Tuesday, 16 July 2013

There is only the dance, and we rebound back into simply saying yes to life while life lasts.

Rabindranath Tagore (in white) at Manchester College,
Oxford in 1930. To the right sits the Revd Dr. L. P. Jacks
(Unitarian minister and College Principal) and
next to Jacks sits Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
(who preached in the Cambridge  Memorial Church in 1930)
Readings:

The Hymn of Jesus (in Gustav Holst's translation)

From The Meaning of the West – An Apologia for Secular Christianity by Don Cupitt 

[T]he practice of religion involves one in a sustained effort of self-examination, and a strenuous pursuit of personal integrity, that over the long years demythologizes believer. Believers see more and more clearly that their own 'Faith' is just a stack of metaphors, laid down with one layer above another. The metaphors, move our emotions and encourage us to action; but what is behind them all: what are they metaphors for? When challenged, people will sometimes affirm to me that they think there really is something there — where? Beyond, or on the far side of the metaphors. But what is this 'beyond', and how do the metaphors succeed in telling us something about it? Nobody can say, of course. In practice, almost all my lifelong friends will confess themselves to have become thoroughly demythologized by the long years during which they have always interpreted religious dogmas ethically and have never actually had occasion to give them real and intelligible descriptive meaning. In short, realistic interpretations of beliefs go rusty and fade away for lack of use. 
     Along such lines as these the end of the religious life for all of us is nihilism, as the great mystics indeed say. The most serious Christians — all of them — eventually go beyond their own faith. One 'sees through' it all. The images are only human images: helpful, but leaving us with no way of knowing how they can be informative. But the Nothingness to which the religious life always leads us can be interpreted in at least three very different ways. It may lead us to depression and pessimism, and talk of 'the dark night of the soul'. Or it may lead us to argue that beyond the images there is not anything, not even nothingness, because the images (of course) have no beyond — an argument that leads us to the realization that our language has no outside, and our life has no outside. There is only the dance, and we rebound back into simply saying yes to life while life lasts. There is nothing else: the 'worldlings' were quite correct all along. 
     And third, we may argue that because God always was supposed to be simple, infinite and incomprehensible, the believer will never be able to tell the difference between God and Nothingness, or 'Nirvana'. So why not join St John of the Cross, and choose to experience the Nothing as love in pitch darkness, the Spiritual marriage, blissout? We can do so if we wish (pp. 91-92).

-o0o-

Andrew Brown and Julia Dale
This address has two immediate causes. The first is that after the Medaille Trust fundraising concert a couple of weeks ago held in this church Julia Dale kindly agreed to come and play and sing a couple of Rabindranath Tagore's songs for us. The second was an, as always, interesting conversation with the philosopher of religion Don Cupitt over at Emmanuel College.

That Tagore's words were to appear in this service immediately suggested to me that perhaps I should say something about Tagore's own religious beliefs and how they intimately connected with those of our late nineteenth and early twentieth century Unitarian and Free Christian forebears. This caused me to look again at some of Tagore's writing, especially his 1930 Hibbert Lectures entitled The Religion of Man (1931). These lectures were given at Oxford University at my alma mater, Harris Manchester College. Indeed, next to the place where I used to sit in the college library were some photographs of the event one of which I have reproduced at the top of this post.

The trouble was that to do this in a conventional way would require a reasonably detailed piece of historical comparative theology. Interesting? Perhaps. Relevant to today? Well, in one very important respect, no. This address is concerned as a whole to indicate why the answer is no. Anyway, I pressed the pause button on my reading of Tagore and put the idea to one side for a while.

Then, on Monday I spent a highly convivial hour and a half with Don Cupitt to arrange the restarting of the Cambridge Sea of Faith group next term at this church with a series of conversations centring on the theme of their forthcoming conference entitled: "Secular Religion?"

Naturally, our conversation centred on what, in the Christian context, such a secular religion might look like? (Some of you You will have noticed that the subtitle of Don's book, "The Meaning of the West" is "An Apologia for a Secular Christianity") It's important for a church such as ours standing firmly in the liberal Christian tradition to think about this because it is clear that across Europe, and the UK in particular, all formal church-type Christian affiliations are in very, very serious decline indeed and we are required to think about how we, as a radical kind of Christian church, might find a way to make our Christianity more secular. Now please, please, please remember that the word "secular" means "of the world" - it does not mean anti-religious. I am simply talking about articulating a Christianity that is both appropriate and relevant to our highly complex, plural and sceptical modern world, a Christianity capable both of challenging and sustaining us with an educated and reasonable hope.

At this point that I can bring back into the picture Tagore and the Unitarians. Historically speaking discussions between them centred on their general shared *belief* that God was some kind of being-like "divine unity" and that some kind of, if not quite a universal religion, then at least a universal religious consensus might become a real possibility. As Tagore says in "The Religion of Man":

"The civilisations evolved in India, China, Persia or Judaea, Greece or Rome are like several mountain peaks having different altitude, temperature, flora and fauna, and yet belonging to the same chain of hills. There are no absolute barriers of communication between them; though foundation is the same and they affect the root meaning of the great teacher who said he would not seek his own salvation if all men were not saved; for we all belong to a divine unity, from which our great-souled men have their direct inspiration; they feel it in their immediately in their own personality, and they proclaim in their own life, 'I am one with the Supreme, with the deathless, with the Perfect'" (pp. 54-55).

D. S. Sharma has noted six other fundamental beliefs held by Tagore that are worth noting:

1) that the universe in which we live is a partial manifestation of the infinite Spirit;

2) that there is no hard and fast line between Nature and humankind and between humankind and God;

3) that evil and suffering are not absolute realities, but only temporary expedients of the evolving spirit;

4) that the Absolute Spirit is all ineffable joy and love;

5) that true knowledge is that which perceives the unity of all things in God;

6) that the emancipation of humankind consists in an absolute surrender in service and love.

