Garden Congregationalism

My last blog elicited a pertinent question from Stephen Lingwood:

What exactly do you mean by avoiding strengthening formal institutional religion? Are you arguing for Congregationalism against strengthening national structures? I'm never completely sure when a "community" becomes an "institution."

Please realise that what follows is not in any sense a definitive answer to this question (and thanks for asking it) but part of one I, myself, am struggling to articulate. It is proving far from easy but I think I'm getting a grip on it by now (hence my slight revamp of this blog making the headline issue clearer). Anyway I'll begin by saying that, yes, I am arguing for a continuance of a radical Congregationalism but I need to add to this a huge caveat which is the basic subject of this reply.

One further quick note. I'm not suggesting any radical institutional boulversement in what follows (God knows there has been enough of that) but, in the first instance simply to encourage a subtle change of perspective. I'm hoping that, if it were to result in any "revolutionary" change then it will be simply the kind of change that occurs when you suddenly see something clearly for the first time. I'm hoping it will be an "Aha!" moment for folk. Right.

Congregationalist polity can (though not necessarily) serve to encourage both liberal and conservative communities to see themselves as the still centre of religious authority and so, without reference to wider contexts, able completely to shape their communities according their own current personal prejudices (beliefs). The trouble with this polity is that it has a tendency to develop in rather sectarian ways - indeed the history of Protestantism shows an endless proliferation of conventicles and sects with each group becoming increasingly and dangerously self-referential as it closes down its boundaries.

Not surprisingly non-Congregationalist traditions readily point to this fault and use it to justify their commitment to some kind of institutional authority (Presbyterian, Episcopal or whatever). Theo Hobson points to this move being made within the CofE.

Now I accept that this aspect of Congregational polity is deeply problematic and am fairly convinced that some kind of shared "underlying" authority is required to check its tendency to drift towards sectarianism and self-referentialism and so maintain a sense of responsibility and accountability to wider meshworks of belonging (there is a ecosophical sub-text here). For a long while I chased what now increasingly seems to me to be the red herring hinted at above namely, that of trying to create (rebuild?) some kind of institutional form of liberal Christianity. (This was, of course, Martineau's aim with his Free Christian Union and, to some extent, it remains the aim of many within the modern Unitarian movement - and I'm not just referring to Unitarian Christians.)

But I now feel that even a very liberal religious institution would be, in the end, just another version of every other kind of institutional Christianity. It would simply happen to be one with which I (and perhaps you) might have greater sympathy than, say, the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church.

So, if we wish effectively to challenge the increasing illiberalism of our age and to the "toughen" up liberal religion as a whole (including liberal Christianity as a subset of this) without going down the institutional route we have to find another model which, whilst allowing us to keep our local congregational independence (with all its distinct local flavours), also provides all of us with the right kind of "authority" that will keep our local communities from becoming closed and painfully self-referential and prejudiced - an authoritative meshwork.

This mention of "meshwork" brings me back to God and, in a moment, I'm going to use the word again and try to show how "God" might indeed be thought of as telling us, or at least offering us clear indications of, how to behave in the world but I do this by tying the word inseparably - a la Spinoza - to Nature. What I'm offering up here is a wholly naturalised, non-personal and non-theistic understanding of divinity. Some may simply believe this is just another form of atheism and, if it is, then so be it, but I think it is possible to show this to be a genuinely religious middle way lying between Theism and Atheism. In doing this I am hopeful that it might become possible to articulate a conception of divinity that is capable of becoming increasingly free from individual human perspectives but without, at the same time, articulating a concept of "God" that ignores and diminishes the importance (to us) of limited human perspectives.

Here I come to the idea I have been kicking around for a while which is to suggest that it might be helpful for local liberal religious communities to start thinking of themselves, not in terms of being churches, but as gardens daily shaped and maintained by the local community on their particular bend of the river and which are designed continually to draw each person in the garden out of ourselves and into conversation and a goodly life both with others and reality as a whole (not as they would merely like others and reality to be but as they are actually encountered).

The genuine member of a Garden Academy cannot only be loyal to their particular garden come what may (as one needs to to be if one is a genuine member of this or that institutional church) but only loyal to God-or-Nature which allows their own particular local garden (and, indeed all gardens) to exist in the first place. It is to be loyal to "something" shared (though it is not one thing amongst other things but reality itself) that in "its" self-expression is radically diverse ("it" allows, as we know, an infinite variety of gardens to flourish). Incidentally, the early twentieth century philosopher Josiah Royce expressed something of this in his philosophy of loyalty (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philsophy article on Royce includes a section on this should you be interested).

