Sunday, 29 November 2015

In praise of the Eagles of Death Metal and in respectful and grateful memory of those who were brutally murdered at the Bataclan in Paris but who encourage us still to live.

FIRST READING: Rearmament by Robinson Jeffers (1935) written as he looked upon the, by then, inexorable movements towards world war in Europe.

These grand and fatal movements toward death: the grandeur 
of the mass 
Makes pity a fool, the tearing pity 
For the atoms of the mass, the persons, the victims, makes it 
seem monstrous 
To admire the tragic beauty they build. 
It is beautiful as a river flowing or a slowly gathering 
Glacier on a high mountain rock-face, 
Bound to plow down a forest, or as frost in November, 
The gold and flaming death-dance for leaves, 
Or a girl in the night of her spent maidenhood, bleeding and 
(I would burn my right hand in a slow fire 
To change the future . . . I should do foolishly. The beauty 
of modern 
Man is not in the persons but in the 
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the 
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain. 


I hope you will forgive me but, although this is the first Sunday in Advent I’m going to postpone my first, obviously Advent address until next week because I think I can now say something genuinely helpful about how we, in a liberal religious community such as this, might respond appropriately to the dreadful attacks we witnessed in Paris two and a half weeks ago.

Fugitive slave, Anthony Burns
But before I can get to this matter directly I need to bring before you something written by Henry David Thoreau in his essay “Slavery in Massachusetts”, delivered at an anti-slavery meeting in Framingham, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1854, after the conviction in Boston of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns (picture to the right).

Thoreau’s main target in this essay is the imposition in the North of the Fugitive Slave Act which allowed for the capture and return of runaway slaves (without recourse to trial) to their Southern owners. The act was part of a complicated and morally bankrupt compromise between Northern and Southern states ordered by the Supreme Court of Missouri, hence Thoreau’s mention of a “Missouri Compromise” to which nature has been no partner.

As you will read, Thoreau is murderously angry towards his own country and State because of their betrayal of such basic human freedom and justice but it is not upon this that I would like you to concentrate today. Instead I want you to look at how, as my friend the philosopher, Ed Mooney puts it in his new book Thoreau is able to cultivate,

“. . . latent delight as he refuses an inundating dark. He lets moments of joy forestall any crushing dominance of cruelty or suffering. That there is suffering, cruelty, and decay is one thing. Whether it grinds the soul to dust is another” (Excursions with Thoreau, Bloomsbury, 2015, p. 21-22).

It is this ability that I wish to foreground as we seek to formulate our own responses to the murderous violence we witnessed in Paris two weeks ago and which, never let us forget, forms part of the daily life of those living in places such as Baghdad and Beirut.

SECOND READING: from “Slavery in Massachusetts” delivered by Henry David Thoreau at an Anti-Slavery meeting, at Framingham, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1854:

Art is as long as ever, but life is more interrupted and less available for a man’s proper pursuits. It is not an era of repose. We have used up all our inherited freedom. If we would save our lives, we must fight for them.
          I walk toward one of our ponds; but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.
          But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth. I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile. What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man’s deeds will smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily. It is not a Nymphoea Douglasii In it, the sweet, and pure, and innocent are wholly sundered from the obscene and baleful. I do not scent in this the time-serving irresolution of a Massachusetts Governor, nor of a Boston Mayor. So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that when we behold or scent a flower, we may not be reminded how inconsistent your deeds are with it; for all odor is but one form of advertisement of a moral quality, and if fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity; the fragrant flower that springs from it, for the purity and courage which are immortal.
          Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.

THIRD "READING": Eagles of Death Metal: Complexity

To round out the overall picture I hope to give in this address so you have a proper notion of what the 1,500 young fun-loving concert goers went to hear before 89 of them were gunned down, in a moment I want to play you the single from their current album, “Zipper Down”. As I, your reverend,  "slip you some boogie" (to quote their song "The Reverend") you’ll hear the music is not “death metal” at all and just a little research reveals that the band’s name is a splendid joke. The story is told that they were in a bar watching a man dance to the song “Wind Of Change” by the Scorpions which, as some of you might know is a painfully MOR, soft-rock number, the kind of song you used to hold up lighters to during concerts in the 80s. Anyway, when they asked the guy what he was doing, the man yelled, “This is death metal, dude!”, to which Homme replied, ”No it’s not. This is like the Eagles of death metal.” Cue laughter here from knowing music fans because “The Eagles” are the epitome of MOR country-rock and the Scorpions could easily be imagined as being the Eagles of death metal. Anyway they decided to christen their band after this ludicrous and wonderfully silly bon-mot. The “Consequence of Sound” website brilliantly sums their sound as a mix of “Chuck Berry and Elvis’ rock and roll foundation, onto The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet–Exile on Main St. period, The Ramones’ reliable immediacy, and some This Is Spinal Tap satire thrown in for good measure.”

So, here is the official video of the lead single, "Complexity", from their current, album.



"Eagles of Death Metal" taken by Sylvia Bo Bilvia
Whichever way you look at it, the events in Paris and the way things have unfolded on the national and international stage since Friday 13th November are disturbing — disturbing both in terms of what the brutal “Islamic State” (IS) is, is doing and clearly intends to do, and also in terms of how our own governments are choosing to use and manipulate this for their own, to me, highly questionable internal and geopolitical ends.

