Sunday, 2 August 2015

Re-story-ation — A religious naturalist meditation on voices from things growing in a churchyard


INTRODUCTION

After finishing writing this address I discovered it could be hung upon, literally de-pend upon, a comment made by Steve Dunsky a film maker with the U.S. Forest Service in a very recent piece by him called “Re-storying the World” for the “Centre for Humans and Nature”. He noted that his colleagues at Oregon’s “H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest” were engaged in something they called “re-story-ation” and Dunsky feels that,

“Before we make new policies, we need new metaphors.”

He goes on to say that is “the reason writers and artists play a crucial role in conservation history” and he, surely correctly, asks “Where would the [environmental/ecological] movement be without the literary talents of Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, Stegner, and Carson?”

This address which follows seems to me to be just such an attempt to offer, if not quite a new metaphor per se, then certainly a new metaphor for this religious community which is trying to articulate and live a contemporary religion that values our Christian past and heritage but which knows, deep in it's bones, that so many of Christianity’s leading metaphors can simply no longer speak to us nor have the power to move us — except, perhaps alas, repulsively. So it seems to me that we, too, need some kind of restoration through “re-story-ation.” This needs to be done in countless small and large ways but here's a beginning — one possible re-story-ation courtesy of Thomas Hardy.

—o0o—

READINGS

For in God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

For in nature we live and move and have our being (Donald A. Crosby A Religion of Nature, SUNY Press 2002, p. 10).

“Voices from things growing in a churchyard” by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
First published in The London Mercury 1921, rev. 1922

You can hear the poem beautifully read at this link.

You can hear an excerpt of Gerald Finzi's powerful setting of the poem at this link.

These flowers are I, poor Fanny Hurd,
Sir or Madam,
A little girl here sepultured.
Once I flit-fluttered like a bird
Above the grass, as now I wave
In daisy shapes above my grave,
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

I am one Bachelor Bowring, “Gent,”
Sir or Madam;
In shingled oak my bones were pent;
Hence more than a hundred years I spent
In my feat of change from a coffin-thrall
To a dancer in green as leaves on a wall.
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

I, these berries of juice and gloss,
Sir or Madam,
Am clean forgotten as Thomas Voss;
Thin-urned, I have burrowed away from the moss
That covers my sod, and have entered this yew,
And turned to clusters ruddy of view,
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

The Lady Gertrude, proud, high-bred,
Sir or Madam,
Am I—this laurel that shades your head;
Into its veins I have stilly sped,
And made them of me; and my leaves now shine,
As did my satins superfine,
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

I, who as innocent with wind climb,
Sir or Madam.
Am one Eve Greensleeves, in olden time
Kissed by men from many a clime,
Beneath sun, stars, in blaze, in breeze,
As now by glowworms and by bees,
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

I’m old Squire Audeley Grey, who grew,
Sir or Madam,
Aweary of life, and in scorn withdrew;
Till anon I clambered up anew
As ivy-green, when my ache was stayed,
And in that attire I have longtime gayed
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

And so they breathe, these masks, to each
Sir or Madam
Who lingers there, and their lively speech
Affords an interpreter much to teach,
As their murmurous accents seem to come
Thence hither around in a radiant hum,
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

From The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988, 91-92 quoted in Donald A. Crosby (A Religion of Nature, SUNY Press, 2002, p. 54).

The simpler elements are not known fully until their integration into more comprehensive modes of being is recognized. Later complex unities are not fully intelligible until their component parts are understood. We would not know the real capacities of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen were it not for their later expression in cellular life and indeed in the entire world of living beings, including the remarkable world of human consciousness. So with consciousness: the thoughts and emotions, the social forms and rituals of the human community, are as much “earth” as the soil and the rocks and the trees and the flowers. We can reduce the flowers to the atoms or the atoms to the flowers. There are no atoms that are just atoms, no flowers that are just flowers.

—o0o—

ADDRESS

Next week Susanna and I begin our annual vacation and, as I thought of vacations past, I mused upon the fact that where ever we have gone there were many visits to, and moments of rest and contemplation in, churchyards. Indeed, the cottage where we will be staying for some of the time this summer lies immediately adjacent to a churchyard (see the colour photos in this post).

As a cyclist and walker, churches are for me often both important waymarks marking points along the day’s journey and also often the furthest points to aim for, and it is perfectly natural on reaching them to pause a while — sometimes a long while. A well-appointed bench or grassy knoll in the sun or shade (depending on the time of year) in a quiet church-yard remains one of the most pleasant and attractive things I know. Given the need for us all, as a matter of urgency, to develop a philosophy of life which is ecologically aware, a quiet churchyard is, I think, a very important place where we can do (and should be doing) our thinking.

