Poetically contemplating Venus . . . or some further thoughts on a non-theistic, naturalistic religion

This Sunday I do not have to give an address as Jackie Metcalfe (a member of the congregation and committee) is to take the service - thanks Jackie. You can read what she said here. This break in the unrelenting need to write a weekly address gives me the opportunity to write and post this brief blog which picks up on some themes I explored back in in 2008 whilst on sabbatical in Avignon - namely, what might a liberal Christian church do after liberalism, Christianity and church that is meaningfully connected (consistent) with its procession through the ages but which is, at the same, time not trapped by an imagined requirement to maintain an identity with its past?
    Here I’m just going to put down a very few notes before lunch as much as a reminder to myself as to anyone else.
    I'm inclined to agree with James C. Edwards that, luckily, we “still have available to us, practices that can contain, concentrate and transmit the sacramental energies - energies for limitation in the face of hubris and for transformation in the face of complacency - that used to be bound up in the stories of the gods.” (Preface p. ix) To this end I have taken, and will continue to take, advice and ideas about how to proceed in this project from the most famous modern bête-noirs of theistic religion Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. To their number I must now add the names of Paul Wienpahl and James C. Edwards.
    But, as much as I admire them, what none of the above did (in their published writings at least) was to try to put their thoughts into a shape that would lead directly to the development of some sort of practice within an extant religious community. To be fair, or course, they never claimed to be doing anything other than simply laying down some of the absolutely essential groundwork required for anyone minded (stupid or stubborn enough) to attempt such a project in *these* times and for those of *us* who find the thinking of these philosophers akin to what we might call (after Edwards) “inevitable knowledge”; knowledge that seems to us as inevitable as a belief in an interventionist and omni-omni-God might have once been. Well, one thing I do know is that I am stupid and stubborn - that much is not in doubt. What is in doubt is whether I have the intellectual and spiritual wherewithal and the right kind of gentle, persistent strength to see such a project through, if not to completion, then at least to a secure beginning. I can't answer that here  . . .
    Anyway, with this now for us “inevitable” world-view (and I quite understand there are other ways of being than that which is inevitable for the “us” to which I belong and to which you may also belong) I continue to look around for practical examples that might help us (and me personally as a struggling contemporary minister of religion) at least to begin to imagine what a modern non-theistic, secular, naturalist religion might look like on the ground.
    The practical examples that, to my mind, “fit” best of all seem to me to be those offered up by the Stoics and the Epicureans and my own preference remains with the latter. Naturally, therefore, I am much taken by Lucretius' glorious poem “De Rerum Natura” (On the Nature of Things). Incidentally, I'm not alone in this kind of thinking within wider Unitarian thought - witness Jefferson.
    But, of course, one can't “make” such a religion just like that. It has to grow out of a group of people (in a cultural context) who begin to experience together an “inevitable knowledge” that drives them to build such a naturalistic, non-theistic religious community. If the project is to succeed it has to have an internal (inevitable) drive that is as compelling as those which helped created the great theistic-religions.
    So - I put out into the blogosphere once again these nascent thoughts and wait to see if anything comes back. In the meantime (because I realise that there might be no responses forthcoming) I'll go back to Epicurus and Lucretius and a meditation on the natural world (poetically framed after Lucretius' proem as Venus) to keep me sane.
    Those who know me personally and regular readers of this blog might wonder here about my commitment to Jesus and the liberal Christian tradition - especially in its Unitarian form. Well, don't forget Jefferson's example above, but also please remember it is a tradition that has always tried to be “open to new light and truth” and that basic stance has always led it to critique “traditional” or “orthodox” Christianity. One well trodden path through the Judaeo-Christian tradition is via Spinoza (as you know a much cited model of mine) and that has allowed to develop a thoroughly naturalistic articulation of divinity as God-or-Nature (Deus-sive-Natura). As I have mntioned a number of time in the pulpit and in this blog I can no longer follow Jesus with regard to God - what was “inevitable knowledge” for him is not for me. But that doesn't negate the value of his actions as a human being or everything he had to say. Here a reminder of Wittgenstein's is in order (in Culture and Value):

"If anyone should think he has solved the problem of life & feels like telling himself everything is quite easy now, he need only tell himself, in order to see that he is wrong, that there must have been a time when this "solution" had not been discovered; but it must have been possible to live then too and the solution which has now been discovered appears in relation to how things were then like an accident" (CV 6c). 

