A real existing Elsewhere - On being intelligently and devotedly religious - A Unitarian Lent course

Newly painted ceiling and restored floor in the
Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge
The Lent Course I mention in this address is being made accessible to members and friends of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church. Please contact me using the form on the right hand side of this blog if you wish to know more.

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Readings: Mark 1:10–15

From the introduction to Donald Szantho Harrington's Unitarian Lent course "Outstretched Wings of the Spirit - On Being Intelligently and Devotedly Religious" based on the work and thought of Henry Nelson Wieman. This begins with a quote from Hans Kung ("On Being a Christian")

"Faith must not be blind, but responsible. We ought not to be mentally coerced, but rationally convinced, so that we can make a justifiable decision of faith. Faith must not be void of reality, but related to reality. We ought not to have to believe simply, without verification. Our statements should be proved and tested by contact with reality, within the present-day horizon of experience of individuals and society, and thus be covered by the concrete experience of reality." 

The primary purpose of churches and fellowships is to help people become intelligently and devotedly religious, to be so convinced of the truth and rightness of a particular way of life as to be compelled to place oneself under Its command, to live with It and for It, to dedicate to It all that one has, all that one is and all that one may become.

Such a total dedication of oneself is obviously dangerous. One may give oneself to a way that is evil, indifferent, small, inadequate, idolatrous, irrational. Hitler gave himself totally to a cause which was initially partial and which became increasingly demonic, especially because of his total dedication, which he believed had the blessing of divine Providence. The power of religious dedication is great, the danger equally so.

This is why reason and intelligence are important for religious devotion. Faith is too dangerous and too important to be accepted on anyone's say-so, whatever the source of authority. All of us must be convinced that our faith is sound, true, reasonable, just, and that its rightness is ascertainable by some external, objective criteria, evidence drawn from our own and shared human experience. Faith may venture beyond the limits of reason and hard, scientifically-validated evidence; it should never be irrational or anti-science.

Henry Nelson Wieman, forty years ago, introduced me to the concepts of process theology - God in and as the universal process. At a moment when my intelligence and scientific world-view had led me to reject both the idea of God and most traditional theological concepts, Wieman's naturalistic philosophy and theological explications restored them to me as the foundation for a vital, living faith, capable of undergirding a lifetime of urban ministry. In the hope that his insights may help others as they did me, I have prepared this Lenten Manual based on his approach. "God," says Wieman, "is the integrating process at work in the universe."

From the opening of Plato's Symposium

This was the style of their conversation as they went along. Socrates dropped behind in a fit of abstraction, and desired Aristodemus, who was waiting, to go on before him. When he reached the house of Agathon he found the doors wide open, and a comical thing happened. A servant coming out met him, and led him at once into the banqueting-hall in which the guests were reclining, for the banquet was about to begin. Welcome, Aristodemus, said Agathon, as soon as he appeared-you are just in time to sup with us; if you come on any other matter put it off, and make one of us, as I was looking for you yesterday and meant to have asked you, if I could have found you. But what have you done with Socrates?
          I turned round, but Socrates was nowhere to be seen; and I had to explain that he had been with me a moment before, and that I came by his invitation to the supper.
          You were quite right in coming, said Agathon; but where is he himself?
          He was behind me just now, as I entered, he said, and I cannot think what has become of him.
          Go and look for him, boy, said Agathon, and bring him in; and do you, Aristodemus, meanwhile take the place by Eryximachus.
          The servant then assisted him to wash, and he lay down, and presently another servant came in and reported that our friend Socrates had retired into the portico of the neighbouring house. "There he is fixed," said he, "and when I call to him he will not stir."
          How strange, said Agathon; then you must call him again, and keep calling him.
          Let him alone, said my informant; he has a way of stopping anywhere and losing himself without any reason. I believe that he will soon appear; do not therefore disturb him.
          Well, if you think so, I will leave him, said Agathon. And then, turning to the servants, he added, "Let us have supper without waiting for him.”


