Palm Sunday - "ein wirklicher Ausverkauf", a real clearance sale or there's no such thing as a free smorgasbord . . .

Palm Sunday is a time when communities in the Christian tradition remember Jesus' entry into the city of Jerusalem and his welcome by cheering and, apparently, supportive crowds. As we are aware this welcome and support lasted only a week and, when the time for real support was needed, the members of that same crowd were nowhere to be found. A week later even Jesus' closest supporters did a runner. Consequently, reflections on this subject generally concentrate upon this betrayal of Jesus and relate that betrayal in some way to our own present day actions - the idea being to encourage folk, naturally enough for a Christian community, to maintain their own loyalty to Jesus.  This, for many years, seemed to me a worthwhile thing to do and it certainly sits well with the general idea that we look at history to help us learn how to proceed in the present.

But I'm increasingly realising that it is not a simple as that because what strikes us today with the "force of inevitable knowledge" is not the same as that which struck our forebears. The simplest example of this which relates to our story is that we inherit the basic idea that Jesus was a good man and worthy of support because of, on the island of Britain at least, some fourteen hundred years of Christian culture which has bequeathed us this background. But in first-century Jerusalem, remember, Jesus was simply a Johnny-come-lately thirty-something political or religious radical who seemed to have claimed - or someone else claimed on his behalf - that he was the promised Messiah. The apparently "certain knowledge" of later Christian ages that Jesus was worthy of supporting and making the ultimate sacrifice for was simply not available to anyone in first-century Jerusalem.

But, of course, the latter two hundred of those fourteen-hundred years has seen a loosening of the hold of this story upon our culture - what seemed "certain knowledge" even to our Presbyterian forebears of two centuries ago now seems vanishingly far from certain. Today in a church like this we still have the Biblical stories to hand and we are minded to use them but none of us accept the story as absolutely authoritative and one which definitively trumps all others.

On offer on the smorgasbord of contemporary theologies, spiritualities and philosophies available in contemporary Western Europe, Christianity - of whatever stripe - is to us but one possible 'flavour', but one possible lifestyle we may chose. Very few, if any, of us here today, will be able to say - and truly mean at the deepest metaphysical level - that Christianity is the only good and decent way of being religious in the world. We openly acknowledge - that we are not in metaphysical danger if we choose to be, or are born, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Sikh, a Jain or an atheist. Even if we adopt a way of living that we might be minded to call Christian most of us would live that way knowing that we could easily change it for another should we ever feel the need or inclination. We know nothing bad would happen to us as a simple result of that - no thunderbolt nor irate messenger of God is going to come from heaven to punish us for our change of course.

At an important level this is something to be celebrated - after all we are all aware of the unimaginable horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of blind and absolute commitment to one religion or another. So I want to celebrate this attitude of ours. But, as the old adage goes, "there is no such thing as a free lunch" - or perhaps today this should be "there is no such thing as a free smorgasbord".

No, there is a very high cost to pay - which, in a darkly ironic way, is expressed by a collapse in the price of every component of the smorgasbord. Here's how James C. Edwards succinctly puts it:

"we have left ourselves no intellectually respectable way to dismiss the disconcerting thought that other, and radically different, forms of life have just the same claim on some sacred ground as does ours; namely no such claim at all. Our 'highest values' compete with the 'highest values' of others on what is looked at philosophically, a perfectly level field of battle" (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 47).

To think like this, Edwards goes on, is "just to acknowledge that, however fervent and essential one's commitment to a particular set of values, that's all one ever has: a commitment to some particular set of values" (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 47).

Kierkegaard saw this coming and imagined all these different sets of values on sale together. A modern version of this image would be to imagine a shopping mall thronged with Saturday shoppers and bargain hunters. He felt that our culture has been busily putting on a "ein wirklicher Ausverkauf" - a real clearance sale.

Edwards comments on this by saying:

"Prices have been cut to the bone. Crowds move through the market hall of European intellectual history, fingering the bargains displayed there. Yet the goods - [that is to say] the 'highest values' of European civilisation - are strangely slow to move. 'Everything can be had at such a bargain price that it becomes a question of whether there is anyone who will make a bid' (Fear & Trembling). Why should anyone live or (more sharply) die for something that is, after all, only a value, only a structure of interpretation posited by some passing form of life?" (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 59-60).

Our present age is one of this kind of devaluation and "of all the items currently selling at a discount is faith" (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 60). Given this, I think it is clear that we delude ourselves if we believe we can in any meaningful way put ourselves imaginatively back into first-century Jerusalem. The culture in Jerusalem of that day did not have on such a clearance sale. Consequently it seems vanishingly unlikely to me that they held beliefs and got involved in the support of religious and/or political figures in the way we do, or rather cannot do, today. Commitment and belief of the type that was possible for a first-century inhabitant of Jerusalem is simply not possible for us today.

Today we could only stand by the roadside supporting - or abandoning him - as one possible form of life of the many we could choose from the shopping-mall, or smorgasbord, of faith.

The question of whether the older kind of belief (or something like it) is possible for people who have grown up or inherited another cultural mindset is, of course, a wholly different question and it is one to which we may be forced to "Yes". But that disturbing thought is for consideration another day.

But today, as we reflect upon the Palm Sunday story at the end of two millennia, I think we have to be courageous in a different way to how most Christian preachers will be speaking about in pulpits around Europe. I think that the courage we need today is not that which encourages us to follow Jesus (or anyone else) to the very end (unlike the fickle crowd of the story) but, instead, simply finding the courage to face up to the fact that our inherited contemporary culture cannot - i.e. we cannot - commit to anything in the *way* our forebears did. Their world and ours is unimaginably different.

