The freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today—Part One: A Beginning

A recorded version of the following piece is available at this link



The theme of the conference for which this piece was originally written was, “Religion—Where Next?” It seems to be an important question to ask because, at least in Europe and North America, the state of our formal religious traditions appears ever more parlous and, at least in denominational terms, perhaps terminal.

But was this, in fact, precisely the right question to pose? I asked this because over the twenty-one years of my ministry with a small liberal religious community in Cambridge it has struck me more and more that a better question to ask might be “Religion—Where Right Now?” To begin to get at what I mean I’d like to start with a little cautionary tale.

Many years ago I was in a denominational meeting where we returned to the perennial question about how we might deal with the fact that our community’s inherited, basically liberal Christian and Radical Enlightenment religious ideas and stories seemed not to be connecting meaningfully with most people in our own day and age. The conversation finally centred upon the word “worship”, especially as it was found in the phrase to be found on many of our church noticeboards: “Such and Such Church meets for worship at 10.30am.” The general feeling in the meeting was that the word “worship” either meant nothing at all to most people or, if they did know what it meant, it actively put them off from attending. What was needed, so the claim was made, was a brand new word and someone came up with “MetaK”, explaining that it was made up of two elements, “Meta” (meaning “after”, “higher”, “above” or “beyond”) and the letter “K” which stood for knowledge. But although appreciative of the attempt, and certainly the felt need for new ways to talk about the divine and the sacred, I and others pointed out that no one would know what on earth the word “MetaK” meant and so it would be utterly pointless to start painting it on our noticeboards. Ultimately, we were sure that it would be more off-putting than the word it sought to replace. I mean, think about it, can you imagine what you would think if you came across this phrase on a church noticeboard: “Such and Such Church meets for MetaK at 10.30am”?! However, pressing valiantly on with the idea, someone replied that perhaps it might intrigue people to persuade them to ask us what it meant and so someone else enquired what was it that we should tell them?” The reply came that “We should tell people it was something like worship.” I rest my case and simply note that the word “MetaK” was not painted on our noticeboards.

I imagine, however, that, like me, many of you will feel some sympathy and affinity with the proposer of the word “MetaK” because we are all acutely aware that our inherited religious traditions are full of words and practices — such as “worship” and “church”— which simply no longer meaningfully and/or positively connect with many people—including, of course, ourselves.

This is, at least in part, why we are so tempted to ask, and try to answer, the question “Religion — Where Next?” and all the evidence we come across strongly suggests that it’s not going anywhere if it simply and slavishly hangs onto old words, concepts and practices and also refuses to countenance the introduction of any new expressions of religion. 

But, surely, is it not also true that neither is religion going to go anywhere if it too swiftly and thoughtlessly tries to impose, ahead of time, wholly new words and practices that have gained absolutely no collective meaning or cultural currency? Such an approach would, surely, only hasten its current demise.  

Given this bind how do I think we might be able properly to claim the freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today and so succeed in moving on in our religious language and practices so that, eventually, we might make a religion appropriate for the future? Well, I’m going to suggest something that might, at first sight, seem to be holding things back, namely, that we need, firstly, to claim the freedom religiously to be what we are today, but be what we are today in an appropriate way. As Jesus wisely said, “Do not worry about tomorrow; it will have enough worries of its own. There is no need to add to the troubles each day brings” (Matt. 6:34). So, in this piece at least, I’d like to remain with today’s troubles.

Connected with this thought, I’m sure you all know the old joke about the tourist asking a local for directions to some particular place in town. The local replies, “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here”. There is, of course, great wisdom in this joke because it helps us see that the only place we can ever start from is the place where we are, right here and now, and that this is so whether we like this fact or not.

But, the objection often goes, such an approach cannot possibly work because the religion we have access to here and now is too heavy a yoke, one impossibly weighed down by its faulty, problematic and reactionary language and practices. However, I don’t think this objection is, necessarily, correct and on this point, I’m very much with the great twentieth-century German philosopher of hope, Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), who could speak to us of “the still undischarged future” that was to be found “in the past” (Ernst Bloch: “Principle of Hope”, MIT Press, Cambridge MA 1995, 1:200). 

Picking up on this idea, in his recent book, “Hope without Optimism”, Terry Eagleton feels that, in consequence, we should strive “to keep the past unfinished, refusing to accept its appearance of closure as the final word, springing it open once again by rewriting its apparent fatality under the sign of freedom” (Terry Eagleton: “Hope without Optimism”, Yale UP, New Haven 2015, p. 32).

To my mind, liberal religious people (whether rooted in the Christian and Radical Enlightenment traditions or not) most effectively gather together “under the sign of freedom” whenever they are able consistently to employ what the contemporary Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo has called “il pensiero debole”—“weak thought”, a philosophy found implicitly in the Christian tradition in the writings of St Paul — “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).

Vattimo’s work helps us see that we might best overcome our inherited religious traditions, not by overcoming them in a strong way, in a single, revolutionary moment by forcibly replacing one word, concept or practice with another (such as in the example of “MetaK”) but, instead, by employing weaker, more subtle and creative ways which consciously surpass and reinterpret our inherited religious traditions.  Vattimo borrows two German words from Heidegger to point to the difference in approaches. The hard, forcible way of overcoming he calls überwindung, whilst the gentle way he calls, verwindung (meaning to “go beyond” but in a transformative, incorporating, rather than destructive, way).

