Another unorthodox lecture - or what on earth is the minister up to?

This post arises out of a question a few of you have been asking me, namely, what on earth is the thing that holds together all I'm talking about at the moment? Having written this and delivered it (and received mostly positive feedback - as well as a few 'I'm not so sure' responses) I realise how related my solution is to one that the American philosopher Paul Wienpahl began to outline in his 1956 piece entitled "Unorthodox Lecture". It's not long and I do recommend you take time to look at it. Following this lecture he went on to properly to study Zen and write two valuable books about it. He also wrote a wonderful book on Spinoza called "Radical Spinoza". Following Wienpahl some of the way one of my own solutions has been to take up a mindfulness meditation practice but, for all kinds of reasons, in the end I, personally, find myself compelled to stay within the Christian tradition. But, as I hope this post clearly reveals, the kind of Christian one ends up being is to be, in Wienpahl's phrase' "a man without a position." But, as he makes clear, this is not to be without direction, it is to be who you are in the place and time you find yourself - a position which, in the end, can really dispense with all artificial labels such as 'Christianity'. What one is left with is the simple fact of one's particularity, of having to live, breathe, and solve the problem of life, right here and now:

"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."
So it's a funny and difficult kind of 'Christianity' that I'm trying to articulate; to get a glimpse of what that might be you'll just have to read on.


One or two of you have asked what on earth it is I think I am doing! Well this address is a summary of that. I'll start with an observation of Wittgenstein's who was concerned to show that any language was, in an important fashion, complete. He did this in the Philosophical Investigations by likening language to a city:

". . . ask yourself whether our language is complete; - whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses" (PI 18).

Before I go on I need to place before you another thought of Wittgenstein's (In Culture and Value):

"If anyone should think he has solved the problem of life & feels like telling himself everything is quite easy now, he need only tell himself, in order to
see that he is wrong, that there must have been a time when this "solution" had not been discovered; but it must have been possible to live then too and the solution which has now been discovered appears in relation to how things were then like an accident" (CV 6c).

The solution to the problem of life mentioned here is not to be thought of as some set of propositions about the world allied to a set of particular ritual practices but, instead, the simple fact that it has always been possible for people to find ways of leading the most fulfilling life possible for them and in the most fulfilled way with the world in which they find themselves. This doesn't make all solutions the same or, to our (or any) point of view, equally attractive or good, but it is clear that people across time and cultures have always found solutions to the problem of life and they have done it in the ghetto, on desert islands, in prisons, in wars just as they have done it in times of peace, security and plenty and amongst supportive friends. People have also failed to find solutions in all these conditions, of course.

It seems to me that any religious tradition (or language of religion) - but I refer only to Christianity here - bears some resemblance to a city. It is clear that forms of Christianity earlier than our own were sufficient to solve the problems of life. In fact it should be obvious to us all (though how easily we forget) that earlier and very different forms of Judaism were also sufficient to solve the problems of life; remember Jesus was a Jew (and never a Christian) and it was clearly possible for him to live! Indeed this process continues back to the beginning of human consciousness; we know that it was possible for our forbears to live then too. Some tantalising remnants of their solutions seem to have come down to us in the form of their, to us, mysterious artefacts, buildings, barrows and mounds.

So, with these two thoughts in mind, let us now imagine ourselves living and working in London - a city I lived in for a year in the late 80s - and let us also hold in mind William Shakespeare.

Both Shakespeare and I were inhabitants of London. It was a complete city for both of us. We crossed it regularly on the way to work, Shakespeare to theatres, me to gigs, and both of us travelled to the homes of friends and colleagues. We would have shared knowledge of many London streets and their names and both us, at times, travelled on them to go out of the city, say to Stratford-upon-Avon. Of course, where the city ended and ran out into the countryside was in a different place for both of us but London remained for us both a complete (though not completed) city. In both cases in that complete city the problem of life needed to be, and sometimes was, solved by us. It was possible to live then as it is to live now.

Yet in both of our cases - for all the continuities and overlaps - to live in London of the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century is a very different thing to living in the city in the late twentieth-century. When we talk about the contemporary city (though my knowledge of it is really twenty years out of date) and our life in it which includes attempts to solve the problem of life, we must use very different directions and descriptions to those used by Shakespeare because if we didn't we simply wouldn't get around. We have, today, cars, buses, tube-trains, taxis, bicycles and rickshaws to help us traverse the city. New buildings, roadways, bridges, sub-ways and footpaths have been built and, as we negotiate these new routes, suburbs and technologies we converse with people from all over the world whose own culture, mental landscape and language, brings wholly new comminglings, words and insights. But, still, the problem of life has to be solved in this modern city as it was in Shakespeare’s' but now it must be done in a new landscape and context, a new, if related language-city.

