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)


"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!


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.


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

"October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world." — An autumn walk at Wandlebury Country Park

This morning Susanna and I went for a long and lovely walk at Wandlebury Country Park.  We were graced with some fine autumn sun with not a sign of the rain we were half expecting.

Henry David Thoreau's words are rarely far from my thoughts at any time but, at this season, his 1862 essay "Autumnal Tints" was very much in mind. As he says:

October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight.

(Here's a link to the Walden Woods Project Digital Collection of Thoreau's works.)

It was also the opportunity properly to try out Hipstamatic's new lens (Muir) and film (Sequoia) which seemed just right for both the landscape and the time of year. As the Hipstography site says, the design team:

". . . spent time pouring over their parent's of childhood holidays in the wilderness and [were] overcome by a sense of nostalgia — nostalgia for those bluish and those often-blurry pictures, dotted with imperfections."

The idea being to produce photographs "reminiscent of nature books from the 70s and early 80s that one might find in his/her local library."

Well, to my mind they succeeded pretty well and I hope you enjoy the photos I took today.  The two black and white photos were taken using the combination of the "Lincoln" lens with the "T. Rosevelt 26" film.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

“A binding into sheaves of ‘non-properties’ of things’ — A harvest meditation

Outside the church this morning
Readings: Acts 17: 22-28

i thank You God for most this amazing. . . by e. e. cummings

From the entry of Thursday, August 27 (1954) Henry Bugbee in “The Inward Morning” [1st edition, 1958] (University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 166) 

Yesterday it occurred to me to speak of the ideas in terms of which I have been thinking in the image of a reflective harvesting of experience, a binding into sheaves of ‘non-properties of things.’ As this last phrase suddenly came to mind and I fell to savoring it, I became aware that it smacks of E. E. Cummings, though I doubt very much if I have it from him as a ready-made. Is such a phrasing only a striking and perverse mannerism, or does it suggest a genuine style of thought?

From the entry of Saturday, August 29 (ibid. pp. 171-173)

It was in the summertime, at a summer resort, along the North Fork of the Trinity River in California, on a day like so many summer days of bright sun streaming down through the topes of the pines. Most of the length and breadth of that long, smooth, flowing pool lay translucently exposed to the bouldered bottom. Children played on the sandy shores, or splashed along fringes of the pool. The air was of ambient fragrance of pines, reassuring warmth and stillness, refreshing coolness of loving water, and frank with the murmur of conversation punctuated at furthest remove from alarm. The roar of the rapids below the pool might have been but a ground-bass of contentment, filling us all.
There came a cry for help, seconded with a cry of fright, and I turned toward the tail of the pool just in time to see a young man desperately, failingly, clinging to a great log which had been chained as a boom across the lower end (to raise the water level in the pool). No one could reach him in time. An enormous suction under the log had firm hold of the greater part of his body and drew him ineluctably under. He bobbed to the surface in the first great wave of the rapid below, but there was no swimming of gaining bottom to stay what seemed impending execution on the rocks at the bend in this mill-race, some hundred yards down. But it chanced that the river was abnormally high, and as it carried this hapless man doom ward it swept him just for an instant under the extremity of a willow which arched far out from the bank and erratically trailed its branch-tips on the heaving waters. With a wild clutch the young man seized a gathering of the supple branches and held. Everything held, that grim grip and that rooted willow, while the rush of the river brought him in an arc downstream and to the bank. He had barely the strength and the breath to claw himself up the muddy shore onto the firmament.
I had run across the log and arrived on the opposite side below the willow, where he now paused, panting and on all fours, unable to rise. Slowly he raised his head and we looked into each other’s eyes. I lifted out both hands and helped him to his feet. Not a word passed between us. As nearly as I can relive the matter, the compassion I felt with this man gave way to awe and respect for what I witnessed in him. He seemed absolutely clean. In that steady gaze of his I met reality point blank, filtered and distilled as the purity of a man.
I think of Meister Eckhart’s “becoming as we were before we were born.” I think of what Conrad says of the storms visited on sailors far at sea as chastening them. I think, too, of Camus’ remark at the close of The Stranger about a woman in her last moments of life before death: “No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her.”
Some ten or fifteen minutes later, as we lay on the warm sand having a smoke beside the pool, I noticed that this young man had commenced to tremble, and I trembled with him. We had returned to our ordinary estate, and I cannot remember anything unusual about him or the subsequent conversations we had.


