Tuesday, 31 May 2016

“Only an atheist can be a good Christian; only a Christian can be a good atheist.”

     “Only an atheist can be a good Christian; only a Christian can be a good atheist.”  

     “The best thing about religion is that it makes for heretics.”

Ernst Bloch (Two epigraphs in Atheism in Christianity)

After my morning shower some three months ago the cross (picture on right) I had worn daily for many years fell off; the leather cord had simply worn through. Naturally, I hunted out a length of new leather cord and when, a couple of days later, I came to put the cross back on, to my surprise, I found I couldn’t do it.

Now, regular readers of this blog will know that, although I have a deep, intimate, lifelong existential relationship with Christianity, I find it a tradition about which I have no choice but to be highly critical and this is especially true when it comes to its ("orthodox") understandings of God (its metaphysics). When my cross fell off I was in a particularly critical mood and this undoubtedly contributed to my unwillingness (really my inability at that moment) to put it back on. Even so, I confess that I sorely missed its physical presence around my neck and so I began to cast around for something else that might replace it. Eventually I settled on a depiction of the four seasons, an image that I felt would suit well my religious naturalist inclinations and I decided I would put it on after my last service before my sabbatical, May 1st. On the appointed day I duly carried out my promise.

My genuine intention was to see how it felt “flying under another banner” until I returned to work in September and before deciding whether or not permanently to keep wearing this new symbol.

To my surprise, less than 24 hours after putting it on, I had to take it off — the feeling was surprisingly visceral. It wasn’t so much that the symbol of the seasons was wrong, that I was somehow embarrassed by it, or even that it didn’t express something true about my religious position; no, it was simply that it didn’t speak to the fundamental, existential governing demand in my own religious life and this is why, on the first full day of my sabbatical, I found myself putting the cross back on.

The cross I wear is called “The Way” and it’s huge original is to be found hanging on the north wall of the west tower of Ely Cathedral. When I first saw it it spoke to me with great power because it is cast in the form of a road which may be understood both to be running towards the cross(roads) and also away from the cross(roads). This echoed my own constant attraction to, and movement away, from the cross but it was only in the act of self-consciously choosing to wear another symbol that I was able to be reminded of this so clearly and feel it again so viscerally.

In this particular depiction of the cross I come face to face with Jesus’ infinite ethical demand (found in the Sermon on the Mount) that simultaneously and irresistibly calls me (because of its goodness and beauty) and repels me (because it seems — is — impossible to achieve), namely, the basic teaching that I must love my neighbour and enemy as myself and that it is in these acts of love alone that I will find God, even when the metaphysical God of Christianity has completely gone — and I assure you that, for me, that God is dead.

Even if nothing else is achieved during my sabbatical I feel that this realization will, alone, be enough because it helps me see that my a-theism (which is real) is through and through Christian and it is this Christian Atheist faith that continues viscerally to motivate me both as an individual human being and in my public role as an heretical minister of the gospel.


See also: "A very brief piece of autobiography"

And also Simon Critchley's piece for the New York Times: "The Rigor of Love"


Sunday, 29 May 2016

A faith of the faithless that is an openness to love

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, as part of my sabbatical I intended to re-read a couple of Simon Critchley's books. Well, I've just finished his "Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance" and found it as powerfully persuasive as I did first time around, although I hope that this time through I have understood it and internalized it better than before.

I've now turned to his related book "Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology" which impressed me last time I read it. I've just read the following paragraph in the introduction which seems to be well-worth of reproducing here:

"Although we can be free of the limiting externalism of conventional morality, established law, and the metaphysics of traditional religion, it seems that we will never be free of [what Oscar Wilde calls] that 'sordid necessity of living for others.' The latter requires an experience of faith, a faith of the faithless that is an openness to love, love as giving what one does not have and receiving that over which one has no power. It is the possible meaning of such faith that constitutes the horizon for this book" (p. 11).

