Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Then doth the spring her glorious days disclose—Lucy Hutchinson, Lucretius, and some spring photos

As regular readers of this blog will know, Lucretius' poem, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) often makes an appearance. This year I drew on the poem for Mothering Sunday in my piece called "Mother Love All The Way Down—A Mothering Sunday meditation in the context of the refugees trapped on the Greek-Macedonian border" and, back in January, for my piece called 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.”

Well, today I took my regular walk around the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens to see how the blossom was coming on and, naturally, this brought the proem of Book One gently back to mind as I took the photos that appear in this post. I had lunch there and then made my way back through town passing by the famous Cambridge antiquarian bookshop, David's, along the way. To my utter delight I stumbled across a translation of Lucretius' poem that I have long hoped to find at a price I could afford—that by Lucy Hutchinson. Wonderful, what a stroke of luck. I reproduce below her version of the proem as a fitting accompaniment to the photos.

Lucy Hutchinson (1620–1681) was the first person to translate the complete text of Lucretius into English and it remained unpublished until 1996 when Duckworth published an edition edited by Hugh de Quehen, the edition I found today.

Faire Venus mother of Æneas race
Delight of gods and men thou that doest grace
The stare firmament, the sea, the earth
To whom all living creatures owe their birth
By thee conceivd, and brought forth to the day,
When thou (O Goddesse) comest storms lie away
And heaven is no more obscur’d with showers.
For thee the fragrant earth spreads various flowers
The calmed ocean smiles, and att thy sight
The serene skin shines with augmented light.
Then doth the spring her glorious days disclose
And the release, life-giving westwind blows.
They power possessing first birds of the are
They thy approach with amorous noates declare,
Next when desires the savage heard incite
They swim through streames, and their fat pastures slight
To follow thee, who in seas, rivers, hills
In the birds leavie bowers, and in greene fields
Instilling wanton love into each mind,
Mak’st creatures strive to propagate their kind.
Since all things thus are brought to light by thee,
By whom alone their natures governd bee,
From whom both loveliness and pleasure springs, 
Assist me while the nature of these things
I sing to Memmius whom thou (Goddesse) hast
With all excelling gifts and vertues grac’t;
Wherefore sweete language in my thoughts infuse
And let not warrs harsh sounds disturb my muse;
Make sea and land a quiet came possesse
For only thou with peace canst mortalls blesse,
Since Mars, the mighty God that rules in armes,
Lies in thy lap, bound with loves powerfull charmes,
And resting there his head in full delight,
On thy rich beautie feeds his greedie sight;
Hanging with amorous kisses on thy face,
Whilst thou (O Goddesse) doest this God embrace,
While he doth in thy sacred lap remaine, 
Sweet peace for Rome by gentle prayers obteine,
For neither can we with a quiet mind
In time of warre, persue the worke design’d,
Nor can brave Memmius, full of pious cares
For publique good, neglect those great affaires.     

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter Sunday: Living in between the doubtful pleasures of a mysterious supernatural heaven and the tedium of contemplating the hard, material reality of the grave

Indian Rope Trick (Wikipedia)
In a liberal religious context the writing of an Easter Sunday address remains, for me anyway, one of the most difficult things to do even though, at first sight, it might appear rather an easy task. After all, for many philosophical, theological, historical and scientific reasons I’m sure I don’t need to rehearse with you right now, most of us here today no longer find at all plausible the idea that the bodily resurrection of Christ really occurred and this should, or so the accepted liberal religious wisdom has it, free someone like me to write about the story as simply a metaphor.

To some extent I think that’s right and today I could have given any number of perfectly serviceable addresses relating to metaphorical resurrections of the spirit.

But this approach has recently given me pause because I realise it all too easily allows me to make a strong type of truth-claim that I’m increasingly unhappy to make, namely, that stories such as those surrounding Easter, beautiful though they may be, are just or only captivating surface illusions, behind which hides an inner, or underlying, static body of truth that I can know in a direct, non-illusory way as the really-real.

Recently, in another, related, context a good friend and helpful critic of mine, the philosopher Ed Mooney, reminded me that whenever I am tempted to say that something or other is really just or only an illusion, this “plays into the hand of letting the skeptical hard-materialist have all the say about what’s real or not”.

If I do this in connection with Easter and the resurrection then there is a real danger that I’ll end up saying  something like, “That beautiful open A played on the cello was really only vibrations at 220 Hz assaulting our ear-drums”.

