"No-Church" and "No-position" - one way of being an open-hearted and -minded liberal Christian church

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935)
Flower Meadow in the North (1905)

Some five years ago I came across the work of Paul Wienpahl, a very accessible philosopher who, for many years, taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara dying in 1980. He wrote about and interpreted two of my own favourite thinkers, Wittgenstein and Spinoza, and he also wrote a very engaging and useful book entitled 'Zen Diary' in which he recounts his personal experiences during a six month spell in a Japanese Buddhist monastery. He was much admired as a teacher because it seems he was able to communicate to his students the feeling that, although philosophy was a scholarly discipline, much more importantly, it was also a spiritual discipline of personal liberation. An early expression of this recognition may be found in a moving personal piece he wrote in the mid-1950s entitled 'An Unorthodox Lecture' in which he sketched a pivotal moment in his own personal spiritual/philosophical journey. (It is available online.) I was profoundly influenced by it as I found in it many helpful remarks and pointers that have significantly shaped my own thinking over the last five years. In one passage, to which I have often returned, Wienpahl says that:

'. . . the point [of the philosophical life] is not to identify reality with anything except itself. (Tautologies are, after all, true.)  If you wish to persist by asking what reality is; that is, what is really, the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing. To see this is to be a man without a position. To get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian. I am a man without a position. I do not have the philosophic position that there are no positions or theories or standpoints. (There obviously are.) I am not a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist. I am simply a man without a position, and this should open the door to detachment.' 

The phrase that particularly resonated with me here was Wienpahl's claim to be 'a man without a position.' It is, however, easy to be misled by this because it can sound, as he realised, as if this might be to say one is 'without direction.' Perhaps, he says, it can sometimes mean this but Wienpahl stresses that for him it means that he most definitely does have a direction and that this direction is his own. He continues by saying that this direction,

'. . . will come from within rather than being imposed from without. It means that I will guide it, I will give my life its form. And consciously too. Which seems to be hoisting one by one's bootstraps, but is not. It is just difficult.'

Now I was suddenly reminded of this passage during this week as I was reading a wonderful new translation by Dustin Condren of Tolstoy's 'Gospel in Brief' - a book hugely influential on my own outlook in which he offers what is, for me, a highly congenial interpretation of Jesus' teachings. Anyway, I eventually came to Tolstoy's presentation of the well-known gospel story in which Jesus talks about foxes and birds having homes. Here is the story as it appears in Luke (cf. Matthew 8:19-20):

'As [the disciples] were going along the road, a man said to [Jesus], "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head' (Luke 9:58-59).

Tolstoy offers us this teaching in the following form:

'And a certain man said to Jesus, "I will follow you no matter where you go." At this Jesus said to him, "There is nowhere to follow me. I have no home, no place where I could live. Only animals have lairs and dens, but man is at home anywhere that he can live by the spirit' (Leo Tolstoy, The Gospel in Brief, Harper Perennial, 2011, p.66).

I was powerfully struck by how Tolstoy has Jesus' reply resonated strongly with Wienpahl's thought. To follow Jesus is, for Tolstoy, not to be led to some fixed lair and den - i.e. some claimed absolute idea or practice - and to be told that this is your true home, no! Tolstoy's whole understanding of what it means to follow Jesus can, I think, be summed up by saying that it is to be invited into a way of being-in-the-world such that you will become a person without a position in the sense Wienpahl was talking about. To remind you this is a way of being-in-the-world in a direct way, seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling it as you actually live it. It is an invitation to experience it's wholeness as a multifarious thing, as now one, now many. It is an invitation to get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things of the world themselves. It is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian and, lastly, to open the door to detachment.

This is very close to the kind of church I am hoping to encourage here. It is to hold firm to something that frees us from holding firm to something; it is to have the kind of position which helps us orientate ourselves authentically to the world such that we can see how we can have our being-in-the-world without a position. It is to belong to a body of people who, even as we trust in a practical vehicle that structures meaning and worth for us - and here this is a commitment to the example and teachings of Jesus - we always understand that we must not become attached to it in such a way that it becomes an -ism, even Unitarianism, but only a way by which we are kept free to be in the world as it actually is.

In Tolstoy's hands this odd way of being 'Christian' is what Jesus is gesturing towards in his teaching about the foxes and the birds. But another well-known illustration of what I mean comes in the form of the 'Parable of the Raft' told by the Buddha.

He tells a story of how a man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. On this bank there is great danger and uncertainty and on the far side is safety. However, there is no bridge crossing the river nor is there a ferry so what is the man to do? Well, he gathers together a number of logs and vines which he uses to build a raft that can take him across the river. Then the Buddha then asks a question: 'What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river thought to himself, "The raft has served me well so from now on I will carry it on my back?"' The Buddha's audience replied that it would not be at all sensible to cling to the raft in such a fashion. The Buddha continued 'What if the man lay the raft down gratefully thinking that it had has served him well but, since it is no longer of any use I can leave it here on the shore?' His listeners replied that this would be the proper thing to do. The Buddha concluded by saying to them 'So it is with my teachings which are like a raft and are for crossing over with not for seizing hold of.'

In Tolstoy's eyes, and in mine, Jesus' teachings are the material which are for us ready-to-hand by which a very good raft can be built, one which you can hold on to and sail with real confidence. It's a good home for us as we travel through this astonishing complex and beautiful world sailing upon it, it's a good position to hold and from this position we are helped to structure genuine meaning and worth. But, as the parable of the raft reveals, we must not become attached to this structure (this sailing) and, as Jesus' parable reveals, we mustn't start to think of it as our true and final home, den or lair. It is, as Tolstoy felt Jesus taught, not only to realise - in our heads - that we find our home anywhere we can live by the spirit but to actually to begin to live that way every day as members of what the Japanese Christian Uchimura Kanzō called 'No Church'. Of this church Kanzō tells us:

'Its ceiling is the azure blue sky, adorned [at night] with bright stars. Its floor is the green pasture, dotted with flowers of infinite colours. Its musical instrument is the boughs of pine trees and its musicians are the birds in the forest. Its altar is the mountain peaks and its preacher is God Himself. Such is the church for all of us who believe in the "No Church"' (cited in Uchimura Kanzō and His 'No Church Christianity': Its Origin and Significance in Early Modern JapanReligious Studies, Vol. 23, No. 3, Sep., 1987, pp. 377-390).

It is into this kind radically open way of being-in-the-world that this church - and I hope my own teaching with all its flaws - calls you. It is to have "No-church" and "No-position" which, paradoxically, gives us both a church and a position which we can trust and take to be our home.