Sunday, 1 March 2015

Consider once more the fowls of the air: On letting Christian language go in the spirit of Jesus (Part 2)

Because the north Norfolk coast is well-known for its astonishingly rich variety of bird-life, spending two weeks in Wells-next-the-Sea inevitably calls one into a contemplation and consideration of the fowls of the air. There are the countless seagulls and over-wintering geese, many ducks and assorted waders, barn owls and marsh harriers, a skylark or two and, in the always sighing pine-woods that run all along that part of the coast we also even heard a night-jar.


(All the photos in this post were taken in Wells last week. Just click on them to enlarge.)

This contemplation and consideration was reinforced in the evenings whist sitting by a warming wood stove because I had taken with me a collection of poems written by a friend, Ed Mooney, called “Postcards Dropped in Flight: In praise of avian companions” (Codhill Press, New Paltz NY, 2006):

To have the sea-breeze waft through the balcony
to greet me as I ascend my stairs
is to bathe in tangible embrace.

For Birds the breeze must be 
like streams for watercraft
sometimes still
sometimes a mettling resistance
or startling joyous ride.

Once housed along the coast
I returned well into dark to find
a convalescent pure-white Gull
nestled in the corner of the landing
where the railing meets the shingles.

It huddled quietly, immobile
protected from the wind
and as its eye latched on mine
moved not an inch.

To enter my sparse quarters
would bring me close enough 
to touch this invalid. 

I would hate to frighten or disturb
a wanderer seeking refuge.

Yet a close approach to turn the bolt
and enter was inevitable.

As we grew accustomed 
to each other’s presence
it occurred to me that one might overestimate
the soul’s fright.
There was no sign of hurt.

Perhaps this sparkling feathered sphere
came as greeting and a comfort.
From when I couldn’t say.
By why rule out auspicious blessings?

Not unexpectedly
yet no less wonderfully
by early morning 
she had passed.

Ed concludes the poem with the final two lines of the following poem by Emily Dickinson (1830–86), number XCVI of “Part One: Life”

MY life closed twice before its close;
  It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
  A third event to me,
  
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
  As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
  And all we need of hell.



Given my Christian upbringing, it was inevitable that eventually a particular teaching of Jesus should came to mind: ”Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are they not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26).

The moment I begin to read or recall this teaching of Jesus’ I am still filled, first of all, with remembered feelings of comfort and trust. But, these days, as I read and think on, I quickly stumble and lose something of this sense.

In the first place there is the issue of the “heavenly Father” mentioned by Jesus whom he depicts as freely providing food to the, apparently, care-free birds. We meet today as a church community in which the majority of members find the existence of a father God vanishingly unlikely to be true. I think it is fair to say there is a general agreement amongst us that, if and when the word ‘God’ is still to be used by us, we cannot use it to refer to some actual existing super-being who is offering the mother of all social-security systems to at least some (but never all) of its subjects.

In the second place Jesus’ teaching does not seem to take into account something we know well today, namely, that birds do not, in fact, have an easy carefree time of it — there is no such thing as a free-lunch, neither for them, nor us, and that being a bird is exceptionally hard work and it is an existence is always fraught with danger. Predators abound, disease and ill-health is ever present and there is the never ending danger of famine. The birds might, at times, look to us like they are having the life of Riley but today we know this is an unrealistically romantic view of the way things are. The convalescent pure-white gull of which Ed Mooney speaks in his poem reveals this in a reflective and moving way as the bird’s hard life comes to a quiet end on the the sea-side apartment's balcony.


Lastly, in this age when we know human beings are not in any way the absolute centre of all creation — whether on earth or in the universe — the idea that we are, somehow, of more value than the birds seems now to be both deluded and morally offensive. Again, as Ed suggests in his poem, we are today increasingly minded to see their presence of great, intrinsic value, and that they bring with them or, perhaps better, are themselves, “auspicious blessings”.

The warming fire in Wells
Together, these three things may make it appear to me as if I really need simply to abandon Jesus teaching as a whole as being next to, or perhaps worse than useless. But, before finally consigning it to the waste-bin, in the evening sitting before the warming fire I wanted to turn it over in my mind at least just once more.

For starters throwing it thoughtlessly and finally away doesn’t feel right primarily because of the warm feelings I experience that I mentioned earlier whenever I begin to read or recall this passage. I’d miss that warmth and comfort and, if there is anything real in this, I’d surely be foolish to let such a support go.

I recalled that before I left for Wells on vacation I had reminded you of Marcus Borg’s feeling that to be a Christian it was enough to take seriously what Jesus took seriously. To this I added some advice I was given about reading Heidegger. Namely, that whenever I was puzzled about what on earth Heidegger was talking about I should try to look to the phenomenon or phenomena he was trying to explore.

This allowed me to ask a question: What was it that Jesus took seriously that we today should be taking seriously? In other words, what everyday, human phenomenon or phenomena might he have been trying to respond to and speak about and get us also in our own age and context to respond to and speak about? 

I concluded my address by suggesting that we could take seriously what Jesus took seriously without, necessarily, agreeing today with his own localised response. After all, times  and places change and his times are not ours, his understanding of the world is not ours. It seems unreasonable to expect that all of Jesus’ first-century responses to important phenomena are going to be the kind of responses I might want to make in the twenty-first century. But none of this means he hadn’t seen something in this or that phenomenon that I should still be taking seriously.

I began to see that Jesus’ teaching about the fowls of the air was a good example of this.


I imagined Jesus looking around at the crowd assembled round him and seeing there so many people unable fully to be the kind of beings they could be because they were living with so many of their freedoms curtailed, forced to wear around their necks so many heavy yokes, yokes of formal religion, politics and economics in which all power was held, and mostly abused, by only a self-selected few.

Then I imagined myself looking up into the sky to consider the fowls of the air as Jesus asked. What do I see there? Certainly not creatures merely having a free and easy time of it and who are less valuable than me but I do, at the very least, see creatures able fully and freely to be the kind of beings they are without any artifice, self-consciousness or the unnecessary barriers that are the yokes of human religion, politics and economics and I seem them blessedly free of corrupt and/or incompetent leaders.

A close reading of the gospels reveals that Jesus seems to have felt deeply in his heart that, despite the reality of all the humanly-created, freedom-sapping yokes, it was always possible for us to find different, more appropriate human ways of being in the world that could help us fully and freely to flourish in a way analogous to the wild birds above us (and, on another occasion, of course, to the lilies of the field).


It seems not unreasonable to suggest that, as he was beautifully improvising his liberating and revolutionary teaching on some Galilean hillside or plain, Jesus looked up and found an image that, right at that moment, best resonated with this deep feeling in his own heart and one that he hoped he might start in the hearts of his hearers.

The match, it is important to say, may not, indeed need not, have been perfect here. All that counted was whether it was sufficiently close both to his own inner state and to an inner state within his hearers that he hoped to set in sympathetic vibration. So, he offered up a poetic image which he felt gave them just such “an approximation” of his own inner experience — namely that life was underpinned and made possible by deeper and greater reality and power than any solely human reality and power. In so doing Jesus gave it, quite naturally, “the semblance of objective reality” (cf. McGhee, Transformations of the Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Practice p. 119) — in his case a “heavenly Father.”

The trouble is that it is has always been so easy to lose this sense of semblance and to allow one’s thinking and pondering about these aesthetic ideas and images to degenerate into a form of naive theological realism.