Our harvest table this morning
“A binding into sheaves of ‘non-properties’ of things’ — A harvest meditation

Imagine yourself in a field full of wheat sheaves. What do you see?

[. . .]

As your answers reveal, generally, our first gleanings are the properties (characteristics) of wheat sheaves. But, as our readings indicate, the American philosopher, Henry Bugbee (1915-1999), wanted to engage in “a reflective harvesting of experience, a binding into sheaves of ‘non-properties of things’.”

I love e. e. cummings (a son of a Unitarian minister) and I can see what Henry Bugbee meant when he said his phrase somehow “smacks” of cummings — and we’ll briefly come back to cummings later on. I can also see why Bugbee instantly asks “is such a phrasing only a striking and perverse mannerism, or does it suggest a genuine style of thought?”

So, what does his phrase mean? And, perhaps more importantly, does it help us identify a style of thought that is both available to us and worth attempting to cultivate ourselves?

One of the things that concerned Bugbee in his book, “The Inward Morning”, was our general tendency to privilege the idea that we know things best of all when we have analysed them and, as thinking subjects, understood all of a thing’s properties (characteristics).

Bugbee suggests that what we display when we see a thing in this way we can call “empirical thinking”. Now, as far as it goes, there's absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of thinking. After all it has proved to be a very useful and powerful tool for humankind; all our modern sciences rely upon it and so many of the things that make our contemporary life what it is — both good and bad — could not have come into existence without it. Because of the dominance of science in our modern culture it should come as no surprise that empirical thinking is the way that, today, we so often privilege.

But Bugbee reminds us that there is another way of thinking, one that he calls experiential, and it is this kind of thinking that begins to help us move towards the style of thought that — whatever it turns out to mean — would allow us to harvest and bind into sheaves, “the non—properties of things”

So, once again, imagine yourself in a field full of wheat sheaves. Now ask yourself what it is you feel?

[. . .]

With these kinds of experiences we begin to move a little closer to what Bugbee is trying to get at with his cumminings-esque phrase. But we are not quite there yet because we are still in the everyday world of subjects and objects; I hope we can all see that, as distinct and complex “subjects”, we are still having experiences about distinct “objects” over there, namely sheaves of corn.

To help us get closer to what Bugbee is on about it's helpful to return to the striking story he told about the young man who fell into the North Fork of the Trinity River. Let’s recall the moment immediately after the young man has, against the odds, pulled himself out of the torrent:

“I had run across the log and arrived on the opposite side below the willow, where he now paused, panting and on all fours, unable to rise. Slowly he raised his head and we looked into each other’s eyes. I lifted out both hands and helped him to his feet. Not a word passed between us. As nearly as I can relive the matter, the compassion I felt with this man gave way to awe and respect for what I witnessed in him. He seemed absolutely clean. In that steady gaze of his I met reality point blank, filtered and distilled as the purity of a man” (Inward Morning p. 172).

Notice the moment when compassion gave way to awe and respect. Compassion is an emotion that relies upon the continued existence of the kind of subject/object relationship that you used when I asked you how you felt about the sheaves of corn. Broken down into its component parts, “com” and “passion” it means, of course, “with-suffering”, “suffering-with”. It’s a vital, powerful and necessary experience without which our daily lives together would hardly be worth living. But for compassion to exist it is “you” that must have com-passion for the “other”.

Awe and respect on the other hand can, at first sight, seem to be experiences that, rather than bringing us closer to things, actually increase the distance between us and them. We are tempted to say that the things which create in us a sense of awe and respect “stand there before us” as powerful, wholly other, presences. But let’s not get caught up by this thought and notice instead the actual felt experience of awe and respect. In that experience things “stand there before us” in a way that completely overwhelms us — to the point where the subject-object distinction disappears. Think of your own experiences of awe and respect, say, in the presence of a high and mighty mountain, a deep chasm, a powerful storm, the power of the sea or the sheer size of the cosmos. In that moment “we”, the “I”, just disappears, and we seem to be experiencing presence in its most pure form — or, as Bugbee puts it, “reality point blank”.