It seems that all the nominal “sides” in this conflict (IS and European and US governments and their middle and Near-Eastern allies) are now inextricably committed to the same beat that the American poet Robinson Jeffers called “the disastrous rhythm” which provided the rhythm for an appalling dance of the masses towards death in 1935. Looking on the unfolding events that seem by now to have their own unstoppable momentum wholly out of any genuine, rational control — just as Jeffers looked at the events leading to the start of the Second World War — ordinary folk like us are just beginning to wake-up to the fact that we are, for the moment anyway, almost powerless witnesses to tectonic political movements that are forcing us onto the slopes of a very dark mountain indeed, one analogous to that imagined by Robinson Jeffers. I look on all this and admit that I often despair; I, too, “would burn my hand in a slow fire to change the future” but I know that right now this would do nothing useful.

But this recognition leaves me — someone with an explicit religious and pastoral rôle — with a difficult job to do, namely, to figure out what genuinely useful and practical help I might offer up to us all caught on the dark mountainside so that we are able to maintain a way of being-in-the-world that will help us survive with decency and hope what is to come?

My task is made even more difficult by the fact that the main tool in my own religious toolkit, reference to traditional concepts of God, is utterly broken and next to useless, for me and for many of the people I know. I note in passing that in the wake of the attacks in Paris even the Archbishop of Canterbury now has to admit this fact, too, as in his admission that he has doubts about God’s existence. It may be true, of course, but it is also true that even if it is not he has to say this because he would get little or no hearing from most of us were he blindly to assert from the outset his unshakeable faith in the reality of such a being — that kind of faith contributes, after all, to the nightmare situation we are in. Of course, later he goes on to defend his faith in such a divine being; but note well, even he has no choice but to begin, like me, with the utter unlikelihood of God’s existence.

But as a tool, reference to the God of monotheism is also broken for me (and many others) because it is intimately related to the conception of God being invoked by those knowingly murdering innocent people (including countless Muslims) in cities across the world. Really, “Allahu Akbar”, God is great? I don’t think so. We need only look, as we will in a moment, to the human bravery, love and compassion displayed by the band “Eagles of Death Metal” and their fans at the Paris club, the Bataclan, to see that this worldly, good old, divine and sacred rock and roll is unimaginably greater than such a broken conception of God.

Indeed, I find that, even as someone still deeply committed to finding an appropriate religious response to the fact of our existence in this extraordinary natural world, I have no choice but to confess to being tired almost beyond measure of nearly all God talk — remember that it was “In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Beneficent” that IS claimed they attacked “the Bataclan theatre for exhibitions, where hundreds of idolaters gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice.” (Remember also that, in return, this same God — though with a different name — will be invoked many times by people in European and US contexts to speak about and justify their own responses — good and bad — to the violence.)

However, listening to the touching human words of the two main members of the “Eagles of Death Metal” in an interview conducted a week after the horror do not tire me, nor do their words stick in my mouth. In fact, far from it, they inspire me and give me hope that there is a decent way through these events that doesn’t require more violence but only more rock and roll.

In a second I’m going to play you a section from that interview in which band members Jesse Hughes and  Josh Homme from the “Eagles of Death Metal” indicate how they feel they are going to go in hope. If you are offended by superficially bad language, then stop your ears, but I hope you won’t do this because Hughes’ language, properly interpreted, reveals a bravery and a compassion, a love and thankfulness that, like Thoreau’s water-lily emerging from the slime and the muck of the swamp pushes effectively against the truly offensive actions of the three IS terrorists who brutally murdered 89 innocent victims before the band's very eyes.

(I highly recommend watching the whole interview but the section I played to those in church this morning starts at 16' 30" and finishes at 20' 05" — if you prefer to read the text you'll find it below the video).

So, here is what Hughes said, all the time very close to tears:

“I pledge every person who loves rock and roll to join me . . . I may be scared, and maybe I went through some bad shit, but I’m breathing, I get to talk to my son tonight. And I have a house that is paid for because rock and roll’s blessed me, it’s been very good to me, and I’ve been blessed with beautiful friends. I feel like I have a life of blessings and I’m not gonna walk around like it sucks. My grandmother and my mother raised me never to give a shit what an asshole thinks. If Adolph Hitler hates you, that’s awesome, you want everyone to know that that that asshole hates you. You know I don’t want to spend my life trying to appease or not appease assholes, I want to spend my life smiling with my friends and entertaining them. I cannot wait to get back to Paris to play. I wanna come back, I wanna be the first band to play in the Bataclan when it opens back up . . . because I was there when it went silent. Our friends went there to see rock and roll and died. I’m gonna go back there and live.”

Picking up on his friend’s powerful words and referencing IS’s attempt to recruit more young people to the their evil cause, Josh Homme, the other main member who wasn’t there that night, said, “We’re gonna recruit people too, we’re gonna recruit people to be part of life, citizens of the earth.” 

As someone who loves rock and roll, and who has played rock and jazz bass in very similar sized clubs in Europe, I say loudly and gratefully to both Jesse and Josh, “Amen, brothers, amen.”

Jesse Hughes and Josh Holmes are, believe me, no whiter-than-snow angels — and I have no doubt we'd disagree on some things (but, perhaps, not many) — but I have to say that, right here and right now, in their immediate responses they are, I think, genuine, white water-lilies emerging from dark muck and slime that is the brutality of IS.