I am, of course, not at all unusual in engaging in this activity and there are countless examples of writers and thinkers in British culture who have stopped in church-yards to think, contemplate and reflect. Thomas Gray’s (1716-1771) “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is perhaps the most famous example in the English language, a poem which was begun in the churchyard of St Giles parish church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, in 1742 and where:

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

During the eighteenth century it became very popular for poets to attend closely to what one might see and learn in churchyards and this tendency gave rise to the terms “Graveyard Poets” or, and this is my favourite, “Boneyard Boys”.

Click on the picture to enlarge
Well, I am, I confess, very much a modern “Boneyard Boy” and as a member of this “club” I remember well, the thrill of being given as a present in my early twenties another famous churchyard poem whose best-known line is, “procrastination is the thief of time”, an early edition (1751) of Edward Young’s (1683-1765) “The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality” (1742-1745). You can see the frontispiece and title page to the right. It could be me there in my Geneva gown!

Anyway, like the Boneyard Boys of old who were mostly clergymen, I find time spent in a graveyard very helpful to me — necessary in fact — in my own contemplations about our mortality and relationship to that in which “we live and move and have our being”, which the author of Acts calls God (Acts 17:28) and I, following Donald A. Crosby, call “nature” (A Religion of Nature, SUNY Press 2002, p. 10).

When, as a young teenager discovering by bicycle the Tendring Peninsular where I grew up, I first began my visits and musings in country churchyards I was, nominally anyway, still a conventional enough Christian and “God” was certainly still the “focal conception” of my religion (Crosby, p. 18). But, these days, this is no longer the case and, as I mentioned last week, although I maintain a genuine loyalty to the example and spirit of the man Jesus, I am today a thorough-going religious naturalist which is, of course, to be a certain kind of a-theist. I still love and admire the poems by people like Gray and Young, but I can no longer think, like Gray, that the souls of the bodies which about me lie are somehow reposing, as he says, “in trembling hope” in the “bosom of his Father and his God”, nor do I any longer think, like Young, that Christian hope in the resurrection of the body will prove eventually to triumph (Night Fourth — The Christian Triumph, lines 703-705) and who could say:

Read nature; nature is a friend to truth;
Nature is Christian; preaches to mankind;
And bids dead matter aid us in our creed.  

Anyway, what I feel I can see and learn from a churchyard is, today, very different from what it once was. Were I a conventional, contemporary new-atheist my musings would obviously be weighted only towards the material, physical world and it’s processes understood in a purely scientific way. Looking around me in a churchyard from my bench or grassy knoll I would say this, and no more: “We are beings simply composed of matter and energy and, when we die, this same impersonal matter and energy is completely dispersed into the impersonal surrounding world — and that is all there is and that is that.”

But, as I have said, I’m a religious naturalist which is to see the world in a slightly different way than do the new-atheists. The adjective “religious” is very important here because it indicates my feeling that nature, considered as a whole, is “a proper focus of religious commitment and concern” (Crosby p. xi) and that we can “grant to nature the kind of reverence, awe, love, and devotion we in the West have formerly reserved for God” (Crosby, p. xi).

Now, before exploring the difference in thinking that exists between a religious naturalist and a new-atheist, I would like to be clear that I agree completely with the new-atheist's basic materialism and say, along with Peter Atkins, the English chemist and former Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, that it is highly likely “everything there is springs from the natural world and involves no supernatural intervention” and that “the whole of all there is can be accounted for in terms of matter and its interactions” (Peter Atkins: “On Being”, OUP 2011, n. 1, p. xii).

However, I part company with the new-atheists in thinking that this does not also necessarily mean we either must, or can, reduce everything to matter and it's interactions.

I follow the materialist and naturalist philosopher John F. Post in wanting to point out that just because we are beings grounded solely in matter and it’s interactions this does not mean we can be reduced to, and fully understood, as the kind of beings we are, only in terms of matter and it’s interactions. This is because there are other, let’s call them emergent, aspects of our being. Matter and it’s interactions are clearly going to delimit or fix (in both predictable and unpredictable ways) how or what these emergent qualities and aspects of human life are (or are going to be) but that is quite different to saying that these emergent qualities of whole beings can be reduced merely to matter and it’s interactions (cf. John F. Post: The Faces of Existence — An Essay in Nonreductive Metaphysics, Cornell University Press, 1987, pp. 181-182).

Here we can turn properly to Thomas Hardy's poem with which we began, “Voices from things growing in a churchyard.”

