Tuesday, 21 February 2017

A hauntological walk across Fulbourn Fen, along Fleam Dyke to the bronze-age barrow at Mutlow Hill

I was in a decidedly hauntological mood today as I cycled out to Fulbourn Fen for a walk across the fen itself and then on to Fleam Dyke as far as the bronze-age barrow at Mutlow Hill. The photos below, all taken with my iPhone 6+ and using a couple of Hipstamtlc settings of my own, pretty much capture that mood.

I stopped for lunch and a flask of tea on Mutlow Hill and took the opportunity to listen to the first two movements of Delius' "North Country Sketches" (1913-1914) which, musically speaking, were a perfect accompaniment to the landscape around me and the grey skies above. Just click on a photo to enlarge it.  

Monday, 20 February 2017

Six ways of looking a fenland reeds— a light that gives clarity and sharpness . . . that subdues and blurs

I've recently been re-reading Edward Storey's book "The Solitary Landscape", his 1975 journal about the Fens that I first read not long after it was published. As regular readers of this blog know that I, like Storey, love the Fens. I love them I'm sure because they remind me of the flat, marshy, coastal landscape of Essex on the Tendring Peninsular where I grew up. In consequence, coming to live and work in Cambridge on the edge of the fens in 2000 was a kind of homecoming for it, too, is a landscape neither fully land nor fully water. But, land and water aside there is also the shared special quality of light found in such flat landscapes and light is, of course, an obsession of all visual artists including photographers such as myself.  Here is how Storey begins Part Four of the book called "Spring Light And Full Circle"

I would always come back to this land, as I said at the beginning, for the low light of evening and the bright day's awakening. Light has been a recurring theme of this journal and being made aware of it again on this spring morning I suppose it is the one quality of the fen country that is most difficult to convey in words. One can talk about distance in terms of miles. It is possible to describe the flat land of rivers and farms. One can talk about the character of the people and give some idea of the great skies. But how can I write of the light in the fens so that a stranger might know what I mean?
          It is an elusive quality that I am after. It is true to say that some days there is a dazzling spread of light over the whole land that makes everything shine. It is true to say that some days there is a very soft lustre in the as that gives every house and field a quiet beauty far removed from winter's bleakness. It is a light that gives clarity and sharpness. It is also a light that subdues and blurs. But it is always there, even on wet days, in each season of the year, and always it influences one's view of the landscape itself ("The Solitary Landscape", Victor Gollancz, London 1975, p. 143)

Well, today, the light was wonderful as Susanna and I walked round the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.  Right in the middle is a little section of the garden devoted to fenland flora. As we got to it the sun suddenly shone on it full, bright and surprisingly warm for a February day and I could not resist taking a photo of the lovely scene before me. But the richness of the light on this little patch of fenland was such that not only was there to be seen a clarity and sharpness but also something that subdued and blurred and in the end a single, simple "development" of the photo didn't seem sufficient to express the complex richness of light I'd seen. So, getting back home, with a cup of tea in hand and the first two Fairport Convention LPs on the CD player,  I set about creating a few other images from my original to try to do the light some justice so a stranger to the fens might know what I, and I guess Storey, means.

Photo taken and edited with my iPhone 6+ and the Hipstamatic App. Just click on a photo to enlarge it.


Sunday, 19 February 2017

The vanguard of their peoples— A meditation on Hannah Arendt’s 1943 essay, “We Refugees” for Hope Not Hate's "One Day With(out) Us"

Hope Not Hate interfaith event in the church after the morning service

Leviticus 19:33-34 
When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”

Leviticus 24:22
You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God.

