Tuesday, 31 January 2017

A short walk along the River Cam on a cold and damp Tuesday afternoon

I needed to pop into town to do some food shopping but thought I'd come back the long-way round by the river. Even on a grey old day like today it's a powerful and important reminder to me of how lucky I am to live in a city with so much green space.

All the photos were taken with my iPhone 6+ using the Filmborn App using their Kodak Portra 160 setting. Just click on a photo to enlarge it.












DiEM25 UK Organisational launch meeting at Conway Hall, London, 28th January 2017—some photos and a link to a report

On Saturday morning, 28th January 2017, at Conway Hall in London, long an important place of radical religious, philosophical, social and political thinking in the UK (one with a Unitarian lineage I might add), DiEM25 held its UK organisational launch.

I was privileged to have been able to work with a fine group of British DiEM25 activists, and of course Yanis Varoufakis and Srećko Horvat, to arrange this meeting.

Like all DiEM25 gatherings, more than half of the meeting was made up of conversations involving all those attending but, to set the scene and introduce some important initial ideas, the morning began with brief keynote contributions from Brian Eno, Elif Şafak, Agnieszka Wiśniewska and Igor Stokfiszewski and, finally, Yanis Varoufakis. If you click on the link below you can read a pdf copy of my full meeting notes and just click on a photo if you want to enlarge it.


The meeting in full swing
Yanis Varoufakis
Srećko Horvat facilitating the open dialogue session
Agnieszka Wiśniewska and Igor Stokfiszewski seated together in the centre before the start
Most of the UK organising group
UK organiser Jack Franco
UK organiser Philipp Heyken with the meeting's headline message
Post meeting organiser's conversation
Post meeting organiser's conversation
Post meeting organiser's conversation
Conway Hall's ministers, appointed lecturers and a bit of the society's history 
"To thine own self be true" above the stage in Conway Hall
The sunset on Parker's Piece, Cambridge as I was near to home once again 




Sunday, 29 January 2017

Henry Bugbee's "even strokes" and a ‘somewhat absolute’ in experience

Readings: Luke 14:28-30 and Acts 17:22-28

From “The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form”, University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 121-123

Tuesday, July 28th, 1953

I remember how my heart went out to William Carlos Williams when he prefaced the reading of some of his poetry with some remarks so genial and unassuming, so quiet, and so ordinarily phrased, that one might readily have missed what he was saying. It has just dawned on me what he was saying, after some two years. He was talking about listening to poetry, something like this: “Relax! relax. Enjoy it. Poetry is to be enjoyed. Do not try to make something of it. Don’t try to batter down the doors and take possession of it. Take it as it comes. Poetry is for pleasure. If one understands it in time, that will be fine!”
         What was he saying? It is conceivable that philosophy students wrote down in their notebooks: “has a hedonistic theory of value.” But I think he was saying for the benefit of the Protestant conscience in us, his autonomously-minded audience: “Sit still!” ... And it may be that some who have defended pleasure have wished to say as much.
         [. . .]
         We must see to it! We worry. We hurry along. We translate necessity into anxiety and effort, trying to take charge. We are swimmers flailing the water to keep from going down. We try frantically to swim in a relaxed manner, or taking relaxation to be inaction, go down like lead. We take everything that may be said of our condition as instruction on how to go about dealing with it, alert for the cues to success.
         Yet there are times when waves overtake us from behind, lifting us up and along; from these we may take courage and be thankful. But it is not always so. For we may claim as our own the power of the wave in the exhilaration of swift swimming, and this is demonic swimming, in which we suffer the illusion that we are not fallen into flailing: We have become the masters of our element.
         Then there is the even stroke informed by the sea that carries us all alike; a sea of which trough or crest are but undulations. Now and then we swim a few even strokes and know where we are.

