Friday, 30 December 2016

Message of Hope for the coming year to the citizens of Cambridge from the minister of the Cambridge Unitarian Church

Last week I was asked to pen a New Year message by the Cambridge News. Not surprisingly it wasn't published there so it seems important to post it here: 

The Unitarian tradition has its roots in Hungary and Poland and, during its four-and-a-half centuries of existence (and even when it found itself exiled and persecuted during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), it has consistently promoted the ideals of democracy, freedom, reason and tolerance. Without doubt 2016 has been a year during which these ideals have begun to be seriously challenged across the UK and Europe (and now the USA) and we have all seen a disturbing rise in hatred towards migrants and refugees, in shocking anti-democratic rhetoric and activities, in challenges to basic human freedoms and in a general drop in tolerance toward others different from ourselves. As heirs of the European, radical Reformation and radical Enlightenment traditions, we wish to offer the citizens of Cambridge (of any formal belief or none) a New Year message of hope that it remains both possible and desirable to proclaim to all, with gentleness and intelligence, that: “we need not think alike to love alike.” 

Memorial (Unitarian) Church looking across Christ's Pieces

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Midwinter on Midsummer Common—A few photos from a morning walk across the common

It was a cold and frosty this morning and so, before going to my study to catch up after the busy Christmas weekend, I thought I take a turn around Midsummer Common and take a few photos. They were all taken with my iPhone6+ using the Hipstamatic app and a combo by Ger Van Den Elzen.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas Day 2016: A [subversive] Charlie Brown Christmas—a (gentle) ethics of commitment and politics of resistance

Charlie Brown & Linus with the real Christmas Tree
READINGS—A précis of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" including a passage from the Gospel of Luke (2:8-14). However,  you might prefer to watch the short twenty-five minute film instead at the Youtube link below. It would be much more fun . . .

Christmastime is here, and Charlie Brown knows that he should be happy, but he isn't. He also knows that commercialism is the problem — expressing itself even within his own family as seen by his dog Snoopy entering a Christmas decorating contest with a cash prize and by his much younger sister Sally's Christmas letter to Santa which reads:

“Dear Santa Claus, how have you been? Did you have a nice summer? How is your wife? I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want. Please note the size and colour of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?”

Charlie Brown is horrified by all this but the problem is he simply doesn't know what to do about it. Eventually his friend Lucy suggests that he direct the Christmas play saying to him:

“You need involvement. You need to get involved in some real Christmas project. . . . We need a director, you need involvement.”

Charlie Brown agrees because he hopes that this may indeed help him to find the true meaning of Christmas. Alas, during the chaotic rehearsals this hope seems to move ever further away from him. In a last ditch attempt to improve things the cast decide they need to get a Christmas tree to act as a centrepiece for the stage and they send Charlie Brown and his friend Linus out to buy a tree. As they set off Lucy says,

“Get the biggest aluminium tree you can find, Charlie Brown. Maybe painted pink.”

They find an Christmas Tree emporium with dozens of brightly coloured aluminium trees but there, in the middle of them all, Charlie Brown comes across a small, very sickly looking real tree. On seeing it Linus says,

“Gee, do they still make wooden Christmas trees?” 

Charlie Brown feels that it seems to need a home but Linus reminds him what Lucy said and adds that this little tree “doesn't seem to fit the modern spirit.” 

Charlie Brown replies that he doesn’t care and that with a little bit of decoration and love and attention it will be just right for their play and adding, “Besides, I think it needs me.”

On returning to the auditorium the tree is initially received by all as a disaster and Charlie Brown is forced to utter out loud,

“I shouldn't have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don't know what Christmas is all about. Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” 

Linus looks up at him and says, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” Linus then walks out onto the stage, says, “Lights, please” and, as the stage lights dim, Linus begins to recite these words from Luke 2:8-14.

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them: ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’” 

Charlie Brown realises that Linus is right and that this reading does express what Christmas is all about and he proudly and bravely proclaims,

“I won't let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas. I'll take this little tree and I'll decorate it. And I'll show'em it really will work in our play.”

At last the children, inspired by the message of the nativity, finally begin to pull together and to show the little tree, and each other, some real tender, loving care and the film ends with all the children congratulating Charlie Brown for getting such a lovely tree and singing around it “Hark! the herald angels sing.”


