Sunday, 31 January 2016

When resting is resistance—recycling our natural treasures

Proverbs 4:23 over Heidegger's door in Freiberg
Readings: Matthew 6: 19-21 “Concerning Treasures”

Jesus said: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Exodus 20:8–11 “The fourth commandment”

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Proverbs 4:23

Keep your heart with all vigilance,
    for from it flow the springs of life.

Pro-Aesthetic Language: natural treasures vs. natural resources by Anja Claus writing for “The Centre for Humans and Nature”: 
The human aesthetic—the perception and sensory contemplation of a subject—is so strongly influenced by the terms and phrases we adopt into our lexicon that we ought to pay close attention to them. We see, hear, and smell our environment using the senses we have evolved with over hundreds of thousands of years, and then we process and contemplate this sensory influx.
     [. . .]
     This brings me to another powerful pair of terms that allow us to observe [this]: the phrase “natural resources” versus the phrase “natural treasures.” Both set the stage for how we understand and relate to each other and the larger community of life. Both refer to the animate and inanimate subjects that we humans consume in some way. Whether it is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the sights we take in, or the metals we mine, we manipulate these subjects, changing them sometimes slightly, and sometimes in an extreme way. And here is the rub: it is how we represent, and thus come to know, the things we manipulate, that influences the nature of our acts. Do we take from nature with respect and with love in our hearts? Or do we do it with a self-interested utility, that is over-intellectualized by economics, resulting in the bastardization of our evolutionarily functional greed? I believe that if we come to understand these subjects as treasures, our processes are more apt to be respectful and loving, leading us on a decision-making path toward understanding the other subject on its terms, rather than only on our terms, or exclusively in human terms. If we employ the word “treasure” we are activating a social construct that conjures up sacredness and care. Our children are our treasures, and we care for and love them as such. Why not then also see the Land as a treasure, with care and love?



As the minister of this congregation, on Monday evening, I attended with Susanna an event launching a new project called “Circular Cambridge.” The organisers point out that at the moment our culture’s model of consumption is linear, i.e., we buy stuff, use it and then simply throw it away. To quote the project’s website, it seems that a single person in the EU consumes 15 metric tonnes of natural resources each year, 5 tonnes of which are simply thrown away. Statistics like this reinforce the pressing need for us to begin reinstate and develop further a culture which, as a matter of course, reuses, repairs and recycles — hence the launch of Circular Cambridge. I was there in my ministerial capacity because it strikes me that any contemporary religion worth its salt has to be one that takes the matter of ecology and the environment with the utmost seriousness.

Anyway, in one of the break-out/brainstorming sessions that are de rigour for such events, two things occurred to me that I shared with my group and which I wish to share with you today.

The first was connected with the language of “resources” because, along with Anja Claus, I, too, strongly feel that this terminology is deeply problematic and I would prefer we move towards using the language of “treasure.”

The second thing I shared with my group was the absence from our explicit conversation of one specific, and very important, natural treasure.

It will come as no surprise that nearly all of the conversation and ideas thrown up during these sessions were primarily focussed on how we might better use and reuse natural treasures such as food (whether animal or vegetable), coal, oil, gold, silver, platinum and also what are called rare earth minerals that, today, are indispensable for our hi-tech industries. As far as it went, all this was fine but, I wondered, where was mention of our own natural treasure, that is to say our human heart with its attendant spirit and energy? Did this not also have a vital place in any meaningful circular economy?

In her article for Anja Claus notes well something many of us are beginning to understand that,

“If we understand a tree, a river, an otter, or an ecosystem as merely a resource, then we make personal, managerial, and policy decisions grounded in a worldview that comprehends humans as the pinnacle of evolution.” 

But the paradox of the neoliberal stealth revolution (about which I spoke a few weeks ago showing why it should be of great concern to us as a church community) is that even as it’s chief promulgators proceed as if humans (or at least they themselves) were the pinnacle of evolution it simultaneously attempts to make most everybody else believe they are merely “a resource” to be used up in a linear fashion by some institution, company or corporation. (Cf. also Heidegger’s thinking in “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954) about “bestand” — standing reserve — and “Gestell” — enframing — which turns the world into a stockpile of raw, material resources)

Most of us probably first noticed this process beginning to get the upper hand during the 1980s when many companies and corporations decided to rename their personnel departments “Human Resources.” It disturbed me profoundly at the time and its continuation today still distresses and angers me almost more than I can say because human beings are not merely resources to be used up willy-nilly but are natural treasures just as are coal, oil, gold, trees, rivers, otters, or an ecosystem. Human beings are, in addition, also always-already heads and hearts with existential loves and passions for each other and the world and we understand and, indeed, have sung today, the truth of the words by the Welsh poet and original “Supertramp”, William Henry Davies (1871–1940):

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

But, alas, there is less and less time for people to rest and to “stand and stare” and in my work as both a minister of religion and as a political activist I see more and more people I know, respect and love being bought, used-up, and then thrown away by the linear economy when they suddenly find themselves burnt out by the stress of continually being used as merely just another “human resource.”

But what I have just said is, alas, not only true in the commercial workplace but is also a situation  often mirrored within many activist circles that are protesting against this state of affairs  — whether religious or secular — and to which many of us here belong, such as environmental and ecology groups like Circular Cambridge, Transition Cambridge or Greenpeace, church social action groups such as the Cambridge Foodbank, Christian Aid, Oxfam or various other groups connected with homeless people, refugees and asylum seekers, political groups of various stripes, and still other organisations like Amnesty International, CPRE, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 38 Degrees, UK Uncut, and many others besides.

In relation to this just a couple of weeks ago published a powerful piece by Janey Stephenson called “When resting is resistance”. She states the following:

“Activism knows no weekends or boundaries. We give our whole selves to our struggles. Rest days are spent at protests and fundraisers; evenings are for meetings. Injustice won’t wait, and so we spend our lives racing it. We give insurmountable energy and unpaid labour, and often don’t see the results we want. Amid all of this, our very own hearts can drift away from us, anxiety-filled and future-focused. 
     We’re constantly talking about self-care, but rarely practising it. We know we should take more breaks, and they’re only ever just past the next direct action, protest or meeting. But we don’t always get there. Gradually and then suddenly, we can find we just cannot keep going. Both mentally and physically, we stop.” 

