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.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

We can never surprise nature in a corner . . . a walk along Fleam Dyke to Mutlow Hill

The woods on the way to the dyke
Last Monday, I cycled over to Fleam Dyke and then walked along it to Mutlow Hill where I ate my sandwiches and had a flask of warming tea. Much needed it was too, because it was a pretty cold day.  I was in what I can only describe as a "New England Transcendentalist" mood and I had, along with my lunch, packed my copy of Emerson's Essays. The passage I was particularly thinking about as I walked can be found in his talk of 1841, “The Method of Nature”. In it 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.  

The reading makes another appearance in tomorrow's address but, in the meantime, I leave you with a few photos from the day. Given my mood I couldn't resist giving most of them something of a early to mid-nineteenth-century feel.  As always, just click on a picture to enlarge it.

The woods on the way to the dyke
The woods on the way to the dyke
A panorama showing the north western end of the dyke
The north western end of the dyke
Fleam Dyke looking south east
Fleam Dyke looking south east
Looking back north west along Fleam Dyke 
Fleam Dyke
Looking north west along Fleam Dyke 
Looking north west along Fleam Dyke. Mutlow Hill is just over the horizon
Panorama of Mutlow Hill looking south east
Mutlow Hill looking south east
Mutlow Hill looking north west
Mutlow Hill
Fleam Dyke looking north west as I began my walk home

Sunday, 18 January 2015

We are at home anywhere that we can live by the spirit — thinking some more through "no-position"

The sylvan nave at Wandlebury
Readings: 

'As [the disciples] were going along the road, a man said to [Jesus], "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head' (Luke 9:58; cf. Matthew 8:19-20).

From An Unorthodox Lecture by Paul Wienpahl reprinted in Manas, Vol. IX, no. 24, June 13, 1956

As I see it, the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself. (Tautologies are, after all, true.) If you wish to persist by asking what reality is; that is, what is really, the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing. 
  To see this is to be a man without a position. To get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian. I am a man without a position. I do not have the philosophic position that there are no positions or theories or standpoints. (There obviously are.) I am not a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist. I am simply a man without a position, and this should open the door to detachment. 
  [. . .]
When one says that he is a man without a position, does this mean that he is without direction? Perhaps. But this is misleading. For it means too that I have a direction and that direction is my own. It will come from within rather than being imposed from without. It means that I will guide it, I will give my life its form. And consciously too. Which seems to be hoisting one by one's bootstraps, but is not. It is just difficult. 
  Being without a position also means that I cannot judge others. I have said that I have come to see what people mean by saying that there is evil in the world. In fact, I can see this thing. To be unable to judge, however, seems tantamount to believing that there is no evil. I seem, therefore, to be saying contradictory things. But the contradiction is apparent only, for I think that what people have called evil is simply the recalcitrant, the unmanageable. 
  [. . .]
I have been thinking that I want to get away from knowing to living, from trying to understand and classify things to the things themselves. 

From Norbert Fabián Čapek's (1870-1942) lectures called “Kazatelna” (The pulpit) translated by Petr Dolák Samojský 

The Liberal Religious Fellowship is the first organised expression of Czech religious revivalist efforts [that are] in harmony with today’s level of scientific and ethical evolution of humankind. God’s throne [is] removed from the celestial mists to the human soul; the centre of worship is focused on the down-trodden human; sect and racism yield to humanity. Religion ascends from the grave of churchism, emancipates itself from service to avarice, and becomes a pioneer of a just societal order. The foundation of a religious society is not a common faith anymore but rather a common intention to be good and to do good. Instead of the old cultivation of negative mental states and dogmatic chains, a religious society is a bearer of a positive views of life and creative streams of free thinking. An adviser of the Liberal Religious Fellowship expresses merely his or her personal conviction and does not make it binding for anybody. The highest authority for a human is one’s awakened conscience; all truth and only the truth creates the new bible; all good people are saints; all of humankind is the target of redemption; the whole of nature is a cathedral; the kingdom of love is the effort and ideal of daily life.

http://unitaria.cz/welcome/resources/Czech_Unitarians_and_NFC.pdf 

—o0o—

ADDRESS

Just before Christmas I had lunch with a friend of mine during which the conversation came round to Japanese philosophy and religion because he had been reading online my various addresses over Advent in which, in addition to Henry Bugbee, I’d just introduced you to Nishida Kitaro and Tanabe Hajime.

By chance he had just been doing some research into the indigenous Japanese Christian “No-church” movement founded in 1901 by Uchimura Kanzō. I remembered that back in 2011 I’d written an address that made mention of them and when I got back to my study I sent it on to him. Given that what I wrote back then seems not entirely empty-headed and that it also makes reference to the same passage from Paul Wienpahl I placed before you last week, I decided to dust it off, make a few revisions and additions, and to offer it up to you again for your consideration today.

