Solar Ethics - Don’t hide, come out like the sun. Pour yourself out. Burn!

Today's evening sun on Christ's pieces, opp. the church

“Exaltation” by Linda M. Underwood

All this talk of saving souls!
Souls weren't meant to save
like Sunday clothes that give out at the seams.
They're made for wear.
They come with lifetime guarantees.
Don't save your soul!
Pour it out like rain on cracked, parched earth.
Give your soul away, or pass it like a candle flame.
Sing it out, or laugh it up the wind.
Souls were made for hearing breaking hearts,
for puzzling dreams, remembering August flowers,
forgetting hurts.
These "folk" who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies who blow out candles
before you sing Happy Birthday—
and want the world to be in alphabetical order.
I will spend my soul playing it out
like sticky string into the world,
so I can catch every last thing I touch.

Philippians 2:5-8 (NRSV)

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Gospel of Thomas, saying 97, as presented by John Dominic Crossan in his “Essential Jesus” (Castle Books, New York, 1994) 

The Kingdom of God is like this

A woman journeying homeward failed to notice that her
cracked jar trailed grain behind until, by the time she finally
arrived, the jar was empty, the grain was lost.

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?) 

From “Solar Ethics” by Don Cupitt (SCM Press, London, 1995, pp. 8–9)

"The sun sees no reason at all to apologize for making such an exhibition of itself; it simply is its own outpouring of self-expression. It puts on a good show. It has no "inwardness", that is, it is not inwardly subject to something unseen that is authoritative over it. It does not experience the moral orders as something distinct from itself and its own activity. It is not driven, either by anxiety or by resentment: it is purely and only affirmative. It coincides completely with its own joyous, headlong process of self-exteriorization — and what's wrong with that? A powerful moral need nowadays drives people to seek just such an ethic of self-declaration. They want publicity, they want to demonstrate, they want to come out of the closet and into the open. I think they are right.”


A woman journeying homeward failed to notice that her cracked jar trailed grain behind until, by the time she finally arrived, the jar was empty, the grain was lost.

But just how is the kingdom of God like that?

Of course, many of Jesus teachings invite us to ask this question and collectively these teachings are known as the “parables of the kingdom” — so the kingdom of heaven is like a sower of seeds, the good or growing seed, a lamp, a mustard seed, hidden treasure, leaven etc.. Whilst no one can ever be absolutely clear what precise message Jesus hoped or intended his hearers to take from these sayings, we can say that the sayings that made it into the canonical gospels were, at the very least, those which were capable of bearing for the gospel authors some fairly straightforward interpretations - straightforward at least to their own minds and what later became the Christian mindset. But the particular saying we have before us today is somewhat different.

Firstly, it is not preserved in the canonical gospels but in the very early text known as the “Gospel of Thomas” — a text that many scholars believe may be slightly older than the earliest extant canonical gospel, that of Mark, written c. 70CE.

Secondly, it's a highly puzzling saying, not least of all because we have been taught to think of the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God in only obviously positive terms, such as growth, fulfilment and wholeness. This saying, however, seems to speak of the kingdom of God in apparently negative terms, of fracture and of an emptying out. Consequently, it has the power to disturb and challenge us in a unique way. As the NT scholar John Dominic Crossan notes, this is:

"A parable whose image is as obvious as its meaning is obscure. Where precisely is the point of comparison? Is the Kingdom of God something one can lose so quietly and unobtrusively that its absence is not even realised until it is far, far too late?" (The Essential Jesus, p. 167).

The sheer oddness of the saying is, by the way, one of the reasons that make some scholars think that it is likely to be an authentic teaching of Jesus'. However, I want to be absolutely clear that I'm examining this saying today without being at all concerned about whether or not the historical Jesus really said it. I'm looking at it simply because it carries with it its own odd, impelling force and that's reason enough to take its question seriously - how is the kingdom of God like this? Even if Jesus did say it, this would be no guarantee that the saying is in any sense authoritative or even useful. Jesus was a human-being and, like all human-beings, I take it as read that he was as capable of missing the mark and saying something wrong or misguided as the best of us.

Before I go on I also want to be clear I neither think, nor claim, that the interpretation I'm going to offer here is THE real meaning of the saying. That would be a nonsense as it's clearly capable of delivering up in different contexts a very wider spectrum of possible meaning and value.

But as I've been thinking about it over the last few weeks one possible interpretation has consistently shone out from it that seemed to me to offer some illumination on how we might live as liberal, religious people in our own age and culture.

So, back to the question: "How is the kingdom of God like that?"

Well, the first difficulty we face in trying to answer this question is that the kingdom of God is not a place that exists in our world such that a description of it could be written, a la some kind of Michelin Guide. As already intimated, we cannot compare the parable's image to anything we know. It's not like Matthew Arnold (in Thrysis) saying, "And that sweet City with her dreaming spires,/She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,/Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!" where this memorable image can be compared by you to the real, existing, Oxford by catching the X5 bus one afternoon in June. Consequently, it seems to me better to take the saying as speaking of a way of being-in-the-world - it suggests that the kingdom of God is not a place but an attitude or stance one can adopt.

So what stance is encouraged by living like the parable of the broken jar?

Taken together, the image of a broken jar, the trailing grain, and the fact that the woman is not aware of what is going on strongly suggests to me that Jesus - or whoever said the saying - might be saying something like "the kingdom of heaven is an un-selfconscious emptying out".

