Friday, 26 August 2016

Graced by the quiet and concentrated company of a heron and Henry Bugbee in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden

On Thursday afternoon I was graced by the close, quiet and concentrated company of a heron fishing in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. It's very way of being put me in mind of a powerful passage written by the philosopher Henry Bugbee in his extraordinary book “The Inward Morning” (University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 87):

Now the river is the unborn, and the sudden fish is just the newborn — whole, entire, complete, individual, and universal, The fisherman may learn that each instant is pregnant with the miracle of the new-born fish, and fishing in the river may become a knowing of each fish even before it is born. As he fishes the ever-flowing current, it teaches him of the fish even before it is born, just in so far as this alert fishing involves “abiding in no-abode”, or  the “unattached mind”. If one is steeped in the flowing river and sensitized through the trembling line, one anticipates the new-born fish at every moment.

Just click on a photo to enlarge it. Both photos were taken with an iPhone 6+ and the Blackie App and, of course, a certain amount of patience.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Some colour photos of the Lodes Way and the River Cam by Grantchester Meadows

Some colour photos of the Lodes Way and the River Cam by Grantchester Meadows. All taken with an iPhone 6+ and the Hipstamatic App using Ger van den Elzen's splendid combo which he says is "an ode to the great Dutch landscape painters." I've used it before in the Fens [see HERE] and thought I'd give it another outing here. As always, just click on a photo to enlarge it.

Bottisham Lode
Pylons on White Fen
Cattle by Reach Lode
Reach Lode
The bridge at Reach Lode
Fishing at Burwell Lode
Burwell Lode
Little Fen Drove, Burwell
Bottisham Lode
Trees and the River Cam from Grantchester Meadows
Trees and the River Cam from Grantchester Meadows

Sunday, 21 August 2016

A few b&w photos from around Cambridge and an accompanying thought from Matthijs Vermeulen

I post here just a few random photos taken around Cambridge in the last few days to which I add an accompanying thought from a Dutch composer called Matthijs Vermeulen (1888-1967) that's been in my mind (along with his music) as I wandered around with my camera:

I would have liked to live in a society in which the architect of a cathedral earns the same as the bricklayer and the mason, in which all human labour is rewarded equally, the Minister and the servant, the banker and the dogsbody. Everyone would follow their own impulse, without other considerations. Man would only be assessed by his inner nature and genuineness.

(Written on 23 January 1945, Het enige hart, p. 167.)

A lazy Saturday morning
Proud Venus
In the Cambridge University Botanic Garden
Union Road from Panton Street 
Looking towards Gonville Place from Lensfield Road
Parker's Piece
Parker Street
Parker Street
The Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Emmanuel Road

Friday, 19 August 2016

Exhaustion Café?—A piece for the DiEM25 goup in Cambridge

In his book “Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance”, Simon Critchley notes that, although many people have claimed philosophy starts in wonder, for him it begins in disappointment. The two areas in which this disappointment manifests itself that particularly interest Critchley in this book are religion and politics; as a minister of liberal religion with leftist political commitments myself these two areas are naturally of particular interest to me too.

As the (accidental) convenor of the DiEM25 in Cambridge group I speak of disappointment in this post for two immediate reasons. The first is, of course, the huge disappointment I (and other DiEMers) are feeling following the result of the EU referendum here in the UK. It is a disappointment that has left many of us feeling exhausted.

The second is that, in the aftermath of the referendum, it has so far proved impossible to organise anything in Cambridge under the DiEM25 banner. Oh, to be sure, the Facebook pages gets its modest share of likes and some of those same people have indicated that they are interested in meeting together as and, even say they are coming to a meeting, but that’s where it ends and so, last Wednesday, I and two other DiEMers (Jonny and Graham), once again found ourselves sitting in a room with no one else present. It was, it has to be said, very disappointing. But, as Critchley’s words suggest there is disappointment and disappointment.

Clearly, disappointment can be the trigger for nihilistic despair and blame-attribution (there's a lot of that going around at the moment), but it can also be the immediate trigger for something more positive, for a new kind of thinking that is prepared to look for a creative way to use the disappointment and exhaustion the three of us in the room (and, we may suppose, the no-shows) felt.

At our meeting on Wednesday it was this latter response that we chose self-consciously to adopt and we began to centre our conversation — eventually reconvened at the local pub — on exploring something suggested by the Italian philosopher, Franco “Bifo” Berardi (who, as many of you will know, is an active supporter of DiEM25— see HERE and HERE).