We all know that when that “A” forms an integral part of a great and beautifully played melody it’s ridiculous to reduce it simply to some hard materialist fact — in this case vibrations at 220 Hz. It is vibrations at 220 Hz but it is clearly not only that.

Here we begin to see more clearly why whenever the hard-materialist tendency is pressed too far we begin to loose sight of something very important but ineffable that significantly diminishes our ability to live as fully as we might in this extraordinary and mysterious world of ours.

But, as with all ineffable things, it can be astonishingly difficult to get enough of a grip on what this “something” is so as to be able to bring it before you in comprehensible (enough) words for your consideration. However, last week as I was reading Raoul Vaneigem’s famous book connected with the upheavals in France of May 1968, the Traité de savoir-faire à l’usage des jeunes générations (English trans: “The Revolution of Everyday Life”), I came across a story that seems to me to do the job remarkably well.

Indian Rope Trick (Wikipedia)
From the ruins of Heaven, humanity fell into the ruins of its own world. What happened? Something like this: ten thousand people are convinced that they have seen a fakir’s rope rise into the air, while so many cameras prove that it hasn’t moved an inch. Scientific objectivity exposes mystification. Very good, but what does it show us? A coiled rope of absolutely no interest. I have little inclination to choose between the doubtful pleasure of being mystified and the tedium of contemplating a reality which does not concern me. A reality which I have no grasp of—isn’t this just the old lie recycled, the highest stage of mystification? From now on the analysts are in the streets. Lucidity is not their only weapon. Their thinking is no longer in danger of being imprisoned, either by the false reality of gods or by the false reality of technocrats” (Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, PM Press, Oakland, 2012, p. 7).

When his insight is brought close to the Easter stories and you replace the coiled rope with the dead body of Christ in his final grave you will, I hope, see what I mean.

I realise that, wherever Christ’s dead body now lies which, as a religious naturalist I’m pretty sure it does, I find it, as a dead body, of absolutely no interest at all. It’s not interesting because it’s no different to any other dead body — a dead body is, in itself, an utterly unremarkable, even tedious, natural fact. To be sure I would experience some real archeological/historical/anthropological interest in actually finding Christ’s body but that it is a dead body is, itself, uninteresting; it’s just what I’d expect to find.

But Vaneigem’s words help me see, never more so than on this Easter Sunday morning and in this liberal religious setting, that I have little inclination to choose between, on the one hand, the tedium of contemplating the materialist reality of a dead body which does not concern me and, on the other hand, the doubtful pleasure of being mystified by some supernatural bodily resurrection that you will find proclaimed in many other churches today.

Unless there is something more to Easter than either mere material fact on the one hand and mere mystification on the other then, to be frank, I’d really rather forget the whole thing and go and do something else instead.

As we know, most people in our modern culture who have come down on the materialist side of things have chosen to do just this and no longer have anything to do with religion at all. But, alas, on the other side of the equation, those in our culture who have decided that there is something more to Easter than this are, for the most part, far too preoccupied (for me at least) with encouraging in people the doubtful pleasure of being mystified.

I really don’t find either of these two options at all attractive and what I want to do today is ask you to consider whether an attempt simultaneously to push against them helps reveal an ineffable something in between them which gets lost when we land too firmly on either side?

I think the answer is “Yes” and why I think this begins to emerge if we consider Vaneigem’s thought that, when we do actually push simultaneously against these two tendencies, our “thinking is no longer in danger of being imprisoned, either by the false reality of gods or by the false reality of technocrats.”

Now, I’m sure don’t need to rehearse with you the dangers of being imprisoned by the false reality of gods because most people who come to a church such as this generally do so because they wish finally to be free from this false reality and the accompanying, doubtful pleasure of being mystified by those wanting to make certain, strong, supernaturalist claims.

However, because most of us here have such a high opinion of the scientific method and approach we most certainly need to rehearse the dangers of being seduced by the false reality of technocrats.

To see why this is the case we need firstly to know what Vaneigem seems to mean by “a technocrat”. Broadly speaking, the word “technocrat” simply refers to any person who exercises authority because of the technical knowledge they possess but, for Vaneigem, it seems to have a specific and highly negative connotation and refers to any person who advocates the supremacy of technical experts who subscribe to what is called “scientism”. Scientism is the “belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints” (my emphasis, source: Wikipedia).

