Thursday, 29 October 2015

Religion after the death of God—A conversation with Rupert Read, Andrew Brown and Stephen Watson—A Cambridge Festival of Ideas event

Last night, the philosopher and Green politician Rupert Read and I introduced an evening conversation on the subject of religion after the death of God. The evening was chaired by Professor Stephen Watson and was part of Cambridge University's Festival of Ideas. Rupert has written a book which, in part, explores the associated subject of religion without belief: “Philosophy for Life” (Continuum, 2007).

After introducing the speakers Stephen began by reminding the audience that the evening was not an occasion to discuss the question of whether God does or does not exist but, given that many many people in our culture can no longer believe in God, the question was what might be the possibilities for religion in this changed situation?

Rupert delivered his opening remarks from notes (which, alas, I don't have) so, from memory, I offer below a few of the things the particularly struck me. I drew my remarks from a finished text which I reproduce below.  Neither of us liaised about the content of our presentations so it was a pleasure to discover how many points of contact there were.

I thank Rupert for his excellent and interesting contribution and also for Stephen's fine chairing of the whole event.


Rupert began by exploring something of the history of the death of God and, along the way, considered particularly animism, pantheism and pan(en)theism, the latter two he saw as being particularly powerful candidates for any religion after the death of God. This philosophical position was related related by his to his own personal commitment to Buddhist practise and also to the Quakers. He also explored something of the opportunities and insights opened up for religion by Wittgenstein's philosophy about which he has written extensively. Rupert felt religion was important to the human species but only if the forms which develop after the death of God manage to avoid the traps of both relativism and fundamentalism. Rupert also spent time exploring the ways some kind of pantheism/pan(en)theism might help us creatively address the current ecological crisis we are facing.


Here is the full text from which I drew my opening remarks.

The historian in me wanted to begin by spending some time simply outlining the history of the death of God. But tonight is not an evening about the history of the death of God — by which is generally meant the history of the death in our culture of the idea that there exists an actual, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient being — but rather about how religion might, or might not, remain a live option in response to the general background fact that the God is, for a very large number of people in Europe today, a dead, or at least dying, concept.

Although Nietzsche and those who followed him were acutely aware that acknowledgement of the death of God would bring with it a realisation that the world did not possess the stable, objective (behind-the-scenes) eternal value or meaning we once believed it had, and that this, in turn, would precipitate what is called nihilism, many people began to see that it could also, as the contemporary philosopher Mark Wrathall has observed, “open up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and the sacred” (Religion after Metaphysics, Cambridge University Press 2003 p. 1),

For my part, I’m going to use my opening remarks to introduce into our conversation just two of the most important, basic, ways I see this opening up happening within the liberal religious Unitarian Universalist and Unitarian and Free Christian movement to which I belong.

Firstly, perhaps the most important thing to have occurred, is that the natural world is now being taken with an increased religious seriousness — a fact that connects strongly with our current ecological concerns and crises. I’ll briefly return to this thought at the end. Although this process began in the physical realm during the Renaissance with people like Copernicus (1473–1543) and then Galileo (1564–1642), after Nietzsche’s proclamation there was simply no longer even a metaphysical need to split the world into the heavenly and earthly, into God “up there” and creation “down here” and this, in turn, has resulted in an increasingly complex intermingling of ideas about the sacred and secular, the holy and profane. This latter, philosophical process was, of course, well underway by the end of the eighteenth century when pantheism began to become very influential — especially via Idealist philosophy and the Romantic movement. As Frederick C. Beiser (After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900, Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 4) puts it,

Spinoza’s famous phrase ‘deus sive natura’ made it possible to both divinize nature and naturalize the divine. Following that dictum, a scientist, who professed the most radical naturalism, could still be religious; and a pastor, who confessed the deepest personal faith in God, could still be a naturalist.”

This move to divinize nature and naturalize the divine, has continued apace and continues to play an important part in the development of a much broader modern movement known as “religious naturalism”.

Religious naturalism is a philosophy that combines a naturalist worldview (namely, that the natural order is all there is, and that nothing, including a deity, may exist or act in ways that are independent of the natural order) with various perceptions and values once commonly associated with religion, such as gratitude, wonder, awe, humility and compassion, etc..

Religious naturalists of all kinds take nature to be the proper focus of their religious commitment and concern. In saying this they do not (generally) mean that nature is somehow to be worshipped — I want to be clear about that — but, because nature is perceived by a religious naturalist to be metaphysically ultimate, “that is to say, self-sustaining and requiring no explanation for its existence beyond itself” (A Religion of Nature, Crosby, p.xi), nature is also understood as being religiously ultimate. This is because, even though nature is not accorded self-consciousness, personality, will or morality etc. (as the theistic God would be), nature is perceived to be the source and reason for everything we see and experience around us and so religious naturalists feel that we can “grant to nature the kind of reverence, awe, love, and devotion we in the West have formally reserved for God” (A Religion of Nature, Crosby, p.xi).

I think it is important to stress that for many religious naturalists — myself included — when they talk about nature as being the proper focus of religious commitment and concern they are not referring en bloc to the sum total of all created things and natural laws — to some giant collective entity, substance or thing. This present, sum total of things and natural laws, we can call “natura naturata” — nature natured, the way the natural world happens to be at this moment. Instead, many religious naturalists use the word nature to refer to the creative power of nature, “natura naturans” — nature naturing, nature endlessly doing what nature does both now and in the future.

OK, so that’s the first thing introduced: nature as religiously ultimate. So let’s now move on to the second thing connected with religion after the death of God.

