"Curation" and "collaborative identity" - two helpful ideas for thecontemporary liberal church

Happisburgh Lighthouse, Norfolk
There is an old proverb which says that at the foot of a lighthouse it is always dark. It reveals something of what Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) called "the darkness of the lived moment."

Sometimes, however, we are fortunate to encounter other lights that illuminate the darkness of our own lived moment and this, in turn, can help bring something of our present moment sufficiently into view so we can authentically interrogate, critique and take it up.

Sometimes, of course, that which is revealed by another's light is not entirely pleasant. For example, a couple of times in the past visitors have helped us see that, despite believing we were a model liberal, welcoming and open-minded congregation we were, in fact, sometimes not quite all those things. For those visitors' graceful, challenging and redemptive lights, we have cause to be profoundly grateful. Sometimes, however, that which is revealed by another's light can be surprisingly exciting and encouraging. Today I'm pleased to bring you something seen of this latter kind.

Following the very generous donation we received at the beginning of the year, together we began to engage in a necessary process of self-reflection to help us better see who we are, what we are about, and what we might want to do both in the near-term and the future. This process was began as a necessary preliminary to the preparation of a new website because, after all, we want, to the best of our ability, to make sure we present to the world a correct (enough), and truthful (enough), expression of who we are.

It was Julian Holloway who, attracted by the light shining from our lighthouse, was able to shine another light into the darkness at the foot of our edifice and illuminate for us certain key things we were doing but which we had not yet been able fully to see and consciously articulate. These were offered to you in the form of the bullet points I put in my most recent letter in the newsletter. I am pleased to report that this collaborative articulation of what we are about has, so far anyway, been very well-received by members - including our minister emeritus, Frank Walker. These points have, since then, continued to be refined and reordered such that they read as follows:

What the Memorial (Unitarian) Church offers:
  • A liberal Christian tradition that is in line with contemporary, secular culture.
  • Opportunities to explore a wide body of philosophy as inspiration for living our lives well.
  • Access to the teaching of the human Jesus.
  • The freedom to change as our understanding of the natural world and society grows.

  • The means to build moral strength - courage and conscience.
  • The means to recognise Grace in our lives.
  • Development of intellectual and spiritual resilience for times of trouble.
  • A grateful understanding, rooted in science, of our place in nature.
  • Access to confidential and kindly counsel in times of need.
  • Practices of contemplation, prayer, meditation and study.

  • A clear-eyed and open-minded community of fellow travellers.
  • The Christian Year as the basic framework for our personal, family and congregational life.
  • Rites of passage that are focussed fully on the people involved.

Here, there is only one orthodoxy: 
a sincere desire to see how the world is and understand our place in it.

It was something that Julian said about this reordering that leads me now into the substantive body of this address, namely, that, although they were OK in their original form they clearly needed a bit of "curation".

His use of the word "curation" resonated very, very strongly with me because of another light that has recently been shone at the foot of my own and, by extension, our own lighthouse. It is a light which I feel helpfully illuminates something of what we seem to be trying to do here in this unusual church community.

This light is being shone by the work of a writer and philosopher, Edward F. Mooney, who is best known for having written, with great insight, eloquence and appropriate passion about, specifically, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) (see for example here and here) and, more generally, about the need to recover intimacy and the personal in philosophy. In the latter sphere his writing has often centred, not only on Kierkegaard, but upon Henry Bugbee (1915-1999), Stanley Cavell (b. 1926) and one of my own heroes, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) (see here).

In our first reading (these readings can be found at the end of this post) we heard Mooney remind us that "the artful critic, like the curator of invaluable archives or someone husbanding objects of great cultural worth, can bring that plenitude out and into life, saving it from extinction or from an only paltry half-life."

As a community we are ourselves the inheritors of a great collection - not the only great collection in the world, of course, but still, I think, a truly great and invaluable one - which our General Assembly Object calls the "liberal Christian tradition".