I do not pretend to be an expert on the life and beliefs of Hardy but he seems to have been a man who, although he maintained a deep feeling for Christian ritual and worship — especially as they were found in rural communities — had moved definitively away from holding any kind of Christian metaphysical beliefs. Following people like Darwin and Huxley, he repeatedly expressed his own “conviction that the Cause of Things must be unconscious, ‘neither moral or immoral, but unmoral.’” But, even as he held this view, Hardy seemed always to have remained dissatisfied with the idea that everything could be reduced merely to the unconscious playing out of an unfeeling, unmoral natural law and he always sought in his work ways to speak meaningfully to us (as whole beings) of this something more.

It seems to me that in “Voices from things growing in a churchyard” we catch Hardy at work in the laboratory of a country churchyard, trying to discover what, to use a word I used earlier, emerges when, having lost your faith in a supernatural God and grounded yourself in the working out of matter and it’s interactions, you continue to pay close attention to the human feelings and values that are always-already emerging around us. In this sense I take Hardy to be working on a parallel project to that undertaken by his scientific contemporaries such as Einstein, Rutherford and Bohr; together they seem to me to have been seeking out how the post-Newtonian, post-Darwinian world is going to play out for whole, living, breathing human, singing, dancing, music, poetry and novel creating beings.

I can’t help but see Hardy sitting in that churchyard acting for us as a religious naturalist experimenter and “interpreter” who, despite his loss of belief in a theistic God, is still able, miracle of miracles, to hear there a meaningful “lively speech” and “murmurous accents.”

He finds that he is still living amidst a cheerily, and yet also eerily “radiant hum” — not only of matter and it's interactions — but also amidst the radiant hum of an almost countless number of other, emergent qualities — qualities that become present to him in the form of the many (and often contradictory) feelings he has and in the poetic and literary images that whirl around and within him and us. I am tempted to say that for Hardy the religious naturalist experimenter and interpreter, this churchyard functions somewhat akin to Glaser’s famous bubble chamber that allowed us to see, for the first time, traces of previously invisible and highly elusive electrically charged particles. Hardy sees and experiences there traces of previously invisible, unseen emergent aspects of the natural world and, to me, this poem functions as a kind of religious naturalist re-story-ation of the old life after death stories that we inherited from Christianity by which he, and most of us, can no longer live with a full heart and clean conscience.

All of this radiant hum, I have little doubt, is firmly (and finally) underpinned by matter and it’s interactions which unfolds without any supernatural intervention, but Hardy’s experiment in the churchyard surely helps reveals that whole beings (human or otherwise) cannot be fully be understood and appreciated by reducing them merely to this substrate of matter and energy.

Hardy sees clearly that life, nature, is fully understood by whole beings only in it's living unfolding and not when it is something dead in the ground and broken into it’s basic constituent pieces as mere carrion for the hawkish, scientistic new-atheists to fight over. I sense Hardy would have responded positively and powerfully to Thomas Berry's words we heard earlier that “the thoughts and emotions, the social forms and rituals of the human community, are as much “earth” as the soil and the rocks and the trees and the flowers” and that, although we can “reduce the flowers to the atoms or the atoms to the flowers” there are, in truth for whole beings “no atoms that are just atoms, no flowers that are just flowers.” 

It is this insight that allows him meaningfully to say that poor Fanny Hurd can be understood to be now waving in daisy shapes above her grave, Bachelor Bowring as now dancing in green as leaves on a wall; Thomas Voss as now turned to clusters ruddy of view; Lady Gertrude as now turned to shining leaves; Eve Greensleeves as now ablaze as glowworms and bees; and Audeley Grey as now as climbing ivy-green.

This summer I'll often be taking time to rest in the blessing of that radiant hum that is the lively speech and murmurous accents of whole beings everywhere whether human or ivy-green.

—o0o—

POSTSCRIPT

I took the following three photos in Mill Road Cemetery, Cambridge last week whilst I was preparing to write this address. They seem to belong in this post. 



On the left is the grave of James Rattee (1820-1855)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

A Church of the Free Spirit — a brief address for the renewal of my contract and the giving of tenure

Opening Responsive Reading

Each of us brings a separate truth here.

          R: We bring the truth of our own life, our own story

We don’t come as empty vessels but as full people,
each with our own story and our own truth.

          R: We seek to add to our truths and add to our stories.
The room is rich with truth, rich with experience.

All manner of people are here:
needy
joyful
frightened
anxious
bored

R: We all bring our truth with us.

May we recognise the truth and the story in other lives than our own.
May we hear and honour the truths we all bring as we gather together.