The image Jesus used was not intended to be an example of this naive theological realism, one that was to be fixed for ever. No! It seems way more likely that he was simply proceeding as an improvising poet of the spirit and not as some analytic philosopher or theologian. That Jesus’ image of a “heavenly Father” was later fixed and analysed and has, in most church circles, come to be seen as “forever” is, firstly, to observe simply that Jesus clearly struck upon what was, at the time, an extremely attractive and effective chord. Secondly, it is to observe how regrettable and degenerate this fixing was and remains for the spiritual life of those wishing to take seriously what Jesus took seriously.


It seems to me that, as a person wishing to do this, a necessary element of my spiritual practice must be to renew and cultivate my “sense of semblance” by trying to recover, through quiet reflection and meditation, something of the conditions in which the mind of Jesus might have been set “in motion [in this case by the birds of the air] towards the idea of a corresponding inner state” (McGhee p.126).

But the problem we have today is that for most of us here the image Jesus’ chose — "the heavenly Father" — to gesture towards this inner state simply doesn’t strike the same chord or set up this same kind of resonance in us as it seemed capable of achieving in his earlier audiences. For complex reasons that I don’t need to rehearse now, it’s an image that within our culture has (alas) by now degenerated into a form of naive theological realism and so it is not surprising that many of us have come to find it uncongenial, unpersuasive and even, at times, morally repellent. For a recent popular expression of just how uncongenial, unpersuasive and morally repellent a resonance is now often set up in us by such an anthropomorphic image of the divine we need go no further than Stephen Fry’s recent interview on RTE television’s The Meaning of Life.

But please keep hold of the thought that the “heavenly Father” image is not, to my mind at any rate, the primary point of Jesus’ teaching at all. We need not keep using this particular image in order to continue to take seriously what Jesus took seriously and to resonate with what might have been his own inner state.


Instead, it seems to me that it was only ever Jesus’ desire to share with others — not his image — but his overwhelming, and ultimately comforting and supportive inner state, that there is always-already a reality and power underpinning everything that is continually gifting the possibility that all things might flourish fully and freely after their own kind. He looked up and saw the birds living such a life after their own kind; he looked down and saw us failing to live such a life after our own kind and this convinced him to try and do something about it.

Later, as I later sat one evening with Susanna on a sand-dune near Wells, in quiet reflection and meditation on the phenomena of the birds of the air and our own human ways of being — in other words, taking what Jesus took seriously — I opened myself to the possibility that my own mind might also be set “in motion [by the birds of the air] towards the idea of a corresponding inner state” (McGhee p.126) — an inner state that gives me confidence that we are underpinned and sustained by a reality and power greater than any reality and power that can be wielded by human kind and which can bring with it intimations of genuine human freedom and fulfilment.


Suddenly, I realised that, in terms of the images I feel compelled to use to pass this inner state to you today, the world of Jesus must seemingly be turned upside down. Looking up, I can only speak of this sustaining reality and power as follows. I find it not in the image of a “heavenly Father”, but in the very image of the fowls of the air themselves who, like angels in our old myths, suddenly seemed to greet me and bring me auspicious blessings of this deeper belonging, freedom and comfort, though, like along with Ed, from whence it comes I couldn’t say. Jesus gestured to a heavenly Father whereas I must gesture towards a mysterious natural source about which I find I can say nothing at all but “before” which I most certainly stand in grateful awe. And then, as I wrote down these last few words, there finally flew into view another of Emily Dickinson's sublime poems:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —

I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.


I hope you can see that, even though I personally find it hard any longer to use Jesus’ specific image of a “heavenly Father” the birds may still be bringing me the same auspicious blessings Jesus felt he had received and that he wished to pass on to his hearers, as I wish to pass them on to you. I'm still taking seriously what Jesus took seriously.

For the time being, on this matter, I rest my case and await your own responses.


Monday, 23 February 2015

A confession: How I became an erratic religious radical

Wells-next-the-Sea beach at low tide
Whilst staying in Wells for the last two weeks on a short break from church work I read the March newsletter so ably put together by our Chairman, Andrew Bethune. With me being away it fell to Andrew to say something about the Good Friday communion service and, in so doing, he quoted the Dutch Remonstrant Church’s statement of faith which I had posted on my blog alongside a notice about the Christmas Eve Communion service of 2013.

Seeing such a clearly liberal Protestant, Christian statement presented to you under my name (not incorrectly I hasten to add) made me sit back and think again, as I so often do, about my very troubled relationship with Christianity. It’s always been a hard subject to talk about coherently because there seem to me to be in play so many apparently contradictory factors.

Now I’m not sure I’m going to succeed in talking coherently about it in this very personal, confessional post but by coincidence, shortly before the newsletter was published, I read a very fine piece in the Guardian (Wednesday 18th February 2105) which offered me a route into trying to speak understandably about this matter. The article, by Yanis Varoufakis (the current Greek finance minister) was called, “How I became an erratic Marxist”. I would have read the piece on that day anyway because I’ve been impressed with him for quite a while now but I had to read it immediately because the title offered such a good description of me for I, too, would describe myself as an “erratic Marxist”, and erratic in very similar ways to Varifoukis.

But I bring up Varoufoukis’ piece here not to talk about Marxist politics per se (although it should be said my own politics and religion are intimately intertwined), but because I could see that there existed in it certain similarities between his analysis of the current political and financial situation in Europe and my own analysis as, what you might call, an “erratic religious radical”, concerning the future of radical, liberal religion. I feel the need to point to these similarities because it helps me indicate to you exactly where, as a current, settled (if erratic) minister, my own hope for the future of our religious tradition lies.

So, what do I think are the similarities between Varoufakis’ piece and my own views about the future of radical, liberal religion? To show this I’ll begin with his introductory four paragraphs. Here’s the first:

“In 2008, capitalism had its second global spasm. The financial crisis set off a chain reaction that pushed Europe into a downward spiral that continues to this day. Europe’s present situation is not merely a threat for workers, for the dispossessed, for the bankers, for social classes or, indeed, nations. No, Europe’s current posture poses a threat to civilisation as we know it.”

Keeping only to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it seems clear to me that the liberal Protestant Christian tradition has also suffered two major spasms. The first occurred over the period extending from the end of the First World War to the ending of the Second. The second spasm followed the events of September 11th, 2001. It is clear that the failure of liberal Protestant Christianity to offer it’s people a convincing, practical religious and ethical way to find meaning and worth in the modern post-world war and post-9/11 world have all helped push the tradition into a downward spiral that continues to this day. Although it might seem at first excessive to borrow Varoufakis’ words and suggest that the collapse of the liberal Protestant tradition, like capitalism, is also “not merely a threat for workers, for the dispossessed, for the bankers, for social classes or, indeed, nations” but also “poses a threat to civilisation as we know it”, in truth I think these words can be so borrowed. Liberal Protestant Christianity has always been intimately bound up with the development of liberal social democracy across Europe and it was in the hands of many Christian social democrats that capitalism was able to gain such hegemonic power across Europe.

Moving on, Varoufakis then writes,

“If my prognosis is correct, and we are not facing just another cyclical slump soon to be overcome, the question that arises for radicals is this: should we welcome this crisis of European capitalism as an opportunity to replace it with a better system? Or should we be so worried about it as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism?”

This helps me pose an analogous question for religious radicals; should we welcome this crisis of European, liberal Protestant Christianity as an opportunity to replace it with a better system?

