Saturday, 25 December 2010

A light/clearing in the darkness - Christmas Day 2010

In a recent very witty book called 'Reason, Faith and Revolution - reflections on the God debate' Terry Eagleton, Professor of Literature at Lancaster reminds us that in the 1960s there were a number of influential radical Catholic theologians who did not:

". . . see God the Creator as some kind of mega-manufacturer or cosmic chief executive officer, as the Richard Dawkins school of nineteenth-century liberal rationalism tends to imagine - what the theologian Herbert McCabe calls 'the idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature." Dawkins falsely considers that Christianity offers a rival view of the universe to science. Like the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in 'Breaking the Spell', he thinks it is a kind of bogus theory or pseudo-explanation of the world. In this sense he is rather like someone who thinks that a novel is a botched piece of sociology, and who therefore cannot see the point of it all. [. . .] Christopher Hitchins makes much the same crass error, claiming in 'God Is Not Great' that [quote] 'thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important ' [unquote]. But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov." (Terry Eagleton, 'Reason, Faith and Revolution - reflections on the God debate', Yale University Press 2009, pp. 6-7)

I cite Eagleton's words as a preface to a poem by R. S. Thomas that for many many years I have thought about at this time of year. It is called 'Lost Christmas':

He is alone, it is Christmas.
Up the hill go three trees, the three kings.
There is a star also
Over the dark manger. But where is the child?

Pity him. He has come far
Like the trees, matching their patience
With his. But the mind was before
Him on the long road. The manger is empty.

One thing Thomas seems to be saying here, although I don't think he would ever have put it this way, is that if you are the kind of person who thinks the Christmas story (and the Bible as a whole) is a bogus theory or pseudo-explanation of the world or that a novel is a botched piece of sociology or that the electric toaster does indeed do away with any further need of Chekhov, then the manger is always going to be empty. Your mind, before you on the long road of life, will never let you see the Christ-child on this morning.

So far so witty. But 'Ditchkins' - Eagleton's amusing conjoining of the names Dawkins and Hitchins - 'Ditchkins' might legitimately come right back at me and say, but come on, what on earth does it mean to say we find the manger full or empty? Is not this line itself utterly empty of meaning?

Well, immediately, one thing I can say is that even in my mid-twenties, at the height of my Christian belief (which is not, of course, the same as Christian faith - but that's for another address), I never once woke up on a Christmas morning, went downstairs into the still dark kitchen only to smash my shin on a inconsiderately placed manger, thereby waking-up the little baby tucked-up inside it. Whatever else Thomas' final line, 'The manger is empty', means it clearly cannot mean an actually existing full or empty manger. So what might the line mean?

Well, it seems to me, I can only begin to proffer a helpful response to this question by referring back to a thought I explored with you earlier this year, namely, that our Enlightenment-inspired culture early on began to see one of its major tasks as the intellectual solving of the riddle of the world - truly, here we find an example of the mind preceding us on the long road of life. In 1942 Maynard Keynes made some comments about this which were recorded by the mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson (a man famous himself for work in quantum field theory, solid-state physics, and nuclear engineering). Apparently Keynes said:

"Why do I call Newton a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it *as a riddle*, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thoughts to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood . . ." (cited in Ethics without Philosophy by James C. Edwards,  p. 235).

It really is hard to over-emphasize just how deeply this idea has rooted itself in European and North American culture. It was an idea which was taken up by both scientist and religious believer alike and which, as it has played out over the last three centuries, though it has brought some things that really do look like remarkable gains for human kind (including toasters), it has also led to some profound misunderstandings and into some terribly debilitating and dysfunctional spiritual and intellectual dead-ends. It really must be questioned whether this world is really best thought of, and lived in, as if it were merely a technical riddle to be solved. Perhaps some people will always think it is - Ditchkinites and religious fundamentalists in their own different ways may well continue in this fashion until their dying day - but it is clear to me that there is at least one alternative approach that we can consider and with it I'll conclude.

It is to approach the world, not as a riddle to be solved, but with an attitude of what we may call 'loving regard'. As James C. Edwards notes, "a feature of [such] love is that it never literalises any perception; love is always ready to go deeper, to see through what it has already seen" (ibid p. 236). He goes on to say:

"From the perspective of loving attention, no story is ever over; no depths are ever fully plumbed. The world and its beings are a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted. Thus the sound human understanding is essentially a religious response to the Pathos [impressiveness] of existence, not a magical or superstitious one. It is a response that makes sheer acknowledgment, not control, central" (ibid p. 236).