          R: Together we have truths

Together we have a story.

          R: Together we are a community.

(Penny Hackett-Evans)

In the service itself four members of the community came to the front and shared their reasons for coming to this church and why they have stayed. I was touched and moved by their insightful, kind, funny and supportive words.

The congregation on Sunday morning
ADDRESS

Lionel Turner (1923-2011)
In 2011 a member of the congregation, Lionel Turner (1923-2011), died. He had had an extraordinary life including a spell as a pilot-engineer in Lancaster bombers, flying over thirty ops during World War Two. For those of you who know the figures, his survival, unharmed, was something of a statistical miracle.

We were very fond of him and, I'm pleased to say, he was very fond of this church and he continued to attend right up until his death even though, by then, he was suffering very badly from alztheimers. Anyway, one day he turned up and announced, “I love this church . . . what’s it called? . . .” — he hesitated for a second before saying, “St Andrew’s, that’s it, St Andrews”.

Of course, I was deeply touched that in his increasing forgetfulness he should have renamed this Memorial (Unitarian) Church after me but, hiding inside this lovely, affirmative utterance (which I will always hold in my heart), there is a common problem faced by every independent free-church that, on the day you have been so kind as to renew my contract with you as your minister and to give me tenure, really should be acknowledged.

It is something that, in part, I explored with you last week, namely, the vital need to concentrate upon (and to reject or accept) the teaching rather than the man or woman who offers up the teaching.

Naturally, I have my own deeply-held philosophy of life which, for the record, and in the smallest of nutshells, is a kind of Christian inspired religious naturalism that, for me, draws most strongly on the insights of Tolstoy, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Ernst Bloch, James Luther Adams, Henry Nelson Wieman, Paul Wienpahl and John Schellenberg. In my opinion — and only for those who are really interested! — the best general overview of the kind of position I hold has been expressed by Charley D. Hardwick in his “Events of Grace: Naturalism, existentialism, and theology.”

But it is absolutely vital to understand, in the context of this local church and my ministry, that this philosophy is simply my considered, personal philosophical and theological input to our ongoing collective, congregational conversation at this moment in time. Unlike most other church traditions (with the notable exception of our friends, the Quakers) my personal beliefs as your minister are, in an important sense, completely besides the point because mine is only one voice among many and one that must never, repeat, must never become THE dominating voice, THE orthodox philosophy of this church. If that were ever to happen the church would have slipped into teaching (or following) a particular religious/philosophical doctrine (in this case mine) and we will have become St Andrew’s. This, God forbid it should ever happen, would reveal that I, we, will have utterly failed in our collective task to be a living, genuinely free-religious community. Of course, what is true of my voice is also true of any other single voice among us. We must strongly guard against any person who comes here and who wants their voice and philosophy to dominate and, in so doing, reveals they wish to introduce some kind of a pecking-order in which they are to be the chief pecker.

(James Luther Adams was particularly strong on the importance of avoiding pecking orders. His words about this can be found in his short but important essay, "Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism". This piece was hugely influential essay for many Unitarian ministers including, of course, me.)

So, with all this in mind, what is our collective task? What is it that this church is all about (or should be about) whether or not I am here as your minister and aside from my own deeply held personal philosophy of life? What is to which we are offering our commitment and loyalty when we formally join this congregation? To answer we need briefly to be reminded about our history.

At it’s inception in the mid-sixteenth century in Poland and Transylvania the Unitarian movement offered it’s adherents a positive, dogmatic Christian doctrine. Reading the Bible critically it came to promote the idea that God was One and that this divine, all-seeing, all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving creator being had intervened in this world by bestowing authority upon the man Jesus who, through his teaching and example, was able to lead us all to eventual salvation (however salvation was understood). Between the sixteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries the Unitarian movement slowly developed and nuanced this doctrinal Christian view in accord with what became it’s three leading principles; as expressed by one of our most important twentieth-century historians, Earl Morse Wilbur, these were:

“. . . first, complete mental freedom in religion rather than bondage to creeds or confessions; second, the unrestricted use of reason in religion, rather than reliance upon external authority or past tradition; third, generous tolerance of differing religious views and usages rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship or polity.”

I think it is reasonable to say that by the mid-ninetieth century you could still easily have believed that the principal meaning of the Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian movement was a purely doctrinal one and that, as Wilbur put it, “the goal we have aimed at has been nothing more remote than that of winning the world to acceptance of one form of doctrine rather than another” — i.e. some kind of Unitarian or Universalist Christianity.