So, in my study behind the church hall, along with the burned-out employee, I also often find myself talking with the burned out activist who is also experiencing what it is like to be merely one more a “human resource” that has been used-up and spat out the other end of just one more kind of linear economy. Janey Stephenson concludes her piece by pointing out that part of the problem is because:

“Activists fixate on the future: impatient for the world we want to see. We know time is a finite commodity, so we pressure ourselves to make the most of it. But we commodify ourselves in the process.
     Within this context, the worst thing about burn out is that you don’t know how long it will last. Once you burn out, you can’t make any promises for when you’ll be back in action. But health does not run to a timer, forcing only causes frustration and we do ourselves more harm by living to deadlines.
     It is only by holding, not forcing, that we can find our feet again and secure solid ground when everything else is shaking. In a world where productivity rules, this in itself is true resistance.”

Amen, say I, and this is why I think that coming to church on a Sunday and observing some kind of sabbath where we find time both to rest, recuperate and also recycle and remake our thinking (engaging in a process of verwindung), is a vital form of resistance that we need to engage in as activists. The modern week, with its two days of rest, one of which is perceived to be of specific religious/spiritual significance (the sabbath day) when our myths tell us even God is said to have rested, is itself a circular economy of days. As God is reported as commanding: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

We should be deeply disturbed that the neoliberal stealth revolution wants to destroy this cyclical, restorative cultural institution in favour of a never ending linear, and ultimately destructive,  model of 24 hour long working days that uses people up as resources and not as treasures.

If we don’t regularly commit to such a cycle and campaign for its continuance then we are not, cannot, properly recycle our hearts and its attendant spirit and energy then we are effectively consigning our human treasure to the landfill site that is human “burn-out” from out of which it is very, very hard to rescue and recycle anything of permanent and lasting worth.

It was this, essentially religious, insight that I tried to bring to the attention of my group and I argued that Circular Cambridge shouldn’t just be about recycling one’s food waste, laptops, washing machines, smartphones or whatever else, but it also needed to be about learning healthy and sustainable ways to recycle our own human treasure for the good of not only our own hearts but our whole planet.

It was this conjoining of treasure and heart that made me think, quite naturally, of Jesus’ saying we heard in our readings. In his words we see that he conceived our real treasure as being something that can stored in what he calls “heaven”. Of course, most of us here (all of us?) don’t have anything approaching a belief in the literal reality of heaven (or hell), so how might we understand the word “heaven”? Well, whatever else it may be, it is surely, minimally, the collective, trans-historical imagination in which it is possible to preserve and recycle (we hope ever more effectively) our species’ best, upward looking, Utopian visions. Conceived in this fashion might not Jesus’ “heaven” legitimately be considered as some kind of psychological, cultural recycling centre where our individual treasures of energy and hope can be saved and where they won’t simply be destroyed by rust, eaten up by moths or stolen by today’s neoliberal thieves of hope but, instead, are made available, again and again, in ever different ways for ourselves and our community both now and in the future.

So, to conclude these circular thoughts, I think that on a Sunday we do three circular things. Firstly, we find a way to rest and recycle our own lives and energy in preparation for the creative tasks of the coming week. Secondly, in sharing our own best, upward looking, Utopian visions with our comrades in the struggle for a good, common life, we store up life and energy in our community’s collective, trans-historical imagination — in “heaven”. And, thirdly, by doing this, we make it possible for ourselves and the people who follow us to draw upon and recycle these hopeful treasures — these visions of the kingdom of heaven on earth — which, in turn, can help restore to a people continually threatened with burn-out, a good heart. As the writer of Proverbs puts it, here every Sunday we try to encourage people to:

Keep your heart with all vigilance,
    for from it flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23).

Saturday, 30 January 2016

A Photo Essay: "Ghostly Communism—Provocative Documents for Thought" written for "Culture Matters"

Children playing in Cambridge
In recent weeks a new website has gone live called Culture Matters which is concerned to explore the links between art, culture and politics and I was very pleased to be asked to contribute a photo essay to it entitled: 

Ghostly Communism—Provocative Documents for Thought

It is, as you will see, a reworking of my essay called simply Ghostly Communism that appears on this, my own, blog.

I think the whole Culture Matters project is a good one and, to encourage you to take a spin over to their site here is an extract from their "About" page:

Culture matters. The arts can help develop us and liberate us. They please the senses, stimulate the mind, arouse our emotions, and inspire us. Culture includes most if not all of our thinking and activities, including sport, religion, science and technology, eating and drinking etc. Considered politically, all these cultural activities are sites of domination and acceptance, struggle and resistance, envisioning and transformation.

Let’s work out how this happens, and join in the cultural struggle for liberation.

Culture matters. The arts and culture are linked to politics in many ways. A capitalist market economy creates enormous potential and possibilities for creation, criticism and communication. But at the same time, the drive for profit and the associated ideological drive to dominate ways of thinking and feeling, constrain the free creation and consumption of art and culture.

Let’s work out how this happens, and change it.

Culture matters. The arts and culture can resist, oppose and overcome constraint, alienation and oppression. They can promote awareness, arouse indignation, and envision alternatives. Blake’s ‘mental fight’ against the appalling social and political consequences of early capitalism is the same as our cultural struggle now, linked to our economic and political struggle against late capitalism.

Let’s learn how to resist and oppose dominant meanings, and create new ones.

Culture Matters. Let’s be creative, and imaginative, and help build a more democratic, equal, and socialist society, a ‘new Jerusalem’, in the green and pleasant land not only of England and not only of Britain, but of the world.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

In the Cambridge University Botanic Garden with a new black and white photography app called "Blackie"

I needed to clear my head a little this afternoon after a morning working through the implications of something written by Raymond Geuss, a philosopher whose thinking I find both highly challenging and amenable and so I took myself off for lunch in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. The sun was out and during my walk there were plenty of places where I could sit out of the wind and in the restorative warmth of the sun. (If you are interested you can see a couple of very short Youtube films in which Geuss is interviewed HERE and HERE.)

As always I took a few photos as I went and, on this occasion, I used throughout a new black and white iPhone photography app called “Blackie” (@blackieapp). I think it is a delightful and excellent app made by someone who clearly loves black and white photography and whoever it is I congratulate them. The range of options available to the photographer is great but not utterly overwhelming and this allows one to take a wide variety of shots as you will see throughout this post.

I can barely imagine the amount of hard work that goes into developing these things and so I’m one of those people who is grateful simply to work with the given possibilities and limitations of these things. For me it’s part of their charm. However, after using the app solidly for a good couple of hours, I found myself wishing that it were possible to do two other things with the app. The first is to be able simply to reset each of the eight available film types to a reasonable default set of settings after having played about with them for a particular shot. The second is the ability to save some favourite settings for later use. Perhaps these options will come along later, perhaps not, but whether or not they do I’m certainly going to enjoy this little app a great deal and I certainly recommend it to any black and white iPhoneographers out there. As always just click on a photo to enlarge it.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

A Lucretian piety—"Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking."