Wienpahl, a very accessible philosopher who, for many years, taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara before his death in 1980 wrote about and offered up interpretations of two of my own favourite thinkers, Wittgenstein and Spinoza as well as writing a couple of engaging and useful books on Zen. One of them, entitled 'Zen Diary’, recounts his personal experiences during a six-month spell in a Japanese Buddhist monastery. Wienpahl was much admired as a teacher because it seems he was able to communicate to his students that, although philosophy was a scholarly discipline, much more importantly it was also a spiritual discipline of personal liberation.

An early expression of this may be found in a moving, personal piece he wrote in the mid-1950s just before going to Japan entitled, 'An Unorthodox Lecture’. In it he explored the consequences of a pivotal moment in his own personal spiritual/philosophical journey. I found in it many helpful remarks and pointers that since 2008 have come significantly to shape my own thinking. It has been, and continues to be, so useful that in recent years I’ve even privately taken to calling it (with a gentle smile), “The Wienpahl Sutra”. You heard the relevant passage earlier.

In this passage one phrase that particularly resonated with me, both then and now, was Wienpahl's claim to be “a man without a position.” It is, however, easy to be misled by Wienpahl’s claim  because it can sound, as he realised, as if this might be to say one is “without direction.” Perhaps, he says, it can sometimes mean this but Wienpahl stresses that for him it means that he most definitely does have a direction and that this direction is his own. He continues by saying this direction,

“. . . will come from within rather than being imposed from without. It means that I will guide it, I will give my life its form. And consciously too.”

Back in 2011 I happened to be re-reading Tolstoy's presentation of the well-known gospel story in which Jesus talks about foxes and birds having homes and I noticed a connection between his take on the Gospel story and Wienpahl’s thought.

Tolstoy reflects Jesus' teaching back to us in the following form:

'And a certain man said to Jesus, "I will follow you no matter where you go." At this Jesus said to him, "There is nowhere to follow me. I have no home, no place where I could live. Only animals have lairs and dens, but man is at home anywhere that he can live by the spirit' (Leo Tolstoy, The Gospel in Brief, Harper Perennial, 2011, p.66).

Tolstoy's whole understanding of what it means to follow Jesus can, I think, be summed up by saying that it is to be invited into a flexible, journeying, way of being-in-the-world such that you become a person without a position in the sense Wienpahl was talking about. To remind you, Wienpahl thinks this is actively to be in reality in a direct way, seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling it as you actually live it. It is to respond to an invitation to experience reality’s wholeness as a multifarious thing, as now one, now many. It is to begin to get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things of the world themselves. It is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, an atheist, a Christian, a skeptic or an agnostic. Lastly, it is felt that this way of being-in-the-world should open the door to detachment.

In Tolstoy's hands this  unusual way of following Jesus (one that is not based on belief about Jesus' divine status) is, it seems to me, one helpful, secular and naturalist way we may interpret Jesus’ teaching about the foxes and the birds.

Another good illustration of what I mean comes in the form of the well-known 'Parable of the Raft' told by the Buddha.

The Buddha tells a story of how a man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. On this side there is great danger and uncertainty and on the far side is safety. However, there is no bridge crossing the river nor is there a ferry; so what is the man to do? Well, he gathers together a number of logs and vines and uses them to build a raft that can take him across the river. Then the Buddha asks a question: 'What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river thought to himself, "The raft has served me well so from now on I will carry it on my back?"' The Buddha's audience replied that it would not be at all sensible to cling to the raft in such a fashion. The Buddha continued 'What if the man lay the raft down gratefully thinking that it had has served him well but, since it is no longer of any use I can leave it here on the shore?' His listeners replied that this would be the proper thing to do. The Buddha concluded by saying to them 'So it is with my teachings which are like a raft and are for crossing over with not for seizing hold of.'

In Tolstoy's eyes, and in mine, Jesus' own teachings happen to be the materials which, for our Western European culture anyway, are those ready-to-hand and with which a good and serviceable raft can be built. It's a helpful, practical vehicle to help us begin to travel through this astonishingly complex and beautiful world. But, as the parable of the raft suggest, we must not become overly attached to this (or any) particular, temporary structure and, as Jesus' parable suggests, we mustn't start to think of it as our true and final home, den or lair, or as Wienpahl suggests, a position.

When we avoid this kind of attachment it is, as Tolstoy felt Jesus taught, to realise that we find our home anywhere in reality that we can live by the spirit.

This necessarily has an impact upon what we understand to be “our church”, or “our religious community”, because it can no longer be anything simple, single and fixed but only something beautifully complex, multifarious, living, ever moving and unfolding.

Now, where do we find the best model for what this “church” might look like — a church for those with direction but holding to "no-position"?  Well, of course, we find it in the natural world, something that is clearly far from being simple, single and fixed because we can see everywhere that it is always-already something beautifully complex, multifarious, living and ever moving and unfolding.