It seems to me that I could say it is this possible faith of the faithless that constitutes the horizon for my own ministry as someone sympathetically inclined towards a Christian atheism and religious naturalism.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

"The religion of Christ, but purged of theology and sacraments; a practical religion that would not promise a future bliss, but provide bliss on earth"—Tolstoy

Over the past few days I've been making one of my regular re-reads of Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief but this time using Daniel H. Shubin's translation found in "Leo Tolstoy and the Kingdom of God Within You" (2013). In the introduction Shubin quotes from an entry in Tolstoy's diary dated 4th March 1855 that he made whilst on active duty in Sevastopol:

Yesterday a conversation regarding divinity and faith led me to recognize an immense concept, the materialization of which I felt myself capable of dedicating my life to. This thought was the basis for a new religion, one that would be pertinent to the development of humanity. It would be the religion of Christ, but purged of theology and sacraments; a practical religion that would not promise a future bliss, but provide bliss on earth. It seems to me that the only manner to bring this concept to fulfillment would be the effort of successive generations consciously working toward this goal. One generation will bequeath this concept to the next and at some time, either motivation or intelligence will bring it to its materialization. To act consciously to unify people with this religion is the thought that I feel will drive me.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

A letter in the Guardian to Jesse Hughes from a fellow Bataclan survivor Ismael El Iraki

The Bataclan Theatre (source)
Two weeks after the horrific attacks in Paris on 13th November 2015 I wrote a piece called "In praise of the Eagles of Death Metal and in respectful and grateful memory of those who were brutally murdered at the Bataclan in Paris but who encourage us still to live."

I meant every word I said but, as the weeks passed by the problematic nature of Hughes (which I already knew a little about) began to surface in the wider public realm. This seemed to require a response from me so, in February 2016, I gave the following address, "It’s easier without complexity—the problem of Jesse Hughes".

Some of you may be aware that Hughes has continued to say more and more problematic, unpleasant, racist and downright dangerous things and this culminated last week in an interview in Taki's Magazine. I warn you, it's not a pleasant read but that is, perhaps, why you should read it.

Then, just this morning, I read an open letter to Jesse Hughes in the British newspaper, the Guardian. It was written by Ismael El Iraki, a fan who, like Hughes himself, was accidentally caught up in the violent events that night. I recommend reading this piece of intelligent and compassionate sanity and thank Ismael El Iraki from the bottom of my heart for having the courage to write it.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The word properly required only for this sentence, not for the next or the next and not the Word of the Lord, nor of any of the Philosophical Fathers

Geneva Bible
Circumstances mean that I currently find myself in situations in which two different groups of people with whom I need to engage are convinced they have, not only the Truth, but the last word on this Truth.

The first group is political and it is in the form of orthodox Marxism. If you want to know what this position says click on the following link:

Orthodox Marxism

The second group is religious and it comes in the form of conservative evangelical Christianity, a position that can best ascertained by taking a spin over to the webpage of Wycliffe Hall in Oxford (with whom I had more than a few run-ins whilst I was studying theology in Oxford):

Wycliffe Hall

The problem in both cases is that the people concerned believe, as I have just said, that they have the Truth and the last word on this Truth.

However, in raising this matter I’m not saying that, by contrast, I have the Truth and, therefore, I should have the last word on political matter X and religious matter Y. Not at all. I’m simply saying that human experience tells us over and over that there is no simple access to some simple overarching Truth and the consequence of this is, therefore, that there can be no last word but only a commitment to an open-ended, critical dialogue in which appropriate ways to proceed are continuously to be worked out together.

Naturally, I find myself ridiculed by both groups when I suggest that we best proceed by sharing perspectives and allowing ourselves not only to attempt to change other people’s opinions, but also genuinely to be prepared to allow our own opinions to be changed by engaging in such a dialogue. The wager being that a genuinely useful, ad hoc (i.e. for this moment), lower case "truth" may emerge between us that is appropriate, now for this situation, now that.  

As James C. Edwards, a philosopher whose work I admire greatly and which had a profound impact upon me, said in his "Plain Sense of Things":

However good and true a poem [or, I would add, any other creative texts like Engels’ “Dialectics of Nature” and “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, or the Bible] there is always call for more such poems [or other creative texts] . . . . There is, after all, the right word to speak, the one properly required for this sentence (if only I can hear it), but it is the word properly required only for this sentence, not for the next or the next. It is the right word, the only right word; but it is not the Word of the Lord, nor of any of the Philosophical Fathers (p. 234).

I’m a great believer that, in the beginning is the word but it is always the right word of which Edwards speaks, one for this sentence but not (necessarily) the next, for this situation but not (necessarily) for the next.

A DiEM 25 (Democracy in Europe Movement) group has started in Cambridge

As regular readers of this blog will know, in February I became a member of DiEM25, the Democracy in Europe Movement an initiative started by, amongst others, Yanis Varoufakis.

As a recent post of mine called The day the music (of Europe) died . . . a jazz musician’s reflections on the EU “deal” with the Greeks and the end of a great democratic and cultural vision revealed, the crushing of the "Athens Spring", really did cause me to despair. However, with the launch of DiEM25 in February of this year, some measure of hope has been restored to me and last week I, along with twelve other people, formed a DiEM25 "Spontaneous Collective" (a DSC) here in Cambridge and we now have our own Facebook page:

Please feel free to get in touch with me/us either via the Facebook page or through this blog.