Better to show you what I mean, bring your mind back to Thoreau’s story of the water-lily told in “Slavery in Massachusetts”. Here is how my friend Ed Mooney comments upon this story:

“The odor and glimpse of beauty amid ugliness redeems a moment of paradise amid hell. The hegemony of hell is broken. A lily, not a mood, makes the difference. The reality of injustice and cruelty is not erased, but for a moment it is not the only reality. If all we had were inescapable, bottomless, all-pervasive injustice, then Concord would in fact be utter desolation. Outrageous moral facts are not all that obtrude. Injustice is neither all-pervasive nor fully triumphant in its reign. The lily brings Thoreau’s heart alive — even as [the unfreed slave] Dred Scott breaks it” (Excursions, p. 21).

Let me unpack these words in the immediate context of this address.

We see that, even in hell of the Bataclan, Jesse Holmes and many others bore witness to moments of human beauty. In the interview Holmes tells that, Nick Alexander (from Colchester) who was manning the band’s merchandise stall during their European tour, protected one of his friends by “staying quiet and never call[ing] for help until he bled out, because he didn’t want anyone else to get hurt”. Holmes also said that “A great reason why so many were killed was because so many wouldn’t leave their friends” and that “many people threw themselves in front of other people.” Greater love hath no one than this, that someone lay down their life for their friends. Holmes decision to return to the club with the band on the day it re-opens reveals that what he saw helped him see that the gunmen’s “hegemony of hell” can, indeed, be broken.

Ed Mooney then says, “A lily, not a mood, makes the difference.” We can, I think, take this to mean that in the presence of such tangible love, comradeship and compassion on the bloody dance floor we are not simply witnesses to the presence of a passing, ineffable mood, but of something which, though not eternal, is still very stable and present in our world, something that persistently reoccurs in season, something we can go up to time and time again and all experience directly. This something always-already makes all the difference. It is real, loving supportive people doing real, loving supportive things for each other — in this immediate context it is to see rock and roll at it’s best as a bringer together of people who so clearly “refuse an inundating dark”.

Of course, throughout the night of Friday 13th November and beyond it remains utterly clear that the “reality of injustice and cruelty is not [thereby] erased” but, equally, we can see through the eyewitness accounts that despite what the gunmen wanted us to believe, their’s “is not the only reality” and it never will be.

If, as we looked on the events in Paris and elsewhere in the world, “all we had were inescapable, bottomless, all-pervasive injustice” then we would be facing only “utter desolation.” But that is not what we see — this was especially true at the “Eagles of Death Metal” concert in the Bataclan. Standing before the gunmen’s “outrageous moral facts” we see these facts are not “all that obtrude[d].” Indeed we can see clearly that their “injustice is neither all-pervasive nor fully triumphant in its reign.” The love, kindness, compassion and bravery of those who faced, and faced down the killers are the facts that, like the lily, bring our hearts alive even as the gunmen breaks them.

As Ed Mooney says, “That there is suffering, cruelty, and decay is one thing. Whether it grinds the soul to dust is another” (Excursions, p. 21-22).

The Eagles of Death Metal and their fans offer us a powerful example of those who are going to refuse to let themselves be so destroyed; as Holmes says, “Our friends went there to see rock and roll and died. I’m gonna go back there and live.”

Let’s make sure that, in our hearts and minds, we go with them all and live.

Long live rock and roll.


Thursday, 26 November 2015

Firm ground is not available ground: "Dunes"—a poem by A. R. Ammons

 Lone post amidst dunes and trees near Wells-next-the-Sea
Some of you will have seen my last blogpost which included a number of photos from Wells-next-the-Sea. Wells opens up on to a truly wonderful beach with many sand dunes that are endlessly being reshaped by wind and tide.

Well, when I got back home, on the doorstep was a second-hand book of poetry I had ordered some weeks ago by A. R. Ammons his "The Selected Poems" (Expanded Edition), W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. I tracked down a copy because I am currently reading "Waking to Wonder: Wittgenstein's Existential Investigations" by Gordon C. F. Bearn which has as its epigraph a poem by Ammons called "A Coast of Trees". I was so taken with that poem that I immediately decided to explore some more of his work which I did not know at all. I'm glad I did. Here is his poem "Dunes" which seems to speak eloquently of the kind of non-foundationalist naturalism I have been exploring in recent years and which certainly informed my thoughts as Susanna and I walked along the coast among the dunes.

Dunes by A. R. Ammons

Taking root in windy sand
  is not an easy
to go about
    finding a place to stay.

A ditch bank or wood’s-edge
    has firmer ground.

In a loose world though
    something can be started—
a root touch water,
    a tip break sand—

Mounds from that can rise
    on held mounds,
a gesture of building, keeping,
    a trapping
into shape.

Firm ground is not available ground.

Dunes at Wells-next-the Sea
Dunes at Wells-next-the Sea

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

" . . . named after an utterly forgotten divinity" — a set of Hipstamatic photos from Wells-next-the-Sea

Susanna and I have just returned from a week away on the North Norfolk coast at Wells-next-the-Sea — a lovely, calm and restful time was had by us both. When we got there the cold, overcast and windy weather seemed to insist that I fire up the Hipstamatic app on my iPhone and load a combination of their "US1776" film and the "Americana" lens. The fact that on the second day I bought a second-hand copy of "Evening Land" by Pär Lagerkvist (trans. by Auden and Sjöberg) only re-enforced the appropriateness of the choice. Even on the one sunny day we had this choice seemed right. As always, click on a photo if you wish to enlarge it. 

