". . . to keep changing my posture, not to stand for too long on one leg, so as not to get stiff" Practising the religion of Jesus rather than the religion about him (being some words about the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches' Object)

A signpost (finger post) on the
Essex-Cambridgeshire border
There is a story told about the Rabbis Shammai and Hillel (Talmud, Tractate Shabbos 31a) in which a non-Jew comes to them to ask what was the basic instruction or teaching of Judaism (i.e. the Torah). The man appears to do this in an unpleasant mocking fashion because, seemingly in order to draw attention to the great length and complexity of Jewish teaching, he asks the Rabbis to teach him the entire Torah standing on one leg. The man, like all too many people today, wants from his religious teachers simple first principles and axioms; he does not want or need, or so he believes, the many, many words, stories and practices that a lived, embodied faith generates. We may imagine him saying to the Rabbis and us: "Strip away the unnecessary accumulation of inconsequential stuff and just give me the true, pure essence of your teaching."

So, on arriving firstly at Shammai's home, it is said that Shammai instantly recognised the man's less than positive attitude and his response is simply to throw him out. Undeterred the man then goes to Hillel's home and makes the same request. Hillel's response is different, he agrees, stands on one leg and says: "No problem! The basic idea of the Torah is 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Everything else is commentary. Now, if you're really interested, go and study the commentary."

The man, or so the story goes, is so impressed by Hillel's reply that he does just this and becomes, himself, a Jew. As we heard in our reading Jesus (the story of the Good Samaritan), who was himself called "Rabbi", used a very similar method in his readiness to point (or get others to point) to the famous summary of the law, "Love God and your neighbour as yourself" and then to go on and offer some kind of commentary upon it.

It is worth noting before we go on that Jesus was born only some ten to fifteen years before Hillel's death so the similarities between their teachings methods is highly unlikely to be accidental. We are speaking here about a deeply shared Jewish/Christian tradition here.

But as our Western European and North American culture developed brief summaries like those offered by Hillel and Jesus have often been understood in ways that have not always borne the rich, satisfying and sustaining fruit they might have. For all kinds of reasons - which I have rehearsed with you before but which I will not today - we came to think that the best, the most reliable and true kind of knowledge is to be found in simple first principles and axioms and that, consequently, all else is just commentary and can be dispensed with as merely non-essential and secondary. But now notice this - the Rabbis say "The rest is commentary" whereas I have just suggested we tend to add that little, but O so important and often dismissive adverb, "just" - "The rest is *just* commentary."

Today I'd like to challenge this idea and encourage us to remove the word "just" from "commentary" so as to bring it back into a close living relationship with the kind of brief, helpful summaries of what we should be doing that the Rabbis, Jesus among them, were so good at formulating.

I was reminded of the story about Hillel's teaching and minded to write this address because of a remark of Wittgenstein's found in one of his notebooks. He said: "I find it important in philosophising to keep changing my posture, not to stand for too long on one leg, so as not to get stiff" (CV pg. 27).

Now I have no idea whether Wittgenstein had the story we have just heard in mind when he wrote these words but he easily could have (given his family's Jewish roots). What I can say for sure, is that what he's trying to get us to see is powerfully related to the way Hillel and Jesus encourage us to proceed.

None of them rested content with the offering up of a simple principle or summary of things that could be said standing on one leg, rather they immediately set about taking the principle or summary into the world by changing their and our postures - i.e. by encouraging us to move about, to walk through the world shifting position to see how the principle or summary plays out in different contexts.

Here's an illustration of Hillel doing this. In the Pirkei Avot ("The Ethics of the Fathers - 2:5) he says "Do not judge your fellow man until you reach his place." Hillel saw that it is impossible us ever to occupy exactly the same "place" as another person because none of us can ever have exactly the same experiences or be in precisely the same conditions or context as as someone else. Consequently, what we must do when we *are* forced to judge, that is to say to choose one action over another, it is important to have spent a great deal of time, not simply standing on one leg in one place merely reciting an abstract principle, but letting it encourage us to walk around the issue at hand looking at it from one perspective and then another to try and build up as full a picture of the situation we can. The reason for this is to help us judge, when we must judge, using the most perspicacious representation of fairness available to us.

Here's an illustration of Jesus doing this. The story of the Good Samaritan shows Jesus move the man he is talking with very quickly from standing on one leg and stating merely a summary of the law to change his whole posture by walking the principle imaginatively through the world in the hands of three different characters so as to reveal the most perspicacious representation of who your neighbour is or might be.

Now here's an illustration of Wittgenstein doing this:

"I am trying to conduct you on tours of a certain country. I will try to show that the philosophical difficulties which arise in mathematics as elsewhere arise because we find ourselves in a strange town and do not know our way. So we must learn the topography by going from one place in the town to another, and from there to another, and so on. And one must do this so often that one knows one's way, either immediately or pretty soon after looking round a bit, wherever one may be set down" (WLFM pg. 44).

