Thursday, 30 October 2014

Galen Project starts in Cambridge tomorrow evening — Friday 31st October 7.30-9.30pm Unitarian Hall CB1 1JW

There is a course blog to which all are invited to contribute:

See also:


—o0o—


Week One — 31st October 
Getting ready to lead the Galenic Life
with Professor John Wilkins (Exeter University)

A general introduction to Galen, his world and thought, and also to the Galen Project underway both here in Cambridge and elsewhere. During the evening there will be plenty of opportunity to ask questions about Galen and the project in general.

The seven days following this introductory session are intended to give participants time to prepare for the next three weeks during which we’ll attempt to practice the Galenic life ourselves.

—o0o—

Week Two — 7th November
A introduction to & conversation about the “Galen Handbook” 
and the “Six Principles”

Galen’s approach to preventative medicine is holistic, and focusses on six essential factors for promoting wellbeing, which will provide our framework for the trial period. These factors are:

1) the food & drink you consume
2) getting the right amount of exercise
3) living and working in an environment conducive to wellbeing
4) getting the right amount of sleep
5) actively caring for your mental wellbeing.
6) maintaining balance in all of the other five factors. 

During this session participants will also be introduced both to “mindfulness meditation” and to a Stoic “Bedtime Reflection”.

A Stoic Bedtime Reflection by Seneca:

‘Every day, we must give an account of ourselves. This is what Sextius did. When the day was over and he had withdrawn to his room for his nightly rest, he questioned his mind: “What un-useful habits have you cured yourself of today? In what sense are you a better person?” Is there anything better than to examine a whole day’s conduct? What a good sleep follows the examination of one’s self! How tranquil, deep, and free it is, when the mind has been praised or warned, and has become the observer and secret judge of its own actions! I make use of this power every day. When the torch has been taken away and my wife has fallen asleep, I examine my entire day and measure what I have done and said. I hide nothing from myself, nor am I indulgent with myself.’

Try to practise this reflection for around 10 minutes every night before sleep, or, if you would rather, before going to bed but late in the evening. Indeed, if you find that this stimulates your mind, practise it after dinner instead. Take the following two steps:

 1) Simply review the preceding day mentally, twice or three times if necessary.

 2) Now ask yourself which actions did you perform well, and which actions did you perform less well? Which thoughts do you find helpful and which not so helpful? How did you act towards other people today? Do not blame or castigate yourself. If you did something you were unhappy with, simply mentally prepare yourself to handle the situation better next time.

You will, in addition, find your own questions to ask yourself. Experiment and find ways in which this exercise åworks best for you. Indeed, you might also experiment with creating your own exercise for first thing in the morning, preparing yourself for the day ahead. Again be creative, and see what works for you.

An exercise in Deep Breathing:

Find a quiet spot, somewhere you won’t be disturbed for five minutes, or however long you feel is appropriate for you. This could be a break from work, in the library or your office, or in bed at night just before sleep. For this short period of time, bring your awareness to your body as a whole, lightly focussing on your respiration. Simply enjoy focussing on your breathing in and out, slowly, gently yet deeply. If you lose concentration, just gently bring it back to your breathing. If practising this exercise during the day, practise in such a way that you feel refreshed by the end of the exercise. If in bed at night, practise in a way that brings relaxation. Don’t worry if you fall asleep!

A recommended “Introduction to mindfulness meditation”:


This program by Judith Day presents a comprehensive beginner or refresher training. It includes instruction for sitting and walking meditation as well as how to deal with common difficulties. Fifty minutes of guided meditation and forty-five minutes of discussion. It is available both on amazon.co.uk and iTunes. We will be using tracks 2 and 3:

—o0o—

Week Three — 14th November 
On the importance of “balance” in the ancient world and its relevance today
with Dr David Leith (Exeter University)

This session will begin with an opportunity for participants to ask any questions that have arisen during the previous week.

There will follow a short, fifteen minute, mindful meditation and a break for “Galenic” refreshments. David will then speak on “balance”. As before during the evening there will be plenty of time to ask questions and share thoughts and reflections.

