Harvest - Step out onto the planet

A sermon delivered at the Memorial Church (Unitarian), Emmanuel Road, Cambridge on the 7th October 2007

This address began to form in my mind around a poem written by Lew Welch called "Step out on to the planet" from his 1964 collection "Hermit Poems" (found in his collected poems - Ring of Bone):

Step out onto the planet.
Draw a circle a hundred feet round.
Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody's ever really seen
How many can you find?

I'm sure you can see how from this poem came my first thought which was to write something on the harvest freely given by simple existence; the harvest being those three hundred things. It would have been a rather nice sermon, if a little vacuous! But, living daily in a consumerist culture it is perhaps inevitable that one's eye is taken off the ball and in our age it has become all too easy to equate harvest with product - the 300 things. Because those three hundred things look so damned attractive - whatever it is that they are - we are prepared to give over all the time God gives in earning money to buy them. It is no wonder we think that they must surely represent the harvest.

Well, fortunately, out of the corner of my eye and just in time for today's service, I was passed the real ball and today I am attempting to make a long pass across the pitch so you can try to put it firmly in the back of the goal - the real goal of life.

The ball was passed to me whilst reading the philosopher Roger Scruton's new book called Culture Counts - Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Though a natural, lower case 'c' conservative, being rather left of centre in my practical politics I don't always agree with all of Scruton's conclusions in it but his basic points are always well made and, as Jack Becker notes in a review of an earlier book by Scruton, The West and the Rest, 'Scruton makes you think, even though there’s a lot that needs sorting once you’ve done it.'

So Scruton reminded me of Aristotle's exploration of work and leisure in the Nichomachean Ethics (1177b). The question he asked was: what purpose is served by all the work we do in our lives - in other words what is our work's real harvest? Aristotle does not, of course, challenge the idea that we must work for the obvious fruits of the harvest - namely our food and other basic creature comforts - but for him that is not the end of it and so the obvious fruits of the harvest (the 300 things in Welch's phrase) are only a step on the way to the real harvest. Ultimately, we work in order to 'free [ourselves] for leisure, and in leisure [we] are truly free: free to pursue the contemplative life which, for Aristotle, was the highest good' (Scruton, Roger, Culture Counts, New York, Encounter Books 2007 p. 17).

The important point in all this is that for Aristotle contemplation - true leisure - is its own reward. I think you will agree that our story for the children about the fisherman and the businessman illustrated this beautifully and humorously. Anyway, as Scruton observes, because all our plans and projects come to rest in this state of contemplation, this is why we are at rest in leisure: 'This, we are apt to say, is the point of it all, what we worked for, the goal to which our labour was a means' (ibid. p.17).

Consequently, to return to Lew Welch's poem, we can now see that the true harvest is not the 300 things at all, but rather the time to draw draw the circle one hundred feet around and the leisure to look for and contemplate the '300' things.

Alas, today, we inhabit a culture which thinks the true harvest - and therefore our true rest - is the three hundred must have things themselves - whether that be fishing fleets and money for the businessman in our story or, to quote one of my favourite songwriters Donald Fagan of Steely Dan fame in Things I Miss The Most: 'the Audi TT, the house on the Vineyard, the house on the Gulf Coast, the comfey Eames chair and the '54 Strat'.

Before I continue I need to point out an easy and common mistake to make which is to confuse contemplation with distraction. As Scruton points out it is perfectly possible to switch off from work without switching on to any higher purpose but, since contemplation is an active state in which we reconnect with all that makes life meaningful, switching off or being merely distracted is not contemplation and so not true leisure. In Scruton's opinion - and indeed mine - distraction is 'more and more the normal position of people when their work is set aside' (ibid. p. 19) and he points, convincingly to much popular culture in particular much of the output from television and the pop music industry.

