Procession Consciousness

This morning I'd like to reintroduce to you a theme that, until now, hasn't had a name but which, on the prompting of a contributor to my blog, I have started to call 'procession consciousness.' The story I use to introduce and illustrate this idea and why it is so important is told by the poet and philosopher Wendell Berry:

My grandson, who is four years old, is now following his father and me over some of the same countryside that I followed my father and grandfather over. When his time comes, my grandson will choose as he must, but so far all of us have been farmers. I know from my grandfather that when he was a child he too followed his father in this way, hearing and seeing, not knowing yet that the most essential part of his education had begun. And so in this familiar spectacle of a small boy tagging along behind his father across the fields, we are part of a long procession, five generations of which I have seen, issuing out of generations lost to memory, going back, for all I now, across previous landscapes and the whole history of farming. Who knows the meaning, the cultural significance, and the practical value of this rural family’s generational procession across its native landscape? The answer is not so simple as the question: No one person ever will know all the answer. My grandson certainly does not know it. And my son does not, though he has positioned himself to learn some of it, should he be so blessed. I am the one who (to some extent) knows, though I know also that I cannot tell it to anyone living. I am in the middle now between my grandfather and my father, who are alive in my memory, and my son and my grandson, who are alive in my sight. If my son, after thirty more years have passed, has the good pleasure of seeing his own child and grandchild in that procession, then he will know something like what I now know. This living procession through time and place is the record by which such knowledge survives and is conveyed. When the procession ends, so does the knowledge (From Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry (2000, Washington DC, Counterpoint Press pp. 151-152)

It is easy to imagine in an Information Technology lead world that human knowledge can be reducible a fixable set of 'things' capable of being recorded in various data storage methods, such as books or video, and of being completely retrievable (with all their subtleties and nuances) by later individuals and groups.

But Berry's story suggests (and I think it can be shown to be true) that in what consists true human knowledge - which contains what we call meaning - can only be accessed by living fully in the social and cultural contexts of that knowledge. In other words human knowledge is an attribute of a living, unfolding culture.

Now, this living, processional quality of knowledge and meaning is very interesting because at the same time as it allows for change - and, as we will see, very radical change - it simultaneously allows for the possibility of a real, and psychologically vital, sense of human belonging and stability.

In a world of rapid change and radical uncertainty such as our own discovering a sense of belonging has become more important than ever before. We know that many of those who can't find it experience an increase in anomie. Anomie is the French sociologist Durkheim's (1858-1917) word for a state in which social norms have become significantly eroded. The effect of this erosion is alienation, isolation, and desocialisation and with them comes the consequent loss of a meaningful and sense of right and wrong. At the end of last year the BBC commissioned a report on this phenomenon from the Social And Spatial Inequalities (SASI) group, Department of Geography, University of Sheffield. The survey charts some of the social and political problems this is now causing us.

Another well-known response to rapid change and radical uncertainty is artificially to create belonging by re-imagining old certainties and then re-presenting them to people in the modern world. The rise in fundamentalist and/or conservative religions is one example of this approach. They are, of course, very modern responses to the matter and not at all real returns to some earlier certain age despite what these groups may claim.

But neither a listless and hopeless drift into anomie nor the adoption of fundamentalist and/or conservative ideologies (religious or scientific) seems to me to be particularly healthy or helpful responses to this key - perhaps the key - issue of our day. But these two responses are not the only options on the table. Our own liberal tradition - our own procession - has a rather well hidden one. At first sight, however, things don't actually look too promising because on the surface it appears we have often developed our own versions of the two responses I have just mentioned. Here’s what I mean.

Following one of our key eighteenth century ministers and thinkers Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) vast swathes of our procession came to see Christianity - and, by extension, any kind of dogmatic religion, rather like a scientific theory, i.e. only as 'a kind of possible object, or system of claims about the world whose truth can be determined by a preceding phase of uncommitted debate.' As Priestley himself said:

But should free inquiry lead to the destruction of Christianity itself, it ought not, on that account, to be discontinued; for we can only wish for the prevalence of Christianity on the supposition of its being true; and if it fall before the influence of free inquiry, it can only do so in consequence of its not being true (Joseph Priestley, The Importance and Extent of Free Inquiry in Matters of Religion: A Sermon, in P.Miller (ed.), Joseph Priestley: Political Writings, Cambridge: CUP, 1993, xxiv).

Many who followed this process of free-inquiry felt it showed that Christianity (even Unitarian Christianity) was not true in the way Priestley thought it was and so the search for truth went on. What’s wrong with that you may ask? Well, on the ground this often resulted in the development of a new dogma in which uncommitted debate slowly came to 'imperialise the faith' and for many faith become equivalent simply to 'free inquiry’ itself. I don't want to dismiss this approach entirely out of hand but it is clear that when taken to extremes it inevitably leads some people to a profound sense of anomie.

However, others have responded to the results of free inquiry in a different way, namely, by settling dogmatically upon another solution that has come out of the open debate. Such a decision, inevitably, puts an end to the process 'free inquiry'. We were open but, now we've found an answer through rational inquiry, we're digging our heels in. If you take a look at the Christadelphians who claim the same history as we do - well, up until the mid-nineteenth century that is - you will see one startling example - startling to those of us who have chosen a different version of the former solution - of this kind of Unitarianism.

But, when you take time to consider our whole family of faith's four-and-a-half century long procession across the landscape of human history one begins to see that the truth of our own procession has never been manifest in 'a closed system of propositions' but, as my friend and historian Joe Bord noted, through 'an historically extended way of thinking and acting.'

A simple way of summing this up - as I have done in the last blog post is to say that, when we are at our best, we uphold and sustain a coherent culture of free religious inquiry and function, in part, as an academy of liberal religious praxis and thought. This historically extended way of thinking and acting results in the rhetoric which appears on all our orders of service i.e. that we meet together simply in the spirit of Jesus (nothing more, nothing less), for the worship of God and the service of humankind (and we deliberately don’t try to define what should be understood by the word 'God’ even as we may explore the many things it might, or might not, mean); that we hold that 'conversation as the natural organ communicating, mind with mind, . . . is the method of human culture’ and by it we 'come nearer to those whom we shall address than by any other means’; and that any address given here is simply 'offered to the congregation as encouragement to further reflection and thought and most certainly not a definitive statement with which you must agree.’

The significant problem I see is that we are not making the best of this historically extended way of thinking and acting that we might - indeed sometimes we really end up only pay lip service to it. Our approach, our culture of free religious inquiry, is something that we know is very appealing to many kinds of people. I would also argue that it is an enlivening and creative contribution to the wider civic, secular and democratic society to which we belong. The trick is to get folk to engage in this process directly and over a long (hopefully a lifetime long) period - to join the procession in some way. One simple way that we can begin address this matter is by repositioning the Sunday morning address so that this free inquiry, this conversation actually takes place in our community as part of our regular weekly meeting for worship - putting our money where our mouth is so to speak.

So, as an offering to the future health and well-being of this liberal religious community, I'm putting my money firmly where my mouth is - in conversation with you as, together, we try to negotiate the landscape of life in a goodly procession of faith - a procession that is always open to future possibilities but simultaneously giving a real sense of deep belonging.

I look forward to your conversational contributions . . .
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