It should come as no surprise that our cathedral naves borrow their impressiveness by wearing the form of the great sylvan naves found in our woods and forests. As you heard, one of our own great figures, Norbert Fabián Čapek (1870-1942) said, “the whole of nature is a cathedral”.

The sylvan nave at Wandlebury
Indeed, these days, I find myself increasingly agreeing with him and, today, my home cathedral is to be found in Wandlebury woods just a few miles from where we sit — a picture of it’s fine nave is to be found at the top of this post and to the right.

I know of no better, compact expression of this thought than that penned by Uchimura Kanzō, the founder of the radical lay-led movement called 'No Church' (無教会, Mukyōkai). They have no set liturgy, sacraments, nor ordained clergy and, although there will be much about this movement’s underling metaphysical beliefs that we would struggle with here, I think the following words written by Uchimura speak eloquently and attractively to us of what a “No Church” looks like:

'Its ceiling is the azure blue sky, adorned [at night] with bright stars. Its floor is the green pasture, dotted with flowers of infinite colours. Its musical instrument is the boughs of pine trees and its musicians are the birds in the forest. Its altar is the mountain peaks and its preacher is God Himself. Such is the church for all of us who believe in the "No Church"' (cited in Uchimura Kanzō and His 'No Church Christianity': Its Origin and Significance in Early Modern Japan, Religious Studies, Vol. 23, No. 3, Sep., 1987, pp. 377-390).

All the above words help me say to you that I have come to feel  that, these days, it is better to think of myself as a person who simply has a sense of direction but no-position and who, by attempting to follow the example of the human Jesus (at least as it is expressed by Tolstoy) is trying to be without a lair and den and at home anywhere that I find I, and other people, can live by the spirit.

In the light of the increasing tendency of our world to be slip into fixed religious positions and clearly defined religious lairs and dens — something the Charlie Hebdo attacks have so painfully revealed — I’d argue that something like this non-sectarian, this-worldly way of being religious (one already so powerfully expressed back in 1920s and 30s by Čapek) is even more important to pursue than it was only back in 2011. But that, in the end, is for you to decide.

Since writing the bare bones of this piece back in 2011 I have discovered something of the thinking of the philosopher Herbert Fingarette, a friend and colleague of Paul Wienpahl's On the opening page of his book ”The Self in Transformation” (Basic Books, New York, 1963) he makes a comment that I gently paraphrase now as my own concluding words to this address:

In making the journey that has led to this address, I have had no aims. This piece is an outcome rather than a realised objective. It is an intellectual footprint, not a blueprint. The hearer or reader will, I hope, eventually identify their shape and dimensions to their own satisfaction; they will find their place on the intellectual map and the existential position in which they point.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Real McCoy: Real Islam or fake Islam? And since we are on the subject, the real MacKay Whiskey or fake MacKay Whisky? Real Christianity or fake Christianity?

A wintery Christ's Pieces opp. the church during the week
Readings: Luke 6:37-45

From An Unorthodox Lecture by Paul Wienpahl reprinted in Manas, Vol. IX, no. 24, June 13, 1956

As I see it, the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself. (Tautologies are, after all, true.) If you wish to persist by asking what reality is; that is, what is really, the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing. 

To see this is to be a man without a position. To get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian. I am a man without a position. I do not have the philosophic position that there are no positions or theories or standpoints. (There obviously are.) I am not a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist. I am simply a man without a position, and this should open the door to detachment. 

[. . .]

When one says that he is a man without a position, does this mean that he is without direction? Perhaps. But this is misleading. For it means too that I have a direction and that direction is my own. It will come from within rather than being imposed from without. It means that I will guide it, I will give my life its form. And consciously too. Which seems to be hoisting one by one's bootstraps, but is not. It is just difficult. 

Being without a position also means that I cannot judge others. I have said that I have come to see what people mean by saying that there is evil in the world. In fact, I can see this thing. To be unable to judge, however, seems tantamount to believing that there is no evil. I seem, therefore, to be saying contradictory things. But the contradiction is apparent only, for I think that what people have called evil is simply the recalcitrant, the unmanageable. 

[. . .]

I have been thinking that I want to get away from knowing to living, from trying to understand and classify things to the things themselves. 

—o0o—

“The real McCoy” is, according to  Wikipedia: 

“. . .an idiom and metaphor used in much of the English-speaking world to mean ‘the real thing’ or ‘the genuine article’, e.g., ‘he’s the real McCoy’.” 

It goes on to say that the phrase

“. . . may be a corruption of the Scots ‘The real MacKay’, first recorded in 1856 as: ‘A drappie o’ the real MacKay,’ (A drop of the real MacKay [whisky]). This appeared in an 1856 poem ‘Deil's Hallowe'en’ published in Glasgow and it is widely accepted as the phrase's origin.”