Dozens of Largerkvist's poems might be cited before offering you the pictures below but this one, from "Part II,  seems appropriate especially given the wide open expanses of sand and sea we walked over and beside:

Surrounded by a void, 
as a constellation is by space,
with infinite distance between its luminous points,
its timeless manifestations of itself.

So in complete calm,
in dead perfection,
lives the Truth about the great Nothing.
The soul of the void.

Like a constellation
named after an utterly forgotten divinity.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

An Inclusive Community — An address given at evensong in Queens' College Chapel, Cambridge

Queens' College Chapel before the service
I gave the following address this morning at the Memorial (Unitarian) Church in Cambridge in preparation for giving it at Queens' College evensong as part of a series in which their chapel society is looking at how they engage as community. If you click on the picture below you will be able to see who were the other speakers in the series.


In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? (John 14:2 NRSV)


Firstly, I’d like to thank the Chaplain, the Revd Tim Harling, for inviting me to speak tonight. I honoured to be here with you.

I have been asked to speak this evening on an attractive, but notoriously difficult subject, namely, “An Inclusive Community”. Thinking about what such an inclusive community might look like and how it may be achieved is likely to be one of the most difficult questions we’ll ever have to consider in our lives. What follows are simply my own considered thoughts on the matter, thoughts with which, of course, you need not agree but, at the very least, I hope they will encourage a helpful conversation on the matter afterwards over drinks.

As a minister in the four-hundred-and-fifty year old Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian tradition I continue to be inspired and influenced by one of the great eighteenth-century teachers and practitioners of Universalism, George de Benneville (1703–1793), who encouraged those who wished to follow his example to:

“Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular. [And to] Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception.”

(You can read a pdf copy of  "The Life and Times of Dr George de Benneville" by clicking on this link)

Following on from this, my address is based on two assumptions. Firstly, that an inclusive community would be a good thing and, secondly, that the word “inclusive” should be taken in the fullest sense possible; at the very least, this must include every individual human being in every age and clime who has found, is finding, or will find themselves living in this extraordinary world of ours.

But, as we sit together in this Christian place of worship, the problem with such a beautiful, inclusive aim, as de Benneville intimately knew, is that no actual, existing Christian church has ever been able, itself, to be this inclusive community. It is relatively easy to see why this is so.

Firstly, we can see through the two-thousand years of Christian history how this or that interpretation of Jesus’ status and role has all too easily decided to exclude from legitimacy other, different, interpretations — of which there have been, and still are, many. The historic creeds of Christianity were, of course, one of the most notable products of this dynamic which pushes against the fact that there never has been a single thing called Christianity but only ever Christianties.

Secondly, and even when and where there has been significant agreement on creedal matters of belief, we can see that although certain styles of worship may appeal to one group they do not appeal to everyone.

So, on both obviously theological and other grounds, often more related to aesthetics, we can see how genuine, inclusive community has remained beyond the reach of any actual, existent Christian church.

But, of course, if we are considering inclusivity in the broad way I am, we must acknowledge that Christianity in any of its forms has never been, and never will be, the only way good men and women have responded, and will continue to respond, to the world around them and to the generally shared human sense that there exists something we can meaningfully call the divine, the holy or the sacred. The two problems I’ve just pointed to and which push against the existence of an inclusive Christian community, are now multiplied exponentially. So, for example, theologically and aesthetically speaking Islam is not Christianity, Judaism is not Buddhism and so on.

Neither must we forget the countless good men and women who have not held, and never will hold, any supernatural or metaphysical religious beliefs at all and who choose to call themselves atheists, humanists or naturalists. In the eyes of de Benneville, and a Universalist like myself, a truly inclusive community must contain these people too.

As if all the foregoing diversity and difference were not difficult enough to deal with, it is obvious that the truly inclusive community must also contain those whom some of us might at present consider to be utterly beyond our various religious pales, whether the reason given for this is colour, sexual orientation, gender and/or anything else.

And lastly, according to Jesus anyway, the inclusive community must also contain, not only those who believe and practise differently to us (as his parable of the Good Samaritan shows—Luke 10:29-37), but also those whom at this moment we consider to be our enemies, because enemies, howsoever conceived, are also somehow to be loved and blessed by us. This is a phenomenally hard teaching to internalise and act upon at anytime, let alone after the kind of events we have all witnessed this weekend in Beirut, Baghdad and Paris.

All these matters, and many more beside — and I have not even begun to scratch the surface of the need for a truly inclusive community fully to take into account all forms of sentient life, as well as the countless non-sentient aspects of reality — all of these matters help us see that, although in different ways each of our own communities and traditions may aspire to being inclusive, it is in fact impossible for any single Christian church, or any single religion or philosophy to be, itself, the genuinely inclusive community.

So what are we to do? Are we simply to abandon the beautiful vision and simply accept that we are forever going to exist as disparate, distinct, exclusive and, perhaps, even mutually antagonistic communities?

Many people, of course, do take this view and are living it out in a variety of ways — sometimes quietly, by hunkering-down behind self-imposed, fixed, sectarian boundaries; sometimes by means of extremely violent outward actions undertaken outside their own, community’s immediate circles.