But, by the mid-nineteenth century these three, leading ideas had worked upon our own doctrines to such an extent that we began to realise no single set of doctrines (no matter how well-developed and nuanced, and by whom) was ever going to be capable of adequately mapping or describing reality — that most multifarious of things. We began to realise our faith was in something much larger, more-fluid, allusive, intuitive, dynamic, unfolding and non-doctrinal; indeed, some Universalists amongst us sometimes began to describe it as, “the larger faith”.

This larger faith genuinely freed us to see that the doctrinal aspects of our movement were, of necessity, simply temporary and that our once cherished Unitarian and Universalist Christian doctrines (however modified and nuanced) were, again as Wilbur observed, in the end “only a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom.”

So we entered the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries better able to see that this kind of disciplined, carefully nurtured, spiritual freedom is the form of life that, potentially anyway, should be found lying at the heart of a free-religious community such as our own. All I, as your current settled minister, can ever hope to do is add one, strong, intelligent, critical and faithful voice to the winding-out (verwindung) of this ongoing movement of spiritual freedom and, at the same time, and in same free-spirit we have always sensed was in the man Jesus, to encourage and help you to develop your own disciplined, reasoned and authentically lived-out religious faith — your own expression of this “larger faith”.

So, let us never forget that here we are members, not of the church of St Andrew’s, nor any other saint (living or dead) but, instead, members of the universal church of the free-spirit. Our loyalty is to that never ending quest for spiritual freedom.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for trusting me enough to renew my contract as minister of this church and to give me tenure. I promise to continue to do my very best.

—o0o—

The service also included a responsive reading of James Luther Adams' famous words, I Call That Church Free:

I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ultimate source of existence,

          R: That sustaining and transforming power not made with human hands. 

It binds together families and generations, protecting against the idolatry of any human claim to absolute truth or authority.

          R: This covenant is the charter and responsibility and joy of worship in the face of death as well as life. 

I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship,

          R: That protects and nourishes their integrity and spiritual freedom: that yearns to belong to the church universal, 

It is open to insight and conscience from every source; it bursts through rigid tradition, giving rise to new and living language, to new and broader fellowship.

          R: It is a pilgrim church, a servant church, on an adventure of the spirit. 

The goal is the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, the one for the liberty of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing.

          R: It aims to find unity in diversity under the promptings of the spirit “that bloweth where it listeth and maketh all things new.” 

(James Luther Adams)

Signing the contract today in church
Left to right, me, Shirley Fieldhouse (treasurer) and Andrew Bethune (chair)


Saturday, 25 July 2015

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need . . .

The books in my study
After having spent the morning and early afternoon in my study surrounded by my books (see picture on right) writing my Sunday address, printing up the orders of service and organising the music, it was time to go for a walk with the lovely Susanna, my wife, to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Walking around this beautiful place with my book-lined study still in my thoughts a line from Cicero came back into mind:

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need — Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit (To Varro, in Ad Familiares IX, 4).

This afternoon I could not but agree him (I think one needs to add friends, food and shelter but I won't quibble here). We are very, very lucky here in Cambridge to have such a lovely garden to which to retreat and contemplate nature's beauty and human ingenuity and learning. As ever I took a few photos. They're mostly taken on my iPhone 6 using the Provoke app but the final three were taken with the Ricoh GR. They're all straight out of the camera. Just click on a picture to enlarge it.










Susanna taken by me
Me taken by Susanna









And now three final shots taken with the Ricoh GR . . .



Thursday, 23 July 2015

Still channelling Daido Moriyama — a street photography walk round Cambridge with a philosophical thought in mind

Provoke App Icon
Yesterday I posted a few photos using the Provoke camera app and later on that evening and this afternoon on the way to get some food for supper I took a few more shots which I post below (click on a photo to enlarge it).

I post them partly because, as I took them — and consciously aware of Moriyama's work and attitude —, I'm reminded that taking photographs in this way (at speed and in an urban setting with many people around all moving at speed this way and that) that there is simply no time to worry about framing things "perfectly" or getting super-sharp focus, you just have to be completely in the melee and be open to whatever is happening. This mode of taking photographs (street photography) seemed to connect very strongly with something said by the philosopher Paul Wienpahl (1916-1980) which regular readers of the blog will know I have adopted as describing well my own approach to philosophy and religion:

"As I see it, the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself. (Tautologies are, after all, true.) If you wish to persist by asking what reality is; that is, what is really, the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing. To see this is to be a man without a position. To get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian. I am a man without a position. I do not have the philosophic position that there are no positions or theories or standpoints. (There obviously are.) I am not a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist. I am simply a man without a position, and this should open the door to detachment" (An Unorthodox Lecture, 1956).