many of you, I’m relieved to see that our own government seems finally to have recognised that we both can and should take in many, many more refugees, even though at present they are still far from pitching the number as high as they could. I encourage you to find appropriate ways to support this change of heart by our present government and push them to go much further.

However, despite this immediate practical response we, secondly, need to keep firmly in mind the painful fact that simply taking in refugees — even the maximum possible number — is not going to address the root causes of this tragedy which has been unfolding for years and for which, in part, European and American foreign policy must take some real blame. Clearly this requires from us, as individuals, religious communities and politicians a fundamental change of policy.

This thought about policy brings me to the third thing we can do and it is upon this matter that I wish to concentrate this morning primarily because it is fully within the area of my competence as a philosophically inclined, free-religious minister of religion. My initial point may seem to be unconnected to the current crisis, but please stay with me for you will see it's relevance even if, in the end, you come to disagree with me.

Just before going away for my summer vacation I introduced you to something said by Steve Dunsky, a film maker with the U.S. Forest Service. In a recent piece by him called, “Re-storying the World”, he noted that his colleagues at the “H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest” in Oregon were engaged in something they called “re-story-ation”, an activity which, in turn, allowed Dunsky to comment that,

“Before we make new policies, we need new metaphors.”

As the refugee crisis has deepened — and I have continued my own thinking about religious naturalism as a religious position that is highly amenable to our own Unitarian tradition and powerfully relevant to our own age — it has struck me deeply, on this occasion to what feels like the very core of my being, that this explicit need for a new metaphor — for a re-story-ation — is now too urgent to ignore both by me, by a contemporary progressive church such as our own, and by our own culture as a whole.

The metaphor that, to my mind, needs consciously and respectfully to be let-go is our culture’s core, inherited religious one, namely that of monotheism: the metaphor of a supernatural being (mostly personified as a male person, a father) who exists in some other divine, perfect realm and who is creating and judging all things in this transient, imperfect world so as to prepare his chosen ones for entry into a future, perfect, eternal home away from this natural world.

Although most human knowledge and experience in our contemporary world now reveals that this story is vanishingly unlikely to be true in any literal sense, it is important to see that it’s power as a pure metaphor quietly persists and almost everywhere continues to influence us into believing and acting as if there were a fundamental division in reality between the natural and the supernatural. This metaphorical metaphysical division continues to play it’s part in encouraging so many of the earth’s peoples (including some modern atheists and humanists who carry with them a shadow of this old metaphor in their own philosophies) similarly to continue to divide themselves into radically different races, nations and beliefs. Additionally the old metaphor encourages humanity to see itself as apart and different from the rest of nature in some fundamental way and the dreadful political, social and ecological consequences of this are plain to see  — consequences that, in the future, may well make this present refugee crisis look minor by comparison.

Given these things, the core, metaphorical story of monotheism is surely today, as a matter of urgency, one that should gently be let go.

But the good news is that there already exists amongst most of us — if only we could publicly admit this and actively foreground it — a more genuinely believable core story, namely, the Epic of Evolution. Some of you may ask, well, what’s that? Well, here’s how Loyal Rue, the historian of religion and a religious naturalist himself, summarises it:

“In the course of epic events, matter was distilled out of radiant energy, segregated into galaxies, collapsed into stars, fused into atoms, swirled into planets, spliced into molecules, captured into cells, mutated into species, compromised into thought, and cajoled into cultures. All of this (and much more) is what matter has done as systems upon systems of organization have emerged over thirteen billion years of creative natural history.
The Epic of Evolution is the biggest of all pictures, the narrative context for all our thinking about who we are, where we have come from, and how we should live.  It is the ultimate account of how things are, and it is therefore the essential foundation for discourse about which things matter.” (Source: http://www.earthlight.org/personal26.html)

In his own presentation of the Epic of Evolution found in his book, “Everybody’s Story” (SUNY Press, 2000), Rue, offers this take on the epic:

