“But surely you agree that truth can be created by the repetition of a lie?”

Flowers inside the Memorial (Unitarian) Church
Readings: John 8:31-32 (Scholars Version)
Jesus began to tell the Judeans who had come to believe in him, “If you adhere to my teaching you really are my disciples and you’ll know the truth and the truth will liberate you.”

Matthew 22:34-40 (Scholars Version)

When the Pharisees learned that he had silenced the Sadducees, they conspired against him. And one of them a legal expert, put him to the test: “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?” He replied to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your mind.’ This commandment is first and foremost. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Everything in the Law and the Prophets hangs on these two commandments.”

From The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)

To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others.


From Robert Pogue Harrison's Gardens—An Essay on the Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 71, and pp. 94-95):

What is one to do in so-called dark times, when the world that “comes between men” no longer gives them a meaningful stage for their speech and actions, when reasoned discourse loses its suasion, when powerlessness rather than empowerment defines the citizen’s role in the public sphere? There are times when the thinker, patriot, or individual has no choice but to withdraw to the sidelines, as Plato did when he gave up the idea of becoming a statesman and founded a school on the outskirts of Athens. In her book “Men in Dark Times” Hannah Arendt writes: “Flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped.” The same could be said of the sanctuary that gardens have traditionally offered people when their human condition is under siege. A garden sanctuary can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on the degree of reality it preserves within its haven. Some gardens become places of escape that try to shut out reality . . .. Other gardens, by contrast, become places of humanization in the midst of, or in spite of, the forces of darkness.

 [. . .]

Boccaccio was no moralist. He was not a reformer or would-be prophet. He was not especially preoccupied by human depravity or humanity’s prospects for salvation. He did not harangue his reader from any self-erected pulpit of moral, political, or religious conviction. If the ethical claims for the Decameron which he lays out in his preface are finally extremely modest (the author hopes through his stories to offer diversion and consolation to those in need of them), it is because the human condition itself is a modest one. The plague [of 1348 in Florence, which lies is the background context to the Decameron,] demonstrates as much. To be human means to be vulnerable to misfortune and disaster. It means periodically to find oneself in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification. Our condition is for the most part an affair of the everyday, not of the heroic, and our minimal ethical responsibility to our neighbour, according to Boccaccio’s humanism, consists not in showing him or her the way to redemption but in helping him or her to get through the day. This help takes many modest forms, not least of which is rendering the sphere of social interaction more pleasurable through wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability. To add to the pleasure rather than the misery of life: that is the arché or first principle of Boccaccio’s humanism, which is not the  triumphalist humanism of later eras (which saw self-reliant humankind as the glory of all creation) but the civil humanism of neighbourly love. (It is not by chance that Boccaccio begins his preface with the word umana, or human: Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti [It is human to have compassion for those in distress]).


—o0o—

Address

Many years ago I was told a story about a visiting preacher who decided that a Sunday address could be conflated with a slide-show illustrating their last holiday. After an interminable half-an-hour, they ad-libbed the line, “I could go on”, to which, it is said, someone in the congregation loudly exclaimed, “No, don’t!”. I do not know what happened next but one can only hope that the congregation’s agony was not extended too much further.

Of course, for most of my four months away I haven’t been on holiday at all but, thanks to your kind generosity, I’ve been on sabbatical leave, a time both to recover and critically to reflect on the last eight years of my ministry as well as think about how I might proceed during the next eight years or so. But I, too, took plenty of photographs. However, you’ll be pleased to hear that I’m going to refrain from showing them to you and, should you be interested, I simply direct you to my blog where you’ll find some of them, especially those showing something of our time in Shetland on Britain’s most northerly isle, Unst.

Now, under normal circumstances — and I’ll return to the phrase “normal circumstances” in a moment — it could be expected that my sabbatical reflections would mostly be of a personal philosophical and theological kind and much of my thinking was, indeed, of that personal nature and, in various ways, the positive fruits of my reflections will slowly be making their way into future addresses. But today, my first Sunday back, I want to concentrate on the idea of “normal circumstances”.

For me — and perhaps for many of you — “normal circumstances” could be summed up as occurring in the context of “the post-war consensus” — something I’ve explored with you before. As most of you will know, the term was coined by those historians who were trying to describe the kind of social, political and religious cooperation they felt had obtained during the period dating from the end of the Second World War in 1945 to the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979. Like all such models it is, of course, problematic in many ways but to me, a British lower-middle class, nominally Anglican child of aspirant, liberal working class parents, the post-war consensus formed almost my entire world and, in a nutshell, “normal circumstances” were all about everything proceeding in predictable, comfortable, well-educated, cultured, decent and polite ways. One went to church and school, got married and began a job that paid slightly better than the one your parents had and which would see you through to a comfortable enough retirement. And, for two weeks of the year, in the summer one went on holiday — a veritable heaven of sea, sun, beach, fish-paste sandwiches and tea, all recorded in the distinctive colours of Kodachrome or the memorable black and white of Kodak Tri-X film the photos of which which you were allowed (under certain circumstances) to show to your friends and neighbours but never to your congregation on a Sunday morning.

Anyway, my point is that I was — and many of you were (Cold War fears not withstanding) — raised in a generally optimistic world where one was given the impression everything had a real chance of proceeding reasonably, through decent debate and consensus building, towards greater economic, political, religious and social fairness and justice for all — it was called Social Democracy. However, during the four months I’ve been away the truth of that idea, which was already beginning to crumble from 1979 onwards, has taken yet another series of bad hits, not least of all from the deeply disturbing (but very predictable) rise in nationalist and post-truth rhetoric, as well as violence against immigrants that have followed since the EU Referendum, which maybe now includes a murder. Let us not forget, too, that during the referendum campaign there occurred the brutal murder of the British MP, Jo Cox, a killing explicitly carried out in the name of nationalism by a man with profound mental health issues who, like so many vulnerable people in our societies, has been ill-served by the collapse of the post-war consensus. (I wrote a brief blog post relating to this matter shortly after Ms Cox's murder which you can find at this link.)