—o0o—

ADDRESS

Think back to the likely source of the phrase “the real McCoy” and imagine this little story I have spun out of my own imagination. Let’s say there were two MacKay brothers, both of whom learnt the art of fine distilling from their father who originally founded the MacKay Distillery. On their father’s death the brothers argue, disagreeing about how best to make their father’s whisky. The result was that one of them leaves the company and sets up a rival distillery, also claiming to produce the real MacKay. All of a sudden customers are now faced in the shops with two whiskies, both claiming to be the real MacKay. One claims they have the original recipe, the other claims they use a later better recipe, one claims they have the moral right over the label, the other claims they have the legal right and so on.

And you, you who want the real MacKay for your fast approaching Burns Supper, how are you to decide? You decide, as they say, that the proof is almost certainly in the pudding, and so go to a tasting. On the basis of your actual, personal experience you decide to buy one, rather than the other because the best one, according to your criteria, is clearly the real deal whilst the other is not. You part with your forty quid, assured in your heart that you have before you, the real MacKay.

With enough imaginary whiskey inside us to take the edge of the day we can turn now to consider the real Christianity. How might we go about finding out what that is? As I’m sure we all know there are countless claimants to be that.

One approach would be to begin by looking at which Christianity is closer to the person perceived to be its originator and to look around to see who practises that kind of religion. But is the originator Jesus or St Paul? If it is Jesus then Christianity needs to look more like Judaism than it currently does, for Jesus was never a Christian and only ever what he thought was a faithful Jew. If it was Paul — also a Jew — then Christianity needs to look a lot more like his letters and, therefore, much more like an end-time apocalyptic religion. Perhaps, however, real Christianity is to be found in one of the later, more developed churches when it is more clearly no longer a kind of Judaism? Is it then to be found in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy or, perhaps, in the Coptic Church? Perhaps, instead, it is the religion that developed after the Reformation and so one might find real Christianity in either Lutheran or Calvinist churches. But, instead, perhaps real Christianity is to be found in mystical forms of the religion as espoused by the German mystics, Pietists or groups like the Quakers.

Once upon a time, though thankfully no more, our own tradition of churches has also staked it’s claim to be real Christianity. Our two most famous nineteenth-century pitches for this were: “Christianity [or religion] in its simplest and most intelligible form” and “Practising the religion of Jesus, not the religion about Jesus”.

But, back to you my friends. How are you going to decide what is the real Christianity?

Without properly attempting to answer that, let’s now imagine you feel you have found certain historical evidence that persuades you, at least intellectually speaking, that Church X is the real Christianity and that you are going there because you want the real McCoy, the genuine article. I mean who wouldn’t want to taste the real rather than the fake product? We’ll return to this important question in a bit.

Now we come to the equivalent of that whiskey tasting for you have decide firstly to try what you think is the real one at Church X. However, as things progress you find yourself utterly horrified by what you see and hear. It’s terrible to you and, at the end as you leave, you realise that you really don’t like this real Christianity and you won’t be trying that again.

Disturbed by your experience, but still persuaded by your own feelings that you’ve just experienced real Christianity, you find you are sufficiently intrigued about it to go and try out — taste — what is by your own still in use criteria, some form of fake Christianity, namely, Church Y.

Next Sunday you again find yourself in a service but this time in Church Y. As things progress, you find to your surprise that you are liking what you see and hear. It’s all very amenable to your taste and, at the end, you decide to stay for coffee and, perhaps, just perhaps, you may go again next week.

But, before you do that, you realise you have an important personal problem to work through. This is because, looking back over your earlier research, you still find yourself more or less persuaded that the first church you went to and so disliked has, overall, a far better claim to be real Christianity than the second one you went to and liked the taste of but which, according to your own earlier criteria, is a fake form of Christianity — i.e. not Christianity at all. Hmmmm. What’s this all about?

Well, let’s leave this thought in play for now and turn to Islam. For dreadful reasons I do not need to rehearse there is a growing, dangerous and deeply troubling problem with, in and around Islam. We can no longer avoid acknowledging that we all, Muslim and non-Muslim are going to have to face up to this before things get completely out of control.

It is a problem that I have noticed many people would like quickly to solve by identifying the “real Islam”.

The basic argument is that “real Islam” is essentially a religion of peace filled, for the most part, with good people doing good things and getting on well with its neighbours. “Fake Islam”, on the other hand, is a religion of violent jihad filled with bad people doing bad things and getting on very badly with its neighbours”.

I have, of course, painfully simplified an already painfully simplistic argument but I do it to get us quickly and, I think not inaccurately, to the point I wish to make today.

Think back to my examples of MacKay Whiskey and Christianity and then ask yourself a couple of things. Firstly, how are you going to find out for certain what is the real Islam and what is the fake Islam? Claim and counter-claim is made by everyone and everything hinges on the criteria you choose to judge these things. Peaceful folk pit their claims against those of the violent jihadists, Sunni argues with Shia, both of them argue with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

Secondly, assuming you are able to come to a decision that grouping X is “real” whilst all the others are “fake”, what happens if you the discover that you prefer what seems to you one of the supposedly “fake Islams” to the “real Islam”?

