Tuesday, 29 November 2016

A cold and frosty day in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden—A set of photos where David Hockney meets Brian Cook meets Polina Sarri

This morning proved to be lovely, sunny cold and crisp, one that irresistibly called me out of the house to take a walk to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden via Parker's Piece. It was a perfect day for taking photos and, on this occasion, I found myself inspired to take some shots that suited a lovely combination of “film” and “lenses” created by Polina Sarri for the Hipstamatic app that she describes as “reminiscent of David Hockney.” I think she’s right in this but her combo also reminds me powerfully of Brian Cook’s illustrations which were often used by the British publisher Batsford Press for their dust jackets. My childhood and teenage imagination was indelibly shaped by many of their books, dozens of which still grace my bookshelves.  Consequently, I had much fun today in taking the following pictures and I post them here for your pleasure. They appear in chronological order. As always, just click on a photo to enlarge it. Enjoy!

Monday, 28 November 2016

Five ways of looking at a tree — a sort of visualisation of Sunday's address on the hope that a new world, a new creation can, suddenly, (if we respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity) whoosh up before us

On Sunday I gave an address in which I was trying to encourage my listeners to sense that, even though the world when taken as a whole (if one could ever do such a thing — which one can't) cannot be said to change (I inherit this thought from thinkers like Spinoza and Parmenides) it is, nonetheless, always capable of showing up to us under new modes, moods and aspects. I wanted also to show that a change of mode, mood or aspect can, for us as finite being-in-the-world, always mean there truly exists new possibilities of being. In this sense we can (in principle if not merely at will) create the space, or the conditions for new worlds of practices or meaning. It was precisely this ability to create these kinds of new worlds that Heidegger thought what was made us distinctive as beings.

In a time when many of us on the progressive, centre and leftist political and religious spectrum are feeling at the moment that we are very much on our back foot (for all the obvious reasons I mentioned on Sunday, Brexit, Trump, Marine le Pen, AfD, a revanchist Russia, climate change, etc.) I think this realisation is vitally important because from a certain perspective it is possible to say all can never be lost. True, things may be turning bad for us, and may get worse, but that is never the end of the matter. To be sure a totally human-centred world view may well go the way of the wildebeest, or that of some star gone super-nova, but Being will continue and the miracle of existence and life (if not necessarily human life) will also continue. Again and again I find myself coming back to George Santayana's words introducing Spinoza's conception of eternity that I use repeatedly at funerals:

When a man’s (or woman's) life is over, it remains true that he has lived; it remains true that he has been one sort of man and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history that bit has its unfading and its perpetual function and effect. A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him, and knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the moment of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is part forever in the infinite context of facts [or, as I say in a funeral, "existence"]. George Santayana from his preface to Spinoza's Ethics, J. M. Dent and Sons, 1910.

I realised something of the ability of the same facts/world to show up under different modes, moods or aspects can be illustrated (very imperfectly of course) by the five photographs in this blog post of a tree on Christ's Pieces (opposite where Susanna and I live). The facts of the world do not change from photograph to photograph but something new is, I think, revealed in each of them. it may help folk catch just a glimpse of what I am driving at.

The original photo was taken and edited in the wonderful Hipstamatic app using an iPhone 6+ with the exception of the second black and white photo which was edited in the Blackie app. Just click on a photo to enlarge it.

(PS. This is NOT simply to see the world through some filter or other — rather it's about understanding that we can tune into aspects of the world that are really there but which we weren't yet able to discern and shape into new worlds of practices or meanings or, of course, new pictures.)

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Practising our surfing skills for Advent & Christmas — An Advent meditation on the thought that something new may always be about to appear in our world

2 Corinthians 5:17

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

From Paul Tillich's 1955 sermon “New Being”

If I were asked to sum up the Christian message for our time in two words, I would say with Paul: It is the message of a “New Creation.” We have read something of the New Creation in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Let me repeat one of his sentences in the words of an exact translation: If anyone is in union with Christ he is a new being: the old state of things has passed away; there is a new state of things. Christianity is the message of the New Creation, the New Being, the New Reality which has appeared with the appearance of Jesus who for this reason, and just for this reason, is called the Christ, the Messiah, the selected and anointed one is He who brings the new state of things. 

We all live in the old state of things, and the question asked of us by our text is whether we also participate in the new state of things. We belong to the Old Creation, and the demand made upon us by Christianity is that we also participate in the New Creation. We have known ourselves in our old being, and we shall ask ourselves in this hour whether we also have experienced something of the New Being in ourselves.


I’m acutely aware that many, perhaps most of us here today, are entering this season of Advent and Christmas feeling a powerful and debilitating mix of dread and anxiety. Brexit, Trump, unstable financial, economic and political institutions everywhere, Islamist terrorism, the refugee crisis, Syria, a revanchist Russia, Marine le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland, global warming and many other things beside are hanging over us like latter day swords of Damocles.

But, as we begin to approach the season traditionally known to us as one of peace and goodwill toward men in which we await the birth of a new creation, a new hope for humankind in the myth concerning the birth of the Christ-child, we must be careful not to waste the real opportunities presented by this season by burying our heads in the sand and pretending that the dangers and threats we face are not real and present. Let’s be honest with each other and acknowledge they are never going to be properly addressed if, during the next five weeks, we only engage together in mere sentimental, festive whistling in the wind.

Instead, in this season of alert and expectant preparation and waiting for the coming “new creation”, it is surely incumbent upon us to ascertain whether or not our hope that a different world to the one we are currently inhabiting can appear remains in some way real or true (enough). I have written this address believing that this hope is, indeed, true (enough) to help us walk bravely, and even at times joyously, not only through the darkest time of the year, but also, perhaps, through the darkest period of human history we all will have personally ever known.

