The beautiful and the sublime - on the possibility of being eaten by a vulture and the good energy that might release for liberal religion

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We are a small liberal church in a dwindling denomination and, living this reality daily as I must, I have on a number of occasions quipped from this lectern that one of our problems is that we simply don't have a doctrine of judgement and hell that can frighten people to come to church every week come-what-may. When the sun shines and beckons us to the river or seaside, or it is rainy and cold and our bed's warmth is just too seductive to leave it behind, we all know that our mortal souls will not burn in hell for eternity for choosing to do these other lovely things instead.

Our churches have often responded to this reality by stressing other draws and charms. My favourite, probably apocryphal, is of a church which put on its noticeboard the memorable line: "No hell and seat cushions" - I use a version of this here from time to time: "No hell and good heating". I'm still working on the seat cushions and, when I get them for every seat in the church, I expect nothing less than a full-scale religious revival . . . well, maybe not. Other things we have tried in our periodic attempts to persuade people to come is to stress somewhat general issues concerning the human need for community, social justice, intellectual stimulation or just plain entertainment. But, alas, these draws have not - except in very limited ways - reversed our decline.

Given this in my eleven years of ministry a question has continually nagged away at me, namely, is there available to liberals an appropriate enlivening and inspiring energy/experience that would persuade us of the need regularly to attend a religious/spiritual community?

Well, for all the reasons I have been exploring with you over the past few years it seems highly unlikely that we will find such an energy via any kind of revived traditional liberal-monotheism. Why? Well, even if we could revive in our liberal circles a strong belief in God would be in a loving God and a loving God is precisely the kind of God who is going to forgive you when you go to the river or seaside or stay tucked up in your warm bed. A loving God just isn't a scary enough driver for us. Also a loving God becomes increasingly hard to believe in when bad things happen like earthquakes and unbelievably destructive and cruel human conflicts. We found this out to our cost after the horrors of the First World War to which we had effective response - in fact our decline can be dated from around this time.

So no, a revival of an old-style liberal-monotheism seems - to me anyway - to be hopeless dream. But all is not lost because this definitively frees us up to turn whole-heartedly to another way-of-being-in-the-world that our tradition has consistently, if not always properly or fully, explored. It is the turn to nature which has been played out within our congregations in a number of intertwined and overlapping ways. Firstly, there is a pantheist tendency which says that Nature is God; a key figure here is, of course, Spinoza who framed this in the phrase Deus-sive-Natura (God-or-Nature) where the sive (or) is one of equivalence. (I begin every service using this 'name'). Secondly, there is a transcendentalist tendency which takes nature as a symbol of God; a key figure here is, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thirdly, there is a tendency which sees nature as sufficient and not requiring the God/the gods at all except as helpful, poetic and therapeutic expressions of the human encounter with nature; a key figure here is, of course, Lucretius but, since this is the tendency I find myself drawn to, I cite also the writers I have been introducing to you over the past few years, namely Mary Oliver, Wallace Stevens, Robinson Jeffers and Henry David Thoreau. Though each of these tendencies are different I think it is possible that all these ways of rooting our lives in nature can rub shoulders one with another in a community such as our own.

But, as I have just said, our turn to nature (or God in, or God as a symbol of nature) was not always properly or fully explored and this was because in liberal circles often far too much emphasis was laid upon the *beauty* of nature. Our opening hymn 'For the beauty of the earth' is a classic example of this tendency in full flight. Now I'm not saying, of course, that we shouldn't celebrate natural beauty but rather, that without constantly relating beauty to the sublime it can have no real meaning or power. When we take time to look closely at how humanity as a whole has reflected upon its experience of nature we consistently find it to be Janus-faced - i.e bearing a double-countenance. In his introduction to the work of the poet Robinson Jeffers, Albert Gelpi, eloquently shows us the difference between these two faces:

