Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men and women at first hand with Deity. On letting Christian language go in the spirit of Jesus
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
Ed Mooney notes in his introduction to Henry Bugbee’s The Inward Morning (Georgia University Press, 1999, p. xvi), that when any
. . . rich expression of responsibility held fast in the grip of reality resonates convincingly, its authority will rest on the speaker’s testimony, on the accumulated respect we have gathered for a voice trued to its experience in a world we can recognise as our own. This authority is thoroughly first-personal and does not rest on appeals to abstract reason or “moral law.” Of course interpretation can amplify the case, and our responses to this testimony can be closer or farther from the mark, better or worse. But the case to be interpreted lies before us as the givenness of reality, awaiting our perception.
From The Divinity School Address (1838) by Ralph Waldo Emerson
And now, my brothers, you will ask, What in these desponding days can be done by us? The remedy is already declared in the ground of our complaint of the Church. We have contrasted the Church with the Soul. In the soul, then, let the redemption be sought. Wherever a man comes, there comes revolution. The old is for slaves. When a man comes, all books are legible, all things transparent, all religions are forms. He is religious. Man is the wonderworker. He is seen amid miracles. All men bless and curse. He saith yea and nay, only. The stationariness of religion; the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing him as a man; indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake. The true Christianity, — a faith like Christ's in the infinitude of man, — is lost. None believeth in the soul of man, but only in some man or person old and departed. Ah me! no man goeth alone. All men go in flocks to this saint or that poet, avoiding the God who seeth in secret. They cannot see in secret; they love to be blind in public. They think society wiser than their soul, and know not that one soul, and their soul, is wiser than the whole world. See how nations and races flit by on the sea of time, and leave no ripple to tell where they floated or sunk, and one good soul shall make the name of Moses, or of Zeno, or of Zoroaster, reverend forever. None assayeth the stern ambition to be the Self of the nation, and of nature, but each would be an easy secondary to some Christian scheme, or sectarian connection, or some eminent man. Once leave your own knowledge of God, your own sentiment, and take secondary knowledge, as St. Paul's, or George Fox's, or Swedenborg's, and you get wide from God with every year this secondary form lasts, and if, as now, for centuries, — the chasm yawns to that breadth, that men can scarcely be convinced there is in them anything divine.
Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, ‘I also am a man.’ Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's.
Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.
Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey (lines 1-23) by William Wordsworth
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur.*—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit's cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.
What I want to do today is to begin to tease out something important but allusive concerning how I think we might best further our own open and free religious tradition, one that undeniably has Jesus as a significant part of its DNA, but one which is clearly no longer offers the kind of religion that is mostly meant whenever the word “Christianity” is invoked.
I want, in fact need, to do it because this week I have been asked by three different people about my own and our church’s relationship both to Jesus and Christianity. In two instances this occurred because the most recent revision of our evening service no longer contains the Lord's Prayer (you may download a pdf copy of it at this link).
This address is a summary of my replies. Once again I’ll keep it first personal rather than speak on your behalf.
I start with two pieces of advice I have been given over the years.
The first was from one of the most influential liberal Christian theologians of the past few decades who died only in January this year, Marcus Borg (1942-2015) who said that what it means to be a Christian is to take seriously what Jesus took seriously.
The second came many years ago, as I began to discover and think through the sometimes (always?!) difficult thinking of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). I was told that, whenever I was puzzled by this or that complex, abstract passage, I could do no better than try to figure out what everyday phenomenon or phenomena he was trying to take seriously and speak about.
Taken together they help me ask a question:
What was it that Jesus took seriously that we today should be taking seriously? In other words, what everyday, human phenomenon or phenomena might he have been trying to respond to and speak about and get us also in our own age and context to respond to and speak about?
In addition to this there is another important question simultaneously to ask, namely, why I feel I can trust what he says about this?
It’s perhaps best to begin by noting that, as the gospel of Matthew suggest, when Jesus had finished saying the things that formed the Sermon on the Mount, “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt 7:28-29).
That the Jesus tradition survived his execution and the evident, immediate failure of his programme to bring about the kingdom of God bares eloquent witness to the likelihood that Jesus spoke and acted with considerable personal authority.
