Saturday, 30 April 2016

Celebrating Hoagy live in Leicester

Last night we took the Hoagy Carmichael show over to Leicester and the Attenborough Arts Centre. A good time was had by all.

During the interval, a chap called Pete Bunney came up to us and kindly gave us a couple of sketches he made during the first set. We enjoyed seeing ourselves transformed in cartoon-like musicians and I thought some of you out there might enjoy them too . . .

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Jubilant Utilitarianism—Elective Ethics and the Republic of Heaven

Readings: Two readings concerned with "the peaceable kingdom" from Isaiah 2:4 and 11:6-9

From “A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist” by Michel Onfray (Columbia University Press, 2015, pp. 48-49):

Against godly morality, inasmuch as it is inaccessible for humans, I propose an aristocratic and elective ethics. Do not aim for sainthood, but wisdom. Instead of the false bijection of the triangular Christian relationship, I argue for a geometry of ethical circles, all of which share a central focal point: the Self. Each one is the centre of its own system and organizes others around it, concentrically, according to whether or not there are reasons to keep others near. There is no definitive place, every position in this space is decided by what is said, done, shown, proven, and given as signs of the relationship’s quality. There is no such thing as Friendship, but only proofs of friendship: no Love, but only proofs of love; no Hate, but only proofs of hate; and so on. Deeds and gestures compose an arithmetic that allows us to deduce the nature of a relationship: friendship, love tenderness, and camaraderie or the inverse . . . 

There are two simple movements: election and eviction; centripetal force and centrifugal force; drawing something closer to oneself or casting something off to the margins. An ethics based on these movements is dynamic, unceasing, ever moving, always in relation to the actions of others. Therefore, the other is accountable for his engagements and responsible for his place in my ethical schema. From a hedonist perspective, desiring the other’s pleasure is what activates their movement toward you; wanting their unhappiness activates the opposite movement.

Thus, ethics is less a matter of theory than of practice. The cardinal rule of the game could be called jubilant utilitarianism. Action — including thoughts, promises, and deeds— animates the dynamic. Platonic friendship does not exist, only its incarnations. Proofs of friendship bring people together, and expressions of enmity push people apart. The same goes for what we call the salt of existence: love, affection, tenderness, sweetness, thoughtfulness, delicateness, forbearance, magnanimity, politeness, amenity, kindness, civility, attentiveness, attention, courtesy, clemency, devotedness, and all the words carrying a connotation of goodness. These virtues forge connections; their failure loosens those bonds; and their total breach leads to severed relations. 


From time to time some of you may wonder what practical reason I have that makes me so keen to encourage folk to leave behind belief in a traditional monotheistic God and to adopt other ways of speaking of the divine and sacred and of using that, oh so tricky work, “God”. Well, today, I hope that, in a small way, I may help you to see why.

I realise that my concern with this matter can look a bit odd in a tradition such as our own which has slowly come to realise that having, so-called, “true beliefs” about God is not the most important thing in religion, rather what truly counts is right behaviour and action. As I often say, we are here more concerned with orthopraxy (right practice) rather than orthodoxy (right belief). After all, this is why we have on our order of service each week and on our major noticeboard the words "We need not think alike to love alike".

So, once again, why my concern with theology and beliefs about God? Well it is not so much driven by the desire to gain assuredly true beliefs about him/her/it, rather it is to try and ensure that I, you, we, avoid what seem to be ideas about God that continue to strike many of us cutting against the possibility that the words "We need not think (or believe) alike to love alike" might be actually enacted.

In my opinion — which, as always, I realise may not be yours — one of the most problematic and dangerous problems with monotheism is that “how things are” and “what things matter” are indissolubly tied together from the beginning. The monotheistic God creates the world AND AT THE SAME TIME decides for all time what is to be the good, the true and the beautiful. In other words, to quote Michel Onfray, “As long as God is in charge, morality is a subsection of theology” (Hedonist Manifesto p. 37). We need to separate these things.

And if we truly desire to develop a true morality, i.e. one which genuinely helps us freely to work through the moral issues ourselves and take real responsibility for our actions, then we really cannot continue to allow God dominate and force morality upon us from the beginning to the very end via some eternal, irresistible force or diktat. That’s not freedom, that’s not true moral living, it’s little better than a absolute, divine, kingly dictatorship.

We need, again in my opinion, definitively to break the connection between God and morality and between how things are and what things matter.

This is the very practical reason why I’m so concerned about using theological thinking, to be quite frank about, affect a palace revolution and remove God from the throne of heaven and put in place something akin to what the author Philip Pullman in his wonderful “His Dark Materials” trilogy called, “the republic of heaven.” (You can read one of Pullman's pieces in "The Republic of Heaven" at this link.)

