Improve the campsite, teach children, oust tyrants

Address given at the Memorial Church (Unitarian) Cambridge
23 September 2007
Revd Andrew James Brown

This afternoon, following this service, there will be the naming and blessing of ****. In this ceremony, to which all are invited, we 'celebrate life’s continual renewal' and we will welcome her 'to life’s larger community, seeking God’s blessing upon her.’ In the service I remind the parents that, in 'seeking the welcoming and blessing of their child they dedicate themselves to the fullest development of Isabel’s unique potential; and, in seeking for her the blessing of our free faith and the Universal Church, they pledge to encourage in her, to the best of their ability, the love of truth, the vision of peace and the sense of belonging to one human family. The blessing itself is as follows:

'In the name of God we welcome you to the human family and to the earth, our common home. We welcome you with water, symbol of the purity with which you were born; and with a flower, symbol of the beauty which is yours. May God bless you as we bless you, and may the divine spirit in your heart guide you, comfort you and strengthen you all the days of your life. Amen.’

Now one might say many things about such a service that is of general interest but today I am going to concentrate on one over-arching theme. If you really do hold a genuine Unitarian conception that God is One then, as I have mentioned before, a profound inter-connectedness of all things - and I really do mean all things - becomes increasingly apparent. It forces one to think in a very deep and ecological way. What I am talking about is called Deep Ecology because I am concerned here to stress that an integral part of the ecosphere includes the asking and answering of fundamental philosophical questions about the role of human life. A shallow ecology is simply a branch of the biological sciences or a merely utilitarian environmentalism.

Now the initial spiritual insight that God is One and that there is, in some way, a profound connectedness between God and Creation we owe in the first instance to the man Jesus who was, as we know, a faithful Jew. It was and is incumbent upon every practising Jew to recite daily what is known as the Shema which begins: 'Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ - to which Jesus wisely added the other well known Jewish command to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Thought of in a shallowly ecological way one’s neighbour has consistently been conceived as primarily being related only to people but, as we begin increasingly to understand the complex inter-relatedness of all life on the planet as well as the extraordinary inter-relatedness that exists in the quantum realm - the discovery that non-locality seems to be real is a prime example - then in truth there is nothing that is not one’s neighbour. Jesus’ mystical utterances in the Gospel of John at the end of chapter 17 that everything, he, you and me are one with God is beginning to sound not only spiritual plausible - to a unitarian at least - but also scientifically plausible. It also begins to sound like Deep Ecology.

Here I need to add a little excursus. When I talk about a unitarian (lower case U) conception of God I am not referring only to Unitarians (upper case U - many of whom, confusingly, are not unitarians in any technical sense of the word) but to any group or person that conceives of God as One. This includes, most obviously, Judaism and Islam, but it also includes certain kinds of Hindu thought - namely Advaita or non-dualism - and, depending on what you mean by that tricky word God, it can extend into certain kinds of Buddhism and Taoism.

So what DO I mean by that tricky word God!? After all I mention God all the time and don’t always explain what mean by it - a bad habit practiced by most ministers of religion. Well, there are at least two basic types of unitarianism (lower case U). The first one, the classical theistic one (to which I personally do not subscribe - though you may of course, its perfectly legitimate!) is that there is God on the one hand and, on the other, there is Creation. The two, though intimately linked, are understood to be separate. The second unitarianism is much more radical and it is to this view that I subscribe. In this view God is Nature and Nature is God - in Spinoza’s memorable phrase, Deus sive Natura. Western philosophy and radical religion gets this in its most developed form through Spinoza, though we see the same idea regularly pop up from time to time within radical Christian groups across Europe from at least the fifteenth century onwards. A good English example would be Gerrard Winstanley - a fine and interesting man. Whilst mystical forms of Judaism, Unitarian Christianity and Islam have no problem with this pantheistic/panentheistic way of thinking orthodox forms most certainly do. Anyway since Deus sive Natura has nothing to do with a personal creator God but is more to do with the idea of the Divine Unity, the Absolute, the Ground of Being, Ultimate reality or reality in itself - call it what you will - this is what allows me to say that it also connects with Buddhism and Taoism neither of which holds any theistic personalistic conceptions of God. Right excursus over, and anyone interested in following up these very suggestive leads please ask me.

So back to ****'s naming and blessing. In this service, and I trust in this morning’s reflection upon the themes of that service, we consciously acknowledge that we belong to this unified reality - Deus sive Natura - in a way more intimate than we often think because our language and place in the world mean we have concepts such as knower and known, object and perceiver. The service - in fact all the services I try to conduct – is simply trying to use the language of particularity to point to this underlying unity of all things.