Now, in the current financial and political context of which Varoufakis asks, as you heard, whether in the light of the overall situation we shouldn’t be promoting some wholly new, radical alternative to capitalism but should, instead, “be so worried . . . as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism”? I hope it is clear that for a Marxist to ask this question, let alone for them publicly to articulate it, is as close as they can get to uttering a blasphemy.

In my own religious context, the similarity plays out in my  overwhelming need to ask whether, in the light of the overall situation, we shouldn’t be promoting some wholly new, radical religious alternative but, instead, should be so worried as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising liberal Protestant Christianity?

Publicly articulating this in a radical religious movement that, understandably, and for reasons I mostly share, would for the most part desperately like to cut lose from the strictures and self-evident contradictions and flaws of Christianity, is also to come close to uttering a blasphemy; so why do I say it? Why do I continue to insist that, as our much argued over denominational object says, we should be “uphold[ing] the liberal Christian tradition”? This becomes clearer when we turn to paragraph three of Varoufakis.

“To me, the answer is clear. Europe’s crisis is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath, while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come.”

It seems to me that right now in Europe, the crisis in European liberal Protestant Christianity is at the moment, similarly, far less likely to give birth to a better, radical, liberal religious alternative than it is likely to contribute in a small, but still very real way, to the unleashing of the “dangerously regressive forces” of which Varoufakis speaks.

Varoufakis speaks, of course, in the much more highly charged context of Greece where the neo-Nazi group, the “Golden Dawn” genuinely threatens to occupy a central place in the culture. But, what is true in Greece is also increasingly true across the whole of Europe — the extreme right are beginning to make ever further inroads to the centre of European politics.

This acutely uncomfortable realisation has forced me for the past fifteen years to see if I can find any kind of honourable intellectually and spiritually honest way to remain not only engaged with, if highly critical of, the liberal Protestant Christian tradition but, like Varoufakis in his own current political context, even to act as one of its accredited ministers.

This stance has often been far from easy to maintain and its never been a comfortable position to be in; I need change only one word of Varoufakis’ fourth paragraph to make it wholly my own:

“For this view I have been accused, by well-meaning radical voices, of being ‘defeatist’ and of trying to save an indefensible European [Christian] (Varoufakis has here the word “socioeconomic”) system. This criticism, I confess, hurts. And it hurts because it contains more than a kernel of truth.”

His words remind me that I’m consciously (though always regretfully) playing a dangerously ambiguous game caught in a no-man’s land half-way between a generally liberal Protestant Christian establishment (in which I no longer have any genuine faith — at least not in its metaphysics) on one side, and the radical, liberal religious, naturalistic tradition desirous of leaving Christianity behind (which I love and would prefer to see come about), on the other.

I often lie awake at night (and I do not exaggerate here) worrying that this makes me a kind of traitor to the radical, liberal, naturalistic tradition and this hurts — it hurts because because the accusation contains more than a kernel of truth.

But despite this I find have no choice but to say it is clear (to me anyway) that, alone, the radical, liberal religious alternatives as they are currently being articulated — including the naturalistic one I’m tentatively trying to articulate with you — just aren’t yet up to the job in hand. And what is the job in hand?

Well, it is nothing less than helping to secure European civilisation as we currently know it which, despite all its many evident faults, is surely a better thing to support than any alternative which threatens to help a state of affairs develop that is only likely to encourage the rise of nationalism and/or anarchy with all their associated religious and political tendencies to oppression and violence.

The painful truth is that for many reasons — honourable and dishonourable, with committed sins of omission and commission — the difficult, long-term philosophical, theological and political groundwork that would have made it possible for us to articulate and develop across Europe a workable liberal, radical religious alternative capable of doing the heavy lifting that is required by any major civilisation, simply hasn’t been done by us and we going to have to admit this major failing. Short of, 'God' forbid, the actual collapse of western civilisation and the final demise of our own religious tradition (which would, of course, change everything and render all my words in this piece obsolete) liberal religious radicals need, in my opinion, to acknowledge that we have little choice but to find ways to continue to work from within our older forms of religion for some considerable time yet. It is inevitable that, because of this stance, some in my own circles have said that this makes me a defeatist.

So, is all the above not to say that the future seems bleak for the development of a radical, liberal, naturalistic religion that so many of us hope to see come about? Well, yes and no.

I’ve just outlined for you above something of the “yes” answer. So what about the “no”? Well, later in his essay Varoufakis wisely makes the following point:

“A radical social theorist can challenge the economic mainstream in two different ways, I always thought. One way is by means of immanent criticism. To accept the mainstream’s axioms and then expose its internal contradictions. To say: ‘I shall not contest your assumptions but here is why your own conclusions do not logically flow on from them.’ This was, indeed, Marx’s method of undermining British political economics. He accepted every axiom by Adam Smith and David Ricardo in order to demonstrate that, in the context of their assumptions, capitalism was a contradictory system. The second avenue that a radical theorist can pursue is, of course, the construction of alternative theories to those of the establishment, hoping that they will be taken seriously.”

As I mentioned earlier, although we have collectively put forward many alternative religious theories over the years, we haven’t put in the right kind of groundwork that makes them in any way persuasive; they are just not good enough for the huge task in hand. But Varoufakis points out another reason why the second avenue is, in truth, closed to us for the foreseeable future. He writes:

“My view on this dilemma has always been that the powers that be are never perturbed by theories that embark from assumptions different to their own. The only thing that can destabilise and genuinely challenge mainstream, neoclassical economists is the demonstration of the internal inconsistency of their own models.” 

It seems to me that what is true of “mainstream, neoclassical economists” seems also to be true of all those who think in mainstream, liberal Christian ways — and whether they are doing this thinking within formal belief settings (i.e. churches) or in secular settings where Christianity (at least it’s basic ethics and morals) has become almost completely cultural (i.e. shorn of explicit metaphysical belief).

If, in the present situation, we truly want to succeed in finally bringing about some new kind of liberal, radical religion I would argue we must engage in more effective forms of immanent criticism. We need to see how just how powerful it can be “to accept the mainstream’s axioms and then expose its internal contradictions. To say: ‘I shall not contest your assumptions but here is why your own conclusions do not logically flow on from them.’”

In maintaining my own, and this church’s, relationship with the liberal Christian tradition I have consistently tried to do just this. I think it is possible to show that this tradition is still capable of being unfolded dialectically into an increasingly radical, post-Christian, secular form of religious naturalism. (This should explain, I hope, my particular love of the (decidedly erratic) Marxist thinker, Ernst Bloch, who, to my mind, remains one of our culture’s most under-valued and explored religious and political thinkers (one who intimately conjoined Marxist, Jewish and Christian perspectives)).

This process can best be affected (in my opinion) by engaging in a conscious process of “Verwindung” rather than “Überwindung” — a process of overcoming Christianity not by replacing it wholesale with some equal and opposite religious naturalist doctrine (and creating just another oppressive power-bloc) but by overcoming it through a more gentle and effective dialectical process of reinterpreting, reshaping, reconfiguring Christianity.  

All of which brings me back to the Dutch Remonstrant Church’s statement of faith with which this piece began. Can I as an erratic religious radical, today, still get fully (enough) behind it? The addition of the word ‘enough’ in brackets is important here because I hope every genuine religious radical realises that all human statements (even our own most beloved ones) must remain provisional and never become absolute, because in conversation, dialectically, all positions are going to be changed in time. So can I still get fully (enough) behind it?