Every good Unitarian address contains at least one caveat. Here’s mine. Today I point strongly to the need loyally to affirm, along with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest” and on Earth peace, good will towards man.” As I do this I want to be absolutely clear that I am using the word God not to refer to some existent supreme being but, instead, to the minimal definition of God offered to us by John Dewey (1859-1952) in his influential 1934 book, “A Common Faith”:

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



Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” has, in the USA, become an national institution, being shown on TV, coast to coast, every year since it was made in 1965. Here it has, instead, taken on the status of a cult classic. It’s worth noting that its soundtrack — a jazz score by the pianist Vince Guaraldi — has become one of the most popular jazz albums of all-time and, for countless numbers of jazz musicians like me, Guaraldi’s score was an early important introduction to the music. [You can here that on Youtube by clicking this link.]

Now, I’m not absolutely sure why I went back to the film this year but, on reflection, it feels like a necessary response to my felt need to immerse myself, if only for a while, in something simple and life-affirming at the end of what has been by any measure a bad, bad year.

Watching it again after many, many years I was once again charmed and uplifted by it but in an utterly different way to the way I was whilst growing up in the late-1960s and 1970s. I’m not sure what I saw back then but this time round I saw it as being a gentle, low-key expression of what the British philosopher Simon Critchley calls an ethics of commitment and a politics of resistance. Let’s start with the ethics of commitment.

For many liberals, it has become increasingly difficult loyally to commit to any political or religious position in a sustained and effective way. In short we have increasingly become religiously and politically demotivated. However, it is important to realise that, initially, this demotivation had its some of its roots in something very positive, namely our becoming aware of the multifarious nature of world and the sheer variety of beliefs and practices it necessarily contains. This, in turn, helped us develop a much needed tolerance towards cultures, views and practices other than our own. But this important development has simultaneously had the increasingly bad result of stopping many of us from confidently and appropriately affirming our loyalty to, and the upholding of, key aspects of our own cultures, views and practices, to the point where many of us are no longer motivated strongly to commit religiously or politically to anything at all, and we find ourselves increasingly pushed and pulled every which way. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had over the years in my study with liberals desperate to find something, anything, to which they could commit with full pathos and a clean heart.

As I watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” this month it stuck me that in it we see something of this tension, between openness to the other on the one hand and the need to commit to some ethical viewpoint of our own on the other, played out and kept in delicate balance. The characters in the show are clearly all very different in character; one is fancy, another is pompous, one vain, another angry, depressed, dirty, honest, innocent, deceptive, mendacious, greedy and so on (one is alos dog and one a tree—there's ecological diversity here too!), and they all find themselves in various forms of conflict with each other throughout the film. But despite this, during their rehearsal for the nativity play it becomes apparent that what holds them together in their difference is something the French philosopher Alain Badiou calls a “fidelity to an event.” The event is, of course, the mythical one of the birth of Jesus which forms, to borrow a phrase from the poet Wallace Stevens, the supreme fiction towards which they and I hope we, too, can still be loyal.

By the end of the film each of the children eventually commits, with fidelity, to this event, this concrete situation and singular occurrence and it is this which delivers up to them the motivation further to commit to the ethical demand found in the supreme fiction of the nativity, namely, that we should express “Glory to God in the highest” and on earth to show peace, good will towards the other.

You may argue that committing loyally to what we can clearly call a Christian singular and concrete event is, however, still problematically relative because we know only too well that a faithful Muslim, a Buddhist, Jew, New-Atheist etc., simply cannot loyally commit to it. But this is to miss something important about what’s seems to me to be going on here for those of us who can so commit.

Alain Badiou wants to call this kind of thing, and so do I, a situated universalism because true loyalty to such a concrete (even if mythical or fictional in origin) event can only be justified if it is somehow addressed to all, and only if a person’s commitment to that event and situation is then able powerfully to motivate them to ethical actions whose justifications always exceeds that local situation and can be used to bring about its transformation and betterment (Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, Verso Books, 2007, p. 49).

The passing of fifty-one years helps us observe this transformation and betterment at work because the film’s central address and call enables us see that the culture of 1960s America still needed to enlarge itself to include, visibly and proudly, (for example) Black, Asian, Hispanic and LGBT faces and voices. The film’s situated universalism cannot but help to critique it’s own failure to be as inclusive as it really should have been. We can feel the film’s message to be right (and worthy of our own loyalty and commitment) precisely because the film doesn’t, itself, manage fully to live up to it. And, because it doesn’t live up to it, the ethical demand to try again and to try better that the film contains shines as clear as the Christmas Star itself.

All in all the film powerfully reminds me that neither I, nor you, can have any hope of properly helping anyone else in the world unless we, too, can find ways to commit fully and loyally to some supreme fiction found in our own local situations and cultures. As Lucy says to the depressed Charlie Brown, “You need involvement. You need to get involved in some real Christmas project. . . . We need a director, you need involvement” and this is something we must re-learn along with Charlie Brown.

