Sunday, 20 April 2014

Not sameness but kaleidoscopic variety - a meditation for Easter Sunday

The Cambridge University Botanic Garden in blossom
Readings: Mark 16:1-8 [The Shorter Ending of Mark]

From Cliff Reed's book, "Unitarian. What's That?" - Do Unitarians Celebrate Easter?

From "Jesus Through the Centuries – His Place in the History of Culture" by Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale Univ. Press, 1985, pp. 1-2)

Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull up out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left? It is from his birth that most of the human race dates its calendars, it is by his name that millions curse and in his name that millions pray. 
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings" (Hebrews 13:8-9). With these words the anonymous (and still unknown) author of the first-century document that has come to be called the Epistle to the Hebrews admonished his readers, who were probably recent converts from Judaism to Christianity, to remain loyal to the deposit of the authentic and authoritative tradition of Christ, as this had come down to them through the apostles of the first Christian generation, some of whom were still living. 
“The same yesterday and today and for ever" eventually came to have a metaphysical and theological significance, as "the same" was taken to mean that Jesus Christ was, in his eternal being, "the image of the unchangeable God, and therefore likewise unchangeable." 
But for the purposes of this book, it is the historical, not the metaphysical or theological, import of this phrase that must chiefly engage our attention. For, as will become evident in great and perhaps even confusing detail before this history of images of Jesus through the centuries is finished, it is not sameness but kaleidoscopic variety that is its most conspicuous feature. Would we not find it more accurate to substitute the first-century formula "the same yesterday today and for ever" the twentieth-century words of Albert Schweitzer? "Each successive epoch," Schweitzer said, "found its own thoughts in Jesus, which was, indeed, the only way in which it could make him live"; for, typically, one "created him in accordance with one's own character." "There is," he concluded, "no historical task which so reveals someone's true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.”


In our second reading and second hymn (found at the end of this post), both written by the Unitarian minister Cliff Reed, we encountered the basic interpretation of Easter that is generally held by most members of this church community. It holds that Jesus died on the cross but that Christ, that is to say the love, spirit and vision of Jesus, was "resurrected" in the form of the whole community that continued to live by his example; the community became itself the "resurrected body of Christ". In other words, to be absolutely clear about this, the word "resurrection" is not being used in this church in a literal but, instead, in a metaphorical way. The headline joyous message of Easter for us being that, in so far as we still try to live honestly by Jesus' example we, as both individuals and a community, continue to experience and share in the resurrection and the life.

On past Easter Sundays I have expanded on this idea in various ways and I direct you back to them if you are interested in exploring that further (e.g. here).

But this year I feel it's worth noting something additional, it's related to the obvious truth that what I have just outlined is, of course, AN interpretation of the resurrection; in our case a naturalistic one based on the classic Enlightenment desire to achieve greater truth and knowledge based on the methods and findings of the natural and social sciences and, the general use of human reason.

I, myself, hold to this broad, metaphorical, naturalistic interpretation of the resurrection and "Christ" because, for all my genuine respect for other interpretations of the event, I think it says something more true, useful and believable than those on offer in most other conventional church settings. There's no point shilly-shallying about and pretending otherwise. I simply add to this point the fact that the motto of this church - one I wholly endorse - tempers my stance by reminding me that "We need not think alike to love alike."

But, to repeat, although I strongly feel my liberal Christian interpretation of the meanings of the "resurrection" and "the Christ" are more convincing, truer, more useful than ones I find elsewhere, my interpretations remain just that, interpretations. Though I may often wish otherwise, there is no way I can prove absolutely that my interpretation is right and the others are wrong; the same is true,of course, in reverse. I - we - have to accept and live creatively with the empirical fact that people of evident good will, intelligence and character think differently to me/us.

With this point I can begin to turn to the phenomenon I'd like us to ponder upon today and let's try to approach it through the human Jesus who lived and died in first-century Palestine.