With the addition of the word ‘enough’ my answer is “yes” because it is a liberal Protestant (Christian) statement of faith that is clearly “on the way” and engaged in a process of verwindung not überwindung. It is a statement that openly admits the primacy, not of certainty, but of journeying wonder, vigilance and connection within a whole that is infinitely greater than what we can contain ourselves.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men and women at first hand with Deity. On letting Christian language go in the spirit of Jesus

Tintern Abbey
Readings: Matthew 7:28-29 (NRSV)

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. 

Ed Mooney notes in his introduction to Henry Bugbee’s The Inward Morning  (Georgia University Press, 1999, p. xvi), that when any

. . . rich expression of responsibility held fast in the grip of reality resonates convincingly, its authority will rest on the speaker’s testimony, on the accumulated respect we have gathered for a voice trued to its experience in a world we can recognise as our own. This authority is thoroughly first-personal and does not rest on appeals to abstract reason or “moral law.” Of course interpretation can amplify the case, and our responses to this testimony can be closer or farther from the mark, better or worse. But the case to be interpreted lies before us as the givenness of reality, awaiting our perception.

From The Divinity School Address (1838) by Ralph Waldo Emerson 

And now, my brothers, you will ask, What in these desponding days can be done by us? The remedy is already declared in the ground of our complaint of the Church. We have contrasted the Church with the Soul. In the soul, then, let the redemption be sought. Wherever a man comes, there comes revolution. The old is for slaves. When a man comes, all books are legible, all things transparent, all religions are forms. He is religious. Man is the wonderworker. He is seen amid miracles. All men bless and curse. He saith yea and nay, only. The stationariness of religion; the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing him as a man; indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake. The true Christianity, — a faith like Christ's in the infinitude of man, — is lost. None believeth in the soul of man, but only in some man or person old and departed. Ah me! no man goeth alone. All men go in flocks to this saint or that poet, avoiding the God who seeth in secret. They cannot see in secret; they love to be blind in public. They think society wiser than their soul, and know not that one soul, and their soul, is wiser than the whole world. See how nations and races flit by on the sea of time, and leave no ripple to tell where they floated or sunk, and one good soul shall make the name of Moses, or of Zeno, or of Zoroaster, reverend forever. None assayeth the stern ambition to be the Self of the nation, and of nature, but each would be an easy secondary to some Christian scheme, or sectarian connection, or some eminent man. Once leave your own knowledge of God, your own sentiment, and take secondary knowledge, as St. Paul's, or George Fox's, or Swedenborg's, and you get wide from God with every year this secondary form lasts, and if, as now, for centuries, — the chasm yawns to that breadth, that men can scarcely be convinced there is in them anything divine.
Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, ‘I also am a man.’ Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's.
Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity. 

Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey (lines 1-23) by William Wordsworth

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur.*—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit's cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone. 

ADDRESS

What I want to do today is to begin to tease out something important but allusive concerning how I think we might best further our own open and free religious tradition, one that undeniably has Jesus as a significant part of its DNA, but one which is clearly no longer offers the kind of religion that is mostly meant whenever the word “Christianity” is invoked.

I want, in fact need, to do it because this week I have been asked by three different people about my own and our church’s relationship both to Jesus and Christianity. In two instances this occurred because the most recent revision of our evening service no longer contains the Lord's Prayer (you may download a pdf copy of it at this link).

This address is a summary of my replies. Once again I’ll keep it first personal rather than speak on your behalf. 

I start with two pieces of advice I have been given over the years. 

The first was from one of the most influential liberal Christian theologians of the past few decades who died only in January this year, Marcus Borg (1942-2015) who said that what it means to be a Christian is to take seriously what Jesus took seriously.

The second came many years ago, as I began to discover and think through the sometimes (always?!) difficult thinking of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). I was told that, whenever I was puzzled by this or that complex, abstract passage, I could do no better than try to figure out what everyday phenomenon or phenomena he was trying to take seriously and speak about. 

Taken together they help me ask a question: 

What was it that Jesus took seriously that we today should be taking seriously? In other words, what everyday, human phenomenon or phenomena might he have been trying to respond to and speak about and get us also in our own age and context to respond to and speak about? 

In addition to this there is another important question simultaneously to ask, namely, why I feel I can trust what he says about this? 

It’s perhaps best to begin by noting that, as the gospel of Matthew suggest, when Jesus had finished saying the things that formed the Sermon on the Mount, “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt 7:28-29).

That the Jesus tradition survived his execution and the evident, immediate failure of his programme to bring about the kingdom of God bares eloquent witness to the likelihood that Jesus spoke and acted with considerable personal authority.  

To borrow some words from Ed Mooney (talking about Henry Bugbee) we may say Jesus’ audience seems to have felt he was, to an extraordinary and inspiring degree, responding directly and appropriately as “a person with concern” to the claims made on his “deportment” and “comportment” by both the people he met and God, which is to say to his own culture and time’s conception of the divine. This accords well, I think, with Jesus’ own summary of the law and the prophets, namely, of the need to love God and our neighbour as ourselves.

Let me stay with this thought for a moment and suggest that the everyday phenomena Jesus was trying to speak about were the commonly felt, twin needs to respond directly and appropriately both to other people in their actual situation and to the call of something greater and more encompassing than our individual selves, a reality Jesus called God, or “abba”, meaning “father” that, when acted upon, together gave rise to a better, more loving and just society, something Jesus called “the kingdom of God” among or within us. 

We may struggle today with Jesus’ use of the language of a personal God, I certainly do (and I'll return to this at the end), but we can, if we wish, naturalise this concept by acknowledging that all of us (theist or non-theist, consciously or not) are in some way called to respond appropriately to the claims made upon us by the encompassing whole that is the natural world. (I remind you that Spinoza suggests that we may understand God to be Nature, Nature to be God, deus sive natura.)

So what is a responsible, appropriate response to our neighbour and to Nature/God? Christianity has, along with other religions, often given pretty narrow and proscriptive answers to this but here I’m seeking a gentler, more inclusive, flexible and open-ended answer.  

Ed Mooney, is helpful here when he notes that:

“Responsibility is appropriately to respond to [these] claims . . . Another’s suffering calls on our compassion; your dignity claims my respect; a job can claim concerted effort; a sense of vocation can claim my long-term aspirations. As apt responsiveness to such claims, responsibility is as multifaceted as the claims it answers” (Inward Morning p. xiv-xv)

So, the first thing to note is that we are in a highly plural realm. There is no single appropriate response but aways-already many. Ed continues, that when any 

“ . . . rich expression of responsibility held fast in the grip of reality resonates convincingly, its authority will rest on the speaker’s testimony, on the accumulated respect we have gathered for a voice trued to its experience in a world we can recognise as our own. This authority is thoroughly first-personal and does not rest on appeals to abstract reason or “moral law.” Of course interpretation can amplify the case, and our responses to this testimony can be closer or farther from the mark, better or worse. But the case to be interpreted lies before us as the givenness of reality, awaiting our perception.” (ibid. p. xvi)

Let’s unpack Ed’s paragraph a bit see where we come out in relation to Jesus.   

The people who truly inspire us, whom we come to trust, and upon whom we choose to rely, are those whom we have come to believe are offering us a rich expression of responsibility. That is to say, we believe them to be people who are strongly responsible across the full breadth of their life. They are not merely going to be responsible in their surface, public expressions but also in their actual public work. This will also be true in their more private life with both friends and strangers. They are also going to be strongly responsible in the even less public dealings with their closest loved ones and also with their own private thoughts and personal spiritual or philosophical disciplines.