Hebrews 13:2
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)
From “We Refugees” (1943) by Hannah Arendt

In the first place, we don't like to be called “refugees.” We ourselves call each other “newcomers” or “immigrants.” Our newspapers are papers for “Americans of German language”; and, as far as I know, there is not and never was any club founded by Hitler-persecuted people whose name indicated that its members were refugees.
          A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held. Well, it is true we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical opinion. With us the meaning of the term “refugee” has changed. Now “refugees” are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by Refugee Committees
          [. . .]
          Our new friends, rather overwhelmed by so many stars and famous men, hardly understand that at the basis of all our descriptions of past splendours lies one human truth, once we were somebodies about whom people cared, we were loved by friends, and even known by landlords as paying our rent regularly. Once we could buy our food and ride in the subway without being told we were undesirable. We have become a little hysterical since newspapermen started detecting us and telling us publicly to stop being disagreeable when shopping for milk and bread. We wonder how it can be done; we already are so damnably careful in every moment of our daily lives to avoid anybody guessing who we are, what kind of passport we have, where our birth certificates were filled out — and that Hitler didn’t like us. We try the best we can to fit into a world where you have to be sort of politically minded when you buy your food
(p. 115).
          [. . .]
          Those few refugees who insist upon telling the truth, even to the point of “indecency,” get in exchange for their unpopularity one priceless advantage: history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of Gentiles. They know that the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations. Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples — if they keep their identity. For the first time Jewish history is not separate but tied up with that of all other nations. The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted
(p. 119).


The vanguard of their peoples— A meditation on Hannah Arendt’s 1943 essay, “We Refugees” for Hope Not Hate's "One Day With(out) Us"

This morning I want to speak about refugees and migrants (the two are never easily to be distinguished and constantly overlap) in a way that is, I hope, both unexpected and usefully suggestive. I am well aware that most of you probably don’t want to hear just another address merely rehearsing the self-evident plight of refugees and migrants nor one which merely berates (if rightly) our various European governments for the way they are dealing with the matter.

Realising this I thought I’d take the time to re-read and think further about Hannah Arendt’s (1906-1975) important 1943 essay “We Refugees” which prompted in me the unitarian and universalist related theological thought with which I’ll begin today. After expressing it I’ll go back to look at Arendt to draw out a thought that I think can be of help to us today as we take part in Hope Not Hate’s national campaign “One Day With Us” celebrating diversity and the contribution of migrants and refugees.

It became apparent to me as I re-read Arendt that one of the major reasons we within the Unitarian and Universalist churches are so distressed at the way refugees and migrants are being treated (and at the contributory background circumstances of both the UK’s vote to leave the EU and Trump’s victory with all their nationalistic over and undertones) is because over our four-and-a-half centuries we have developed a strong theological and philosophical sense that, regardless of belief, nation, gender, colour etc., etc., each human being has what we have come to call universal, inalienable human rights. To put it another way round, we have become highly suspicious of any definition of a person that rests primarily on the accidents of belief, nation, gender, colour etc.. Our inherited language seems to want us say that there is something more essential about a person than these accidental aspects. Personally, I think there are profound problems with the language of essentialism and so I’d prefer say that we have come to have a sense that there is something more primordial to a human being than belief, nation, gender, colour etc..

In short our theological unitarianism (God/Nature — however so defined — is one and so all creation is also one) and our theological universalism (salvation — however so defined — is for all people without exception and for each one in particular) led us during the Enlightenment powerfully to contribute and commit to the development in our culture of the idea of a European and, more recently, a global cosmopolitanism. Along with this came an associated sense that human beings were best primordially thought of as “citizens of the world” rather than citizens or subjects of “nations” — i.e. of the accidental territorial space in which they were born (the word “nation” being derived, of course, from the latin word for birth, “natio”). This sense of being a citizen of the world was powerfully reinforced for many of us following publication of the famous “earthrise” photo of the Earth and the Moon's surface taken by astronaut William Anders in 1968.

But, as many of you are becoming increasingly aware, this great cosmopolitan ideal is today being seriously challenged, disparaged and even actually dispensed with across Europe. (It’s being challenged in all kinds of other places as well — including the USA — but today I want to remain primarily focused on Europe of which the UK is an integral part).