Here we can return to the side of the manger - surely the proper place to be on a Christmas morning. If Edwards is right that '[f]rom the perspective of loving attention, no story is ever over; no depths are ever fully plumbed' then we can continue to draw living water from the infinite depths of the Gospel (and every other great human story) only in so far as we ponder upon it like Mary (Luke 2:19) 'as if' for the first time. And, because, from the perspective of loving regard this 'always-the-first-time-journey' to the cribside is never naively literalised, it means we undertake this annual journey never having definitively decided beforehand precisely what it is we will find. Like the shepherds, all we must do is open-mindedly 'go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us' (Luke 2:15).

And surely, as the Gospel story continues to unfold and the Christ-child grows to maturity becoming our teacher and spiritual master, Jesus continues to teach us how to live in this world, not as if it were a riddle to be solved, but always as a living miracle, something never to be comprehended and with depths never to be exhausted. There is nothing magical or superstitious about this kind of celebration of Christmas because it is simply one possible sound human response to the Pathos (impressiveness) of existence - that this light or clearing (Lichtung) in the darkness is, and that nothing has overcome it. From the persepctive of loving regard the crib is never empty.

A merry Christmas to you all.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Christmas Services at the Memorial Church 2010

This Sunday the congregation contribute to and conduct our service of Christmas carols and readings. It's a delightful occasion and, for one Sunday in the year, I can just be a member of the congregation. Lovely. Anyway, in the absence of an address I post below my piece for the current church newsletter as it has a seasonal theme. But, before I do, just in case you are in Cambridge over Christmas here are the services this coming week:

Christmas Eve Communion Service - 6.30pm followed by mince-pies and mulled wine.

Christmas Day Morning Service - 10.30am followed by tea, coffee, sherry and mince-pies.

Boxing Day Sunday Morning Service - 10.30am also followed by tea, coffee, sherry and mince-pies.


Many years ago I came across a book of epigrams written by Angelus Silesius (1624-1677) called the Cherubinic Wanderer and in a moment I’ll leave you with what is still my favourite. He was one of those writers who is often described as a mystic and, perhaps he was, but I prefer to see him primarily as someone who understood that in life it is never sufficient only passively to consider theories and stories but to risk to enacting or inhabiting them. Christmas is one season with a theory and set of stories that are very easy just passively to observe; after all, they are so beautiful and familiar that the temptation is always just nostalgically to sit back on the sofa, whack on a CD of a superb college choir singing Christmas favourites with a fine port, some great stilton to hand and to wake up the next day largely unaffected - except perhaps for one’s waistline and the low thud of a fortified wine hangover (always, for me, the worst kind). But in our heart of hearts we know this misses the mark and is a betrayal of something vital.

The ‘theory’ proposed (though it is simply presented as being true) by the Christmas stories is, of course, the incarnation - that God became man. We are a church that was formed out of a ferment about what this scandalous claim might mean and historically we didn’t go the way most Christian churches eventually did. I'm not going to rehearse the history of this fraught debate here because all I want to do is remind us of the claim made by the season and to take it seriously in ways we can. The beautiful stories of the season? - well, Im sure you know them, just turn to the opening chapters of Luke and Matthew.

So now to Silesius’ epigram. He took the ‘theory’ and the stories of Christ’s birth seriously and distilled it brilliantly and pithily into four lines which he threw it back to the reader in a quite startling fashion. Here it is in Frederick Franck’s translation (The Book of Angelus Silesius’, Bear & Co., Santa Fe, 1985):

Christ could be born
a thousand times in Galilee
but all in vain
until he is born in me.

Franck places close to this text a few suggestive lines from the sixth and last Patriarch of Chán Buddhism Hui Neng (638-713): ‘In what I have shown you, there is nothing secret or hidden. If you reflect within yourself and recognise your own face which was before the world, the secret is within yourself.’

What you do with this tiny little stocking filler is not for me to say but all I can say is that larger, more flashy presents given to me at Christmas have long gone and been forgotten but this one I still have and it never fails to wake me from my port and stilton induced slumber to a startling recognition of the season’s radical message - Wake up to life!