So, lets bring all this round to us as 21st century people living in an industrialised western culture and ask ourselves why are we working - many of us for ludicrously long hours - and for what end? Are we not living in an age that is rapidly loosing its collective sight sight of the real purpose of life, life's true harvest? I think the answer is yes and so that leaves us with the very practical question about how we should respond and we might renew our culture?

We'll, as is almost always the case, we can and must start with ourselves. We each need, in our own ways and almost certainly figuratively - although I am tempted next week on holiday to do it for real on the sand of Holkham Bay - to go out and draw that circle and contemplate on what one sees and finds and through them understand and experience an active and contemplative reconnection with God or Nature - the goal of life itself. In this state of contemplation we begin to practice the purposeful purposelessness much spoken of in Asian religions. And this purposeful purposelessness brings me to my next practical point and to one of the major points of Scruton's book. Because this goal of life is effectively hidden behind the allure of the 300 things we only begin to learn about the deep purposes of life when we have the means to communicate it to ourselves and to others around us. This is primarily done through what Scruton calls high culture which he describes as: 'the accumulation of art, literature, and humane reflection that has stood the "test of time" and established a continuing tradition of reference and allusion among educated people' (ibid. p.2). It is this culture which enables us to explore and experience in community profound depths of meaning in our lives. Culture - high culture that is not the merely distracting as so much of popular culture is (and here I ought to add I include in high culture a great deal Scruton would exclude as being popular - but that's another issue!) - is absolutely necessary to developing the ability to contemplate and so engage in true leisure which is, as Aristotle said, the true fruit or collective harvest of all our hard work as human beings. This is precisely what Lew Welch's poem did for me and, I hope for you. The problem is that because high culture doesn't offer any immediately obvious practical measurable outcomes (at least in old-style economic terms) our present day prosaic and deeply philistine educational experts have successively got rid of subjects that have been proven to help us to achieve true contemplation and leisure. They have stolen the harvest and I'm increasingly angry about it. So we loose philosophy and literature departments as philosophy and poetry is deemed pointless, no one learns ancient Greek and Latin anymore because no government department uses them and it doesn't help you order car parts, music departments are constantly under threat unless they provide eduction for so-called 'actual' jobs in the popular music industry - industry being the key word for them. All of these activities are now deemed unnecessary, mere ornaments on the fringes of the so-called 'real' world. Education must be overtly practical they say. But to what end? To more money making, more business deals? Viewed in this context we suddenly realise that many modern day educationalists are simply behaving like the businessman in our children's story who has utterly lost sight of the real purpose of life.

So today I call you to some acts of rebellion and ask you to consider teaching our children (and ourselves I should add) to be latter day Socratess, we must encourage them to read and write poetry, to explore Shakespeare, to learn Greek and Latin, to paint a landscape or simply watch the clouds whilst chewing grass, we must teach them to play music for the simple joy of playing music and we might even teach them to fish. Remember Isaac Walton, the author of that sublime book The Complete Angler (1653),took words from I Thess. 4:11 as the final words of the book (Ch. 21) and as his personal motto: 'study to be quiet'. But what we must not let them do, or ourselves, is be distracted by the 300 hundred things seen as ends and purposes in themselves. They are not the Harvest we seek.

As usual, Jesus was spot on when he quoted from the Torah (Deuteronomy 8:3) saying 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God' (Matthew 4:4). A true and happy life is indeed found in the contemplation of the all words of God or Nature - all our work as human beings is to this end, this moment of leisure, this true harvest of existence. The promise Jesus makes is that in this endeavour if we seek we will find, if we ask we will receive, if we knock the door will be opened to us (Matthew 7:7-8 & Luke 11:9-10).

Jesus also said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest' (Matthew 9:37 & Luke 10:2). So, in the same rebellious spirit of Jesus I ask you to go out and labour against the prevailing wind, to draw a circle and to contemplate all the words of God. You won't regret it because in so doing your life, and the life of those you touch through your example, will be transfigured. You will bring in a rich harvest indeed.