Many of the people I meet, in addition to making nature their central religious focus and concern, also now take what is being called the “Epic of Evolution” as their basic story of how things are and what things matter rather than the divine, theistic story that we find in our various sacred religious texts, such as the Bible. The “Epic of Evolution” may be defined as follows.

“[It is] the [approximately] 14 billion year narrative of cosmic, planetary, life, and cultural evolution — told in sacred ways. Not only does it bridge mainstream science and a diversity of religious traditions; if skillfully told, it makes the science story memorable and deeply meaningful, while enriching one’s religious faith or secular outlook” (Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature).

All foundational religious stories are ones which try to say something to us about how things are and what things matter but the post death of God, religious naturalist Epic of Evolution differs in one very important way to those told by our old religions.

In our old stories, how things are and what things matter were indissolubly conjoined at the beginning of things. God creates both the physical universe AND what is believed to be the world’s unchanging, essential moral and ethical laws which are forever to govern our responses to the world and which help us discern what things matter.

The Epic of Creation, however, separates out the creation of the physical world and the creation of our moral and ethical laws. In the Epic of Creation our conceptions of what is understood to be good and what is bad and our religious and ethical responses to them “are not front-loaded into the story” as they are in traditional religion but, instead, are to be understood in wholly evolutionary terms. In other words our moral and ethical laws are perceived as being, like life itself, wholly natural and emergent; they are not perceived as things divinely given by God from the beginning. This means that the question of discerning what things matter, what things are good and bad and how to deal with the ramifications of this, is for a religious naturalist part of an ongoing, natural evolutionary process in which, in the company of fellow explorers, we continually seek to discover and experience the world “informed and guided by the mindful understandings inherent in our human traditions, including art, music, literature, philosophy, and the religions of the world” (RNA website).

In short, after the death of God, the Epic of Creation offers many of the people I meet a new guiding religious story that they find powerful both in terms of its scientific basis and its poetic, artistic and narrative aspects. It is a story which has the power to appeal because it feels to have about it both an intellectual and artistic persuasiveness relevant and meaningful to our own age and state of knowledge — a state, I should add, that every religious naturalist is happy to acknowledge is highly likely to undergo considerable modification and, perhaps, even fundamental change in the future as our knowledge, experience and insight changes.

So there are the two things I want to bring to the start of our conversation tonight about religion after the death of God: nature as religiously ultimate and the Epic of Creation as the basic story of how things are and what things matter.

But I think it is important to conclude by stressing the importance of story in all this. Although it is necessary, it doesn’t seem to be sufficient for human well-being merely to articulate a naturalistic world view after the death of God. Instead we need to ally a naturalistic world view to good story telling in a way that results in the creation a mutually supportive, intellectually and emotionally satisfying, challenging and informative whole. It must not be forgotten that we are as much poetic as scientific beings and over the past five years I’ve been very impressed and influenced by the work of a still small cultural movement called the “Dark Mountain Project” which was set going in 2009 by two British writers Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth. On the project’s website we find the following text:

The stories which any culture tells itself about its origins and values determine its direction and destination. The dominant stories of our culture tell us that humanity is separate from all other life and destined to control it; that the ecological and economic crises we face are mere technical glitches; that anything which cannot be measured cannot matter. But these stories are losing their power. We see them falling apart before our eyes. New stories are needed for dark times. Older ones need to be rediscovered.”

And it seems to me that, after the death of God, the Epic of Creation and an associated religion of nature can provide human kind with one such new story.


The floor was then opened up to questions and a very interesting hour and a half of conversation followed.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

TONIGHT @ 7.30pm—A conversation about "Religion after the death of God"—A Cambridge Festival of Idea event

Tonight I'm taking part in an evening conversation with Green Party politician and academic, Rupert Read, on religion after the death of God. The evening is chaired by Professor Stephen Watson and is part of Cambridge University's Festival of Ideas.

It starts at 7.30pm in the Memorial (Unitarian) Church on Emmanuel Road where I am minister and all are welcome. It's free too!

When, in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche announced “the death of God” it signalled that an important change was occurring in the religious and philosophical form of life that had prevailed across Europe for centuries and, today, we know that for many people foundationalist conceptions of God have become increasingly implausible.

This evening is an introduction to the possibilities that have opened up for religion as a result of this process. As Mark Wrathall notes in his introduction to “Religion after Metaphysics” (Cambridge University Press 2003 p. 1),

“. . . the loss of belief in a metaphysical god that is the ground of all existence and intelligibility, and even the loss of belief in a creator God who produced the heaven and the earth is not a disaster” and that the “absence of foundational God opens up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and the sacred. Thus, the death of the philosopher’s God may have provided us with new and more authentic possibilities for understanding religion that we blocked by traditional metaphysical theology (or onto-theology).”

Rupert Read has written a book which, in part, explores the associated subject of religion without belief: “Philosophy for Life” (Continuum, 2007).

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Autumnal Tints—a set of photos taken in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden

I took two good friends from Avignon around the Cambridge University Botanic Garden today—and glorious for both reasons of friendship and the beauty of the natural world.

Colour photography was (nearly) the only option today and all the photos which follow were all taken with my Ricoh GR. They are all straight out of the camera. The colour ones were taken using the "positive film" setting and the two black and white ones using the "B&W (TE)" setting. Click on a picture to enlarge it

I simply cannot help but have such a day accompanied by some words by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) from his 1862 essay “Autumnal Tints”

“October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight.”

“Most appear to confound changed leaves with withered ones, as if they were to confound ripe apples with rotten ones. I think that the change to some higher color in a leaf is an evidence that it has arrived at a late and perfect maturity, answering to the maturity of fruits.”