Susanna and I wish you all a very merry Christmas and New Year

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Alain Badiou on BBC HARDtalk 24 March 2009

Here's a recent BBC interview with Alain Badiou whose intelligent struggle with what the idea of Communism might mean in the contemporary context is, in my opinion, well worth engaging with. I post this today simply because I watched it last night after reading his essay in the very newly published book: The Idea of Communism. On his faculty web page there is a video page with some other lectures and interviews.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The strange case of the lighting of the Advent Wreath - Third Sunday in Advent

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." The Pharisees then said to him, "You are bearing witness to yourself; your testimony is not true." Jesus answered, "Even if I do bear witness to myself, my testimony is true, for I know whence I have come and whither I am going, but you do not know whence I come or whither I am going (John 8:12-14).

A few weeks ago we had a concert in the church - it was a good one and the folks involved were polite and respectful; anyway I like them and I like their music and I think it suits this church. To heighten the ambiance they turned off the lights, lit dozens of night-lights and placed them around the church. However, they had also lit the candles on the Advent Wreath (the picture at the head of this blog was taken after this morning's service). Fortunately, I came back into the church only a minute or so after this had happened and was able to put them out with out them burning down more than fraction. At the time quietly, but I’ll admit a bit irritatedly, I said to them something along the lines of, “Look, you haven’t committed some great metaphysical religious sin, there is nothing intrinsically religious or spiritual for us about a candle it’s just that, dammit, they have to last until Christmas - please just ask permission first before you light something that is *obviously* more than just a bunch of candles to be lit willy-nilly.” Apologies were proffered, no harm was done, we moved on and said no more about it.

But, during the course of the last two weeks the incident kept coming back into my mind partly because of what is, I think, a significant detail about which I haven’t yet told you. Although they had lit the four outside candles, they had not lit the middle one. Now why was that? After all a mass candle lighting had just taken place and it wasn’t as if they were holding back - but here was this single unlit candle in the church - and clearly left deliberately unlit. That it wasn’t lit suggests that the concert organisers did in fact see that the Advent Wreath wasn’t just a bunch of candles to be lit willy-nilly. Lighting the outside ones may have been OK but that tall one in the middle seemed to have shouted out to them in some way - “Don’t even think about, guys.” But what was - is - the voice they heard and what gave - gives - it authority such that they were minded to listen to it? This, for me, is the interesting question arising out of this little incident. I don’t know what their answer would be - and I’ll get round to asking them that - today I’m rather more interested in how we think it might be answered.

One answer that might be attempted in many (most?) Christian settings - is to make some kind of metaphysical claim that the Advent Wreath is a sign and symbol of a really-real essential and eternal world (God’s) that grounds our own (giving it meaning and worth etc.) and then to go and say that the concert organisers, even though they did not fully understand what was going on, caught a glimpse of this world beyond - they recognised, albeit through a glass darkly, an underlying ‘truth’ expressed by the central candle, the Christ-candle, the candle that is to be the light of the world for which we await - that the candles (and especially the central candle) are ontologically special or sacred.

We might be tempted to continue by rehearsing the basic symbolism of the Advent Wreath in the Christian context, pointing out that the successive lighting of the candles - an accumulation of light if you like - is an expression of our expectation as we await the birth of the Christ-child who is understood by us to be in some way ‘the light of the world.’ The final central candle, lit only on Christmas Day, stands for this light of the world. The circular form of the wreath is a gesture towards ideas concerning God's eternity and unity and the fact that it is made of evergreens gestures towards the idea of enduring life.

When you put these two approaches together there seems to arise a tacet claim that, as a symbol, the Advent Wreath can somehow apply itself and be meaningfully what it is independent of any human interpretation and that this is what the concert organisers saw - or so we might be tempted to say.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that such a line of thinking might occur to us in the Christian context for does not the writer of the Gospel of John tell us that he thought the same was true of Christ himself? - “I do bear witness to myself.” (True, a few verses later, Jesus realises that you must have at least a second witness for any claim reasonably to be trusted and he cites God as that second witness but, as we know, for John God and Jesus are one so Jesus - or rather John’s Jesus - continues to make the claim to be able to bear witness to himself.)

Anyway - are we right to think that the concert organisers caught a glimpse of an underlying truth or real world because of the Advent Wreath’s ability to apply itself independently of any human interpretation? Lovely and comforting though the idea might be I think I have to answer no. Why?

