Men and women without a position - a liberal religious path of salvation

Stony path near Bédarrides
Readings: The Journey by Mary Oliver
    One day you finally knew
    what you had to do, and began,
    though the voices around you
    kept shouting
    their bad advice – 
    though the whole house
    began to tremble
    and you felt the old tug
    at your ankles.
    “Mend my life!”
    each voice cried.
    But you didn't stop.
    You knew what you had to do,
    though the wind pried
    with its stiff fingers
    at the very foundations,
    though their melancholy
    was terrible.
    It was already late
    enough, and a wild night,
    and the road full of fallen
    branches and stones.
    But little by little,
    as you left their voices behind,
    the stars began to burn
    through the sheets of clouds,
    and there was a new voice
    which you slowly
    recognized as your own,
    that kept you company
    as you strode deeper and deeper
    into the world,
    determined to do
    the only thing you could do –
    determined to save
    the only life you could save.

Path near Bédarrides
Chapter One of the Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo (Hackett, Indianapolis 1993) 

Tao called Tao is not Tao

Names can name no lasting name.

Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.
Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

These have the same source, but different names.
    Call them both deep –
        Deep and again deep:

The gateway to all mystery.

Oak leaves near Bédarrides
Two short extracts from Paul Wienpahl's 1958 lecture An Unorthodox Lecture

As I see it, the point 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.

When one says that he is a man without a position, does this mean that he is without direction? Perhaps. But this is misleading. For it means too that I have a direction and that direction is my own. It 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. 


View from a hill near Bédarrides
Mary Oliver has so often helped me think through some of life's vexing religious and philosophical questions that when I find myself in the midst of a struggle with one of them I pull one of her volumes down from the shelves and read. She always helps me better to structure my own thinking into a therapeutic, narrative whole.

So what is the vexing question I have in mind today? Well, it's born out of the unavoidable need for religious labels we attach both to ourselves as individuals and, collectively, in community.

Do those labels refer to "traditions" or substantive theological content? Many people would say that it is a complex mixture of both. The "tradition" bit giving some indication of how one does the substantive, theological bit. So, for all the differences that exist between the Roman Catholic Church and the various mainstream Protestant churches, they believe they share enough tradition and substantive content to be "happy" also to share the label "Christian".

But we who belong to a church that gathers under the historically inherited label "Unitarian" often find ourselves actively excluded from this circle. Our problem is that, although we are clearly part of Christianity with regard to tradition, because of our commitment to critical thought and scholarship and especially the principle of "complete spiritual freedom", our substantive content is, today, certainly not that of the, so-called, mainstream churches. As our greatest historian, Earl Morse Wilbur said, this "complete spiritual freedom" means that the "doctrinal [Christian] aspect" of our churches was in truth only "a temporary phase" and that our Unitarian doctrines were only "a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom" (Read the essay from which these quotes come here.) This means that in many official and unofficial ecumenical and interfaith settings we are routinely refused the label "Christian". Here's a practical example.

The world of British inter-faith has been decisively shaped by our government's, somewhat questionable decision, only to recognise nine official faiths: Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism. In passing, but of great concern to many of us at the liberal end of the spectrum, the continued exclusion from this list of that sizeable group of people who gather together under the name of Pagan continues to be deeply problematic. Anyway, about seven or eight years ago I was asked to become the secretary for the East of England Faiths Council - the interfaith body which served this region until last year when lack of funding put an end to all that. However, when key Christian members of the Council discovered I was a Unitarian minister, the offer was quickly withdrawn. The claim was that I wasn't a Christian and also, therefore, not one of the chosen nine. Fortunately, the Faiths Council was headed up by the wonderful Jenny Kartupelis, and her profound good sense prevailed and I eventually took my place on the Council. I'm glad to say a happy and fruitful time followed.

But in all this one point should be clear - given the list of nine faiths the government uses, in what universe does our church tradition not come under the general heading Christian? As even the most cursory glance at our history shows - a history which contains some of the most influential religious, political, literary and scientific figures our nation has ever produced - the idea that we might belong to any of the other eight or even to some new, "other" religion, is plainly bonkers.

But, but, but . . . the rule of nine faiths, like all rules, only works by ignoring details and it is only when you turn to the details that things get very interesting if also somewhat vexing and confusing. The truth is we are neither inside nor outside Christianity. Yes, we are shaped in a primordial way by Christianity - this is undeniable by anyone, it's an historical fact - but, on the other hand, we cannot be reduced to Christianity. The Christian label when used in relation to us is both deeply right and deeply wrong and I struggle with this fact all the time.

Tree on path near Bédarrides
Keeping it personal for the next few paragraphs - to avoid the tricky third person plural "we" - I deeply feel that my commitment to the teaching and example of Jesus (which remains as strong as it ever was) and also my position as a minister in this church, fully entitles me to the label "Christian". Indeed, it's always been hard for me to imagine thinking about giving up that identity, not least of all because, to borrow an image from Oliver, it constantly "tugs at my ankles". But, on the other hand, I'm alert to the fact that in so many ways I'm clearly not a Christian - something repeatedly pointed out to me as, indeed I repeatedly point out to myself. After all, I'm openly prepared to add "atheist" to my portmanteau of labels and it, in its own way, tugs at my ankles, as do a couple of others.