I hope there is emerging in your mind a realisation that this adjective “real” (and the antonym I’m employing today, “fake” — though I could have used the word "false") is being used here as a weasel word. Why a weasel word? Well, this is because weasels are supposedly able to suck the contents out of an egg without breaking its shell and so, by extension, we say that a weasel word is one that is able to suck the meaning out of a sentence whilst leaving it, apparently, untouched and intact.

Being the kind of culture we are need to be aware that for us the word “real” carries with it an awful lot of weight — mostly that accumulated through its use in the natural sciences. We take it for granted that it is unequivocally good to know what the “real” is because we don’t want to be duped into living a life based on a “fake” world, a world built upon illusion and a false belief.

But the word “real” as I have been using it in my examples about whiskey, Christianity and Islam is not, for the most part, the way the word “real” is being used in the natural sciences. On the basis of certain inherited preferences and empirical but more subjective yet still valuable experimentation, I have been using it to mean that which we “prefer”, that which we feel deep in our bones is good, true, valuable, tasty, trustworthy, workable with and so on.

We really do need to be aware of this and not try to hide behind some claimed "neutral" conception of the “real” that doesn’t require us to take proper responsibility for our decisions to chose this whiskey or that, or to feel positively disposed towards "this" Christianity or Islam rather than "that" Christianity or Islam.

Now I mention this today — and perhaps would have done so even without the horrific events in France this week — because in the current edition of the denomination’s magazine “The Inquirer” there is an article by the Revd Cliff Reed called “Consider the real Islam”. The italicisation of the adjective “real” got me concerned straight away.

In this article Cliff  makes many important historical points and expresses certain personal preferences that, for the most part, I share with him — and I can, and do, support what seems to be his underlying motivation for writing the article — i.e. to remind us that these violent terrorists are far from being the norm. But it seems to me Cliff's use of the adjective “real” (especially when italicised) hides the fact that what seems really to be being said is not, “Consider the real Islam” but, instead, the much more pragmatic, “Consider the Islam we prefer and can actually get on with”.

In fact, are we not happy and able to get on with most people whether or not they are real or fake Muslims or Christians, or even if they are not Muslims or Christians at all — fake or otherwise?

As Jesus said, we know things by their fruits; the proof is surely to be found in the pudding.

Isn’t it the case that it doesn’t really matter one jot or iota about the religious labels anyone of us chooses or is given by another? Let me be bolder about it. Are not all these labels getting seriously in the way of us finding some kind of real human solution to the mess we are in — a mess that is only made worse by being seduced and sidetracked into endless arguments about whether this or that form of Islam, Christianity or any other religion or philosophy is supposedly "real" or "fake"?

(In passing I would point out that from most orthodox, traditional Christian perspectives, the Unitarian movement (in which I, the author, exercise most of my public ministry) has been and remains considered as being a clear example of "fake" (false) Christianity . . .)

To bring it back to whiskey, I really don’t care whether my whiskey is the Real MacKay or not, as long as I like it and it strikes me as being of good, reliable quality. There’s room in this, of course, for endless and wonderful variety — for Scottish, American, English and Japanese whiskeys and, I'm sure many many more).

Anyway to bring this piece to a temporary, personal conclusion, this is why events in France make me more fully understand why so quickly over the past two years I've nearly lost all interest in calling myself any longer a Christian (or Unitarian), real or otherwise.

I think Paul Wienpahl is right to suggest becoming men and women without a position and to get out of the mind and into the world. To do this and to get beyond language and to the things is, as he suggests, to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian, a sceptic, an agnostic or an atheist and, today, I'll add a Unitarian or a Muslim. As Wienpahl says, surely the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself — i.e. only with the actual multifarious real (used in a non-weasel way) people and communities that we meet every day in our local neigbourhoods and with all of us stripped utterly naked of these divisive and endlessly disputed labels.

It seems to me that only when we are all standing before each other, label-naked as the day we were born, will we have a chance of figuring out a proper, globally shared, human response to the religio/political mess we are currently in.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Our whole involvements as whole beings in the whole world

Christ's Pieces opp. the church before this morning's service
Readings: Acts 17:26-28

From The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Native American Thought (Penn State Press, 2000, pp. 17-18) by Bruce Wilshire

The North American holy man and thinker Black Elk reported to John G. Neihardt the great vision that came to him as a boy. [The second two paragraphs are as quoted by Wilshire in the book at this point. I have added here the first paragraph to help me explore the image of the circle or circuit]:

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
          [. . .] 
          Then I saw ahead the rainbow flaming above the tepee of the Six Grandfathers, built and roofed with cloud and sewed with thongs of lightning; and underneath it were all the wings of the air and under them the animals and the men. All these were rejoicing, and thunder was like happy laughter.... [A]nd I saw the Six Grandfathers sitting in a row, with their arms held toward me and their hands palms out, and behind them in the cloud were faces thronging, without number, of the people yet to be. 
          “He has triumphed!” cried the six together, making thunder. And as I passed before them there, each gave again the gift that he had given me before—the cup of water and the bow and arrows, the power to make live and to destroy; the white wing of cleansing and the heal-ing herb; the sacred pipe; the flowering stick. And each one spoke in turn from west to south, explaining what he gave as he had done before, and as each one spoke he melted down into the earth and 
rose again; and as each did this, I felt nearer to the earth.