This challenge came explicitly to the forefront of public consciousness in the UK when, in her Conservative Party conference speech in October last year, Theresa May disturbingly  said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” In response to this Jeremy Adler, a professor and senior research fellow at King’s College London (best known for his work on German literature specializing in the Age of Goethe, Romanticism, Expressionism and Modernism) summed up what many of us felt on hearing this, namely, that “Theresa May is in effect repudiating Enlightenment values as a whole, for cosmopolitanism is the apex and indeed the glory of Enlightenment philosophy, encompassing liberty, equality, fraternity, and all our human rights.”

With this thought in mind let’s now turn to Arendt’s essay because she seems to me to be saying something about the more primordial aspect of human nature I have just noted that might help us look at world citizenship and the so-called “problem” of refugees and migrants in a different way than usual view and, perhaps, to see there a possible solution.

The first thing to note is the basic problem that exists with “natio” and nation. When a person is defined primordially by the territorial space in which they were born, any forced movement to another territorial space — whether as a refugee forced out by the violence of war or as a migrant forced out by the violence of economics — nearly always requires that person to try and perform acts of incredible mental and cultural contortion. In a section of Arendt’s essay, which I did not quote earlier, she points to an imagined Mr Cohen, an assimilated German Jew who, after having attempted to be 150 percent German (his place of birth) is then forced as a refugee, firstly, to attempt to become 150 percent Viennese and then, being forced to flee even further afield, to attempt to become 150 percent French. As she says, “on ne parvient pas deux fois” — one does not succeed twice in carrying out such contortions because it’s almost impossible to do once and still remain a coherent person let alone twice or even three times. To this contortion you must add the simple but oft-forgotten fact that most refugees and migrants have “committed no acts” nor have ever “dreamt of having any radical opinion.” They are nearly all wholly innocent people forced, against their will, to move between territorial spaces. As Arendt notes this movement forces too many refugees and migrants to be so damnably careful in every moment of their daily lives in order to avoid anybody guessing who they are, what kind of passport they have, where their birth certificates were filled out. This occurs because too many people in this or that new territorial space find even the refugees’ and migrants’ basic need to go out and shop for milk and bread as something “disagreeable.” As Arendt wonders, “how can this be done?” Could any of us do it I wonder?

These reflections lead her, towards the very end of her essay, to what seems to me to be a powerful, visionary insight that may still, just, be able to help us today stop committing a terrible, regressive, political and cultural mistake.

She begins by noting that “in exchange for their unpopularity” the Jewish refugee gained from this dreadful experience “one priceless advantage”, namely, that

“. . . history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of Gentiles. They know that the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations.”

Here she is reminding us that the pre-Second World War Jewish experience of being forced out of their country of birth by the Nazis and becoming stateless refugees was a foreshadowing of something which, when the war finally broke out, quickly became true, across Europe, for millions of other, non-Jewish people who had also committed no radical acts nor had ever dreamt of having any radical opinion. It is this that allows her prophetically to suggest that:

“Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples — if they keep their identity.”

Here she articulates her visionary hope that this widespread European experience of becoming a refugee and migrant would help the whole of the continent begin to develop a sense that what it is to continue to be the person they truly are, to be treated with respect and compassion and to have certain inalienable rights and responsibilities was not something which relied upon being born in this or that territorial space (nation) but simply because they were humans sharing a transnational, cosmopolitan experience of being European rather than German, Austrian, French, Italian, Spanish, British etc., etc..
It seems to me that, in this single sentence, Arendt was encouraging us — in this darkest moment of recent European history — to see that we shouldn’t be vilifying the refugee and migrant and finding them disagreeable — even hateful — but to see in them and their experience a glimpse of truly better and more inclusive way of being human that didn’t rely upon the nation-state but upon a sense that we are all citizens of the world and that united we would stand or divided we would fall; it was an encouragement to us to see the refugee and the migrant as being the first true citizens of the world and it is in this sense that Arendt saw them as being a vanguard, a group of people whom we should all admire, celebrate and, above all else, emulate.

The horrors of the war showed us in Europe that we were all, in actuality or potentially, all refugees in any world that continued to understand itself as made up primarily of competing nation states and that the way through this was to begin to see our common humanity, our European (and by extension, global) citizenship as more primordial, healthy and creative than identities defined by belonging to this or that nation state.