Alchemist following Nature, Michael Maier
Readings: "Man shall not live by bread alone." (Matthew 4:4)

An extract from the seventh lesson of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli (Penguin Books, 2015, pp. 66-67)

When we talk about the big bang or the fabric of space, what we are doing is not a continuation of the free and fantastic stories which humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thou-sands of years. It is the continuation of something else: of the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah—scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something which we can’t see directly but can follow the traces of. In the awareness that we can always be wrong, and therefore ready at any moment to change direction if a new track appears; but knowing also that if we are good enough we will get it right and will find what we are seeking. This is the nature of science. 
     The confusion between these two diverse human activities—inventing stories and following traces in order to find something—is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture. The separation is a subtle one: the antelope hunted at dawn is not for removed from the antelope deity in that night’s storytelling.
     The border is porous. Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth. But the value of knowledge remains. If we find the antelope we can eat.

From Book II of De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things) by Lucretius translated by David R. Slavitt (University of California Press, 2008, pp. 86-88):

    The whole idea is absurd of atoms that can feel,
which some assume the precondition for having feelings.
Can you imagine the atoms laughing together at jokes?
Do they have high-minded conversations on learned questions?
Do they, perhaps, wonder where they themselves came from?
And since, in this view, they resemble the whole mortal, do they
consist of smaller elements that also chat and discuss?
It keeps on going backwards, and smaller and smaller, I say,
if you tell me whatever has sense, must be made up of smaller
parts that also laugh and cry and are wise, I answer
that this is madness, not a theory but rather a nightmare.
Surely we can laugh without being made of laughing 
elements, or reason without being made of smart 
and clever seeds. And if that is the case, then it must follow
that what we see in the world that is capable of feeling
is made up of smaller parts that do not have feelings at all.
But this is how it is: we are all the children of heaven
and earth, the same father who pours down drops of rain
to our mother, the earth whose  teeming brings forth the life of crops,
of trees, of farmyard beasts and birds, and of wild as well,
and of man, and she feeds us all so that we may survive and breed
our kind, which is why in reverence we call her our dear mother.
Whatever comes from earth returns to earth,
and what falls from the sky's ether evaporates back to the sky
where heaven welcomes it home. So death does not destroy matter
but only disperses abroad the atoms of which things were made,
which it may well conjoin anew in some different arrangement.


The motto of my old Oxford college, Harris Manchester College, or to give it its proper name, Manchester Academy and Harris College, is: “Veritas, Libertas, Pietas” — truth, liberty and piety. The college shield incorporates the image of two crossed, flaming torches, which I was told symbolised truth and liberty and which are reproduced in bronze on the lectern from which I am speaking (see picture on the right).  This morning I want to say something about what I take this motto might mean for us today.

To get there it is helpful to begin with a few words about the early history of the college. It began life in 1757 as the Warrington Academy, where one of its teachers included the Unitarian, chemist and discoverer of oxygen, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) but, thirty odd years later, it was re-founded in Manchester 1786 as the Manchester Academy. It was one of a number of dissenting academies that were set up to offer nonconformists with some form of higher education because, at the time, the only two universities in England, i.e. Oxford and Cambridge, were open only to those who could affirm the thirty-nine articles of religion held by the Anglicans. The courses taught at Manchester Academy included theology, science, modern languages, history and the classics. In addition to Priestley, perhaps its most famous teacher was John Dalton (1766–1844), a key figure in the development of atomic theory.

Before eventually finding a permanent home in Oxford in 1893 the college moved five more times, twice in Manchester, thence to York, back to Manchester, and then, between 1853 and 1889, it found a home in London at University Hall, Gordon Square. A influential figure in the college during it’s time in York was the Unitarian minister, Charles Wellbeloved (1769-1858). Wellbeloved is interesting for many reasons but, today, I simply want to point to the fact that he refused to allow the college to be called “Unitarian” because he was concerned to encourage in his students the development of genuinely open minds and wanted then to discover truth for themselves. In a letter of 1809 he wrote:

“I do not and will not teach Unitarianism or any ism but Christianism. I will endeavour to teach the students how to study the Scripture — nice if they find Unitarianism there — well if animism — well if Trinitarianism — well, only let them find something for themselves.”

His words reveal two attitudes that seem to me to be of increasing importance to us today. The first is that Wellbeloved felt he was able to adopt some kind of strong but, relatively speaking, non-sectarian way of being in the world from out of which he could work with reasonable confidence; he called his way of being “Christianism”. What I think it is for us today I will come to later. The second is that, for all his confidence in his own way of being he knew that it had to be one capable of remaining radically open to new light and truth that may well eventually persuade him to change his way of being, and to change it radically.

Joseph Priestley put the consequences of this open attitude quite starkly:

“But should free inquiry lead to the destruction of Christianity itself, [free inquiry] ought not, on that account, to be discontinued; for we can only wish for the prevalence of Christianity on the supposition of its being true; and if it fall before the influence of free inquiry, it can only do so in consequence of its not being true.” (Joseph Priestley, ‘The Importance and Extent of Free Inquiry in Matters of Religion: A Sermon’, in P.Miller (ed.), Joseph Priestley: Political Writings, Cambridge: CUP, 1993, p. xxiv)

In Priestley and Wellbeloved’s brief words we see in action the basic shape/structure of our own religious tradition today; namely, the desire for truth (veritas) combined with and an associated liberty (liberatas) to seek it unhindered by any arbitrary external human authority so that a genuinely truthful, free-religious life might be lived (pietas). Living in this fashion today, some two-hundred years later, we are, of course, in a very different place to that occupied by Priestley and Wellbeloved. As a consequence of it not being true (about the ways things are) Christianity is no longer prevalent and we have also, I hope, finally left behind the desire to adopt any kind of “-ism" (including, of course, anything called "Unitarianism"). All in all, to paraphrase Foucault’s felicitous phrase with which he finishes his influential 1984 essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, it seems to me that, at our best, our work has been “a patient labour giving form to our impatience for liberty [and truth].”

In this patient labour we have throughout continued to operate with a basic idea — Aristotle’s idea really — that we are only speaking the truth when we have succeed in saying **how things really are**. This has meant that throughout our history we have always been concerned freely to seek and act out of the way things really are rather than to remain enforceably resting in and acting out of either inherited “myth” or it’s more problematic cousin, “superstition.”