As the humanist, Quaker and former head of current affairs, arts and religion at Granada Television, David Boulton, wrote in the Guardian back in 2003, there is a strong connection here between Pullman’s vision and that held by one of my own great heroes, the seventeenth-century Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, whom I cited a couple of weeks ago in my open letter to David Cameron which you heard from this lectern. Boulton says:

“What the visions of Winstanley and Pullman have in common is the realisation that kingship is dead. Whether we chop off their heads or relegate our monarchs to figurehead status, in the modern democratic world we consider ourselves not subjects but free citizens. And where does that leave the king of kings and lord of lords? Having discarded the divine right of kings, what do we do with the kingship of the divinity?
          “Get rid of that too, said Winstanley, aiming to dispatch not only temporal kingly power but also the throne of God himself. “In the beginning . . . the great creator, Reason, made the earth to be a common treasury.” If earthly kingship was obsolete, how much more so was its divine original? What could it mean to persist in imagining God in the feudal terms of kingship, lordship, as He Who Must Be Obeyed?
          “No king, no kingdom. So the kingdom of heaven becomes a republic, where the public is king — where we have to take responsibility for creating a better world, “as it is in heaven”, instead of leaving it all to the Authority” (Source: The Guardian).

Amen! to that say I.

Anyway, as the contemporary French philosopher Michel Onfray provocatively reminds us, when the monotheistic God remains in charge:

“Ethics can’t pretend to have autonomy. It falls from the sky, descending from the intelligible universe. In this paradigm, morality does not come from a contract with the immanent; it comes from some epiphany, from an apparition. God talks; men listen; then they obey. Just in case his connection to men is hard to understand, since God is not always available, the clergy is there twenty-four hours a day. Ask the priest, the bishop, the cardinal, he’ll tell you. Theology, the pseudoscience of the divine, more accurately the science of rendering people subservient to the fiction of God” (Hedonist Manifesto pp. 37-38).

But once we have removed God (or the fiction of God) from the throne of heaven (which, please note, is not to say that the phenomena we are minded to call the divine and the sacred are also to be removed), we can allow morality freely to develop as a truly human realm, one genuinely emerging from and grounded in the realities of this, our awe-inspiring, natural world.

But if morality is not something permanently given from the start by God but some natural, emergent, developing and dynamic human realm, how can it help us live something we might meaningfully call a good, moral life?

Well, in our reading, you heard three paragraphs from Michel Onfray’s very recent book “A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist” in which he notes, first of all, that getting rid of the monotheistic God allows us, in the first instance, to aim for wisdom rather than sainthood.

My pastoral experience says to me that wisdom is a jolly good and healthy thing to aim for and I cannot tell you how many people I have spoken with over the years who seem bent on destroying themselves by chasing after sainthood rather than wisdom. Time and time again I hear from them stories about how they are turning themselves inside out because of their perceived failure to match up to the insane model of divine sainthood when I, and many others, can often see that they are often quite extraordinarily good friends to many and capable of constantly showing remarkable expressions of love for others. The impossible to achieve platonic, monotheistic model of the perfectly good friend, of perfectly good love, can be let go in the republic of heaven and replaced with the task of creating tangible and achievable human proofs of friendship and of love.

As Onfray is keen to point out this means that “ethics is less a matter of theory than of practice”—here we may properly return to the phrase "We need not think (or believe) alike to love alike" because, to my mind, we can only truly mean and live this out once we have deposed God and abolished the Kingdom of Heaven and put in place a Republic of Heaven. 

We don’t need to be the perfect platonic, saintly friend, we need only incarnate friendship as best we can in this or that situation and it is these proofs of our friendship and love that brings us together; it is their absence that push us apart.

As I hope you can see this is to make human morality a matter of two simple, basic movements: “election and eviction; centripetal force and centrifugal force; drawing something closer to oneself or casting something off to the margins.”

In the republic of heaven it seems to me that a key aspect of our moral duty is constantly to note and respond to these movements and to find ways to encourage as much election and centripetal force as is possible amongst the incredible diversity of human being in order to keep the salt of existence salty. To remind you, the salt of existence includes: love, affection, tenderness, sweetness, thoughtfulness, delicateness, forbearance, magnanimity, politeness, amenity, kindness, civility, attentiveness, attention, courtesy, clemency, devotedness, and all the words carrying a connection of goodness.”

When these virtues are alive in a practice of “jubilant utilitarianism” we know that they “forge connections” and encourage election and centripetal force between people; when they fail eviction and centrifugal force follow; when they are totally breached relations are, of course, severed.

It is important to see that, in the republic of heaven, for such a “jubilant utilitarianism” to get going we must train ourselves and others to be certain kinds of truly free and responsible citizens, to become people who keep their promises, who don’t constantly change their opinions, who don’t have selective and self-interested memory, who don’t engage in tortuous and spurious ways to legitimise their about-faces, who do what they say they will and who don’t continually do the opposite of their pronouncements.