The danger is that we, who wish to escape being imprisoned by the false reality of gods and the doubtful pleasure of being mystified, and who value the scientific method as a way of protecting us from this fate, come to believe the technocrats are right and that the true and only answer to life the universe and everything is to be found through a hard-materialist, skeptical interpretation and application of the scientific method.

But to do this, as I hope you can see, is merely to jump from the frying pan of those promulgating the false reality of gods and the doubtful pleasure of being mystified into the tedious fire of those promulgating the false reality of technocrats — of saying to the cellist that their open A is just vibrations at 220 Hz.

I hope you can see that we really do need to be mapping out some free, open and creative territory that lies between these two, imprisoning options.

To bring us to a temporary close let me draw once again on some perspicacious comments by my friend Ed Mooney and very briefly walk round the matter in a different and more obviously grounded way.

Ed points out that for human beings reality is anomalous. That is to say it is always-already “of uncertain nature or classification” and “marked by incongruity or contradiction” (Merriam-Webster). This is because we are creatures that engage with and understand the world in many, complex, overlapping interpenetrating ways; ways that are symbolic, poetic, fictive, figurative and metaphorical and also ways that are derived from the use of the scientific method and approach.

Let’s take water. For our culture water is unbelievably rich in symbolic meaning and never more so than at Easter in which water is intimately connected with ideas of baptism, renewal and new life. Now, when I use water in this church as part of a naming ceremony for a new-born child and I say to them and those gathered about, “this water is a symbol of the purity with which you were born” the hard-materialist skeptic (the technocrat) will be interrupting destructively our perception of the whole event if they pretentiously informed us that we were not really seeing “water-as-purity” but only seeing H2O, or that we were only really having our retinas bombarded by atoms.

But, and here’s Ed’s vitally important point, if there’s no real case here where we might be deceived, and if it’s preposterous to think that here we are ever deceived in this way, then it’s preposterous to tell me that seeing water as a symbol of purity alongside knowing it in scientific ways is an illusion.

Which thought finally brings me back to the ineffable something I mentioned at the beginning of this address.

It is the feeling that in a church like this a space (clearing) can be opened up where no one is deceived — a place of genuine freedom and human creativity which knowingly remains in-between the binary opposites and absolute either/ors that are all too often offered up to us by our "leaders" as being the only way to proceed. It is a space where people can learn how constantly to be moving between poetic and scientific paradigms with graceful ease, allowing each of them in their endless push and pull to show up for us the richest and freest possible kind of human life we can have. It is a place where it is possible simultaneously to play with the thought that the resurrection never happened and that it also always happens.

If we can find ways to begin daily to inhabit this in-between space then it seems to me possible that for each of us a new form of liberal human life really can rise up from the old, one which bursts beautifully and life-affirmingly forth in between the doubtful pleasures of a mysterious supernatural heaven and the tedium of contemplating the hard, material reality of the grave.

Happy Easter to you all.


Through out the writing of this address some words of Wittgenstein's were constantly in my mind. They seem to have something important to say in connection with my own feelings about Easter expressed above. I didn't refer to them as I gave the address but they can be added here:

Ludwig Wittgenstein MS 120, 12 December 1937
Culture and Value (rev. ed.), Oxford 2006, Blackwell Publishing pp. 38-39e

What inclines me even to believe in Christ’s resurrection? I play as it were with the thought. – If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like every human being. He is dead & decomposed. In that case he is a teacher, like any other & can no longer help; & and we are once more orphaned and alone. And we have to make do with wisdom & speculation. It is as though we are in a hell, where we can only dream & are shut out from heaven, roofed in as it were. But if I am to be REALLY redeemed, – I need certainty – not wisdom, dreams, speculation – and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what my heart, my soul, needs, not my speculative intellect. For my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, must be redeemed, not my abstract mind. Perhaps one may say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: it is love that believes the Resurrection. We might say Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to the Resurrection. What fights doubt is, as it were redemption. Holding fast to it must be holding fast to that belief. So this means: first be redeemed and hold tightly to your redemption (keep hold of your redemption) – then you will see that you are holding on to is this belief. So this can only come about if you no longer support yourself on this earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then everything will be different and it is ‘no wonder’ if you can then do what now you cannot do.

Friday, 25 March 2016

"We feel awe for life, even in the knowledge of its contradictions and hardships"—some spring photos and a note about tonight's Good Friday service at the Cambridge Unitarian Church

Today is Good Friday—the darkest day in the story about Jesus, the day upon which tradition tells us that, at the behest of the Roman and the Jerusalem Temple authorities, he was executed. As always this evening at the Unitarian Church in Cambridge we’ll recount this sad, human story and quietly reflect upon what it might mean for us today. If you want to read/use the liturgy yourself please click on this link to download a pdf.