We can now move to our second topic today, namely, that the film is an expression of an effective and gentle politics of resistance.

As you heard earlier in the précis, throughout it is a wonderful and humorous expression of both the value and need to show resistance against the way our hyper-connected, commercialised, neoliberal world has been able to level everything so that it has become harder and harder for people to see any meaningful difference between what’s important and what’s not important, between what’s trivial and what’s crucial, between what’s relevant and what is irrelevant. It’s one of the lasting subversive ironies of the film that it was commissioned by a key player in the commercialisation of our world — Coca-Cola and the film is a subversive, delightful and humorous case study of how resist this tendency and to see that today is special, that it’s not like other days and we must never ever let it become like them. To celebrate Christmas, properly to celebrate Christmas à la Charlie Brown and friends is, therefore, to engage in an act of political resistance.

In their own politics of resistance the children depicted in the film seem to me to be like a little group of Occupy activists who, for a time, succeed in creating what can be called a “temporary autonomous zone”, a zone temporarily free from the crushing pressures of the commercialised and financialised neoliberal world. By taking over, i.e. occupying, a school auditorium (and our imaginations and hearts) they find a place and a time freely to work out for themselves (and, therefore, also for us) that Christmas is not about aluminium trees, presents, money, over-the-top decorations and real estate but is, instead, about gathering together around a Christmas tree to proclaim loyalty to the event of the nativity and come what may to proclaim themselves “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men”.

I find it quietly affirming of the potential effectiveness of the film’s politics of resistance that one of the little known consequences of the film is that it successfully put out of business the aluminium Christmas Tree industry which, between 1958 and 1965, had become incredibly profitable. By 1967, just two years after the Christmas Special first aired, they were no longer being mass-manufactured. Bravo, Charlie Brown and Co.

So to conclude, in sum, I think the film helps us see that through loyalty to the event that is the supreme fiction of the nativity we still have the wherewithal and power, not only to put out of business aluminium Christmas Tree firms, but also to resist all those firms, global corporations, eastern syndicates, political ideologies and theologies that are currently destroying peace in our time and seeking to financialise every hour of our lives to the detriment of both our beautiful souls and our beautiful planet.

But, in the end, the film is not simply about resisting something negative, it’s about creating something powerfully real, positive and joyous. It helps us see that when and wherever we are able freely and loyally to commit to the ethical demand contained in the supreme fiction of the nativity, then there we are also able to bring joyously into being something that we used to call the kingdom of God itself, a veritable theological or philosophical temporary autonomous zone. I would argue that this was the wonderful and joyous act of political resistance that Charlie Brown and his friends expressed in the film and which we, gathering here, are expressing again today.

So, Happy Christmas brothers and sisters, comrades one and all!


Friday, 23 December 2016

On Christmas Day I'll be giving an address called "A [subversive] Charlie Brown Christmas—an ethics of commitment and politics of resistance "

On Christmas Day I'll be giving an address called:

A [subversive] Charlie Brown Christmas—an ethics of commitment and politics of resistance

In readiness for that some of you may enjoy seeing the film itself and checking out its wonderful jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi which was an early influence on my own playing. See you all (?!) on Christmas morning . . .

Sunday, 18 December 2016

What was, must be tested

Ernst Bloch (1885-1977)
This morning I did not have any duties as the congregation were leading a service entirely of their own devising. This gives me an opportunity to repost (without making any changes) an address I gave during Advent 2010.

While [Jesus] yet talked to the people, behold, [his] mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother (Matthew 12:46-50).

One of the odd things that continues to strike me about Advent is the fact that the coming we are waiting for is behind us - i.e. it is something recounted in an ancient story. It would be remiss of me not to point out at the beginning of this address that in orthodox readings of Christianity (of course just because it bears the adjective ‘orthodox’ this doesn’t make it either right or true) this oddity is avoided by conjoining the waiting spoken of in the biblical text with a present waiting for a second-coming of Christ; it is claimed, therefore, that Advent speaks of waiting at both the beginning and end of history. However, if like me, the idea of a second-coming is simply not required of me as a necessity requires - I have to say that to me it looks, feels and I would say is, untrue - then I am left with the need to do something with the oddity and problem I have noted, namely, that the coming we are waiting for is behind us because, if it *is* all only a matter past waiting and history (in the simple sense that the Bible is very ancient) then there remains the need to as the pertinent question of why we keep returning to the Advent and Christmas stories and what might they usefully tell us about our present and our future possibilities? It seems to me that orthodox Christianity is right, in one important sense at least, which is Advent needs to speak to us about both the old waiting and our present waiting. Given that I - we? - can’t believe in the present waiting offered by Christianity, namely,  the second-coming of Christ, I think it is incumbent upon us to see if we can find a present waiting that *is* required of us as a necessity requires.