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Given that we have just completed a major piece of redecoration and restoration in the church (see picture above) and that this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday my mind began to be open to the possibility that a meaningful connection might be made between our church building and the season of Lent.

The possibility of this connection began to arise after reading something in Peter Sloterdjik's recent book "The Art of Philosophy" (Columbia University Press, 2013) There he reminds the reader of Socrates' legendry strange behaviour of "sinking into thought". As you heard in our readings one well-known example of this was when he arrived noticeably late for dinner because he had stopped in the doorway of a neighbouring house to think.

Sloterdjik briefly explores this phenomenon in the first part of his book and I present here certain elements of this for you. Sloterdjik notes that:

"Seeing a savant during one of his absences means being a witness to a special kind of abandon. We do not know what is happening inside him: is he hearing voices or seeing images, is he grappling with a demonic presence or even receiving a ray of divine light? One thing is certain: he is standing still in front of us and is very far away. Anyway, we are inclined to think this is something different from ordinary hanging around. Rather we assume it is a matter of the thinker keeping calm in response to a roll call that reaches him from a place somewhere else that cannot be clearly defined" (p. 29).

As I have explored with you in other contexts, this phenomenon came to be explained, by Platonic metaphysics, as the thinker migrating to an alternative world - a transcendent, really-real world that was, for them, "the homeland of the better part of our soul" (ibid. p. 29). But, for reasons I have also explored with you over the years, belief in the reality of such another world has become increasingly difficult for our own culture and so we have to find a different way of talking about this kind of absence that we still acknowledge as being a real phenomenon. In a chapter called "Where are we when we think?" found in her final, postumous, book "The Life of the Mind" (1978), Hannah Arendt stressed the point that it is impossible to define the place of thinking using everyday topology, This means that we moderns have to be content with a different answer to the one which satisfied the ancients. She used the word "nowhere" but Sloterdjik offers, to my mind, a more satisfactory word for this, he suggest that the answer to where a thinker is when they are thinking is "short and to the point: they are in a place Elsewhere that we are unable to give any more detailed information about for the time being" (ibid. p. 31).

Sloterdjik points out that, as this idea developed in ancient times, there followed from this certain important social and political consequences. He notes that these were manifested:

". . . in the dramatic discovery that every highly developed society has to deal with the existence of counter societies of thinking persons. For over two and a half millennia, a small but not insignificant part of the population of our hemisphere has always been elsewhere in thought. Academies, schools, monasteries, church buildings, and retreats show how this Elsewhere is articulated in architectural terms" (ibid. p. 30).

Then, as now, many people have envisage the ideal retreat as being found outside the city in the countryside, but, in founding of the "Academy" in 387 BC in Athens, what Plato did was to bring the retreat right into the heart of the city. The Academy became, to cite Sloterdjik "an excluded place that fits into the normal . . . surroundings of the polis, yet totally obeys its own laws that the city finds incomprehensible, even outlandish."

Sloterdjik adds an important caveat at this point in his discussion which is to remind us that the academy is not a utopia, "it is not a structure in Nowhere that people might go searching for in vain like the civilisation of Atlantis. It is an entirely concrete place very close to the city, within walking distance of its walls, a real existing Elsewhere that we can enter once we have satisfied the admission requirements . . ." (ibid. pp. 33-34). And what those admission requirements? Well, for Plato's Academy they were "a good grounding in mathematics and the good-will to take instruction from persons who are 'unconcealing' or 'non-deceiving'" (p. 34).

But firstly let me briefly summarise the foregoing: (1) sinking into thought a person goes away and becomes absent in some fashion; (2) we have to be content not to try and locate the absent thinker in some metaphysical, utopian place (topologically speaking) but to be content with simply saying they are Elsewhere; (3) Academies, schools, monasteries, church buildings, and retreats were set up so that in them people could be Elsewhere even in the heart of a city and that these buildings are an architectural expression of Elsewhere; and, lastly (4) that we, ourselves, can enter such an Academy, school, monastery, church building, or retreat once we have satisfied the admission requirements of that particular community.