In the republic of heaven we cannot make contracts with the kind of citizen who doesn’t behave in this fashion because their behaviour simply does not encourage genuine election and the creation of centripetal force but the opposite. Once we have detected such citizens, we have, or so it seems to me, a clear right and duty to ensure such people do not come dominate the overall life of our society.

To be sure, in the republic of heaven, we will still have a real and pressing pastoral, moral duty towards such problematic citizens, but we can be confident (enough) strongly to reject their behaviours as bad and destructive and, with kindness, civility, love and clemency, find appropriate ways to evict them from holding central and highly influential roles in the dynamic and ever evolving life of the republic.

In the republic of heaven we can make such moral decisions with greater confidence than before because we will always only going to be looking for concrete proofs of friendship and love. Where they are not present the saltiness of life is gone and, as Jesus said, “it is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Jesus’ words on this matter remind me that David Boulton is of the opinion, and I agree with him in this, that:

“This republic is not, after all, so different from the kingdom. But it is a realm where authority is democratised, so that what were once seen as the king’s [i.e. God’s] responsibilities become our own. The republic imports much from the kingdom; it takes in Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom, Jesus’s world, where all tears are wiped away, and Blake’s Jerusalem.
“What it will not import is unquestioning obedience and uncritical subjection to a divine lord and king, for lordship and kingship belong to the past” (Source: The Guardian).

But, if we want this real morality, this real ethics then, my friends, we have no choice but properly do the revolutionary theology that will finally overthrow the old God of monotheism. If we don’t do this then, be assured, God will always be waiting in the wings with his cohort of religious professionals ready to seize back power for those who do believe that we must believe and think alike to love alike. That is a nasty and brutish world as our dark religious history so eloquently reveals.

So today, I ask you to stand firmly on the side of the Republic of Heaven.

Long live the Republic!

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The "five smooth stones of religious liberalism"—A brief address for the church's Annual General Meeting (AGM)

Last year was, in so many ways, a very successful and heartening one for this congregation with a number of important community related projects getting underway and also because we find ourselves for a variety of reasons on a better financial footing than in recent years. I’d like to thank all the members of the committee and also the members of the congregation for their exceptional, hard work in helping these important things to come to pass.

When it came to writing my remarks for the annual report and this brief AGM address, especially since between the beginning of May and the end of August I’m away on a four month sabbatical, I felt that it was important to take this opportunity to remind us all of what are perhaps the most important and durable modern guidelines (published in 1976) that can help us gauge how we are doing as a radical, liberal, free-religious community, namely, James Luther Adams’ (1901-1994) “five smooth stones of religious liberalism.”

The image comes, of course, from 1 Samuel 17:38-40 where David is preparing to meet the Philistine called Goliath:

Saul clothed David with his armour; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armour, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.’ So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

Here are Adams’ five smooth stones in compressed form:

  • 1) Revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly revealed.
  • 2) All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion.
  • 3) Affirmation of the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community.
  • 4) Denial of the immaculate conception of virtue and affirmation of the necessity of social incarnation. Good must consciously be given form and power within history.
  • 5) The resources (divine and human) that are available for achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate (but not necessarily immediate) optimism. There is hope in the ultimate abundance of the universe.
In other words, during the coming year it will be helpful to ask ourselves whether what we are doing is helping to promote:

  • 1) the evolution of our religious thinking; 
  • 2) democratic and non-coercive ways of working with each other that ensures our continued freedom; 
  • 3) the cause of justice for the increasing numbers of marginalised and poor people in our society; 
  • 4) a remembrance that our own agency is vital and that we must never come to believe that some “hidden hand” (whether religious, political or financial) will do the work that needs to be done; and, lastly, 
  • 5) that even in our dark moments when we fall prey to a pessimism of the intellect we can, through a conscious optimism of the will live and express a life full of educated hope.

With regard to the first stone — revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly revealed — it is naturally vital that we continue to ensure we remain genuinely free and enquiring beings. The temptation is always to find some easy, generally amenable position and to stick to it rigidly, imagining, like those foolish courtiers whose belief forced the wise and humble King Cnut into showing them that it was impossible to hold back the tide. But we try to do this at our peril for we live in a dynamic world where nothing remains the same. Scientific, religious and philosophic knowledge continually develops and changes and this means our own religious thinking must do likewise. I feel that, at the moment, we do, in fact, have some relatively robust structures and practices in place to ensure this continues to occur.

It is with regard to the second and third stones that, in my opinion, we currently have the most work to do and I’ll return to them in a moment.