Wednesday, July 29th, 1953

With that phenomenological image of the even stroke I felt that I was drawing near to the meaning of Thoreau's utterances on the theme of free labor. Steadiness and steadfastness are alive to the constancy of our being sustained. They guard against the illusions of elation and depression; such are the undulations of our sea while we ignore our being sustained.
         [. . .]
         I want to set down now one version of what it may mean to be in a true position: The sense of the sustaining sea is bound up with the sense of communion with all the creatures swimming or floundering in it, as may be. The joys and the sorrows deserving our affirmation are those in which we affirm our togetherness with fellow-creatures. These are true joys and sorrows, and as men have ever borne witness, they are true in their concrete understanding of reality and of our togetherness in reality.

—o0o—

ADDRESS
Henry Bugbee's even strokes and a ‘somewhat absolute’ in experience

On Wednesday ten of us shared an interesting conversation teasing out something of the differences that exist between hope and optimism. One thread of the conversation led me to introduce the thought contained in the passage you heard earlier written by the American, twentieth-century philosopher, Henry Bugbee (1915-1999).

The passage was particularly in mind because I was about to share it with my colleagues in the Religious Naturalist Association’s Clergy Group whose occasionally active online discussion forum I maintain and moderate.

I wanted to use it to help raise, and begin to answer, the question of what foundation for hope those of us who can no longer offer their congregations the traditional assurances of theism can still offer their congregations and communities. After all there always remains, as Jesus reminded us, the question about upon what sure (enough) foundations is a stable (enough) hope going to have a chance of being successfully built?

For me one of the most powerful and accessible religious naturalist expressions of upon what foundation one can build is offered up by Bugbee. As you will hear his foundation is a this worldly, experientially derived one that gifts us a steadiness and steadfastness in our going on and, therefore a secure (enough) place from which to continue meaningfully to do our do our work.

In his book, “The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form” (University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 121-123) in the entry of Tuesday, July 28th, 1953, Bugbee turns his attention to some genial, unassuming and ordinarily phrased advice given by the great poet William Carlos Williams, advice that could easily be missed. Indeed, Bugbee himself admits that it took him two years before what it was Williams was saying dawned on him. Here’s the passage once again: 

“Relax! relax. Enjoy it. Poetry is to be enjoyed. Do not try to make something of it. Don’t try to batter down the doors and take possession of it. Take it as it comes. Poetry is for pleasure. If one understands it in time, that will be fine!”

In a nutshell Bugbee thinks this was a gentle call our wider cultures generalised, ever busy, ever worried, ever individually striving Protestant work ethic type conscience to “Sit still!” and to take some kind of pleasure (or at least accept) whatever comes along regardless of whether we fully understand it in the here and now. (Bugbee acknowledges in a number of places his debt to Zen thought which, of course, values highly sitting still. Indeed, in the early 1950s he traveled with D. T.  Suzuki (1870-1966) whose work was instrumental in spreading interest in Zen to the West.)

But we who have grown to maturity in a generalised Protestant work ethic culture don’t really understand stillness and its potential power not least of all because, again as Bugbee observes “We must see to it! We worry. We hurry along. We translate necessity into anxiety and effort, tying to take charge.”

It is at this point in proceedings that Bugbee introduces the image of swimming saying that — in our Protestant mode — in all this activity we are somewhat like swimmers flailing in the water to keep from going down. When, in this situation, we hear the call to sit still, to take things as they come, we often do one of two things. The first is to try frantically to swim in a relaxed manner; the second is to think that being still, taking things as they come, is really a kind of total inaction and so we stop swimming and go down beneath the waves like lead.

But, he reminds us, these two options don’t leave much space for us to notice that “there are times when waves overtake us from behind, lifting us up and along”, waves from which “we may take courage and be thankful.” “But”, he continues, “it is not always so.” There is in us always the hubristic temptation to think that such waves are really our own, autonomous doing, and we foolishly claim the power of the wave to be our own. This is, Bugbee suggests, “demonic swimming, in which we suffer the illusion that we are not flailing.” This is a time when we are seduced into thinking “We have become masters of our element.”