So, as you heard in our readings, the theologian Paul Tillich thought this “new creation” was the Christian message for our times. We’ll come to what Tillich thought the “new creation” was towards the end of this address, but, firstly, we need to acknowledge that many things today hinder us from fully entering into this alert and expectant state where we can live with real hope that there can break into our world some kind of “new creation” that can turn our world around or upside down.

Part of the reason for this is, of course, because of the widespread loss of belief in the existence of another, separate, transcendent, divine world and this, in turn, cuts against taking seriously any myth or story which seems to be speaking seriously about the possibility that something new may break *into* our world from the *outside* — as do, of course, the Advent and Christmas stories.

One negative psychological effect of losing this belief is that it makes many people feel as if they are powerlessly trapped and imprisoned inside a wholly predetermined world of things and events, a feeling perhaps no better expressed than by old Koheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes (1:9-10):

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new?’ It has been already, in the ages before us.”

Although from a certain naturalistic perspective — from which I generally write these days — it seems true that there is never anything new under the sun but, from another perspective, it is clear that the same reality can show up to us under many new and different aspects, moods or modes. So, in this more colloquial sense, we may say there always-already remains available to us another world, namely, this world seen and experienced differently. In short, and again colloquially speaking, we may say from our human perspective that something new is, potentially anyway, always-already able suddenly to “break-in” to, or “appear”, in our world.

Wittgenstein offered us a simple everyday illustration of what might otherwise be a puzzling process at work. His duck/rabbit picture helps us see is that, without the facts of the world changing in any shape or form, one way of looking at those facts  will show them up as being a picture of a duck whilst another way of looking at those same facts will show them up as a rabbit. It is not that one of these pictures is more, or less, true to the unchanging facts of the world than the other, it is simply to see, and say, that the same world/facts can often show up to us in very different ways.

OK. Keep Wittgenstein’s thought in mind and now consider this additional thought. In an essay entitled “Rethinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought” (Ethnos, Vol. 71:1, March 2006 pp. 9-20) the British anthropologist Tim Ingold says something helpful when he makes a distinction between “surprise” and “astonishment.” Here is how he speaks about surprise:

“Surprise . . . exists only for those who have forgotten how to be astonished at the birth of the world, who have grown so accustomed to control and predictability that they depend on the unexpected to assure them that events are taking place and that history is being made.”

Ingold then goes on to say:

“By contrast, those who are truly open to the world, though perpetually astonished, are never surprised. If this attitude of unsurprised astonishment leaves them vulnerable, it is also a source of strength, resilience and wisdom. For rather than waiting for the unexpected to occur, and being caught out in consequence, it allows them at every moment to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity.”

To Ingold’s mind this latter group of people (those who are astonished but not surprised) are best described as those who “ride the crest of the world’s continued birth” (Ingold p. 19) and it’s from this thought that, today, I derive the image of surfing.

So let’s pull Wittgenstein’s, Ingold’s, and Tillich’s thoughts together so as to begin to move towards my theme of Advent hope — the new creation.

Now, in the case of the duck/rabbit picture, not much of importance hangs on being able to see a squiggly line and a dot change appearance from a duck to a rabbit.

However, it’s going to make one hell of a lot of difference to how you feel and are able to act if, on the one hand, you suddenly stop seeing the world as one where “there is nothing new under the sun” and in which we are all inexorably going to hell in a handcart and, on the other hand, you suddenly begin (ow and them) to see the self-same world as ever unfolding in some creative fashion that can be surfed joyously by you under the very same same sun, as our crazy Californian Christmas couple are depicted as doing in the illustration at the head of this blog.

Also, insofar as they have learnt how “to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity” (not only as surfers of course but as ordinary human beings) something new is always likely to show up to them and, when it happens they are generally never surprised, but only astonished.

Now I can turn directly to my Advent and Christmas theme, that of “New Creation.”

It seems to me that only when we learn to become something like that crazy Christmas surfing couple that we will be able, not only to begin properly preparing ourselves this Advent for the genuine possibility and hope that our world can suddenly shown up differently to the dreadful way it does right now, but also to sense that in undertaking this Advent preparation in the right spirit we are, in some remarkable and mysterious way, already beginning to participate in this “new being” or “new creation” symbolised by in the myth of the Christ-child. (Remember, the new creation for which we await and look is unlikely solely to be found in the form of another baby for the "Christ-child" is simply a placeholder for the new creation. Consequently we have to learn how to recognise it in whatever form it "breaks-in" or "appears" in our world.  

So how do we recognise that this new creation or being has come and is present? Well, for Tillich it bears three marks by which we will know it in ourselves.

The first mark is “reconciliation”. As you might expect Tillich uses throughout his famous essay the name of “God.” (NB, as I quote Tillich, please remember that I think it’s perfectly legitimate to use instead the words “reality” or “nature”.) So, Tillich tells us that the

“. . . message of reconciliation is: Be reconciled to God [reality]. Cease to be hostile to Him [reality], for He [reality] is never hostile to you. The message of reconciliation is not that God [reality] needs to be reconciled. How could He [reality] be? Since He [reality] is the source and power of reconciliation, who could reconcile Him [reality]?”

Tillich seems essentially to be saying here that in order to experience a new creation we must, firstly, learn to accept the world, reality, nature, the universe as it is as a whole and to be thoroughly reconciled to this whole difficult though that may always be. As the great nineteenth-century American transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller, once memorably encouraged, we need to learn how to say and mean: “I accept the Universe!”

(To return to our surfing image it is, I think to necessary to be reconciled to the fact that sea upon which we surf, that lifts us up and gives us being as surfers, will always be being what it will always be being with all its complex changing appearances.)