But it seems to me, to the tradition to which I belong, and to important thinkers and activists in many other religious and philosophical circles that to cite the Catholic priest, cultural historian and ecotheologian, Thomas Berry (1914-2009), today:

Diversity is no longer something that we tolerate. It is something that we esteem as a necessary condition for a livable universe, as the source of Earth’s highest perfection . . . To demand an undifferentiated unity would bring human thought and history itself to an end. The splendor of our multicultural world would be destroyed (Thomas Berry, Five Oriental Philosophies, Albany: Magi Books, 1968, ibid. pp. 45-46).

Genuine, inclusive community is only going to be possible to achieve when it is consistently conceived on this global, highly diverse, multicultural scale and this will require all of us to re-centre our vision of inclusive community, not upon the old and vanishing dream of achieving inclusivity via some shared, ortho-doxy (a right-belief), but by seeing ever more clearly that we need not believe alike in order to love alike. In other words, the inclusive community I have in mind is one which must centre upon the, admittedly always difficult and endlessly unfolding task of developing a generally shared ortho-praxy (a right-doing).

With the well known maxim “think global, act local” in mind, it seems to me that for such a splendid, self-consciously inclusive, diverse, multi-cultural, practical global human community to have even half-a-chance of coming into being then, locally, we will all have to learn to do something still very difficult for most people, namely, to start acting upon the realisation that each of our current existing religious and secular communities has, and will only ever have, partial access to truth, to beauty, and to goodness and that, therefore, we will all need, humbly, to be prepared to move to one side, to shuffle-up along the pew so-to-speak, so as consciously to make room and time for other faiths and philosophies to contribute to a global conversation about in what might consist the common good.

In 1946 my own tradition tried to express the need to make this difficult move through one of it’s symbols, the off-centre cross. Here is how one of the symbol’s Universalist originators, Gordon McKeeman (1920-2013), later described it:

The Circle is a symbol of infinity — a figure without beginning or end. The Cross is the symbol of Christianity. It is placed off-center in the circle of infinity to indicate that Christianity is an interpretation of infinity but neither the only interpretation of the infinite nor necessarily for all people, the best one. It leaves room for other symbols and other interpretations. It is, therefore, a symbol of Universalism (Gordon McKeeman to Ronald and Jesslyn Bartlett, members of First Parish Universalist Church, Stoughton, in 1989).

My own church community’s conscious decision to move the cross to one side, explicitly to make room for other religious and philosophical views has been regarded by some as a regrettable betrayal of our birthright Christian faith. That, since 1961, the cross has generally been replaced by the off-centre, cross-like flaming chalice which, since 1946 has become the global symbol of the modern Unitarian movement, will simply be taken as confirmation of this.

But I gently beg to differ, for I truly think that explicitly making room and time for others who believe differently from us is, in fact, not a betrayal of what Jesus taught but is, instead, a very powerful and effective way of allowing a fuller flowering of his message of light-giving, reciprocal, mutual love both to God and neighbour to occur.

And, in the end, I cannot but take great heart from the words attributed to Jesus by the writer of John’s gospel that, “In [his] father’s house there are many rooms” and, had he not thought this were the case he would never have told us so (John 14:2).


Stockleigh Pomeroy, August 2015 and Cambridge, November 2015

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Walking on a mountain of wonders—the peace for which we all yearn

This morning over breakfast I read an article in the Guardian newspaper with the title,  "Austerity a factor in rising suicide rate among UK men—study." The stand-first read, "1,000 extra deaths and an additional 30-40,000 suicide attempts may have occurred after the economic downturn, according to research."

In my own role as a minister I can certainly say that since 2008 I have seen a marked increase in mental health issues, particularly amongst men, aged between twenty and fifty and that economic factors play a key role in this. Naturally, when they are talking to me in my role as a minister of religion, there also often explicitly arises associated metaphysical questions concerning the meaning, or lack thereof, of life. My experience of this is, I should say, is echoed by my good neighbours in Cambridge,  the charity called "The Samaritans".

Anyway, the contents of the article rather hung over me during the morning (not least of all because I have just been asked to conduct another memorial service for someone who has taken their own life) and, just before lunch, I realised how much I needed to get out of the study and into an entirely different physical and mental place. As nearly always this turned out to be the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and I spent a restorative hour walking-off my "dark cloud".

Felicitously, I had on me a copy of "Waking to Wonder: Wittgenstein's Existential Investigations" by Gordon C. F. Bearn which I had stumbled across a few weeks ago and, over a mug of tea in the café, I sat down and read the preface. At one point Bearn quotes a passage from Stanley Cavell's "The Claim of Reason" that raised the basic question so often put to me in my study:

My major claim about the philosopher's originating question—e.g.,  (How) do (can) we know anything about the world?" or "What is knowledge; what does my knowledge of the world consist in?" — is that it (in one or another of its versions) is a response to, or expression of, a real experience which takes hold of human beings (quoted in Waking to Wonder, SUNY Press, 1997, p. xi).

Bearn's book is an attempt to answer this question of the meaning of life via a Nietzschean reading of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Bearn thinks (as I noted a couple of Sundays ago) that “the answer to our existential anxiety does not lie beneath the surfaces of our lives, but in our acceptance — Nietzsche’s “Yes” — of the groundless details of those surfaces themselves: the wonder of the ordinary” (Source: SUNY Press).