My copy of Black Elk Speaks on my bedside table
Any commentary [on this vision] seems impossible, for most very late twentieth-century prose occupies a different realm of being and presencing: it presupposes the “objective realm” as something divided from “the merely subjective”; it takes the division of the physical from the psychical completely for granted. Any attempt to move Black Elk’s words into either of these areas will mangle them and make them look absurd. Take the common practice of many North American indigenous peoples to sing the sun up at dawn. European—now North Atlantic—mentality gives this short shrift: “Simply experiment. Refuse to do the ceremony and see if the sun needs our efforts to rise.”
          But for us the sun now is only a globe of gas, and, of course, as such, it does not need our efforts to rise in the sky. But this patent truth obscures another older, broader one: that our lives, evolved over millions of years in Nature, have taken shape with the sun, and that if we are to rise with the with the power of its rising we must celebrate that rising. We must do our part.

—o0o—

We cannot spin the answer out of our heads as if we were gods. We can only listen, resonate to affinities, send out questions, listen for answers, send out more questions. We can only continuously echo-locate and re-locate ourselves (ibid p. 171).

—o0o—

From On the American Scholar (1837) by Ralph Waldo Emerson 

The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day men and women conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men whom this spectacle most engages. He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find—so entire, so boundless. Far, too, as her splendors shine, system on system shooting like rays, upward, downward, without center, without circumference—in the mass and in the particle, nature hastens to render account of herself to the mind.

—o0o—

ADDRESS

Bruce Wilshire, an extract from one of whose books we heard earlier, is an important contemporary thinker who speaks clearly and persuasively about how in Europe and North America we have lost much of our intimacy with Nature and, in so doing, dangerously narrowed down our sense of reality, of what really is, to what we may call its factual, causal, mechanical aspects.

A friend of mine, Ed Mooney — who has published a book connected with this subject called “Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell (Continuum, 2009) — wrote movingly and supportively to me over Christmas noting that instead of these factual, causal, mechanical aspects of the world, it may well be that “the spiritual ebbs and flows are the main thing, the truth of the matter” and that “after all the facts are in, and even long before that, it seems to be more a matter of what meaning we find in the arching trees or the weeping children, the flow of the river and the flow of life”.

It was a powerfully uplifting message to receive to which I gave a hearty “Amen!”

Of course, as both Ed and Bruce Wilshire realise, it’s not that we don’t need and value specialised detectives of fact such as scientists and historians because it seems clearly vital to know, for example, that the sun is not a god whom we must constantly propitiate, or that the way we entered and then moved through North America sent, in fact, countless innocent people to their deaths.

But, with our culture's increasing emphasis upon only certain kinds of factual and narrow ways of knowing reality there has come a significant dark-side. Namely, a loss of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste of, what Wilshire calls, “an interfusing universe of cosmic kinship” and what one of our own Unitarian forebears, Ralph Waldo Emerson, called, “circular power returning into itself.” (The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Native American Thought (Penn State Press, 2000, p. 29  — henceforth PRAP).

These images of wholeness and the circle are also found in Black Elk’s words when he spoke of “the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being”, a “sacred hoop”.

Together, they brought powerfully back to my mind a passage I introduced you to in October last year. Using a twentieth-century image Henry Bugbee felt that when we remained connected to the full breadth of reality then in

“. . . our experience of things as presences, reality conveys itself and permeates us as a closed electrical circuit in which we are involved with things, [and] the circuit is charged with finality. But in so far as we take things, and think of them, as placed over against us, i.e. objectively, we break the circuit” (Inward Morning pp. 168-169).

Bugbee was well-aware that we could be misled by the word “closed” — in “closed-circuit” — and to take this only negatively, preferring the more obviously positive sounding word, “open”. But the point Bugbee wants us to grasp here about an unbroken, “closed circuit”, is that it is something energised and alive with racing energy; something whole, complete and charged with finality, in which all parts of the circuit are always-already freely and constantly flowing into all other parts. As Bugbee notes, when we break this circuit — when the circle becomes open — what results is the creation of the “separateness of dead poles”.