Berardi feels that, today, “Social movements should focus on a founding myth of European history: the myth of energy.” He wants us to do this because “Capitalism is based on the exploitation of physical energy, and semiocapitalism has subjugated the nervous energy of society to the point of collapse” (all Bifo quotes in this post can be found at this link),

In all areas of modern European culture (including liberal religious and leftist activist circles) exhaustion is seen as a thoroughly bad thing. This is because, as Berardi notes, “[t]he notion of exhaustion has always been anathema to the discourse of modernity, of romantic Sturm und Drang, of the Faustian drive to immortality, the endless thirst for economic growth and profit, the denial of organic limits.” But, despite this cultural denial, as most of us are only too well-aware, examples of burn-out are to be seen everywhere. Indeed, nearly every week in both my religious and political roles, I find myself talking to someone who has been brought (or brought themselves) to the point of utter exhaustion and collapse.

We all struggle about how to deal with this this because “[e]xhaustion has no place in Western culture.” We’re all supposed to pretend we’re not really exhausted because if we do so admit this we (rightly) fear we may lose our jobs, our status, our sense of meaning and purpose. When we cannot pretend any longer, we’re forced to “take time-out” (often in very bad ways), hoping against hope that we’ll somehow be able to get some energy back so we can throw ourselves into the maelstrom once again. The vicious cycle never seems to end.

This refusal (inability?) to find a creative place for exhaustion has become, as Berardi realises, “a problem, for exhaustion now needs to be understood and accepted as a new paradigm for social life.” Berardi’s belief, which I’ve come to share with him, is that the “cultural and psychic articulation [of exhaustion] will open the door to a new conception of prosperity and happiness” and that “[t]he coming European insurrection will not be driven by energy, but by slowness, withdrawal, and exhaustion. It will be the autonomization of the collective body and soul from exploitation by means of speed and competition.”

I find Berardi’s thinking powerfully persuasive but it is a hard to persuade other, traditional, leftist activists to take this seriously, not least of all because it means that “[t]he prospect of a revolution is not open to us.” This is because, as Beradi points out,

“The concept of revolution no longer corresponds to anything, because it entails an exaggerated notion of the political will over the complexity of contemporary society. Our main prospect is to shift to a new paradigm not centered on product growth, profit, and accumulation, but on the full unfolding of the power of collective intelligence.”

So, as we sat in the pub, enjoying a pint or two over a slowly unfolding conversation, we asked ourselves, if it is true that old-school, revolutionary activity is no longer available to us, should we not simply acknowledge our exhaustion and find a way to let it help us to the full unfolding of the power of our collective intelligence? Perhaps instead of a “Democracy Café” (which we explored when we last met) should we facilitate an “Exhaustion Café” where we could admit these things to each other in such a way that our collective intelligence might, just, have a chance of being re-created? (When Jonny, who is a sign-writer, got home he sent us his idea for a poster which you’ll find in this post).

Perhaps we’ll do it but, as we drained the last dregs of our fine ale, our final decision was to give the Cambridge DiEM25 DSC one more chance to get on it’s feet and, to this end, we’ll arrange another meeting for the end of September or the beginning of October. We’ll advertise the date, time and place here on this site so keep your disappointed and exhausted eyes peeled . . .

With the warmest of wishes as always,


Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Faith does not consist of believing in something amazing—reading Tolstoy in the sun at Ickleton

The Guv'nor at Duxford 
On Monday I took a ride out on the Pashley Guv’nor to Ickleton Cemetery Chapel to have lunch and, as I have done in the past, read in the shade of a tree some of Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief. The passage that particularly struck me on this occasion (as it has before) was the following taken from Chapter Eight. I place it before you with out comment along with some photos taken on the ride.

“Faith does not consist of believing in something amazing, faith consists of understanding your own condition and understanding where you can turn for salvation. If you understand your own condition, then you won't wait for any rewards. You will believe in what has already been entrusted to you.”

All photos taken with an iPhone 6+ and the Blackie App. Just click on a photo to enlarge it. (On the Blackie App home page you'll see in the middle, at the top, a picture of a rose. I'm pleased to say that's a picture of mine of a rose taken in the Memorial Unitarian Church garden in Cambridge.)