Well, the way we read and understand signposts (and our circular Advent Wreath is, as we shall see, a kind of signpost) is, as James C. Edwards points out, ‘so familiar to us that it is only in unusual cases that we have to ponder our ability to do this [reading].’ Generally this pondering only occurs when something goes wrong or, as we say, a ‘mistake’ is made - namely, for us today the lighting of the Advent Wreath candles. Edwards goes on to observe that this ability to read signposts and spot what we call a ‘mistake’ is:

‘a function of our training and of our innate ability to be properly trained, not of the “intrinsic” clarity of the sign-post per-se. The search for a self-applying formula - one whose intrinsic meaning is independent of a conventional, public practice of training and employment - is a paper chase that leads nowhere. There are no “intrinsically unambiguous” signposts’ (The Authority of Language, University of South Florida Press, 1990, p. 163)

The plain truth of the matter is that there is no single, intrinsically unambiguous understanding of the Advent Wreath or any other symbol. For us the meaning of this signpost is connected with particular circumstances which say to us ‘carry on’ in this rather than that manner - i.e. in an 'Adventy' or 'Christmassy' way rather than, say, a 'Harvesty' or 'Eastery' way. Its meaning is not dependent upon a world unseen but simply upon our particular community’s consistent practice of application of an evergreen circle with five candles burnt in a certain order which is tied to a specific set of stories and which we use to measure our journey through a particular season - which says to us, week by week, ‘carry on’ in *this* way. In other words understanding is application. But still, what about the fact that the central candle wasn’t lit by the concert organisers?

Well, it is important to remember that for virtually the whole of human culture/s there exists a consistent practice of application of circular forms to highlight, gather together, point to or focus upon something or activity we consider important, significant, meaningful.

The Advent Wreath repeats this use of the circle but think, too, for example, of speed-limit road signs or of circles spray-painted on the road to mark pot-holes to be repaired, the circus ring, the Colosseum or the massive stone circles of the megalithic period. This consistent practice of application of circles causes a 'voice' to shout out to us to look for something significant and it is an authoritative voice for us because we have been properly trained to recognise this use and not because there exists an intrinsic meaning of a circle or in our case an Advent Wreath. It seems to me likely that the Advent Wreath was recognised by the concert organisers as an important sign simply because of its clear circular form but it’s inherent ambiguity allowed it to be read as meaning something like: the middle-candle is important (though important for what reason we don’t know) so don’t light that, but the ones around the edge won’t be so important so it’s OK to light them.

What this suggests is that what we commonly call understanding is born in the first case not out of thinking but of doing. To understand the Advent Wreath is to DO the Advent Wreath - its meaning is wrapped up wholly in this doing. The concert organisers clearly had no training in this kind of doing but they did have, as we also have, a training in the use of circles. What they did was, for us a mistake - and it was a real mistake that should have been challenged (as I did) - but, again for us, we shouldn't see it as a deep ontological mistake striking at the heart of our being but simply a timely reminder that meaning is use and for this reminder we should thank them, really thank them. It helps us remember that it is not possible to rely on even our community’s greatest, most powerful, beautiful and loved symbols to carry what we might be tempted to call eternal unambiguous wisdom and meaning before us safely into the future so that those who follow us can, without any work or doing of their own, live a life of shared faith as we try to live a life of shared faith. If we value the Christian tradition - however we value and have faith in it, and whether we live it with metaphysical belief or without  - we must LIVE it. As the old saying has it: “use it or lose it.” As to whether our various expressions of this faith are to be more widely celebrated as constructive or feared as destructive I simply paraphrase our teacher - by the fruits of our doing shall we know and be known.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Fighting the cuts and building the People’s Charter - Saturday 15 January 1.15-3pm

Fighting the cuts and building the People's Charter 

Saturday 15 January 2011 1.15 - 3pm

VENUE: Faculty of Divinity, West Road, CAMBRIDGE, CB3 9BS

Sessions on: Opposing cuts and Building the Peoples’ Charter

Speakers: Bill Greenshields [National Steering Commission of People's Charter], Andrew Brown and Steve Sweeney

Link to the national People's Charter page

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Wilderness, repentance, self-power and Other-power - Second Sunday in Advent

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to [our] father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and [with] fire: Whose fan [is] in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:1-12 AV)

The story of John the Baptist we have just heard is the set reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for today - the second Sunday of Advent. Although the story is an odd one to us and we can struggle to see how it might be relevant to us I think it is possible to discern two helpful themes from the story that, by the way, connect very closely with the things I spoke about in last Sunday’s address concerning the importance of not going back the way we came and striking off at a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition. The two themes we can see in the story of John the Baptist are that of wilderness and the need to repent.