It is this dynamic that has always led us to take, with utmost seriousness, the world as it has shown up with the help of the natural sciences.

But, as the contemporary French particle-physicist, Bernard d’Espagnat (1921-2015), gently reminds us, we must be careful not to over-estimate the reach and power of the natural sciences and that “the information science yields serves to limit possible options, rather than put forward the allegedly correct one” (On Physics and Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2006, p.1). However, having said that, d’Espagnat continues by noting,

“. . . while Nature — in the broadest possible sense — refuses to explicitly tell us what she is, she sometimes condescends, when we press her tenaciously enough, to let us know a little about what she is not” (ibid. p.2).

And what she has condescended to tell us, amongst other things, is that when taken as descriptions of the way the world is, our religious myths are false. We can certainly keep them in play learn from them all kinds of social, political, poetic, literary, and anthropological things, but they cannot continue to function for us as stories about the way things fundamentally are in the world. Connected with this, nature, when pressed, has also begun to touch upon rather more abstract matters and, as d’Espagnat notes, “some elements of present-day scientific knowledge casts serious doubts on such and such Platonic intuitions” (ibid. p.1). This is important because until recently much of liberal religious thought was highly Platonic in flavour.

So, in our own age we can say that nature, being pressed, is strongly suggesting to us that certain, once central, aspects of our ancient religions and philosophies are today highly doubtful, doubtful enough that with good conscience we should seriously consider letting them go.

And it is here that I can to turn to the recent book, “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”, by the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli (b. 1956). Rovelli’s little book is written in the same spirit expressed by d’Espagnat, i.e. although Rovelli acknowledges science is for the most part concerned to limit possible options rather than put forward the allegedly correct one it has, however, gifted us with a confident way of being in the world that is very different from that confident way of being our old religious myths once gifted us.

So what is this different way of being? Well, I think that looking back over our free-religious movement's long, four and a half century unfolding we can see that what we are doing today is no longer “a continuation of the free and fantastic stories which humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years” (ibid. p. 67). It is clear that much of conventional religion (whether old or new-age) still, alas, stands firmly in this tradition.

It seems that, particularly following the Enlightenment period, we became part of a very different tradition, one which  Rovelli describes as being a continuation

“ . . . of the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah — scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something which we can’t see directly but can follow the traces of. In the awareness that we can always be wrong, and therefore at any moment to change direction if a new track appears; but knowing also that if we are good enough we will get it right and will find what we are seeking. This is the nature of science” (ibid. p. 67)

The nature of science indeed — and in embracing this nature I think we find our own age’s basic, strong, but non-sectarian way of being in the world. But Rovelli’s scientific attitude, — actually the same attitude as the first century Roman poet and follower of Epicurus, Lucretius — doesn’t require him entirely throw away all our older myths because, as Rovelli is acutely aware, “the border is porous: myths nourish science and science nourishes myth.” But, for all this, he is clear that “the value of knowledge remains. If we find antelope we eat” (ibid. p. 67).

In attractive, poetic, Lucretian inspired prose, Rovelli’s first six brief lessons on physics look at Einstein’s theory of general relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes, the complex architecture of the universe, elementary particles and gravity. But, in Lesson Seven he turns to us as human creatures. In so doing Rovelli further reveals his Lucretian credentials because having freely followed truth in his scientific enquiry — veritas and libertas — Rovelli concludes by offering us a naturalistic pietas that remains genuinely open to new light and truth.

Rovelli reveals throughout the book, to paraphrase Jesus, that he understands “man shall not live by antelope alone” (Matthew 4:4) and that nature doing what nature does in this tiny part of the universe has enabled human thought and poetry to emerge and with it human openness, poetic wonder and awe. Rovelli's final words of lesson seven express this naturalistic piety more beautifully than I can and so, with them, I conclude:

Nature is our home, and in nature we are at home. This strange, multicoloured and astonishing world which we explore — where space is granular, time does not exist, and things are nowhere —is not something that estranges us from our true selves, for this is only what our natural curiosity reveals to us about the place of our dwelling. About the stuff of which we ourselves are made. We are made of the same stardust of which all things are made, and when we are immersed in suffering or when we are experiencing intense joy we are being nothing other than what we can’t help but be: a part of our world. 

Lucretius expresses this, wonderfully: 

. . . we are all born from the same celestial seed; 
all of us have the same father, 
from which the earth, the mother who feeds us, 
receives clear drops of rain, 
producing from them bright wheat 
and lush trees, 
and the human race, 
and the species of beasts, 
offering up the foods with which all bodies are nourished, 
to lead a sweet life 
and generate offspring . . . (II, 991-7)

It is part of our nature to love and to be honest. It is part of our nature to long to know more, and to continue to learn. Our knowledge of the world continues to grow. 

There are frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes. Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking (pp. 77-79).

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Yanis Varoufakis in conversation with Gerardo Pisarello on democracy, Europe and municipalism and the launch of the "Democracy in Europe Movement 2025" (DiEM 25)

I'd highly recommend watching this 45 minute interview with Yanis Varoufakis conducted this January in Barcelona by the city's First Deputy Mayor, Gerardo Pisarello.

The first fifteen minutes are concerned with certain technical, but nevertheless, very interesting issues surrounding the Euro. This section is well worth watching but, at the fifteen minute mark, the conversation turns decisively to questions of democracy, Europe and municipalism and we begin to hear something of an inspiring, hopeful European political, social and cultural vision, one with which I find myself in complete agreement.