Looking more widely afield, over the last four months there were, of course, also to be found other significant nails in the coffin of “normal circumstances”, most notably the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for US President and also the shocking, violent and murderous attacks (many religiously inspired) across Europe that have simply provided even more fuel for right-wing and nationalist groups and parties such as the Front National in France and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany. And none of this is to mention the disturbing events occurring in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Ukraine and elsewhere.

Now, I don’t want to catastrophize about this (that’s all too easy to do) but neither do I want to make the mistake that has so often been made by liberals, which is to underestimate the import of such events and not to take them seriously enough, and soon enough.

At the very least what we can surely say that the idea that there still exists a post-war consensus (whether in Britain, Europe or the USA) seems finally to have bitten the dust and what the last few months have starkly revealed to everyone, even the most cosseted, head-in-the-sand person, is that we are not a single people living happily together under, or converging upon an inevitable Social Democratic consensus, but actually a highly fractured, confused and often very angry disparate group of people where what we used to call “normal circumstances” has pretty much gone the way of the dodo.

Click here for Dan Piraro's excellent site
As free-thinking and free-religious tradition with our roots in the Enlightenment our commitment to the liberal trinity of “freedom, reason and tolerance” (which placed the highest value upon truth-seeking and the hope of developing non-nationalistic, non-theocratic senses of belonging) we clearly have some kind of rôle to play in resisting the development of a society increasingly being filled with hardened, ideological, nationalist positions and in which our politicians are regularly beginning to resort to what has been called post-truth rhetoric. What post-truth rhetoric means has been no better summed up than in the brilliant cartoon by Dan Piraro on the right.

Of course, from time immemorial such post-truth rhetoric was always in play, but one of the great successes of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was that it helped rid us of the hegemony of superstition and absolute monarchy and began a process which replaced them with science and civil liberties. In short, it helped us slowly to create a meaningful stage for our shared speech and actions in which reasoned discourse, and a deep concern for truth, had real traction and was able to get things done. Importantly, this shared meaningful stage provided us all with a vital bulwark against any politician and/or religious leader who desired to create truth by the use of “post-truth rhetoric” and the repetition of a lie. The meaningful stage we made was the shared context where through extended reason debate and the showing of evidence we could reveal these people for what they were — liars and dangerous power-seekers. On the boards of this stage truth could prevail and the truth, as Jesus said, would liberate us and would keep us free (John 8:31-32).

But for complex reasons which I will not explore here — though we can do afterwards if you wish — this meaningful stage has not been maintained by our culture and, since at least 1979, it has been deteriorating badly. Consequently, I think Robert Pogue Harrison’s words we heard in our reading really do, alas, describe our current times, ones which are increasingly dark and in which “the world that ‘comes between men’” is no longer giving us “a meaningful stage” for our speech and actions”; it is a time when reasoned discourse is losing its “suasion” and “when powerlessness rather than empowerment defines the citizen’s role in the public sphere.”

Importantly, because I think it offers a community such as our own a creative way forward, I also agree with Harrison when he cites Hannah Arendt saying, “Flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped.”

Reflecting on Arendt’s thought over the past couple of years I have suggested a couple of times — primarily by drawing on the example of the important Italian Renaissance humanist and Christian Epicurean, Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313–1375) book “The Decameron” — that in these new, non-normal circumstances, just as “the sanctuary that gardens have traditionally offered people when their human condition is under siege”, a liberal, free-religious, free-thinking community such as our own can do something similar and keep alive in its midst a “sphere of social interaction” that is made “more pleasurable” not only through a commitment to truth and reason, but also to “wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability.”

I think we in this church can do this most effectively by rooting all this in a continuing powerful but gentle commitment to the example of the human Jesus. As I have already mentioned, Jesus is reported as having said to us that the truth shall liberate us but, remember, he also said that we know the truth by adhering to his teaching because that teaching is one way we come to know the truth. And what is that teaching? Well, Jesus himself summed it up for us in the Great Commandment:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your mind.’ This commandment is first and foremost. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Everything in the Law and the Prophets hangs on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Notice that this way of putting it suggests the second part of this commandment is equivalent in some way to the first and, consequently, we can say [to borrow a phrase from Thomas Sheehan] that henceforth and forever God is present only in and as one’s neighbour and where everything is dissolved into the call to justice and charity to one’s neighbour.

Were we able to do this consistently, locating ourselves in the interstices between increasingly problematic nationalistic, political or religious identities on the one hand, and the increasingly problematic, atomized, disaffected, angry and depressed individual on the other, we could, in my opinion, become a modest, but genuinely affective, site of democratic, liberal religious, political and social resistance, hope and insurrection.

The gospel of John (1:5) assures us that “Light was shining in the darkness, and darkness did not master it” and it seems to me that the important work we must do together as followers of the human Jesus in the coming years is to ensure that this light is not extinguished by the dark and nihilistic forces that, frighteningly, do seem to be gathering around us.

But, as Albert Camus once said:

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

Holding Camus' thought in mind it is possible to rework Piraro’s cartoon caption and say that truth is created in our world, not by a lie, but only by the endless repetition of wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, sociability and, most importantly, of justice and charity to our neighbour — whomsoever they are. Nothing less is sufficient to bear witness to that invincible summer, the kingdom of God, which is always pushing back against the darkness and the lies.

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