Me cycling on the Lodes Way. Photo by Keep Pushing Those Pedals
In my own younger life I came to know this phenomenon from cycling and often at this very time of year. Finally a sunny and warm enough day comes along and I set off on my first long ride of the season. I’d find myself bowling along at a lovely eighteen to twenty miles an hour and in the exhilaration of easy speed I’d totally forget that I was, in truth, tired and significantly out of condition after a winter spent off the bike and mostly inside. It was only when, after a pleasant lunch, that I’d turn the bike around to make my return and discover a  surprisingly strong wind hit me full in the face. And so I'd flail all the way home sadly reflecting on the fact that I was far from being the master of this element. It was during those return rides that I first discovered the need to work hard at ensuring I didn’t succumb to a kind of demonic cycling.

Anyway, this basic thought leads Bugbee to the final paragraph of the July 28th entry when he articulates something vitally important:

“Then there is the even stroke informed by the sea that carries us all alike; a sea of which trough or crest are but undulations. Now and then we swim a few even strokes and know where we are.” 

He realises that if a person can learn to stop flailing the water and be still, not by stopping entirely so as to sink, but by taking occasional, even strokes then we can come to know where we are.” But where are we?

Well, on the following day, Wednesday, July 29th, 1953 this “phenomenological image of the even stroke” helps Bugbee begin to sense, as he says, that “[s]teadiness and steadfastness are alive to the constancy of our being sustained. They guard against illusions of elation or depression; such are the undulations of our sea while we ignore our being sustained.”

The point is that if we can learn to take even strokes, to be still in this sense, we suddenly notice that we are in a sustaining sea.

Bugbee then goes on to make a number of associated observations, all of which could individually be followed up fruitfully, however, all of them help Bugbee move towards this paragraph were he offers a tentative summary of his basic insight.

“I want to set down now one version of what it may mean to be in a true position: the sense of the sustaining sea is bound up with a sense of communion with all the creatures swimming or floundering in it, as may be. The joys and the sorrows deserving our affirmation are those in which we affirm our togetherness with all creatures. These are true joys and sorrows, and as men [and women] have ever born witness, they are true in their concrete understanding of reality and of our togetherness in reality.”   

The sea has become here a metaphor for the sustaining quality of an unknown something, that using the language of theism St Paul calls the unknown God, a something in which we live, move and have our being.

And it is here, I think, that we reach the heart of the matter and it is one that begins to look and feel to me like a classic Unitarian and Universalist heart — namely, as the eighteenth century Universalist George de Benneville (1703-1793) put it, it is an expression of our communities strong historic intuition or belief that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things which sustains everything. It is a strong, foundational primordial sense, that we humans, animal vegetable and mineral swimming or floundering really are somehow all in this something together — in communion, in community — always-already sustained, lifted up from behind and carried along by the wave that is mysterious ineffable being, without beginning or end and certainly not ours ever wholly to know or control. 

This interdependent unity, this ineffable something was spoken of by one of the most important religious naturalist Unitarian theologians of the twentieth century, Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975), in the following way. It is important to realise as you read this passage to notice that Wieman capitalises the word “Something”:

“Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however, unknown, does certainly exist” (Religious Experience and Scientific Method, Macmillan, 1926, pp. 9).

However, it is very important that having sensed, with some certainty, the existence of this mysterious, ineffable "Something", this sea of being without beginning or end that sustains us in our highs and lows and which roots a real steadiness and steadfastness, we must not, absolutely must not then go on to reify it.

Reify it?! What on earth is that?

Well, reification is to turn something that is by definition ineffable into something real or concrete. But the trouble is, the moment you turn an ineffable God into an effable one, into a thing that you believe can become an object of knowledge, define and control, then you’re in big trouble — what you quickly get is, to pick up on a word used earlier by Bugbee, a demonic religion. At that point the whole panoply of horrible, dangerous old school religion returns into play with its theologians, priests, doctrines, true faith and much else and all of which crowd out once again the possibility of direct personal experience of and encounter with the world.

