On not going to church on a Sunday . . .

One thing this blog certainly isn't is a personal diary. I try to make it more of a general and public notebook (albeit necessarily offered up from a personal perspective) on ideas that might be of interest and use to others who are also trying to revision what an effective liberal secular 'religion' (though 'practical-philosophy' may be a better word) might look like in the contemporary context.

But, inevitably, one cannot keep some 'diaristic' elements out of the picture - to do that would be a conceit too far because I think it is important to make it clear to you that I'm a real person committed to trying to live a real contemporary spiritual life - consequently, it seems appropriate (now and then) to share some of the events that occur in my personal life. But this means that sometimes important connecting narratives don't appear here and, if this blog is very closely read (and I realise that for the most part it almost certainly isn't - after all it is not that important) then certain false impressions can develop in the mind of the reader. Well, in reviewing some of my recent blogs I noticed two mentions of going to church (or not) that need some out-filling.

In a blog published at the start of my sabbatical break here in Provence during June I noted that since arriving we had been attending the Reformed Church in Avignon and that they made us most welcome. Now you would be forgiven for thinking that this has continued but, as you may have noticed, my last blog concluded:

In short all this long blog is doing is recasting in the liberal context Jesus' words found in Luke 22:42: "not my will, but thine, be done." When you come face to face with Nature-or-God this is all one can do it is just that, as human beings, we can find ways to live and work with this reality and to do it joyously and creatively. Doing this together in a beautiful "Garden" (both earthy ones and those of the spirit) seems like rather an attractive idea to me. Perhaps even more attractive than going to church . . .

A potential discrepancy, n'est-ce pas? Well, not if you fill in the unexpressed diaristic narrative that is lying behind all my recent talk about "Garden Academies" and "Garden Congregationalism." For the fact is that, the week after this first of these blogs was posted Susanna and I just haven't been to church (and it has nothing directly to do with the church in Avignon who still seem to me to be very nice people). The first time it was simply because we were delayed on our journey into Avignon. The second time it was because Susanna and I didn't have time for breakfast that morning and so went instead to the Festival des Glaces on the Rue de la Republique. Then the third week came and, on that occasion, we actively decided not to go. At that point I realised that I really ought to take a look rather more closely at this phenomenon. I do it publicly today (Sunday) because I am in Avignon as usual and, though the opportunity was present, I didn't go to church again. It seems the time to come clean! (Not 'we' because Susanna is, alas, in the USA for at least two weeks sorting out the affairs of her sister who has had a serious brain haemorrhage and who remains seriously ill in hospital. It's a pretty bleak situation.)

Perhaps the first thing to note is that this absence from church-going has occurred against the back-drop of the sad fracas within the Church of England (my birthright communion) - a story which I have been following via the web whilst here in France. Although I know there are many delightful, good and sincere people within this church the whole affair simply served to reminded me of why I so dislike institutional forms of religion. There are plenty of other examples but this is a current and very present one.

The second thing to note is to stress that I really am persuaded by Spinoza's basic philosophical position that God-is-Nature (Deus-sive-Natura) and also of the usefulness of the idea that a renewed and effective liberal religious community may be possible if it can changes its self-understanding and organisation from being church towards being a garden.

The third thing to note is that after coffee at the Festival des Glaces Susanna and I (and just me this morning of course) have taken to wending our way up to the gardens on the top of the high promontory in Avignon called the Rocher des Doms (the picture in this post was taken there). There, amidst people reading and walking, children playing, and over-looking the magnificent scenery (the city, the Rhone, Chateauxneuf du Pape, Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles) we have been renewed and restored. Up high in the gentle breeze that so often blows there one experiences directly the commingling with God-or-Nature that church services so often promise but so rarely achieve.

Well, as I sat there this morning with these thoughts to the forefront of my mind I remembered a prayer written by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 - 1713) and published in Part III, section 1 of The Moralist (the fifth Tract in the Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times). Only recently I was reminded of this passage by a friend of mine Victor Nuovo. As a poetic evocation of Nature it seems well worth reproducing here; but don't think I am taking this text literally - whatever Shaftsbury himself may have been thinking when he wrote it - because Deus-sive-Nature is absolutely not a person! The speaker is standing on a hilltop at sunrise:

O glorious nature! Supremely fair and sovereignly good! All-loving and all-lovely, all-divine! Whose looks are so becoming and of such infinite grace, whose study brings such wisdom and whose contemplation such delight, whose every single work affords an ampler scene and is a nobler spectacle than all which every art presented! - O might nature! Wise substitute of Providence! Empowered creatress! Or thou empowering deity, supreme creator! Thee I invoke and thee alone adore. To thee this solitude, this place, these rural meditations are sacred while thus inspired with harmony of thought, though unconfined by words and in loose numbers, I sing of nature's order in created beings and celebrate the beauties which resolve in thee, the source and principle of all beauty and perfection.