'The beautiful refers to the landscape whose physical conformation and psychological affect welcomes, responds to, and nurtures the human. It is characterised by a modest scale that accommodates the human presence, regularity and symmetry of elements, smoothly curving lines, gentle gradations of height and depth, steady light and harmonious shades of colour. The cooperative participation of the human transforms the beautiful into the pastoral: sun irradiating a fertile and cultivated landscape dotted with family farms, divine beneficence manifest in reflections of the heavens above in the rivers and lakes below. Beautiful nature reveals the divine as the maternal ground, the source and sustenance and resting place of life.
    By contrast, the physical conformation and psychological affect of the sublime landscape dwarfs the physical presence of the beholder so overwhelmingly that he or she feels psychologically reduced to the point of annihilation or absorption into the awesomeness of what he or she beholds. Characteristic features of the sublime include vastness of scale that suggests infinity, jagged and broken lines, extremes of soaring heights and dizzying declivities, intense contrasts of brightness and dark, the light either blinding or obscured by cloud over a harsh and dreadful landscape in which the irresistible energies of earth and wind, fire and water surge and collide. The sublime reveals the patriarchal visage of Yahweh behind and through the material cloud, and the human response is a volatile mixture of ecstasy and terror: exaltation at the limits of human endurance and comprehension, vision at the point of breakthrough and breakdown. The beholder at this pivotal and precipitous moment of epiphany is at once thrilled and threatened by the erasure of his frailty in the transcendental Other'
(From Albert Gelpi’s introduction to The Wild God of the World – An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford University Press 2003, p.13).

Gelpi concludes this helpful passage by pointing out that we have always had a number of options available to us at this pivotal and precipitous moment. In the first instance we can 'go over the edge of the abyss or pull back and seek the comfort and consolation of human company in [a] pastoral refuge.' Over the last century liberal religion has tended to take one of these two options so, on the one hand, seeing nature's abysmal inner workings rather than finding the monotheistic God of old many have gone despairingly over the edge and given up all positive expressions of religion in favour of an empty nihilism; on the other hand, seeing the abyss others have withdrawn at high-speed and chosen instead to cocoon themselves in, it has to be said, delusional expressions of romantic, empty and shallow beauty.

However, Gelpi also points to another possible response which Jeffers adopted and which I think a revitalised liberal church must also consciously adopt; namely to 'continue to test our human limits against the sublime [but] without going too far'. Jeffers' disciplined way of ensuring that he doesn't (and we don't) go too far was through his poetry and, even as he takes himself and us to the edge of the abyss where we glimpse nature's awesome and sublime inner-workings he always ties this precipitous moment to a recognition of great beauty and ongoing life. I particularly chose the following poem of his to illustrate this because it connects so closely with Mary Oliver's poem we looked at last week, 'Black bear in the orchard'. There we glimpsed the awesome sublime in the moment we looked into the bear's horrible beautiful eyes as it enjoys the honey gained only through the utter destruction of the hive; here we glimpse it in the eyes of a vulture swooping down out of the sky upon us as we lie resting on the ground.

VULTURE

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare
     hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture
    wheeling high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit
    narrowing,
    I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the
    light-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer. I
    could see the naked red head between the great wings
Beak downward staring. I said, "My dear bird, we are wasting
    time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you." But how
    beautiful he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in
    the sea-light over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that
    beak and become part of him, to share those wings and
    those eyes –
What a sublime end of one's body, what and enskyment; what
    a life after death.


Jeffers, faced with his 'annihilation or absorption into the awesomeness of what he beholds', into nature herself, does not fall into nihilistic despair nor does he retreat into a vacuous empty-headed paean of praise to beauty - instead he is brought (and tries to brings us) into the fullest and most abundant, vibrant living. In such a life he felt we 'may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things' by making our own lives and environment 'beautiful, so far as [our] power reaches.' Importantly for Jeffers this beauty included 'moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity' even though, as he noted, 'it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe.'

But Jeffers is always careful to hold this 'moral beauty' up against the sublime power of nature and he reminds us that we must always 'realize that [our] contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without [us].' (Robinson Jeffers: A Letter to Sister Mary James Power, October 1, 1934 cited in The Wild God of the World, Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 189).

Perhaps because these words appear in a letter he wrote to a religious, called Sister Mary James Power who wrote a book on Emily Dickinson, Jeffers slightly pulls his punch here for it is clear he really means the 'sublimity of things is sufficient without us' not the 'beauty of things is sufficient without us.'

And here I can conclude, for I think this encounter with sublime, with awesome and indifferent nature, is, potentially at least, a replacement of the driving energy liberal-religion has lost but which today it so badly needs. It is an energy which can appropriately frighten us back into a community - it is appropriate because the sublime really is frightening unlike the fears created by our many old superstitions - which knows that, although the summer days by the river and sea and the warmth of our beds will pass and the vulture will settle upon our bodies, it is only by gathering together in a creative, compassionate and mindful community that we can do the real work of creating for ourselves and each other a world full of meaning and natural and moral beauty.
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