Bugbee has a helpful illustration to help us see what’s going on here. He suggests that in these moments of awe and respect, in . . .

“. . . our experience of things as presences, reality conveys itself and permeates us as a closed electrical circuit in which we are involved with things, the circuit is charged with finality. But in so far as we take things, and think of them, as placed over against us, i.e. objectively, we break the circuit” (Inward Morning pp. 168-169).

Bugbee was well-aware that we could be misled by the word “closed” and take it negatively (as opposed to the more positive sounding word “open”). But the point he wants us to grasp here about an unbroken, “closed circuit” is that it is energised, alive with racing energy and one that is whole and complete, in which all parts of the circuit are freely and constantly flowing into all other parts. As Bugbee notes, when we break the circuit — when the circle becomes open — what results is the creation of the “separateness of dead poles”. He is suggesting, of course, that whenever we are inhabit the world only via empirical thought the circle is broken and everything, subjects and objects, become as dead poles.

Now, when Bugbee and the young man looked into each other’s eyes on that river bank it seems right to say they were “partak[ing] in thought of the closed circuit of reality in which we live and move and have our being” (Inward Morning p. 169). It is in such moments that we experience directly, without mediator or veil (Emerson), the wondrous presence and mystery of being itself, reality point blank, the extraordinary truth that there is something not nothing. As Bugbee reminds us (quoting R. P. Jouve) “Mysteries are not truths that lie beyond us; they are truths that comprehend us.”

It seems to me not inappropriate to use here God-language — after all the idea of God, like Bugbee’s “closed circuit” is a word charged with finality. In the presence of this mystery, this “comprehending truth”, it seems wholly natural to say, along with cummings, something like “thank You God for most this amazing day” because, in that very moment — in a wholly non-empirical way — you suddenly find that your ears of your ears are awake and your eyes of your eyes are opened and you know in a quite certain way that subject and object are always-already comprehended in the mysterious, lively energised closed circuit in which we all live and move and have our being. Is it inappropriate at these moments to give this the name “God”?

In getting us to see in his story a moment of meeting “reality point blank filtered and distilled as the purity of a man” Bugbee doesn’t, of course, want to persuade us never to use empirical thinking; nor, of course, does he want us never better to cultivate a sense of compassion with its meaningful and powerful subject/object relationship. All he wants us to do is to add to them our own “reflective harvesting of experience, a binding into sheaves of ‘non-properties of things’” — that is to say to gather up our own sheaf of recollections of those mystical, mysterious moments when we experienced a simple, purifying unity and could “affirm our togetherness with fellow creatures” (IM p. 123).

Bugbee experienced this as he gazed into the young man’s eyes and, if I may borrow a phrase from E. M Forster, the whole of his “sermon” at this point is surely “Only connect! . . . Live in fragments no longer” (Howards End, Ch. 22).

Now all this is, of course, a great theme within our own Unitarian and Universalist traditions. Indeed, only last week (and those of you who regularly read my blog will already be aware of this) I was reminded by my old minster, Cliff Reed, of a poem by the nineteenth-century Suffolk Unitarian minister and Chartist, John Goodwyn Barmby (1820-81), called “UNITY" in which he explores this theme. It can be found in his 1864 volume "The Return of the Swallow and Other Poems". It clearly reveals his pantheistic tendencies and it’s mention of circles resonates powerfully with Bugbee’s image of the closed circuit:

Existence is composed of circles, all 
In one great circle, and the centre — GOD. 
There is one common life for star and clod,— 
The clouds which rise, again in rain must fall. 
All things are one, in progress and in end; 
And as the individual man must be 
Free to form part of free society, 
Before in truth he calls the king his friend, 
So must each nation, crowned with liberty 
As with a glory, dwell in its own light, 
By others hindered not; until, God-led, 
Of its own free will it longeth to be wed. 
And joineth hands with others. Glorious sight! 
One world, one people, and one common Head!  