—o0o—

Week Four — 21st November 
How are you feeling? A summing up and assessment of the previous two weeks

We’ll begin with a short, fifteen minute mindfulness meditation and some “Galenic” refreshments.

The final session will then be used to explore and share with each other how we felt Galen’s six principles impacted upon our own health and well-being. It will also be the opportunity for us critically to address four questions Professor John Wilkins and Dr David Leith have asked us to consider:

1) Do you think that Galen’s “Six Principles” transfer straightforwardly and easily into our own age and culture?

2) What is your opinion about having the six principles all together as a focus of attention?

3) What is your opinion on the relative importance of each individual principle?

4) Can you think of possible omissions in Galen’s programme?

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A walk out from Cambridge across the meadows to Grantchester

Today was yet another pearl of a day and so I took the opportunity to walk out from Cambridge across the meadows to Grantchester.  I packed a picnic in my bag which I enjoyed in the warm sun under a beautiful willow tree by the river (the colour photo below shows that). Given the setting I couldn't resist succumbing to the temptation to listen to Butterworth's "The Banks of Green Willow" on my MP3 player.

Aside from that, after last Sunday's address about celebrating the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) I very much had in mind a favourite philosopher of mine, Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) and enjoyed re-reading a few of his letters whilst I sat in the sun at the Green Man accompanied by well-kept pint of bitter.

On the way back I stopped many times simply to linger by the water and the willows and enjoy for a little while longer the warm but, by now, rapidly setting sun. Suddenly a fish leaped out of the water just in front of me (a chub, I presume) — a sight that made my heart leap with pleasure too. It is always such a beautiful and uplifting thing to see. As Spinoza said in his letter to Oldenburg (Letter VI): “I do not differentiate between God and Nature”.

The leaping fish made me think of some words of another philosopher who loved dear Spinoza, Henry Bugbee (1915-1999). There is a story told about him concerning his meeting with Heidegger during August 1955. Heidegger apparently asked Bugbee ,“What occasion prompts philosophical reflection?” Apparently Bugbee replied: “Could the sound of a fish leaping at a fly at dawn suffice?” (recounted in Ed Mooney's Introduction to The Inward Morning). I think the answer to that is clearly, "Yes!" as, too, is a fish leaping in the late afternoon sun . . .









Sunday, 26 October 2014

The “Light Upon The Candlestick” — a call for us to celebrate the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and raise a toast to "The Light of Reason"

Readings: Proverbs 20:27
“The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.”

And four paragraphs from Peter Balling's "The Light Upon The Candlestick" (1662) (reproduced at the end of this address)

—o0o—

This week the theme of light has pressed upon me. In the first instance this was because the annual Hindu Festival of Diwali is currently being celebrated (23-27 October 2014).

The word Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit word Dīpāvali, made up of dīpa ("light" or "lamp") and āvalī (a "series, line or row”) meaning, therefore, a "row" or "series of lights" and wherever it is celebrated you will find countless rows of lights placed on, in and around people’s own houses as well as temples and other community buildings. For Hindus the festival stands as an expression of a belief in the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. This is a splendid general theme with which I’m sure we all resonate but, of course, Diwali cannot be reduced only to this basic idea as it is bound up with all kinds of rituals and worship of supernatural gods and goddesses.

In the second instance the theme of light pressed upon me because next week is Halloween and, in an effort to push against both it’s celebration in secular society and what is seen as a pagan, i.e. non-Christian, reading of the festival, an increasing number of churches are choosing to provide alternative celebrations called “Light Parties”. For various reasons their promotional literature has found its way into my hands and I note that it is particularly being promoted by the Scripture Union and the Evangelical Alliance.

The light signified by these “Light Parties” is, of course, Jesus Christ understood as the second person of the Trinity and, therefore, as God himself. As the Gospel of John puts it (3:19) “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world [i.e. Christ], and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” So, once again we see a celebration that cannot merely be reduced to the general concept of light because it also involves all kinds of kinds of rituals and worship of, in this case, a single supernatural God.

Together, these religious celebrations of light made me think about the kind of natural, this-worldly light we in this church wish both to celebrate and alert the world to.