This thought brings me directly to the reading from Ernst Bloch’s remarkable book (one I would heartily recommend) ‘Atheism in Christianity’: 

Ernst Bloch – An Unheard-of Saying of Jesus': Departure-in-Full

What was, must be tested. It does not hold good of itself, however familiar, for it lies behind us.  It holds  good only so far as the Where-to continues to live before us in the thing itself. If the link binding backwards is false, it must be cut. All the more so if it was never true, but simply a shackle.

It is telling, that even the loyal Ruth did not go back the way she came; she did not turn back, but followed the path of her own free choice. And on this point Jesus' goodness itself strikes off at a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition. How small is his sense of belonging, even though he is the son of an ancient house and family. He has passed beyond it, broken with its power; no remnant of it still stands over him. The old father-ego itself comes to an end; the new-born are here with their fellows, leaving father and mother, following Jesus. "And stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brethren!' " (Matt. 12. 49). An untamed ego has burst through, has broken out of the sober nest with its authorities. Only the chosen disciples are his relatives — but closer still to all of them is the common element relating them in a no-longer oppressive bond.

The alien factor may of course be something quite different from mother and brethren, and it may have become alien long before Jesus. It all started quite boldly — started out from within itself; and it has "corrupted" youth.

From Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009 (original edition published 1972) pp. 71–72

In this section Bloch makes it clear that ‘what was must be tested’ and this means, in the context of today’s service, a testing of Advent and Christmas. A church service such as this, shaped with a creative and critical community of people such as you in mind, should always be a time of testing what was. But during the Advent and Christmas seasons, because the stories are so good and so beautiful, the temptation is not to be at all critical and instead just to dive uncritically, naively and sentimentally into the seductive stories themselves: Even I can hear myself say ‘Oh, Andrew, give us a break at least during one season of the year! - stop thinking, hang loose, roll with the season’s happy vibe. Just dig the beauty, man.’ But, you know, I can’t do this because, ultimately, not to think critically about these kinds of questions cuts us off from the real healing and sustaining power that remains accessible to us in our inherited religious tradition. During this increasingly difficult period in our culture’s political, social and religious history, and at the coldest time of the year, I want to ensure that our Advent and Christmas celebrations do genuinely help and strengthen us and don’t just offer merely the opportunity to engage in a bit of temporary self-medication whether of the alcoholic or the opiate kind pointed to by Marx.

Bloch suggests that one important thing we have to ascertain is whether or not the ‘Where-to’ continues to live before us in the thing itself’? Well, to answer this requires us first to answer the question of what he means by the ‘Where-to’? For Bloch it is tied up with his very specific understanding of utopia which in his eyes was not something we construct in the present as an ideal and then project it into an imagined real future but, instead, something always available to us in a variety of ideas, political and social systems and cultural artifacts although only in glimpses or through what he calls ‘traces’. The ideas, systems and cultural artifacts that have the most enduring power over us to his mind always contain two elements that, at their best, are never either/or options but always in creative dialogue and tension with each other. Bloch felt that this helped ensure that these things ‘carry within them the potential solution of that situation’ (Peter Thompson in his excellent introduction to Bloch's Atheism in Christianity, p. x).

The first element, the conservative, is that which supports the status quo, especially that expressed in a given society’s present power-relations and structures; it is the element that encourages us not to rock the boat and which gives us an often false sense of security that things are, really, all OK. The Advent and Christmas stories clearly also have this element in them and they have it in spades. Perhaps the most obvious public expression of this element is the fact that in our largely secular and unchurched nation church attendances rise significantly at this time.

The second element, the utopian, is very different and is always in tension with the first - it is that which points forward in some way from this moment to a better way of building, thinking and dwelling in this world and which, necessarily, always challenges the status quo. Although the conservative element in this season is very strong, so too is the utopian one which points firmly in the direction of a better way of building, thinking and dwelling in this world. Perhaps, more than at any other time of the year, many, many people catch glimpses or traces of this utopian trajectory even when it is available to them through often very conservative presentations of the stories.

So what is the ‘Where-to’ we can glimpse in the whole of the Biblical text and, particularly today, in the Advent and Christmas stories?