With regard to the fourth stone — a remembrance that our own agency is vital and that we must never come to believe that some “hidden hand” (whether religious, political or financial) will do the work that needs to be done — again I think we have some good things in place to ensure we don’t succumb to this folly. We seem at the moment to be able to keep alive a real sense of the divine and the sacred but without recourse to the problematic old conceptions of God our tradition, and most of us individually, inherited — the creator God who continually intervenes in history and orders and judges us and the world. I trust that we will continue to work to keep this idea gently, but very firmly, away from the centre of our community.

With regard to the fifth stone — that even in our dark moments when we fall prey to a pessimism of the intellect we can, through a conscious optimism of the will live and express a life full of hope — the fact that we come together each week with the intention of offering each other support and succour and engaging in practices of “civility, sensitivity, kindness, courtesy, urbanity, tact, thoughtfulness, reserve, commitment, generosity, benefaction, effort, and attention” suggest to me, despite our recognition that we seem to be entering some politically, socially, financially and religiously dark times, we will not be ground down but will try to move forward with what Ernst Bloch calls an educated hope (docta spes). Such an educated hope, one able rationally and emotionally to draw upon divine and human resources, is something that can genuinely help us, as Gandhi (who spoke in our hall) once said, to become ourselves the change we want to see in the world.

There is, of course, always work to be done keeping these three stones polished but, in the coming year, it strikes me that the second and third stones are the ones that need from us the most polishing.

With regard to the second stone — all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion — we continually need to be ensuring that we have in play all the voices in this community and that no single one ever over-dominates or has inappropriate power or influence in any sphere. Naturally, this includes me in my role as minister and the various members of the church committee. Power and decision making needs to be shared out amongst us all and, in immediate practical terms, there is no doubt we urgently need more people to come on to the church committee to ensure we have the broadest possible range of intelligent, liberal, democratic, free-religious voices in play during our monthly meetings. I hasten to add that I’m not encouraging anyone to put their names forward today on the day of the AGM thinking that my remark here is itself a form of coercion— all I'm doing here is reminding you of a current state of affairs. Such an offer from any one of you needs to come completely voluntarily and only after a careful, quiet, longer term consideration of the matter. But, looking forward to the next year or two, if we don’t have people put themselves forward then at best, we will have a very dull second stone and, at worst, we will find we have a real and deeply problematic democratic deficit that runs wholly counter to the liberalism Adams (and I) encourage. I ask all of you to consider particularly polishing this stone during the coming year.

With regard to the third stone — the cause of justice for the increasing numbers of marginalised and poor people in our society — during this period in history which is seeing a disturbing rise in illiberal religious, political and economic belief and behaviours, both in our own country, across Europe and around the world, it is important that we properly discuss ways we might collectively put our heads above the parapet to defend and promote the radical Enlightenment causes of liberté, egalité and fraternité that our Unitarian forbears fought so hard to bring into being in the first place. I’m pleased to say that this conversation seems currently to be beginning amongst us and, as with the second stone, I ask you to consider particularly polishing this third stone during the coming year.

So, swiftly to conclude, I very much look forward to working with you all once again when I return in September to ensure that our radical free-religious tradition continues to flourish in a modest but real way and is able to play a valuable role in our own lives and the wider world in the coming year.

May the polishing of the five smooth stones of religious liberalism continue.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Neoliberalism—the ideology at the root of all our problems

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my major targets is neoliberalism. I'm firmly of the opinion that if it is not effectively resisted and overturned then everything I, and I imagine most of you value will be definitively destroyed. Neoliberalism is the single most dangerous threat facing us all. One might be tempted to say that the greatest threat to us is the ecological crisis but, at least in my reading of things, it is neoliberalism that is driving this crisis (and many others) and stopping us from doing anything truly effective to save our natural world and human cultures.

Anyway, if you're interested, today, in the British newspaper, The Guardian, George Monbiot has just published a good overview of neoliberalism that you might want to look at.

My "go to" author on the subject is Wendy Brown. She has recently written a powerful book about the ideology "Undoing the Demos—Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution"I realise most people won't be inclined to read the whole book (though I strongly recommend you do) so below is a link to an interview with her for Dissent in which she gives her overview of neoliberalism:

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Widow's Mite—An Open Letter to David Cameron re-sent after the release of the "Panama Papers"

A Preface addressed to the congregation:

In place of a reading it seems important to preface today’s address with a few words.

In recent years the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has taken to giving Easter messages (as he did again this year) which draw heavily upon Christian values and beliefs and their consequences. Has has also begun repeatedly to claim that the United Kingdom remains in some way a Christian country—it's a questionable claim a certain levels but I'll let that pass by today. Anyway by doing this he has entered fully into realms about which I, as a minister of religion, am entitled to speak and comment. This is one of my roles. In connection with this role, all the hymns we have and will sing today speak of the liberal religious vision of a fair, just and open society that has inspired our radical, free-religious movement over the centuries.

Now, last week’s release of the so-called “Panama Papers” — 11.5 million files from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca — raises all kinds of questions connected with the kind of values David Cameron has been publicly promoting as good for the nation as a whole.