But a major difficulty I have when talking with many of the existentially troubled folk who come into my study is that they are desperate to be assured (or persuaded) by me (as a religious person) that behind the scenes there is, in fact, a super-stable meaningful something (or being). It's not hard to understand why this is the case, after all, when so much of the surface of your life feels so utterly meaningless where else are you going to look for meaning? Our way of life (especially in its institutional religious forms) endlessly drives people to try to look behind the surface of life but then here I am saying along with Nietzsche, "No, don't do that, there's nothing there, stay on the surface, stay on the surface—the meaning you are looking for is there!" (As many of you will recall, in the preface to the second edition of “The Gay Science” (1886) Nietzsche wrote: “What is required is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superficial – out of profundity!”.)

But, no matter how much I find this to be the case, I nearly always find that this is a hard message to offer someone who is in great existential pain before me—and I confess to the fact that many times I don't feel immediately able fully to reveal that I think in this fashion because it feels as if such a revelation would do more harm to that person at that moment than it would do good. The best I can hope for is that a sustained conversation with them becomes possible—though that doesn't always turn out to be the case. People who drop in on a speculative basis (remember that the church where I am minister is in the middle of a city) can  find my lack of immediate and unequivocal assurance of a behind the scenes God (or power) a bit disappointing and that often means they go on to seek out someone else to talk to—someone who will tell them all kinds of things that are going on in heavenly, metaphysical realms.

Anyway, all this made me highly grateful to read the following words which appear at the very end of Bearn's preface:

On my interpretation the peace for which [Wittgenstein] yearned will be ours when we give up the search for metaphysical comfort, when we give up the thirst for explanation, when we awaken to wonder. The happy surpriseour good fortune—is that the absence of what we thought essential to our satisfaction can itself satisfy. Coming face to face with the dumb fact that some things do and some things do not make sense can incite the feeling that one is, in Wittgenstein's words, "walking on a mountain of wonders" (Waking to Wonder, SUNY Press, 1997, p. xviii).

I cannot but help think Bearn's is absolutely right in saying this but God knows (pun intended) it's a philosophical approach to life that can be a hard one to sell. But then, as Spinoza says at the very end of his Ethics:

If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found. And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard. For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare (Bk 5, P42 trans. Edwin Curley).

It was my good fortune that I had all of these thoughts in the Botanic Garden surrounded by its many beautiful surfaces and so able to find a real measure of peace. For a happy hour I was able to walk on a mountain of wonders.

While I walked I used my Ricoh GR to record a few of the beautiful surfaces around me.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Some Thoreau (and Mooney) inspired photos of the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens

I post here just a few photos from a visit last week to the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens.

In the midst of all the opportunities to take colour photographs a few views struck me as being worthy of taking in black and white. On my Ricoh GR (the camera I used to take the photos below) there is a black and white setting called TE, toning effect. It reproduces a process somewhat akin to selenium or sepia toning. It suited both the scenes and my somewhat Thoreauvian mood.

I was undoubtedly in such a mood because my friend, the philosopher, Ed Mooney, has just published a truly wonderful and insightful book called "Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion." I recommend it unconditionally. Here are two reviews about the book:

“Henry David Thoreau brought to philosophical writing a personal voice and a situated, embodied sensibility. Edward Mooney proves himself a worthy heir to Thoreau's legacy by speaking to his readers as an extracurricular intellectual and spiritual companion. We follow along as Thoreauvian saunterers, adventuring through rich fields of reverie, with Mooney as our engaging and always insightful guide. Excursions with Thoreau is a powerful illustration of how philosophy can live up to its name as the love of wisdom, grounded in wonder and defined by transformative encounters. It sheds new light on the work of a great American philosopher of the nineteenth century, and will introduce readers to Mooney's distinctive mode of narrative reflection on human experience and its meaning.” –  Rick Anthony Furtak, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Colorado College, USA

“Without wasting time on the tired question of whether or not Thoreau is a philosopher, Mooney's decisive arguments uncover for us the profundity and strangeness of the thinker's ideas. Mooney carefully and elegantly uncovers a Thoreau who is attentive to questions of life and loss that led him to formulate a complex ethics while rethinking the meaning of the communal. By bringing Thoreau into conversation with such thinkers as Marx and Kierkegaard, Mooney reveals challenges in Thoreau's writings that have still not been sufficiently addressed. Excursions with Thoreau is beautifully written and will be indispensable for future conversations about that writer.” –  Branka Arsic, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, USA

I hope you seek out the book. I hope you enjoy the photos below too.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

On the bravery of Private Godfrey—a Remembrance Sunday meditation

The cast of Dad's Army, Private Godfrey is on the left
READINGS: Ecclesiastes 9:17-18:

The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Two passages by William Stafford from Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War: William Stafford, Kim Robert Stafford, Milkweed Editions, 2003:

22 March 1968
The Fallacy of Retrospective Certainty:

People can select in the past certain events or persons and ascribe to them a crucial role in what eventuated. Sighting back past a chain of occurrences, one can say, “If someone had done this, then what followed could have been improved thus. Why didn't they act this way?” And sometimes the conclusion is, “Why don't I act that way, now?” “I would have killed Hitler, they say, meaning, “I believe in assassination under some circumstances.” A question: “What person would you assassinate now?” And if their principle is pushed to the further extreme they can be made remiss if they are not killing a succession of (retrospectively certain) troublemakers. But of course in actual life killing is not practiced or believed in by balanced people who realize the difficulties of judging consequences: it seems better to be civilized, to rely on group realizations, to cultivate order.