You may be interested, and I hope excited, to know that Varoufakis is launching  a new cross-continent movement with a “simple, common agenda” to democratize Europe on February 9 at Berlin’s Volksbühne theater. The movement will be called Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (or DiEM 25) and you can read more details of this event at the following link.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Spiritual but not religious? Religious but not spiritual?—On the need to develop a self-conscious, secular, religious minimalism

Reading: From “Truth – Philosophy in Transit” by John D. Caputo, (Penguin, 2013, pp. 22-23) 

Let’s start with fools, which no one wants to be. I said before when discussing Lessing’s thesis that there is no need to actually believe in God in order to get his point. Just think of God as a kind of limit-case . . . . To get an idea of how much things have changed, consider that there was a time, not so long ago, when I would have not got away with talking about God so glibly. The fact that I can gives us an idea of how much our idea of truth has shifted. Life before modern times was nicely summed up by a line in the Scriptures, which runs, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” (Psalm I4). They did not speak of atheists – that very word acquires currency only in modernity – but of “foolishness”. To take God so lightly, or to cut yourself off from God altogether, not to seek after God, was to cut yourself off from truth and goodness and beauty, and that was unwise in the extreme. Notice that the psalmist says ‘foolish’, not ‘irrational’. W/hat’s the difference? The opposite of foolishness is ‘wisdom’, Whereas the opposite of irrational is ‘rational’, and the ancients were more concerned with being wise than rational. [. . .]
          But what is wisdom? Wisdom, the Greeks said, is the love of the highest things, all of them, the true, the good and the beautiful. lt includes reason without stopping at reason, it includes truth but it does not reduce truth to that which is established by reason, and it does not exclude the good or the beautiful from the true. The true, the good and the beautiful hang together.  [. . .]
          The person who managed to put all this together, who ‘had it all’ in classical times, who led the good life, who was a model for the rest of us, was said to be ‘wise’, as opposed to ‘rational’ (or rich or famous). It is very important to see that such a person did not pretend to know it all. On the contrary, being wise especially meant having a healthy respect for everything we do not know (a Greek wise man would never have been able to host a TV talk show). So in reality the ancients did not say such people were ‘wise’ so much as that they sought wisdom, or had a love (philia) of wisdom; in short they were philosophers. A philosopher is one who searches for the highest things, of which the true, the good, the beautiful were deemed the very highest. Wisdom means the love of all these things knit together in an integrated form of life, where each thing was cultivated in due proportion. 


Back in  2014, the sociologist and disability rights campaigner, Tom Shakespeare, spoke on BBC Radio 4's "Point of View" on the question:  "Is it better to be religious than spiritual?"

We'll come to his question in a moment but, firstly, it's worth indicating why he came to ask it. It arose because he noticed on a dating website a question about religious belief which included an option that was new to him. As Shakespeare said, "You could tick boxes for the major religions, or for atheist, or for SBNR." SBNR?, I hear you ask. Well, it stands for "Spiritual But Not Religious". Here's the Wikipedia definition of SBNR:

'Spiritual but not religious' . . . is a popular phrase . . . used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that rejects traditional organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. [. . .] SBNR is commonly used to describe the demographic also known as unchurched, none of the above, more spiritual than religious, spiritually eclectic, unaffiliated, freethinkers, or spiritual seekers."

One might say many things — critical and supportive — about SBNR, and Tom Shakespeare offers a number of pertinent and mostly critical comments, but today I want to concentrate on just one thing.  Although I, along with others (including the French atheist and philosopher, Andre Comte-Sponville who wrote a book called, "The Book of Atheist Spirituality") think that the word can meaningfully be attached to the word "atheist", the fact remains that most people who use the term SBNR are using it as a contrast to the word "atheist" and this, in a nutshell, indicates why an atheist such as Tom Shakespeare wants to argue for a category called "religious but not spiritual".

Now, as you know, I'm one of those people who thinks there has begun to show up for our own secular age and culture, a post-Christian, secular religious possibility that is beyond the old atheist/theist divide and the stale (and I think, wholly misguided) question of the existence or non-existence of a supernatural, metaphysical God. This relates to my case for developing an explicit religious naturalism and the overall tenor of Tom Shakespeare's opinion piece suggests to me that he, too, allows for this. After all, he reveals that, as an atheist, he attends a Quaker meeting and his BBC piece begins to conclude with him saying:

"If you're an atheist, I can heartily recommend involvement in religion. It offers a sense of belonging and it offers tradition, which can be reassuring and comforting. It offers discipline, teaching us that there is something outside ourselves to which we should bend our personal will. If we do it right, religion helps us lead better lives, with a commitment to justice and social action. Sociological research shows that involvement in organised religion is good for our health and well being."

He finishes by exhorting his listeners and readers to find in the coming week . . .

". . . a time to sit in silence with your fellows, or sing with them, or read a holy book with them, or commune with them. Take a moment to reflect on your place in the universe and your obligations towards others. Belief in God is strictly optional."

Despite his claim to be 'religious' not 'spiritual', Shakespeare reveals here that he is both 'religious' and 'spiritual'  (in the wider sense of the word used by, say, Comte-Sponville) but, as he does this, he also reveals that he thinks neither of these terms are dependent upon a belief in a metaphysical, supernatural God. Such a belief is, he says, optional.

Well, hmmm, mostly yes but with a touch of no — for his claim raises another problem. Notice that in his conclusion Shakespeare said that religion "offers discipline, teaching us that there is something outside ourselves  [i.e. some kind of conception of "transcendence"] to which we should bend our personal will." Now recall the extract we heard from John D. Caputo who says this about God:

". . . there is no need to actually believe in God in order to get [the] point. Just think of God as a kind of limit-case."

Tom Shakespeare's "something outside ourselves to which we should bend our personal will" sounds very much like a limit-case to me and Caputo is suggesting that we can legitimately use the word "God" as shorthand for this limit. It seems true that belief in "God as a being" is most certainly optional, but belief in a "limit-case" which can legitimately (if only occasionally) be called "God" isn't.  Such a limit-case is actually necessary to the leading of a good life. A good life requires us to recognise and creatively live with all kinds of important limits (limits of knowledge, strength, control over the kinds of beings humans are, where they are born and how they are brought up, etc. etc.).

But, as experience has and continues to teach me, many people I meet do still want to continue to argue that God is an actual being — the God of theism — and, although for them God is clearly a limit-case (the only real limit-case for a theist), for a theist all other limit-cases are not God and, therefore, cannot stand in for God. Still others will, of course, argue that, although they recognise the need for limit-cases they absolutely refuse to use the word God in doing this and it seems that ne'er the twain will ever meet.

It is at this point that I can bring us to earth in this community and reveal to you the central, Gordian knot of a problem I regularly face as your minister.

Firstly, here are the key positive aspects of the problem:

  • Because we are a spiritual community that is critical of religion we attract many people who describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious'.
  • Because we are a religious community that is critical about the spiritual we attract many people who would describe themselves as 'religious but not spiritual' — in other words atheists who continue to value religion.
  • Because as a community we are prepared to use the word God in a way that doesn't dogmatically rule out theism, we attract people through our door who describe themselves as spiritual — i.e. people who do still believe in some kind of transcendent, supernatural God.
  • Because as a community we are clear that as we use the word God we are always allowing it simultaneously to stand simply for a limit-case, rather than as only a supernatural being, we attract those who describe themselves as atheists.