I think what they reveal is of huge import to us, not only here in the UK, but everywhere where justice and fairness is being challenged to the point of breaking by often legal but nevertheless corrupt and immoral financial structures and behaviours.

However, as I carefully thought about this I realised that to leap in and comment about the current series of still-unfolding events without yet having the full information from the Panama Papers seems unwise. Time and good investigative journalism will, I trust, tell.

But, today, I can take this opportunity calmly to re-read to you an open letter I wrote as the minister of this church to David Cameron during the Easter of 2012 to which, I have to say, I received no reply. I do it because the questions I raise in it seem to me to remain highly relevant—in fact they maybe even more relevant today.

I invite you to let my words of four years ago about a certain culture I saw developing sit alongside the current situation in order to help you to tease out what you feel, not simply about my own words both then and now, but also the culture I saw and that we see today. As always I’ve put the various texts I cite in your order of service so you use them, if you wish, to help your own reflections on the situation as it continues to unfold.

If as a religious movement we are still serious about building Jerusalem in these green and pleasant lands as were our radical liberal Christian and Enlightenment forebears then we have no choice but to face up to, and to begin to talk about, the kinds of difficult moral and ethical issues that are being thrown up by our own present day culture. The Golden City about which we have sung (and the "Jerusalem" about which we will sing) will not come into being unless we then turn our talk into action and build it. As my own great hero in these matters, Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) said in his “Watchword to the City of London” in 1649:

“Words and Writing were all Nothing and must Die, for Action is the Life of all and if thou dost not Act, thou dost nothing.”


An Open Letter to David Cameron

In this address, Mr Prime Minister, I want to take seriously something you said at a reception in Downing Street in the run up to Easter (2012). You quoted from the Gospel of Luke and spoke of “we” Christians saying:

‘This is the time when, as Christians, we remember the life, sacrifice and living legacy of Christ. The New Testament tells us so much about the character of Jesus; a man of incomparable compassion, generosity, grace, humility and love. These are the values that Jesus embraced, and I believe these are values people of any faith, or no faith, can also share in, and admire. [. . .] It is values like these that make our country what it is – a place which is tolerant, generous and caring. A nation which has an established faith, that together is most content when we are defined by what we are for, rather than defined by what we are against. In the book of Luke, we are told that Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” – advice that when followed makes for a happier, and better society for everyone.’ 

With regard to the alleged marginalisation of Christianity in our contemporary culture you went on to add:

‘I think there’s something of a fight-back going on, and we should welcome that. The values of the Bible, the values of Christianity, are the values that we need.’

I want to send your words back to you with a few thoughts about what you have just suggested might really mean because, make no mistake about it, any serious re-engagement with religion has serious consequences for you and for us, consequences that are both good and bad, positive and negative.

Let’s start with Bible from which you so freely quoted. It’s worth remembering here with some words of the German Marxist philosopher, Ernst Bloch, found in his powerful book “Atheism in Christianity” that:

‘There is only this point: that the Church and the Bible are not one and the same. The Bible has always been the Church’s bad conscience.’ [And although the Bible has often been used as a cattle prod by the powerful] ‘the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is why [the Bible] has always been suppressed or distorted, from the serpent on’ (Bloch, Ernst: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009, p. 13).

With this unsettling thought in mind let’s turn to one of the readings set in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Sunday which followed your speech and which will have been heard in any of the churches you may have chosen to attend on that day (i.e. Sunday 15 April 2012):

‘Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need’ (Acts 4:32-35).

And, from my own reading during that week – I just happened to be reading the Gospel of Luke at the time – here is the story of the widow’s mite:

‘[Jesus] looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said [to the disciples], “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on”’ (Luke 2:1-4 and Mark 12:41-44).

So, Mr Prime Minister, what are we to make of these values expressed by the Bible, these the values of Christianity? Are these really the values that you think we need? If so I rejoice, because after the first Easter the Apostles spoke of enlarging common ownership and they did not speak of privatising the things that we already owned in common, things designed to contribute to the common good or to the common wealth. The Apostles are not recorded as looking around and saying to each other ‘let’s take these things into our own hands and turn them to our own profit.’ They did not do this because the resurrection was for them, in part, about understanding the whole community as the risen body of Christ in which, as Paul said, ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28) and this pluralistic, multi-cultural, multi-faith body was to hold all things in common ownership for the good of all. Luke, also the author of Acts, tells us this meant that there ‘was not a needy person among them.’ Now I do not doubt that this may not always have been one-hundred percent true to the facts on the ground but neither do I doubt the genuine intention, passion, vision and values that were calling the Apostles to this new Easter way of being together in the world.

