Jesus and the untying of cats

To help you more easily read the liturgy spoken about in this piece you can enlarge the photos simply by clicking on the pictures that appear below.

All religious traditions are decisively shaped by transient and contingent local events so, although they are all attempt to say something about what they think is the universal reality, they can only do this by using language bequeathed to them by the local and the contingent.

Some liberal religious thinkers have believed that it was possible to strip all this local and contingent stuff away and articulate a pure, universal religion. But, for all kinds of reasons (argued in detail elsewhere) I think this can be shown to be wholly mistaken because humans can only articulate ideas about universals from their particular, local and contingent bend in the river. Although there is nothing wrong with this - in fact I don't really see how it could be otherwise - the problem is how to distinguish the truly essential particularities of our own tradition from those which are truly inessential and then to go on to discern the the right time for a damned good prune and to trim things back to a simpler, less raggedy and confusing condition that speaks with reasonable (though never perfect) clarity to our own age and condition. There is a very well-known Zen Buddhist story which illustrates my point perfectly:

When the Roshi and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the Roshi ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the Roshi died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the Roshi wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.

After one has discovered the wholly contingent and non-essential reasons for tying up the cat in the first place it becomes inevitable to think about whether one might not be able to let the poor cat free and at least see what happens. Well, in preparing the evening service you have in your hands I have been engaged in what one might call a "cat release programme" for Unitarian and Free Christianity - my adopted religious tradition and the historic one of this church.

I have often observed - as have many of you - that a lot of Christianity is like the tying up of cats. Don't get me wrong, I'm not being rude and dismissive here, all I am saying is that it contains practices and beliefs that, whilst understandable once and under certain local conditions, are now no longer relevant or helpful. In fact they can cause us wholly to miss some basic points. It seems fairly clear that the basic elements of Christianity can be summed up very simply in three brief texts. They are the Sermon on the Mount which includes Lord's Prayer, Micah 6:6a, 8 and Jesus' presentation in Mark 12:29 and parr. of the two great Jewish commandments found at Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. You know the Lord's Prayer well but here, to remind you right here and now, are the others:

With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (6:6a, 8 NRSV)

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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. The second is this, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. (12:29-31 NRSV)

In terms of basic texts I really don't think that there is anything else that is essential as, every other text as beautiful as they may be, are but commentaries on these teachings. But, even in these classic simple expressions of Christianity there are also some tied up cats - namely specialist words which obscure for many people today - too many in my opinion - the key spiritual insights they were attempting to point to in the first place.

To illustrate what I mean the best example in the three texts I have cited is found at the start of the two great commandments: Hear, O Israel. Now this word is unbelievably complex to unfold. Etymologically the word means "he who has striven with God" (Gen. 32:28) and it the given to Jacob and then, symbolically, extended to his descendants - the people of Israel. So, you be tempted to think the word means the Jewish people as a whole. But in the complex processes that gave rise to Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism the Church came to believe that it was the true Israel. As we know only too well some unpleasant and utterly brutal conflicts have broke out over this. In the modern context, of course, it is a word inextricably tied to the present middle-eastern nation - a nation which has all kinds of issues connected with it, some positive but many of which remain deeply problematic. I, personally, have always taken the word's strict etymological meaning and so interpreted it to mean anyone who strives with God regardless of whether they call themselves a Jew, a Christian or anything else. (Those who know their Bible will know that both Matthew and Luke drop the word because they did not find it helpful).

I think the words 'God' and 'Lord' are equally problematic. Again I could unpack the many complex meanings of them but I'll simply note that recently I have made it clear that I think the most reasonable meaning of the words, given our current state of scientific and psychological knowledge as well as our community's historic particular commitment to the unity of God (hence the name Unitarian), is only to be found when you add Nature to it with the conjunction "or" meaning equivalence - hence God-or-Nature (Deus sive Natura). God is Nature and Nature is God - is not outside this world but is world and we are part of the same and so part of God.

The Lord's Prayer is filled with tied up cats: Father, heaven, hallowing, kingdom, heaven and earth (taken as a linked pair), evil, glory, for ever and ever. Whether I like it or not I have to engage in a fairly major act of interpretation every time I utter it. To be sure I still gain a great deal of comfort from the familiar feel the words in my mouth - its nice to know the cat's safely tied up outside as it seems it always has been - but when I come really to examine this feeling I am increasingly recognising that it is driven more by my passive emotions than any truly active ones - i.e. ones that are informed by careful thought and reflection.

Now I raise this matter because, as your minister, I am charged with the preparation and conduct of public, corporate worship that is intellectually and spiritually sound and coherent (as well as satisfying at a basic literary level). Also, following on from my point about there being no such thing as a pure universal religion cut off from all local and contingent particularities, I need to offer you worship which remains knowingly connected with its historic particular procession of faith namely (to follow the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams (1901–1994)):a religion which "looks to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation" and which has found a "decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth."

As we know, some contemporary Unitarians want to cut loose from our foundational particularity as followers of Jesus but in my opinion, although they have seen correctly some radical pruning is necessary, they have been snipping - and occasionally hacking - away in the wrong place. They shouldn't be cutting off our particularity that is Jesus but the great deal of unnecessary growth that appears above a much overlooked teaching of his.