Now, the best gardeners, although they seek to create a local ordering of God-or-Nature in their gardens, do not attempt at the same time seek to dominate Her but seek only to allow the garden to reveal to themselves and others aspects of reality that might otherwise be obscured to us when we encounter Her in "the wild." In other words, although no two gardens are alike and consequently reveal much about the personal likes and dislikes (prejudices) of the gardeners involved (this is, of course, a form of Congregationalism) no successful garden/er can pretend to truly be in control of the basic "material" of their project - whether we are talking about, soil, quality of seed, sun or rain - ultimately, if you follow Spinoza, all this "material" is, of course, understood to be but various modes of God-or-Nature. It is vitally important in this account to realise that this "material" (God-or-Nature) is not personal and so cannot be understood to judge anyone or any action morally, however, it can "judge" in the sense that when any gardener consistently goes against the grain by doing stupid things then their project will fail and will be shown to be "wrong." To reiterate, 'wrong', not in a judgemental moral sense, but simply because it is revealed that this particular gardener shows that they neither know how the "material" works nor understands the limitations of their own tools and the true and limited extent of their own capacities for local ordering.

An example from the story of the Garden of Eden will suffice to show what I mean here (I take it from Deleuze's book "Spinoza - Practical Philosophy). In traditional readings of the story when "God" tells Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil saying, if they do, they will die (Gen 2:16-17) God is perceived to have forbidden the eating of the tree's fruit for certain moral reasons concerned with good and evil. But what if we simply read the story as an illustration that God-or-Nature - via practical experience - reveals to us that we simply shouldn't eat some things because they are poisonous to us? We are now in the more useful and helpful realm of information concerning what is a practical good and a practical bad rather than in the realm of moral good or evil - always a problem for traditional religion. As Deleuze puts it:

Hence good and bad have a primary, objective meaning, but one that is relative and partial: that which agrees with our nature or does not agree with it. And consequently, good and bad have a secondary meaning, which is subjective and modal, qualifying two types, two modes of man's existence. That individual will be called good (or free, or rational, or strong) who strives, in so far as he is capable, to organise his encounters, to join with whatever agrees with his nature, to combine his relations with relations that are compatible with his, and thereby to increase his power. For goodness is a matter of dynamism, power and the composition of powers. That individual will be called bad (or servile, or weak, or foolish) who lives haphazardly, who is content to undergo the effects of his encounters, but wails and accuses every time the effect undergone does not agree with him but reveals his own impotence. For by lending oneself in this way to whatever encounter in whatever circumstance, believing that with a lot of violence or a little guile, one will always be able to extricate oneself, how can one fail to have more bad encounters than good? How can one keep from destroying oneself through guilt, and others through resentment, spreading one's own powerlessness and enslavement everywhere, one's own sickness, indigestions, and poisons? In the end, one is unable even to encounter oneself (Deleuze, Gilles: "Spinoza - Practical Philosophy", City Lights, 1988, San Francisco pp. 22-23).

To be a successful gardener helping to create a thriving good local Garden Academy one must develop a profound understanding and acceptance of the fact that one's own local (Congregational) ordering of God-or-Nature is, of necessity, only possible because because of a complex commingling within ever wider contexts (ranging from one's local neighbourhood and continuing up to God-or-Nature). (In passing, I have recently published a paper on the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians in which I suggest that Capek began to articulate just such a theology).

Now, it seems to me that such a Spinozistic understanding of God-or-Nature provides local liberal communities with a genuinely shared liberal conception of authority (a wholly naturalised one of course) which is simply not amenable to persuasion or coercion by humankind ("it" is after all the world as she is and not as we would will it). It is a conception of "God" that requires us to work with it - collaboratively. One beautiful model representing how we work with God-or-Nature is in the shaping of a good garden. But, remember, no individual garden can ever be truly self-contained and self-referential - it is always a commingled entity and, though discrete in its own way it is not, of necessity, disconnected from its wider environment(s).

So, to return to your first question (at last you may exclaim!) - yes, congregationalism but of a garden variety. And, in reply to your second question, I think a community becomes an institution when it starts to define itself self-referentially and begins to loose sight of its necessary commingling with the whole of reality - God-or-Nature. In short all this long blog is doing is recasting in the liberal context Jesus' words found in Luke 22:42: "not my will, but thine, be done." When you come face to face with Nature-or-God this is all one can do it is just that as human beings we can find ways to live and work with this reality and to do it joyously and creatively. Doing this together in a beautiful "Garden" (both earthy ones and those of the spirit) seems like rather an attractive idea to me. Perhaps even more attractive than going to church . . .