First of all it is important that John the Baptist begins to preach in the wilderness and not in the midst of a polis (that is to say a city, a city-state and also citizenship and a body of citizens). Living in a polis is to live within the horizons of humanly derived and inherited rules and conceptions about what an individual and collective human life should be like and, even when we are (individually or collectively) in rebellious and counter-cultural mode, these inherited rules and conceptions still frame shape our responses and paths of movement. In short, in a functioning polis we move along already described routes to broadly predetermined destinations.

However, the wilderness - true wilderness that is, not the pseudo, if still beautiful, wilderness found in many National Parks - is, by definition, an environment without such humanly derived and inherited rules, routes, names and destinations. For anything truly to be called wilderness it must in some primal way be to us radically unknown and unknowable. What I want to suggest today is that the city for us can stand for us as a symbol of known and bounded regions of life and thought whilst the wilderness can stand as a symbol of unknown and radically open and unknowable regions. True wildernesses can, in this sense at least, appear in the midst of every polis. OK, but what is the connection between wilderness and the need for repentance?

Well, in every person’s life there come moments when we are forced humbly to admit that, even though we are travelling round and round on familiar and once comforting routes as well as engaging in the usual once comforting political, social or religious practices, we suddenly realise that we are missing some necessary insight or new way of responding to the situation. Disturbingly this recognition, to those not completely self-deceived, is accompanied by an acknowledge that we cannot wholly bring about this insight ourselves precisely because of the limitations of our own current state of knowledge and understanding; we really do not know what to do or begin to know where to go and it is no surprise that this state of being is often described as like being in a wilderness (or darkness). We don’t precisely choose ourselves to go into this wilderness, instead all of a sudden and due to circumstances beyond our control we find ourselves thrown (geworfen and geworfenheit) into it - our choice (our self-power) at this point is limited to how we respond to this thrownness. (Fittingly, in the Gospel of Mark (1:12) the verb the author chooses to use to describe Jesus’ later entry into the wilderness is ‘ekballo’ - out-thrown whereas the other Gospel writers simply merely speak of the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness.)

So what are we to do when we find ourselves (alone or as a culture) in such a wilderness? One response is simply to continue to use the old rules and practices (of the old polis) to find ourselves once more. Another response is openly to recognise that these old rules and practices are insufficient unto the day and that we may have to repent of them, let them go and create an open space for new, restorative ideas to come into the light, into a clearing in the wilderness. (It is worth knowing that the Greek word lying behind our word ‘repentance’ is metanoia literally meaning "after or behind one’s mind" which can best be expressed as 'thinking differently after'.)

One person who has written eloquently about this experience of being thrown into the wilderness and who responded not by sticking to the old paradigms but with repentance was the Japanese philosopher Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962 - a major philosopher of the Kyoto School) who, during and after the Second World War, looked at all that had happened in his country and the violence and cruelty it had inflicted upon itself and others and he was forced to acknowledge that he did not know all that he needed to know to be a worthy philosopher in this setting and also, shockingly, that the solution to this distress was not in his power. However, as he says:

'At that moment something astonishing happened. In the midst of my distress I let go and surrendered myself humbly to my own inability. I was suddenly brought to new insight! My penitent confession - metanoesis (zange) - unexpectedly threw me back on my own interiority and away from things external. There was no longer any question of my teaching and correcting others under the circumstances - I who could not deliver myself to do the correct thing'
(quoted in Michael McGhee: Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice CUP 2000, p.11).

Writing about this passage (which comes from Hajime's book Philosophy as Metanoetics) the British philosopher Michael McGhee emphasises it was not so much that Hajime 'decided that he should do one thing or the other: the point is that he no longer had to make a decision'. As Hajime realised after his penitent confession - his repentance - that:

'It is no longer I who pursue philosophy, but rather zange (metanoiesis) that thinks through me. In my practice of metanoesis, it is metanoesis itself that is seeking its own revelation'
(ibid. p. 11).