Many of you will know enough about Unitarian theology to know that these kinds of assertions resonated very strongly with our late nineteenth and early twentieth-century forebears and, on this basis of this shared *belief* in a divine unity (see here for a contemporary Unitarian expression of this), liberal Hindus and Unitarians were able strongly to get behind the cause of seeking to develop some kind of universal religious consensus. Some of this energy was directed into the work of a body known as the "International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers" (1900) which, today, is called the "International Association for Religious Freedom". This body have been, and continues to be, an important contributor to the cause of peace and understanding between religions and we should be rightly proud of the part we played in it.

But it is important to see that this was a project which at the time proceeded, primarily, on the basis of some kind of shared *belief* in the objective existence of an underlying divine, unified reality or absolute.

Now, although I personally still resonate strongly with the general liberal, inclusive, universalist attitude, "vibe", "tenor" or "mood" of much of what Tagore and my Unitarian forebears said there is for our own culture in play a vitally important element that was simply not in play to the same extent in the hearts and minds of Tagore and our forebears.

Today, even if we genuinely feel immediately in our own personality and proclaim in our own lives that we are all "one with the Supreme, with the deathless, with the Perfect" and that there is a meaningful unity of all things with an underlying objectively, real, divine unity called God, we are simultaneously profoundly aware that this can only be a metaphor which is trying to articulate our feeling about the world and out of which we act. We may share something of this feeling and metaphor with others but today we know in a profoundly deep way that we cannot know, *really know* in any way that would satisfy us absolutely, that our feeling and metaphor assuredly speaks more accurately and truthfully about some conjectured objective reality than the different feelings and metaphors of other religious, philosophical, social or political groups. As I am fond of reminding you, Charles Taylor said in his important book "A Secular Age":

"We live in a condition where [now] we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals [of the world's structure and of what is meant by words such as "natural", "divine", "sacred" and "God"], views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and anxiety" (Charles Taylor: "A Secular Age", Harvard University Press 2007, p. 11).

More needs to be said about all this but, in a nutshell, there is present in our minds today a profound structural doubt, anxiety and scepticism that was simply not in the minds of Tagore and our forebears. It is relevant to cite here some words from the opening words of a chapter entitled "Religion in Britain and the United States" by David Voas and Rodney Ling found in the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2010. They read:

"Religion is a cause of perplexity to the British. On the one hand it is associated with Christian virtue, traditional values, the Dalai Lama and all things bright and beautiful. On the other hand it brings to mind violent fanaticism, reactionary morality, Osama bin Laden, abuse and oppression. After a long history of religious turmoil and mistrust we no longer mind whether our leaders are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or agnostic, but strong commitment makes us worried. Tolerance is the great commandment of the modern age - and hence we find it hard to tolerate exacting belief."

For people like me - and I imagine like many of you - strong commitment or exacting belief, even our own belief in a divine unity that binds everyone together in love and joy, makes me worried. No matter how attractive to me are the kind of Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian beliefs that I have inherited and which in various ways I try to offer here, it is absolutely impossible for me to present it to you in as strong a fashion as was possible for my forebears because I know our religious language is only metaphorical. Consequently just knowing about our forebears *beliefs* (and those of Tagore) is for us no longer completely helpful because the deep doubt I have pointed to is now structurally part of who we are as modern religious people and it cuts against exacting belief, even our own.

As Don Cupitt points out this new secular religious attitude can be interpreted in at least three different ways:

"It may lead us to depression and pessimism, and talk of 'the dark night of the soul'. Or [secondly] it may lead us to argue that beyond the images there is not anything, not even nothingness, because the images (of course) have no beyond — an argument that leads us to the realization that our language has no outside, and our life has no outside. There is only the dance, and we rebound back into simply saying yes to life while life lasts. There is nothing else . . .. And third, we may argue that because God always was supposed to be simple, infinite and incomprehensible, the believer will never be able to tell the difference between God and Nothingness, or 'Nirvana'. So why not join St John of the Cross, and choose to experience the Nothing as love in pitch darkness, the Spiritual marriage, blissout? We can do so if we wish."

In terms of belief a member of a liberal church such as this can only now hold our historic belief in an underlying divine unity in this weak, metaphorical way. But it is vitally important to hear the real strength found in this weakness - a weak strength that is vital to the development of a successful secular Christianity - indeed vital to the development of any kind of secular religion.

One of the strengths of this weak faith is that it is incapable of becoming a totalising and bullying faith. You cannot imagine it becoming a strong dominating ideology which could, or would even want to, rule the whole world and make everyone believe likewise. The kind of rule such a weak faith hopes to see come to pass which, using one of our Christian metaphors we call the kingdom of Heaven, must be one based upon an ever developing and open-ended commitment to take to the dance floor of life with people who think and act out of metaphors very different from our own - to try to move them with ours and to be prepared to let them try to move us with theirs. Once again we find it's all about developing a gentle faith that can show we need not think alike to love, or dance, alike.

What I like about the extra-canonical Christian text "The Hymn of Jesus" is that it echoes this thought - Jesus encourages the creation of the kingdom of Heaven on earth not through exacting belief but through a willingness to dance and being open to the push and pull, the wu and the wei, the give and take of existence.

So I'm with Cupitt in feeling that loss of certain belief need not lead to depression and pessimism but, instead, to a belief that "There is only the dance, and we rebound back into simply saying yes to life while life lasts."

Shall we dance?

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