In principle, even if not always in practice, if you did not understand who Jesus was and/or what his teaching meant, you could seek him out and ask him directly. Jesus' puzzled disciples were doing this all the time; witness, for example, their constant questioning of him about the meaning of his strange parables or whether he was the prophet Elijah returned or the long-expected Jewish Messiah, the Greek word for which is, of course "Christ."

It seems that Jesus was often deliberately and provocatively obscure in his answers which played the question back into the court of his questioners demanding of them that they interpret things them selves (cf. Matthew 12:57) — an approach to teaching he seemed to value right to the very end, even before the Council and Pilate.

My point here is simple: even though Jesus seems to have relished the value of provocative obscurity in his answers, whilst he was alive, you could always in principle seek him out and try to find out what he meant. The need to engage in an ongoing process of dialogue with him, to ask him a question and of being provoked by his answers to do some more thinking and interpreting yourself, seems to have been utterly central to his teaching.

What this meant in practice was that, whilst he was still alive, even among his closest companions there were developing eleven different positive and one negative (Judas Iscariot's) interpretations of who Jesus was and of what his teaching meant.

This situation changed radically after Jesus crucifixion and death. In the first instance, and most obviously, this was because he was no longer around — he had died and had been buried. His disciples could no longer seek him out directly and try to clarify with him some definitive meaning of any of his actions or teachings.

But then there occurred the puzzling event known as the "resurrection" in which, however you interpret it, Jesus was believed to have "risen" in some way from the dead. We see that Jesus" was, in fact, believed still to be around and someone with whom one could converse.

But, whereas Jesus was clearly a single, individual human being, the post Easter, risen Jesus was not — the resurrected Jesus, now often with the title "Christ" (the "Messiah" or "Anointed One") added to his name, was unimaginably plural. It seems clear that every early Christian community experienced a different Jesus. Some believed they had experienced him as an individual in a real, physical body, others believed they had experienced his simply as an individual spiritual being, still others seem to have seen him as a corporate spirit, which Paul christened (pun intended) the body of Christ.

After the Easter event, when an early Christian puzzled over what Jesus had meant by this teaching or that action, to which risen Jesus should they go to for an answer? There had been only one human Jesus to whom they could go to but, now, risen Jesuses were proliferating at an astonishing rate. There were the different Jesuses of Matthew, Mark and Luke's gospels and the very different Jesus of John's gospel; there were the different Jesuses of St Paul, St James and the author of the letters attributed to John; there are the different Jesuses of the authors of Hebrews and the Revelation. This is only to rehearse the different Jesuses recorded by the New Testament, but don't forget the other Jesuses we have found in the various early, non-canonical gospels and letters collectively, but often misleadingly, called the "Gnostic Gospels".

The proliferation did not stop in the first century - it simply continued unabated. The important and influential church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, in his book "Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture" (1985, Yale U. Press) writes powerfully about this and I thoroughly recommend it to you. But here let me read to you simply the contents page of this book which can stand as a kind of litany of the various post-resurrection Jesuses which human kind has experienced through the centuries:

1) Jesus as "The Rabbi" - as teacher and prophet in the setting of first-century Judaism.

2) Jesus as "The Turning Point of History" - the significance of Christ for human history.

3) Jesus as "The Light of the Gentiles" - Pagan anticipations of Christ, especially Socrates and Vergil.

4) Jesus as "The King of Kings" - the lordship of Caesar verses the lordship of Christ in the Roman Empire of the second and third centuries.

5) Jesus as "The Cosmic Christ" - the Logos as the mind, reason, and word of God and as the meaning of the universe in the Christianised Platonic philosophy of the third and fourth centuries.

6) Jesus as "The Son of Man" - the incarnate Son of God as the revelation both of the promise of human life and of the power of evil, according to the Christian psychology and anthropology worked out above all by Augustine in the fifth century.

7) Jesus as "The True Image" - the inspiration for a new art and architecture in Byzantine culture and the artistic and metaphysical meaning of the icons in the eighth and ninth centuries.