A ride over to Lidgate Castle

A meadow on the way out of Cambridge
Yesterday I took a longish spin on the Copenhagen-Pedersen out into Suffolk to visit the site of Lidgate Castle which was built c. 1143. As you'll see in the following photos there is a church on the site, the nave of which may have been the castle's chapel.

I've been cycling this part of the country for years but, somehow, have never made it there before. I'm glad I did!

Below are a few photos from the ride, just click on a photo to enlarge it. All were taken with my iPhone 6+, the ones in black and white using the Argentum Camera App.

The level crossing at Dullingham
Water Tower at Ditton Green
Looking west from the hill at Lidgate
Lidgate Church
A small section of castle wall (?) in the graveyard at Lidgate
Some gravestones in Lidgate graveyard
Lidgate Bailey Pond

Burwell Castle earthworks

The evening sun from the living room window of the Manse

Saturday, 21 May 2016

The Confraternity of the Faithless

When I think of religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine. Everything to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.

Oscar Wilde quoted by Simon Critchley

Thursday, 19 May 2016

How is it that thy signature everywhere is the beauty of things, yet nobody knows thy name?

This afternoon I took a spin up to Wandlebury on the Raleigh Superbe (photo at end of post) to take a short walk up to the Roman Road and back. The weather wasn't great and it was threatening to rain all the time but I did want, need in fact, to get out for a bit.

Earlier this morning I posted a piece containing Jacob Trapp's variations on the Lord's Prayer contained in his 1968 Lenten Manual called "Intimations of Grandeur". Another piece in that book is a meditation called "How Does It Happen?" which, he says, is after Hans Denck (1495-1527). I'm fairly certain Trapp is, in truth, thinking about Jakob Böhme (1575-1624) who wrote a famous book called "Signatura Rerum or The Signtaure of All Things", however, Trapp's ascription to Denck did send me back to him.

I first became very interested in Denck whilst doing some research on the Anabaptist tradition during my training for the ministry at Oxford University and, in particular, I became fascinated with a little book he wrote called "Paradoxa" which I put into a little booklet form so I could make a copy that would slip easily into a jacket pocket.
It is not clear whether or not Denck's theology was, in fact, Unitarian but my feeling is that it was and this, naturally, made him an attractive figure to me. But this specific matter aside, as the following words from his Wikipedia entry will show, there were other aspects about him that appealed to a liberal, free-religionist like myself:

The "sylvan nave" at Wandlebury
"For Denck the living, inner word of God was more important than the letters of the Scripture. He thought of the Bible as a human product, the individual books being different witnesses of one truth. He did not value the scripture as the source of all true religious knowledge, but the spirit that spoke from within each person. For Denck the sacraments were only symbols: baptism was a sign of commitment, communion a ceremony of remembrance" (Source: Wikipedia).

As I walked around Wandlebury I held in my thoughts Böhme, Denck and Trapp and when I got to the wonderful "sylvan nave" that runs from Wandlbury up to the Roman Road I sat down and prayerfully contemplated Trapp's meditation. I print it below and include a few photographs I took along the way. As always click on a photo to enlarge it. They were all taken with my iPhone 6+ and the Argentum Camera App.

How does it happen in this poor world 
     that thou art so near, 
     yet nobody finds thee? 
That in all things thou speakest, 
     yet nobody hears thee? 

That thy signature everywhere is 
     the beauty of things, 
     yet nobody knows thy name? 

Men close their eyes, 
     and say they cannot see thee. 
They stop their ears, 
     and say they cannot hear. 
They flee from thee, 
     and say they cannot find thee.

Jacob Trapp's variations on the Lord's Prayer

Like many British and American Unitarians I have been quietly influenced by the words of Jacob Trapp, not only the lyrics of his hymns (Let freedom span both east and west, The art, the science, and the lore, Wonders still the world shall witness) but also his meditations found in a 1968 Lenten Manual called "Intimations of Grandeur", a pdf copy of which you can find at this link.

I'm attracted to his work because it seems to be a version the verwindung about which I often speak. That is to say the overcoming of our old (primarily Christian) understandings of God, the divine and the sacred, theologies and metaphysics, not in a strong way (überwindung), in which we forcibly replace in one fell swoop strong words or concepts with new strong words and concepts but, instead, by employing a weaker, more gentle and creative way of proceeding, namely, by consciously surpassing, twisting, and reinterpreting them (verwindung). This latter process allows one to remain meaningfully connected with our Christian tradition but in a way that encourages the religious/spiritual and political freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today.