Now, here are the key negative aspects of the problem. You will notice that, to some extent, they mirror the positive aspects:

  • Because we are a religious community, we repel many who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" because, despite being appropriately and rigorously critical of religion, we still look to them too conventionally religious. 
  • Because we are a spiritual community we repel many who would describe themselves as "religious but not spiritual" because, despite being appropriately critical about the spiritual, we are prepared to give consideration to conventional religious language and practice and this makes us look too spiritual.
  • Because as a community we are openly prepared to use the word God as standing for a "limit-case" rather than as a supernatural being, we repel people who call themselves spiritual because we are not firmly committed enough to the existence of a transcendental, supernatural being called God.
  • Because as a community we are prepared to use the word God at all, we repel those atheists who want us dogmatically to use only the language of "limit-case".

I can assure you that, as your minister, it is sometimes a complete nightmare to negotiate this complex contemporary liberal religious/spiritual terrain and to hold this church together in a fashion that gifts us with a strong (enough), and coherent (enough), liberal, secular religion that doesn't simply dissolve into a mass of unhelpfully conflicting theologies and philosophies.

Now I gave this address for the the first time in 2014 and, two years later, I can still only see one meaningful way to hold us together religiously. I think it can only be achieved when we learn again to be wise in the sense of the word as it was used by the Greeks which, as Caputo notes, was "having a healthy respect for everything we do not know". We need to acknowledge, once and for all, that not only can we not know it all but, again to follow Caputo, we do not need to "pretend to know it all."

This should open up a gate for us (an admittedly narrow gate) to be develop an explicit agreement only to hold collectively the most minimalistic of definitions about "God", "reality", "spirituality" and 'religion' and such-like.

A major, obvious, consequence of this is that we simply have to keep from our religious community's centre all maximal definitions that cannot be backed-up without good, shareable, empirical evidence. As individuals each of us may have various more maximal ways of talking about faith, religion and 'God' but they simply cannot be allowed to become central to us as a liberal, free-religious community.

So, for example, this means we mustn't use the word Unitarian in any of its old senses (which in various ways has been a maximal assertion that God is a unitary being (God is 'One') which has often been used to distinguish ourselves from those who make another maximal assertion that God is 'Three'. i.e. Trinitarian, or those who claim God is even more highly pluralistic, i.e. polytheists). So, today, if and whenever we chose to use the word 'Unitarian', we must, I think, henceforth, only be using it to help make the very minimal assertion that, despite the obvious plurality of our human world and the natural universe, somehow everything hangs together in some fashion and so may be said to form a "uni-verse." Anything more than this is way, way, way too maximal and should be avoided.

When it comes to the word God it strikes me that there are two, ready-to-hand, minimal definitions available to our tradition. The first is that offered up by one of our own important theologians', Henry Nelson Wieman's:

"Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens , and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however unknown, does certainly exist" (Religious Experience and Scientific Method, Macmillan Company, 1926, p. 9).

The second minimal definition is that offered by John Dewey in his book A Common Faith:

We are in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are merely rootless ideals, fantasies or utopias. For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidarity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name 'God'. I would not insist that the name must be given (A Common Faith, 2nd ed., Yale University Press, 2013, p. 47).

I think Jerome A. Stone, another important Unitarian thinker, is right to encourage to us to embrace such a minimalist form of religion and, as he observes:

"In between [bold assertions and great skepticism] there is room for an affirmation of a minimal degree of transcendence. If a strong assertion is hard to defend, then perhaps a more cautious and more restrained model will be better able to answer the doubts of our age while providing the support and prophetic criticism which the [generally monotheistic] traditions have offered. Perhaps a minimal model of transcendence can provide a genuine alternative to the choice between a doubtful maximal model and total secular humanism." ("The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion" (SUNY Press, 1992 p. 10).

Such a minimal, secular, religious model suits well, I think, both the needs and knowledge of our own liberal, free-religious community and also our own age and post-modern culture. 

More than ever if we are to play an effective, full and creative religious role in the world, we need to articulate a minimal, secular, religious alternative to the increasing number of exclusivist, maximal religious approaches that are, alas, gaining ground in so many communities around the world.

The project of articulating this is, modestly but undoubtedly, underway here. I invite your continued support.

Friday, 15 January 2016

A walk through Cambridge and then on to Grantchester Meadows and Byron's Pool

Here are a few photos from a walk through Cambridge and then on to Grantchester and Byron’s Pool that I took a week and half ago with Susanna. On the way back we had a very restful lunch at "The Orchard Tea Rooms", a place occasionally frequented by one of my favourite philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Staying in with Bookchin

Bookchin's books by my bed
Unbelievably, for me anyway, I'm laid low once again with a bad chest infection: this time I'm on a double dose of antibiotics and even an inhaler to help me out. Oi vey. It's time, I think, to say thank you to the excellent "out of hours" doctor who saw me on Saturday and to my excellent NHS doctors at the splendid Trumpington Street Medical Practice. I realise how lucky I am to have access to such free, at the point of delivery, medical services thanks to the NHS and this gratitude is one of the many reasons why I strongly support the junior doctors' in their current struggles.

Anyway,  despite heading downhill, I'm pleased I was able to "fight the good fight" on Sunday and at least go down fighting!

But, as the old saying goes, "every cloud has a silver-lining" and the silver-lining at the moment is having the time to settle down with the work of, and excellent biography (by Janet Biehl) about, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), an environmental and political philosopher and Communalist about whom, I'm almost ashamed to say, I knew nothing until about a month ago when he was introduced to me by a good friend. I've been hugely impressed by what I've read so far.

My initial entrée into his thinking has been via his writing on what he calls "dialectical materialism" — a philosophy which clearly has powerful and strong connections with and implications for the kind of religious naturalism I've been exploring in this blog for some while now, for example here and here.

Anyway, I'm not up to writing anything detailed about Bookchin at the moment as I need to get better, to have read him some more and to have thought about what he said some more. But, in the meantime, if your interest is at all peeked by the links above then you might enjoy seeing Bookchin talking in 1988 at the "Institute for Social Ecology" which he set up in 1974 with the cultural anthropologist, Daniel Chodorkoff.

I hope you all stay well and warm and don't forget to keep supporting the NHS and the countless number of excellent doctors nurses, dentists, paramedics, ambulance drivers, office staff, cleaners and porters. We need their help and they need ours — it remains as true as it was in Æsop's time that "united we stand, divided we fall." So, before we get to Bookchin himself, here's a link to my own union's, Unite, NHS campaign webpage:

Sunday, 10 January 2016

A new "declaration of independence" for the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

Portrait of Jefferson in my Cambridge study 

John 10.10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.