The second mark of the new creation is for Tillich, reunion, “in which the separated is reunited.”

Essentially, I take Tillich here to be reminding us that to experience the new creation we must not only accept reality as it always-already is, but consciously and with care, judgment and sensitivity we must enter fully into it’s play of appearance, to throw ourselves into the world fully aware that we are, in the end, intimately part and parcel of the whole.

(To keep to our surfing image this is to recognise we can’t possibly surf unless we throw ourselves and our surfboard bodily into the sea and, through the exercise of care, judgment and sensitivity, begin to respond to the never ceasing flux of the ocean. The new creation is simply not available to those who refuse properly participate by getting on their surfboards like our crazy Californian Christmas surfers.)

The third mark of the new creation is, for Tillich, resurrection. He notes that “‘resurrection’ has for many people the connotation of dead bodies leaving their graves or other fanciful images.” But, he goes on to say, resurrection really means

“. . . the victory of the New state of things, the New Being born out of the death of the Old. Resurrection is not an event that might happen in some remote future, but it is the power of the New Being to create life out of death, here and now, today and tomorrow. Where there is a New Being, there is resurrection, namely, the creation into eternity out of every moment of time. The Old Being has the mark of disintegration and death. The New Being puts a new mark over the old one. Out of disintegration and death something is born of eternal significance. That which is immersed in dissolution emerges in a New Creation. Resurrection happens now, or it does not happen at all. It happens in us and around us, in soul and history, in nature and universe.”

(To keep to our surfing image this is to recognise that the expert surfer is always-already being born-again every second of their ride so long as, at every moment, they are seeking to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity.) 

Tillich concludes his important essay by saying:

“Reconciliation, reunion, resurrection — this is the New Creation, the New Being, the New state of things. Do we participate in it? The message of Christianity is not Christianity, but a New Reality. A New state of things has appeared, it still appears; it is hidden and visible, it is there and it is here. Accept it, enter into it, let it grasp you.”

Hard though it may be fully to grasp in these dark times, Tillich is saying that this New Creation is a real, present and future hope for those of us who are prepared to mount (figuratively speaking) our surfboards and who, prepared to be astonished but not surprised, risk stepping out into reality to catch the wave of a universe ever in flux (natura naturans).

If you are able to take such a risk I think you’ll be astonished, but I hope not surprised, at the New Creation(s) you may begin to see appear this Christmas in all kinds of places and things. As Tillich says, let them grasp you. Our duty will then be to slowly and patiently work with this New Reality letting it help us discern ways to leave behind the dark and hopeless ways of being we see so much in our current, old world.

Happy Advent!

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Dudley — The Chris Ingham Quartet

In June this year I recorded a new CD as a member of the Chris Ingham Quartet which features the music of Dudley Moore.

The CD is being properly released in January 2017 but, for those of you who can't wait (after all Christmas is coming!), it is available now at the following link:

Chris Ingham: piano
Paul Higgs: trumpet
George Double: drums
Andrew J. Brown: bass

I also wrote the liner notes for the release and copy them below for your pleasure.

Dudley Moore, beloved comic actor, we all know about. 

Perhaps fewer know about Dudley Moore, pianist — the virtuoso brilliantly exploiting the stylistic possibilities gifted to him by Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson in late night sessions at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club in 1960s Soho, dazzling appearances on BBC TV’s Not Only But Also and the sparkling Decca trio recordings.

And perhaps fewer still, Dudley Moore, composer — purveyor of quirky, imaginative jazz originals and the witty music for Bedazzled and 30 Is A Dangerous Age, Cynthia, nuanced movie scores far superior to the movies themselves.

In preparing a recording celebrating the music of Dudley, we were tempted to pay homage to his 1960s piano-trio style. After all, Chris, George and I had all been indelibly influenced by the very particular, tight-knit, hard-swinging playing of Dudley, bassist Pete McGurk and drummer Chris Karan. However, whilst exploring the tunes with Paul on trumpet, we began to discover the richness of his compositions and understand a more authentic, and perhaps more revealing way of entering into Dudley’s musical world. 

As part of that process we took time to read something about the man’s complex and highly conflicted life, one filled with shades of light and dark, joy and woe. Here is not the place to explore any details of this, but what is musically relevant was the way we found these same shades expressed in his compositions. Some of his pieces are, of course, quintessential expressions of the bright, optimistic, swinging ‘60s in which Dudley came to fame, but others are deeply poignant, personal expressions of a darker, more complex world, whilst elsewhere you’ll find a unique and bittersweet mix of the two.

It is this emotional range and depth that has made playing Dudley's music a rather intimate and heartfelt pleasure for all of us and, we sincerely hope, for you too.

What are feasts for?—A very brief Epicurean meditation for our church's Wednesday lunch club

What are feasts for? They are often thought of as extravagant dinners designed to celebrate saints and dictators, colleges and corporations, kings and queens, bishops and lords and, of course, now traditional feasts such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. No doubt you’ve all been to some of these in your time . . .

But I think the truer feasts are often the rather more modest simple meals one can share with a friend when you are both opened up to the wonder of the universe and of the possibilities of life and, together, you feel impelled to celebrate this in some way.   

Many times my wife, Susanna and I have found ourselves out in walking in some wild landscape with little more than a couple of rolls, some sliced meat and cheese when, as we prepared to open the rolls to receive the meat and cheese following our little grace, Susanna has looked up at me, face beaming, and said “What a feast!” Yes, indeed, what a feast! These are the feasts I recall most often and they remind me that, above all the feasts for saints and dictators, colleges and corporations, kings and queens, bishops and lords, there is the greatest feast of all, namely sharing simple food in the company of one’s closest friends.