23 November 1967

A job: To help make it possible for others to feel they can use pleasant methods to save the world. To influence foreign governments. To spring off little pieces of insight and save them out of gross events and scenes.


In order to help us heed the words of wise Qoheleth we heard earlier found in his book, Ecclesiastes, I want to begin simply by recounting the story-line of a 1969 episode of the British TV Comedy, Dad’s Army. It was aired in on November 20th that year, just a few days after Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day.

A précis of the Dad's Army episode “Branded” by Jimmy Perry and David Croft (adapted from Wikipedia's précis)

If you prefer you can watch the half-hour episode on Youtube at this link or listen to the radio version at this link.

Following a exercise on the stealthy approach to an enemy soldier, Captain Mainwaring calls Sergeant Wilson into his office. He reveals he has received a letter from Private Godfrey, informing him that Godfrey wants to resign from the platoon. Given Godfrey's vital role in the platoon as the soldier who makes the tea, Mainwaring is unwilling to let him go and, naturally, asks him for an explanation. Godfrey tells him that his decision came about after a recent incident in which he found a mouse in his kitchen but was unable to kill it even though they were infested with them. Mainwaring fails to see what this has to do with Godfrey’s resignation until Godfrey says that it made him realise if he couldn’t kill a mouse he couldn’t kill a German. Godfrey then also reveals that in the First World War, he was a conscientious objector, a “conchie”.

Mainwaring orders Godfrey to go home. Wilson is tolerant and understanding of Godfrey's need to follow his conscience but Mainwaring is extremely angry at the thought of a man not wanting to fight and, assuming Godfrey to be a coward, makes up his mind to shame and humiliate him in front of the troops. With characteristic pompousness, he convenes a parade of the rest of the platoon to inform them of Godfrey's apparent cowardice, but his thunder is rather stolen by the arrival of the Air Raid Warden, Hodges, who wants to discuss an upcoming Civil Defence drill.

Once the platoon learns of Godfrey's past there begins an unpleasant process of ostracisation and, whilst many — including Corporal Jones and Privates Pike and Walker — are undecided about their response to Godfrey's decision Private Frazer is characteristically vocal in his condemnation of Godfrey's cowardice, and he has no hesitation in expressing his disgust to the other man's face. Mainwaring decides that Godfrey will remain in the unit until a replacement can be found.

The action then moves to the Civil Defence training drill in which Warden Hodges instructs the men on how to retrieve unconscious bodies (represented by sacks of straw) from burning buildings filled with smoke. Mainwaring is unimpressed by the amount of smoke in the building and, incautiously, adds extra rags to the stove which fills the building with far more smoke than is safe. Mainwaring and Godfrey are the last two men to go through the building and Mainwaring informs Godfrey that he has no intention of letting him use his ‘conchie tricks’ to get out of the exercise (not, of course, that Godfrey had any intention of trying to do this) and that he intends to follow Godfrey through the hut to make sure he completes the exercise.

The remainder of the platoon, having passed through the hut have all left the scene and, having gone through the hut himself, Godfrey waits alone for Mainwaring. When Mainwaring doesn’t appear, a very concerned  Godfrey bravely decides to re-enter the smoke-filled hut in order to save Mainwaring who has obviously been overcome by the smoke.

The action finally moves to the aged Godfrey’s home bedside as he recuperates from smoke inhalation. After the doctor leaves he is visited by the entire platoon who, by now, have somewhat got over their earlier distaste for him. As an extremely uncomfortable Mainwaring attempts to express his gratitude to Godfrey for saving his life he suddenly notices above the bed a photo of a much younger Godfrey in military uniform wearing the Military Medal — the equivalent of the Military Cross for non-officers and a medal of far higher rank than any of those held by the rest of the platoon. (Mainwaring, by the way, has no medals at all, because he only served in the Army of Occupation in France, "during the whole of 1919 — [saying] somebody had to clear up the mess.”) Mainwaring is utterly confused by this photograph. Godfrey then reveals that, although he refused to fight in the First World War, he did volunteer to join the Royal Army Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer. 

His sister, who is also by his bedside, explains that during the Battle of the Somme Godfrey was responsible for a tremendous act of heroism in rescuing several wounded soldiers from no man's land under heavy fire (which, with characteristic modesty, Godfrey immediately downplays). Suitably ashamed at their earlier treatment of him as a coward (although Frazer, typically, insists that he knew it would be the case all along) the platoon begin to apologise and, at Wilson's suggestion, Mainwaring has no hesitation in declaring Godfrey the platoon's medical orderly. As the platoon begin to leave the bedroom Mainwaring admits to Godfrey that he is still unable to understand one thing, namely, why Godfrey never wears his medal? Godfrey replies by saying that he feels it “would be rather ostentatious.” Mainwaring replies, “Ostentatious!? Well, if I’d won the MM I should have been so proud that I would have worn it on my chest for the whole world to see.” Godfrey replies, “That would have been alright for you, sir, because you look like a hero.” Mainwaring, chuckles pleasedly at this comment but, as he does so, Wilson delivers the final line of the episode, “Well, it just goes to show, sir, you can’t always go by appearances.”