One important indicator of what that light is is seen in the fact that I can address you in a secular country that is able to allow the simultaneous public marking of various festivals and parties by Hindus, Christians, pagans and also an entirely non-religious section of society.

The light I am referring to is that which began to shine in the “Aufklärung”, the “Age of Enlightenment” or, as it is sometimes called, the “Age of Reason”.

An important scholar of the Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel (the professor of modern history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton) has made an powerful case for there having been two Enlightenments. On the one hand there was the moderate mainstream Enlightenment, associated particularly with Newton and Locke which, at the time, wished to make a compromise with existing social institutions (such as the monarchy) and which also sought to preserve in some way aspects of established religious beliefs. The idea was to create “a viable synthesis of old and new.” This generally more conservative stance enabled it to win support both within the church and state.

“By contrast,” Israel writes:

“the Radical Enlightenment, whether on an atheistic or deistic basis, rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely, rejecting the Creation as traditionally understood in Judaeo-Christian civilization, and the intervention of a providential God in human affairs, denying the possibility of miracles, and reward and punishment in an afterlife, scorning all forms of ecclesiastical authority, and refusing to accept that there is any God-ordained social hierarchy, concentration of privilege or land-ownership in noble hands, or religious sanction for monarchy. From its origins in the 1650s and 1660s the philosophical radicalism of the European Early Enlightenment characteristically combined immense reverence for science, and for mathematical logic, with some form of non-providential deism, if not outright materialism and atheism along with unmistakably republican, even democratic tendencies.” (Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 11-12)

In Israel’s opinion, in post-1945 European culture we can see that the Radical Enlightenment ultimately won the day and our society is, today, grounded upon its basic set of principles which

“. . . can be summed up concisely as: democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promoting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing control of the legislative process. Its chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights, and status irrespective of what they believe or what religious, economic, or ethnic group they belong to, and consequently all ought to be treated alike, on the basis of equity, whether black or white, male or female, religious or non-religious, and that all deserve to have their personal interests and aspirations equally respected by law and government. Its universalism lies in its claim that all men have the same right to pursue happiness in their own way, and think and say whatever they see fit, and no one, including those who convince others they are divinely chosen to be their masters, rulers, or spiritual guides, is justified in denying or hindering others in the enjoyment of rights that pertain to all men and women equally (“A Revolution of the Mind: Princeton University Press, 2010, pp. vii-viii).

If you are ever minded to read Israel’s books and lectures you will quickly discover the important, and sometimes vital contribution to the Radical Enlightenment made by our own Unitarian/Socinian forebears.

You will also discover the central importance of another figure, aspects of whose thought I often bring before you, Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677). His words, God-or-Nature, “Deus sive natura” (meaning God is Nature and Nature is God) appear at the beginning of every morning service and Israel is of the opinion that this one-substance philosophy was “the only way you could eliminate religious authority from politics.” Israel adds that Spinoza’s philosophy helped reveal that:

Our moral order is not something that is divinely revealed to us, [rather] it’s something that is relative to society only. Central to Spinoza is the concept that there is something such as a secular, material, common good or common will of society and that you will have a much better, happier society if you adopt laws that correspond to the common good (https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/4194/seeing-reason-jonathan-israels-radical-vision)

It was Spinoza’s one-substance philosophy that influenced a friend of his, a Socinian and Collegiant by the name of Peter Balling, to compose a short tract entitled “The light upon the candlestick” from which you earlier heard an extract. The light to which he refers, and the light upon our own candlestick, is the same light of reason that was first kindled during the “Aufklärung”.

The light upon our candlestick in church today
I hope it is clear that the light burning upon our communion table here before us stands for the basic principles of the Radical Enlightenment which have enabled us to develop a secular, democratic, tolerant, free-thinking society which is able to give appropriate space and time to Hindus celebrating Diwali, to evangelical Christians celebrating the light of Christ, and also to those who wish to celebrate Halloween in whatever way they deem fit, whether religiously or not.

This is all good, but what has begun increasingly to nag away at me this week as I saw various pieces of advertising for Diwali, Light Parties and Halloween in all its guises, is the question of why on earth is the Enlightenment not being widely, loudly and joyously celebrated by our general culture? Why are we not cracking open a bottle of champagne and raising a glass to the light which has made it possible for us to envisage and begin to create our open, diverse, secular democratic society? To be sure, it is far from perfect and still needs great improvement but let that not blind us to its already great and wonderful merits.