This idea of in what consists a true feast is, of course, rooted firmly in the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC). Although he knew friendship first developed because of its basic utility he also knew that, once born, it became desirable in and of itself. Epicurus was highly aware that every individual existence, being alone, always needs the other to thrive and be happy and that, therefore, only ever to eat alone was in fact highly destructive. Indeed he once wrote: “To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf.”

He also understood that this kind of feast shared with a friend, though it might very occasionally be grand and luxurious, it could always also be incredibly modest, in fact it was for the most part better that way and, in acknowledgement of this, he memorably wrote to a friend “Send me a pot of cheese, so that I may be able to indulge myself whenever I wish.” It would never have occurred to Epicurus to ask his friend for the third-century BC Greek equivalent of a hamper from Fortnum and Mason’s, just a plain pot of cheese, that was enough indulgence for him, just a soupçon more than the bread, olives and water he ate on a daily basis.

One of the themes of this year’s lunch club has been attachment and separation. Well, Epicurus knew it was vital never to become attached to grand and luxurious living and eating and that we should always be learning to leave this unnecessary, damaging and unhealthy desire behind. If a grand feast came along now and then, all well and good, we should enjoy it — as we will in a moment. But when the grand and the luxurious were not present and we only had a little pot of cheese, which for most of us is most of the time, Epicurus saw there were always already wonderful feasts to be had, as along as they were had with friends.

So my question for you today is where and when have you experienced such modest Epicurean feasts and from them what have you learned?

Sunday, 20 November 2016

A juxtaposition: “Time Team”; Nando’s “Peri Peri Sauce”; contracts of employment


In one of our prayers today (by George Kimmich Beach) we will hear the line "Once we asked for rules to tell us what was good; with growing maturity, we outgrew the way of unthinking obedience." Given this I wanted to remind you all of the paradigm case of how we were once given moral and ethical rules to follow with unthinking obedience, namely, the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17)

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

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

Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

But most of us here today will question whether this is, in fact, the best way to inculcate good behaviour and the common good and anyway, many of us will also no longer have any strong belief in the idea of a god who can impose upon us their divine laws and justice from on high. Given this, in a world without an ultimate why it can be quite hard to make strong moral judgments or give to others strong moral commands to do this or that or desist from doing the same.  The philosopher Raymond Geuss ponders this problem in his essay “A World Without Why”. He thinks there are three basic ways one may continue to act morally in a world without why. The first two he doesn't think are, for him, ways to go down (I disagree with him in this but hey, that's OK, we're allowed to disagree). The first would be to "be clever enough to turn the why-game against itself from within"; "the second possibility is action" because "one deed is worth any number of words." Tempting though it is I don't want to challenge him about the first two possibilities because I want strongly to agree (and use in the body of this address) his third possibility, the invitation. 

Here's what Geuss writes about that:

. . . 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. Paul Éluard’s La terre est bleue comme une orange [The earth is blue like an orange] is not best understood as “asserting a proposition.” 
          [. . .]
          You can’t refute an invitation (although you can refuse it, closing your mind and heart to it): it makes no claim. At the end of all the talk, the poem, if it is good enough, is still standing there, waiting. An invitation has neither the direct constructive or coercive power of action, nor the indirect coercive power of ratiocination—Habermas’s “peculiarly uncoercive coercion of the better argument.” If one is lucky enough to live in a society in which a sphere of “free” artistic activity is permitted to exist, no one is forced to look at one’s picture, listen to one’s poem or read one’s novel. Still the work of art need not be without effect on those who accept its invitation.
          Simple juxtaposition of external objects, persons or events not usually seen together has a number of variants which are perhaps no less interesting and “compelling” (to use the peculiar expression that seems natural here). Rather than allowing the sewing machine to encounter an umbrella on the dissecting table, one can invite the reader to pay attention to something usually overlooked or taken for granted, which seems to have a unity that upon inspection dissolves. The world can occasionally turn itself inside out or upside down. No one who lived even in complete personal security through the period of the Vietnam War could thereafter ever hear the sound of a helicopter in exactly the same way again. 


A juxtaposition: “Time Team”; Nando’s “Peri Peri Sauce”; contracts of employment

Many years ago I was told a humorous story about a minister who takes up a new job in a church in a North American logging community. The text for his first week was (Exodus 20:12) the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal” and he gave his new congregation a sermon on the general importance and ways of understanding the commandment not to steal. On leaving the church he was thanked heartily by all present for a fine moral message. Later that week, whilst getting to know the town, its people and problems, he discovers that there has been a spate of thefts in which logs, which were being floated down stream from where they were being felled to the saw-mill down-steam, had been pulled out of the river and rebranded with a different mark identifying who felled the tree, and then sent on again down stream. Effectively this meant that a tree felled by logging team A was being stolen en-route by logging team B.

Disturbed by this the following week the minister goes back to church and gives a sermon on the subject, “Thou shalt not steal thy neighbour’s logs.” This sermon was still reasonably well received by his congregation but, because the commandment was beginning to come home, it has to be said that it was received with slightly less enthusiasm than the first. However, during the following week, he discovers there has been no discernible change in the number of logs being removed from the river and rebranded. The third week he realises that he must preach on the subject once again only this time he decides he must title his sermon, “Thou shalt not steal thy neighbours logs by pulling them from the river, cutting off your neighbour’s felling mark, rebranding it with your own, and then putting them back into the river as if they were your own.”

This time, as the congregation left the church there were no effusive thanks because the crime had been named directly and since all of them had, in various ways, been involved in the practice they had been called to account. They may have loved to hear a message about the goodness and desirability of the general commandment but they didn’t like it when the commandment came home to roost. 

