Prepare by all means, but only as a prelude to an actual journey - First Sunday in Advent

Like last week this is an address which looks radically different from its initial form but, this time, the immediate cause of the change was not so much brought about by a turn to one's inner consciousness and allowing a broader view to come over our limited horizons, but by the brutal events that took place in Mumbai this week; events that occurred very much within the narrowest of present human horizons. I don't intend to linger for too long on this subject as I only want to address the general question that exercises many of us when we see such horrific events, namely, 'What can we or I do to help, if anything?'

The second thread in today's address is the modest, but nevertheless real, spiritual and practical revival that seems to be beginning to take place within this congregation.

The third thread is that today we enter the season of Advent, the time of the expectant waiting and preparation for the birth of Jesus and the start of a new Christian Year.

On reflection it seems to me that these apparently disparate threads are all, at a very important practical level, intimately woven together.

The feeling of despair and powerlessness is common when ever we see the kind of violence witnessed in Mumbai this week and our hearts can only go out to all those caught up in something so terrible. But it also seems that an increasing number of influential policy makers are fearful that something similar will happen in their own countries - including, of course, the UK. To be perfectly blunt about it I think that they are probably right. However, where I want strongly to disagree with our leaders is in what consists the appropriate response to such a threat. As all of us will be aware there has been a very worrying shift towards what is being called 'tough' legislation which essentially involves the clamping down on some of our very hard-won civil liberties. But it has always seemed to me that the only lastingly effective way to face down such violent crazies is by clearly revealing to them through our own individual lives and the institutions and communities that make up our civil society that they can never win. If we can genuinely show that we are not scared or intimidated by their actions then we will, eventually, prevail against the perpetrators of brutal violence. However, if we respond in the wrong way by making our society less civil and by becoming more narrowly defined and barracked against the wider world then we have accorded the extremists a power that far outstrips what is actually the case. But, to do this, civil society needs a certain confidence and that is clearly lacking at this time.

Consequently it seems to me that our liberal democratic societies' lack of confidence is more to be worried about than anything a bunch of psychotic terrorists can do - no matter how well trained and armed. Now this lack of confidence is something we can address and, in addressing it, we do the only thing that can help both ourselves as well as providing appropriate help and support to our bruised, hurting and fearful brothers and sisters across the globe.

Here I can turn to my second thread, namely, the modest revival we seem to be beginning to experience here in the Memorial Church. You may think that a general revival of concern about the care of our buildings, the appearance the church and the notice boards and the preparation of small scale new initiatives such as the restarting of our evening conversations, a university centred series of lecture-conversations and a series of lunch-time gigs to open up our church mid-week to meet and greet our neighbours, as well as more informal coffee mornings in people's houses is utterly insufficient to the task of facing down terrorists but, I assure you, this is not the case.

This is because the only effective long-term weapon against the extremist and terroristic mindset is the creation and upholding of genuinely open-minded and open-ended civil society. Our duty is to model what that actually looks amongst a people of faith committed both to the values of openness of thought and, out of that, also to show our willingness to confess our past failings and so change and adapt as our human knowledge and, we hope, our wisdom improves.

I'm going to return to our local church's response in a moment but first I need to turn to a consideration of Advent.

Advent is, as you know, a time of preparation and expectant waiting for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day - a day which launches the complex set of journeys which, collectively, became known as Christianity. But within many traditions of Christianity (including our own liberal one) this season has become symbolic not of the preparations for a real journey to be undertaken in the very near future but of the dangerous liberal tendency to prevaricate endlessly.

The first brake on our setting off is a lingering sense that the solution to our many human problems is somehow wholly external to us (I'm not denying here the reality of what Tanabe Hajime calls 'other-power' but simply observing we consciously encounter that 'other-power' only when we get disciplined and make some moves ourselves). For the orthodox Christian believer, of course, the external solution is believed to be coming from God in the form of the Messiah, namely, Christ. As Christ was born unto us two millennia ago so he will return again at some still unspecified point to judge the living and the dead. Alas, attractive as this idea might once have been (and to many it still is), it is a promise that has not come to pass for two thousand years and I, personally, can only be radically sceptical about the possibility it could be true in any literal fashion. Needless to say there are many who share my scepticism.

But, you may say, there is no such brake on liberals for don't most of them/us treat the Advent story simply as a metaphor? True enough, and it is clear that many liberals certainly don't expect an actual return of Christ. However, I have increasingly noticed that turning too easily to metaphor is often simply a way of hiding the fact that one has really bought into the modish and sloppy relativism of our age. This relativistic attitude has encouraged us to become increasingly inclined to wait and let things go in every which way - just to see what comes up. After all, if our story and everybody else's is just a metaphor, and none of them is really real and no better, no truer nor more false than any other, then why stake a strong claim for any of them - even ones own? Surely it is better simply to let things go and see what turns up?