    Jesus' solutions were his and mine are mine; Jesus was where he was and I am where I am and many things which struck him as inevitable do not strike me so. Who I am owes an immeasurable debt to Jesus and the Christian tradition - and that I am not about to forget or deny - it's just that my conclusions (what actually seems to me “inevitable knowledge” about the world) don't match up to anything one could call meaningfully theistic/supernatural. But also please remember - what I'm trying to articulate in my thinking and writings not precisely some some new "old-style" metaphysics but a practical (and theraputic) way of dwelling poetically on the earth with what is for us (me) now the "inevitable knowledge" of the radically contingent, non-supernaturalist nature of the world.

    Perhaps anti-climactically I'll stop here as it is lunch-time and I need to print up tomorrow's orders of service, sort out the hymns and music etc. etc.. - in the absence of some coherent close I'll simply paste below a few links to some earlier posts I made made during my sabbatical when the pressure of preaching in church was not upon me and I could, like today, express a few off-piste Epicurean thoughts . . .

Deus-sive-Natura - Personality but not a Person

On not going to church on a Sunday . . .

Garden Congregationalism

"If you quarrel with all your sense-perceptions you will have nothing to refer to in judging even those sense-perceptions which you claim are false."

Some more thoughts on Garden Academies

Garden Academies

PS. The picture of me at the top of this blog gazing up at Venus was taken  yesterday at Anglesey Abbey
just outside Cambridge when Susanna and I went to see the snowdrops. A beautiful day and a wonderful visit.


You put:
As I have mntioned a number of time in the pulpit and in this blog I can no longer follow Jesus with regard to God - what was “inevitable knowledge” for him is not for me.

But you seem rather attached to the one rope: you don't show much evidence of broadening out. A non-theistic, naturalistic approach to religion is potentially very broad and does not, as you seem to do, keep raking over the coals of Christianity over and over again.
Yewtree said…
@ Andrew: I think a non-theist, naturalistic religion is the way forward. It's why I like that Carl Sagan quote: "A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge."

@ Adrian: Andrew has expressed elsewhere on this blog why he is cautious about engaging with other traditions, whilst acknowledging their validity; because it's possible to misrepresent other traditions, even if one is fairly familiar with them. For instance, if I talk about Pagan stuff in a Unitarian context, it means something different because it's not connected with gods, magic, mythology etc in the minds of the hearers; Unitarian Hanukkah is different from Jewish Hanukkah. There is a risk of cultural appropriation in pluralist approaches.
Yewtree said…
Incidentally, I attempted to answer a similar question here: What is liberal religion?
kbop said…
let's hope it's just poetically.
Kev, you do know that Venus doesn't actually exist . . . don't you? I hope this doesn't come as shocking news!
Dear Pluralist, just a quick reply to your comment and especially your point about the fact that, in your words, I "keep raking over the coals of Christianity over and over again." This phrase suggests to me that you are very irritated by this and I hear it as a critical comment (I may be wrong in this of course and, if I am, I apologise). Taking your point seriously I offer this brief response.

I have to make it clear that Christianity is not for me merely some dead coals that are to be raked over and over but a still living, glowing and sustaining way of being in the world. My closest friends' and colleagues' expressions of Christian faith are far from dead and the thing is that this Christian world is my world - I grew up in it, I work in it (ecumenically and in interfaith contexts), I speak its language and continue to engage in its practices; this morning for example I spent my usual once a week hour with the local German Lutheran pastor in prayer and conversation and I followed it up with some work on organising the ecumenical local Good Friday act of witness.

I continue to engage deeply with Christianity because 'being a Christian' is not simply about beliefs - it is a complicated inherited way of being in the world and, whether I like it or not, my being is what it is because of my shaping within a number of living Christian communities stretching from my birth and family life through to my adult life and ministry.

The ground I'm trying to map and explore in this blog and my ministry is what might happens to this beautiful, living and still valid (to my mind) way of being when the old metaphysical beliefs which used to underpin it disappear, when 'God is dead' but, oddly, one's Christianity remains.