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Superficial out of profundity—on the need not to make any more Bibles of any kind

Autumn colour on Christ's Pieces opp. the Memorial Church this morning
READINGS: Henry David Thoreau from the essay “Walking”

Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past. Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated. That sound commonly reminds us that we are growing rusty and antique in our employments and habits of thought. His philosophy comes down to a more recent time than ours. There is something suggested by it not in Plato nor the New Testament. It is a newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment. He has not fallen astern; he has got up early, and kept up early, and to be where he is, is to be in season, in the foremost rank of time. It is an expression of the health and soundness of Nature, a brag for all the world — healthiness as of a spring burst forth — a new fountain of the Muses, to celebrate this last instant of time. Where he lives no fugitive slave laws are passed. Who has not betrayed his master many times since last he heard that note?

“Some Things The World Gave” by Mary Oliver

Times in the morning early
when it rained and the long gray
buildings came forward from darkness
offering their windows for light.

Evenings out there on the plains
when sunset donated farms
that yearned so far to the west that the world
centered there and bowed down.

A teacher at a country school
walking home past a great marsh
where ducks came gliding in —
she saw the boy out hunting and waved.

Silence on a hill where the path ended
and then the forest below
moving in one long whisper
as evening touched the leaves.

Shelter in winter that day —
a storm coming, but in the lee
of an island in a cover with friends —
oh, little bright cup of sun.

“How the Real Bible Is Written” by William Stafford (The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems,  Graywolf Press, 1998)

Once we painted our house and went into it.
Today, after years, I remember that color
under the new paint now old.
I look out of the windows dangerously
and begin to know more. Now when I
walk through this town there
are too many turns before the turn
I need. Listen, birds and cicadas
still trying to tell me surface things:
I have learned how the paint goes on,
and then other things—how the real Bible is
written, downward through the pages,
carved, hacked, and moulded, like the faces
of saints or the planks ripped aside
by steady centuries of weather, deeper than
dust, under the moles, caught by the
inspiration in an old badger’s shoulder
that bores for grizzled secrets in the ground.


Last week after the service I was asked a thoughtful question about my views concerning the authority of the Bible. The question has remained with me throughout this week and I bring you just a few thoughts connected with that theme today. 

When I was a child, in terms of religious authority the Bible was, quite literally, the last word. I’m not sure I ever really felt this authority with full pathos, but certainly I understood it intellectually to be the case and a passage from 2 Timothy 3:15–17 was occasionally cited by those around me to remind me of the book’s authority: 

“. . . and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

I took a childish delight (childish in the non-pejorative sense of the word as I was a child) in the fact that one could find small editions of the text that would slip easily into my bag or even my pocket and the thought that the answer to everything — or at least everything important — could be carried around with you was immensely attractive and comforting.

Jacopo Amigoni, Jael and Sisera (1739)
Of course, for all kinds of reasons, the Bible’s authority has today completely gone from my life. A better knowledge of things scientific, literary, historical, archeological, sociological, philosophical and theological have all slowly, but highly effectively, left me with a text that is wholly human in origin and import. Which is not to say that I don’t still find it endlessly intriguing and valuable — indeed, I remain a member of the Society of Old Testament Studies (SOTS), the only learned society I have ever been invited to join. All in all, I continue to be one of those people who thinks that without a good knowledge of the Bible it is very hard, if not impossible, to gain the fullest access to many of the riches of our culture and I confess to having a real, if limited, sadness that even as a purely human, literary text, knowledge of it’s contents amongst the general population continues to decline at a phenomenally fast rate. As a public speaker I know I can no longer use many (most?) of it’s stories as a short hand way into this or that idea because they are simply no longer shared by the majority of people whom I address. A passing reference today to, say, the story of what Jael did to Sisera with her tent peg (Judges 4), will not resonate in the slightest with most of you. But, trust me when I tell you that the tent peg of contemporary culture has delivered an equally effective, terminal blow to any shared knowledge of the Biblical text.

Thinking about this it becomes clear that for anything to be truly authoritative it must be backed up by consensual agreement about that same thing and so it goes without saying if the people don’t know the Bible and it’s stories then it simply cannot be authoritative for the people. The Bible’s day is, it seems, definitively, over.

What is true of the Bible today is true, I’m certain, for every other book in our culture and the chances of a single text ever becoming so well-known and consensually agreed upon by us all in  our present day highly plural culture as being authoritative in the matter of governing our total collective life and beliefs in the coming century seems to me to be so vanishingly small as to be impossible. Despite my already mentioned qualified literary and cultural regret that the book’s stories are no longer widely known I have to say that, on balance, I give hearty thanks that its day is done and I know that in my own ministry I will continue to play my part in ensuring that such a book can never again come into being, and that any already existent book that is being promoted as authoritative in the same way as the Bible once was — such as the Qur’an — is never allowed to assume that role. The Qur’an, as with the Bible, assuredly has it’s appropriately honoured place in world culture but it only has place amongst countless other important human texts.

Taken together all these thoughts caused me to ask what in my personal life, if anything, might, or does in fact, have an analogous authority today to that I once was told the Bible had?  

A few short texts help me frame my reflections on this question and I'll take them in turn.

I think Thoreau is right in saying we really cannot afford not to live in the present. I also think that he is right in saying that we are blessed when we lose “no moment of the passing life in remembering the past.” He feels, as do I, that the truest and fullest life can only be lived in the present and whenever we are not doing that, when we are not mindfully listening to the cocks crowing (i.e. all the voices of the human arts and sciences around us) “in every barn-yard within our horizon”, we are “belated” and already “growing rusty and antique in our employments and habits of thought.”