To borrow some words from Ed Mooney (talking about Henry Bugbee) we may say Jesus’ audience seems to have felt he was, to an extraordinary and inspiring degree, responding directly and appropriately as “a person with concern” to the claims made on his “deportment” and “comportment” by both the people he met and God, which is to say to his own culture and time’s conception of the divine. This accords well, I think, with Jesus’ own summary of the law and the prophets, namely, of the need to love God and our neighbour as ourselves.
Let me stay with this thought for a moment and suggest that the everyday phenomena Jesus was trying to speak about were the commonly felt, twin needs to respond directly and appropriately both to other people in their actual situation and to the call of something greater and more encompassing than our individual selves, a reality Jesus called God, or “abba”, meaning “father” that, when acted upon, together gave rise to a better, more loving and just society, something Jesus called “the kingdom of God” among or within us.
We may struggle today with Jesus’ use of the language of a personal God, I certainly do (and I'll return to this at the end), but we can, if we wish, naturalise this concept by acknowledging that all of us (theist or non-theist, consciously or not) are in some way called to respond appropriately to the claims made upon us by the encompassing whole that is the natural world. (I remind you that Spinoza suggests that we may understand God to be Nature, Nature to be God, deus sive natura.)
So what is a responsible, appropriate response to our neighbour and to Nature/God? Christianity has, along with other religions, often given pretty narrow and proscriptive answers to this but here I’m seeking a gentler, more inclusive, flexible and open-ended answer.
Ed Mooney, is helpful here when he notes that:
“Responsibility is appropriately to respond to [these] claims . . . Another’s suffering calls on our compassion; your dignity claims my respect; a job can claim concerted effort; a sense of vocation can claim my long-term aspirations. As apt responsiveness to such claims, responsibility is as multifaceted as the claims it answers” (Inward Morning p. xiv-xv)
So, the first thing to note is that we are in a highly plural realm. There is no single appropriate response but aways-already many. Ed continues, that when any
“ . . . rich expression of responsibility held fast in the grip of reality resonates convincingly, its authority will rest on the speaker’s testimony, on the accumulated respect we have gathered for a voice trued to its experience in a world we can recognise as our own. This authority is thoroughly first-personal and does not rest on appeals to abstract reason or “moral law.” Of course interpretation can amplify the case, and our responses to this testimony can be closer or farther from the mark, better or worse. But the case to be interpreted lies before us as the givenness of reality, awaiting our perception.” (ibid. p. xvi)
Let’s unpack Ed’s paragraph a bit see where we come out in relation to Jesus.
The people who truly inspire us, whom we come to trust, and upon whom we choose to rely, are those whom we have come to believe are offering us a rich expression of responsibility. That is to say, we believe them to be people who are strongly responsible across the full breadth of their life. They are not merely going to be responsible in their surface, public expressions but also in their actual public work. This will also be true in their more private life with both friends and strangers. They are also going to be strongly responsible in the even less public dealings with their closest loved ones and also with their own private thoughts and personal spiritual or philosophical disciplines.
But how do we know what we are seeing and experiencing in this or that person is, in fact, a rich expression of responsibility and not merely a thin veneer designed to fool us into thinking they are trustworthy and responsible?
Well, their’s must be a rich expression of responsibility held fast in the grip of reality, one which which resonates convincingly with us. The answer is, therefore, to be found in some kind of this worldly, sympathetic resonance with them.
Now, I explored this idea of resonance with you a few years ago through some lines from the beginning of William Wordsworth's poem “Tintern Abbey”. (I’m very indebted to the British philosopher Michael McGhee for this helpful example and insight). Recall these lines:
. . . once again
do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs
that on a wild secluded scene impress
thoughts of a more deep seclusion.