It is vitally important then to ensure that this “Something” of Weiman’s is not reified and here Bugbee once again comes to the rescue. My philosopher friend, Ed Mooney, who knew Bugbee personally and who has written very movingly about him in a companion volume to Bugbee’s “Inward Morning”, notes that Bugbee’s “ethical reflections hold out for a ‘somewhat absolute’ in experience.”

All of Bugbee's reflections we have heard today are ethical ones, they are about us, about being in relationship with ourselves and with other people and creatures. Do please fix in your minds the powerful paragraph which concluded our reading. Here it is again:

“The sense of the sustaining sea is bound up with the sense of communion with all the creatures swimming or floundering in it, as may be. The joys and the sorrows deserving our affirmation are those in which we affirm our togetherness with fellow-creatures. These are true joys and sorrows, and as men have ever borne witness, they are true in their concrete understanding of reality and of our togetherness in reality.”

And here I may conclude by returning to the question that lay at the beginning of this address concerning what foundation for hope those of us who can no longer offer their congregations the traditional assurances of theism can still offer their congregations and communities?

It turns out that the "God" or "foundation" I can offer, if one wants to continue using this word — and I’m happy to do this although always with caveats — may best be talked and thought about, not as “Something” absolute but as a “Somewhat absolute in experience.” It is a foundation for genuine hope that is found, not in the transcendent, all-powerful, all-seeing, all knowing God of old, but only in an experiential, grounded sense of being always-already sustained together with all things and, with them, being in some kind of felt relational bond. It is this that gifts us with, steadiness and steadfastness and also, as my friend Ed says offers, us “a solid fulcrum on which action and understanding can be raised.”

So my friends, let's find ways to practice together taking even strokes, even strokes . . .
 

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Winter Sun—a photo and a piece of music

Winter Sun
Yesterday I posted a few photographs under the title of "Winter sun, trees, and teasels in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden." I publish here a black and white version of the "Winter Sun" photo (just click on it to enlarge) found there to accompany this post which is primarily aimed at introducing you to the music of composer Terry Jennings. A man whose music lies at the very beginning of Minimalist Music.

When I was at music college in the early 1980s Jennings' music was for me a kind of holy grail in the world of Minimalist Music.

I was much taken with minimalism in its widest understanding (i.e. not just as it was being expressed by Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass) and considered myself to be very much a "disciple" of the New York School of composers, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff who had their own, distinctive minimalist aesthetic. My final first-year composition, an aleatoric string quartet composed using various techniques borrowed from the early works of these composers, did not (it has to be said) endear me to my professors and I ended my first year very much in purdah. Before the beginning of my second year I decided to quit in order to start playing professionally in the field of jazz and improvised music and the rest is history. It seems the right time to acknowledge my huge gratitude to the one teacher at Colchester Institute who always fully understood the appeal of this kind of music and who always encouraged me in my own experimentations in and commitment to it, Chris Burn.

Anyway, in all the books I was reading at the time, Jennings' music was always being cited as having been highly influential but, goddammit, I could never get to hear any. How frustrating that was.

Fast forward thirty years or so (to 2010) and the wonderful pianist, John Tilbury, releases "Lost Daylight" which includes performances of all the piano pieces I always wanted to hear. Heaven! I discovered they were every bit as wonderful as I imagined them to be and one of them, "Winter Sun", accompanies well (I think) the black and white photo I publish here.

There is, alas, no way I can link you to John Tilbury's sublime seven and a half minute long performance of "Winter Sun" but below is an extract of a performance of the piece by Nicholas Horvath which will give you a reasonably good introduction to Jennings' sound world.


Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Winter sun, trees, and teasels in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Yesterday was, as M. R. James once wrote, “really a pearl of a day for . . . January, . . . too fine to be spent indoors” so I took a walk over to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden to see how things were progressing with the dredging of the lake and, of course, to enjoy the small signs of life as winter works its wondrous ways. I spent some time reading Parmenides on a bench in the sunshine but, for the most part, I walked around enjoying the winter scenes.