If you share my feelings here then this realisation will require us to reflect deeply on how we create our values as a civic society and a religious or philosophic community and then how we might instantiate them deeply, creatively, poetically in our lives without loosing what now seems to strike us with the force of inevitable knowledge, that who and what we are is utterly conditional and contingent. 

It may well require at least as much courage to do this as that which was asked of the crowd and Jesus' disciples. They all ran away and so might we and who would blame us because what I point to is undoubtedly disturbing. The message of hope that lies in the way the Easter story plays out is that the disciples, at least, eventually regained their courage and set to once again in their task. If, understandably, we run away from facing up to the problem I have placed before you today then there is hope, too, that some of us may regain their courage and set to once again in our task which is nothing less than figuring out what a contemporary religious or philosophical society might look like.

That we don't know what that looks like at present should not worry us unduly - after all Jesus and his disciples had absolutely no idea how things would develop after their own experiences. (As we know some forms it took have been wonderful and others, well, a lot less than wonderful . . .) No, the real worry is whether we can find a way to sing contemporary liberal "Hosannas" without them instantly becoming just another much reduced item in the on-going clearance sale of our age.


Postscript Monday 29th March 2010.

Relevant to my words above here is how the chapter entitled Religion in Britain and the United States by David Voas and Rodney Ling found in the new British Social Attitudes Survey 2010 begins:

Religion is a cause of perplexity to the British. On the one hand it is associated with Christian virtue, traditional values, the Dalai Lama and all things bright and beautiful. On the other hand it brings to mind violent fanaticism, reactionary morality, Osama bin Laden, abuse and oppression. After a long history of religious turmoil and mistrust we no longer mind whether our leaders are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or agnostic, but strong commitment makes us worried. Tolerance is the great commandment of the modern age - and hence we find it hard to tolerate exacting belief.


Yewtree said…
You make some very interesting and compelling points.

However, I feel myself to be very strongly committed to a set of ethics (freedom, reason, inclusivity, truth, justice, wisdom, love) against which I test all my actions. I sincerely hope that if I were put to the test, I would defend these values. I hope I would have been like Mary Magdalene and not like Peter, but I am all too aware that I might fail in that. These ethics trump all other considerations. So yes, religion/belief has failed to retain its grip on people, but I do not think that ethics have failed to do so (not in all cases, anyway).

I admire the liberal version of Jesus because he also seems to have been committed to these ethics. I don't hold the values because he held them; I admire him because he held them (and likewise Gandhi, Buddha and Martin Luther King).

I think the story of Palm Sunday reminds us that we can get up and start again after we have failed to show commitment. Like Martin Niemöller.

(On a lighter note, I like your new blog design.)
Thanks Yewtree, as always, for your comment.

I, like you, think that values and ethics should and could be sufficient unto the day but, especially given the decline in traditional religious belief and the general distrust (at least in Western Europe) in the truth of metaphysics, it seems to me urgent that one finds ways to move confidently and openly towards a non-foundationalist ethics. That is a really hard thing to do for a liberal tradition (such as the Unitarian one) which is essentially Platonist (and even when it was a wholly Christian movement - capital C - it was a Platonic Christianity). I think this move is important to make because of the most interesting things that seems to be coming out of the new physics is that the Platonic understanding of the nature of universe is increasingly looking like it is just plain wrong (see the work of Bernard d'Espagnat on this matter).

On that lighter note, I'm glad you like the blog makeover.
Anonymous said…
Religious belief may well be declining in your (liberal intelligentsia) circle, but not in all circles in Europe.

Emergent Christianity, Evangelical Christianity, Western Buddhism, Euro-Islam are all growing.
Dear Anon.,

Thanks for your point - which is correct as far as it goes. However, as the new British Social Attitudes Survey 2010 suggests, that the growth in the groups you mention is being outweighed by the loss of membership in Anglican, RC and other mainstream Christian churches. Th headline figures are as follows.

No religion - in 1983 it was 31% and in 2008 43%.

Christian (as a whole) - in 1983 it was 66% and in 2008 50%.

Non-Christian - in 1983 it was 2% and in 2008 7%.

In short, with regards to the UK (which is all I claim to know anything about) I fear my basic point stands.
Jess said…
Hi Andrew,

I think you've hit the nail on the head - at least in so far as my own experiences go. Having gone from radical Christianity through agnosticism to - well, more agnosticism - originally triggered by the realisation that punishment for erroneous belief didn't add up, I feel somewhat like a microcosm of the historical shift you set up. It's very helpful to have that articulated (the explanation for the anxiety caused was an added bonus!).

I have to say that I would like to feel strongly committed to a set of ethics, along the lines for freedom, reason etc. I'm just not sure I know what these things mean, or what they mean for humans when they are generalised beyond the local situation. What happens when reason and inclusivity are at loggerheads? Or wisdom and freedom? Or (heaven forbid!;) reason and love? I think if I could stake out a principle that I feel I can't do without, it would be self-honesty - interrogating everything I think to make sure that I really think it, and to find out why. But I'm not sure this is really an ethic, or even possible.

ps - hello from America! This may well be my annual email to you all :o) If it's any excuse (and it isn't), I'm even worse at keeping in touch with my mother.