So why is there no such thing as an “Aufklärung” party? Why?

As I began to think about it I realised I don’t really know. But one thing I do know. It is that if, as a culture, we are not prepared regularly to celebrate the Enlightenment as being central to our democratic secular way of being-in-the-world then we are surely in danger of forgetting it and of opening the door once again to the same forces of superstition, exclusion and privilege that it began successfully to overcome from the 1650s onward. Make no mistake about it we cannot passively inherit the “Aufklärung” from our forebears for this is the kind of Enlightenment that needs to be experienced anew each year, each month, in fact, each new day. The “Aufklärung” is not a fixed doctrine but an ever-unfolding commitment to light and truth as it shows up the course of our, this-worldly, human endeavours.

So, I have a question for you all. Why do we not, next year at this season, arrange some kind of joyous Enlightenment or “Aufklärung” celebration ourselves so as, gently but confidently, to remind both ourselves and those around us of the value of the light of reason?

Will it be a success and catch on? Who knows, but let’s not forget that the much loved, and now widely celebrated modern Harvest festival was started by an eccentric clergyman and his small and apparently insignificant church community. At this level then we are clearly well-placed to achieve something similar with an “Aufklärung Festival”!

But, humour aside, if we don't properly celebrate the Enlightenment and the use of reason we can be assured that the darkness of superstition, exclusion and privilege will close in upon us once again.

So, let's avoid that, shall we! I've pencilled the party in for Friday 30th October 2015 when we can all raise a joyous toast to the Enlightenment and the light of reason.

Amen.

(After the service I dug out two bottles of bubbly and, at coffee, all those present lifted a glass together and raised that toast. A splendid moment—and the party is on, by the way.)

—o0o—

Peter Balling — from The Light Upon The Candlestick (1662)

We direct thee then to within thyself, that is, that thou oughtest to turn into, to mind and have regard unto that which is within thee, to wit, The Light of Truth, the true Light which enlightens every man that cometh into the world. Here 'tis that thou must be, and not without thee. Here thou shalt find a Principle certain and infallible, and whereby increasing and going on therein, thou mayest at length arrive unto a happy condition: Of this thou mayest highly adventure the tryal. But if thou durst not do so much, 'tis hard to help thee. And if thou happenest to be one of those that wouldst know all things, before thou dost begin, yea, even those things which are experienced in a condition to which thou art so much a stranger, that there's nothing in thee hath so much agreement therewith, as to comprehend it according to truth: Know this, Thou dost (therein) just as those that would learn to Read, without knowing the Letters.
          To desire to know all things that we are capable of, is good and laudable: But to go further, is folly. There will be alwayes something else to ask, and our knowledge will ever be too short. He that will not adventure till he be fully satisfied, shall never begin, much less finish it to his own salvation.
But we judge it needful (as much in us lyes) to open unto you that unto which we do exhort you, that people may understand what it properly is.
          We say then, That we exhort every one to turn into the Light, that's in him (We give it rather the appellation of Light, than any thing else, otherwise it's all one to us whether ye call it, Christ, the Spirit, the Word, &c. seeing these all denote but one and the same thing): Yet the word Light being in all its natural signification somewhat else then that which we intend thereby, we shall therefore in brief endeavour clearly to express what we intend under this denomination.
          The Light (then we say) is a clear and distinct knowledge of truth in the understanding of every man, by which he is so convinced of the Being and Quality of things, that he cannot possibly doubt thereof.


Sunday, 19 October 2014

"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."

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Friday 17th October - playing with ART THEMEN at Headhunters Jazz Club, Hunter Club Bury St Edmunds

Amazingly it's been three years since I last played with Art Themen at the Headhunters Jazz Club in Bury St Edmunds. Well Art's back in town and we in the band would love to see you at this Friday's gig. 
Tickets can be pre-purchased by following the links at:


Monday, 13 October 2014

Some Jazz Photos

My bass awaiting the start of the session . . .
When I'm in "photographer mode" I'm mostly out in the countryside, either on foot or on my bicycle. On these occasions I've been consciously aware that I going to take photos and have, naturally, taken care to pack a camera. However, with the advent of the iPad, I find I now have a camera in my bag all the time. (As a musician I use the iPad to run a couple of apps that are mighty useful to rhythm section players like myself. They are iRealBook and iGigBook.)