The task I'm trying to undertake here is how we (I) might begin to use the old language and practices to find a traditional way forward into world that is not the world of past - even my own, let alone Jesus' and the early Christians. Of course, floating around in the imaginative mix is Bonhoeffer's pregnant phrase "religionless Christianity" and what that might look like.

Anyway I just wanted gently to challenge your implied claim pointlessly to be "raking over the coals of Christianity, over and over again". In many complicated ways Christianity is a fire still offering much needed warmth to me, my friends and my colleagues. My concern is how to keep it meaningfully alight in these very changed times.

As Yewtree notes (and thanks for reminding me of this Yewtree) Carl Sagan once said: "A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge." The Christian tradition which made me what I am seems capable of responding to Sagan's challenge.
Yewtree said…
Both Paganism and pantheism have been claimed to be Sagan's "religion of the future", and I think your style of Spinoza-influenced Christianity is also capable of this. But it also has to be the "Christianity that has moved on" as described in Cliff Reed's poem.

The trouble is that people are so used to the idea of Christianity as exclusivist and supernaturalist and salvationist that they cannot conceive of a Christianity whose mythology is seen as metaphor - but that is exactly how Unitarian Christians have seen it for decades (and have been denying the literal truth of most of it for two centuries or more), and also how many other liberal Christians (e.g. many of the Metropolitan Community Church) see it.
Yewtree said…
Venus doesn't actually exist? What's that big shiny thing in the sky, then? ;)

(I know, you meant the goddess, not the planet.)
It is a serious comment, and critical. I think you have Bonhoeffer wrong, too, in your reply. Bonhoeffer was still convinced about the revelation of Christianity and its narrative, but it had to exist in the world as it expresses itself. That world is a busy, secular one, and in a sense what Bonhoeffer said was be busy, and act (the gospel) in the world, and not ask these endless Tillichian questions.

Listen to or read my summary (hope it's good enough) of the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon at Guildford, and in a way he is putting the argument you are missing. He is saying that with the Jesus material, the Christian material indeed, there are consequences of giving up on the uniqueness and finality that is in the Bible.

Now I am clear that I do not accept uniqueness and finality, and maybe we agree on the reasons for that. But for me, once you cut the rope, you open a whole wider world as well as close what is not possible.

Then there is a further matter. The Unitarian Church caters for many different people, many of whom have cut the Christian rope themselves and are coming to different positions, whether Eastern, Pagan, Humanist or whatever. They need catering for, and the Unitarian churches exist few and far between. Where are these people to go if you, as an individual, keep raking over the same coals?

Where I live we are fortunate in Unitarian terms (and I say this as a person still attending in an Anglican sense as a 'friend' of these folks, and continue to present monthly to its theological group) that different people take services and now we have an intelligent Muslim Iranian attending and even bringing some friends. The congregation has the elasticity to change to bring her in. We have Christians, secularists, Easterns and all expressing themselves, including outside preachers. In my own service I expanded the material on Ibn Sina as well as having all that about Aquinas and Aristotle. If all that happens is one thing then a constituency is either not served or not developed.

Your near neighbour Don Cupitt has for a long time travelled down the road you seem to explain (he was postmodern, Christian centred with some Buddhist-humanist reference; he may be less theist than you - I don't know) but now that he has come to the realisation of 'failure' in this position and institutionally he has moved in a more broad and Quaker position. I've been in some correspondence. He did after all relate to a credal community that he tried to rewrite in terms of interpretation - but you don't.
Yewtree - as I understand it, the Metropolitan Community Church is not a particularly liberal church. Indeed I even watched one of their bishops being targeted (and she was) on Revelation TV in a very unbalanced 'discussion'. On all points except the gay issue she was very biblically close to the text, but on the gay issue had more obvious liberal interpretive strategies. There are, of course, liberals in the MCC but it's best to see it as a gay (etc.) ministry and gay focused orthodox Church. It is not equivalent to the three involved around Lord Alli's recent amendment, ie Quakers, Liberal Jews and Unitarians, though it is bound to use the provision should the H of Commons keep it.
Yewtree said…
Yes, the MCC is broadly evangelical, but the two ministers of it that I have spoken to and corresponded with had a very liberal view of the Bible and of faith.

My theology and my addresses are very interfaith & pantheist, but I enjoy the depth of Andrew's approach and find his approach to Christianity very healing and liberating.