It’s a reminder to ministers of religion that many times the specific moral/ethical point or issue you feel the need to raise is not best served by pointing only to an abstract general rule, sometimes you have to ground the rule in the specific problem where you see it being broken. This can, of course, make you unpopular, as the minister in the story discovered. His community loved the idea of the general rule but disliked it when it was made real and present amongst them.

Today I want to bring you an example of something similar — I want to bring before you a grounded something which, it seems to me to requires a call to “Thou shalt not . . .”.  It might seem, at first, something of no great importance but I think you will see that it touches upon something very important that is occurring all the time in our wider society and culture.

But, you ask, “thou shalt not what?” Well, I’ll get to that in a moment because, firstly, I need to remind you that in our present cultural/religious/political climate “Thou shalt nots” are no longer as effective as they once were. We live in a culture where we know there are many different understandings of God or the gods which come (for their believers) with different immutable commandments which can be found in different authoritative texts concerning what is good or bad.

In a liberal religious context such as this, which self-consciously acknowledges the existence of the diversity of belief and opinion I have noted, as well as a general disbelief in the existence of any immutable authority — any preacher who has the temerity to stand up and says “Thou shalt not” is increasingly liable to be shot down in a hail of objections and equivocations. Questions of who says so and on what authority jump up, questions of personal choice in the matter of doing x rather than y come to the fore, expressions of the need to live and let live and not to judge leap out at one. In short the response to a “thou shalt not” approach to many moral issues is generally along the lines of “who the hell are you to tell me what, or what not, to do; I’ll make up my own mind thank-you.” And, for the most part, I'd feel the same if someone tried to give me a thou shalt not command.

But this makes liberal religion — and liberal ministers of religion — rather ill-equipped to offer up any strong moral or ethical “nos” which are able to draw, if you like, strong collective lines in the sand. Now, since the kind of post-truth world into which we seem to be heading is more likely to be one which we will mostly want to resist and to which we will wish to say “no” way more often than we are going to be inclined to go with and affirm it, this weakness is a problem for us.

So how, then, can this tradition, how can I as a minister, offer up to the world any kind of strong (enough) moral guidance? Well, a while ago I said to you that I thought that one of the ways I might go about constructing this kind of address in the future was more regularly to invite you to observe, look at or consider something and let that juxtaposition alone carry any moral or ethical weight the address might have. In our readings I reminded you of Raymond Guess’ words on this matter. So, in place of an address that offers you a “thou shalt not”, today (as a kind of experiment), I’m going to invite you to consider a three-part juxtaposition.

Here’s the first part. I love the Channel 4 Programme called “Time Team” which was broadcast between 1994 and 2014. It was presented by the actor Tony Robinson and each episode featured a team of specialists carrying out an archaeological dig over a period of three days, with Robinson explaining the process in terms accessible to non-archeologists like myself.

The modern discipline of archeology is concerned to take full account of all the evidence and never to read into that (often quite minimal) evidence more than it can reasonably bear. It’s concerned with ascertaining as far as is possible the truth. The programme also requires the archaeological team to be themselves honest and careful, loyal to the truth themselves. Also, in order to get the dig done properly in three days everyone is required to be disciplined. So, for example — an example highly germane to the juxtaposition which follows — it is not to get too tanked up in the pub where the team would often meet up in the evening to sum up each day so they would be late for work in the morning.

In short we have here a powerful presentation of the value of genuine evidence, a concern for and loyalty to the truth and the necessary discipline of turning up on time to get the job done.

Now here’s the second part. On 4oD, where the programme is archived online, these old programmes are interspersed with current adverts. When Susanna and I re-watched them through September and October this year one advert was for Nando’s Peri Peri Sauce, a sauce made “with spices, sun-ripened lemons, onion and a dash of garlic” and “African Bird’s Eye Chilli.” The advert unfolds as follows.

We hear a dramatic musical “da, da dah” and immediately see a digital alarm clock reading 8:15 surrounded by a text saying, “Argh! Late again!” We then cut to a smart phone where someone is writing a text which reads, “ Sorry! Train delayed.” He then attaches a photo, already stored on his phone, of the digital railway noticeboard at London Bridge Station saying the 08:45 is delayed. He sends the text and photo. We then cut to a shot of a fridge being opened out of which he takes a packet of bacon which he struggles to open. Then he turns on a gas ring, puts two slices of toast in the toaster and the we cut to a shot of four slices of bacon in a frying pan. The toast pops out, we see him butter the slices and put the bacon on one of them. He goes back to the fridge and gets out a bottle of Nando’s Peri Peri Sauce which appears with the text “Give it some Nando’s.” He puts it on the bacon and, taking the other slice of buttered toast, makes a bacon sandwich which appears with the text, “They’ll have to wait . . .”. We immediately cut back to him finding another picture on his phone of the same noticeboard at London Bridge Station but which this time says the train is “Cancelled”. The advert ends with an empty plate and the text "Available in supermarkets".

Should you wish you can also see it at this link: https://youtu.be/oupjxIwNf0E

In short we have here a powerful presentation of the perceived value of someone offering up false-evidence, engaging in straight-up lying, and displaying an utter lack of concern for truth and any sense of loyalty to your employer to turn up on time.

And, finally, here’s the third juxtaposition. Take a look at any  of the contracts imposed upon employees by multinational companies like Nando’s. There are many things I would want to (and could) say about these kinds of contracts but, today, it suffices to say that none of them tolerate any lateness and dishonesty of the kind promoted by Nando's and displayed in their advert.

“Amen” number one.

And that’s basically my address. I’m not offering you a “thou shalt not” address, all I am doing is simply inviting you to observe, look at and consider these three things and let this juxtaposition alone carry any moral or ethical weight this address might have and I await your reflections on it with interest.

