"The newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment" — being, in part, a meditation upon the differences between Thoreau’s scimitar and that wielded by ISIS

Walking in Copperas Wood, Essex
Readings: Henry David Thoreau — from “Walking”

Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past. Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated. That sound commonly reminds us that we are growing rusty and antique in our employments and habits of thought. His philosophy comes down to a more recent time than ours. There is something suggested by it not in Plato nor the New Testament. It is a newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment. He has not fallen astern; he has got up early, and kept up early, and to be where he is, is to be in season, in the foremost rank of time. It is an expression of the health and soundness of Nature, a brag for all the world — healthiness as of a spring burst forth — a new fountain of the Muses, to celebrate this last instant of time. Where he lives no fugitive slave laws are passed. Who has not betrayed his master many times since last he heard that note?

Henry David Thoreau — from “Walden” 

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion (Chapter 2, §16)

—o0o—

"The newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment" — being if a meditation upon the differences between Thoreau’s scimitar and that wielded by ISIS

In 1976, aged eleven and during my first week at Junior School, the Gideon’s turned up at our morning assembly during which we were all given a little, red New Testament and Psalms. This book, we were told, provided the answers to everything we would need to know now and for all future time. The Biblical text that was offered to us to make this point was from 2 Timothy 3:14-17. Although, today, this seems to me to be a piece of highly inappropriate religious proselytising, at the time it seemed completely normal and acceptable.

I suppose that between the age of eleven and fifteen I could have been described as being a naive Christian believer and, without doubt, the New Testament was central to my faith. It was during that period, thanks to a BBC radio dramatisation of Martin Luther’s life, that I began to read extensively about the Reformation and was very briefly much taken with the idea of “sola scriptura”, namely the idea that scripture alone was the final authority for all matters of faith and morality. It was comforting, therefore, to know I had this same authoritative book in my bag; and, let’s be honest, what innocent child would not want to have such ready access to a book that they had been told contained everything they needed to know?

However, as some of you will know, my encounter, at the same school, with the natural sciences and the English poet, A. E. Housman (whose work in turn introduced me to Lucretius and Epicurus), had by the age of fifteen definitively set me on a long intellectual and spiritual road that would, eventually, take me away from any kind of conventional theism and religious belief. In consequence the little red New Testament and Psalms was eventually, and quietly, taken out of my bag and left at home. But one of the last, conventionally religious, things to go in my own life was a love of any small book that fitted easily into my bag which could act as some kind of spiritual or philosophical handbook, a “vade mecum” (literally in Latin, a “go with me”).

Indeed, I have to say that I still take what seems to me to be rather a childish delight (childish in the positive sense of the word) in small books and I maintain a particular fondness for my copies of the edited gospels of Jefferson and Tolstoy, the writings of Epicurus and Lucretius and the Tao-Te-Ching. But, as the years have progressed, I have increasingly found that no little book — no matter how wonderful, wise and helpful it was — was ever again going to function in the naive, yet powerful, way as did my first little red one.

Now, in a church tradition such as our own, this news is hardly going to come as a surprise to anyone — indeed there might even be a question in your mind about whether all this is even worth mentioning.

Well, I think it is because, as your minister, I cannot easily do what many Christian believers do when someone asks them “what is your Gospel — your ‘good news’?” For they can still easily produce the New Testament from their bags and begin to talk of the good news of Christ, the cross and the resurrection. Whenever I see that happen I’m minded of some words uttered by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862):

“It is necessary not to be Christian to appreciate the beauty and significance of the life of Christ. I know that some will have hard thoughts of me, when they hear their Christ named beside my Buddha, yet I am sure that I am willing they should love their Christ more than my Buddha, for the love is the main thing, and I like him too” (from the chapter, "Sunday" in "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers").

I want to make it clear that, along with Thoreau, I think that love is the main thing and I, too, still like Christ. (As most of you know, I wear an image of him around my neck on a copy of a medal produced by our sixteenth-century Polish Socinian forebears.) But I also want to be clear that for many years it has been impossible for me to root my faith in “sola scriptura”, whether that scripture is the New Testament, the Qur’an, the Torah, the Tao Te Ching, the Epicurean cannon or that of Buddhism of Hinduism. I fact I cannot ground my Gospel, my good news, in any book at all and I have increasingly come to think that putting one’s faith in any book you deem to be absolute and complete is the most dangerous and life-threatening thing you can do.

Mention of Thoreau reminds me, however, that this has not meant I have, therefore, found myself without some kind of real New Testament, some real Gospel or good news. It was Thoreau, during his many walks in the woods, who has for me most beautifully been able to gesture towards, and given a name to, what that Gospel might be.

In his late masterpiece, the essay called “Walking” (written between 1851 and 1860), Thoreau reveals he was concerned to find “a newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment”. What that is, or might be, I will only come to at the very end. Please bear with me. I hope you will see why I leave it to the very end.

Before we continue it is vital to be clear that I make it clear that Thoreau's essay is not itself the “newer testament” — nor, indeed, are any of his books, not even the incomparable “Walden”. So, when I am asked about my Gospel it won’t work for me meerly to whip out his little essay with a flourish and say, “here it is!”.