But how do we know what we are seeing and experiencing in this or that person is, in fact, a rich expression of responsibility and not merely a thin veneer designed to fool us into thinking they are trustworthy and responsible?

Well, their’s must be a rich expression of responsibility held fast in the grip of reality, one which which resonates convincingly with us. The answer is, therefore, to be found in some kind of this worldly, sympathetic resonance with them. 

Now, I explored this idea of resonance with you a few years ago through some lines from the beginning of William Wordsworth's poem “Tintern Abbey”. (I’m very indebted to the British philosopher Michael McGhee for this helpful example and insight). Recall these lines:

. . . once again
do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs
that on a wild secluded scene impress
thoughts of a more deep seclusion.

The important thing to be aware of here is that Wordsworth is not writing a poem the point of which is a mere description of the so-called natural physical facts of “steep and lofty cliffs” in a “secluded scene”; it’s not just a pretty nature poem but much, much more. Instead, Wordsworth is offering us a poem in which these things somehow correspond to, or resonate with, a state of mind he is experiencing, in this case “thoughts of a more deep seclusion”. Wordsworth’s hope is that, if he is successful, then his readers’ minds and imaginations will also experience this resonance and suddenly there will be a correspondence between the author, reader and, of course, the steep and lofty cliffs in a secluded scene. The consequence of this is that, for a moment, there arises between him and us a new collective reality which is solid enough for us to experience, check, and examine it for its trustworthiness. If we find it trustworthy we will, in the case of Wordsworth, read more of his poetry. Hopefully, there will be more resonances which we can once again experience, check and examine for their trustworthiness. As in every good conversation  — for it is a kind of conversation — we begin to feel “the vibe” that we are in the presence of a person we can trust and that, even when they say something we find difficult and can’t yet quite get our heads and lives around, it’s going to be worth taking what they say very seriously. 

As Ed Mooney notes, in the end we find that the authority “will rest on the speaker’s testimony, on the accumulated respect we have gathered for a voice trued to its experience in a world we can recognise as our own.” I hope you can see that this kind of authority is, as Ed says, always-already thoroughly first-personal and does not rest on appeals to abstract reason or “moral law.” 

But it is important to remember that this authority is not final, absolute and infallible. As Ed notes, 

“. . . interpretation can amplify the case, and our responses to this testimony can be closer or farther from the mark, better or worse. But the case to be interpreted lies before us as the givenness of reality, awaiting our perception.” 

A great poet like Wordsworth is a good example of someone who was concerned to bring us, again and again, for ever and ever, to the givenness of reality awaiting our perception in a world we can recognise as our own, now in this moment and context, now in another

With this thought in mind let’s return to Jesus and remember that I asked my opening question in the context of thinking through how we might best further our own open and free religious tradition, one that undeniably has Jesus as a significant part of its DNA but one which is clearly no longer the kind of religion that is mostly meant whenever the word “Christianity” is invoked.

Jesus still speaks to me authoritatively because his words and actions, or at least those words and actions he seems most likely actually to have taught and done, are still able to set up in me a resonance that helps bring me to the givenness of reality awaiting my perception in a world I can recognise as my own, now in this moment and context, now in another. In so doing I feel I experience something of what he named “the kingdom of God”, and this fleeting, collective reality is something which, from time to time, is solid enough for me briefly to experience, check, and examine it for its trustworthiness. 

It seems to me that, at heart, it was this non-sectarian reality that Jesus took seriously. As one of our own ministers, Robert Travers Herford (1860-1950) said:

". . . the Idea of the Kingdom of God is universal and all-inclusive in a way which was never possible, nor even contemplated or desired, under the Church Idea. The Kingdom of God, as the rule of God in the heart, the love and service of him, and the consequent love and service of all [people] as children of the one Father, that is not limited by any doctrinal definitions. No one but a Christian ever did, or ever could, work for the Church. But all can work for the Kingdom of God, not Christians only but all who consciously own God, whether Christian or Jew, Mohammedan or Brahmin, or any other of those to whom God has revealed himself ‘by diverse portions and in diverse manners’" (The Idea of the Kingdom of God, R. Travers Herford, 1929).

When I read Jesus’ teachings — especially in Thomas Jefferson’s version, that of John Dominic Crossan's, or that by Stephen Mitchell — I find, again and again, that Jesus succeeds in drawing my attention to the phenomena that full meaning and worth in life — the kingdom of heaven — is to be found when I am simultaneously able to respond lovingly, deeply and responsibly to the needs of actual people (in whatever situation they found themselves and from whatever background) and also able to heed the call of some unimaginably greater, creative, unifying reality to which I all owe my life, love, gratitude and loyalty. 

Jesus seems to be teaching precisely what Emerson thought he was teaching, namely how to become ourselves newborn bards of the Holy Ghost, — to cast behind us all conformity, and acquaint men and women at first hand with Deity. 
  
The point I want to conclude with today is that, as a religious person who still tries to take seriously what Jesus took seriously, I remain concerned to make the phenomena he responded to clear to people in my own age and clime. The truth is that I have to admit that in doing this these days I find much Christian language — including some of the language used by Jesus — is more of a hindrance than a help and I'm beginning to have confidence to let it go. But I think that's OK because my loyalty remains with the inclusive phenomena Jesus was responding to and not to any particular way of pointing to it or expressing it — not even Jesus’.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Playing at the Royal Albert Hall's Elgar Rooms on Thursday 5th February with the Chris Ingham Quartet

The Chris Ingham Quartet, in which I play bass, is playing at the Royal Albert Hall's Elgar Rooms tomorrow, Thursday 5th February. Doors open at 9pm with music from 9.45pm. Entry is via door 8. We'll be playing music from our recent CD "Hoagy", celebrating the music of Hoagy Carmichael.

More details at the Royal Albert Hall's website. Just click on this link.

Celebrating Hoagy is packed with the songs and stories of one of America’s most enduring and endearing songwriters. Shot through with the hot jazz style of Hoagy's friend, legendary cornettist Bix Beiderbecke, this joyful celebration of the old music master features well-loved hits (Stardust, How Little We Know, Georgia On My Mind, Skylark, Ole Buttermilk Sky, Lazy Bones) alongside obscure nuggets and delightful curiosities from Hoagy’s rich and varied songbook.



"One of Britain's best singer-pianists...sophisticated tribute...charming work" — Jack Massarik, Evening Standard



“This is just lovely…” — Clive Davis, Sunday Times Essential Jazz CD of the Week 

Sunday, 1 February 2015

To live in this world you must be able to do three things — a natural, this-worldly understanding of immortality

Trees and a bench at Wandlebury on Monday
Last Monday I took myself off into the beautiful woods at Wandlebury. Although it was a cold, damp and overcast day I was very pleased to be out of the house and the town and in such a wonderful place.

As I walked in the presence of the apparently dead winter trees, these “pillars of light”, I found my thoughts centre once again on a poem by Mary Oliver — on this occasion, “In Blackwater Woods”. It was very much in mind because I had another funeral to conduct in just a couple of days and I often use its concluding nine lines in funeral services as words of committal.