But today has also been a beautiful sunny day and so my wife, Susanna, and I took a little time out to visit the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens before the promised bad weather comes into town over the weekend.

The juxtaposition of this saddest day with today's spring beauty put me in mind of some wise words sent to me by some German Unitarians about a photo of some spring blossom I posted on the day of the attacks in Brussels:

“Wir empfinden Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben, 
auch im Wissen um seine Widersprüche und Härten.”
[We feel awe for life, even in the knowledge of its contradictions and hardships.]

"Genau", as my German friends say. So in honour of the awe we feel for life even on such a sad day here are a few photos from today's brief walk. The first three were taken as we walked through Emmanuel College, the remainder were taken in the Botanic Garden. They were all shot using Hipstamatic's "Tintype" app.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The hawthorn whitens

From the moist meadow to the withered hill. 
Led by the breeze, the vivid verdure runs ; 
And swells, and deepens, to the cherish’d eye. 
The hawthorn whitens ; and the juicy groves 
Put forth their buds, unfolding by degrees

Photo: A hawthorn in flower in Fen Ditton
Hipstamatic Tintype

Monday, 21 March 2016

. . . when the rising Spring adorns the Mead, a new Scene of Nature stands display’d, When teeming Budds, and chearful greens appear—a few photos of Cambridge on the first day of spring

As Dryden put it in his wonderful translation of the first part of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura:

          . . . when the rising Spring adorns the Mead [i.e. meadow],
          And a new Scene of Nature stands display’d,
          When teeming Budds, and chearful greens appear

Since today was the first day of spring I decided to take myself off to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden to enjoy some of the first teeming buds and cheerful greens. It's still very early in the season of course so there's not a great deal but what there was certainly filled my heart with joy. The photo at the head of this post was taken today next to the lake.

But spring doesn't only bring out buds but also people and, as I wandered back into town towards home I took a few shots of people out and about doing their various everyday things. Enjoy. As always, just click on a photo to enlarge it. All the photos were taken with my Ricoh GR.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Supreme fictions and reality's rules —Ten Commandments to Avoid Extinction: Grace Limits for the 21st Century (Conditions for Existence). Thus sayeth the Lord…

Bill Anders' photo of Earthrise taken from Apollo 8 (December 1968)
The relationship this address has with Holy Week is as follows. Many times over the past few years I've used the term God-or-Nature (or God-or-Reality) to help move along the project of divinizing the natural and naturalizing the divine. In most Christian traditions Jesus' execution on the cross was, in some way, the death of God. Well, today, (as another supreme fiction) I'm suggesting that it might be helpful to see that by our behaviour we're putting earth on the cross and killing it (her). The hymn we sang at the end of the Sunday service takes the famous Passion Chorale —"O Sacred Head, now wounded"—and replaces Jesus with the earth. In consequence we sang "O sacred earth, now wounded". You can find the lyric at the very end of this post.


The British newspaper, The Guardian, began the week with a deeply disturbing headline:

“February breaks global temperature records by ‘shocking’ amount. Warnings of climate emergency after surface temperatures 1.35C warmer than average temperature for the month”

In the article they quoted Stefan Rahmstorf, from Germany’s Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research who said

We are in a kind of climate emergency now . . . . This is really quite stunning . . . it’s completely unprecedented.” 

If you looked carefully through the mainstream British media this week you could find a few follow up pieces connected with this news but you had to try very hard. As James Dyke, Lecturer in Complex Systems Simulation, University of Southampton, noted in his piece for “The Conversation” and reprinted in “The Guardian”:

“Know what’s trending on Twitter as I write? A photoshopped giant dog, the latest Game of Thrones trailer and Kim Kardashian’s naked body. Actually, it’s mainly Kim Kardashian’s naked body and people’s responses to it. Followed by people’s responses to the responses.
     “It would be churlish of me to deny people the pleasure of looking at pictures of a photograph of a cuddly dog adjusted in order to make it appear both cute and monstrous. But we appear disinterested, either through denial or desensitisation, to the environmental changes happening right in front of our eyes.”