Thy being is boundless, unsearchable, impenetrable. In thy immensity all thought is lost, fancy gives over its flight and wearied imagination spends itself in vain, finding no coast nor limit of this ocean, nor, in the widest tract through which it soars, one point yet nearer the circumference than the first centre whence it parted. - Thus having oft essayed, thus sallied forth into the wide expanse, when I return again within myself, struck with the sense of this so narrow being and of the fullness of that immense one, I dare no more behold the amazing depths nor sound the abyss of deity.-

Yet since by thee, O sovereign mind, I have been formed such as I am, intelligent and rational, since the peculiar dignity of my nature is to know and contemplate thee, permit that with due freedom I exert those faculties with which thou has adorned me. Bear with my venturous and bold approach. And since nor vain curiosity, nor fond conceit, nor love of aught save thee alone inspires me with such thoughts as these, be thou my assistant and guide me in this pursuit, while I venture thus to tread the labyrinth of wide nature and endeavour to trace thee in thy works ... (Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times ed. Lawrence Klein, Cambridge University Press, 1999 p. 298-99).

Anyway, over the past couple of months I have begun to realise how much I really don't like going to church, I mean REALLY don't like it. "Horror of horrors" some of you may be uttering. "But, he's a minister of religion, what's he going to do? Quit?" Well no, I don't think I need to do this - far too melodramatic! Why? Well, because it seems to me perfectly possible that a liberal religious community needn't remain a church and that it could be transfigured and become itself a garden. (Here you really do need to read the last few blogs to begin to sense what I might mean by this).

So I have a question for anyone out there who cares to pick it up. What difference would it make to you (and the wider liberal religious movement) if, when we woke up on Sunday morning and set off for our chosen religious community we understood ourselves to be going to a living garden to participate in its (and our) care (cura) and not to church? I would venture to suggest that only something like this attitude could constitute the beginnings of the proper worship of Deus-sive-Natura (God-or-Nature). As I often note, didn't Jesus did teach us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field? Surely it is about time for us to start doing this in all aspects of our lives including our worship and communities. I think that given the current ecological crisis facing us we'd be stupid not to.


Anonymous said…
I might be on the wrong lines here Andrew, but your post reminded me how one of the first sparks of my interest in Buddhism came from my friend - and how it initially developed from there.

My friend surprised me completely one day (having shown no real interest in religion in the past) by telling me he was actively studying Zen Buddhist practice and thought.

His own interest had arisen from a visit to Japan where he recalled that he had visited monastries surrounded by serene gardens - and had just 'felt something' about the places.

This in turn lead me to read into Zen Buddhism and attend a Zen group in my previous city.

The Zen group's meetings were held in a basic room at the top of a karate centre - an old building sat on a narrow street between two large churches. We would sit together twice-weekly to meditate at dusk in a room lit only by candles - with the wind often swirling down the street and against the thin windows.

The situation was challenging in that you had to sit silently, still and focus on your breathing for a significant period of time (which we in The West are often unused to) - but the result was that it seemed to focus my attention, heighten my awareness and sharpen my senses.

In addition, the post-meditation meetings would often be extremely thought provoking - basically meditation would finish, we'd have refreshments and a social chat, then we'd sit in a circle and discuss a specific story or passage or experience etc. The group consisted of Buddhists, Christians (current and former) and various other people so the contributions were always thoughtful and varied. It was very much a stripped down, down-to-earth, open minded sort of affair.

I think it was directly from my visits to this group that I began to feel moments of spiritual awareness or insight in my life outside in the 'ordinary world'.

Often I would be when running in the park - and would notice minute details in the changing of the seasons such as noticing little things like the glistening dew droplets on the grass and trees, or pieces of blossom, or thin mist on the fields - I'd find myself just focusing on them and gaining 'something' from them.

I don't want get into another bashing of churches here - but they do often feel like claustrophobic dusty old libraries. This, and the forms of worship / practice, leaves me just feeling hollow at the end - just wanting to escape back into the world really. My experience of Unitarian churches especially feels like this.

I realise I'm perhaps reading the question of 'garden vs typical church' quite literally here, but reflecting on my experiences, it seems many churches aren't set up for the God-in-Nature experience. Both in their physical set up / relationship with the environment outside - and in what they offer inside.