The important thing to be aware of here is that Wordsworth is not writing a poem the point of which is a mere description of the so-called natural physical facts of “steep and lofty cliffs” in a “secluded scene”; it’s not just a pretty nature poem but much, much more. Instead, Wordsworth is offering us a poem in which these things somehow correspond to, or resonate with, a state of mind he is experiencing, in this case “thoughts of a more deep seclusion”. Wordsworth’s hope is that, if he is successful, then his readers’ minds and imaginations will also experience this resonance and suddenly there will be a correspondence between the author, reader and, of course, the steep and lofty cliffs in a secluded scene. The consequence of this is that, for a moment, there arises between him and us a new collective reality which is solid enough for us to experience, check, and examine it for its trustworthiness. If we find it trustworthy we will, in the case of Wordsworth, read more of his poetry. Hopefully, there will be more resonances which we can once again experience, check and examine for their trustworthiness. As in every good conversation — for it is a kind of conversation — we begin to feel “the vibe” that we are in the presence of a person we can trust and that, even when they say something we find difficult and can’t yet quite get our heads and lives around, it’s going to be worth taking what they say very seriously.
As Ed Mooney notes, in the end we find that the authority “will rest on the speaker’s testimony, on the accumulated respect we have gathered for a voice trued to its experience in a world we can recognise as our own.” I hope you can see that this kind of authority is, as Ed says, always-already thoroughly first-personal and does not rest on appeals to abstract reason or “moral law.”
But it is important to remember that this authority is not final, absolute and infallible. As Ed notes,
“. . . interpretation can amplify the case, and our responses to this testimony can be closer or farther from the mark, better or worse. But the case to be interpreted lies before us as the givenness of reality, awaiting our perception.”
A great poet like Wordsworth is a good example of someone who was concerned to bring us, again and again, for ever and ever, to the givenness of reality awaiting our perception in a world we can recognise as our own, now in this moment and context, now in another.
With this thought in mind let’s return to Jesus and remember that I asked my opening question in the context of thinking through how we might best further our own open and free religious tradition, one that undeniably has Jesus as a significant part of its DNA but one which is clearly no longer the kind of religion that is mostly meant whenever the word “Christianity” is invoked.
Jesus still speaks to me authoritatively because his words and actions, or at least those words and actions he seems most likely actually to have taught and done, are still able to set up in me a resonance that helps bring me to the givenness of reality awaiting my perception in a world I can recognise as my own, now in this moment and context, now in another. In so doing I feel I experience something of what he named “the kingdom of God”, and this fleeting, collective reality is something which, from time to time, is solid enough for me briefly to experience, check, and examine it for its trustworthiness.
It seems to me that, at heart, it was this non-sectarian reality that Jesus took seriously. As one of our own ministers, Robert Travers Herford (1860-1950) said:
". . . the Idea of the Kingdom of God is universal and all-inclusive in a way which was never possible, nor even contemplated or desired, under the Church Idea. The Kingdom of God, as the rule of God in the heart, the love and service of him, and the consequent love and service of all [people] as children of the one Father, that is not limited by any doctrinal definitions. No one but a Christian ever did, or ever could, work for the Church. But all can work for the Kingdom of God, not Christians only but all who consciously own God, whether Christian or Jew, Mohammedan or Brahmin, or any other of those to whom God has revealed himself ‘by diverse portions and in diverse manners’" (The Idea of the Kingdom of God, R. Travers Herford, 1929).
When I read Jesus’ teachings — especially in Thomas Jefferson’s version, that of John Dominic Crossan's, or that by Stephen Mitchell — I find, again and again, that Jesus succeeds in drawing my attention to the phenomena that full meaning and worth in life — the kingdom of heaven — is to be found when I am simultaneously able to respond lovingly, deeply and responsibly to the needs of actual people (in whatever situation they found themselves and from whatever background) and also able to heed the call of some unimaginably greater, creative, unifying reality to which I all owe my life, love, gratitude and loyalty.
Jesus seems to be teaching precisely what Emerson thought he was teaching, namely how to become ourselves newborn bards of the Holy Ghost, — to cast behind us all conformity, and acquaint men and women at first hand with Deity.
The point I want to conclude with today is that, as a religious person who still tries to take seriously what Jesus took seriously, I remain concerned to make the phenomena he responded to clear to people in my own age and clime. The truth is that I have to admit that in doing this these days I find much Christian language — including some of the language used by Jesus — is more of a hindrance than a help and I'm beginning to have confidence to let it go. But I think that's OK because my loyalty remains with the inclusive phenomena Jesus was responding to and not to any particular way of pointing to it or expressing it — not even Jesus’.