The pressing question is what on earth could/would make us interested? In more ancient days it appears that a message from god, mediated through a prophet, would have helped. At the beginning of the book of Amos (c. 750 BC) we read:

And he said:
The Lord roars from Zion,
   and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds wither,
   and the top of Carmel dries up.

As many of you know these opening lines stand at the head of a series of dreadful, fiery judgements upon the people for failing to listen and respond properly to god’s authority and commands. God’s fire was, here, certainly an image saying to the people of the time that their world was going to warm up in a very, very bad way. Amos’ aim was, of course get the people to see that if they didn’t get right with their god then their tribulations would only continue and worsen, so, Amos says, repent and change your ways now!

Of course, there was never any guarantee that the people would listen to god through the prophet — and even if they did that they would, in fact, be spared destruction (because, after all, such a god really doesn’t seem to exist) — but in an age when belief that god would speak through a prophet was still very real, there was a chance, having issued the warning, that the people would sit up and change their ways — pronto.

But we, in the UK and Europe anyway, live in a largely secular age in which it has become impossible for many (most?) of us to believe in the existence of such a supernatural and interventionist god who is going to speak through an identifiable prophet to whom we really should listen. This simply doesn’t show up to us as a live and plausible possibility.

As I thought about this Heidegger’s 1966 interview in Der Spiegel magazine immediately came to mind. In it he was asked:

SPIEGEL: “. . . Can the individual man in any way still influence this web of fateful circumstance [connected with technology]? Or, indeed, can philosophy influence it? Or can both together influence it, insofar as philosophy guides the individual, or several individuals, to a determined action?”

To which he famously, and notoriously, replied:

Heidegger: “If I may answer briefly, and perhaps clumsily, but after long reflection: philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavour. Only a god can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or for the absence of a god in [our] decline, insofar as in view of the absent god we are in a state of decline.”

In the pressing context of contemporary climate change one thing we can be absolutely sure about is that the supernatural god of old is simply not going to “Bow hither out of heaven and see and save” us from our ecological folly (or indeed any other of our follies).

Although it’s not entirely clear what Heidegger meant by “Only a God can save us” I have always been powerfully struck by his suggestion that “The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god.” He seems to be hinting at a possibility that intrigued the great modern poet Wallace Stevens throughout his life, namely, the idea of a supreme fiction — “an idea that would serve as a fictive replacement for the idea of God, known to be fictive but willfully believed.”

In the sphere of political theology the person who, for me, is most effectively exploring the idea of a supreme fiction is the philosopher Simon Critchley, especially in his important recent book “The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology” some elements of which I’ve introduced to you before.

Although Critchley is also aware of this, in the explicit context of theology and climate change, for me the most intriguing and amenable exploration of a supreme fiction is found in the work of the American Progressive Christian minister, author, and eco-theologian Michael Dowd who has had a long relationship with our sister church in the USA the Unitarian Universalist Association. 

Dowd insists that God is “not an invisible friend or otherworldly entity” but, instead, “a mythic personification of reality”.  So, for example, he says,

“Poseidon was not the god of the oceans, as if some supernatural entity separate from water was looking down from on high or rising from the deep. Poseidon was the personification of the incomprehensibly powerful and capricious seas! The same, of course, is true of Neptune.”

As I mentioned last week, Dowd said in his recent TED talk,

“Language changes over time, and words create worlds. What we call Reality, the ancients called God, or if you lived in a polytheistic culture, the gods. These were personifications of our inner and outer reality. This fundamental insight not only makes sense of religious differences and bridges the science-religion divide, it also clarifies our way into the future.”

In other words, for Dowd, “Reality” is the secular word for “God”, and climate change (and all the scientific evidence we have gathered to show that it’s a real and pressing danger to our continued survival) is the way Reality is speaking to us through the evidence in a way that we once believed God spoke to us through prophets like Amos.

And what is Reality, or God, telling us through prophet scientists? Well, now you get to hear/see/read God or Reality’s “Ten Commandments to Avoid Extinction.”

As always I leave you to decide whether to heed these commands or not.

Thus sayeth the Lord!

Here's Michael Dowd's video presentation of the "Ten Commandments to Avoid Extinction”:

And here is a simple, text only version:

Reality’s Rules — Ten Commandments to Avoid Extinction
Grace Limits for the 21st Century (Conditions for Existence)
Thus sayeth the Lord…

1. Stop thinking of me as anything less than the voice of undeniable and inescapable Reality.

“Imagining that I am a clockmaker outside a clockwork Universe is a form of idolatry — an unreal notion of me — that is creating hell on Earth and leading to your own extinction. The Universe is not a machine; it is my voice and my hands!