Firstly, he sees that the Biblical text always contains within it a strand which encourages us not to go back the way we came but, instead, to follow the path of our own free choice. He uses the example of Ruth to illustrate this but the Advent and Christmas stories too are marked by this trope - most notably in the stories found in Matthew of the Magi and Mary and Joseph. 

Secondly, and closely related to the first, Bloch then points to Jesus the central character in the Christian story. Here we touch upon Bloch’s most radical idea that, just as ‘Jesus’ goodness is closely tied to his ability to strike off at ‘a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition’ (in Jesus’ case Judaism) our own goodness is, Bloch suggests (as do I), closely tied to our ability to do something similar and strike off at a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition. Tradition for us (that is to say the members of the church where I am minister and wider British culture in general for all its secularity) is Christianity.

This may come as a surprise - even a shock for some people - but, as Bloch says elsewhere in this book: ‘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.’ Although this book has often been used as a cattle prod to by the powerful it is vital to recall (because it is too easily forgotten) that ‘the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is why it [the Bible] has always been suppressed or distorted, from the serpent on’ (AIC p. 13).

The Bible has always been a book in which ordinary people, those who throughout history find themselves oppressed by Church or State, can readily hear a straightforward call to freedom from oppression found most tersely expressed in Exodus (cf. Ex 5:1) “Let my people go.” A call which Bloch observes, citing the mighty 16th century radical German reformer Thomas Müntzer, ‘Rang out to all the oppressed, “without difference or distinction of race or faith.”’ This kind of world is the ‘Where-to’ that continues to live before us in the Biblical text itself and especially clearly and beautifully in the Advent and Christmas stories.

Our trajectory towards a way of building, dwelling and thinking that is concerned always to be seeking to free people from all oppressive and coercive bonds (a ‘Where-to’ of Advent appropriate for us) may well take us away from our Christian tradition at a singularly sharp angle (and it’s a trajectory that I think is required of us as a necessity requires) but I do not think that, at the same time, this also requires us to ditch the Biblical text. Far, far from it because, whenever we take it seriously in the way a thinker like Bloch insists we should, we will always be with earshot of a powerful and inspiring call to a life of radical, revolutionary action against the rich and powerful and in favour of the poor and dispossessed. In our own time and culture - as we face up to all kinds of repressive forms of religion and oppressive political and financial ideologies - such a radical call is becoming increasingly necessary.

To be sure, I hope many of us will enjoy the rest and security that so often accompanies the Advent and Christmas season but, as we enjoy this rest and security (the season's conservative element), may we never forget that they are nothing if they do not form part of a preparation for some serious, committed action to bring about the better and more just world we claim we want to see come to pass.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

A few Cambridge late afternoon and evening winter photos

Just a few Cambridge late afternoon, winter photos for your pleasure. All taken with my iPhone 6+, the Hisptamatic app (colour photos) and the Blackie app (black and white photos). Just click on a photo to enlarge it.

Sunset over St John's College
Sunset over St John's College
Sunset over St John's College
The Memorial (Unitarian) Church
Back gate into Christ's College
King Street
King Street
Christ's Pieces

Monday, 12 December 2016

Of winter fairs, botanic gardens and town centres—A miscellany of winter Hipstamatic photos

It was a grey, drizzly and overcast day today, the sort of day where one is sorely tempted to stay in bed reading a good book accompanied by toast and marmite and plenty of hot tea. I should add here that for a clergyman a Monday morning is what is a Saturday for most other people, so I'm not advocating here taking a slovenly "sickie"! This is very much weekend time for me. But, despite the temptation, Susanna and I decided it would, for all kinds of reasons, be best to wend our way over to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden to enjoy its subtle winter beauty and also to enjoy a bowl of warming soup from the café. On the way we passed by the colourful winter fair on Parker's Piece and then came back via the town centre and Christ's Pieces, taking in a view of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church where I'm minister.

Along the way a few photos were taken, all with my iPhone 6+ and the Hipstamatic app. Enjoy the winter sights . . . Just click on a photo to enlarge it.


Sunday, 11 December 2016

Why Liberal?

READING: “Why Liberal?” (1939) by James Luther Adams (1901-1994)
(The Essential James Luther Adams, ed George Kimmich Beach, Skinner House Books, Boston 1998, pp. 149-151) 

The question will ever be posed: What is the essence of liberalism? And so it is today [1939]. In order to answer this question we must, of course, have the courage not to over-simplify. A vital liberalism has within it tensions, struggle, a dialectic if you will. With a self-denying ordinance which disclaims finality or authoritativeness, we venture the following characterization of the essential elements of liberalism.