In their own ways Hillel, Jesus and Wittgenstein all realised that as Judith Genova poetically put it (in her truly wonderful book "Wittgenstein - A Way of Seeing), "No moonbeams carry [us] to a star to obtain an aerial view." Instead our sense of the whole world, or the whole of the moral law, is achieved only by those who are prepared to walk around and gain an apprehension of the connections that exist between different conceptions and situations. These webs of connections seen by walking around and seeing what's going on (or possibilities for what might go on) Genova suggests "suspend one just high enough to see forever" - which is another way of saying this approach suspends us just high enough always to see how we might healthily, fairly, open-heartedly go on.

Occasionally, as responsible explorers mapping the terrain of life, people like Hillel, Jesus and Wittgenstein erected signposts - veritable one-legged indications of how to proceed -  in the form of some terse, pithy teachings to guide us on our way. Brief and to the point they are most certainly to be taken seriously by pilgrims and truth-seekers. But if their teachings are to bear sustaining fruit these one-legged signposts must be left standing on one leg whilst your own two legs take you into the world to join the ongoing conversational commentary that is our life together. All the rest is most certainly not *just* commentary - it is your very life. The teaching, indicating Word on the one-legged signpost is only made flesh in the commentary that is your lived life. 

At our best, as one of the oldest free church traditions, we have tried to epitomise just such an approach in our religious life. Early on in our history we expressed the desire "to practise the religion of Jesus and not the religion about Jesus" (attributed, amongst others, to Thomas Jefferson). That is to say, although we have continued to take seriously many important and useful one-legged signposts erected during our Judaeo-Christian tradition's two-millennia long walk of faith (which took in along the way a significant grand-tour of Greek and Roman culture) we always knew that only by walking the way the signposts indicated was there to be found truth and life.

This is why our local and national summaries of "what we are about" are in the form of covenants and objects rather than in static creeds stating fixed beliefs. Our signposts, our simple summaries (capable of being recited whilst standing on one-leg), are not designed to keep a person standing on that one leg merely "talking the talk" but instead to offer people a living indication of what it is to take that summary out into the world - so as to change their posture and "to walk the walk". So this local church's covenant reads:

In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus the members of this church unite for the worship of God and the service of humankind. 

The national Church's object reads (the object with its full surrounding commentary is printed at the end of this post):

To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition.

It is in this ongoing, bracing walk through the world that Jesus recommended that consists our distinctive four-hundred and fifty year old liberal Christian practice. In this age of increasingly one-legged doctrinal (secular and religious) stiffness, I recommend our perambulatory faith with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.


Object of the General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches

We, the constituent congregations, affiliated societies and individual members, uniting in a spirit of mutual sympathy, co-operation, tolerance and respect; and recognising the worth and dignity of all people and their freedom to believe as their consciences dictate; and believing that truth is best served where the mind and conscience are free, acknowledge that the Object of the Assembly is:

To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition.

To this end, the Assembly may:

Encourage and unite in fellowship bodies which uphold the religious liberty of their members, unconstrained by the imposition of creeds;

Affirm the liberal religious heritage and learn from the spiritual, cultural and intellectual insights of all humanity;

Act where necessary as the successor to the British and Foreign Unitarian Association and National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and other Non-Subscribing or Kindred Congregations, being faithful to the spirit of their work and principles (see appendix to the constitution [below]), providing always that this shall in no way limit the complete doctrinal freedom of the constituent churches and members of the Assembly;

Do all other such lawful things as are incidental to the attainment of the above Object.


. . . the following is a statement of the Objects of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, as set forth in Clause 2 of its Constitution [as worded at the time of adoption of this Constitution]:

“The diffusion and support of the principles of Unitarian Christianity, including the formation and assistance of Congregations which do not require for themselves or their Ministers subscription to any doctrinal articles of belief; the publication and circulation of biblical, theological, scientific and literary knowledge related to Unitarian Christianity; the doing of all such other lawful things as are incidental or conducive to the attainment of the above objects or any of them.”

The following is a statement of the Objects of the National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and other Non-Subscribing or Kindred Congregations, as set forth in Clause 1 of the Constitution:

“To consult, and when considered advisable to take action, on matters affecting the well-being and interests of the Congregations and Societies on the Roll of the Conference, as by directing attention, suggesting plans, organising expressions of opinion, raising funds to carry out the foregoing objects.”


Yewtree said…
Once, someone asked me to tell them the axiomatic "secret" - but I couldn't encapsulate it in an axiom because trying to explain my point of view would require immersion in my life-experience.