I powerfully resonate with Thoreau in wanting to live according to “a newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment” not least of all because in saying this he is also, in part, gently alluding to the fact that for him, as for me, the New Testament, and Jesus, no longer have complete and final authority over us. In the chapter entitled “Sunday” in his book “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers“ He writes:

“. . . the New Testament treats of man and man’s so-called spiritual affairs too exclusively, and is too constantly moral and personal, to alone content me, who am not interested solely in man’s religious or moral nature, or in man even. I have not the most definite designs on the future. Absolutely speaking, Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you, is by no means a golden rule, but the best of current silver. An honest man would have but little occasion for it. It is golden not to have any rule at all in such a case. The book has never been written which is to be accepted without any allowance. Christ was a sublime actor on the stage of the world. He knew what he was thinking of when he said, ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’ I draw near to him at such a time. Yet he taught mankind but imperfectly how to live; his thoughts were all directed toward another world. There is another kind of success than his. Even here we have a sort of living to get, and must buffet it somewhat longer. There are various tough problems yet to solve, and we must make shift to live, betwixt spirit and matter, such a human life as we can.”

Agreeing with Thoreau I have to say that whatever might be authoritative for me must be found in the present, not something found in some ancient book, in an absolute golden-rule, nor in another world. I know that am looking “for another kind of success” in the matter of authority even though what this is remains one of the toughest problems to dissolve.

This attempt to dissolve the problem brings me to Mary Oliver's poem, “Some Things The World Gave” because in it I find a partial list of the kind of things I am willing to admit to finding authoritative in my own life in the present: light from buildings in the early morning rain; farms highlit at sunset that seem to gather the world to that point in time and place and lean westward; a kindly wave from a teacher across an expanse of water; an evening whisper of wind from out of a great silence; sheltering with some friends to be picked out, just for a moment, by a shaft of sunlight.

These moments and others like them, such as the flash of a blue kingfisher along a fenland lode, the quiet and gentle touch of Susanna’s hand when I’m unwell, the half-heard sound of Louis Armstrong’s voice singing “A Wonderful World” in a dreary and depressing shopping centre, the taste of a perfect and unexpected pint of Abbott Ale on a summer’s day, playing jazz with friends and doing my Tai Chi, all of these things and many more are authoritative for me in the sense that they are the defining moments of epiphany when I have felt deep within the core of my being that here, and now, the shape and meaning of my life was fully revealed to me. 

But here I begin to see that my remembering — even though they are remembrances of things that feel very present to me, I begin, almost against my will, to cease to be living “a newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment” and I can feel myself becoming “belated” and “growing rusty and antique” in my “employments and habits of thought.”

It reveals to me that I must always be aware of the danger that, layer by layer, these gifts can be built up — as too do those darker gifts of sadness and loss — and I begin to construct what William Stafford wants to call “the Real Bible” — the problematic authoritative, fixed text by which I actually live. It's important to realise that by "real" Stafford may not mean either good or desirable. 

An old badger
I realise as I get older that the layers of my life deepen and I come to know that, despite the surface layer of paint I present to the world there is often another colour (perhaps many colours) of paint beneath. I have come to know how the paint goes on, layer by layer, complicating everything in my life which help add extra turns to my journeys into life that were once able to be made simply and immediately. I can see how my life, rather than being lived as an immediate, endlessly creative and improvised flow — as I seem to see children and animals living — is in danger of being lived “downward through the pages, carved, hacked, and moulded, like the faces of saints or the planks ripped aside by steady centuries of weather, deeper than dust”. I begin to see how I could easily come to live, not as a creature of the surface and the light, like birds and cicadas, but like some old badger boring “for grizzled secrets in the ground.”

It was a bit of a shock to see this picture of myself and it served instantly to throw me back to some words by a person who I find often saves me from my human, all too human folly, Friedrich Nietzsche. In the preface to the second edition of “The Gay Science” (1886) he writes: 

“What is required is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superficial – out of profundity!”.

It made me realise that I find I’m with the philosopher Gordon Bearn in thinking that “the answer to our existential anxiety does not lie beneath the surfaces of our lives, but in our acceptance — Nietzsche’s “Yes” — of the groundless details of those surfaces themselves: the wonder of the ordinary” (Source: SUNY Press)

It seems to me that my memories of the wonder of the ordinary are fine so long as I ensure that I access them (to refer back to an address I gave earlier this year) only as an “archeologist of morning”, assembling reminders for a life lived in the present (“the work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose”—Wittgenstein PI §127) in which I seek never to have upon me more than one coat of paint at a time and that, if I need repainting then to make sure I go back to the wood every time, remaining in the present and making of my life a life lived according to the gospel of the present moment. Perhaps, above all else, I realise how important it is for me never again to look for, or try to make, Bibles of any kind.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Dark Mountain Project—On one very helpful, creative, uncivilising consequence of getting a chest infection and going to bed

Late in 2010 I stumbled across The Dark Mountain Project whilst exploring the powerful poetry of Robinson Jeffers — Jeffers' poem "Rearmament" concludes with the words "the dark mountain".  Here's how the project describes itself today:

The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.

The Project grew out of a feeling that contemporary literature and art were failing to respond honestly or adequately to the scale of our entwined ecological, economic and social crises. We believe that writing and art have a crucial role to play in coming to terms with this reality, and in questioning the foundations of the world in which we find ourselves.

The project impressed me greatly — especially their manifesto "Uncivilisation" of which I have an early, hand-numbered copy — but, at the time, I was so wrapped up in a shedload of other things that  I didn't follow it up as much as I might. [Here's a link to one address in 2011 which I explored Jeffers' work and pointed folk to the project.]