First, liberalism holds that nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.

Liberalism itself, as an actuality, is patient of this limitation. At best, even our symbols of communication are only referenda and do not “capsule” reality. Stating this principle in religious terms, we may say that liberalism presupposes that revelation is continuous in word, in deed, and in nature, that it is not sealed, and that it points always beyond itself. Not only is significant novelty both possible and manifest, but also significance is itself inchoate and subject to inner tensions of peril and opportunity, of self-assertion and dependence.

Second, liberalism holds that all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion.

Obviously, this principle cannot be advocated in any strict or absolute sense. It presupposes moral obligations; moreover, it is in fact operative in institutions which maintain continuity in one way or another with those of a previous epoch and order. Education, for example, may be compulsory within the liberal state, if not in the liberal church. All responsible liberals recognize the necessity for restrictions on individual freedom. Moreover, they recognize that “persuasion” can be perverted into a camouflage for duress. This second principle, like the others, can be stated in religious terms in various ways. For the sake of brevity we feature the statement familiar to religious liberals: All men and women are children of one God. The implication intended here is that the liberal method of free inquiry is the conditio sine qua non of both the fullest apprehension of the divine and the preservation of human dignity which comes from our being children of one God.

Third, being an ethical procedure, that is, purporting to be significant for human behaviour, liberalism involves the moral obligation to direct ones efforts towards the establishment of democratic community.

A full definition of the term “community” need not be attempted here. It involves, of course, a common life which gives rise to the expression of the manifold, creative impulses of the human spirit, an expression which presupposes a cooperative life impelled by the motives of love and justice. The statement of this principle in religious terms implies the other principles here adumbrate [i.e. produce a faint image or resemblance of], and especially the fourth one. It will suffice to say here that the moral obligation which makes for community rests upon the divine imperative which demands mutuality, a condition of existence itself, as well as of love and justice. And it is also this which makes the role of the prophet central and indispensable in liberalism.

Fourth, liberalism holds that the resources (human divine) which are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.

This does not necessarily involve immediate optimism. In religious terms this principle may be stated thus: The divine element in reality both demands and supports mutuality. Thus the ground of hope is the prevenient [i.e. before any human action] and the actual grace of God.

We may now return to the previous question. Why liberal? And we answer: Because confidence in the principles of liberalism is the only effective resistant to ultimate skepticism and despair on the one side and to blasphemous claims to authority and suppressions of criticism on the other. These are the enemies of the human spirit whose dangers are threatening today.



A few weeks ago, as part of our student ministry project, I gave a talk and led a lively well-attended evening conversation on the intimate relationship between liberal religion and radical democracy (NB: Alan Finlayson's definition of radical democracy appears as a footnote to this address) and, during the past few weeks, I’ve offered you a couple of addresses which have been weighted towards exploring some aspects of radical democracy. Today, to indicate how the actions encouraged in those addresses are firmly rooted in the liberal theological tradition, I’d like to bring before you, the Sunday congregation, what I said about liberal religion because it remains vital to see how our theology definitively shapes our relationship with and engagement in democracy, whether in its most radical forms or  others.

So, in our readings you have already heard the text by our most important theologian of the late twentieth-century, James Luther Adams, upon which I drew a few weeks ago and shall draw upon again today. It was written in 1939 at a time when democracy in both the UK, Europe and the USA was last severely threatened.

§1. Liberalism holds that nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism. 

Here we straight away come face to face with our tradition’s developed belief that all ideas — including our own most cherished ones — must constantly be tested and critiqued. We fully understand that all our ideas about reality are always being transformed and that, as they combine and recombine, this process inevitably creates friction, sometimes even white heat, as a new idea or insight is brought to birth. But we have come to understand that this must be understood, primarily, as both creative and necessary and not merely or only destructive and undesirable. This has lead us to acknowledge that there can be for humankind no eternally fixed and final doctrines or ideologies (political or religious) and, in religious language, this is always to affirm that “revelation is continuous in word, deed and in nature, that it is not sealed, and that it always points beyond itself.”

We therefore understand, intimately and religiously, that human life is, primarily, a “process of conflict and disagreement” and that we are fooling ourselves if we think it is a genuinely achievable aim to set about creating a human society that believes it either can, or has, eternally expressed pure “consensus and resolution”. We know we will always have to be dealing with difference, some of which will always be intractable and friction-making — to the point of white heat. At its best the liberal tradition has accepted this fundamental limitation and we have, therefore, spent much of our four-and-a-half centuries of existence trying to create local community and larger civic structures and behaviours that help lubricate the axle of the ever-turning wheel of continuous revelation so that it can turn as smoothly as is humanly possible and is always capable of carrying us safely (enough) beyond our current selves and self-understandings to new understandings of the common good.

