The liberal church as prairie schooner (revisited)

A "prairie schooner"
Last week I gave an address in which I explored something of the idea that we best understand what we are doing in this church when we see ourselves as being "curators" of our rich, inherited religious tradition and also when we more confidently embrace our collaborative identity which is, simultaneously (and hand in glove) both Judaeo-Christian and Greco-Roman - an indissoluble mix of the approaches and stances modelled for us by Jesus and Socrates. This mix of Jesus and Socrates reminded me of an address I gave a year and a half ago which begins with a prayer of Socrates' and a promise of Jesus'.Given this, it seemed worth dusting that address off, lightly revising it, and bringing it before you again (the original - considerably less polished version - can be found at this link).


A prayer of Socrates':

“O dear Pan, and all the other gods of this place, grant that I may be beautiful inside. Let all my external possessions be in friendly harmony with what is within. May I consider the wise man rich. As for gold, let me have as much as a moderate man could bear and carry with him” (Plato, Phaedrus 279c).

A promise of Jesus':

“Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Tolstoy’s recasting of Jesus' promise:

“All people worry about the well-being of the flesh, they have loaded up a kind of cart that they could never pull away; they have placed a yoke on themselves which was not designed to fit them. Understand my teaching and follow it, and you will come to know peace and joy in life. I will give you a different yoke and a different cart: spiritual life. Harness yourself to it and you will learn calmness and blessedness from me. Be peaceful and meek in heart and you will find blessedness in your life. Because my teaching is a yoke designed to fit you; fulfilling my teaching is an easy cart to pull and a yoke designed to fit you” (Tolstoy, Leo: The Gospel in Brief, trans. Dustin Condren, Harper Perennial 2011, pp. 49-50)


This address began with me stumbling across Socrates' prayer. I was especially taken with the line in which he asks Pan and the other gods of the place: “As for gold, let me have as much as a moderate man could bear and carry with him” (Phaedrus 279c). His mention of carrying a burden that was bearable and appropriate brought to my mind one of Jesus’ most comforting promises that, unlike other teachers, his yoke was easy, and his burden light (Matthew 11:30).

Although one might be tempted on a first reading to think that these two teachings are not really about quite the same thing, after spending a little time with them, I began feel that, in their different ways, Socrates and Jesus were both trying to gesture towards the same thing, namely, the need to figure out what is the burden appropriate for the task in hand. It's important to try to ascertain because, as Tolstoy's recasting of Jesus teaching helpfully suggests, humanity is prone to loading its cart up with burdens so heavy that we never have any real hope of successfully pulling it away and this means we inevitably place upon ourselves and others a yoke which was never designed to fit us. It seems to me that the current neoliberal inspired consumer lifestyle is just the latest of these, ultimately, crushing burdens.

My thoughts about burdens and their appropriateness or otherwise eventually condensed around the Western movie. (Although, of necessity, in this address I speak in rather general terms I have particularly in mind John Ford's fine, but often over-looked, movie of 1950 called “Wagon Master”. I've added a short Youtube clip from this film at the end of this post).

Like many children of my generation I watched dozens of Westerns whose basic images and story-lines became thoroughly interwoven with my own. As you will be aware many Westerns focus on a group of settlers moving West and the image of their distinctive covered-wagons, “Prairie Schooners”, travelling through a variety of extraordinary, wild landscapes has become become iconic.

Most of these settlers (many of whom were Europeans) were leaving behind something that no longer satisfied them about the old world back east in order to create a better life in the west. Some of them were fleeing religious persecution, some former crimes and misdemeanours, others some simple poverty. Still others were not so much fleeing anything in particular, as simply setting off to find some kind new or greater excitement, fame or fortune, perhaps as gamblers, hunters, gunfighters, bounty-hunters, actors, or prospectors.

The mix of reasons for undertaking such a journey was always highly complex and, in the best Westerns, it is this volatile and unstable mix which provides the raw material and energy that drives along the story. One important thing worth observing is how in the genre's classic period there are far fewer gunfights than you might imagine. When they do occur there is often only one and even then it lasts only a few seconds. Although in the wilderness the potential for violence is ever present the classic Western does not fetishise violence and the gunfight is not the focus of the best films, rather the focus is upon the moral and ethical dynamics that lead up to the moment of violence and then upon the moral and ethical consequences which follow it.

Now, so far I've only been speaking about the people who appear in the Western but a central character in many of them is the landscape of the West itself - the wilderness through which the traveller must pass.

Monument Valley
To be sure nearly all directors realised the straightforward visual appeal of the landscape but the best of them also allowed it to play an absolutely central, narrative role. In their hands the landscape becomes the necessary place where the rules of old world laws and mores of the East not only no longer apply but actually cannot apply here. The sheer alien strangeness of the landscape (whether it is Monument Valley, Utah or the endlessly open and flat prairies of the mid-West) emphasises the fact that the people travelling through it are not acting in their former worlds where old moralities and law are known and in force but somewhere where these things are suspended and/or put radically into doubt. The landscape is the necessary context in which everyone in it - whether the good, the bad or the ugly - must learn anew how best to make the most basic decisions. It's vitally important to see that this wilderness is not that of the hoped for new world but the only place in which such a new world can be formed, where a new and more appropriate morality and law is forged and refined in the heat and friction that exists between the competing, and sometimes conflicting visions, of life that these settlers are bringing with them. It is this process of world-formation that the best Westerns seek to show us occurring.