Now, if I were offering you this address from the perspective of a sloppy and sentimental new-ager then I would end right now in an ecstasy of pink fluffy cotton-wool oneness. But I’m not and the oneness of which I speak doesn’t only bring a message of deep comfort and belonging - though I certainly believe it does that - it also brings with it a realisation that there are some tough and dirty duties to undertake in existence that entails real work and, alas, real suffering and sacrifice. Eco-warrior, Buddhist and Beat poet Gary Snyder calls us up sharply when he notes:

To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are – painful, impermanent, open, imperfect – and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us. For in a fixed universe there would be no freedom. With that freedom we improve the campsite, teach children, oust tyrants. The world is nature, and in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the process and essence of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence.
(Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild in the Gary Snyder Reader, Counterpoint Washington D.C. 1999, p. 168)

Although free as intimate aspects of Deus sive Natura we are not, therefore, free with regard to our stewardship of the whole including our children and the ecosystem which sustains them, us and all things – No! we must engage with the ordering of impermanence. This, more than incidentally, is what Jesus was teaching when he said if we are to be first, and by implication free, we must be servants and so last (Mark 10:42-45). So, those of us who really believe in the Unity of God or Nature and our freedom in it really have no choice but to get off our proverbial backsides and start improving the campsite, teaching our children and ousting tyrants.

We improve the campsite, our world, by an ever greater commitment to a more sustainable way of living and by radically reducing our consumption of the world’s natural resources. It really does matter and, because you are an intimate part of the whole, what you do always counts. Don’t take the car if you can walk, cycle or get there by public transport. Put a jumper on - don’t turn on the heating straight away. Don’t fly unless absolutely necessary and really don’t be seduced by budget airline prices. Buy fairly traded foods and try as if your life depended on it, which it does, to shop locally to keep those food miles down. You know all the things that need to be done just as I do. We cannot do them all at once but if we are going to clean up the campsite we must take the first step and then the second and third will come easier. It’s going to be hard for us all. Don’t think by the way that I am some perfect example of the eco-saint, this address is directed at me as much as it is any of you.

We oust tyrants - well, by ousting them. That’s never easy and sometimes costly in all sorts of ways. I understand there are complex political realities which sometimes slow this process down but in the end there are no excuses for endless inaction. But we must not limit the meaning of the word tyrant to the obvious for there are also many tyrannical ideologies that must be ousted - fundamentalisms of all the world’s religions and also of certain forms of secularism. They, too, must go.

To conclude I would like to reflect on the message of one of Gary Snyder’s poems called "For the Children" from "Turtle Island":

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

So we must also teach our children by encouraging them to stay together, to learn the flowers and to go light. By 'staying together’ I think he means in part learning what it is to be an individual, with all one’s individual distinct qualities, but always knowing this in community - in relationship with one’s neighbour which, as I said earlier means everything - Deus sive Natura!

By 'learning the flowers’ I think he means in part taking profound notice of what we commonly call the natural world seeing both its beauty and experiencing an associated joy as well as seeing spiritually and scientifically its deep and mysterious structure and inter-relatedness. So it is at heart an encouragement to develop both a gentle unitarian philosophy (lower case U) and to engage in rigorous scientific search. As Spinoza wisely said: 'the more we understand singular things, the more we understand God’ (E5p24).

By 'going light’ I think he means in part living in such a way that when you die there is no blasted and dead landscape where you raped the earth, no pile of refuse where you couldn’t be bothered to clean up after you, no system of religious or political oppression that you put in place or supported. If we go light our most valuable bequest to the world will be to leave no traces in the universe except love, wisdom and compassion. As Snyder also observed, 'Nature’ [which I, of course, also take to mean Deus] 'is not a place to visit, it is home’ (Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild in the Gary Snyder Reader, Counterpoint Washington D.C. 1999, p. 169).

So when I name and bless **** this afternoon what I am doing, apart from simply conducting a naming and blessing, is also calling everyone present home to a radical, politically engaged and deeply ecological way of life. If in our freedom we love our children, truly love them, then we have no choice but to get our hands dirty in loving each other, and God which is to say Nature, our home, in all her wild fullness, beauty and joy. To that life, that 'ordering of impermanence’, I call you. Coming? Amen.


Are those words for the child blessing yours? Can I have permission to use them? (I'm not doing anything any time soon, I'd just like to keep them on file).
Stephen - of course you may have permission. The words are from a service by Cliff Reed (the minister of Ipswich) and the whole service is available in a new book of prayers I have just published with the American Unitarian Christian minister John Morgan called "Daybreak and Eventide." If you contact me directly via the Cambridge Church website ( where my details can be found I can let you know how to get a copy whilst the Unitarian Christian Association gets the publicity and public distribution sorted.