My great hero in our own nation’s struggle to live out such a biblical and Christian vision is Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676). He was the leader of a radical religious movement during the English Revolution known as the Diggers who felt that the earth and its fruits were a “Common Treasury” for all. In 1649, in protest at their enforced poverty, they began to live and dig upon the common land of George’s Hill in Surrey. Today, this hill is a 964-acre private estate consisting of about 420 large houses, a golf course and a tennis club. It has become a very popular residential location for the wealthy where, as a cursory glance at any Estate Agent’s website will reveal, houses nearly always sell for many millions of pounds. Anyway, on that former piece of common ground Winstanley memorably asked:

‘Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?’ (Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness, 1649)

So, your words suggest to me that you are filled with the biblical and Christian intent, passion and values of the Apostles and are, therefore, also against the values of all covetous proud men and women who, then as now, live at ease whilst bagging and barning-up treasures for themselves at the expense of the poor. If so then I applaud your words.

But what about the widow? When we read Luke’s text carefully we see something very, very telling. He tells us that Jesus noticed the rich gave out of their abundance (i.e. their excess) whilst the widow gave out of her poverty (i.e. her very substance). As the Good News Bible (the Bible of my Primary and Sunday School days) more clearly puts it: ‘the [rich] put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had – she gave all she had to live on.’

These words remind me of the phrase we often hear you say, namely, that “we are all in this together” and that, together, we must all help to refill the nation’s coffers.

You tell us that we must all do our bit and that’s fair enough – in a genuine commonwealth I would expect nothing else. But is this nation under your leadership really a commonwealth? We are told, for example, that the rich will be able best to contribute to the common wealth by being given top-rate tax breaks. The money they will gain from this will then be used to encourage entrepreneurship. Perhaps this is true and it will create much new work and wealth. I have my doubts but, for a moment anyway, I’ll take you at your word and assume that the wealthy will, thereby, contribute more to the national coffers. But notice, and notice well Mr Prime Minister, that this is a contribution being made by the wealthy only out of their already considerable abundance and excess, an abundance and excess that is in many cases increasing even as the downturn continues for the rest of us.

The poor and not so poor, on the other hand, are being asked to do something quite different. They must contribute to the national coffers out of their substance and not out of their excess. Their contribution is being taken directly from their weekly wages – already in many cases less than a living wage – and also through tax credit changes and so-called welfare “reform”. Make no mistake about it, the poor’s giving is not coming from out of their abundance but from their poverty, their very substance. A poverty that is increasing as your policy of austerity continues.

The point I am making is not that the rich person, merely by dint of being rich, is bad, or that the poor person, merely by dint of being poor, is good, but something far more structurally disturbing about our society which was expressed succinctly by the writer of 1 Timothy (6:7-11). He reminded us all that:

“. . . we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.”

You see it is the growing love of money (i.e. the financialization and economization of everything in life) that worries me so much. It is a love that all too easily distorts or suppresses what following biblical and Christian values seems to entail and this encourages many, but I hope not you, to begin to turn the biblical text and Christian values into a cattle prod to be used against the common people.

To be sure even the distorted form of love that is the love of money believes in giving, and perhaps it does give a little, but it is never enough and, worst of all, it is a giving made within an economic system which ensures that the substance of the poor and vulnerable in our society continues slowly and painfully to be eaten away while the abundance and excess of the few continues to grow. Surely here we must not forget another biblical and Christian claim, namely, that it is the poor who are blessed and it is they who will inherit the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20) . . .

So, you told us that the values of the Bible, the values of Christianity, are the values that we need and, today, I will take you at your word. I will assume that you do wish to be a man of God and to shun all this greed and love of money and wish genuinely to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness so as to bless the poor.

I try to say all of this without irony because we must always be ready to allow people the opportunity to repent and to turn around their lives. And so, finally, as Luke also tells us Jesus said I’ll only remind you that “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43-44). Please remember, Mr Prime Minister, that our political and religious systems will be known by their fruits.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

What a strange thing! to be alive beneath cherry blossoms . . .

What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms. 

Here are a few photos from a visit to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden this afternoon. 

All the photos were taken with my iPhone 6+. For the black and white ones I used the Blackie App and for the colour ones I used the Hipstamatic Tintype App. Just click on a photo to enlarge it. 

And lastly a martenitsa Susanna and I spotted
in a blossoming tree on Trumpington Street as we walked home

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Sunday Address in a world without why


Die Ros’ is ohn’ Warum; sie blühet weil sie blühet. Sie acht’ nicht ihrer selbst, fragt nicht ob man sie siehet.

The rose is without why; she blossoms because she blossoms. She pays no attention to herself, does not ask if anyone sees her.