Adams’ next three points offer us something of our theological lubrication of that ever-turning wheel.

§2. Holds that all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion.

Notice that this is offered to us by Adams in a non-absolutist way, not least of all because he understands — as I hope do we all — the necessity for certain restrictions on individual freedom. But, for Adams and ourselves, these restrictions are not merely arbitrary but ones that have slowly emerged from a long history of free inquiry. 

It’s been a long journey along a bumpy and far from perfect road (as point §1 reveals is necessarily the case) but it has given us a sense that we make the best and most fruitful steps beyond our current knowledge, beliefs and selves when that inquiry is genuinely as free from coercion as is humanly possible. At their best the institution of the university and those dedicated to the running of the civic, secular state in general have provided such spaces of mutual free consent — they have been our lubricating oil. Churches have not, historically, been so successful in this endeavour but we, in the Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian traditions, have tried with real, if always modest, success to create a similar space within our own communities.     

For us this passion for the freedom for the individual to pursue genuinely free inquiry is theological and is based, as Adams indicates, in the pantheistic, or panentheistic, intuition that we are all, somehow, one in God-or-Nature. Despite all our free inquiries this feeling has never left us, and nothing has yet given us cause to abandon this intuition even though, in principle, were it ever showed definitely to be a wrong intuition I trust we would abandon the idea. However, in truth, it’s an intuition that has been significantly widened to include the non-human world as, belatedly, we have begun to develop what seems a more realistic, post-humanist, even post theistic perspective on the universe.

So, although we hold to the reality of a radical and, in one sense, indissoluble plurality of appearance, we simultaneously hold that there is at work some kind of radical embracing metaphysical unity. It is this, of course, that explains why we bear the much misunderstood names of “Unitarian” and “Universalist”. To quote the eighteenth century Anglo-French Universalist, George de Benneville, “The inner spirit makes us feel that, behind every appearance of diversity, there is an interdependent unity of all things”  and that is why he thought we must “Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular [and] Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception.” It is important to acknowledge that this intuition was first caught sight of by us in the Biblical texts (for example those of St Paul, cf. Ephesians 4:1-5 and Galatians 3:25-29) and, although today we might couch it in different language, we do continue to act on the intuition or belief that all people, all entities (sentient or not) are, in some mysterious, ineffable sense, “children” of one God-or-Nature.

This intuition, plus mutual free consent leading to free-inquiry carried out without coercion, also allows us to say very strongly that although we understand and fully accept the reality of difference we also feel deep in our very being that this need not ultimately mean violent and destructive difference. Indeed, this is what lies behind our local church’s adoption of the saying attributed to the sixteenth-century Transylvanian Unitarian Bishop, Francis David, that, “We need not think alike to love alike”. But this saying can easily be misunderstood because, to be a genuine, full member of this liberal church we do have to think alike, at least in terms of strongly affirming Adams’ four marks of liberalism, and it is only when we can do this that we can also powerfully say to other, different communities around us, “We need not think alike [with your community] to love alike.” But, although this is true, real difference and friction between us all (sometimes generating white-heat) will remain and we forget this at our peril.

Which point brings me to Adams’ third, again a lubricating, mark.

§3. Liberalism, being an ethical procedure, that is purporting to be significant for human behaviour, liberalism involves moral the obligation to direct one’s efforts towards the establishment of democratic community.

Given that difference and friction is always-already present we are morally and theologically called to create democratic community one that, in as non-coercive a way as possible, always attempts to keep our real and important clashes at the non-violent end of the spectrum.

As Adams indicates, community is always a complex thing and always lies beyond a full definition but his broad, essentially religious outline bears repeating:

“It involves, of course, a common life which gives rise to the expression of the manifold, creative impulses of the human spirit, an expression which presupposes a cooperative life impelled by the motives of love and justice.”

This kind of community is always hard to create and maintain and it is always at risk unless it is actively maintained and committed to by every succeeding generation. Today we find it is being threatened once more, as it was in 1939, and this is why Adams says “the role of the prophet [is] central and indispensable in liberalism.” It has always been the prophets, from Isaiah to Jesus, from George de Benneville to ourselves (I hope) to proclaim prophetically that, somehow, in this world full of difference and friction we can find ways for it to be possible, as Isaiah so memorably and poetically put it (Isaiah 11:6-9) that even the wolf [like human] shall live [appropriately, respectfully, non-coercively] with the lamb [like human], the leopard [like human] shall lie down [appropriately, respectfully, non-coercively] with the kid [like human]” etc..