On the bravery of Private Godfrey—a Remembrance Sunday meditation

Arnold Ridley as "Private Godfrey"
My very brief remarks today about remembering centre on the much-loved character of Private Godfrey taken in relation to some thoughts by the American poet and conscientious objector William Stafford.

I would like Godfrey to stand for us today as an exemplary figure symbolising all those who, as conscientious objectors, found ways to play important, and I would say, vital and necessary roles in our societies during times of war. The basic point I’d like us to hold in mind is that, even when the moral need for war is as powerful as it was during World War Two, conscientious objectors and pacifists remain essential to the overall well-being and decency of our society. They seem to me powerfully to remind us that we know, deep in hearts, how our world both could, and should, be. It’s important to add here that I am not seeking to persuade you to become, yourself, a pacifist, but I am seeking to persuade you of their vital and necessary role in any decent, balanced and healthy society and that their contributions make them also worthy of remembrance at this time of year.

William Stafford tellingly felt his position as a pacifist was “not so much an achieved position as a desired position” and that he understood peace and reconciliation as a fundamental process, a daily job. In other words, conscientious objection wasn’t for him a matter of merely adhering to some predetermined absolute, definite, doctrinal principle but always an ongoing, lived response to the complexities, ambiguities and anomalies of reality.

This mix of always-unfolding complexities, ambiguities and anomalies is powerfully brought home to us in Stafford’s words about “The Fallacy of Retrospective Certainty”. In the here and now, none of us can ever be certain which people are going to be the really dangerous ones. And thank heavens for this, because how many apparently bad apples have you have known that have gone on to be good, kind and decent people, or at least not turned out anywhere near as badly as you thought? Many, I’m sure, and it reveals the truth of Stafford’s comment that, at least at certain times and certain places, “One must learn to waver” in matters of judgement — especially in those judgements that will result in the taking of another life.

For me, Godfrey stands as someone who has deeply learnt this lesson. Intuitively acknowledging the complexities, ambiguities and anomalies of reality he rightly wavers before the idea of killing the mouse and, naturally for him, he also, rightly, wavers before the idea of killing a German whom he knows is a living being just like him, and just like the mouse. Godfrey is highly aware of the difficulties of judging consequences and in his own life consistently decides that “it seems better to be civilised, to rely on group realisations, to cultivate order.” Part of Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s great genius as the show’s writers was to be able to show us clearly and simply how Godfrey’s wavering is not at all the wavering of a coward — after all his wavering about the rightness of killing results in a clear, conscious decision to serve his nation by joining the Royal Army Medical Corps — instead, Perry and Croft show us the wise-wavering of a very brave, sensitive and insightful man.

In my opinion we must never forget that we are always in need of people like Godfrey who remind us of the complexities of life and of the fact that, were we ever to decide only to have amongst us “shouting rulers amongst fools” — as Captain Mainwaring and the platoon would be without Godfrey — we are always going to be diminished as human beings and in the deepest of trouble.

To be sure, most of us realise that it wouldn’t at all be a good idea to put Godfrey in charge of the platoon (and Godfrey would be the first to agree with this) but think about it, would you really want to be part of a platoon (or a society) that didn’t have in it a Godfrey? I don’t think most of us would. We look at Godfrey and see a man continually helping the whole platoon to understand the immense value of becoming a rounded and nuanced group of people and to see that it is always important “to rely on group realisations”. In so doing, Godfrey also continually helps them “to cultivate order” — an appropriate order that is flexible, pluralist, gently and democratically arrived at.

As you heard, on 23 November 1967, Stafford wrote in his journal the following words:

“A job: To help make it possible for others to feel they can use pleasant methods to save the world. To influence foreign governments. To spring off little pieces of insight and save them out of gross events and scenes.”

For me, Godfrey stands out as a person who bravely carried out this most difficult of jobs. He always sought to help the rest of the platoon (and us) to feel that it was always possible for us to use “pleasant methods to save the world” and his chief tools in this holy and divine task were, in addition to his innate gentleness and compassion, his sister’s (Dolly and Cissy’s) tasty cakes and his own unparalleled ability to make an excellent and restorative cup of tea.

As we see him lying in bed recovering from his most recent act of bravery, we watch him beautifully and gently able to “spring off little pieces of insight” and, in so doing, he manages to save the platoon and particularly Captain Mainwaring, from “out of [their previous] gross events and scenes.” The platoon, and I would argue, all of us, emerge from this touching episode transformed, we are improved, made better by Godfrey whether we are pacifists or not. We end up displaying a way of life that can, I think, be said to “influence foreign governments” even if only just a little. But let’s not forget every little thing counts in the long and difficult march to global peace.

Before I close I think it is very important to add that the actor who played Godfrey, Arnold Ridley, served during the First World War with the Somerset Light Infantry and fought in the Battle of the Somme where he was severely wounded. He also served in the Home Guard during World War Two. As you can see, Ridley was, most certainly, not a conscientious objector. It appears that when he first read the script he said to Jimmy Perry, one of the writers, “its good to mention conchies as they were called, because they went through hell a lot of them, and a lot of them had high principles. I'm very honoured to play it."

So, I today I simply ask that, in our remembering of those who bravely and selflessly fought, killed and laid down their lives for us in war, we never, ever, forget those conscientious objectors and pacifists who bravely kept alive a vital aspect of humanity that would have been lost without their own contributions to the war effort. As a nation, as much as a platoon, we need always to love, remember well and give thanks for our nation’s many Godfrey’s.

May it be so.