Prairie landscape
But, before setting out into the wilderness and the creation of a new world every traveller must decide what to take with them and what to leave behind. They have to decide what are for them the appropriate burdens they are to carry - the kind of burdens that will make the whole experience bearable and also ensure their wagon is not so heavy that it cannot be pulled away.

Of course, we’ve all been through a significantly less dramatic versions of this when packing for a simple holiday. How many pairs of socks and undies do we take, how many pairs of jeans, shirts jumpers jackets or shoes? How many, and which, books to pack (a perennial problem of mine - I mean do I really need to take with me everything Wittgenstein wrote just for a week's holiday!), how much food, how much ready cash (Socrates’ gold) to take and, whether or not we are to include the laptop or tablet?

Of course, most of the burdens carried in the prairie schooner consisted of food, clothing, tools and gold. But you would often find other burdens not so obviously necessary, uplifting, things like a girl’s pretty dress, a boy’s Sunday best, a guitar or harmonica. Then there were also to be found certain, more intangible, spiritual, religious, moral and ethical burdens. In the genre of the Western this latter burden is physically symbolised primarily by the Biblical text, often in the form of a heavy, black leather bound volume and in countless Westerns the words of the Bible are regularly heard under the open skies by a graveside, at mealtimes, in Sunday morning in camp and in the everyday speech of those in the wagon train. The words of the Bible are borne by the settlers as an appropriate burden because they are felt continually to give them sufficient spiritual strength and moral direction in a world often otherwise turned wholly upside down.

The question throughout is not whether there are burdens from our old world to be carried forward - there always are - but rather it is how do we ascertain that the burdens we are to carry with us on this journey are appropriate or not? We must also constantly ensure that we have loaded up the wagon in a way such that we can, in fact, continue to pull it away and are, therefore, taking up a yoke that is designed to fit us.

At this point we may return from the Western and ask ourselves what has this got to do with us as a liberal religious community?

Well, we may begin by observing that each of us here today will be able to tell a story about how we came to this church community because we felt that the old ways of doing religion back “east” were simply not working. So, we asked around for, or by luck or grace simply stumbled upon, this liberal church which openly recognises the need to “go west’ into a new wilderness toforge a new and good life. To join this kind of church is, then, to climb aboard a kind of prairie schooner. Now, if this analogy is correct (enough) it seems clear to me that one of our tasks from time to time is together to reflect upon what burdens we carry seem still to be appropriate and what are not and which, therefore, should be left behind.

However, it's important to realise that discerning our appropriate burden is always an ongoing activity. The unfolding journey together through an actual landscape (whether that is a physical, cultural, intellectual and/or spiritual landscape) is what will show us, as it did to the first settlers, what is now really appropriate to our journey and what is not.

In the four-hundred and fifty years of our religious movement's joinery of faith some things we initially took on board our prairie schooner have stayed on board whilst other things have been let go, still others have been brought on board. (In particular it is worth specifically noticing our willingness to take on board certain aspects of the Greco-Roman tradition which has bequeathed us the collaborative Christian and Socratic identity I mentioned last week).

These things have been done because our journey together has helped us see what, at present, is appropriate and which we are minded to call “light” burdens we are willing to carry. I do not doubt that at some point certain things we deem appropriate today will, one day come to feel to us inappropriate and heavy and they will be let go.

But, so far, I've said nothing about the wild landscape through which our own prairie schooner is presently journeying. It is clearly not the desert of Monument Valley, nor the open prairie, but it is one that in many ways is at least one as alien, strange and, sometimes, as threatening. Our current cultural landscape is often felt by many of us to be as alienating, disorientating, unmapped and wild as anything filmed by John Ford. So many of our old moral, ethical, legal, cultural, political, scientific, philosophical and religious certainties have just disappeared from sight and we know that we are in an increasingly wild and lawless place. This is the condition of “normal nihilism” about which I have spoken a number of times before (see for example here). This landscape cannot be ignored or avoided, we have to live and travel through it if we are to bring about a new world.

Here we can take heart from the visionary promise contained in the classic Western which is that only by traversing this dangerous, alien and alienating, landscape can we hope to forge new and genuinely shared moralities and practices appropriate for our own (highly plural) world and condition.

And, lastly, as every settler and refugee knows - on this kind of world shaping journey you can only take with you an appropriate burden, i.e. you only carry and keep what you really, really, really need and it is only those who successfully discern what this is will be able to pull their wagons away and make it to the end of the trail. Once there, only the really important things, the things we found to be truly appropriate, whose burden we found light and whose yoke was easy, will be with us on our first day in the new world.