Bugbee is suggesting (as is Black Elk, Emerson, Wilshire and Mooney — and one should not forget Thoreau, too, whose spirit is ever present as I write these words) that in viewing the world almost exclusively through its so-called factual, causal, mechanical aspects we are breaking the circle into discrete parts and turning all things into dead poles. Even though it often remains true that in the presence of these discrete items of reality we still express marvel, feel awe and wonder and even reverence, our breaking of the whole circuit in order better to reveal these discrete facts has meant that our feelings about them have become for us “mere subjective reactions and preferences” (PRAP p. 165). As the years have passed we have increasingly begun to realise that our “Scientific and technological power is bought at the expense of denying full reality and importance to our ‘inner states’” (PRAP p. 165).

To unfold this thought a bit more we can turn to Wilshire’s point about the common practice of many North American indigenous peoples to sing the sun up at dawn. As he notes, European — now North Atlantic — mentality gives this kind of activity “short shrift”. Our attitude to the sun’s rising is wholly different; we say:

“Simply experiment. Refuse to do the ceremony and see if the sun needs our efforts to rise” (PRAP, p. 17).

The experiment, once done, reveals that the sun does not need our efforts to rise in the sky and, consequently, the ceremony may safely be abandoned. Along with this discovery the results of other experiments have for us transformed the sun into, at heart, “only a globe of gas”.

As I just mentioned, we often still marvel at this globe of gas and feel a certain awe, wonder and even reverence in the presence of this discrete item of reality. But I hope it is clear that today our culture as a whole does not believe that our feelings about the sun are, in the grand scheme of things, anything more than “mere subjective reactions and preferences” for neither the sun, nor any other discrete object or fact in the world, needs our feelings to be what we think they really are. But, as Wilshire notes,

“this patent truth [that the sun is a globe of gas] obscures another older, broader one: that our lives, evolved over millions of years in Nature, have taken shape with the sun, and that if we are to rise with the power of its rising we must celebrate that rising. We must do our part” (PRAP, pp. 17-18).

But as I have often discovered, before we can do our part and have a hope of understanding and answering this kind of question, a very common misunderstanding needs to be dealt with straight away.

I want to be clear that I am not suggesting we engage in some artificial and patronising revival amongst us of some North American indigenous practice or one derived from some more local source, such as an imagined, pre-Christian, native British practice. This is because these peoples’ practices (in so far as we know and understand what they really were) only arose within the horizon of disclosure that was their own culture. Our horizon of disclosure is very different from theirs and this is why, as Wilshire notes, any truly meaningful commentary from our point of view about their visions, views and practices seems impossible.  Even though here I want to critique our own culture's view it is clear that we begin differently, with a presupposition that the “objective realm” is something divided from “the merely subjective” and we take completely for granted “the division of the physical from the psychical”. As Wilshire says, “Any attempt to move Black Elk’s words into either of these areas will mangle them and make them look absurd.”

If our culture is to find its own answer to the question of how to reconnect with the whole and rise ourselves with the power of the rising sun then we are going to have to pursue a different course of action than by superficially appropriating another culture’s answers. In the end we need to acknowledge, as does Wilshire, that:

“We cannot spin the answer out of our heads as if we were gods. We can only listen, resonate to affinities, send out questions, listen for answers, send out more questions. We can only continuously echo-locate and re-locate ourselves” (PRAP, p. 171).

As I was trying to suggest throughout Advent and Christmas, I think that it is through just this kind of practice (an active receptivity or expression of patiency) that we stand the best chance of doing our part well and reconnecting the circuit, the “sacred hoop”, and so enlarging our conception of reality in a way that is both appropriate and meaningful to us and which can simultaneously offer genuine healing to our planet and all she contains.

Though it is sometimes tempting to despair of achieving this, let’s never forget we are never without resources. Thankfully, throughout  our own culture there remain scattered all kinds of people, ideas, visions, remembrances, things and places to whom and to which we can go to question, listen and resonate with — Today I’ve only mentioned Wilshire, Emerson, Black Elk, Bugbee and Mooney but I could (and should) add many other poets, painters, musicians, thinkers, scientists and engineers.

One constant and consistent echo we get back from them is the pressing need to recognise and re-engage with, the whole of reality and not just tiny, disconnected, broken-off parts of it.

But, of course, this begs the question: what is reality, what is really?

Well, I’m with Paul Wienphal when he says “the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing.” And, when we really take time to examine our own experiences together in open-ended actively receptive conversation — by sending out questions to each other and listening for answers and/or returning echos — do they not tell us, as Wilshire says echoing the Chinese Taoists, that:

“ . . . we are in over our heads in this awesome whole . . . and to pretend to be otherwise is to be disorientated at an ultimate level, is to lose one’s placement in the whole, lose touch with what is valuable for life in the interdepending universe” (PRAP, p. 164).