It's taken me a long while to realise that this means I am able to take a few shots during recording sessions and rehearsals. I haven't taken many so far simply because I keep forgetting that it's possible.

As I'm sure many of you are aware, there is great tradition of jazz photography and, as a teenager, my discovery of the music via records was immeasurably added to by the photographs of people like Herman Leonard. The music AND the pictures caught my soul and there was no going back.

I'm no Herman Leonard but hey, what the hell, taking the dozen photos below brought me real pleasure and I hope that, in a small way, they'll bring you a little pleasure too.

The piano awaits too . . .
Russ Morgan
Russ Morgan
Kevin Flanagan
Chris Ingham plays piano while Kevin Flanagan looks on
Russ Morgan's music stand 
Paul Higgs
Kevin Flanagan
Mark Crooks
Mark Crooks
Mark Crooks
Alan Barnes before the gig begins
L. to r., Joanna Eden, Alan Barnes and Chris Ingham

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Consider the lilies of the pond and Spaulding’s Farm — Thoreau and “The art of spending a day!” — A religious naturalist practice

An inviting seat in the "noble hall" in Wandlebury Woods
Those of you who follow my blog will know that a good proportion of my posts refer to walks or cycle rides in the countryside, alone or with Susanna. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in terms of my religious life as your minister, they are the two most important days of my life. And, in the same way a Christian minister feels deeply compelled to encourage you in this or that kind of Christian practice I, as a religious naturalist, also feel compelled to encourage in you a religious naturalist practice offered by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), the mid-nineteenth century American Transcendentalist writer. (Notice I say "encourage" — what I write here is not a demand!)

I feel this compulsion particularly strongly for two reasons. One, is that for various reasons at the moment I’m acutely aware of my own need for this practice and this in turn helps me see just how much I value it. The second is that a friend of mine is just readying for publication a book on Thoreau and this has sent me back to Thoreau’s works in a particularly concentrated and joyful way.

So what is this practice of Thoreau's. Well, I know of no better way to introduce it than through a very important entry found in his journal of 1851, dated September 7th:

“The art of spending a day! If it is possible that we may be addressed, it behooves us to be attentive, If by watching all day and night, I may detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch? Watch and pray without ceasing? . . .
. . . If by patience, if by watching I can secure one new ray of light, can feel myself elevated for an instant upon Pisgah, the world which was dead prose to me become living and divine, shall I not watch, ever—shall I not be a watchman henceforth? If by watching a whole year on a city’s walls I may obtain a communication from heaven, shall I not do well and shut up my shop and turn a watchman? Can a youth, a man, do more wisely than to go where his life is to be found? As if I had suffered that to be a rumour which may be verified. We are surrounded by a rich and fertile mystery. May we not probe it, pry into it, employ ourselves about it—a little? To devote your life to the mystery of divinity in Nature or to the eating of oysters: would they not be attended with very different results?
. . .Go in search of the springs of life—and you will get exercise enough. Think of a man’s swinging dumb bells for health—when those springs are bubbling in far off pastures unsought by him! The seeming necessity of swinging dumb bells proves that he has lost his way.
To watch for, describe, all the divine features which I detect in Nature. My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature — to know his lurking places.”

Here he clearly tells us it is in the guise of an attentive watchman prepared to walk out into “the pastures” of the world that he finds his life, by discovering himself surrounded by a  “rich and fertile mystery” — the very springs of life.  

To ground Thoreau’s words a bit more, let’s return to the two stories we heard in our readings in which he offers us what we may call case-studies, or parables, which illustrate well something of the practical results of his practice.