Looking back on this state of affairs over the years the trouble was that, as I added more and more labels to my portmanteau in an attempt better to describe the detailed complexity of my own contemporary, lived, liberal religious life (indeed any such life) my portmanteau, my suitcase, began to get heavier and heavier. Also, when I opened it up and looked at the apparent conflicting mess it contained I began to conclude that, in truth, I must have lost my mind; because there was no longer any simple, single theological or philosophical label under which to file and order all this stuff, I really must have no meaningful individual religious identity at all. This realisation coincided with my sabbatical which, thanks to this church's generosity, I was fortunate enough to be able to take in 2008. (Susanna and I went to stay in the south of France in a small village called Bédarrides staying with the wonderful, welcoming Salles family, Carol-Leigh, Robert, Chloe, Claire-Louise and their dog Chippie).

Here I can come directly to the therapeutic, narrative value that Mary Oliver's poem had for me. I hope it and my story may be able to help you shape your own reflections about religious and philosophical labels.

Six years ago, a few months before the start of my sabbatical, I began to know that I had to begin a journey, I had to leave behind the loud voices of all those labels shouting what seemed to me to be becoming increasingly bad advice. But, even as I began to move, each of those labels began to tug powerfully at my ankles, appealing to me in different and subtle ways to "mend their lives". It was heart wrenching for me, but I had finally understood that I could not mend Christianity, not even liberal, Free or Unitarian Christianity, I could not mend Spinoza's thought (which I espoused at the time), nor could I mend pantheism or atheism.

Reading Paul Wienpahl near Bédarrides
It was this general kind of feeling that led one of my own personal intellectual heroes, the philosopher Paul Wienpahl, to pen his "Unorthodox Lecture" and go on his own very interesting journey. I have to say that during my sabbatical this lecture became for me a kind of holy scripture - I like to think of it as the Wienpahl Sutra - especially since he ended up addressing his issues in a Japanese Zen Monastery for six months (See his Zen Diary). In offering me his own experience in that lecture he really did save my own religious life by helping me slowly to begin losing my over attachment to labels - a process which is by no means concluded today.

(NB: the photos in this post were taken on a walk that I regularly took up a deserted hill on the edge of Bédarrides - either alone or with Susanna. In the photo above, which Susanna took, I have in my hand my notebook and Wienpahl's essay.)

But, as Mary Oliver notes, its not just about the simple act of leaving because, after opening the door, the next stage is to undertake a pretty scary journey through a wild and windy night on a way that is very dangerous indeed, covered with branches and stones any one of which could cause you to trip, fall and hurt yourself quite badly - which I did a number of times. Indeed I owe deep thanks to many members of this congregation for helping to pick myself up, dust myself down and start all over again.

I have discovered that it takes a long, long while (far longer than I expected) to journey sufficiently far to begin to experience results (though they are never anything like final results of course). But, as Oliver says, I did find that, little by little, as the raging wind of former labels' voices was left behind the stars did, indeed, begin to burn through the sheets of clouds and a new voice began to be heard, a voice which I can only now, just about, recognise as my own. To be sure, it's a voice that is always-already dependent on the voices I left behind, because language is always an inherited, social construct. But my admission today is that, in the silence I can now occasionally enter away from the cacophony of the old labels, I sense that, slowly, it is me who is now beginning to be able to speak to you. I have come to realise, to borrow from Wienpahl, that I would rather be a mediocre Andrew Brown than a successful type, say a successful Unitarian theologian and minister.

Susanna on wooded path near Bédarrides
I have discovered, as Mary Oliver says, that it is a journey which cannot but help take you deeper and deeper into the world or, as Wienpahl says it's a journey which gets you "out of the mind and into the world", gets you "beyond language and to the things". As he notes later in the lecture, it is to become a kind of mystic for a mystic is the person "who sees things for what they are, or as they are (in so far as one can speak of things as they are)" and to "see them in their particularity." Oliver and Wienpahl helped me see that the world, in this sense, is always beyond naming and labelling and that the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching says this perhaps better than anything else: "The Tao (that is to say the way) called Tao is not Tao, names can name no lasting name." As Wienpahl himself notes all this "seems to be hoisting one by one's bootstraps, but is not. It is just difficult." Difficult indeed.

After a long personal journey, just a couple of weeks ago on my public blog profile, I finally decided to come clean and replace all the labels I had been using with Wienpahl's words you heard earlier because they seem to be saying something right. Of course, I clearly do continue to use labels - they are in some way unavoidable - but I want to be clearer that, again to cite Wienpahl, "I'm trying to get away from knowing to living, from trying to understand and classify things to the things themselves".

Now, I want to pass this story on to you because it's a story about the only kind of salvation on offer in a church like this - a salvation brought about through the responsible exercise of "complete spiritual freedom".

But I need to do this with an important added caveat because I realise what I have just said can look worryingly like mere egoism - an outrageously selfish way of proceeding. This is a real danger but we can turn to Julian Young, a fine contemporary commentator on Nietzsche, to show us why this need not be the case. Nietzsche is often thought of as being a selfish egoist of the worst kind but Young shows otherwise:

Path near Bédarrides
"Nietzsche holds . . . that genuine happiness is a matter of having an other-directed, life-defining task, - a life 'meaning' - and feeling that you are making a good job of it; making, as we say, 'a contribution'. It is, then, truly enlightened egoism, rather than sighing with ineffectual, Christian pity or gritting one's teeth with Kantian dutifulness, that produces productive commitment to the welfare of one's community at large" ("Friedrich Nietzsche - A Philosophical Biography", CUP 2010, pp. 259-260).

In this sense, by encouraging each of you to go on your own distinctive, authentic religious journeys to save the only life you can save - yours - and making a good job of it, I strongly believe we do, in fact, contribute to the welfare of our community at large. This is to be honest men and women without a position, people responsibly living out in religious community our desire for complete spiritual freedom.