Cue this week. I've come down with a bad chest infection which, for the first time in five years forced me to go to the doctor. I'd developed the kind of cough that, were a member of my congregation to have it, I'd send them there immediately — I figured I really should listen to my own advice for once. Anyway the upshot was that I was sent home with some medication and an instruction to stay in the warm and rest properly.

Back at home and in bed I decided quietly to explore a few religious naturalist/ecological trains of thought and along the way came across a talk given at Schumacher College in June 2014 by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, the two founders of the project.

As I watched it I realised just how much of what they talked about had taken root in my own thinking and work since first reading their manifesto. I was, I have to say, powerfully impressed by their general manner, clarity and calmness and it has set me thinking about if, and how, I might better engage with the project in the coming year.

Anyway, if you're sufficiently intrigued, here's the video to watch for yourself.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Why Don't You Tickle Me?—A few thoughts on Voluntary Simplicity

At various times over the past five years I’ve explored with you aspects of a general outlook called “voluntary simplicity.” I first became acquainted with the idea during my late teens and early twenties when I began to read the work of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). In Walden he memorably writes:

“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.”

Of course, it was an outlook that my own Christian upbringing had prepared me for reasonably well because Jesus, too, clearly took to heart the idea of voluntary simplicity. That so many expressions of the church have so consistently failed to notice and act upon this remains, to me anyway, one of the most puzzling and depressing things about institutional forms of Christianity.

Anyway, as I’ve got older I have become more and more convinced, not only that across the generations, geography and cultures was voluntary simplicity always one of the wisest general outlooks on offer, but that it is now one which seems to me to be increasingly necessary to adopt, especially by those of us living in the most affluent societies in the world. Indeed, Duane Elgin, who in 1981 published what is still perhaps the most well-known book on the subject — Voluntary Simplicity — notes in a new introduction to a revised version of his text that:

“. . . the public conversation about simplicity is shifting from complacency to urgency. In the 1970s, there was little public concern about climate change, massive famines, energy and water shortages, and more. Although these loomed on the horizon, the majority of people were focused on the “good life” in the short run. More than thirty years later, these are no longer problems for the distant future; they represent a critical challenge to the human community now. The more closely we look, the more compelling is the evidence that the human family has exceeded the ability of the Earth to support humanity’s current levels of consumption, let alone that projected for the future. There must be dramatic, global changes in our overall approach to living and consuming if we are to avoid a future of immense calamity. Simplicity of living, by whatever name, is moving from an easily dismissed lifestyle fad to an approach to living that is recognized as a vital ingredient for building a sustainable and meaningful future.”

But this fairly uncontroversial claim about the need for voluntary simplicity (at least in a congregation like this) obscures something very, very important about it. Namely, that it is far from being a simple, one-dimensional outlook but is, instead, an endlessly complex and developing way of being in the world and that one person’s voluntary simplicity often turns out to be different from another person’s and that there can be no simple “cookbook for sustainable lifestyles” containing all the answers. To some people this can make the concept seem as if it is next to useless, especially when it is promoted thoughtlessly and carelessly by people who are in a position to be able to chose to live a simple life — someone like me.

I have very much in mind today the enormous numbers of refugees  in the world and also the poorest in our own British society who are finding themselves pushed more and more towards poverty thanks to the current cuts — cuts which seem to me to be wholly unwanted. These are people who are increasingly being forced into lifestyles that may superficially look simple but which are really desperately complex and which are vanishingly far from being voluntary.

We we are helped to get a better grip on what kind of thing voluntary simplicity is not by hunt out some boundary cases where what might look, from a certain perspective like voluntary simplicity actually turns out to be something different, darker and deeply disturbing — something that should not be encouraged in any shape or form but, in fact, actively challenged and radically overturned.

However, before I get to my two boundary cases I want to be clear about three things voluntary simplicity is not.

  • Firstly, it is not an absolutist turning away from all those things we might gather together under the heading, “technological progress”. 

  • Secondly, it is not in any necessary way, rural living. Some people who practice voluntary simplicity find a rural setting helpful but it can just as easily and effectively (in some senses more easily and effectively) be practiced in an urban setting.

  • Thirdly, it is not a denial of aesthetics or beauty. 

There is a fourth thing that it is not and it is upon this this I wish to centre my remaining brief reflections. It is that voluntary simplicity is not “impoverished living”. Duane Elgin puts it this way:

“Poverty is involuntary and debilitating, whereas simplicity is voluntary and enabling. Poverty is mean and degrading to the human spirit, whereas a life of conscious simplicity can have both a beauty and a functional integrity that elevates the human spirit. Involuntary poverty generates a sense of helplessness, passivity, and despair, whereas purposeful simplicity fosters a sense of personal empowerment, creative engagement, and opportunity. Historically those choosing a simpler life have sought the golden mean — a creative and aesthetic balance between poverty and excess. Instead of placing primary emphasis on material riches, they have sought to develop, with balance, the invisible wealth of experiential riches” (Voluntary Simplicity, p. 27)

Both my boundary cases today are connected with “impoverished living”.

The first case I’ll offer is one found in the darkly comic song by that master of the darkly comic song, Randy Newman, “Tickle Me”. (Do give the song a listen in the video below, it's only two minutes long).

Tickle Me by Randy Newman

What can you do to amuse me
Now that there’s nothing to do?
The TV set’s busted and can’t get a picture
The radio plays nothing but news

Why don’t you tickle me?
Gee whiz won’t that be fine
What a great idea
What a perfect way to kill some time
Can’t stop to think ‘cause if we do we’ll lose our mind

Why don’t you tickle me?

Don’t we have fun every minute
Oh what a gay life we lead
One chocolate milkshake with two straws stuck in it
What else does anyone need?