The immediate background to the first story, that of the lily (printed in full at the end of this post), is the 1850 “Fugitive Slave Act”. It formed part of the controversial compromise (the Missouri Compromise) made between slave-holders of the South and Northern Free-Soilers. The act required that those living in the free Northern states had to return to their Southern masters all escaped slaves. Thoreau was horrified by this compromise and even he, who refused to write an ode to dejection in his most famous book “Walden”, now felt compelled to write “I cannot but believe that I am living in Hell.” Indeed, as Thoreau tells us, as he begins to walk he is not a happy man — “The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her” (“Slavery in Massachusetts, 1854).

His walk takes him by a pond, part of which is swamp-like with a preponderance of foul-smelling “slime and muck”. But then, suddenly, he scents a water-lily. Instantly, he finds himself in “a season” he had been waiting for. It’s a powerful moment of epiphany that reveals to him that another kind of world is always being born. The striking beauty of the lily he says seems “to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth” and for him “the fragrance of this flower” offers him “confirmation of our hopes.”

The second story (also printed in full at the end of this post) concerns his walk on Spaulding’s Farm. The late essay/lecture in which it appears, “Walking” (written and finely honed between 1851 and 1860), is regard as a seminal work by both critics and Thoreau. Indeed, he wrote, that he regarded it “as a sort of introduction to all that I may write hereafter.” In this essay he tells us that he wishes,

“. . . to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.”

Not least of all this is because, again in some very famous words from the essay, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”

A colour shot of the "noble hall" in Wandlebury Woods
Thoreau is again out walking but this time it is through the farm of a certain man named Spaulding. As he walks the pine trees in the setting sun suggest to him “some noble hall” and in an instant he finds himself in another world away from the merely civil — in the world of an “ancient and altogether admirable and shining family.” Thoreau then lays out before us something of their remarkable estate which he sees woven intimately and seamlessly through the estate seen by the more more prosaic and earth bound Spaulding. When Spaulding looks into the puddles on his cart track he sees no more than mud at the bottom but Thoreau, on the other hand, sees something very different — reflected back at him are the very heavens themselves. As in the previous story his walk through the natural world Thoreau reveals to him another kind of world — this time a world inhabited by "beings" whose whole way of being-in-the-world cuts against the materialistic, endlessly aquisitative world in which humans find themselves enslaved to all kinds of destructive desires, a situation which results in people no longer having any time to appreciate and the rich and fertile mystery of life.

Thoreau’s religious naturalist discipline, that of becoming a watchman continually seeking God in Nature, helped him to see that the meaning of life is not to be found outside the world, in some other transcendent, divine realm apart from our own, but always-already woven through everything. The experience of constant, attentive walking showed him that, even when all was dark around him, something creative, life and hope enhancing would, eventually, always be seen.

But note that the hope Thoreau sees is always, as Blake put it, an admixture of “joy and woe, woven fine”. Thoreau sees the lily — yes — but he does not, cannot, ignore the muck and the slime. Thoreau sees the wonderful estate of the “ancient and altogether admirable and shining family” — yes — but he does not, cannot, ignore farmer Spaulding's less admirable estate.

Now, if all Thoreau saw was simply that “joy and woe woven fine” this wouldn’t amount to much more than an empty platitude. But Thoreau doesn’t stop at this.

I have been helped to understand what it is that Thoreau seems to be doing by drawing on an insight (that I introduced you to a few weeks ago) of the contemporary Italian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo and his colleague Santiago Zabala. Recalling the famous sentence penned by Karl Marx that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it” they suggested that today we need to say something like:

“The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it” (Hermeneutic Communism, Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 5).

Thoreau knows the importance of being able to describe the world truthfully and accurately — it is his ability to do this that made him such a good naturalist and powerful social critic. It is because he can do this that he is able to identify and powerfully point to the evil muck and slime that is the “Fugitive Slave Act” and its supporters; it is because of this that he is able to identify and powerfully point to the “freedom and culture merely civil” of farmer Spaulding that threatens to destroy the life giving wildness of the world by failing to see we humans are “part and parcel of Nature”.

But Thoreau also knew that describing things was not all we could do — there is always the matter of  the interpretation of those same things. As a watchman (and lyric philosopher) who came intimately to know himself to be part and parcel of Nature he felt increasingly confident that Nature was amenable to our interpretation and that this process could provide help for us that was not merely sentimental but the kind of help which acted as a harbinger of real (and realistic) hope that could help generate in us real change.