One prayer that seems to me urgently to require overcoming (in the weak and gentle way outlined above) is the Lord's Prayer. For all kinds of reasons our Christian culture has turned the prayer into a fixed text but it is very interesting to note that in the Gospel of Matthew (6:9) it is prefaced with the words "After this manner therefore pray ye" — i.e. like this, or in this fashion, rather than in exactly this way. It suggest that the prayer is best thought of as a footprint and not a blueprint, an example to born in mind as we travel the life of the spirit and not a set of words endlessly to be repeated verbatim.

Anyway, Trapp's variations on the Lord's Prayer found in his "Intimations of Grandeur" seem to me worthy of consideration and so I reproduce them below (in a the lightly edited form I have come across elsewhere — for neither is Trapp's original prayer simply slavishly to be repeated verbatim) for your intellectual consideration and even, perhaps, heartfelt prayer:

O Thou, whose kingdom is within, may all thy names be hallowed. May no one of them be turned against the others to divide those who address thee.

May thy presence be made known to us in mercy, beauty, love and justice. May thy kingdom come to be in the life of all humankind. May it come with peace, with sharing, and in a near time.

Give us this day our daily bread, free from all envy and alienation, broken and blessed in the sharing.

Keep us from trespass against others, and from the feeling that others are trespassing against us. Forgive us more than we have forgiven.

Deliver us from being tempted by lesser things to be heedless of the one great thing: the gift of thyself in us. 


Monday, 16 May 2016

An Insurrectionist Manifesto: Four New Gospels for a Radical Politics

This morning the newly published book "An Insurrectionist Manifesto: Four New Gospels for a Radical Politics" (Columbia University Press, 2016) dropped through my letterbox. Here's the publisher's blurb and I'm sure that regular readers of this blog will immediately see why I ordered it straightaway:

An Insurrectionist Manifesto contains four insurrectionary gospels based on Martin Heidegger’s philosophical model of the fourfold: earth and sky, gods and mortals. Challenging religious dogma and dominant philosophical theories, they offer a cooperative, world-affirming political theology that promotes new life through not resurrection but insurrection. The insurrection in these gospels unfolds as a series of miraculous yet worldly practices of vital affirmation. Since these routines do not rely on fantasies of escape, they engender intimate transformations of the self along the very coordinates from which they emerge. Enacting a comparative and contagious post secular sensibility, these gospels draw on the work of Slavoj Žižek, Giorgio Agamben, Catherine Malabou, François Laruelle, Peter Sloterdijk, and Gilles Deleuze yet rejuvenate scholarship in continental philosophy, critical race theory, the new materialisms, speculative realism, and non philosophy. They think beyond the sovereign force of the one to initiate a radical politics “after” God.

And here are four reviews of the book to whet your appetite:

“Each gospel-like contribution to The Insurrectionist Manifesto can be read separately, but when they are read in tandem, a particular disturbing power is occasioned. I found myself stimulated and conceptually shaken in equal fashion. The call of these gospels has the potential to disturb the ground of our being. Those who hear it will be positively afflicted by a series of challenges that are exciting and demanding in equal measure.”Mike Grimshaw, University of Canterbury

“Attempts to break the age-old grip of the transcendent on theological thought have multiplied in recent years. In this indispensable provocation to thought, these wonderfully intrepid and scholarly philosophers of religion have pushed the accompanying turn toward immanence in the direction of the political in all its hugely varied insurrectionist forms.”Kenneth Surin, Duke University

“In these unapologetic, interlocking essays, we find a radical theology that finally lives up to its name. Here theology tumbles kenotically, inexorably, into political economy, literature, climate science, postcoloniality, critical race theory, and non equilibrium thermodynamics, forcing us to face the earth, sky, mortals, and gods as they are—and in all that they’re not—and only then as they might yet be.” Mary-Jane Rubenstein, author of Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse

“New concepts are very rare, but when philosophers manage to create them, everything changes. This manifesto thrusts us into an ‘insurrectionist’ theology where Nietzsche’s death of God, Zizek’s ontology of the Real, and Malabou’s plastic materiality come together to overcome those metaphysical frames that still condition our lives. Anyone interested in radical theology, philosophy, and politics in the 21st century must read this book carefully since he might find himself also to be an insurrectionist.” — Santiago Zabala, ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at Pompeu Fabra University

Just a brief look at it this morning assures me that I'll be returning to many of the ideas it contains when I get back to work in Spetember.