Why don’t you tickle me?
There’s nothing else to do
You won’t have to talk to me
And I won’t have to talk to you
When we’re done I’ll think of something else to do

Why don’t you tickle me?

As the British comedian David Elms puts it:

“First off, [Newman’s] what I like to call “truthy” . . .. Newman’s songs aren’t about showing off: there’s not a big word in sight. Yes, they have their targets – US foreign policy, greed, bigotry, colonialism, hypocrisy, God, to name a few – but you won’t find the arched eyebrow and knowing grin of fellow satirical giant Tom Lehrer. Instead of smug professorial wit, or Minchin-esque linguistic dexterity, the blade is hidden under an innocent face and the slurred, honest delivery of a common man. It’s that same plain honesty that produces beautifully simple love songs such as Feels Like Home or the Oscar-nominated When She Loved Me. I never feel like Newman is trying to sound really clever or nice – he’s just trying to communicate truthfully. And comedy should be a bit rough, right?” (Source: The Guardian)

The song generally makes most people laugh (as they did in the version we have just heard) when they first hear the line, “Why don’t you tickle me?”. It’s a line that seems so innocent, charming and plain funny. But as the overall weight and direction of the little song begins fully to sink in, a very different, unfunny picture emerges. What we seem to have in Newman’s brilliant miniature is an account of two people right on a boundary. They have entered into poverty but they haven’t, yet, collapsed into complete despair about this. However, we feel that it might only be the protagonist’s darkly ironic sense of humour that is keeping them this side of hopelessness. They have almost no money and so can’t go out to do anything, except now and then  buy a chocolate milkshake to share, their TV set’s busted and the radio plays nothing but news (and we can imagine that then, as now, bad news predominates). But, hey, he says, what more does one need and, me may surmise, he feels that tickling might be genuinely fun. But, what happens after they finishing their chocolate milkshake and the tickling? Well, our hero admits he’s going to have to think of something else to do not least of all because they seem to be on the point of even giving-up talking to each other.

The point to see clearly is that in this song we see a simple pleasure being employed, not voluntarily, but as a strategy forced upon them to help take their minds off their increasingly impoverished living.

My second boundary case is found in a short piece written by the German Marxist philosopher, Ernst Bloch (1885–1977) during the 1910s. I brought it before you in a different context about five years ago:

“What are you doing? I asked. I’m conserving light, said the poor woman. She sat in the dark kitchen, a long time already. That was certainly easier than conserving food. Since there isn’t enough for everyone, the poor step in. They work for the rich even when they rest alone” (Bloch — Traces p. 9).

Here we find another person who is living simply. But, as is abundantly clear, she is not doing this voluntarily. However, unlike Newman’s lyric, which makes no judgement at all about the people involved or the situation, Bloch’s text contains a strong implied judgement, not so much about the woman, but rather about the overall situation.

Bloch sees with absolute clarity that somehow we have managed to create a world that structures itself so that it always appears to the greatest number of people possible there isn’t enough for everyone (although there is, of course, more than enough for everyone if we were able to become more modest in our desires and appetites) and which then forces the poorest and most vulnerable people to pick up the slack. Those poor people, again often without realising it, end up working for the rich even when they rest alone, hungry, cold and in the dark.

In a community with progressive concern such as our own we need always to be protesting as loudly and effectively as possible against this kind of living because it is involuntary and debilitating, it is mean and degrading to the human spirit and it generates a sense of helplessness, passivity, and despair.

But, even as we must find ways to help people out of these kinds of dreadful, unchosen situations, we also need to keep alive in our hearts and minds something paradoxical which is that consciously turning off our lights, conserving and eating less food (especially of the highly processed kind), spending time tickling each other instead of watching TV and listen endlessly to only bad and negative news, and sharing just one chocolate milkshake between us instead of each of us feeling we must imbibe some super-sized measure, are precisely the kinds of things we should all be trying to do if we want to see everyone share in the still abundant riches of the world.

Whenever we are able to do this and begin to live a life of conscious simplicity then many of us bear eloquent witness to the wonderful truth that our spirits are elevated and we gain a deep sense of personal empowerment, creative engagement, and opportunity. We know the every little act helps both our own well-being and contributes to the potential well-being of the whole planet.

So, I still think Thoreau was right, we must simplify, simplify but let us never forget that for it to be real and lasting it must always-also be voluntary, voluntary.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Sacred Economics: "We’ve all been given a gift, a gift of life. What we do with our lives is our gift back"

The komorebi in the church back-yard
Readings: From a short film about Charles Eisenstein’s book “Sacred Economics 

The film begins with a epigraph by Edo: “We’ve all been given a gift, a gift of life. What we do with our lives is our gift back.”

Charles Eisenstein: Any time you want to understand something, why such and such happened. Why is there a biodiversity crisis, or why are we drilling for more oil when it’s polluting the atmosphere and causing oil spills? And you ask why—down a couple of levels you always get to money. 
I talk a lot about the idea of self that every culture has, and answers the question what are you, what is it to be human? So it says that your this separate being amongst other separate beings, a universe that is separate from yourself, like, you’re not me, that plant is not me, that’s something separate. And, this story of self really creates our world. If you’re a separate self and there’s other separate selves out there, and other species in the universe and the universe is fundamentally indifferent to you, or even hostile, then you definitely want to control, you want to be able to have power over other beings and over these whimsical, arbitrary forces of nature that could extinguish you at any time.
This story is becoming obsolete. It’s becoming no longer true. We don’t resonate with it any more and it’s actually generating crises that are insoluble. And that’s what’s clearing space to step into a new story of self, a new story of the people. 