But, as a kind of second, exceptionally brief address, I’d just like to make the point that I think we, in liberal circles, are going to have to do similar things more and more in the coming years and over matters more morally obviously and immediately pressing than the one I’ve brought before you today. Although we must never lose the ability to make intellectual moral and ethical arguments for why we think we should do this or that and not do this or that, in the post-truth context that we are increasingly seem to be finding ourselves, we need to recognise the usefulness and need to find effective ways to make powerful juxtapositions that are, potentially anyway, able to hit people like a poem, a clap of thunder or a sudden pain in the chest, juxtapositions that can suddenly turn the world inside out or upside down and which, in turn, are able to reveal the depths and extent of the lies and the deceits that are continuing to fill our daily lives and which are hollowing out our sense of in what might consist a mature, common, global ethics.

“Amen” number two.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

November — A photo and a piece of music by Dennis Johnson

Tree on Midsummer Common—November 2016   
Just before Susanna and I headed up to Shetland this July I began listening to a five-hour long piece for piano composed in 1959 by Dennis Johnson  called November. Title aside, the music suited well my mood, the long night ferry journeys (both there and back) and also the evocative, largely treeless landscape of Britain's most northerly isle, Unst, where we were staying. This was especially so on those early mornings when the hills around us were obscured in mysterious mist and rain.

Anyway, whilst there I promised myself that I would re-listen to it in Cambridge in the darkening month of November and, over the last couple of days, I've been doing just that as I have begun properly to work through Emanuele Severino's extraordinary neo-Parmenidean work, "The Essence of Nihilism."

This morning it occurred to me that some of you might enjoy being introduced to this remarkable, early piece of American minimalist music, not least of all because I'm finding that its peaceful, gentle, timeless qualities (along with Severino's thought) seem to be helping to restore in me some kind of calm equilibrium following the highly disconcerting and disappointing vote for Brexit in June and then last week's news that Trump had won the US Presidential election.

By clicking on this link you can read an article published in "The Wire" called "Dennis Johnson: Maths, Mars landings and minimalism" which will tell you something about both the man and his piece.

By clicking on this link you can preview and/or download the piece, finally recorded more than 50 years after its premiere by R. Andrew Lee.

I took the photo at the head of this post on Midsummer Common yesterday in some very November-like weather.

From Johnson's score of "November"
Cover of the new recording of "November" by R. Andrew Lee

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Come down, come down from your mountain, Jehovah: A Remembrance Sunday Meditation


Here, Bullet by Brian Turner (b. 1967)

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

Isaiah 6:1-5

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said,

"Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory."

And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.

High and Lifted Up by G. A. Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929)

Seated on the throne of power with the sceptre in Thine hand,
While a host of eager angels ready for Thy Service stand.
So it was the prophet saw Thee, in his agony of prayer,
While the sound of many waters swelled in music on the air,
Swelled until it burst like thunder in a shout of perfect praise,
“Holy, Holy, Holy Father, Potentate of years and days.
Thine the Kingdom, Thine the glory, Thine the splendour of the sun,
Thine the wisdom, Thine the honour, Thine the crown of victory won.”
So it was the prophet saw Thee, so this artist saw Thee too,
Flung his vision into colour, mystery of gold and blue.
But I stand in woe and wonder; God, my God, I cannot see,
Darkness deep and deeper darkness — all the world is dark to me.
Where is power? Where is glory? Where is any victory won?
Where is wisdom? Where is honour? Where the splendour of the sun?
God, I hate this splendid vision — all its splendour is a lie,
Splendid fools see splendid folly, splendid mirage born to die.
As imaginary waters to an agony of thirst,
As the vision of a banquet to a body hunger-cursed,
As the thought of anaesthetic to a soldier mad with pain,
While his torn and tortured body turns and twists and writhes again,
So this splendid lying vision turns within my doubting heart,
Like a bit of rusty bayonet in a torn and festering part.
Preachers give it me for comfort, and I curse them to their face,
Puny, petty-minded priestlings prate to me of power and grace;
Prate of power and boundless wisdom that takes count of little birds,
Sentimental poisoned sugar in a sickening stream of words.
Platitudinously pious far beyond all doubts and fears,
They will patter of God’s mercy that can wipe away our tears.
All their speech is drowned in sobbing, and I hear the great world groan,
As I see a million mothers sitting weeping all alone,
See a host of English maidens making pictures in the fire,
While a host of broken bodies quiver still on German wire.
And I hate the God of Power on His hellish heavenly throne,
Looking down on rape and murder, hearing little children moan.
Though a million angels hail Thee King of Kings, yet cannot I.
There is nought can break the silence of my sorrow save the cry,
“Thou who rul’st this world of sinners with Thy heavy iron rod,
Was there ever any sinner who has sinned the sin of God?
Was there ever any dastard who would stand and watch a Hun
Ram his bayonet through the bowels of a baby just for fun?
Praise to God in Heaven's highest and in all the depths be praise,
Who in all His works is brutal, like a beast in all His ways.”

God, the God I love and worship, reigns in sorrow on the Tree,
Broken, bleeding, but unconquered, very God of God to me.
All that showy pomp of splendour, all that sheen of angel wings,
Was but borrowed from the baubles that surround our earthly kings.
Thought is weak and speech is weaker, and the vision that He sees
Strikes with dumbness any preacher, brings him humbly to his knees.
But the word that Thou hast spoken borrows nought from kings and thrones,
Vain to rack a royal palace for the echo of Thy tones.
In a manger, in a cottage, in an honest workman’s shed,
In the homes of humble peasants, and the simple lives they led,
In the life of one an outcast and a vagabond on earth,
In the common things He valued, and proclaimed of priceless worth,
And above all in the horror of the cruel death He died,
Thou hast bid us seek Thy glory, in a criminal crucified.
And we find it — for Thy glory is the glory of Love’s loss,
And Thou hast no other splendour but the splendour of the Cross.
For in Christ I see the martyrs and the beauty of their pain,
And in Him I hear the promise that my dead shall rise again.
High and lifted up, I see Him on the eternal Calvary,
And two pierced hands are stretching east and west o’er land and sea.
On my knees I fall and worship that great Cross that shines above,
For the very God of Heaven is not Power, but Power of Love.