Wilshire is surely right to remind us that:

“. . . before we build ourselves, we are built. Before anything can belong, we belong to Nature. Our nervous systems evolved and took shape through adaption over thousands of millennia in the enwombing pulse of Nature’s matter” (PRAP, p. 17).

As Emerson said: “The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows” and, given this, “He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to him?” 

Some kind of answer to Emerson’s question can be glimpsed in the “secret delight” or epiphany many of us feel when some great storm shuts down both our cities and some of our “technological marvels”. Is not Wilshire absolutely right in saying that when this happens we know that, “At last we are where we belong — in community, in interdependency, even when our delight is sheepish and we don’t know how to speak our ecstasy” (PRAP, p. 19)?

These words, “we don’t know how to speak our ecstasy”, are important because, today, our culture as a whole clearly lacks a convincing, shared language to speak this ecstasy of our placement in the whole without making us feel we are somehow indulging in some new-age, over-heated, cosmic fluff and nonsense.

But one thing is surely clear to us all, namely, that if together we don’t find ways powerfully, persuasively and religiously to articulate this ecstatic sense of our involvement within the whole then we are going to be in even bigger ecological and humanitarian trouble than we are at present. As Wilshire notes, without such a language of wholeness and interconnectedness “even the most enlightened and advanced scientific thinking is not sufficient to produce an adequate ecology” (PRAP, p. 171).

Icy cobwebs on the church gate this morning
With it’s historic stress on unity, whatever else a Unitarian religious and philosophical community like this should be doing, we surely have a task similar to that which Wilshire thinks falls to the humanities, namely, “to intensify and clarify, to thematise and retrieve from forgetfulness, our whole involvements as whole beings in the whole world” (PRAP, p.166). Our American brothers and sisters have expressed this powerfully in their seventh principle, namely, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

So, my brothers and sisters, in this still New Year, how might we better begin to show this respect to the whole and come, ourselves, to celebrate the glorious and wonderful rising of the sun with the power of its rising?

My preference is for keeping it small scale and everyday (to think globally and act locall). My own model for this (which I admit I so often fail to follow as well as I might) is that gracefully offered us by Layman Pang (740-808):

My daily affairs are quite ordinary;
but I’m in total harmony with them.
I don’t hold onto anything, don’t reject anything;
Nowhere an obstacle or conflict.
Who cares about wealth and honour?
Even the poorest thing shines.
My miraculous power and spiritual activity:
Drawing water and carrying wood.

(Quoted in Stephen Mitchell’s The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, New York: Harper Perennial, 1989)

POSTSCRIPT

Immediately after the address we have a piece of music to still our minds a little but, following this, I always invite people to add their own thoughts and reflections (critical or affirmative) on the theme of the address. One of our members, Dean Reynolds, asked whether he could read a poem that he felt was appropriate. Naturally, I said yes. and he offered us the following beautiful and apposite words. It turns out that, marvellous to relate, he had written them himself just this week! So, once again, to yet another friend, I was able to offer up a hearty, "Amen!"

History by Dean Reynolds

Stars burst from their spheres
Love life and many tears
Spaces empty and cold
Beckon to the fireworks of being.
Brilliant and streaking across the sky
Rainbow hues dance in ecstasy
Stretching out in infinite Panoply.
Nebula like wombs birthing stars
That burn for age upon age
Their history is ours.

A whirlpool of light
Dervishing on our galactic centre
Set to the music of gravity and time
The black hole draws in everything.
So powerfully vast and full of light
But seen empty and darkly void.
We watch from the edge 
Our little blue ball of water and green
A collision of volcanic magic and flame
Cooled till seas foamed and drenched with rain.

Change runs on for millennia
The seas writhing with life
 Lands filled with the carnage of evolution
Mutation and combination
Adaptation and complexity.
And then. Thought and art
Our mastery of fire, life redefined.
Love, faith, family, friends
On and on it runs
It seems to have no ends.

Yet our eyes reveal our history
Full of love and faded scars.
We are all the sacred children
Of untold exploding stars.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Darkness and light — A series of Advent and Christmas photos

Apart from what, with hindsight, may have been a foolhardy hour-long walk with Susanna on Boxing Day, a bad cold and chest infection has kept me inside since the 20th December. I was able to nip outside for the minute it takes me to get to church next door in order to take the services on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Sunday 28th but, other than my foolish foray on Boxing Day, the physical landscape through which I have been able to roam was either the manse or the church. Under normal conditions this might have offered me little in the way of "landscape" to photograph but, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I have just discovered John Hornbeck's wonderful app called "Contrast". It genuinely helped a previously unseen, and very beautiful, landscape to emerge before me, one filled with darkness and light which is, surely, a perfect metaphor for the season.

It seems worth sharing with you a few of the best and to take the opportunity to wish you all a very Happy New Year.


My Christmas bed-side reading
















The Advent Wreath in the church on Christmas morning
The nativity scene in the church on Christmas morning

The church on Christmas Eve just before the service