To get to what that “newer testament” might be we need, firstly, to be aware that, as the famous lines you heard in our reading, Thoreau wanted: “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Robert Pogue Harrison picks up on this and says:

Thoreau’s excursion to the woods of Walden, then, seeks to reduce life to the essentiality of its facts, in other words to reduce life to the fact of death. A fact of life is not so much something to live with but to die with. It is a self-knowledge that is either in you or not in you when you “come to die,” depending upon your choice, while alive, to live or not to live what is life. Unlike a fact of science, it is nontransferable and nonreiterative. . . . You cannot purchase or inherit it from another, for, in the economy of living, a fact of life is the measure of one’s solvency in death. No one else can live for you your capacity to die, and life does not assume the status of a fact until you discover within yourself this innermost capacity. In this sense a fact of life amounts to a personal fatality [Harrison continues by quoting Thoreau’s Walden]: “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter [scimitar], and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality” (“Forests — The Shadow of Civilization" Chicago University Press, 1992 p. 222).

For many people, hearing that a fact of life is not so much something to live with but to die with, is a very dark and hard thing to hear. Perhaps it is, but, we cannot begin to hear the “the newer testament — the “gospel of the present moment” unless we first heed Thoreau's words about the scimitar.

But, in the present context of ISIS’s shocking beheading videos it is difficult, if not impossible, to hear Thoreau use the image of a scimitar — a sword whose origins are to be found in the Middle-East — without it invoking in us an involuntary sense of unhelpful horror.

Because of this I initially wanted to avoid using this image. But as I pressed on with my thinking and writing I found myself needing to come back to it so I think I also need to address the problematic resonance set up by the current conflict.

ISIS’s scimitar is being held before the people of Iraq and Syria and, in the form of the four beheaded American and British men, ourselves, in order to make people choose for a life governed by an absolute sola scriptura, a “New Testament” that goes, in this context, by the name of the “Qur’an”. The material strike of their scimitar is also absolute — if you do not choose their sola scriptura (or better, their sole reading of a sola scriptura) then your life is over, definitely. In short their scimitar is a destructive, all or nothing weapon, the absolute quality of which offers no hope of real present or future redemption and which, as it falls, always closes a person to all life.

Thoreau’s scimitar turns out to be a very different thing altogether. True, there is an initial similarity in that, like ISIS, Thoreau also desires us to make an important choice but, for him, this is not to choose or refuse an absolute, fixed sola scriptura, a New Testament (by whatever name), but to be for or indifferent to something he calls this “newer testament — a Gospel for the present moment.”

But notice now a major difference. If you do not choose this “newer testament” — and I promise I will come to what that might be in just a moment — then Thoreau’s blade does not descend upon you in judgement to finish your life. Instead it withdraws and leaves you living. But there is a high, often hidden, cost that comes with its withdrawal.

The refusal of the “newer testament” comes in the form of your unwillingness “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life” and your desire to turn away from “learn[ing] what [life] had to teach” and this, in turn, means you have opened yourself up to the possibility that when the time comes “to die” you will discover "that [you] had not lived.”

Whenever anyone refuses to front the facts of life and does not allow the blade to fall, they are left with the nagging knowledge that they are, somehow, not living as truly and authentically as they might and they open themselves up to the dark and difficult knowledge, as Thoreau says elsewhere in “Walden”, that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and that ”What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

But whenever a person willingly fronts the facts of life and lets Thoreau’s scimitar fall upon them, miracle of miracles, they find not death but an opening up to an abundant life which is truly theirs. This is because this is the moment when a person truly finds the few deep, enduring truths by which they are truly prepared to live, moment by precious moment. To find these truths is also to have discovered how to live “your capacity to die”.

When you allow the blade to descend upon you, you also discover another vital truth, perhaps no better expressed than by that lover of Thoreau’s thought and practice, Henry Bugbee (1915-1999) that, even with all our differences, and though we might try many things, “we can live the life of only one person” (The Inward Morning p. 68). And so you come to see and truly understand that your own life — every single life, as a matter of fact, is “nontransferable and nonreiterative” and you “cannot purchase or inherit it from another” — from no prophet, no priest, no minister of religion, no book nor any religious tradition or system.

With these words I can come, at last, to what “the newer testament — the Gospel of the present moment” is. It is what you and no one else but you find in those moments when you allow Thoreau’s scimitar to fall upon you; it is this mortal blow that reveals to you the few deep and enduring truths you hold to be true by which, moment by moment, you can truly live (and die).

I cannot, therefore, tell you what that newer testament — the Gospel of the present moment is because only you can truly find and live (and die) the good news of your life. The best I can do as your minister, and we can do as a congregation of free-thinkers is, along with teachers like Thoreau, daily to find (live) this Gospel by always encouraging each other to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if we can learn what life has to teach, and not, when when we come to die, discover that we had not lived.

As my colleague John Morgan wrote, "in the end . . . it won't matter how much you profess to believe, but rather how deeply you live the few enduring truths you claim as ultimate. All the rest is discipline."
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