Look, the trees 
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

("New and Selected Poems": Volume 1)

I also had in mind another passage that I often use in funerals just before the committal, namely George Santayana’s (1863-1952) interpretation of Benedict Spinoza’s (1632-1677) understanding of immortality:

When a man’s life is over, it remains true that he has lived; it remains true that he has been one sort of man and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history that bit has its unfading and its perpetual function and effect. A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him, and knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the moment of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is part forever in the infinite context of facts [existence] (from the Preface to Spinoza's Ethics and De intellects emendation, J. M. Dent and Sons, 1910, No. 481 in their Everyman's Library)

When I got back from my walk in the late afternoon all of my thoughts about the winter trees, Oliver, Santayana and Spinoza were suddenly pulled into focus for me by some words of Henry Bugbee (1915-1999) from his book The Inward Morning” (University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 161-163):

Men have sought the light of eternity, and they have often thought to look away from things. Yet is this light something apparent, or is it a light in which things appear? Are not things dense and dark as it is necessary for them to take this light? And what is revealed by this light, to what does it supply relevant illumination, if not to things standing forth wonderfully in it? (Footnote: Things exist infinitely: I do not mean ‘on and on interminably,’ but something closer to what may be expressed in saying: ever and ever, forever and always, it is so. Mahler comes close to it in his way in Das Lied von der Erde, the closing song.)

[. . .] It seems to me that I want to say we must hold with things to the extent of not invoking anything behind or beyond them of which they are the appearance. As I put it years ago in my doctoral thesis, reality makes a stand here and now in existing things. [. . .] ‘Beyond’, ‘behind,’ are these not more properly construed as images of the obscurity in our souls? But as we learn to take things in their darkness, as we can acknowledge them in the intimation of their finality, then we can stand upon the threshold of receiving the ultimate gift of things, and obscurity within us gives way to utter light.

Only as things are dense and opaque do they stand forth in the light of eternity, and take the light. To take that which exists as existing and not as a symbol for something else; to find something to which one gives full heed, and not merely to push right through it in search of a beyond, or to have  from it only a message at once directing the mind away from it and on to other things; such is the experience of things as eternal, in the making. To experience things in their density is to experience containment in reality. But the agile mind and the distraught soul militate against true perception; for true perception requires stillness in the presence of things, the active, open reception of the limitless gift of things. 

Together, the trees and these texts preached to me what seemed to be a gospel of natural, this-worldly hope and it is something of this hope I am going to try to bring before you today for your consideration.

ADDRESS 

Death is one of the most powerful moments in which I am taught finality. It is to be taught the truth that all individual things — whether myself, those whom I love, the trees and everything else — burst forth astonishingly and beautifully into existence out of a mysterious darkness, are in the world bathed in light for a while and, then, are gone again into the mysterious darkness.

As do we all, I come back, time and time again, to what Mary Oliver calls this “black river of loss”. It is perhaps inevitable that within our own culture, one shaped for millennia by dreams of the existence of another, perfect and really-real world, our “agile minds and distraught souls” have so often been tempted at these times to look to another world in order to find an eternal and lasting light and reality in which everything is saved and nothing is lost.

But for someone like me there are by now the strongest of indications that the existence of such a supernatural world and associated God is vanishingly unlikely and this means, especially as a minister of religion who must prepare and conduct funerals, if I am to find an eternal and lasting light and reality in which everything is saved and nothing is lost then I need to find it in this world. I need to find a way to show myself and others that the salvation we seek is salvation not FROM this world, as Christianity has understood it to be, but salvation IN this world.

It seems to me that Oliver, Spinoza, Santayana, Bugbee and, above all else, the winter trees through which I walked on Monday offered me a very tangible glimpse of what this salvation in the world is like. Here I simply wish to pass the gospel of hope and joy I saw for you to use, or dismiss, as you wish.

Let me return to the beginning of Mary Oliver’s poem where she is imagining that rich moment in autumn when the trees are just beginning to turn themselves into the “pillars of light” through which I was walking on Monday.

All around her are the distinct, utterly unique aspects of that season. There is the “rich fragrance of cinnamon” and also that sense of fulfilment as the trees seed the world with the possibility of new life in “the long tapers of cattails” that “are bursting and floating away over “the blue shoulders of the ponds.”

Her autumn walk and this poem are, of course, fully informed by earlier winters, springs, summers and other autumns through which she has passed many times. But, for me, one sign of Oliver’s greatness as a poet is her ability to remain in the presence of things as they are showing up to her in the here and now and not to turn away from them to, in this case, perhaps, the trees in other seasons and to other, easier and more obviously pleasant thoughts and insights. She, however, resolutely remains in the present and does not flinch from telling us that every year everything she has ever learned in her lifetime leads back to this moment, to the autumn bonfires and “the black river of loss whose other side is salvation, whose meaning none of us will ever know.”

And now here I am, in the cold season that follows the season of fulfilment, with death in my mind and a feeling that my own feet are in the black river of loss.

And then I’m struck by how hard it is to remain with these winter trees and not to push right through them in search of a more obviously pleasant and easy imagined beyond. I find myself struggling to overcome the powerful, culturally implanted idea that the eternal truth and real meaning of these trees is that they are really only symbols of something else and that their message is directing me elsewhere.

But, Oliver helps me hold my nerve and this keeps me firmly in the presence of the trees in the cold here and now.

Oliver seems fully to have understood something that Bugbee points to a little earlier in his book when he notes that the concrete reality of this or that thing is experiential, and that this tree, or this person or any other thing before us, is not there merely as a specimen or member of a class, but present in their utter, solid, infinite uniqueness in this moment now (cf. The Inward Morning, p. 161). And I can see that what is true of these trees is, of course, also true of those whom we love and Paul Wienpahl (1916-1980), to whose writings I owe so much, reminds me that any given person (man or woman) . . .

“. . . is not merely a woman. She is this woman, differing in all these enormously varied ways from that woman. Every single thing about her, every property, no matter how seemingly insignificant, distinguishes her from the other. To know her, then, is to overlook nothing about her” (Radical Spinoza, p. 66).

To perceive this, fully to heed those whom we love, the trees and all things, requires, as both Oliver sees and Bugbee saw, “stillness in the presence of things, the active, open reception of the limitless gift of things.” And so standing there I know I must not allow my “agile mind and the distraught soul militate against true perception” and be tempted to look away from these trees as they are now, away from the people whom I love as the people they are now, nor turn away from the black river of loss to which I know I will always, from time to time, return.

And then in a moment of epiphany the meaning of Bugbee’s words, “Only as things are dense and opaque do they stand forth in the light of eternity, and take the light”, come radiantly alive!

I can suddenly see that only when I am still in the presence of this changing, living and dying, finite tree as it actually stands before me in all its density and opaqueness, can I see it take the light of eternity and it will show up before me as a pillar of light.

I can also suddenly see that only when I am still in the presence of this changing, living and dying, finite person as they actually stand before me in their density and opaqueness, can I see them take the light of eternity and they too become a pillar of light.

And then, in another instant, I recall Santayana’s words and joyously hear them almost as if for the first time and know that only when I understand myself under the form (or in the light) of eternity as this mortal creature and not another can I know what belongs eternally to me, what eternally belongs to this tree, or what eternally belongs to those whom I love.

And here, I think, we begin to come upon what we may understand by Mary Oliver’s words concerning salvation on the “other side” of “the black river of loss, one whose meaning none of us will never know.”