Look at me, and be appalled,
   and lay your hand upon your mouth. 
When I think of it I am dismayed,
   and shuddering seizes my flesh. 
Why do the wicked live on,
   reach old age, and grow mighty in power? 
Their children are established in their presence,
   and their offspring before their eyes. 
Their houses are safe from fear,
   and no rod of God is upon them. 
Their bull breeds without fail;
   their cow calves and never miscarries. 
They send out their little ones like a flock,
   and their children dance around. 
They sing to the tambourine and the lyre,
   and rejoice to the sound of the pipe. 
They spend their days in prosperity,
   and in peace they go down to Sheol. 

Job 21: 5-13 

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Attributed to Epicurus (341-270 BC)


The problem of evil remains one of the greatest challenges to a belief in the existence of god, or at least the god of monotheism. It was the paradox attributed to Epicurus dealing with this that had one of the greatest long-term impacts upon me and which, eventually, led me to leave behind, not the divine and the sacred per se, but certainly the god of my forebears.

In my various conversations with you I know that the problem of evil continues to press upon many of you too and has contributed, if not to you adopting the kind non-theistic religious naturalism I have, then it has at least contributed to a significant loosening of formal theistic belief. In relation to being the minister of this church this has, naturally, a major effect upon the kinds of things I both can and should be saying to you each week and it is this question that concerns me today. It’s a question, I should add, that a number of you have put to me in a variety of ways over the past few weeks.

The complete loss of, or significant doubt in, a once central conception always has significant knock on effects and, in relation to the loss of belief in the god of our forebears, one of the most important has been the increasing realisation that, like the rose, we now have to learn to live in “a world without why.”

I’m not saying, of course, that we no longer find in the world an almost infinite series of, local, contingent answers to “why this” and “why that” but I am saying that for many of us there is no longer available an ultimate, “buck-stops-here” answer to the why of anything — the kind of ultimate answer that an "old school" minister could invoke authoritatively to tell you what you should believe and, ethically and politically, what kind of actions you should be undertaking.

So, for example, think of the many thousands of innocent people who will have been killed by human or natural means last week and then ask yourself the question, why did all those innocent people die?

We can, of course, find many local, contingent, geopolitical, sociological, ecological and medical answers that can (to a limited extent anyway) explain why certain, so-called, innocent people died. But what I can’t find any longer — and I imagine most of you can’t find either — is a big answer of the type the Christian church has pointed to, namely, that these innocent deaths are, somehow, all part of god’s good plan for the world’s ultimate salvation. In other words I simply can no longer accept the reality of a “Heilsgeschichte” (a Salvation History), a view of history which thinks it can uncover the personal redemptive and saving activity of god within human history.

These opening reflections allow me to put before you the three ways of responding to a world without why that are offered by the Cambridge based philosopher, Raymond Geuss (in an essay called "A World Without Why") and which have an impact upon what I can or should be bring before you each Sunday in my address. Naturally, I’m very interested in hearing your responses to what I say.

So, firstly, Geuss says we

“. . . could be clever enough to turn the why-game against itself from within. This has been the dream of any number of philosophers including, most notably, Hegel and Heidegger. This way out does not recommend itself to me because I am not clever enough to tread this path successfully, but also because even if I were successful, who would notice?”

Like Geuss I don’t think I’m clever enough to do this myself but, thanks to certain writers I do feel it’s possible to make some headway here. In a nutshell I think that a mix of Epicurus’, Nietzsche’s, Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s insights (tied into poetically philosophical and naturalist writers like Lucretius, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Bugbee, Wallace Stevens, Mary Oliver a.m.o.) do offer a way successfully to turn the why-game against itself from within and that it is possible to make headway towards making the deeply problematic metaphysical, big why questions completely disappear (cf PI §133) and this, in turn, can help to cure us of our metaphysical malaise.

But the problem, as you know, is that this is a path difficult to make clear to and share with others. Every now and then I try to do this and I know that, often, I fail to get their ideas across to you sufficiently well enough and to persuade you all explicitly to commit to become Nietzschean free-spirits and to transform this church into a disciplined body of people prepared to work  collectively through the implications of the work of the aforementioned philosophers. As a friend of mine once said to me, “In your dreams cupcake!” And, surely he’s right — it is unlikely to happen isn’t it! Also, even were I successful in this I think Geuss is right in saying that almost no one would notice.

But despite this, of course, I do notice and continue to work through these thinkers’ ideas and, in a gentle, conversational way, I will continue try to persuade you, every now and then, to at least consider such a philosophical response to a world without why. This is my personal contribution to our collective conversation but it's no longer my role to tell you what you must believe.

Guess’ second possibility is action. As he notes:

“One deed is worth any number of words. A deed can cut through — I always think of this with the French word *trancher* — the spider’s web of bogus rationalizations and create not merely new words, but new facts. Unfortunately, this second course of action requires very significant amounts of courage and practical skills of various kinds — neither of which I possess. The courage in question, by the way, is not merely personal fearlessness in the face of threats to oneself, but also the moral courage to face the possibility that one’s actions — which, if they are going to be effective at all, will certainly be almost completely out of one’s own control as far as their actual consequences are concerned — may turn out to inflict great suffering on the wrong people (even assuming one were to know for certain who these are).” 