Perhaps, surprisingly, for a religion that became increasingly uptight and desirous of control, the saving of souls and the maintenance of the (fullness of the) status quo this idea is not totally alien to the Christian mind even if it has clearly become peripheral. As you heard in our readings (Philippians 2:5-8) Paul sees in God and Jesus just such an emptying out. The word Paul uses to speak of this emptying out is "kenosis".

I first came across this wonderful thought thanks to the Revd Dr Arthur Long who died only a few years ago. For those of you who don't remember him, he was Principle of Unitarian College, Manchester for many years and also a fine liberal Christian theologian and historian (You can read his Current Trends In British Unitarianism, his Fifty Years of Theology 1928-1978 and his Faith and Understanding - Critical Essays in Christian Doctrine by clicking on these links). Early on in my association with Unitarians, Arthur strongly pointed me to the work of the distinguished Cambridge theologian, Geoffrey Lampe, most notably his book called "God as Spirit" which explores this idea of "kenosis". In this book Lampe clearly emerges as a critic of the doctrine of the Trinity and argues, as Arthur said, "that there are far better foundations for the essential insights of Christianity than those furnished by affirmations of Trinitarian dogma."

It was Geoffrey Lampe's kenotic Christology that first opened a door for me onto what is perhaps an even more radical way of understanding both Christianity and what it might mean to be a follower of Jesus in our own highly secular culture of the late-twentieth, and now twenty-first, centuries.

Here I can come to the work of the English philosopher of religion Don Cupitt. In his later work Don has been exploring this idea of self-emptying in a variety of ways and in particular by using two key images, the sun and the fountain.

Both the sun and the fountain are everyday images that capture well and instantly the basic this idea of an un-self conscious and generous emptying out into this world. The truth and meaning of the sun and the fountain are to be found, not in another realm (such as heaven) in which they are conserved in some stable, essential form (a platonic sun or fountain) but, instead, in this dynamic world in their generous living which is also a generous dying. To echo the words of Linda M. Underwood's wonderful "Exultation", the sun and the fountain are not meant to be saved (for another world) but used up and played out into our own extraordinary transient world.

For Don, the word "God" - if and when it is still to be used at all - cannot be used refer to some kind of stable, eternal, essential being but rather only to the dynamic, continuously self-giving, self-emptying, self-outing nature of the universe. To some this may sound wildly "cosmic" and ungrounded but, when a person starts to say to themselves that perhaps they should imitate this basic modus operandi of God or Nature (Deus-sive-natura) in their own lives, then it has some highly practical and profound ethical implications.

Don thinks we should live in just this fashion and his short and accessible book "Solar Ethics" is an encouragement to adopt just such a stance. Don chose this everyday, natural image of the sun to present to the world an ethical stance - even a  kind of moral theology - that did not have to rely too much (if at all) upon any specific, contingent, historical religious tradition. I think he is right in this and I hope it is obvious that, for example, a naturalistic, atheist could explicitly come to live by such a "solar ethic".

However, as Don explicitly states, there is a sense in which one may say that "solar ethics is a version of Christian ethics". The reason for this has nothing to do with the Christian metaphysics that neither Don, the atheist, nor I can any longer accept, but simply because this solar way of living was shown in action in our culture most memorably by Jesus. In Jesus's life we begin to see a real glimpse of what solar living might be like. In what for me was a powerfully moving statement made at last years Sea of Faith London Conference Don said the following:  

"The moral teaching of the original Jesus, critically reconstructed, was entirely concerned with human relationships and human self-expression, or, as we’d now call it, ‘self-outing’. He seems to be surprisingly secular, a point hard to explain until we remember that in the Last World there is ‘no Temple’, as the Revelation of John says, no religious system, and no centralised or ‘focussed’ divinity. In the Kingdom, God is dispersed into a universal ‘brightness’, a luminous intelligibility in which there is no darkness and everything is plain to view. It’s a purely human world in which everyone is equal, and every heart is open. There is no Beyond and therefore no ulteriority and no deception or duplicity, because we can try to deceive people only if we can envisage a future in which we may profit from our deception. We are not immortal souls, with a very long-term future: we are nothing but our own living of our own brief lives. We shouldn’t be hoarders, because we cannot do it successfully. Instead we should pour ourselves out into life unreservedly. As the popular saying has it: ‘Use it or lose it’. Don’t hide, come out like the sun. Pour yourself out. Burn! Don’t make comparisons, don’t claim your rights. Just put on a good show. Burn!"

Don just seems to me to be right here and, like him I find that, for someone like me and a church such as this which stands in the liberal Christian tradition, such a solar ethic brings with it an extra kind of joy, namely that through such an ethic it become possible for me and us to find that we can be "beliefless Christians who are still Christians (and all the more so, indeed) even after having shed all the ragged and rusty old burden of dead doctrinal beliefs" (cf. "Solar Ethics", p. 28)

Now is it towards a just such a solar ethics that the parable of the Empty Jar points? I cannot give a definitive "Yes!" to this but do I have to? It seems clear enough that the parable can be interpreted this way - especially since Jesus' whole way of being-in-the-world also expresses such a selfless giving to the world.

Taken together, the jar, the sun, the fountain and Jesus compel me to come out to you myself and say along with Don, "Pour yourself out! Burn!" and, with Linda Underwood, to insist that our souls are not for saving but for pouring out like rain on cracked, parched earth or the passing on of the flame of life. The kingdom is something like this.