All the great collections in the world know that they cannot have on display, all the time, everything they contain. Consequently they have a duty to curate what they hold so as to bring out into life, to the best of their ability, their collection's "plenitude" so as to save it from "extinction or from an only paltry half-life". It's an always ongoing task. Even though every great collection has, what we might call a core, foundational set of objects - those which give it an initial recognisable, individual identity, shape and flavour - the full "identity" of every collection in truth remains capable of an almost infinite variation, presentation and interpretation. The curators of such great collections are constantly called upon and able, in the manner encouraged by Jesus, to bring out of their treasure what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52) and, thanks to this, an always astonishing plenitude of meaning is helped to pour forth into the world which can, at its best, help enhance and enrich our understanding of, and ability to live, the good life appropriate to our own age.

Likewise, we, too, need to take care and time to curate objects in our tradition's collection (canon is perhaps better?) so as to bring out something of their plenitude and into life, thus saving them from extinction or from an only paltry half-life. Like the curators of every great collection we, too, seek to bring before the world those things which we feel can help people lead richer and more fulfilled lives in the here and now.

It seems to me that the process we have just gone through as a community to understand ourselves better has been just such a curation. We have tried to bring out from our treasure house things both new and old that we feel can can speak meaningfully (and truthfully) to our present life. Of course, it's not the only possible way to curate our collection but it's the one we have come up with at this particular moment in our corporate life.

Another, related, thing struck me as I thought through all this. As I have already intimated, every great collection's recognisable identity is, of necessity, what we might call a collaborative one. So, for example, although when we think of the British Museum today we might immediately centre on the extraordinary room holding the "Elgin Marbles" - The Parthenon Sculptures from the Acropolis of Athens - it is clearly ridiculous to say that, alone, this major set of objects gives the museum its true, distinctive identity. No! It's a constantly evolving collaborative identity involving every part of the collection as it is lovingly curated always to bring forth something more of its plenitude. We can say something similar in relation to, say, the Louvre and the "Mona Lisa".

Now, a couple of years ago I introduced you to what I think is an important (and unjustly forgotten) book by the Unitarian minister and theologian John F. Hayward (1918-2012) who taught at the University of Chicago and then Meadville Lombard - "Existentialism and Religious Liberalism" (Beacon Press, 1962).

Even though he did not give it this name he was acutely aware of "collaborative identity" and, even as he continually encouraged members of our congregations - and in particular our ministers - to continue to learn from and teach the Bible, especially its wisdom literature, the call of the Hebrew prophets to social justice, and the story of Jesus, he was also quite explicit in saying that:

"Although we have not inherited directly from Greece any modes of worship which we can naturally and easily assume, we have her art, her drama and literature as a reminder of her profound influence on all our history and thought patterns. Liberal churchmen should carefully inject into the activity of the church the varied legacy of classical Greece, her celebration of natural beauty, her rationalism, her sense for the tragic, and her stoical courage" (p. 112)

It is clear that Hayward saw our identity as a liberal church as being in some way a collaborative one - one which was simultaneously, hand in glove, Judaeo-Christian and Greek. (Our occasional Epicurean Gatherings are but one example of how here we have tried to take him at his word.)

It's now time to remind you, as our second reading revealed (see below), that in the previous few paragraphs, I've been silently quoting Edward Mooney in talking about "collaborative identity" This is something he developed in connection with his work on Kierkegaard. He told me that in his book, "On Søren Kierkegaard", he wanted to help people into a consideration of Kierkegaard that was "as far away as possible from an image of Kierkegaard as a fanatic, unreasoning Christian" - a popular image which, alas, as many of you will know can still be quite hard to overcome. In consequence, Mooney began with something Kierkegaard had said, namely, that he thought his 'task' had always been Socratic. Mooney then went on "to reconstruct how one could have a Socrates streak and a Jesus streak" which required "getting a fix on religion that was flexible enough to make Socrates quite religious - (as well as an interrogator and critic)."

Mooney said that, although the "idea of 'collaborative identity' came rather late in the game", once he had "hit on it, it seemed very intuitive, that we have 'pictures' of people we admire within us, different pictures, yet they needn't clash and we don't need to pick one over the other - there can be 'collaboration,' like the collaboration among members of a string trio or quartet."

This is, I think, a very powerful and beautiful image that immediately struck me as articulating admirably clearly something that we (I) have been struggling to articulate here in our attempt to make real Hayward's vision of a liberal church that confidently and simultaneously shows its love and admiration for Jesus and for Greek thought in general, and Socrates in particular.