“Reality is my secular name and the Cosmos is my local Self. If you don’t honour my presence within Time and Nature, your grandchildren, and theirs, will condemn you and your religion.”

2. Stop thinking of ‘divine revelation’ and ‘God’s word’ apart from evidence.

“Imagining that my most important and up-to-date guidance was provided thousands of years ago belittles me — and has made you blind and deaf to what I have been revealing for centuries now through all forms of evidence. Your scientific, historic, and cross-cultural discoveries, discerned through global collective intelligence, are my evidential revelation.

“Facts are my native tongue and trends are my bullhorn. If you fail to honour evidence as modern- day scripture — more authoritative than elders and ancient texts — you will perish.”

3. Stop thinking of Genesis, or your creation story, apart from Big History.

“The history of everyone and everything that I have revealed through evidence, including what you call ‘green history,’ or ‘environmental history,’ must be incorporated into your Creation myths and sacred rituals as rapidly as possible.

“Without a factual view of my deep-time creativity, extending over billions of years, you will have a pathetic notion of me and how I reveal truth, a trivial view of science and religion, and a dysfunctional and even suicidal understanding of your past, present, and possible futures.”

4. Stop thinking of theology apart from ecology.

“Nature’s ways are my ways. When you overshoot the carrying capacity of the land, air, and sea — when you dishonour Grace Limits through overpopulation, overexploitation, or pollution beyond Nature’s ability to transform it — you betray me and condemn future generations.

“Thinking that you could worship me without honouring my Nature — which, of course, includes the soil, forests, and everything upon which you depend — is idolatry. Repent of your human- centred theologies and come home to me, to Reality, to your true Self. The entire Earth community will be rooting for you.”

5. Stop defining and measuring ‘progress’ in short-term, human-centred ways.

“Making decisions with the seventh generation in mind isn’t just a good idea; to do otherwise is evil. You must immediately begin measuring progress, growth, and success in ways that honour Primary Reality — for example, by how rapidly you can de-carbonize the atmosphere, build soil, restore wetlands, reforest the land, and preserve other species and their habitats.

“To think that you could master and control my Nature is proof of your idolatry. Humble yourselves and work with, rather than against, the restorative and regenerative dynamics of this living planet. Doing so will enable you, over time, to restore the Garden you so foolishly defiled in your anthropocentric hubris.”

6. Stop allowing the free or subsidized polluting of the commons.

“Externalizing the true costs and environmental impacts of your business activities onto society, the community of life, or the future is not merely short-sighted; it is evil. Repent and redesign your economic system so that it mimics the laws of ecology. And stop creating chemicals and technologies that defile my Nature.

“The impact that individuals, corporations, and nations have on the larger body of Life, for good or ill, must be reflected back to them. Only then will they be incentivized to do what is right, just, and ecological, and deterred from doing what is wrong, unjust, and reprehensible.”

7. Stop using renewable resources faster than they can be replenished.

“Unsustainable is just a pretty word for evil . . . how is this not obvious? My grace is boundless only if you honour my Nature and don’t exceed the rate at which my living systems — soil, forests, groundwater, oceans, ecologies — can renew themselves.

“Limits are sacred and must be honoured! As you are now painfully discovering, the story of Adam and Eve is about dishonouring Grace Limits, not disobedience.

“Stop driving other species — plants and animals alike — to extinction. It is both foolish and self- destructive to dishonour the living beings inside of you and outside you that make your life possible. Do whatever it takes to preserve biodiversity, including ethically reducing your numbers and assisting other species in migrating as the climate shifts.”

8. Stop using non-renewable resources in ways that harm or rob future generations.

“All metals, minerals, and other non-renewable resources should be recycled as close to one hundred percent as possible. Your energy intensive, throwaway culture of greed — what you deceptively refer to as a ‘global free market’ — is an abomination.

“To reduce your use of non-renewable resources you must re-inhabit your local communities, your watersheds, your bioregions; there’s no other way. Simplify your lifestyles and become a blessing to your human and non-human neighbours — and, thus, to posterity. In so doing you will become saviours, rather than destroyers, of the future. Regardless of beliefs, the former are Christians; the later, anti-Christians.”

9. Stop exploring for coal, oil, and natural gas—keep most of it in the ground!

“You must reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions as much as possible, as rapidly as possible. Given that you already have five times more fossil fuels in reserve than is needed to create hell on Earth and drive you to extinction, it is insane to keep exploring for more.

