Honey on the rim of the cup

It is important to note that I wrote this against the backdrop of the very real possibility of a global flu pandemic. Although, thankfully, it now looks as if the strain concerned is fairly mild and not as virulent as was first thought, we are not out of the woods yet - and, even if we are, a catastrophic pandemic will always remain a real threat. Contemplating the results of such an event raised the truly difficult question in my mind of what I could honestly say to myself, and in public, as a minister of religion in the event of many hundreds of thousands - possibly millions - of deaths globally. What I say here is just some of my thinking through this question - don't take it as definitve. If the reflections here are helpful, great. If not . . . well, so be it.


We inherit our language about God from Jesus and, therefore, from the complex of Christian traditions which followed out of which my own church tradition was, of course, born. It is a language which suggests to us that God should be considered as a person and that this person relates to this world like a loving Father relates to his rather wayward offspring. Importantly, this language suggests to us that our world should be understood as being central to God's creation and concerns.

But one of the many things that has indelibly marked our own time and context is our discovery of the vastness of the universe and the fact that the human species and our planet is not, in any way, central. What we have discovered suggests, increasingly strongly, - and, for me, decisively - that the universe was not created for our benefit and that, in the words of J. H. Holmes, although the universe cannot be considered hostile neither can it be considered friendly; in truth it seems "simply indifferent." Although this is in some ways a very modern world-view in truth it is really a re-discovery because Epicurus posited just such a view in the third century BC - a view offered to us again three centuries later in the sublime and beautiful verse of Lucretius in his De Rerum Natura - "On the Nature of Things."

For many people this world-view has been dreadfully hard to assimilate and has made and continues to make them profoundly unhappy and the two questions which rear their still deeply disturbing heads here are, where then is the meaning of life and what about the nature and even existence of God? For those of us who value many of the insights of religion and religious language, a huge tension is set up; our hearts may yearn to say "Yes!" to some personified conception of God but the world, and our contemporary way of talking about the world, seems to say "No!" to such an idea.

I'm increasingly concerned that if we don't take time carefully to address this matter and better integrate our language of science, spirituality and religion then we risk encouraging a growing disorder in our consciousness which allows our lives to be dominated by what the contemporary psychologist Mihaly Cikszentmihalyi calls 'psychic entropy.' Such a state is not a good place from which deal with everyday difficulties let alone respond to a catastrophic event such as a pandemic.

So is there a way by which we might integrate personified language about God with our contemporary impersonal language about Nature? Well, it seems to me that today this can only occur if our language about God can be generated meaningfully and coherently from a conscious and mindful meditation upon the natural world.

If we are prepared to entertain the idea that the word "God" might for us - most coherently be applied to the whole universe (that mysterious active totality in which we participate and commingle) then, although the universe cannot be considered to be itself a person, in the emergence of consciousness we see that personality emerges within it, in the emergence of countless species of animals we observe, for example, that mothering and fathering emerge within it too. Consequently, we may go on to suggest that this allows us to say that the whole should be not be considered as less than the personal nor less than mother or father and, that we CAN say something about God - or better the Divine - through the language of personality, creaturely mothering and fathering. Therefore, at times, it seems to me not only possible, but also coherent and useful to use the language of personification.

However, as we use these personifications I think we need always to be acutely alert - privately and publicly - to that fact that God/Nature and the universe is infinitely more than our human categories of personhood, mothering and fathering can contain and that it often unfolds in ways that will always be described, from our necessarily limited and parochial viewpoint as utterly impersonal, un-motherly and un-fatherly. Flu bugs are a good example - as they flourish many millions of us can be struck down. But, unhumanise (Robinson Jeffers) your perspective for a moment (and to unhumanise is not to dehumanise) and one can easily imagine, could flu bugs think and reflect upon the world as we do, that they would be very grateful to a God who appeared to them fatherly in providing them with daily bread, namely you and me!

The flu bug is,then, not to be hated and judged evil (though we would be wise to avoid it if we can) but also understood as a kind of son or daughter of God – of Nature. It, too, has its place. What is true of the flu bug is true of all the other threats to continued human existence that the universe throws our way - whether in the form of earthquakes, volcanoes, asteroids, exploding stars or mosquitoes. It is true, too, of all those things which we perceive to be gifts – flowers, music, blue skies and calm seas.