I think action is a vitally important way to proceed. I seem to have been born with slightly more courage than Geuss and so have been a political activist in one way or another throughout my life. Given my own life experiences and philosophy mentioned above I’ve found myself, for example, impelled to blockade the nuclear weapons factory at Burghfield in the 1980s with CND and, in more recent years, to march and campaign with fellow comrades to protest strongly against the war in Iraq, to raise awareness about climate change and to challenge in various ways current neoliberal programmes that are crushing the life out of all but the richest in our society. As I do this I’m well aware of the dangers Geuss points to but it seems to me that doing nothing and simply allowing the status quo to continue is impossible. But as minister to a diverse company of people such as this — diverse not only in terms of political outlook but also those of age, energy and courage — I recognise that I’m highly unlikely to be able to turn you into a disciplined cadre of leftist, progressive, communalist activists prepared to take collective direct (if non-violent) action against the powers that be. Again, as my friend said, “In your dreams cupcake.” The best I can hope for, I think, is to inspire you to take action as individuals in your own, pre-existing, political and activist circles or, if you don’t belong to such a circle, to join one.

Of course I, too, still have to act politically and so, personally, I’ll continue to be an activist in leftist political circles (circles, I would add, that have always significantly overlapped with the Unitarian tradition) and, in a gentle, conversational way, I will continue to try to persuade you every now and then to at least consider communalist political responses to a world without why. This is my personal contribution to our collective conversation but it's no longer my role to tell you what kinds of political actions you must undertake.

This brings me to Geuss’ third option and it is this that I think best describes the work that, in a world without why I can most meaningfully do for you most of the time as your settled minister. Geuss says:

“The third possibility is the invitation — in particular the invitation to observe, look at or consider something. One kind of thing one can be invited to consider is a juxtaposition: masses of anonymous people storming the Winter Palace and two stone lions standing up on their pedestals, or the Prime Minister oleaginously addressing the House of Commons and a pile of bodies in a ditch in Iraq. By putting two (or more) separate ‘things’ next to each other and inviting people to look at them together, one is not necessarily asking or trying to answer the question ‘why.’ A poem may cause someone to ask a question or to initiate a line of reflection, or even to develop some hypothesis or theory, but then a clap of thunder or a sudden pain in the chest may do the same — that does not make either the pain or the poem a theory or a ‘line of argument.’ A word in a good poem is not a concept. Since neither a picture nor a poem is an argument, neither is a suitable object for counterargument.”

This is certainly what I try to do with you most weeks. I invite you to consider this poem or that reading; to observe this picture and that text; I try to put things together that don’t normally go together and invite you to tell me what emerges for you. Of course, along the way, I will often tell you what emerges for me but, regardless of what shows up for me, at the end of my talk, if it’s been good enough, the juxtaposition of the readings and/or pictures are “still standing there, waiting” for you and, to reiterate, it’s not my role to do all the thinking and work for you and to tell you what you must do in terms of creating either your own philosophy of life or politics. The invitation to consider the things I’ve placed before genuinely remains and, as Geuss notes, “You can’t refute an invitation (although you can refuse it, closing your mind and heart to it): it makes no claim.”

As an ordinary member of the congregation I can’t but help living my own life and committing to this or that philosophy or political action and, by so doing, to be making certain implicit and explicit claims. After all, as an individual I, like you have to live in a world without why and I do this by committing to a certain kind of Epicurean, Nietzschean inspired religious naturalism and, inspired by that to engage in certain kinds of leftist, communalist political activity. But, in their details, these are my own responses to a world without why and they are ones I know I am highly unlikely to persuade all of you to share with me all of the time. “In my dreams, cupcake” I have to remind myself again and again — (though I have to say I always keep my dreams alive).

So, to conclude, as your minister, at the back of it all, it seems to me that my initial, primary practical task is not precisely to persuade you to adopt my own religious naturalist philosophy and communalist politics but to make an invitation — in particular the invitation to observe, look at or consider something and to encourage you to develop your own philosophical and political responses to what you see. I tell you my responses not simply because I have them and think that, on balance they are right enough, but because it is important to show how the invitations to consider "this" and now "that" effect the only person I really know anything about, me. This is intended to play a role in getting a conversational ball rolling because I firmly believe in the truth of the words by Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) that I print every week on our order of service:

Conversation as the natural organ communicating, mind with mind . . . is the method of human culture. By it I come nearer to those whom I shall address than by any other means.”

What you, both as individuals and as a corporate body, are to do philosophically and politically with the invitations I offer here, and the conversations which follow, is always up to you to figure out both alone and through this community’s shared, democratic activity.