Before I go on I need briefly to connect these points to the season of Lent which begins this coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Within Christian culture the season of Lent, which runs into Holy Week and Easter, is understood to be a time during which a person withdraws and reflects in some fashion on their life and the world in imitation of the "forty days" Jesus spent in the wilderness doing likewise. I hope it is clear that in the wilderness Jesus was himself thinking and so was as "absent" as was Socrates. Even had you been able to go out into the wilderness and actually find Jesus in that place you would still have not found him because he would still have been Elsewhere.

Now with the idea of “sinking into thought”, Elsewhere and Lent before you I can begin to draw my threads together and I’ll do this by pointing to the Unitarian Lent course prepared in 1980 by the Revd Dr Donald Szantho Harrington, minister of the Community Church, New York between 1944 and 1982.

The first thing to say is that it should be clear that our church building is "a real existing Elsewhere" in the city - "an excluded place that fits into the normal . . . surroundings of the polis, yet totally obeys its own laws that the city finds incomprehensible, even outlandish.” As a radical, dissenting liberal religious tradition we have historically always formed just such counter cultural societies.

What is and has been particularly outlandish about our counter cultural laws is that, at our best, we have never been prepared to take at face value, nor unthinkingly affirm, the current values and mores of our society - whether in its religious or secular forms - but instead we have always insist that our members should all take time to go Elsewhere, to sink into thought to consider them critically. This remains, without doubt, one of the admission requirements of our own contemporary communities. As Harrington says - echoing the words of Hans Kung that he places prominently on an opening page of his book - we require this of our members because we feel:

“All of us must be convinced that our faith is sound, true, reasonable, just, and that its rightness is ascertainable by some external, objective criteria, evidence drawn from our own and shared human experience. Faith may venture beyond the limits of reason and hard, scientifically-validated evidence; it should never be irrational or anti-science.”

Thought is not everything of course for from thought there must always follow action - as the author of 1 John wisely instructs: “Little children, let us love, not in word of speech but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). Harrington is well aware of this but is insistent, as I am, in saying:

“The primary purpose of churches and fellowships is to help people become intelligently and devotedly religious, to be so convinced of the truth and rightness of a particular way of life as to be compelled to place oneself under Its command, to live with It and for It, to dedicate to It all that one has, all that one is and all that one may become.”

But this mix of intelligence and devotion in religion is a hard one to achieve for, on the one hand, our secular culture values critical intelligence highly but does not value religious devotion; on the other hand, so much religion in our culture values religious devotion highly but does not value critical intelligence. Our outlandish, counter-cultural stand is to say, absolutely clearly, that intelligence and devotion can, and should, belong together.

But to develop this mix takes time and discipline, it requires a person to sink into thought about this and to go Elsewhere. In this church building - an architectural expression of Elsewhere in the midst of the city, now beautifully redecorated and restored - we have a very special place apart in which, together, we can to sink into thought. But a building alone doth not make a church, nor does it make intelligent, religious people. No! We have to work at that by engaging in some kind of disciplined practice which brings together intelligence and devotion. Harrington’s Lent course does just this and I can do no better than conclude my address with some words and a prayer of his which form part of his opening, Ash Wednesday, meditation:

Religion is a way of growing. Growth is the increase in the complexity and organization of sensitivity and responsiveness to such forces as foster life and give it value. Sensitivity and responsiveness provide the avenue by which the outer life of nature and society can enter the inner life of the individual. Conscience appears when values begin to function as habits and ideals.

We begin, then, by consciously cultivating a spirit of devotion, an ever increasing sensitivity and responsiveness to the universal forces which surround us and operate within us, in order that we may accommodate our lives to their requirements. A feeling for these requirements becomes our conscience. 

There is no escape from religion. All human beings are inevitably religious. Their religion is what they are living. The only question is whether it is thoughtful or inane, deep or superficial, good or evil. 

PRAYER 

God, open us wide in awareness of the creative urgency which You have set within us. Help us to understand that only when we stop growing into harmony with Your Larger Life do we begin to die. Open us to what this implies in all our relations with living beings, near and far. Let that new awareness change our lives. Amen. 
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