8) Jesus as "Christ Crucified" - in literature and art and as the "power of God and the wisdom of God" in the Middle Ages, metaphors for the saving work of Christ in the language of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

9) Jesus as "The Monk Who Rules The World" - the Benediction definition of "love for Christ" as the denial of the world, monasticism and politics in the medieval Western society of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

10) Jesus as the "Bridgegroom of the Soul" - Christian and non-Christian sources of Christ-mysticism and the problem of the relation between secular and sacred in mystical language and thought.

11) Jesus as "The Divine and Human Model" - the rediscovery of the full humanity of Jesus through Francis of Assisi, "the second Christ" and the Franciscan image of Jesus as the inspiration for demands in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that society and the institutional church be radically transformed.

12) Jesus as "The Universal Man" - the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with its image of Jesus, as the rebirth of the Christian gospel, "sacred philology" and "the philosophy of Christ" in Erasmus and other humanists.

13) Jesus as "The Mirror of the Eternal" - Protestant and Catholic Reformation images of Christ as the mirror of the True, the Beautiful, the Good.

14) Jesus as "The Prince of Peace" - the resurgence of pacifism in the face of the religious wars of the Reformation.

15) Jesus as the "Teacher of Common Sense" - the quest for the historical Jesus in the scholarship and philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the effort to go beyond (or behind) the Christ of dogma to the system of morals he represented.

16) Jesus as "The Poet of The Spirit" - Idealism in the philosophy of the nineteenth century and Romanticism in its art and literature; their protest against both orthodox rigidity and rationalist banality, and their portrayal of the beauty and sublimity of Jesus as the "bard of the Holy Ghost" (Emerson).

17) Jesus as "The Liberator" - Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Tolstoy to Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, the use of Jesus' prophetic opposition to the economic and social injustice of his time as the dynamic for revolutionary change in the ordering of human relations, public as well as private.

18) Jesus as "The Man Who Belongs to the World" - the unprecedented circulation of the message of Jesus, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, into Asia and Africa, the relation between Jesus and other "Teachers of the Way", Jesus as a world figure, also beyond the borders of Christendom.

As Pelikan realises what we see when we take time to look at all the post-resurrection Jesuses that have existed, and in many cases, still exist, we see not sameness - not a single person with a single identifiable purpose and message -  but only "kaleidoscopic variety". For many people, once this is seen, it can be a deeply confusing and disturbing picture since it reveals that no single, final, stable, interpretation of Jesus has ever existed, neither when he was alive, nor after his death and resurrection.

But I think we can celebrate this as a wonderful Easter gift - a gift that connects us meaningfully with the single and singular historical Jesus. It was Jesus' gift of always throwing our own questions back to us, of insisting that we find our own personal interpretations about who he was and what it was he was teaching and how on earth we should respond to it? The question, "Who do you say that I am?" comes back to us again, and again, and again. This teaches us, or should teach us, a vital lesson essential for living a fruitful and meaningful life in a highly diverse world, namely, that we must all be humble about insisting upon the final, absolute truth of our own interpretations about Jesus, no matter how strongly and honestly we hold them. It reminds us always to be open hearted and minded to new light, insight and truth.

With this caveat in mind I feel emboldened to say - along with the liberal religious tradition to which I belong, that the human Jesus did die and, to this day, his remains lie somewhere in Palestine. May he rest in peace.

But it also seems true to me that, in spirit, "Christ" most assuredly has risen and for me/us they are a complex mix of Jesus as the "Teacher of Common Sense", the "Poet of The Spirit", the "Liberator", and the "Man Who Belongs to the World". For the spirit of this "risen Christ" in our own community's life I/we can surely say, "Alleluia!"


Easter Hymn by Cliff Reed

Jesus died, but Christ has triumphed,
Broken now the chains of death;
From the tomb comes God’s anointed,
Kindling cold hearts with his breath.

Now at last we see his purpose,
Breaking through like sunburst bright:
Liberation for God’s people
Ends humanity’s long night.

For there is a Spirit greater,
Who has now the victory;
And our God indwells the human,
striving for our liberty.

And that Spirit dwelt in Jesus,
Teaching us that love redeems;
How God, through a man’s compassion,
Gains great ends by human means.