As always I took a few photos and post them here for your pleasure. All taken with an iPhone 6+ and the Hipstamatic App. The black and white shots were taken using a setting I've spent a little while getting right after trying to "gesture towards" the effect of a mezzotint or engraving in this shot taken a couple of weeks ago. See it as an loving, modern photographic homage to those old techniques.

Just click on a photo to enlarge it.










Tuesday, 24 January 2017

DiEM25 UK Launch—Saturday January 28th, 2017, 10am—Conway Hall, London


I've been involved in getting this meeting organised with various UK DiEM25 activists and Yanis Varoufakis and Srećko Horvat. I hope I'll see a few of you connected with the Cambridge DiEM25 group there on the day.

Ful details of the event are available at the following links:





Sunday, 22 January 2017

On losing one's ball—a liberal religious meditation on the inauguration of Donald Trump and Democracy

PROLOGUE

It is a commonplace that before a person leading a chaotic and out of control life can begin to turn their life around they must first hit "rock-bottom". In an ideal world it should be possible for a person to begin to sort themselves out before they reach that dreadful lowest of low points but, for this to happen a person must be able to experience, if you like, an earlier penultimate rock bottom, one that is very nearly as powerfully shocking as the ultimate one. Today’s address is an attempt to provide you with an imaginative, penultimate rock bottom to hit with regard to democracy. My hope is that shock is powerful and creative enough so that, ultimately, it is able to help us drive a healthy and hopeful recovery.

READINGS

Kant’s Copernican turn: After Emmanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) groundbreaking, revolutionary work no discussion of reality or knowledge could take place without awareness of the role of the human mind in constructing reality and knowledge.

Promethean myths: Prometheus is the deity in Greek mythology who was the creator of mankind and it is claimed, its greatest benefactor, who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humankind. “Promethean myths” is often used to refer to those myths which encourage the idea that a human (or humanity) can, through it’s own power alone, surmount all obstacles.
_______________

From “Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance” by Simon Critchley (Verso Books, 2007, pp.1-2)

Philosophy does not begin in an experience of wonder, as ancient tradition contends, but rather, I think, with the indeterminate but palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled, that a fantastic effort has failed. Philosophy begins in disappointment. Although there might well be precursors, I see this as a specifically modern conception of philosophy. To give it a name and a date, one could say that it is a conception of philosophy that follows from Kant’s Copernican turn at the end of the eighteenth century. The great metaphysical dream of the soul moving frictionless towards knowledge of itself, things-in-themselves and God is just that, a dream. Absolute knowledge or a direct ontology of things as they are is decisively beyond the ken of fallible, finite creatures like us. Human beings are exceedingly limited creatures, a mere vapour or virus can destroy us. The Kantian revolution in philosophy is a lesson in limitation. As Pascal said, we are the weakest reed in nature and this fact requires an acknowledgement that is very reluctantly given. Our culture is endlessly beset with Promethean myths of the overcoming of the human condition, whether through the fantasy of artificial intelligence, contemporary delusions about robotics, cloning and genetic manipulation or simply through cryogenics and cosmetic surgery. We seem to have enormous difficulty in accepting our limitedness, our finiteness, and this failure is a cause of much tragedy.
          One could give an entire taxonomy of disappointment, but the two forms that concern me most urgently are religious and political. These forms of disappointment are not entirely separable and continually leak into one another. Indeed, we will see how ethical and religious categories are rightly difficult to distinguish at times, and in my discussions of ethics I will often have recourse to religious traditions. In religious disappointment, that which is desired but lacking is an experience of faith. That is, faith in some transcendent god, god-equivalent or, indeed, gods. Philosophy in the experience of religious disappointment is godless, but it is an uneasy godlessness with a religious memory and within a religious archive.

“The Ball Poem” by John Berryman from “Collected Poems 1938-1968” (Faber and Faber, 1972). 

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball.
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over—there it is in the water!
No use to say 'O there are other balls':
An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy
As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down
All his young days into the harbour where
His ball went. I would not intrude on him,
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
Balls will be lost always, little boy,
And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.
He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up
And gradually light returns to the street,
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight.
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.