From publisher’s blurb: 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 extreme—but in the wake of their collapse, we may find great opportunity to transition to a more connected, ecological, and sustainable way of being.

In all this Eisenstein points out that: 

“We didn’t earn air, we didn’t earn being born, we didn’t earn our conception, we didn’t earn a planet that could provide food, we didn’t earn the sun” 

In other words, all the important things in life are gifts and, therefore, our own economic systems need to acknowledge this truth at every level.

My mother and I debate:
we could sell
the black walnut tree
to the lumberman,
and pay off the mortgage.
Likely some storm anyway
will churn down its dark boughs,
smashing the house. We talk
slowly, two women trying
in a difficult time to be wise.
Roots in the cellar drains,
I say, and she replies
that the leaves are getting heavier
every year, and the fruit
harder to gather away.
But something brighter than money
moves in our blood–an edge
sharp and quick as a trowel
that wants us to dig and sow.
So we talk, but we don’t do
anything. That night I dream
of my fathers out of Bohemia
filling the blue fields
of fresh and generous Ohio
with leaves and vines and orchards.
What my mother and I both know
is that we’d crawl with shame
in the emptiness we’d made
in our own and our fathers’ backyard.
So the black walnut tree
swings through another year
of sun and leaping winds,
of leaves and bounding fruit,
and, month after month, the whip-
crack of the mortgage.

A poem by William Stafford from “The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems”, Graywolf Press, 1998)     

A flavor like wild honey begins 
when you cross the river. On a sandbar 
sunlight stretches out its limbs, or is it 
a sycamore, so brazen, so clean and bold? 
You forget about gold. You stare — and a flavor 
is rising all the time from the trees. 
Back from the river, over by a thick 
forest, you feel the tide of wild honey 
flooding your plans, flooding the hours 
till they waver forward looking back. They can’t 
return: that river divides more than 
two sides of your life. The only way 
is farther, breathing that country, becoming 
wise in its flavor, a native of the sun. 



Two of the "gargoyles"
Behind the church hall is the back-yard in which you will find the shed, the bins and the raised flower-bed which, at times, has been “the children’s garden” with it’s back, boundary-wall decorated with humorous, gargoyle-esque faces that the children made one summer Sunday morning. Some of them are reputed to be depictions of me; I’ll leave you to decide which, if any of them, really are!  

Over-arching the yard are the wonderful branches of an old walnut tree growing in next door’s garden and which, from spring to early autumn, provides the most beautiful, dappled light of sunlight; something for which the Japanese have a delightful, single word, “komorebi”. 

The back yard, bins, garden and the "komorebi"
Most days of the week I spend some time there doing my Tai Chi and, on the odd occasion, I even take a desk out there to work. 

As I have spent time thinking about this tree particularly during this year I realise how much I owe to it’s latent capacity to aid me in the development of my own thinking about how things are and what things matter. Indeed, I find that working, thinking, meditating, listen to music, moving and simply being in the presence of this tree becomes more and more important to me as I grow older. 

And so, as a kind of harvest-time thank-you letter to the tree, it seems worth bringing you something that has slowly become clear to me in it’s komorebi.

Over and above the komorebi, one of most delightful other things the tree gifts us is, of course, it’s fruit. Each year many of us enjoy thousands of walnuts which we share freely and happily with the many squirrels that live nearby. 

However, along with these obviously desirable gifts there are those which we are inclined to feel are less desirable. So, although the leaves in spring and summer may provide komorebi when they fall they fall in great abundance and are always threatening to block the gutters and drains, as one or two of us are only too well aware. Being an old tree, during windy weather, there is also always in play the worry that it is going to lose a significant branch or two and cause some damage to the roof not to mention the possibility that, one day, it’s roots might spreading into areas deemed undesirable. Both things, of course, Mary Oliver knew about well.

These less than desirable things has meant that, over the years, occasional calls have been made to have the tree taken down. However, I’m glad beyond measure, that this has never happened. 

But I know, were the tree to go, that my grief and sadness would be great and my whole life and working environment would be effected badly and each time the matter has been raised, Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Black Walnut Tree”, which we heard earlier has always come to mind.

Once back in my head her poem always-also reminds me of a daily fact that is relevant to everyone of us. It is that, whatever we feel about the rights and wrongs of it, we live today in a world that has developed a deeply disturbing tendency to bottom out all it’s measuring of the worth and value of everything in monetary and/or financial terms. Oliver’s image of “the whip-crack of the mortgage” stands for me as a reminder of the very real, ever-present, coercive power of capital (and capitalism) over our modern lives.  

But, as the poem reminds us, for all capital’s present power, another deeper, more ancient power thankfully remains still at play at the heart of our being, a power which I’m pleased to say seems quietly, if painfully slowly, to be re-emerging into the general intellect and consciousness. It is a power which helps us see that the meaning and worth of the walnut tree, of any tree, indeed of any entity in our natural world (whether sentient or not), can never be anything like adequately known and understood merely through the medium of money and capital. This walnut tree, whenever it is known solely through this medium, is immediately turned from a living thing completely part of a living ecosystem into a mere, discrete, material cog (called lumber) that is functioning in a machine of production from which a monetary profit can be extracted and which, in turn, can be used in the attempt endlessly to drive up unsustainable growth and to service ever increasing, and also unsustainable, debt.

But even the most causal passing acquaintance with the walnut tree will reveal how much more than mere lumber it always is. True there are always it’s apparently problematic, craggy aspects (leaves, roots and falling branches) but we all know that it is precisely those same things things that help gift us a wonderful harvest, both in terms of it’s nuts and that O so wonderful komorebi. It is a cliché (but it is a cliché because it is true) that as a whole-being the walnut tree can never be adequately measured or understood through the medium of money and capital. 