The other side of the black river of loss is not an actual metaphysical other side — it is not another, different world but rather this world seen differently which is, in a way, another kind of world to the one we are used to seeing.

The other side of the black river of loss — the moment of salvation — is suddenly finding myself standing in this differently seen world in which, now bathed in the light of eternity, all things are endlessly showing up as the unique, beautiful transient things they are. I see all things arrayed as if in gold with that which is eternally theirs — I see that for ever and ever, for ever and always things stand wonderfully for each new generation and in each new moment.

We can never know the meaning of this eternal light in itself because it is only when we fully acknowledge the mystery of being the kind of finite, opaque and dense creatures we are that we suddenly stand forth in the light of eternity, and take the light. Only then do we begin to understand the quality that eternally belongs to us all, and we know that we cannot wholly die, even if we would; for we know that when the movement of our life is over, the truth of our life remains. The fact of us is a part forever in the infinite context of facts [existence].

In other words we now understand ourselves as forever part and parcel of nature's mysterious and miraculous unfolding. (cf Bugbee's comments on p. 136 of The Inward Morning — I reproduce them at the end of this post as a postscript)

Of course, this is an understanding of immortality almost unimaginably different from that offered by Christianity and it would be disingenuous were I not to make this clear. In relation to this, what I have not told you so far, is that the funeral I conducted this week did not use the words of Mary Oliver nor those of Santayana. I had offered them up to the family but, in the end it was decided that the committal should be made by an Anglican clergyman closely related to the deceased and he, understandably (and with my blessing), wished to say other words that will be familiar to some of us here today:

We have entrusted our sister to God’s mercy,
and we now commit her body to be burned:
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust:
in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who will transform our frail bodies
that they may be conformed to his glorious body,
who died, was buried, and rose again for us.
To him be glory for ever. 

(From the Church of England's funeral service in Common Worship)

I do not in any way wish to belittle or dismiss this Christian hope in the resurrection, but I have to be honest and clear that I do not, myself, have such a faith and so I cannot personally offer anyone such a hope. I feel it is important, as your minister, gently to be clear about this.

The immortality of which Spinoza, Santayana and I speak, is of a very different kind. As Santayana says in the same preface to Spinoza's Ethics from which you have already heard:

“He who, while he lives, lives in the eternal, does not live longer for that reason. Duration has merely dropped from his view; he is not aware of or anxious about it; and death, without losing its reality, has lost its sting. The sublimation of his interest rescues him, so far as it goes, from the mortality which he accepts and surveys. The animals are mortal without knowing it, and doubtless presume, in their folly, that they will live for ever [although folly seems the wrong word here — perhaps 'innocence' would be better?]. Man alone knows that he must die; but that very knowledge raises him, in a sense, above mortality, by making him a sharer in the vision of eternal truth.”

To some — even to Santayana — this can seem like a cruel truth and perhaps it is. But Santayana felt, as do I, difficult though it may be, that this truth can be loved and it “makes free those who have loved it.”

It seems to me that Mary Oliver is another one who has come to love this truth and in her poem she eloquently and beautifully shows us how to live freely and fully in this world by gracefully and gratefully doing three things . . .

to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.


—o0o—

POSTSCRIPT


Here is the question which Spinoza has taught me to ask of the Spinoza who wrote this: What thing is eternal and infinite other than perishable things themselves? And what is this love of that which is eternal and infinite toward if it is not a love toward those things with which we coexist in union? And what is this love, filling us with joy and unmingled with any sadness, but our realisation of the union existing between ourselves and the whole of nature? What is our love toward, if it is not toward the modally manifest? What is our union with, if not the finite? Apart from the finite and perishable nothing is manifest toward which love would be possible. Our failure to appreciate our union with the whole of nature is our failure to love the finite truly.


Wednesday, 28 January 2015

To live in this world you must be able to do three things . . . and a walk in Wandlebury Woods

On Sunday I returned to a poem by one of my most favourite poets — one whose work I truly love, respect and, these days, find essential in the living of life — Mary Oliver. I mentioned there that her words are finding their way into many Unitarian liturgies. In most funerals I now conduct, at the moment of committal, I use the following words from her poem "In Blackwater Woods":

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

Well, today I conducted another funeral service and these words were very much in mind, not only today, but earlier in the week especially on Monday, some of which I spent walking through Wandlebury Woods. The trees there were, of course, very much in their winter form — bare but beautiful pillars — and this fact reminded me of the whole poem from which the words above come. I include here a few photos from the walk (as always just click on them to enlarge).

If you are thinking about reading some more Mary Oliver I can do no better than strongly encourage you to buy the two volumes of her "New and Selected Poems": Volume 1 and Volume 2. You might also enjoy the two CDs of her reading her own poetry:



Mary Oliver
In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.










Sunday, 25 January 2015

This Morning Again It Was in the Dusty Pines — to divinize nature and naturalize the divine

Dusty pines in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden
PROLOGUE

The opening paragraph Emerson’s essay “Nature”:

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

This Morning Again It Was in the Dusty Pines by Mary Oliver

Not in shyness but in disgust 
the owl
turns its face from me and pours itself 
into the air, hurrying

until it is out of sight—
and, after all,
even if we came by some miracle
upon a language which we both knew,

what is it I might say
there in the orange light of early morning,
in the owl’s resting time,
that would have any pluck and worth in it?—

not admonition, or blame,
and not recrimination,
and not, I say, unholy weeping,
and not, for god’s sake, any bending of the knees

in the cold and rough grass
under its gold and glassy eyes
which, in such a conversation, you must imagine
turned upon you.

So I cannot improve upon the scene
as it happens:
my opportunity
and my stony silence

as death
rises up—
god’s bark-colored thumb—
and opens the sheath of its wings

and turns its hungry, hooked head
upon me, and away,
and softly,
lamp-eyed,

becomes the perfect, billowing instrument
as it glides
through the wind
like a knife.

—o0o—

ADDRESS

The central thinker of the seventeenth-century Radical Enlightenment was Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) and, as Frederick C. Beiser says:

Spinoza’s famous phrase “deus sive natura” made it possible to both divinize nature and naturalize the divine. Following that dictum, a scientist, who professed the most radical naturalism, could still be religious; and a pastor, who confessed the deepest personal faith in God, could still be a naturalist ("After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900", Princeton University Press, pp. 4-7).

Not surprisingly for a religious tradition that eventually came to be given the names ‘Unitarian’ and ‘Universalist’, Spinoza’s thought also had a profound influence upon us.

As most of you will know the English of the phrase ‘deus sive nature — ‘God or Nature’ — has been used at the beginning of our Sunday morning service since 2008. This morning I presented this to you in a slightly different way to make something very important clearer — namely our tradition's growing concern to show and speak of the divinity of nature and and naturalness the divine.

Let us begin by resting together quietly for a few moments in the presence of 
Deus sive Natura, God or Nature;  divine-nature, nature-divine.

The phrase 'God or Nature' needs some such gentle clarification because, over the years it has become increasingly clear to me that, for a casual visitor, the English alone makes it look like I/we can’t quite make up my/our mind whether it’s God or Nature I/we are coming consciously into the presence of. It could be one but, perhaps, it’s the other: “Who knows — so let’s equivocate!” But those of you with a little Latin will be aware that ‘sive’ is the ‘or’ of equivalence and Spinoza was most certainly not being equivocal; he wanted to say that ‘God’ is ‘Nature’ and ‘Nature’ is ‘God’.