Words by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) that, in a slightly altered form became part of the Declaration of Independence (1776):

“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.”

The Useful Member by Ernst Bloch (Traces, Stanford University Press, 2006, p. 14):

As Bernhard and Simon visited their coffee house again to play chess, all the boards were taken. They therefore went over to two proven players. Suddenly Bernhard, growing bored, shouted, “I bet five marks on Westfal!” Simon bet the same on Dyssel. At first the two outstanding players noticed nothing of the bet; only others’ encouragement grew louder, and their reproofs harsher. Yet soon the men became racehorses to be bet on, and they not only became but felt themselves to be such. Finally, bit by bit diverted from the noble disinterestedness of the game, they saw themselves as wage slaves, harnessed to capitalism, spilling their toil and their wits. The winner’s anger was perfectly clear as Simon wanted to buy him a coffee with a fraction of his winnings; his labor power was already sufficiently exploited in life. Business is pleasure for some, but pleasure easily became business again. So exactly is even play subject to the forms in which the earnestness of life flows away; one cannot flee it, nor even in flight. Even the most resistant are taken on capitalism’s wings; to some, this actually seems an elevation. 

Booked #3: What Exactly Is Neoliberalism? — An interview with Wendy Brown about her book, “Undoing the Demos”, April 2, 2015

In [my] book [Undoing the Demos], I treat neoliberalism as a governing rationality through which everything is “economized” and in a very specific way: human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market, and every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, or state) is governed as a firm. Importantly, this is not simply a matter of extending commodification and monetization everywhere—that’s the old Marxist depiction of capital’s transformation of everyday life. Neoliberalism construes even non-wealth generating spheres—such as learning, dating, or exercising—in market terms, submits them to market metrics, and governs them with market techniques and practices. Above all, it casts people as human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future value.
          Moreover, because neoliberalism came of age with (and abetted) financialization, the form of marketization at stake does not always concern products or commodities, let alone their exchange. Today, market actors—from individuals to firms, universities to states, restaurants to magazines—are more often concerned with their speculatively determined value, their ratings and rankings that shape future value, than with immediate profit. All are tasked with enhancing present and future value through self-investments that in turn attract investors. Financialized market conduct entails increasing or maintaining one’s ratings, whether through blog hits, retweets, Yelp stars, college rankings, or Moody’s bond ratings.
          [. . .]
          [N]eoliberalism also does profound damage to democratic practices, cultures, institutions, and imaginaries. Here’s where thinking about neoliberalism as a governing rationality is important: this rationality switches the meaning of democratic values from a political to an economic register. Liberty is disconnected from either political participation or existential freedom, and is reduced to market freedom unimpeded by regulation or any other form of government restriction. Equality as a matter of legal standing and of participation in shared rule is replaced with the idea of an equal right to compete in a world where there are always winners and losers.
          The promise of democracy depends upon concrete institutions and practices, but also on an understanding of democracy as the specifically political reach by the people to hold and direct powers that otherwise dominate us. Once the economization of democracy’s terms and elements is enacted in law, culture, and society, popular sovereignty becomes flatly incoherent. In markets, the good is generated by individual activity, not by shared political deliberation and rule. And, where there are only individual capitals and marketplaces, the demos, the people, do not exist. 


A new "declaration of independence" for the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness 

The writer of the Gospel of John has Jesus say that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10) — remember that in this Unitarian church Jesus is not understood to be saying this not as a god but as a mortal human being just like you and me.

This basic, human message, although incredibly vague in terms of substantive content, comes across to us as a genuinely joyous one and I’m sure we can hear echoes of Jesus’ words in the very famous, Epicurean inspired words penned for the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), unitarian, epicurean and third President of the United States that, in their first version, read as follows:

“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.”

Sacred and undeniable though Jefferson thought these truths were, as a great admirer of the human Jesus he also knew only too well that one of the tragedies of Christianity was that, contrary to Jesus’ teaching, Christianity itself so often became a thief; a thief stealing life and, both literally and metaphorically, capable of killing and destroying so many of the abundant pleasures we, as embodied material creatures, might otherwise be perfectly able to experience in this, our glorious, awesome, sacred, natural and material world.

Today, in the twenty-first century, we face other thieves that are also intent upon stealing life and its abundant pleasures. The one I want to point to today is the doctrine that believes abundant life is best achieved by “economisation” of everything. It’s a doctrine that is central to the highly complex phenomenon known as “neoliberalism”.

It’s the word “everything” that is important to note here. Let me be clear, I’m not talking today about commercialisation in the sense we have tended to understand it in, say, the commercialisation of Christmas — though this tendency is bad enough. The truth is, of course, that the commercialisation of Christmas began when the festival we now call Christmas was first invented in the Victorian age, an age that definately saw the rise of what we now call “commercialisation”.  

Despite it’s pervasiveness it has remained possible to avoid a great deal of this commercialisation simply by keeping physically away from the commercial centres of our towns and avoiding all the advertising in the media (by, say, turning off the telly) and to go on and celebrate a Christmas as free from the commercial glitz as possible — just as, in fact, as we try to do in this church each year.

But I’m not talking today about this straightforward and somewhat old-school, even naive commercialisation, instead I’m talking about the disturbing tendency to “economize” absolutely everything, including those deep areas of human concern where, until now, financially derived measures have had no place. I’m talking about deep existential things such as our basic understanding of what it is to be a human being and our associated “mutual or intergenerational commitments, on which the institutions of ‘society’ or ‘nation’ are dependent.” Today, these are increasingly “become[ing] reconfigured in monetary terms as debts” and they are being rendered “explicit and quantitative in the process.” As William Davies, a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London and Director of the Political Economy Research Centre, says:

“One way of understanding [neoliberalism] is as an effort to anchor modernity in the market, that is, to make economics the main measure of progress and reason.” 

This anchoring or rooting in the market means that social institutions concerned with progress and reason such as schools, universities, libraries, political parties, countless voluntary social organisations and, importantly today, some religious bodies, increasingly become tasked, not with measuring their success in terms of their philosophical, theological or political ideals but with, as Wendy Brown succinctly puts it,

“. . . enhancing [their] present and future value through self-investments that in turn attract investors. Financialized market conduct entails increasing or maintaining one’s ratings, whether through blog hits, retweets, Yelp stars, college rankings, or Moody’s bond ratings.”