And boy have we let things go. As a civil society we have been easily seduced into an unconscious commitment, not only to unregulated free financial markets but also to unregulated free-markets in our spiritual and religious life. We have discovered that we, too, are waiting, not for some tardy Messiah, but for another equally unlikely saviour, namely, that if we do nothing eventually everything will work out OK, find a natural peaceful level and all will be well and all manner of thing shall be well. The present state of our world reveals how unlikely to come about is that scenario - at least as unlikely as the traditional one. Either way, in both cases, humankind is often just waiting for something external to come to its aid.

(An important brief discursus needs to be added here. As my regular readers or hearers will know I have recently been exploring the philosophy of 'letting-the-world-be' following the thought of Freya Mathews - here and here. Mathews' panpsychist conception is born out of according the 'other' - whether a person or apparently inanimate thing - a real subjectivity. This means one can engage in genuine dialogue with all the things that make up the world. You allow the world to converse with you and, out of that process of letting it be what it is (i.e. without projecting on to it innapropriate ideas and ideals) a new, shared position or solution arises. The letting things go I am talking about in this present blog is one born out of a profound disinterest in any real engagement with the diverse things of world. It is a 'you have your view and I have mine' approach that, in the end, devalues not only the worth of an other's viewpoint but also one's own - and that's a bad and dangerous way of being in the world.)

The second break is put on by the fact that our inherited religious map (if it is still being followed) has shrunk from a contemplation of the eternal and the infinite to the dangerously small size of a year or even less. Now I don't know about you but it hardly seems like yesterday that I was preparing for Christmas. Oh, I'm in a waiting season again am I?! OK, I'll put off doing anything for a little while longer. This is what James Luther Adams once called the 'provincialism of the present' and those of us involved in modern forms of liberal religion will be aware how incredibly provincial it can be.

Now it should be obvious that this general approach suits the liberal sceptical mindset very well. It has certainly suited mine and I'm as guilty as the next liberal for my prevarications. We/I know we don't really know all that we would like to know, we/I know the world is terribly complicated and we can't properly untangle it so let's just wait a little longer and see what 'comes-out-in-the-wash'. It's not really up to you and me and shouldn't be up to us because we know so little - and so we endlessly prevaricate. After a while this becomes not genuine preparation and waiting at all but in truth the only way that we act in the world.

But, of course, the story we tell during Advent, Christmas and beyond doesn't have this prevaricating quality at all. The Magi, after their period of preparation, do in fact set off - they head out into the wilderness to follow that star. Jesus, after his own periods of preparation (and his time in the womb may be taken as one such period as much as his time in the wilderness), begins a journey that leads, eventually, to the cross. The disciples, after their preparation, which includes the loss of their beloved master, begin their own journeys of faith as they spread their own very different understandings of who Jesus was and what his life meant. Yes, there is plenty of preparation in the Christian story that is worth recalling and meditating upon, but it always results in a risky journey actually being undertaken without a clear end point in sight. In passing, but very importantly, remember not to be seduced by the Bible's rhetorical form which makes it look like everything was really known from the beginning. Nonsense. No one knew precisely what would happen to them - and that includes Jesus who was a human-being like us, even if one uncommonly aware of reality of the Divine.

This brings me back to this liberal church. As a liberal religious movement we have been preparing a long time, at least since the end of the First World War when liberal theology received a nearly fatal blow. That is too long a time and it simply won't do any more because we don't really have the luxury of any more time.

Our own culture and nation is in a mess and so too is our home planet; just waiting around to see how things come out in the wash is no longer a sufficient nor a morally acceptable position to hold.

So please get involved in the new initiatives that are beginning here - even if you are not quite sure they're exactly right or that they'll work perfectly. The chances are we'll get things wrong many times. It doesn't matter, we'll do better the second time. Encourage your friends, neighbours and colleagues to take a look at what we are trying to do - point them to the blog, the website, get them along to the conversations that are starting again next year. Get yourself along to them too. Make no mistake what is at stake is not just the future of this local church but wider civil-society in which we live. And, if you can't get involved with this church (for whatever reason) then seek out another liberal voluntary association which has similar aims.

If we really don't want the kind of people who committed the atrocities in Mumbai last week to dominate our society then we must - not should - we must support liberal communities such as this one.

Even though it is Advent my message to you this year is that now is the time to stop waiting, to stop preparing and to risk making a journey in faith that what we have to offer the world, flawed though it will always be, is infinitely better than the vision of any extremist.
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