Now, in a wholly incomplete and ultimately unfulfilled way, the situation as it developed in Europe post-1945 did begin to bring into reality something of Arendt’s remarkable cosmopolitan vision. The opening of internal European borders  which began on 14 June 1985 was a truly remarkable event which many of us have had cause to celebrate and enjoy over the past thirty-odd years. In 1989 this opening-up was, of course, memorably and unexpectedly extended eastwards and I still remember the visceral amazement and joy I felt the evening when, in early January 1990, I and an international group of fellow musicians and poets crossed into East Germany through still standing barbed-wire fences and watch-towers without once being stopped by any border controls. To us Europe truly seemed to be uniting and transcending its nationalist past. They were heady, exciting days to be alive.  

Of course, across Europe we are today all painfully aware that along with the rhetoric of open borders that seemed genuinely to be beginning to conceive of in what consists human identity and human rights in non-nation state ways there simultaneously came a profoundly dysfunctional, amoral, anti-democratic, neoliberal project — a project whose abject failure (and since 2008 its many painful crises) has served slowly to destroy countless numbers of local communities, jobs and security across the continent by creating everywhere situations of involuntary under-employment which, in turn, has brought with it an associated involuntary economic migration which, in its own turn has served to create increasing resentment against the economic refugee or migrant seeking any kind of job or the smallest amount of security away from their original homes. The anger here should, of course, be being directed not against the vulnerable and innocent people who are being forced to move but against the pernicious socio-political economic system that is causing this movement in the first place and destroying cosmopolitan hope with it.

But, alas, we are living in an age inhabited by more and more people who seem willing and able to forget the experience of the last war and the beautiful cosmopolitan vision of citizenship that rose, in part thanks to Arendt, phoenix-like from out of the ashes of a destroyed Europe of nation-states.

It is clear that our current, forgetful contemporary European cultures are suicidally reviving the dangerous idea that the solution to our present problems is going to be found by retreating back into the nation-state, by re-erecting around themselves barbed-wire fences and watch-towers and once again defining who is to get any rights at all only on the basis of the nation in which they were born.

The writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 13:2) wrote some two-thousand years ago, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” In today’s climate I think we need to have the courage to change this to read: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to refugees and migrants, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Arendt seems to me to have been one such angel and it is my confirmed opinion that refugees and migrants are for us not the enemy but a glorious vanguard of angels, that is to say a vanguard of messengers reminding us of a better, cosmopolitan vision of belonging than that being proposed by our current crop of nationalist politicians.

Please, please let us entertain refugees and migrants with open heads, hearts and hands for potentially they bring with them the sacred gift of the republic of heaven on earth, a cosmopolitan city built without walls, with one law (see note below) and set of rights for all and in which all people can find sanctuary and a true home.


Note: The idea of "one law" doesn't rule out the idea of the existence of many diverse local bylaws. The thought is that we might usefully be able globalise certain laws (pertaining to the wellbeing of the planet as a whole) whilst encouraging the localisation of all others. A legalistic mono-culture is certainly not in my mind when I express this thought.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

A common ground? A Unitarian and Universalist religious naturalist meditation on Darwin’s 207th birthday

Charles Darwin in 1881
Readings: Various sections from Charles Darwin's posthumous autobiography

Today, on the 12th February 1809, the naturalist Charles Darwin was born. He is of interest to us as a religious community for two connected reasons. The first is that was raised in a Unitarian family which included a number of avowed freethinkers.  This upbringing clearly had an influence on his own ability and freedom to think freely and critically. The second was his publication on 24 November 1859 of “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” a book which stands as a wellspring for what we now call evolutionary biology — a discipline which brought about radical changes in religious perspectives and belief.

It’s worth noting that since 2008 the Sunday nearest Darwin’s birthday has been dubbed “Evolution Sunday” by the Clergy Letter Project which promotes good relationships and dialogue between science and religion. I’ve supported this project for many years now and you’ll find this church mentioned on their website as well as a couple of my earlier addresses.