Come down, come down  from your mountain, Jehovah: 
A Remembrance Sunday Meditation 

My Old Testament and Hebrew tutor, Father John Davis, was of that generation who committed to memory reams of poetry. One November morning close to Armistice Day during my first term at Oxford, we ordinands and ministry students had just opened our Bibles to look at the sixth chapter of Isaiah. It begins:

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.

Father John, whom we quickly discovered never missed the opportunity to give us a brief homily on this or that text — to help us, he said, begin to prepare our own little sermonettes for when we got out into the sticks — began to quote at some length “High and Lifted Up” in which Studdert Kennedy, the faithful Church of England priest and padre, admits:

“God, I hate this splendid vision — all its splendour is a lie”

Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy MC, 1883-1929 (also known as “Woodbine Willie” because, in addition to offering spiritual comfort to injured and dying soldiers, he gave them Woodbine cigarettes) had seen first-hand the full horror of Flanders Fields, a war which, in part, was carried out in the name of this “splendid vision”. He was a man who had repeatedly seen what the poet Brian Turner saw nearly a century later whilst serving in Iraq as a Sgt, namely the completion, again and again, of the bullet’s word as it hit “bone and gristle and flesh”, snapped clavicles and opened up bloody aortas to the air.  

No Man's Land, Flanders Fields (click on the picture or this link to enlarge it)
Seeing all this death, done in the name of God, King and Country, Isaiah’s vision of an all-powerful “Holy Father, Potentate of years and days” increasingly became for Studdert Kennedy itself horrific, as horrific as

“. . . imaginary waters to an agony of thirst,
As the vision of a banquet to a body hunger-cursed,
As the thought of anaesthetic to a soldier mad with pain,
While his torn and tortured body turns and twists and writhes again,
So this splendid lying vision turns within my doubting heart,
Like a bit of rusty bayonet in a torn and festering part.”

He came to wonder how any preacher, or as he bitterly puts it any "petty-minded priestling", could ever have the nerve to offer soldiers this vision of God as being in anyway a comfort. As far as Studdert Kennedy was concerned this was a vision of God “Who in all His works is brutal, like a beast in all His ways.”

Studdert Kennedy may have started the war as a true believer in a powerful God and in the moral rightness of the war — indeed it seems at one point he was even giving morale-boosting speeches about the usefulness of the bayonet — but by its end the sheer horror of it all combined with a vision of a brutal God had served to turn him into a pacifist and Christian socialist. And despite winning a Military Cross in the conflict the establishment never forgave him for this turn and, at his death in 1929, the Dean of Westminster refused him burial at the abbey because, he said, Studdert Kennedy was a “socialist.”

Studdert Kennedy's changed view can be heard clearly in the second part of his poem where he reveals what seems to be a very different vision of God to that offered by Isaiah. To the battle-scarred padre, God now has “no other splendour but the splendour of the Cross” where Jesus, “broken, bleeding, but unconquered”, now hung as “very God of God to me.”

Those sensitive to such things may have notice I just said Studdert Kennedy reveals what “seems” to be a very different vision of God to that offered by Isaiah. When, some twenty years ago, I first heard and then read these words I, too, was tempted to think that Studdert Kennedy really had done with the kind of divine power borrowed from “the baubles that surround our earthly kings” and had turned decisively towards more humble, this-worldy things, things that could be found

“In a manger, in a cottage, in an honest workman's shed,
In the homes of humble peasants, and the simple lives they led,
In the life of one an outcast and a vagabond on earth,
In the common things He valued, and proclaimed of priceless worth”   

Particularly in the lines just quoted, the second half of his poem “High and Lifted Up” does seem at first to be offering us a moving and admirable humanist, albeit Christian Humanist, expression of faith. But closer reading reveals that, ultimately, Studdert Kennedy did not (and probably could not) fully see through to a proper conclusion end the religious humanist vision he grasped for in these four brief lines.

Although he admits he saw the utter weakness of the God of the cross and, at the time, this struck him “with dumbness” and brought “him humbly to his knees”, at the very end of the poem he reveals that, in truth, the cross before which he now falls and worships is still high and lifted up, “that great Cross that shines above, For the very God of Heaven is not Power, but Power of Love.”

Although God may now be for him known as “Power of love” it’s vitally important to realise that this is still coercive divine power and we begin see that Studdert Kennedy was not able, in the end, to let go of belief in a powerful ruling God, one that would still, somehow, come back and finally win the day. His God, it turns out, is not really to be found in “a manger, in a cottage, in an honest workman's shed, In the homes of humble peasants, and the simple lives they led” but still in a God in Heaven, still a God who ruled, still a God who judged and, “in Christ” (for him also God in the form of the second person of the Trinity),  Studdert Kennedy believed he could see “the martyrs and the beauty of their pain” and, in Christ, he still heard, and believed in, “the promise that my dead shall rise again.”