“And for my sake, and yours — but especially for the sake of your grandchildren, and theirs — don’t rely on hopes, prayers, or techno-fix miracles. Rather, reduce your consumption habits and energy use substantially and immediately!”

10. Stop prioritizing the wants of the wealthy over the needs of the poor.

“When I said, ‘the love of money is the root of all evil,’ and ‘whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me,’ I meant it! Periodic jubilees, or occasions of general and generous debt forgiveness, are not optional; they are necessary if you hope to avoid societal breakdown.

“Your current economic system rewards the few at the expense of the many, measures progress by how fast it can turn the biosphere into pollution, and forces billions to betray the future in pursuit of the so-called ‘good life.’ The fact that you don’t call this demonic (which it is) is further proof of your idolatry.

“When your local and regional economies honour Grace Limits and the wellbeing of my Nature first, and when you stop making excuses for the inexcusable gap between rich and poor, then and only then will a just, healthy, beautiful, and sustainably life-giving future be yours.”


O sacred earth, now wounded, 
what have we done to thee? 
The carnage is unbounded, 
for all our eyes to see. 
Thy air and soil and water 
are poisoned by our greed; 
thy forests we do slaughter 
to serve our every need.

So fierce in our ambitions 
we’ve entered sunlight’s field, a
nd armed with strong emissions 
we’ve torn apart its shield; 
and ever there is waiting 
our bomb’s immortal fire, 
the flower of all our hating, 
eternal glowing pyre.

The time has come for grieving, 
to bow our heads, and pause; 
and we must cease believing 
that we may break earth’s laws. 
The time has come to worship 
this place, where we belong; 
to consecrate our earthship 
with prayer, and verse, and song.

And then to start restoring 
our earth, with our own hands, 
with work, with love outpouring, 
with laws throughout the lands; 
to bring the nations nearer 
with every quest for peace, 
until, as hope grows clearer, 
our war on earth may cease. 

Lyric by Martha M. Pikrell

Friday, 18 March 2016

Sea of Faith Conference 2016 and a thought or two about Arthur Hugh Clough's poem "Say the struggle naught availeth"

The evening tide coming in below Copperas Woods, near where I grew up
To my great surprise and honour I've just been invited to be one of the keynote speakers at this year's Sea of Faith Conference (Thursday 21st July—23rd July 2016 at Leicester University). The theme is "Religion, where next?" and I'll be speaking alongside Doctor John Breadon, Assistant Chaplain at Eton College (“I was religious but now I’m…”) and Professor Denise Cush, Professor of Religion and Education, Bath Spa University (“I’m not religious but…”). My talk is entitled “The freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today”. Of course, now all I have to do is write the piece! I'll let you know how it goes at the end of July. 

But the invitation, naturally, served to send me back to Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach from which the name "Sea of Faith" is derived. That, in turn, sent me back to look again at a poem with a related theme by Arnold's close friend Arthur Hugh Clough (1819–1861). As someone who learned to sail on the creeks and inlets near the Essex village where I grew up,  Clough's poem about the tide's turn and the water's (faith/religion's) silent and, at first almost imperceptible, return to the creeks and inlets has always struck me more powerfully than Arnold's. Also as John Beer notes in his introduction to Clough’s poems,

“While Arnold wrote of the slow withdrawing melancholy roar Clough was able to look on — however guardedly — with an optimism based on a further vision, recognising its relationship of renewal with the land it penetrates” (p. xv)

Although I'd describe myself as having a deeply melancholic strand in my makeup I've always thought Gramsci was right and that, although one may have a pessimism of the intellect it is always possible to maintain an optimism of the will. This only adds to my general preference for Clough's poem.

With regard to the Sea of Faith conference theme of "Religion, where next?" John Beer  says something else in his introduction that seems relevant:

The evening tide coming in below Copperas Woods
“Arthur Hugh Clough inherited problems that had beset thoughtful people since the end of the eighteenth century and the French Revolution, when the disillusionment that followed early idealism made it hard to continue in the path of revolutionary thought with any ease. The admonitions of writers such as [Edmund] Burke prompted a new sense of the good to be found in the previously existing order of Church and State; yet any return to the former state of things was equally difficult. Too many issues had been raised in the course of eighteenth-century sceptical writing, too many questions asked by the French philosophers, to make for an easy return to straightforward belief in Church and State as previously established” (p. x).