Remember that when Jesus introduces the Lord's Prayer in Matthew (6:9) and Luke (11:2). He suggests that we should pray after this manner or like this. Notice he does not ask us to pray exactly like this. Jesus seems here, and elsewhere, to be more concerned to teach those who were following him a pattern of prayer; indeed in all his actions he offers us a pattern of living response to the Divine presence of God in, and through, Nature and not to set himself up - nor any particular religion as absolute.

In short he is telling us here that we don't need to pray the Lord's Prayer exactly as we learnt it but to learn it in order to use it as a pattern our own prayers - to respond to God-or-Nature in the same spirit as he did, that is to say without mediator or veil and according to the knowledge of the world we possess.

So our problem with aspects of Christianity isn't solved by ditching Jesus but rather by listening to him more clearly as free and intelligent students of life. Jesus' whole life was not about throwing away his tradition - his central particularities - but about radically recasting it. To put it another way he was a cat-freer par excellence and I think that we as a liberal church meeting in the spirit of Jesus are called to do likewise - to be un-tiers of cats.

Given this thought I went back at the end of last year to our own radical liberal Christian tradition's particularities and see if I could untie a few cats. Here in a super-fast run through of the service you have before you now is what I have done.


The gathering words are a recasting of a key passage concerning liberty of religious conscience found in the preface to the Racovian Catechism of 1604. This was the culmination of the thought of the sixteenth century Polish Socinian community that marks the formal start of our particular procession of faith.

The first sentence for the lighting of a candle is by John Toland (1670-1722). Toland was an influential Irish Philosopher and was both a pantheist (he coined the word) and also a man with leanings towards the Socinian position. The second half is by the Revd Cliff Reed the current Unitarian minister in Ipswich, England.

The next text (Understand that nothing can be . . . ) is a recasting of the two great commandments of Jesus' using Spinoza's language. If God-or-Nature is all reality then God, Nature and my neighbour are the same and all deserve my total commitment and love.

Understand that nothing can be, nor be conceived without God and that whatever is, is in God. Therefore, we must love God with everything we have – our feelings, our intelligence and with all our physical and mental strength. The next most important rule is to love Nature as we love ourselves. These are the most important rules by which to live a life. Everything else said on this matter is simply a commentary upon them.

The next text (With what attitude . . .) is a recasting of the passage from Micah and again uses Spinoza's language. The point is that we have come to realise that we don't need any external revelation from a distant God but, using innate divine reason and experience, we can figure out ourselves how best to behave in the world. Notice that we walk humbly, not "with God", but "through Nature" for neither we, nor anything else, is apart from the Divine reality so all things can only move through her as lines of movement and never as discrete wholly independent beings.

With what attitude must we live in the presence of God and how do we acknowledge that we are not independent and apart from this Divine Unity? Our reason and experience tells us that we should simply try to do what is good, that is to say, to live and act justly, to love kindness and compassion, and to walk humbly through Nature.

The next text is Timothy Sprigge's recasting of the Lord's Prayer along similar Spinozistic lines. He was professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh (1979-1989), a member of St Mark's Unitarian Church and was, on occasions, called by some of his professional colleagues "Spinoza re-incarnated."

After the period of led meditation the penultimate prayer is an adaptation of another prayer by Cliff Reed. The key change I made was to ensure that we see ourselves not, as "vessels" of the divine - discrete objects to be filled - but rather as active modes of God ourselves. Key in this process of discernment is an affirmation of our commitment to follow the normative model our religious community has seen, and continues to see, in the man Jesus.

The service concludes with some words found in a number of Unitarian prayer books.

So there you have it. As to whether I have been successful in my endeavour to untie some cats is hardly for me to say - all I can say is that it satisfies me and, on a Tuesday evening, it works. I offer it to you for your own reflections. But whatever else you do after reading this address - do try some cat untying yourself but don't forget you can only untie them with confidence if you come to know why they are tied up in the first place. This sermon is NOT about abandoning the old texts but about understanding them better so that you can reveal to yourself and others why your recasting is true and clear contemporary expression of the religion of Jesus - that is to say a truly liberal liberal, relevant and empowering religion.


I think you're right here (and in your editorial in the Herald) to ask the question of what is central and what is unnecessary in the Unitarian tradition. We cannot and should not try to recreate nineteenth century Unitarianism.

However I think this has to be wider than merely theology and language. I think the forms that "church" comes in are fast dying and may need radical revisioning. I think if we are to speak to the growing majority of unchurched in this country it will require that a lot of accumulated cat-tying around ministry, church buildings and worship be undone.

I don't think we will be relevant if we find the exactly correct language and ideas that make sense to people. I think we will be relevant if our communities shine out as obvious places where people's lives are transformed and committed to the world. I don't think people judge us by what we say, but what we do.
I couldn't agree more Stephen.
See my ealier post on 22nd April entitled "On cottages, decay, barns, fire, Mt. Olympus and the moon – or the future of the liberal church" where I make that point.