The crucial point to grasp here is that Hajime is suggesting that truly new insights come to us in our wildernesses only after we let go of our old ways of thinking, our own 'self-power' (jiriki), and allow an'Other-power' (tariki) to come into play in the clearing we have made. Again Hajime notes:

'This Other-power brings about a conversion in me that heads along a path hitherto unknown to me . . . This is what I am calling metanoetics, the philosophy of Other-power
' (ibid. p. 11).

It is at the crucial moment of letting go - of admitting we are lost and in a wilderness - that the necessary space/clearing is created for something Other, something new and saving to come over the previously limited horizons of our thoughts and enter into our frame of reference in a fashion that, on further reflection, enables us to make use of it.

In our culture, of course, this Other-power (tariki) has for the most part been called God but importantly, though somewhat in passing today, Other-power (tariki) is a term and concept whose usefulness doesn’t necessarily rely upon belief in any kind of traditional transcendent God (it is a way of speaking about transcendence without transcending). But notice something else too, which is that although the new insight which only comes about in the wilderness is not in one's self-power (jiriki), the Other-power (tariki) which came, could only come in so far are as you had enough self-power (jiriki) truly to admit your inability and lostness in the first place!

This is another way of saying Other-power and self-power are interdependently related - which, if we are minded to continue to use traditional religious language, is to suggest an intimate and structural comminglement between what we have called ourselves and God. In other words this is not grovelling repentance to a transcendent power/God but a way of consciously becoming co-workers with a present, accompanying conception of divinity.

But, even though - like today - we can rationally explore this process of repentance in the wilderness and encourage ourselves to trust to its ultimate efficacy, in itself this is utterly insufficient because it would still be to trust only in our self-power and, therefore, to remain restricted by the limitations of our current ways of thinking.

No! The only way by which we may taste the fruits of this union with Other-power (tariki), with God, is in through a real experience of wilderness and an associated act of repentance in which we truly acknowledge our present limitations and failures and then humbly and faithfully wait and see what comes into the space/clearing created.

John the Baptist and his most famous follower, Jesus of Nazareth, were two such people who trusted to this process - they made a clearing/space (preparing the way of the Lord, making his paths straight) - and in so doing found a new closeness with God and, as a result, discovered a new and better way of being in the world which helped them to challenge and modify, in some remarkably effective ways, prevailing ways of thought which, in their own time, were threatening the well-being of society.

Now, you might now be asking what consequences this has for us as liberal religious people today? The plain truth is that in so many areas of our lives, economically, ecologically and spiritually, we are discovering that we are in deep trouble. Many of us are beginning to recognise that the solutions which are being put forward to the problems of our age - including many of our own solutions - are merely disguised reworkings of old and thoroughly bankrupt paradigms (sometimes literally so). But of course they are! Unless we stop, admit we are in the wilderness and humbly open ourselves up to the possibility of experiencing God/Other-power (tariki). As we do this we will almost certainly find that that we are not going back the way we came and will be striking off at a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition.

I am not quite suggesting that, like some latter day John the Baptist, I now take you all down to the end of the road to the River Cam to be baptised, en masse, for the renewal of the forgiveness of sin but I am suggesting that individually and as a community we do need to begin to place at the centre of our religious practice a disciplined but creative and ultimately positive way of repentance or zangedo - a process by which we may always slowly be clearing out old habits and world views and allowing a space so that something not entirely our own can come into view and transform us. This new ‘thing’ is, of course, symbolised in this season and its stories as the Christ Child. But although this new thing can be given a tangible symbolic form what form it actually takes in our time, place and culture will not be clear until it comes.

So my Advent message to you today is simple - it is no more nor any less than that which John the Baptist, Jesus and Tanabe gave in their own times and cultures: "Repent” for only then, in the space/clearing we make, can a better vision of how we might live come to us. 

Saturday, 4 December 2010

A few photos and a short movie from a week away in and around Wells-next-the-Sea

Dunes by Overy Marshes

Dunes by Overy Marshes

Dunes by Overy Marshes


Peddars Way at Wells
Holkham Bay from Holkham Gap
Cley Marshes

Wells quayside
My steed for the week was my beloved Raleigh Superbe.