It was, and remains a powerful insight (one that is more and more relevant as we begin to understand the interwovenness of ourselves and the world) but it has proven notorious hard to find adequate ways to express this consistently in our European religious languages. Not least of all this is because of our Judaeo-Christian culture’s tendency to want to speak about God or the Divine in absolute and permanent ways. So, to turn to an example in our own English Protestant history, in The Westminster Shorter Catechism, published in 1647 the authors write: ”God is a spirit, whose being, wisdom power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth are infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.” They took, of course, their lead from the Bible. (So, for example, in Malachi (3:6) we read, “For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed”; in the Epistle to James (1:17) we read, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning”; and, in Hebrews we read, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” — remember Jesus Christ is understood, by Christian orthodoxy anyway, as being God himself.)

But once Spinoza’s insight has been grasped, that nature is divine and the divine is natural, we quickly discover that we cannot find such immutability and permanence in what we are now calling God — i.e. in Nature. In his talk of 1841, “The Method of Nature”, the lyrical philosopher, New England Transcendentalist and former Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), wrote powerfully about what we do, in fact, find. He said:

We can never surprise nature in a corner; never find the end of a thread; never tell where to set the first stone. The bird hastens to lay her egg: the egg hastens to be a bird. The wholeness we admire in the order of the world, is the result of infinite distribution. Its smoothness is the smoothness of the pitch of the cataract. Its permanence is a perpetual inchoation. Every natural fact is an emanation, and that from which it emanates is an emanation also, and from every emanation is a new emanation. If anything could stand still, it would be crushed and dissipated by the torrent it resisted, and if it were a mind, would be crazed; as insane persons are those who hold fast to one thought, and do not flow with the course of nature.

But it seems to me that most religion — at least the kind of religion we generally practice in Europe and North America — always has dangerous tendencies towards becoming more than a little crazed and insane because it has continually sought to create minds (or, if you prefer, souls) that stand still — minds that have an unchanging view and position about an unchanging, immutable God. (In his famous essay, "Self-Reliance" Emerson notes that "This one fact the world hates: that the soul becomes.")

Not surprisingly the language our religion has so often used mirrors this belief in an immutable God by speaking in terms of fixed concepts, definitions and creeds.

However, if we are minded to follow Spinoza and Emerson here, we need consciously to start creating minds (souls) that are able to flow with the course of nature and which are able to speak a kind of religious language that mirrors this flow — or, much better, are able to speak a language which clearly expresses the flow itself; a language which is always divinising the natural and naturalising the divine. It is, to return to the theme of my last two addresses (here and here), to come to have a direction but ’no-position.’

For me, the writer who most consistently and accessibly speaks this new language is Mary Oliver and it is not insignificant that extracts from her poems are, again and again, finding their way into Unitarian liturgies, meditations, prayers, invocations and addresses across the English speaking world.

Because it seems so apropos to what I am trying, so clumsily, to say to you today, let’s now turn specifically to her poem, “This Morning Again It Was in the Dusty Pines”.

One very early morning Mary Oliver is out walking amongst the dusty pines when she suddenly comes upon a resting owl who, “Not in shyness but in disgust” turns its face towards her and then takes off, pouring itself into the air. She watches it until it is out of sight.

As it disappears Oliver begins to wonder, if only they could somehow speak the same language, what would she have said to this owl? What kind of thing could she say that had “any pluck and worth in it?”. I mean, were such a miracle to occur, you wouldn’t want to waste it by engaging in small talk about the weather, would you?

In her reverie she imagines what it would be like to have this bird of prey’s “gold and glassy eye” turn upon her which, were such a conversation to begin, she knows she must imagine happening.

At this point it’s important to remember that the eyes turned upon her are not friendly and inviting ones, they are those of a “raptor” — a word derived from the Latin rapere which means to to seize or take by force — they are eyes always on the look out for prey. Oliver is very aware that this includes her.

But she refuses to feel offended or to take umbrage at this and she knows she what a waste it would be to speak to the owl words of admonition, blame or recrimination. She knows, too, that there is no reason to begin an unholy weeping in the face of these rapacious eyes nor to fall to her knees in the cold and rough grass and pray to be spared. There is here, I’m sure, an unspoken pun on the words ‘prey’ and ‘pray’.

Oliver then tells us, on reflection as she writes her this poem, that she finds she “cannot improve upon the scene as it happens” — her opportunity, that is to say catching sight of this magnificent creature in the dusty pines and her stony silence in the bird’s presence, this was her ‘conversation’ with this owl.

With this realisation, suddenly, she brings us back to the moment when the bird, god’s bark-coloured thumb, as “death” rises up, opens the sheath of its wings, turns its hungry, hooked head upon her and flies softly and lamp-eyed away into the night becoming the perfect, billowing instrument as it glides through the wind like a knife.

In the bird’s departure — now seen by us, the readers, for a second time — Oliver shows us that deus sive natura — nature divine and divine nature — will not, as Emerson saw, be surprised into a corner, hemmed in and fixed with her human words and categories. Oliver knows that Nature is always going to thumb her nose at such folly.  But Oliver, it seems to me, always avoids this folly.

Through her graceful writing, we begin to see that the owl and Oliver, the pines and the sky, god and nature, you and me reading this poem and entering together into Oliver’s reverie, are all always-already conversing with each other, and the natural is seen and felt as wholly divine, and the divine is seen and felt as wholly natural. There are no corners to be surprised into in this complete circle/cycle of life. As Emerson said, in his essay "The American Scholar": "There is never a beginning, there is never and end to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning to itself."

As deus sive natura’s poet laureate, Mary Oliver is able to write in a way that mirrors the flow of nature. Oliver brilliantly uses words that, in the hands of a lesser poet would have stopped this flow, the words of admonition, blame, recrimination. But by using them to remind us not to use them in the presence of the owl she propels us back into the actual flow of nature and she shows us why we can never improve upon the scene as it happens. She keeps us fully in the presence of this bird and, simultaneously, she also offers us an opportunity to learn what it is for us to be fully present as ourselves before this bird.

For me, her poem is nothing less than an example of a liturgy written in the new religious language, one that can help restore us to full life and sanity, one that restores us to the world and to each other, and restores divinity to nature and the natural to the divine.

Emerson wrote in Nature, as your heard at the beginning of this address, "Let us demand our own works and laws and worship." It seems to me that Mary Oliver is someone who has heard this call and who has begun to give us extraordinary new works and to open us up to new laws and ways of worship.

We are so, so lucky to have her amongst us. (CLICK HERE to hear an interview with Mary Oliver).

Not in shyness but in disgust 
the owl
turns its face from me and pours itself 
into the air, hurrying

until it is out of sight—
and, after all,
even if we came by some miracle
upon a language which we both knew,

what is it I might say
there in the orange light of early morning,
in the owl’s resting time,
that would have any pluck and worth in it?—

not admonition, or blame,
and not recrimination,
and not, I say, unholy weeping,
and not, for god’s sake, any bending of the knees

in the cold and rough grass
under its gold and glassy eyes
which, in such a conversation, you must imagine
turned upon you.

So I cannot improve upon the scene
as it happens:
my opportunity
and my stony silence

as death
rises up—
god’s bark-colored thumb—
and opens the sheath of its wings

and turns its hungry, hooked head
upon me, and away,
and softly,
lamp-eyed,

becomes the perfect, billowing instrument
as it glides
through the wind
like a knife.