—o0o—

ADDRESS
A liberal religious meditation on the inauguration of Donald Trump and Democracy 

With the inauguration of Donald Trump to the US Presidency on Friday we, understandably, start this new week with a sense of bitter, bitter disappointment, filled with “a palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled, that a fantastic effort has failed.”

For many people such a disappointment is only going to be experienced as a bad thing. But in the belief that disappointment can help lead us towards greater wisdom rather than only into greater despair, today’s address is an attempt to help us see something of disappointment’s abiding and creative value.

As you heard in our readings, in his book “Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance”, Simon Critchley argues, for me persuasively, that philosophy begins not in wonder as Plato and Aristotle thought (d. 155 Theaetus and 982b Metaphysics) but in disappointment.

Critchley begins by indicating that for our wider European and North American culture one of the greatest disappointments we have faced was when, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Emmanuel Kant (1724–1804), we began fully to understand that no discussion of reality or knowledge of the nature of things (ontology) could take place without a deep awareness of the role the human mind plays in constructing reality and knowledge. The revolutionary change this brought about in the way we viewed the world cannot be understated because, just as Copernicus demonstrated to a world which firmly believed the Earth was the centre of the universe that, in fact, the sun was at the centre of the solar system, so Kant demonstrated that all our empirical, scientific knowledge centres in some way upon us as the kind of highly limited creatures we are. As Critchley succinctly puts it, “[t]he Kantian revolution in philosophy is a lesson in limitation” one which helped us see that the old once cherished idea that our human souls could move frictionlessly “towards knowledge of itself, things-in-themselves and God was just that, a dream” and that from now on we must learn to live with, what is still for some, the huge disappointment of knowing ourselves to be frail, fallible and finite creatures.

Alas, as a species, we remain terrible at acknowledging this limitation and our failure to do so remains a cause of much tragedy as the example of Donald Trump shows only too well. His inauguration speech revealed he is a man utterly addicted to the myth of Prometheus, a man who thinks he alone can solve all problems faced by the USA and, possibly, even the world. What is perhaps even more disturbing is that enough people have also bought into this ancient Promethean myth of a great and all-powerful human leader and once again have given it powerful and dangerous human and social form. What is true in the USA is, alas, also becoming true on this side of the Atlantic where there are appearing more than a few wannabe strong-men and women as the so-called “counter-summit” of European right-wing leaders in Koblenz this weekend shows only too clearly. Neither should we forget in this toxic, Promethean mix the figure of Vladimir Putin.

We are now unquestionably in the dangerous presence of some very powerful individuals who have not learnt any lessons in limitation and it seems to me that one of the most important, sacred tasks a liberal, radical church such as our own must continue to attempt to carry out in these dark days is to teach, again and again, Kant’s vital lesson of human limitation and of our need to be humble in the face of the universe and each other. If you take only one message from this address let it be this one.

But we, on the liberal end of the religious and political spectrum urgently need to learn our own important lesson in limitation because we have continued thoughtlessly to hold on to our own collective version of the Promethian myth from which we desperately need to be cured; it is the belief that the various kinds of democracies we slowly constructed over several hundred years are somehow eternal and that, having once made them, we can simply relax and lazily bask forever in their sunlit and peaceful precincts. We need to re-learn the limitations of democracy — the chief of which is that it’s not forever, it is never something perfectly expressed and finished but an always-already ongoing, flawed, if often beautiful and holy work of frail, fallible and finite creatures.

It is at this point that I think John Berryman’s 1948 poem, “The Ball Poem” can be of great help to us by providing a penultimate rock bottom to hit.

In the poem we see a pivotal moment in the life of a young boy when he learns well, behind his desperate eyes, the epistemology of loss; that is to say when he first senses first responsibility in a world of possessions; when he learns that people will take balls, that balls will be lost always and that no one buys a ball back. The boy is learning in his own personal life the disappointing lesson in limitation we have already explored, namely that he is a frail, fallible and finite creature who, if he is to live an adult, mature and full life has no choice but to learn, in Berryman’s words:

“. . . how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know 
And most know many days, how to stand up.”