Darwin’s mature religious thinking moved from being a kind of deism in mid-life to a principled agnosticism by the time of his old age and death. In a nutshell an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in God or the supernatural but it is important to observe that his agnosticism did not stop Darwin from feeling strongly that the idea of the theistic Christian God was a morally repugnant one. This was, of course, because in all forms of theism the problem of evil always remains in play.

Anyway, without doubt, Darwin helped many within the Unitarian movement begin definitively to move away from theism and towards a position that today we would call religious naturalism (which, by the way, is amenable to the use of the word God but only insofar as it is used in a non-theistic and naturalistic way as you might find in process theology or pantheistic and panentheistic philosophies).

So what is religious naturalism? or, another way of putting it, who is a religious naturalist?

Well, some of you may know that I convene and moderate the online clergy page of the Religious Naturalist Association. Here’s how our web page initially answers the question:

“Religious naturalists take nature to heart. We hold a naturalist view of how things are in the world, and we also see ourselves as religious, in non-traditional ways, as we absorb the wonder of being alive and the order and beauty of the cosmos. We ask “What is?” and “What matters?” questions, seeking answers from natural (rather than supernatural) sources. Our searches are guided by the wisdom that can be found in such human traditions as science, art, literature, philosophy, and the religions of the world (which are also part of nature).”

It is important to add that, for a religious naturalist, the core religious narrative around which they gather at this point in time is the story of the universe from the Big Bang to today. As you will have heard in our readings this doesn’t mean that our world’s various ancient religious narratives need be lost or thrown away as utterly useless but they are themselves now understood as being part of nature itself — emergent natural phenomena just as we are, Jesus was, and just as are planets, stars, black-holes, dinosaurs, roses, hammers, houses, lichen, potatoes and iPads. Be aware, too, that within a religious naturalist perspective ethics and morality are also generally felt to be emergent natural phenomena rather than eternal verities front-loaded into the world at its very beginning.

Religious naturalism in this developed form is not, of course, the kind of full blown agnosticism adopted by Darwin. However, in toto, it retains a healthy agnosticism at its core because, as the contemporary French particle-physicist, Bernard d’Espagnat (1921-2015) gently reminds us, we must always remain careful not to over-estimate the reach and power of the natural sciences. Indeed he is careful to point out that “the information science yields serves to limit possible options, rather than put forward the allegedly correct one” (On Physics and Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2006, p.1). Having said that, d’Espagnat continues by noting,

“. . . while Nature — in the broadest possible sense — refuses to explicitly tell us what she is, she sometimes condescends, when we press her tenaciously enough, to let us know a little about what she is not” (ibid. p.2).

And what she has condescended to tell us, amongst other things, is that “some elements of present-day scientific knowledge casts serious doubts on such and such Platonic intuitions” (ibid. p.1). This is important to know because Christian theism is choc-a-bloc with such and such Platonic intuitions and consequently, based on good evidence, serious doubt about its truth now hangs over it.

So, in our own age, we can say that having being tenaciously pressed even further than she was during Darwin’s life, Nature is strongly suggesting to us that certain, once central, aspects of our ancient religions and philosophies about which we were once rightly agnostic — such as theism — are today now highly unlikely to be true; they are doubtful enough that, if we wish to continue to live with full pathos and a clean heart, we should seriously consider letting them go and to think about adopting another, basic religious position. For me that “new” position is religious naturalism — something I’ve been gently encouraging from this lectern now and then for a long while now.

I bring it before you as a live religious option once again not only because of the coincidence that today falls on Darwin’s birthday and Evolution Sunday but also because last week an email with a pamphlet  popped into my inbox from a North American Unitarian Universalist (UU) initiative called “UU Common Ground”  (which I distributed to the congregation). They, like me, feel that if we wish to survive as a relevant and attractive liberal religion we urgently need to develop “clarity about who we are and what matters to us; clarity about what vision has called us into being, and what promise we serve.”