What I increasingly discover in the presence of the walnut tree is something I really already know but so often forget, choose to ignore, or even hide, namely, that in this tree (and in every natural entity, sentient or not) we sense something shining that is brighter than money, something whose glistering charms should, on this occasion, be responded to.  

A poem that seems to me to speak eloquently about this something brighter than money is that we heard earlier by William Stafford (from “The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems”, Graywolf Press, 1998)     

Like Stafford’s sycamore, looking at the walnut tree as a whole being I, too, sense in it a wonderful flavour “like wild honey”. It is a flavour that, like an incoming tide, increasingly flows into every part of my being, “flooding my plans”, and I realise that the walnut tree stands for me today as a helpful marker in my own life. What the river is for Stafford, the tree is for me and I can see that it divides more than the two sides of my life. I realise there is an aspect about it rather like that found in the terms BC and AD, Before Christ and, after Christ, Anno Domini — literally, “the year of our Lord”. For me there is BWT and AWT, before and after the walnut tree. 

“Before the Walnut Tree”, BWT, I was able to split my life into two sides. I was able, or so I thought, to be both passionate about nature and natural world and yet, somehow, also quite happy to acceded to structuring most of my life wholly by the metrics offered up by the old conceptions of money and capital. But the more and more I look at the walnut  tree, eat it’s fruit and stand consciously and gratefully in it’s komorebi, I realise that, “After the Walnut Tree”, AWT, “The only way is farther, breathing that country, becoming wise in its flavor, a native of the sun.” 

That is to say, it helps me identify a need to go further into the tree’s country, becoming wise in it’s flavour and knowing myself as a native of the sun. It helps me understand explicitly what I know deep in my bones, namely, that I can no longer return to, serve and give loyalty to a world that continues to structure itself solely around the metrics offered up by the old conceptions of money and capital. This thought powerfully reminds me of Jesus’ saying that, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). [In my case, of course, for “God” I read “Nature”.]

I find I want to serve nature not money and wealth. But the problem with this way of expressing things is that it seems to set up a problematic binary, either-or, situation something about which, these days, I’m very suspicious. What if we could bring nature, money and wealth back together in a healthy way and, therefore, head off the need to decide for one against the other? Charles Eisenstein’s book, “Sacred Economics”, offers us one way we might be able to do this. 

But I rush ahead of myself . . . 

Hearing my discomfiture about serving money and wealth, you may object and say, but we live in a world of money and capital and you may feel my words here simply reveal to you my impractical, delusional flabby idealism. You would not be alone in thinking this. I well remember being told that a friend of mine’s father (a senior executive with a major European financial institution, I might add) once said about me in the early 80s, “Lovely lad, lovely lad, but head in the clouds.”

He wanted, of course, to contrast what he thought was his highly practical money metric oriented mentality with my flabby, highly impractical, alternative, hippy and ecologically inspired way thinking that had at the time just been kicked into life by discovering the work of Henry David Thoreau. He was prepared to admit that some of my thoughts were nice and even attractive but, ultimately, my way of wanting to proceed was impractical, wrong and doomed.

Like many teenagers, I allowed myself to bow somewhat to the pressure of the wisdom of my elders and, in consequence, heeded less than I should have done the wisdom of the walnut tree. The result was that I tried (and like most people generally succeeded) to divide my life artificially into different worlds, the poetic, religious and pastoral on the one hand, and the supposedly practical and monetary on the other. But some important things have changed since my friend’s father opined about my so-called “idealistic” take on life that have shown we can no longer keep these things apart and that our conception of money and economics simply has to start listening to, and be  radically changed by the walnut tree and, of course, the natural world as a whole. 

The first change to occur was that the system upon which my friend’s father based his dismissive words has, since 2008, suffered a seismic shock that continues to reveal it as fatally flawed and failing. The second thing to occur is, as Eisenstein notes, that it is becoming clearer and clearer by the day, month and year, that this same system is continuing powerfully to contribute towards “alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth“. The recent, outrageous revelations about Volkswagen’s actions are but one perfect example of this tendency at work. The third thing to occur is our growing recognition that our old conception of “the self” as being separate from all other things and selves which, in turn, requires us both to desire and obtain excessive amounts of power and control, is as wrong as wrong can be.

As Eisenstein points out, all these things — and many more besides — mean that increasing numbers of us simply no longer believe the old story about the world and self that our elders told us and we cannot, and will not, go back there because today we know another truth: “We’ve all been given a gift, a gift of life. What we do with our lives is our gift back” (Edo).

Charles Eisenstein is a man who is trying to put into a language that is understandable by old-school economists precisely this recognition of the gift of life. He has a vision of “the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible” (the title of another of his works) and his book, "Sacred Economics" is an inspiring first attempt to articulate an economics that takes this recognition with the upmost seriousness. In it he expresses the desire to create a “sacred economics”, i.e., an economics that acknowledges what is truly sacred to us as connected living beings enmeshed in a whole world. 

It was underneath the walnut tree out the back of the church that, over the past two weeks, these long developing ideas have finally reached the point of my pen and my tongue today. 

Eisenstein concludes the short film about this book with the following words, words with which I shall also conclude:

“We have been messing around, playing with our gifts of technology and culture. And developing these gifts. Now we are coming into adulthood. And it’s time to apply them to our true purpose. At the beginning, it’ll be about healing the damage that’s has been done. […] We are in the business of creating a miracle around Earth. […]I’m saying that it is something that’s impossible from an old understanding of reality but possible from a new one. And, in fact it’s necessary. Anything even less than that is not even worth trying.”

I commend his “Sacred Economics” to you.