Construction work at Addenbrooks at the start of the ride
Swifts whirling and singing at St Mary & St John, Hinxton
Ickleton Cemetery  Chapel
Ickleton Cemetery
Ickleton Cemetery
Ickleton Cemetery 
Ickleton Cemetery and the bench where I ate my lunch
St Mary Magdalene, Ickleton 
The Guv'nor on the way to Grange and Chrishall
Heading to Grange and Chrishall
Heading to Grange and Chrishall
Fowlmere United Reformed Church
Thriplow Smithy
Fingerpost in Thriplow on the way back to Cambridge
St George's, Thriplow
Mausoleum of Sir Charles Walston in the churchyard in Newton  

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Ecstatic Humanism with Christian Hopes

The Botanic Garden trees under which, during summer, I often read
In my last but one post I drew your (and my) attention to some words from an article written in 1976 by James W. Woelfel, Professor Emeritus at the University of Kansas. Here they are again:

I hasten to add that I am not so naïve as to think that the demise of the transcendent God within my own interpreted experience entails the universalized conclusion that he does not exist. I have become increasingly impressed by the inescapably contextual character of all our "ultimate concerns." I can appreciate the fact that all sorts of people deal with existence in terms of faith in the sovereign God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On questions of ultimate meaning, none of us knows for sure who is closer to the mark. But in my own ongoing struggle to make sense of the Christian context of life- and world-interpretation, I find basic elements of that context which I simply cannot render coherent any longer, and I earnestly wonder how other persons manage to (The Death of God: A Belated Personal Postscript).

As I noted back in 2010, after first reading them, their general good spirit and content made a big impact upon me. Now, six years on — and with that much more experience of struggling to make sense of what it is to be some kind of post-Christian, post-theistic, Christian minister of religion — their good spirit and content was still powerful enough to make me, finally, hunt down one of his books called "Borderland Christianity" that he'd written in 1973. It came this morning in the post and the opening three paragraphs of his introduction, entitled, "Ecstatic Humanism with Christian Hopes", are just so relevant to me (and, therefore, to the general spirit and ongoing themes of this blog) that I cannot resist reproducing them here:

For several years now I have lived and worked, to use Paul Tillich's famous self-description, "on the boundary" between theism (chiefly Christianity) and humanism. Two basic, often conflicting elements have characterized my ongoing search for truth: On the one hand there has been a "natural religiousness," which has always been filled with wonder over the mysteries of existence and has found it extremely difficult to dismiss some of the central things religion experiences and talks about as purely illusory. On the other hand I have possessed a "natural skepticism" which has had a strong taste for facts, for publicly adjudicable realities, and has been ceaselessly suspicious and critical of many religious claims. The juxtaposition of the two has created numerous and endlessly varied inner tensions and conflicts, both intellectual and personal, throughout the years of my education, teaching, and research in the fields of theology and philosophy.
           Sometimes I find myself in the position of what the British philosopher Ronald Hepburn once aptly described as a "sceptic with a naturally religious mind" kind of open-minded, "reverent" humanist. At other times I think of myself as a kind of ultra-liberal "Christian heretic." I enter with equal gusto and sympathetic interest into the world view of Albert Camus and a discussion of Jesus' resurrection. I teach jointly in two departments of the university, philosophy and religion. Most of my colleagues in philosophy are humanists and skeptics about religion. They are interested in a number of things besides religion, and help keep me healthily absorbed in other issues and areas of knowledge. My colleagues in religion are an ecumenical bunch of theists—active Christians and Jews—with whom I feel completely comfortable both intellectually and personally.  
          Strangely enough, perhaps, I do not feel schizophrenic about all this. I do have a position, an orientation—albeit a very broad and open-ended one—which I describe below and which comes out more indirectly in the essays that follow. But it is precisely an orientation which straddles the boundary between humanism and religious belief. From my vantage point in the borderlands between largely Christian theism and humanism I make exploratory and critical forays, now into theological and now into secular territory. My situation, I believe, bestows a certain dual perspective and freedom from special pleading which are perhaps of value in engendering some insights of a particular sort into both territories. The essays in this book represent my recent excursions on the theological side which express some long-standing concerns of mine (Borderland Christianity: Critical Reason and the Christian Vision of Love, Geoffrey Chapman Press, 1973, pp. 13-14)

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

ACCEPTANCE by Jacob Trapp

Susanna in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden
ACCEPTANCE  by Jacob Trapp

Let me be inwardly 
Attuned to thy harmony, 
Great Universe. 

Let nothing be early 
And nothing late to me, 
That is in season for thee. 

 Let all be fruit for me 
Which thy seasons bear.

—after Marcus Aurelius