We should observe that Shakespeare, were we able to resurrect him, could not get into a taxi and, in his own language (with its many subtle nuances shaped wholly by his own time and utterly unrecoverable by us) and give directions to the driver cross the city using his sixteenth century street map. If he wants to cross the city of which we are both inhabitants he will have to negotiate the multitude of "new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses" and no amount of romantic longing is going to bring back to life the city of Shakespeare's memory.

To be sure some aspects of the old cityscape are still there - actually there - and Shakespeare could visit them but other aspects of the cityscape are not. Some - if not many – of its features are forgotten by the city's present day inhabitants; others remain alive only in the memory of some or are accessible, to a far lesser degree, by taking the time to visit the city's museums and by referring to old documents, maps, prints and paintings.

So with our inheritance of the city of Christianity. Much of it has simply been raised to the ground or to make way for new developments and also extended in new suburbs. Some old things are no longer there; many new things are. Many things about the old city remain only in the memory of some or are accessible after visiting it’s ‘museums’ - the Bible is major repository for these memories but there are also many ancient works of Christian spirituality which survive too. Some of Christianity’s early landmarks still stand and, for us, the Lord's Prayer is perhaps the pre-eminent example. It may be an oddity in the new language ‘city-scape’ of this church but only an insensitive ignoramus would consider knocking down such a rare and ancient-building without the most pressing of reasons.

But it is vital to remember that we don't inherit from the past such buildings/prayers utterly unchanged. How we actually USE this old building/prayer in our new city is going to be very different from the way it was used in the old. Think of how old ecclesiastical buildings sometimes become museums, art centres, mosques and temples, and cafes. Sometimes, although they remain religious buildings, they are inhabited by modern people living in modern contexts.

I could go on to nuance this much much more but I'm sure you have my basic point. We still live in this city of Christianity but it is a city radically different from that known by earlier generations and it is one that has always been in the process of change. Yet there must be something common to them all – after all without that sure London could not still be London, Christianity still be Christianity? To paraphrase W here (he was talking about games but I am inserting the many Londons and Christianities there have been over the centuries):

"Don't say 'There must be something common, or they would not all be called [London or Christianity] - but look and see whether there is anything in common to all. - For, if you look at them all [all the Londons and all the Christianities] you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! (PI 66 - his emphasis).”

I have a profound faith that there *IS* a meaningful similarity, a complex relationship, between earlier forms of Christianity and what I am trying to articulate here. I think it is the 'same' city - or rather a similar city.

My job, as a contemporary minister of the Gospel - is to have faith in the similarity between the solutions to the problem of life Jesus and his earliest followers proposed and the ones we must articulate now in the early twenty-first century. I believe there is a continuity with the past but NOT an identity. The two (and the many forms in between - it's a continuum) will necessarily share some similarities, stories, words, names and landmarks but they will be similarities in always radically changing contexts. The twenty-first century AD is not the first-century AD.

Following Wittgenstein's advice to look at what is the case - rather than thinking in abstract philosophical terms -(and actually Jesus' too – think of those lilies and birds) I feel confident enough to say that I don’t think there is any such thing as the unchanging essence of Christianity that can be taught to anyone (as someone like Von Harnack thought). All there is is learning yourself, as did Jesus, to trust that, by relating directly as individuals to that mystery which underwrites the possibility of similarity across constant infinite change and which we call God, we can have life and have it abundantly in our own times and places. To be a Christian in this sense is not to hold a fixed theory about life but a creative way of being fully in this world, alert and sensitive our own needs and contexts, and compassionate about others, and also to the well-being of the whole of creation. [This stuff relates to some earlier thoughts I have offered you on the subject of following a model. You can find one example here.]

I'm seeking to follow Jesus' advice to be like the "scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (Matthew 13:52) and to constantly remind you (and myself) that "no one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made and that neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved" (Matthew 9:16-17).

In short, I'm simply trying to help us all, as individuals, answer the problem of life in our own life in this present language city (and the contemporary city of Cambridge) now, with all its streets and buildings (old and new), with its suburbs of science, other religions, contemporary art, music, literature, dance and film, with its own conflicts, doubts and great achievements.

That's all I'm trying to do. Whether I'm doing it well or with any success is, of course, an entirely different question . . .