I do not exaggerate when I say that, to me, this tendency seems to be like a thief that is slowly, and very effectively, stealing, killing and destroying from the inside almost everything I have found capable of giving me and others the hope of achieving a genuinely abundant life experiencing both liberty and happiness.

Perhaps some of you now share with me a dread of receiving reports from many of the kinds of organisations I’ve just mentioned because I know I’m highly likely to read about how they believe they have enhanced their present and future value through self-investments that have, in turn, attracted investors and they will illustrate how successful they have been in this by quoting many economised measures its USPs (unique selling points), it’s use of SEOs (search engine optimisations), and how many blog hits, retweets, Yelp stars, college rankings it has accumulated thanks to these things.

When the continuing value of the enabling, foundational philosophical, theological or political vision of any of the organisations I’ve mentioned is no longer being measured by reference to real, existential human concerns, but by highly abstract, “economised” metrics we are surely heading in a very dangerous and undemocratic direction. It means, for example, as long as Jesus’ appeal to help the injured man by the roadside, regardless of his country of origin or religion, is clearly a self-investment that will enhance you or your organisation’s present and future value, then all well and good. But if it does not obviously do this then, well, really you should think about refusing to listen any more to Jesus’ appeal to your existential, human heart.

(Whilst giving this address I ad-libbed a point here about the current crisis in Germany following the dreadful events in Cologne on New Years's Eve. I noted how much of the political debate in the current liberal democratic setting about whether to allow or not refugees into Europe had been centred on almost solely economic terms i.e. about whether or not economic benefits for Europe would follow  the answer has generally been that, yes, these benefits would follow. However, when a moment of real human crisis came on New Year's Eve that was connected to the issue of refugees such economicized language simply fails any longer to be of use and this, in turn, has left a democratic vacuum which right-wing groups are perfectly placed to fill with a powerfully persuasive, non-economised, passionate, political language. Naturally, I detest their particular political language but I am fearful that our liberal democratic politicians (and structures) have by now lost their own version of this, colonised as they have been, by the stealth revolution of neoliberalism.)

Anyway . . . in short what is deemed good in our society is increasingly being ultimately decided by “economised” metrics.

I was, at first, tempted to unpack line by line Wendy Brown’s words you heard earlier which try to communicate something of what this process means. This could be done I assure you, but it would have produced a somewhat dry, analytic lecture. However, I was saved from this when I recalled a powerful little parable told by the German philosopher, Ernst Bloch in the early years of the twentieth century. It speaks directly and comprehensibly to the matter in hand.

Playing chess in a café by G. Bakmanson (1903)
As you heard, we begin with two friends, Bernhard and Simon, visiting their favourite coffee house to play a convivial game of chess. This scene may be taken as being a snapshot of two people living an abundant life. They need not be this, but I tend to imagine Bernard and Simon to be a couple of old boys with time, pleasurably on their hands. Alas, on this occasion, when they arrive at the coffee house all the boards are taken and so they take themselves over to the table of two excellent players, Westfal and Dyssel. For whatever reason Bernard gets a little bored with watching rather than playing and he decides to inject a little excitement into things by betting five marks on Westfal and Simon responds by betting the same amount upon Dyssel.

Notice straightaway the beginning of the dynamic I want us to observe, Bernard and Simon have suddenly begun to judge the value of the game of chess not by their original, existential, human standards but by an “economised” metric.

Bloch tells us that this shift in metrics did not, at first, have any effect upon Westfal and Dyssel—they were, as yet, unaware of what was going on and they were able to carry on with their existential delight and passion for the game of chess. However, Bernard and Simon begin to become more vocal in urging on their preferred players. We may imagine that other people were also now gathering around Westfal and Dyssel’s board and laying their own bets as the general excitement increased. In parallel with the increase in excitement there also arises unabashed competition which results in the making of harsh reproofs as the gamblers now harangue or praise Westfal and Dyssel for making what they believe are stupid or brilliant moves, moves which may now win or lose them increasing  amounts of money. Notice how the mood is now no longer convivial at all

By this stage Westfal and Dyssel have not only clearly ceased to be free-men and become racehorses to be bet on, they are also now slowly being transformed in themselves as persons. As selves they have ceased to be humans enjoying the free existential play, challenge and value of chess and have become, instead, “economized” actors. As Bloch says, “Finally, bit by bit diverted from the noble disinterestedness of the game, [Westfal and Dyssel see] themselves as wage slaves, harnessed to capitalism, spilling their toil and their wits.”

Dyssel eventually turns out to be the winner but he is very angry with Simon who put his bet upon him. This anger becomes visible at the moment Simon offers to buy Dyssel a coffee to say thank you for winning; a meagre thank you that Dyssel knows costs a fraction of Simon’s winnings. Dyssel feels that his labour power is already “sufficiently exploited in life” and so he resents, rightly in my opinion, this “economization” of his existential life, his life of pleasure, of the place where genuine human abundance and non-monetary meaning can be found — in this case amongst old friends playing chess and drinking coffee together for the sheer joy of playing chess and drinking coffee together.

Bloch notes in conclusion that: “Business is pleasure for some, but pleasure easily became business again. So exactly is even play subject to the forms in which the earnestness of life flows away; one cannot flee it, nor even in flight. Even the most resistant are taken on capitalism’s wings; to some, this actually seems an elevation.”

It is true that even the most resistant are taken on capitalism’s, or more properly, neoliberalism’s, wings and in the past thirty years this has included many religious organisations such as our own. Fortunately I happen to think that in this congregation we are a fairly resistant body of people (the demos is still in our democracy) but we need to be aware we are far from being immune to the pressures all around us. We are very much in the position of Westfal and Dyssel.

It seems to me that one of our chief tasks as a dissenting, liberal, free-religious community is to continue our resistance to this pervasive dynamic of economisation and to keep the neoliberal thief as far away from our house of being as is humanly possible. It is continually to make our own declarations of independence and to commit to remaining a cultural space where we do all kinds of things that are the equivalent of playing chess and drink coffee for the sheer pleasure of doing them and without any reference to “economized” metrics (unless without doubt such a reference is absolutely necessary and/or appropriate). It means that we should continue to take seriously both Jesus’ suggestion that an abundant life is possible for all people (and I mean for ALL people) and to continue to affirm along with our forebear, Thomas Jefferson, his inspiring words written for that earlier Declaration of Independence.

So in the coming year, may pleasurable, non “economized” things remain the metric by which we here choose to judge what is good, true and beautiful and what will best lead to the abundant life Jesus, and Jefferson, promised remains possible for all.