His story of the lily reveals this in a fairly straightforward way. Just as the lily is part and parcel of nature and emerges from the muck and the slime of the pond, by interpretation, so too can we, as creatures part and parcel of nature, emerge from the muck and slime of our political and social cultures.

However, his story about Spaulding’s farm reveals a slightly less straightforward interpretation of Nature. It shows Thoreau beginning more fully to trust that he was actually now doing what he spoke about in his September 7, 1851 journal entry. He has by now spent years practising his discipline of “watching all day and night” and it has, he feels, enabled him to “detect some trace of the Ineffable” — the “ancient and altogether admirable and shining family” who show us a better way of being-in-the-world are clearly ineffable in a way that the lily is not. However, that Thoreau is willing to share this story publicly reveals that he feels he can by now can trust the lesson he learns from this ineffable shining family as much as he can trust the lesson he learnt from the more obviously tangible lily.

The ability to trust this subtle teaching can only come to those who have, as his journal entry suggests, "watched and prayed without ceasing". Thoreau also came to know (as did St Paul from whom Thoreau silently borrows this phrase I Thessalonians 5:18-18) that this has enabled him to find a meaningful way to be in this difficult world of ours, with all its muck and slime, yet still be able to “rejoice evermore” and “in every thing [to] give thanks.” Thoreau's discipline helped him find a realistic, hopeful, this worldly way to go on.

Over the years I have increasingly come to trust Thoreau’s discipline and I continually try to practice it myself because it has helped me also to find a realistic, hopeful, this worldly way to go on. I can only recommend it to you. Why not leave behind the swinging of dumb-bells and go out to seek the springs of life that are bubbling in pastures all around us!

—o0o—

Reading from, “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854) by H. D. Thoreau

I walk toward one of our ponds; but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.
          But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth. I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile. What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man's deeds will smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily. It is not a Nymphoea Douglasii. In it, the sweet, and pure, and innocent are wholly sundered from the obscene and baleful. I do not scent in this the time-serving irresolution of a Massachusetts Governor, nor of a Boston Mayor. So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that when we behold or scent a flower, we may not be reminded how inconsistent your deeds are with it; for all odor is but one form of advertisement of a moral quality, and if fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity; the fragrant flower that springs from it, for the purity and courage which are immortal.
          Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.

Reading from “Walking” (1861) by H. D. Thoreau

I took a walk on Spaulding’s Farm the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine-wood. Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall. I was impressed as if some ancient and altogether admirable and shining family had seated there in that part of the land called Concord, unknown to me; to whom the Sun was servant; who had not gone into society in the village; who had not been called on. I saw their park, their pleasure ground, beyond through the wood, in Spaulding’s cranberry meadow. The pines furnished them with gables as they grew. Their house was not obvious to vision; the trees grew through it. I do not know whether I heard the sounds of a suppressed hilarity or not. They seemed to recline on the sunbeams. They have sons and daughters. They are quite well. The farmer’s cart path which leads directly through their hall does not in the least put them out, — as the muddy bottom of a pool is sometimes seen through the reflected skies. They never heard of Spaulding, and do not know that he is their neighbor, — notwithstanding that I heard him whistle as he drove his team through the house. Nothing can equal the serenity of their lives. Their coat of arms is simply a lichen. I saw it painted on the pines and oaks. Their attics were in the tops of the trees. They are of no politics. There was no noise of labor. I did not perceive that they were weaving or spinning.(9) Yet I did detect, when the wind lulled and hearing was done away, the finest imaginable sweet musical hum, — as of a distant hive in May, which perchance was the sound of their thinking. They had no idle thoughts, and no one without could see their work, for their industry was not as in knots and excrescences embayed.
          But I find it difficult to remember them. They fade irrevocably out of my mind even now that I speak and endeavor to recall them, and recollect myself. It is only after a long and serious effort to recollect my best thoughts that I become again aware of their cohabitancy. If it were not for such families as this I think I should move out of Concord.