As we know this is always a hard lesson to learn and it is important to realise that it is only the boy’s ultimate shaking grief that fixes him as he stands rigid, trembling, staring down all his young days into the harbour where his ball went that is powerful enough to do this important work. (It is, of course, an open question as to whether the boy in the poem will respond to this lesson with a commitment to democratic, mutual ways of proceeding or Promethean ones.)

OK. Now let’s use this insight to help us reflect on our own current situation and disappointment.

When it comes to democracy I fear that we present day liberals are rather too much like the little boy in Berryman’s poem who has not yet learnt his ball is not forever. With the passing of the years we have forgotten that there will always be people desirous and quite able to take democracy away from us as easily as any ball, that democracy can be as easily lost by us in our own carelessness as any ball and, lastly, that once democracy has gone nothing can buy it back. After it has gone any possible return is something that will take, as it did once before, generations of blood, toil, tears and sweat — this is something money cannot buy.

This Friday many of us had yet another heart-stopping glimpse of the truth that this valued democracy of ours is, like the boy’s ball, by now clearly bouncing merrily down the road and towards the river; and it's an horrific thing to see occurring.

We are, however, fortunate that right at this moment the ball of democracy is not yet (quite) in the harbour even as it is getting damnably close to the edge.

Let us, therefore be both brave and wise and use Berryman’s poem to help us see clearly and forcibly feel that, if we can at all help it, we really, really don’t want to arrive at a day when democracy has been lost to the harbour for on that day a truly ultimate shaking grief will fix us all as we stand rigid, trembling, staring down all our days into the harbour where democracy went.

So, to preempt this, let’s therapeutically just pause for a minute in silence and use this poem and our own memories of childhood loss to help us imagine, really imagine, what the loss of democracy into the harbour of time would be like. Try and sense what it would be like to feel ultimate shaking grief at its loss.

PAUSE (In the service we held a minute's silence at this point)

I hope that this little, therapeutic exercise makes it abundantly clear that we need to recover, extremely fast, the knowledge that, like the boy’s ball, democracy is never simply forever. For it to last any decent length of time, even as it remains something always at risk of being lost, we need to understand that it is something which must constantly be nurtured, loved, cared for, repaired, remodelled and passionately protected by us, even unto our own deaths.

I think we best begin do this by together (starting with our families and local communities) by beginning to remind ourselves of the long story of democracy and of Kant’s Copernican revolution, by reminding ourselves of our human, all-too-human limitations which are best overcome, not by recourse to Promethean dictators and demagogues, but by encouraging mutual, democratic support in and through all our activities from the local to the national and beyond and in all sectors of society. To remind ourselves of the need to find our own ways to say together, and truly mean, something like this (and I deliberately make a change appropriate for our own times):

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men and women, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, adapted).

So, today,
let the boy’s lost ball,
let Trump’s victory,
let Putin’s ascendecy,
let the existence of Frauke Petry, Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage and Viktor Orbán,
let them all shock you to your very core.

Let all these things cause you creatively to experience here and now, penultimately in your imaginations, in the present democratic safety of this church and country, amongst a diverse community of supportive friends, neighbours and loved ones, something of the ultimate shaking grief that you will certainly experience for real if democracy is ever lost to us.

Jim Morrison and The Doors once memorably sung:

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And our love become a funeral pyre

Come on baby, light my fire
Come on baby, light my fire
Try to set the night on fire

This is exactly what needs to happen to us; we must be ignited in the sacred cause of democracy or be gone.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

A winter walk around Wandlebury and along the Roman Road

Today was a beautiful sunny, winter's day and for the first time in a while I felt energised enough to cycle out of town to Wandlebury and the Roman Road. It was a hugely restorative trip. As always I took some photos along the way and paste them below for your pleasure. All taken with an iPhone 6+, the Blackie App (black and whites) and the Hipstamatic App (colour).