“What is so special about this story? What reason is there for thinking a story of such themes has potential for advancing global solidarity and cooperation? The very same reason for thinking *any* story might have this potential — that is, it has the power to engage the deep structures of human nature and to transform how we think and what we do. In other words the narrative of cosmic evolution has the potential for harnessing the emotional effectors of kin selection and reciprocal altruism to serve the integrity of natural and social systems. The story of cosmic evolution reveals to us the common origin, nature, and destiny shared by all human beings. It documents our essential kinship as no other story can do. This is no contrived shamanistic legend; this is not a bit of clever tribal tattooing—it’s more like the real thing. This story shows us in the deepest possible sense that we are all sisters and brothers—fashioned from the same stellar dust, energised by the same star, nourished by the same planet, endowed with the same genetic code, and threatened by the same evils. This story, more than any other, humbles us before the magnitude and complexity of creation. Like no other story it bewilders us with the improbability of our existence, astonishes us with the interdependence of all things, and makes us feel grateful for the lives we have. And not least of all, inspires us to express our gratitude to the past by accepting a solemn and collective responsibility for the future” (p. 49).

Unlike the countless, often conflicting, older, metaphysical religious metaphors which, for all their undoubted local value and beauty (local in terms of both place, culture and time) are obviously NOT everybody’s story, today the Epic of Evolution genuinely can be shown to be everybody’s story.

It’s a genuinely shared story that reveals to us — both scientifically and poetically and religiously — that together we all belong to the earth and that there is no separation into the heavenly and the earthly, into insiders and outsiders. In terms of the epic of evolution — the religious naturalist core metaphor — there is simply no such thing as a refugee or immigrant because we all belong in nature, our ever present source and shared home. Whereas, in terms of the old metaphor of classical monotheism, there are in fact only refugees and immigrants, people who are constantly seeking to escape from what is perceived to be this faulty, flawed natural world and to make their eternal home across a mythical border in some other, foreign, supernatural land.  

To this old story I think we must begin to find the courage publicly to say “No, no, no!” and gently and sensitively (because we must respectfully acknowledge that this old story is or has been much loved by many — including, I have to say, myself — to find ways to encourage people to let this old core metaphor go. So, for example, amongst ourselves I ask whether it might not be time to consider gently and sensitively letting go of the Lord’s Prayer? I ask this because it is a prayer which is clearly speaking from out of the old, deeply problematic story.  We might also think about offering up to our children the kind of educational programme developed by Connie Barlow which teaches the religious significance of the Epic of Evolution.

But these local, liturgical and educational questions aside, I find myself compelled, as was the poet Mary Oliver, by a beast shouting deep within me to say that this earth, this natural world, is “exactly what it wanted” and to say, with as much passion as this inner beast can muster, that this refugee crisis has made me see that I personally can no longer, with anything like a clean conscience, continue to support making any kind of policy, including policy concerning the immigrants and refugees, on the basis of the old monotheistic core metaphor, not least of all because it is precisely this old metaphor that has contributed so much to creating and exacerbating this dreadful situation in the first place.

The Epic of Evolution, tells us a very different story, one upon which I think we can, and should, now be making our policy — both as individuals, as a local church and more widely in civic, secular society. It seems, at the very least, that most of us here today (tacitly or not) already hold the Epic of Evolution as our core religious metaphor because we know, deep in our bones, that we can hold it with full and genuine pathos (impressiveness) and a genuinely clean heart. We know that there need be no equivocation from us about living fully and religiously from out of it. Please ask yourself whether you can honestly say this anymore about the old monotheistic metaphor?

It seems clear to me that the Epic of Evolution offers us a believable, this-worldly religious story that can persuasively remind us that we (“we” being all sentient and non sentient things), we are all always-already at home together on this planet and it’s all we’ll ever get, it's all we'll ever need and, for that reason, it’s all we should ever want and give grateful thanks for.

Which point allows me to draw to a close with the cartoon I reproduced here, one drawn in 2014 by the Australian cartoonist Simon Kneebone, who offered it in response to boats of people trying to reach Australia from Indonesia. In that, as in this current crisis, it simply and starkly articulates a basic truth expressed by the Epic of Evolution: We are all from earth and upon it, our common and only home, united we can stand, but divided we will most certainly all fall.