The action of water gives us an obvious physical analogy to verwindung and which the Tao Te Ching expresses beautifully: “Nothing in the world is soft and weak as water. But when attacking the hard and strong, nothing can conquer so easily. Weak overcomes strong, soft overcomes hard” (Tao Te Ching, Ch. 78, trans, Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo, Hackett, Indianapolis 1993).

This is why in my own ministry in Cambridge — despite the odd personal wobble and moment of doubt (and who does not have them?) — I continue to be an advocate of remaining clear that we are a community that is slowly but consciously emerging from, and seeking to reform and reinterpret the language and practices of the liberal Christian and Radical Enlightenment tradition, and to do it in ways which help us continue to claim the freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today. 

In passing, although I think this is a very important point, there are also good, liberal and progressive politico-theological reasons why, in claiming this freedom, we are not tempted to make an absolute break with the Christian tradition because, as the British philosopher, Peter Thompson, recently noted, it is clear “that religion as both debate and way of life has not crumbled in the face of an apparently inexorable rationalist, scientific, modernising Enlightenment and globalisation of the market economy” and, contrary to most liberal expectations, religion has “retain[ed] a potency and strength which remains far in excess of its ability to explain” (Thompson's introduction to Ernst Bloch’s “Atheism in Christianity”, Verso Press 2009, p. ix). Surely, we need to have continued access to — or at least a living understanding of — this potency and strength if we are going to have a genuine chance of helping to direct religion in liberal and progressive directions rather than illiberal and very regressive ones. 

Anyway, Vattimo feels, as do I, that if we can find ways to keep the past present and consciously to engage with it in a dialectical conversational way through a process of “verwindung”, carried out with the patience of water upon stone then, in time, we stand a real chance of truly escaping many of our old and, to my mind, highly damaging religious thoughts and practices and so able to move into a genuinely new liberal and progressive religious way of being in the world.

We can begin better to appreciate something of what is meant by this kind of approach by considering the point Karl Marx made in his oft-quoted eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.”

However, Vattimo (and his colleague Santiago Zabala) have come to feel, and I agree with them, that, today, Marx’s eleventh thesis needs to be rewritten thus:

“The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it” (Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala: in “Hermeneutic Communism — From Heidegger to Marx”, Columbia University Press, New York 2011, p. 5).

Related to this observation, in an interview from 2002, Vattimo notes that:

“In a strong theory of weakness, the philosopher’s role would not derive from the world ‘as it is,’ but from the world viewed as the product of a history of interpretation throughout the history of human cultures. This philosophical effort would focus on interpretation as a process of weakening, a process in which the weight of objective structures is reduced.”

Indeed, most of us know only too well that our inherited religious traditions and their strong objective structures (such as, for example, the idea of a supernatural, supreme being or the various institutions of an organised, hierarchical church) desperately need to be overcome. Despite this, however, Vattimo is, as am I, in agreement with Heidegger when he said, “Overcoming is worthy only when we think about incorporation” (Martin Heidegger: “Overcoming Metaphysics” in the “End of Philosophy”, trans J. Stambaugh, Harpur and Row, New York 1973, p. 91).

The point I’m trying to tease out here is that the religion we have in the here and now on our own bend of the river (whatever and wherever it is) need never be allowed to be taken simply, “as it is” but can always be taken, as Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) noted, as being “fluid, labile and suspended” (quoted in Terry Eagleton: “Hope without Optimism”, Yale UP, New Haven 2015, p. 32). In other words, we need to begin to see that our inherited religion is something always capable of being radically, yet gently, reinterpreted and surpassed so that it can continue to gift us things intensely valuable and meaningful, things both new and old. As Jesus is once reported as having said “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings out of their treasury what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).

Today, I want to suggest that, by a process of verwindung and using weak thought, there can always be found in our past traditions still undischarged futures which can be released. This is because our past traditions are not what we usually think they are, i.e completely done and dusted, instead, they’re always unfinished and radically open. This, in turn, means, as Eagleton notes, we need to become aware that “the meaning of past events lies ultimately in the guardianship of the present” (Terry Eagleton: “Hope without Optimism”, Yale UP, New Haven 2015, p. 32).

This feeling has, for a long time now, made me ask how we might become ourselves modern equivalents of scribes of the kingdom of heaven? That is to say, people who are truly able to affect the guardianship of the present and, through the use of weak thought and verwindung, are truly able to claim the freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today.

The first thing to observe in answering this question is that scribes are made not born. They are only slowly formed in community through a long, self-conscious, disciplined educational practice and it seems to me that, therefore, one of the most pressing things required of contemporary liberal religion in the here and now is not to be seduced into trying to make some putative religion of the future right at this moment of time but of making and shaping contemporary liberal religious subjects who, like Jesus, are highly skilled at being able to bring out of their treasury what is new and what is old. They will be the ones who are then able to build a liberal religion genuinely suitable for the future.

In an attempt to create such liberal religious subjects, in my own ministry in Cambridge, I have consistently tried to encourage people to become the kind of “Free Spirits” promoted by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and to combine this with becoming what the twentieth-century poet Charles Olson (1910-1970) called “Archeologists of Morning.” Additionally, I have long believed, that this can help people become what the philosopher Paul Wienpahl (1916-1980) called men and women without a position, i.e. people truly free to live creatively and compassionately in the ever-moving, intra-active world in which all of us live, move, and have our being.

In next week’s episode, I’ll look at how Nietzsche thought Free Spirits are made and, in two weeks time, I’ll turn my attention to Olson’s Archaeologists of Morning and Wienpahl’s men and women without a position.