In other words, the vision of profound weakness and earthliness he saw in Flanders Fields turns out, in truth, to be for him simply veiled power, still an iron fist, albeit one now clothed in a velvet glove. To reiterate, Studdert Kennedy’s God remains a divine power whose true home is high and lifted up in heaven.
It is not hard to understand why Studdert Kennedy kept such a vision of God alive, high and lifted up. After seeing such senseless carnage, in the aftermath of the war he wanted, needed, to see justice metered out to those who for no good reason had just sent millions to their slaughter. He also wanted, needed, to see salvation and ultimate glory for these same people who had died so needlessly. He also, of course, needed, wanted, this for himself, utterly broken and weak as he was — remember he died, utterly exhausted and worn out aged only 45.

And who amongst us doesn’t sometimes resonate with this need or want? I well remember the experience immediately following a fairly savage beating by the school bully. Lying on the playground hurting and bleeding I didn’t want to do any violence myself to the bully because I simply couldn’t match his his strength and ability to meter out violence on others. All I thought I wanted was simple peace and concord so I could quietly get on with my game of football with my friends. But I did, of course want something else, I wanted my dad or the head-master to appear, or even for God himself to bow hither out of heaven and save me by thrashing the living daylights out of that bully. Even though I dressed-up this imagined revenge as love and justice the truth is that I wanted the bully to see and experience true power and violence just as much as he wanted me to see and experience it. I hope you can see this was to give in to the secret desire that many, perhaps most of us have for the exercise of power and violence. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

But really, is this the best vision of God or the divine we can aspire to as humans? I don’t think it is. As I get older the more and more I feel that this vision of a powerful God — even when imagined as the power of love, the iron fist on the velvet glove — needs to be let go of and allowed, finally, to die. These days as I continue to think daily, even hourly, about the kind of God whose “existence” I would be prepared to accept as meaningful and true (enough) I find I remain haunted by Heidegger’s words in his famous interview of 1966 for Der Spiegel and only published after he died in 1976. There he said,

“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.”

More and more these haunting words make me realise that I’m with the radical theologian John D. Caputo who feels that

“What calls, what is calling, what is called for is the God to come, the coming of a God to save us, a God who has no seat of power, no sovereign authority, no ontological prestige, vulnerable and mortal, who has not the wherewithal to lay down his head, whose only power is the power of a powerless, but unconditional, appeal” (Without Sovereignty, Without Being: Unconditionality, the Coming God and Derrida's Democracy to Come).

And what is this appeal? It is to live radical, democratic, non-coercive, fully human, this worldly lives of peace, love, compassion, justice and fairness.

In the end, for me, a hundred years on from the horror that shaped Studdert Kennedy’s poem, the proper end to it, the proper end to this address, and the proper religious way to remember all those who died in Flanders Fields and in countless conflicts before and since, was only written in 2007 when the English folk-singer Chris Wood recorded his song, Come Down Jehovah. In it he offers us a beautiful and deeply poignant vision of a God who, finally and forever, ceases to be high and lifted up, a God who comes down to earth to be truly mortal, powerless and weak with us all. Surely, it is only in the company of this kind of truly powerless, mortal God  that we can be properly empowered to heed and respond to the divine appeal for love, peace and justice which Jesus and Caputo are, and were, so concerned we hear.

Come down, come down from your mountain, Jehovah,
My neck is terribly stiff.
Hitch up your robes and your raiments, Jehovah,
Climb down to the foot of your cliff.
And drink from the stream that was always beneath you,
Drink from our wonderful font.
‘Cause paradise is right here on earth, Jehovah,
What more could we possibly want?

Come down and talk amongst friends, Jehovah,
Come down and sit at your ease.
Walk through the woods and the valleys, Jehovah,
Sail upon glistening seas.
Pass on what you've learnt to the children, Jehovah,
And listen to what they have to say.
They say, “Paradise is right here on earth, Jehovah,
Not tomorrow, but right now, today.”

And Devil come up from your fiery furnace,
Come up and show us your face.
There’s nothing you can teach us of evil or hatred,
We don't have right here in this place.
There is nothing so evil as man in his mischief,
Nothing so lost or insane.
And bring your demons up, too, so we'll know it’s not you,
But it’s us who must carry the blame.
It’s us who must live with the shame.

Come down, come down from your mountain, Jehovah,
Come down and be with us here.
Heaven and hell and the life ever after,
It’s such a beguiling idea.
But our spell on this earth is much richer, Jehovah,
Richer than we'll ever know.
When it comes time to leave it behind,
We just close our eyes and let go.
If we’ve done our best we’ll be ready for a rest,
We just close our eyes and let go. 

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Some words of Max Picard relevant to our own times . . .

Max Picard (1888-1965)
It has been shown that disjointedness was not alone a private matter, hidden in the individual, but that also a whole public world of disjointedness was extant outside the individual. The disjointedness which the individual had overlooked as long as it was hiding in himself, now confronted him built up into a gigantic phenomenon which stood there solidly…Even then [they] failed to see the danger of this phenomenon; they did not separate themselves from it; they did not destroy it; on the contrary, they identified themselves with it, and they lived with it as if they belonged together, as if disjointedness were natural to man.

Max Picard  
Hitler in Ourselves

Thanks for this to Kelly Dean Jolley who passed it on to Ed Mooney and who then posted it on his own blog Mists on the Rivers

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Infinite diversity and meaning and beauty

From the end of the Star Trek episode, "Is There in Truth No Beauty?"

Doctor Miranda Jones: The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.

Spock: And the ways our differences combine to create meaning & beauty.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

A late autumn afternoon in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden

A cold day of showers and sun yesterday some of which Susanna and I spent in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden before going home to enjoy a warming Whiskey Mac. Although many of the trees have now lost their leaves there is still a great deal of autumn colour to enjoy, especially as the sky cleared and the sun began to set.

As usual I took a few photos and post some of them here for your pleasure. All taken with an IPhone 6+ and the Hipstamatic App. (Just click on a photo to enlarge it.)