We know this is an impossible dream but the prophetic, ethical, infinite demand Isaiah's vision contains is what continues to drive us in our attempts to build democratic community so that, in as non-violent, non-coercive a way as is possible we (all beings, not just human ones) may always be getting get close (enough) to each other, despite our eternal differences and necessary frictions.

§4. Liberalism holds that the resources (human divine) which are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.  

Faced with the inevitability of difference and conflict in our world — the conditio sine qua non of all conceptions of radical democracy — many people do despair and give up (or are tempted to give up) on our world, either passively or actively. But the genuine **religious** liberal cannot give up on the world because the prophetic, infinite, ethical demand reminds us that there is always something that can be done, if only with those immediately around us and even if only in the smallest ways imaginable, like a smile, a thank-you, or a gentle, healing touch. As Adams says, “the divine element in reality both demands and supports mutuality” an insight contained in Jesus’ great commandment that what is most important of all is the love of God and love of neighbour — none of us has ever seen God and so love of neighbour is the only meaningful expression of love of God there is available to us and this love can always be shown, even on our darkest days and even in our darkest epochs. 

Importantly Adams reminds us this ultimate optimism — which is another way of saying hope, a theological virtue — does not necessarily involve immediate optimism.

Note too, Adams’ use the word “justify”. Our theological liberalism always justifies our optimism even though it can never assure us that it will, ultimately, turn out to be well founded. All we can say (and it is enough) is that the inner spirit — God-or-Nature’s prevenient and actual grace — grounds our hope and keeps us going.

Adams concludes his piece by repeating the question, “Why Liberal?” his answer remains as true today as it did in 1939 and with it I conclude. We remain loyal to the liberal religious cause

“Because confidence in the principles of liberalism is the only effective resistant to ultimate skepticism and despair on the one side and to blasphemous claims to authority and suppressions of criticism on the other. These are the enemies of the human spirit whose dangers are threatening today.”


Alan Finlayson, the British political theorist and political scientist who is currently Professor of Political and Social Theory at The University of East Anglia, defines radical democracy as follows:

“The simplest definition of radical democracy is this: it is the theory and practice of democratic political contestation. While many contemporary theories of democracy emphasise the aggregation or accommodation of various identities and interests, radical democracy emphasises how these are permanently contested in ways that transform them as they combine and recombine in the white heat of political action. And where other theories of democracy emphasise the consultation or the participation of citizens in political decision-making, the theory and practice of radical democracy emphasise that this is a process of conflict and disagreement rather than one of consensus and resolution.”

(Finlayson, Alan. “Rhetoric and Radical Democratic Political Theory.” The Politics of Radical Democracy, Edited by Adrian Little and Moya Lloyd, Edinburgh University Press, 2009, pp. 13–32,

Monday, 5 December 2016

Thinking "consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality"—some photos of a walk across Grantchester Meadows

On Sunday I mentioned the walk over to Grantchester I occasionally take with my friend to talk philosophy and politics. Well, this morning (a lovely, bright and frosty one) I took the time to walk over there on my own and do some solitary thinking and looking. Gustav Landauer's mystical monism, Parmenides' eternal being, Spinoza's Deus sive Natura and the general spirit of Thoreau's essay, Walking, all intertwined as I slowly made my along the river accompanied by leaping fish, feeding swans and a darting kingfisher.

The whole day reminded me of some words of Henry Bugbee found in his book "The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form":

During my years of graduate study before the war I studied philosophy in the classroom and at a desk, but my philosophy took shape mainly on foot. It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely while walking, but through walking that was essentially a meditation of the place. And the balance in which I weighed ideas I was studying was always that established in the experience of walking in the place. I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified by racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality (The Inward Morning, p. 139).

As Daniel W. Conway says of Bugbee's philosophical walking:

Walking is not merely a calisthenic propaedeutic to the heroic labors of philosophizing. Rather, walking functions as the engine of immersion, which enables him to take the phenomenological measure of the wild he temporarily inhabits (Wilderness and the Heart, p. 6).

Like Bugbee, and Thoreau before him, I feel have done my best philosophizing whilst walking and today's thinking felt very fruitful indeed—especially after an unusually heavy week of pastoral duties.

All the photos were taken with my iPhone 6+ using the Hipstamatic app. The combination (combo) of "film" and "lens" is one put together by Ger van den Elzen which you can find at this link. As always, just click on a photo to enlarge it.