As this poem reveals — and I hope Bugbee’s story and cumming’s poem also reveals — to harvest and put into sheaves the non-properties of things is not to gather up some merely abstract, theoretical idea but to begin constantly to be in direct touch with something unified, energised and living which has profound ethical and moral consequences for the harvester.

Holding these sheaves of recollection close to our hearts can help us begin to experience, with full pathos (belief) and a clean heart, the comprehending truth of something said by one of our great forbears, the eighteenth-century Universalist George de Benneville (1703-1793), namely, that we must:

Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular. . . . Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception. . . . The Inner Spirit makes men feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things.

Jesus said, “surely the harvest is great, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37). His words remains true today and it seems to me that both our individual lives, and the life of the whole world, may well depend upon how successful we are in bringing this wondrous harvest of unity home.


Tuesday, 30 September 2014

"The Religion of Autumn" and "Unity" by John Goodwyn Barmby (1820-81) — a nineteenth-century Unitarian Christian Pantheist

Today I spent a long while in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden mostly walking and thinking but also reading a few selected passages of Henry Bugbee's "Inward Morning" and Bashõ's "Knapsack Notebook" in preparation for next Sunday's Harvest address. The Garden was looking spectacular and I include in this post just a few of the photos I took today.

However, while I was walking at one point my mind went back to an address given last Saturday afternoon in at the Norwich Unitarian Chapel (The Octagon) by the Revd Cliff Reed who particularly drew on a passage about autumn written by John Goodwyn Barmby (1820-81).

Barmby was born in Yoxford, Suffolk. In his youth, he was very active in radical politics. In Suffolk, he was a leading Chartist and, while still in his teens, he spoke at political rallies and helped to form the East Suffolk Working Man's Association. He moved to London and initiated several radical projects in politics and publishing. In 1840, on a visit to Paris, he coined the word 'communist', and used it to describe his political philosophy, His communism was, however, based on Christian principles (rather than being derived from Marx and Engels) and, in a letter of about 1846 to the Ipswich Unitarian John Glyde, he stated 'that early Christianity was Communism'. His Christianity was unorthodox, though, and tended towards pantheism.

In the late 1840s Barmby became a Unitarian under the influence of the Rev. William Johnson Fox M.P., a Suffolk man as radical in his religion as he was in his politics. Barmby began to preach in the Unitarian church in Southampton, and entering the ministry served congregations in Devon, Lancaster and Wakefield. He applied unsuccessfully for the Ipswich pulpit in 1854. Although his politics moderated a little with age, he remained both radical and socialist and was very active in the campaign for universal suffrage. Retiring to the family home — 'The Vines'— in Yoxford in 1879, he held services there 'which were notable for their intensely devotional and liberal spirit'. He died on 18th October 1881, his funeral being held in the Framlingham Unitarian Meeting House. He is buried in Framlingham town cemetery, Fore Street, where his gravestone describes him as 'Preacher and Poet and true worker for God and his fellow men'. (See this link for more information about East Anglian Unitarian history.)

Firstly, here is his poem "UNITY". It can be found in his 1864 volume "The Return of the Swallow and Other Poems". It clearly reveals his pantheistic tendencies:

Existence is composed of circles, all 
In one great circle, and the centre — GOD. 
There is one common life for star and clod,— 
The clouds which rise, again in rain must fall. 
All things are one, in progress and in end; 
And as the individual man must be 
Free to form part of free society, 
Before in truth he calls the king his friend, 
So must each nation, crowned with liberty 
As with a glory, dwell in its own light, 
By others hindered not; until, God-led, 
Of its own free will it longeth to be wed. 
And joineth hands with others. Glorious sight! 
One world, one people, and one common Head! 

And here is the chapter entitled "THE RELIGION OF AUTUMN" from which Cliff drew some extracts. It can be found in Barmby's 1865 volume, "Aids to Devotion; or, Religious Readings in the Order of the Natural and the Christian Year":

GOD is deep in nature. God is the God of the seasons. As their poet sings in his sublime hymn: 

“These as they change, Almighty Father! these 
Are but the varied God. The rolling year 
Is full of Thee.
Thy bounty shines in autumn unconfined, 
And spreads a common feast for all that lives.”