So, when we personify the Divine, we would be wise to heed Lucretius here - "Let the poets call the earth whatever they like, the Mother of Gods, even, so long as they don't believe it or expect their hearers and readers to take what they say to heart" (David Slavitt p. 74 translating De Rerum Natura Bk II 658-660).

But, when we are alert to the danger and limitations of ascribing personality to the Divine, then we are truly freed to explore the encouraging, connecting and educational uses such language gives us and to do it in a way that doesn't run counter to our knowledge gained via the natural sciences. Lucretius didn't abandon his naturalistic view of the world when he saw there was a real usefulness in personifying the active, creative aspect of the Nature as Venus. But, as he did this, he also saw this needed to be balanced by personifying the destructive side of Nature as Mars.

"Make it happen that war interrupts its savage work on land and sea, for this [Venus] would be within your power and you can bring to mortals that peace we long for as Mars, who is mighty in warfare and rules over bloody deeds, adores you, will lay his head in your lap, defenceless, utterly vanquished and altogether undone by love's unhealable wound. Gazing upward at you, his neck stretched back, his eyes feeding upon your beauty as, breathless with adoration, he listens while you let fall from those luscious lips your coaxing that for your sake, sweet lady, he allow the Romans peace . . ." (Bk I Slavitt p. 3).

We are not, or course, expected to believe literally what Lucretius says (he has made that clear) here but, unlike most authors, he doesn't hide from us his true intentions in using such poetic images of the gods and, from the outset, he explicitly shows us the USE to which he puts them – namely to restore us to true health by helping us "discover the world and how it is made, and come to a better understanding of the true nature of things":

"What I am writing about, after all, is of very high importance as I proceed to loosen the ligatures of religion. The subject is also demanding of the clarity only the Muses' grace can give - which doesn't seem, after all, out of place. Think of how doctors will give young patients bitter concoctions but first touching the rim of the cup with a drop of honey to try to beguile the lips and the tongue so that the child may drink down the nasty juice of the wormwood or whatever, deluded but not betrayed, for the motive is to do him good and restore him to health" (Bk I Slavitt p. 40).

Centuries before our own time Lucretius, following Epicurus, saw clearly that we are not the centre of the world and that any idea of God/the gods which suggested he/she/they looked after us in a special - fatherly or motherly - creaturely way was false. That is always going to be a bitter draft to drink. But they also recognised the real value of helping us to take this ultimately healthy draft by using the honey of language about the gods.

Lucretius encourages us to see the great power in imitating the gods/God in ways that help us bring happiness, not only to ourselves but to those around us. We could imitate the violent example of Mars – of that is no doubt (many have done and continue to do so) but Lucretius encourages us to commit to acting in the world Venus and shows how love's unhealable wound can bring peace to the world. We are shown a way of being in the world that is capable of redeeming it. Such a redeeming concept of love is, in a different and, alas, often obscured way, to be found in the person of Christ – our own central expression of God and the one I encourage us to imitate.

If something like the flu pandemic kicks off badly and many, many people die we, as individuals can face it, not with a vain hope that an external God will intervene and save us or by believing that this same God has benighted us because of our evils; neither need we face it with hate and fear, but simply by redeeming the situation through love's unhealable wound by serving, with love, in a Christ-like (or Venus-like) way those amongst us who are ill, or who have lost loved ones, and bringing to them a genuine hope for a resurrection of life, an ever new spring. But, as we prepare for the worst, let us not forget that such a redeeming, fathering and mothering love is as relevant in the good times as in the bad; there is always reason to incarnate God in our own lives of loving service.


Yewtree said…
For a professed Christian, you're extremely Pagan (and I mean that as a compliment).
Compliment taken. Thank-you.

If you read the address entitled "Another unorthodox lecture" you'll see that, although I do call myself a Christian (I have found it impossible to put myself outside of the Christian tradition - though God knows I've tried), I am attracted by the American philosopher Wienpahl's description of himself as a man "without a position". What that means can easily be misunderstood so do please go to the post and follow the link to Wienpahl's essay.
Yewtree said…
Will do. I think I know what you mean about not having a position - as soon as one adopts a particular stance on the Mystery, it has a way of doing something weird to undermine one's certainty.