So, to conclude, may I be so bold as to suggest that I think it's worth us spending some time in the coming months thinking through the idea that we might best serve the liberal church by coming to understand ourselves as curators, and that it is only through our own careful and loving curations of our inherited tradition that we are, ourselves, capable of making essays in good living and intellectual love that can bring with them a certain kind of real salvation.

May I also suggest that we take time further to explore the idea that Kierkegaard may well turn out to be a very good (and perhaps for some us, unexpected) model for the liberal church to consider as we continue our attempt to create the collaborative identity spoken of by John Hayward and bring about something that Kierkegaard also desired, a life both fully Christian and fully Socratic.



Ortega calls his Meditations on Quixote "essays in Intellectual love." As he puts it "[these essays] . . . have no informative value whatever, they are not summaries, either - they are rather what a humanist of the seventeenth century would have called salvations." But what can we, of the twenty-first century, make of the idea that essays can be salvations? Ortega writes that a salvation - for example, his salvations of Don Quixote - will take up "a man, a book, a picture, a landscape, an error, a sorrow and then seek to carry it by the shortest route to its fullest significance."
          We should expect, then, that some essays are expressions of love, a kind of preservative love, a love that cares for persons and things and gives them life. Such essays can carry out a generous, even pious criticism or elaboration that brings a theme or person or object to its next and fuller meaning. Without such attentive care, fields of significance we now take for granted fall into disuse, decay. Like ill-treated living things, they slowly die, or stay fallow, awaiting summer's rain and seeding. Texts or paintings, trees or figures from our past, can carry undiscovered plenitudes. The artful critic, like the curator of invaluable archives or someone husbanding objects of great cultural worth, can bring that plenitude out and into life, saving it from extinction or from an only paltry half-life.

In a late notebook Kierkegaard said: “The only analogy I have for what I am doing is Socrates. My task is the Socratic task of revising the definition of what it means to be a Christian. Therefore I do not call myself a Christian (keeping the ideal free), but I make it plain that nobody else is either.” (Trans. George Pattison).

[Kierkegard said] his vocation . . . has been "the Socratic task of revising the definition of what it means do be a Christian."  This should startle us in at least two ways.
          First, how could Kierkegaard, an ordinary parishioner, presume to go about altering or amending a doctrinal definition of the Christian faith? That would be the exclusive prerogative of `ecclesiastical authorities. Yet the Socratic task is to disabuse others of untruth, so to revise a definition might mean to unseat a going definition, to deflate a current assumption. If the conventional definition reads, "To be a Christian is to be born in a Christian country and attend church at least once," then that definition needs revision. Kierkegaard-Socrates could mock and deflate and so "revise" a mistaken definition without providing a replacement. This reading gives us a Kierkegaard-Socrates concerned to expose untruths, to attack pride, to mock the presumption to intellectual mastery. He unsettles anyone who remains complacent in a commonplace conceptual bed.
          A space less cluttered by shoddy presumptions permits a better definition of Christianity to appear - in some shape or form. Perhaps Kierkegaard does more than expose bad definitions. But if he remains true to his Socratic ignorance, an emerging positive definition can't shape up as a verbal formulation or anything like a dictionary or encyclopedia entry for "Christianity." Is there another way one could be revising the definition of what it means to be a Christian? Potters and sculptors give their clay definition. That's not lexical revision. Perhaps a "revised definition" of what it means to be a Christian means giving a better shape to the contours of the unfolding character or way of life we'd want to call "Christian." A definition so construed is a narrative, a life defined through narrative, whose living has a narrative structure. As we imagine a painter giving better definition to an elusive countenance before her, so Kierkegaard would give better shape and contour to the shifting countenance of an elusive Christian life. The way Plato attends to the Socratic life, and the way the Gospels attend to the Christian life, so Kierkegaard could attend to Gospel and Platonic life-narratives (as well as the cautionary life-narratives of Faust or Don Juan). Taking up this task of revising a definition would amount to sketching out a collaborative Socratic-Christian identity.

[. . .]

There is textural evidence – I think it’s decisive – that Kierkegaard takes his Christian and Socratic identities to be linked like hand in glove in sub-zero weather. Lacking a glove, the hand is useless; lacking a hand, the glove is useless. Ranking their comparative indispensability makes no sense at all. Since neither Christ nor Socrates is dispensable, both are indispensable.