Anyway, enough said for the moment,  and here, for your own reflections on the matter, is Clough's wonderful poem:

Say not the struggle naught availeth,
    The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
    And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
    It may be, in yon smoke conceal’d,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
    And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
    Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
    Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
    When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
    But westward, look, the land is bright!

Thursday, 17 March 2016

"An Unorthodox Lecture" and "Spiritual Values in a Scientific Age" by Paul Wienpahl

One of the most important single short pieces of philosophy I have read during my time as a minister was by Paul Wienpahl. It is called "An Unorthodox Lecture" and was published in June 1956 in a journal called MANAS. It was this essay that finally allowed me to begin slowly to move meaningfully away from Christian belief and into a wholly different way of being religious and a minister of religion. A couple of years ago I decided to borrow from this essay the following paragraph to help indicate "where I'm at" (it also appears on the side-bar of this blog):

“As I see it, the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself. (Tautologies are, after all, true.) If you wish to persist by asking what reality is; that is, what is really, the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing. To see this is to be a man without a position. To get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian. I am a man without a position. I do not have the philosophic position that there are no positions or theories or standpoints. (There obviously are.) I am not a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist. I am simply a man without a position, and this should open the door to detachment”

I first read it during my sabbatical of 2008 which I mostly spent in a small village called Bédarrides about 11km north of Avignon. One day, early on in my stay, I'd taken myself off on my mountain bike to a nearby small plantation to ride a few rough tree-lined hilly tracks to help me get ready for a planned ride up the 1610 metres of Mont Ventoux. In my bag, along with some sandwiches and lots of water, I had this and another essay by Wienpahl both of which I intended to read in the shade during a break. 

(The photos in this post were taken on a return visit in 2014 to the same place which felt like a little pilgrimage and where I reread Wienpahl's essays in the shade of the same tree under which I first read them.) 

Sitting in the shade of a tree reading Wienpahl I had one of those, almost cliched, moments of epiphany and, since then, I've taken to calling it, only half-jokingly, the Wienpahl Sutra. To this day I regularly go back to it and I continues to find it thought-provoking and helpful. 

But, as I say, there was another essay in my bag by Wienpahl called "Spiritual Values in a Scientific Age" published in the same journal but in April 1966. It certainly made an impression on me at the time but I have to say it was totally eclipsed by the Wienpahl Sutra. However, in the past few weeks I've gone back to it for a couple of reasons. 

The first is that my next sabbatical is approaching (May-August 2016) and this, naturally, put me in mind of the last one (and it is also why I've recently been posting a few photos from various trips to the region). 

The second is that, between 2008 and today, I've explicitly "come out" as a religious naturalist and, inevitably, this has required a great deal of thinking about how best to bring together both religious/spiritual concerns and the various discoveries and insights of the natural sciences. In this context it's pretty obvious that an essay entitled "Spiritual Values in a Scientific Age"written by an author who has been so influential on my own thinking, is going to come back into mind. 

I leave you to read this essay yourself at the above link if you wish but, as an accompaniment to the photos taken where I first read it, here's just a short extract:

Wienpahl first identifies what he thinks are spiritual values: He says "They are quiet strength, simplicity, tranquility, detachment from material things." He then goes on to write:

Religion does not concern the relation of the soul to God, though by some people, the Christians, religion is talked about in this way. (In the Buddhist religion, or at least one sect of it, we are told that there is no God and that we should abandon the idea of the self or the soul.) Religion has to do with that other part or side of our lives. We are being religious when we are being alone with ourselves. We can be alone and be with others. The “other world” of which all religious people speak is this world. Being religious, being in the so-called other world, is simply being in this everyday world in the religious way, the quiet way. There is nothing mysterious about it. It seems mysterious only because so few have practiced it. This step is so important and has such a vital bearing on our question that I want to explain it further. The other world of which religious people speak has been described in various ways. The Buddhists call it the other shore to which we cross by the raft of the Buddha’s teaching. They also refer to it as Nirvana. Some Christians have called it heaven. It is that realm to which the immortal soul goes when it is redeemed. It is described by more sophisticated people as the timeless realm of being and is contrasted with the relative world of becoming. In this vein they go on to say that the way to this world is that of faith or intuition. Knowledge of the other world, the relative world, is obtained by science.

And so to the pictures. Just click on one to enlarge it.

In the centre is the tree under which I sat