This often looks impossible to achieve not least of all because of the great diversity that self-evidently exists among us. But it has long struck me and UU Common Ground members that, in truth, there is hidden amongst most everyone who enters into a Unitarian church these days a religious naturalist core which, potentially at least, could gift us with great clarity about who we are and what matters to us and great clarity about what vision has called us into being and what promise we serve.

So now, for your consideration, here is how one writer on the Common Ground website poetical and ethically frames what a corporate religious naturalist statement might look like in the Unitarian and Universalist context.

We believe that the universe in which we live and move and have our being is the expression of an inexorable process that began in eons past, ages beyond our comprehension, and has evolved from singularity to multiplicity, from simplicity to complexity, from disorder to order. 

We believe that the earth and all who live upon the earth are products of the same process that swirled the galaxies into being, that ignited the stars and orbited the planets through the night sky, that we are expressions of that universal process which has created and formed us out of recycled stardust. 

We believe that all living things are members of a single community, all expressions of a planetary process that produced life and sustains it in intricate ways beyond our knowing. 

We hold the life process itself to be sacred. 

We believe that the health of the human venture is inextricably dependent upon the integrity of the rest of the community of living things and upon the integrity of those processes by which life is bodied forth and sustained. Therefore we affirm that we are called to serve the planetary process upon which life depends. 

We believe that in this interconnected existence the well-being of one cannot be separated from the well-being of the whole, that ultimately we all spring from the same source and all journey to the same ultimate destiny. 

We believe that the universe outside of us and the universe within us is one universe. Because that is so, our efforts, our dreams, our hopes, our ambitions are the dreams, hopes, and ambitions of the universe itself. In us, and perhaps elsewhere, the Universe is reaching toward self-awareness, toward self-consciousness. 

We believe that our efforts to understand the world and our place within it are an expression of the Universe’s deep drive toward meaning. In us, and perhaps elsewhere, the Universe dreams dreams and reaches toward unknown possibilities. 

We hold as sacred the unquenchable drive to know and to understand. 

We believe that the moral impulse that weaves its way through our lives, luring us to practices of justice and mercy and compassion, is threaded through the universe itself and it is this universal longing that finds outlet in our best moments. 

We believe that our location within the community of living things places upon us inescapable responsibilities. Life is more than our understanding of it, but the level of our comprehension demands that we act out of conscious concern for the broadest vision of community we can command and that we seek not our welfare alone, but the welfare of the whole. We are commanded to serve life and serve it to the seven times seventieth generation. 

We believe that those least like us, those located on the margins have important contributions to make to the rest of the community of life and that in some curious way, we are all located on some margin. 

We believe that all that functions to divide us from each other and from the community of living things is to be resisted in the name of that larger vision of a world everywhere alive, everywhere seeking to incarnate a deep, implicit process that called us into being, that sustains us in being, that transforms us as we cannot transform ourselves, that receives us back to itself when life has used us up. Not knowing the end of that process, nonetheless we trust it, we rest in it, and we serve it.   

Do you find yourself in broad agreement with these things too? If you do then you’re a religious naturalist of sorts and, were we all to find ourselves in agreement with these affirmations, then we’d be a community of religious naturalists, a religious naturalist church and, if that’s what we are, shouldn’t we be promoting this core aspect of our religious life more explicitly as we already do in a quiet way in the evening service?

Of course, I realise I’m may well just be plain wrong in feeling this underlying core religious position exists amongst most of us here gathered. But whether I’m right or wrong, it’s now two-hundred-and-seven years since Darwin began to move our tradition towards adopting a religious naturalist position and since it is one which ever more closely chimes with our current state of religious, philosophical and scientific knowledge of how the world is and our place in it, isn’t it perhaps time we at least seriously thought about consciously and publicly adopting it, promoting it and, above all, practising it?

Over to you . . .

In terms of how one might begin to develop a religious naturalist practice here is a link to a fine and helpful essay written by a friend of mine, the philosopher Ed Mooney, called "Letting Creation Step Forward: A Plea for Immersive Contact." Thanks to Ed for kindly allowing me to make this available to you here.