The fruits of autumn are like the good works of religion. As the tree is known by its fruits, so is the soul by its deeds. There is a virtue, however, in season and out of season, and still there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to sow and a time to reap. The season for us is the present season, whether it be spring or autumn, seed-time or harvest. One season depends, nevertheless, upon another. If we sow not good seed in the spring-tide of our youth, we shall reap tares, and not wheat, in the autumn of our age. The Author of nature is the God of mercy — His mercy shines throughout all His works. Behold the autumnal crocus! Its delicate lilac flower rises from the ground, frail and naked, with no sheath to keep firm its tender petals, and with no foliage to shelter it from the inclement blast. Yet God preserves that fair and tender blossom; and if we bloom in like circumstances of adversity, how much more will He preserve us? 

Who has not rejoiced in the work of the harvest? How beautiful are the fields when they are ready for the reaper! From the green shoot of spring to the golden stalk of summer, with what changes of colour have they blest the scene! And the cornfields of autumn — how richly brown or how delicately fair do they bow as if in homage to the passing breeze, as the breath of God; or stand under the stillness of the sky, like meek disciples gathered in quiet adoration, and calmly awaiting the reapers, as these await the celestial husbandmen, to gather them into the ripe sheaves of harvest! 

What religious inspirations are to be derived from the harvest-field! In the fields waving with the golden grain, which is at once food for the body and independence for the mind, how generously good appears the character of the Divine Author of nature! By the benignity of the God-made laws of nature, those corn-fields glow, those ripe harvests wave in amber richness, the uncoined wealth of mankind. In the series of the seasons, the Deity has ordained their growth and perfection. Thus bless we God for the general beneficent laws which He has ordained through-out nature. Yet let us not forget that His kindness is united with His wisdom. Our God, our universal Father, is God the Light as well as God the Love. He has even in His generous gift of harvests acted as a considerate as well as kind Parent. He has granted us the season of harvest, but He has given us motives for preparing for it. Unless we culture our ground, our harvest will be barren. Hence we have a motive for industry, which is ever the enemy of vice and the friend of virtue and true religion. Not the idle hand, listless with ennui, or, if ever active, active for no good purpose; but the working hand — that noble hand! that holy hand! tanned though it may be with sultry suns and horny and hairy with excess of toil — should rightly, according to God's law, reap the harvests of the world and garner the sheaves of a generous autumn! The honest labours of the field are intimately allied with the good works of the spirit. The industrious is rarely a vicious, generally a moral, man. Were physical labours more general, the harvest of spiritual virtues would become greater. 

The religion of autumn is often sad. It preaches of the falling leaf, of the dying year, of the departing soul. There is a dirge-like note in its anthem to God, a toll as of a passing bell upon the autumn winds. The funeral service of the year is chanted by its hollow echoes. As the corn falls beneath the sickle, so do men die under the scythe of the reaper Death. The dirge of the falling, leaf mingles mournfully with the autumnal breeze as it sobs amid the fading woods; and we remember the lines of Ebenezer Elliott— 

“Drop, drop into thy grave, old leaf! 
Drop, drop into thy grave. 
Thy acorns sown, thy acorns grown — 
Drop, drop into thy grave ; 
Autumnal tempests rave, old leaf ! 
Above thy forest grave, old leaf ! 
Drop, drop into thy grave.”

Yet even the woods of autumn may afford a glorious and consoling prospect. They fade from the vernal green of their youth, but in the autumn of their age they are brightly clothed in leaves of red and yellow, and look smiling in their decay, like virtuous patriarchs whose old age is beautiful with the glowing deeds of a well-spent life; while the very fall of the leaf of such trees has a music in it, which sings of an enriched ground, whence shall arise heirs as glorious in bole and foliage as their forest ancestors. May Autumn thus console us ; may she heal the wounds she gives; and may we ever find in external nature a blessed revelation of God's love for us! And may Leigh Hunt’s beautiful words be realized, and our earth go on — 

“Growing harvests of all good 
Day by day, as planets should, 
Till it clap its hands and cry, 
Hail, redeemed Humanity! 
Earth has outgrown want and war! 
Earth is now no childish star!”