But for love and life undying
Death of self must be the key;
Jesus died to bear this witness
And Christ rose to make us free.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Circus comes to town and Barnwell Priory's "Cellarer's Chequer"

Gee Horsley's drawing of the Cambridge Church
This afternoon I had to pick up a parcel from the Royal Mail depot that was delivered to the church whilst I was out. It was another glorious sunny day and my route took me across Midsummer Common (where I passed the circus), along the River Cam and them along Priory Road (where you pass by the13th century "Cellarer's Chequer" once connected to Barnwell Priory. I could not resist taking a couple of photos on my way back to the church office. I add here, at the top, a photo of a lovely drawing of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church done by Gee Horsley in 1984. Gee was an artist and letterer who was a member here for many years. She did the exquisite lettered war memorials inside Cambridge Town Hall and she was, for a time, a student of Edward Johnston who remains most famous for having designed the typeface for London Underground. I remember fondly my once a week visits to Gee before she moved away from Cambridge when, before we had copious amounts of tea and cakes, she would give me a free lesson about typefaces and lettering. I had a wonderful time every week.

Cellarer's Chequer
Cellarer's Chequer
The Circus comes to town

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Reading Tolstoy in the sun at Ickleton Cemetery Chapel

Whilst out on a long ride on the Pashley Guv'nor on Monday I stopped off to take a look at the Cemetery Chapel at Ickleton. It was a lovely spring day and a splendid place to stop and spend an hour resting in the sun and reading Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief.

 Here are a few black and white photos for your enjoyment plus, at the end, a colour photo of the wonderful meadow immediately behind the cemetery which was ablaze with spring flowers.

The Guv'nor by the Cemetery Chapel
The Cemetery Chapel
The bier inside the Cemetery Chapel
The cemetery
The wildflower meadow behind the chapel
The Pashley Guv'nor
The Pashley Guv'nor

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Thinking through our Unitarian and Universalist symbolism - a meditation for Holy Week

Off-Centre Cross
Readings: Hebrews 10:5-10 

From "The Off-Centre Cross" on the website of the New Massachusetts Universalist Convention 

The off-center cross was invented in late April, 1946, in a hotel room in Akron, Ohio, during the Universalist General Assembly, where a number of Universalist ministers pooled their ideas. Among those present were Albert Ziegler, Richard Knost, Fred Harrison, and Gordon McKeeman.

Here is how two of the symbols' originators later described it.

The circle is drawn to represent the all-inclusive faith of universalism which shuts no one out. In that circle is placed the cross, symbolizing the beloved faith out of which our wider insight has grown. We feel that universalism is not the product of any one cultural or religious tradition, but is in fact implicit in all the great faiths ... we consider ourselves to be "Universalists of Christian descent."

          --Albert Ziegler, Christian Leader, December 7, 1946, p. 558

The Circle is a symbol of infinity--a figure without beginning or end. 
The Cross is the symbol of Christianity. It is placed off-center in the circle of infinity to indicate that Christianity is an interpretation of infinity but neither the only interpretation of the infinite nor necessarily for all people, the best one. It leaves room for other symbols and other interpretations. It is, therefore, a symbol of Universalism.

          --Gordon McKeeman to Ronald and Jesslyn Bartlett, 
          members of First Parish Universalist Church, Stoughton, in 1989


Although today is Palm Sunday, this year I am not going to take Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and his subsequent abandonment by the crowd as my theme today. I direct you below to a couple of my earlier addresses if you want to work through that theme later on.

Instead, here, I want to concentrate on the symbol of the cross where, on Good Friday, the coming week ends.

In what follows I'm going to take you through a very brief illustrated history of Unitarian and Universalist symbolism which, as you will discover, is rooted in the cross. You may ask why I begin with American symbols and not British ones? Well, the reason is simple. We didn't develop here any distinctive, Unitarian visual symbolism - we either didn't use any at all or rested content with the open Bible on the lectern or the plain cross. The symbol British Unitarians use today is one we adopted from America - so when we talk about religious symbolism we have to begin there.

The power of the Easter story, however it is interpreted— whether literally and supernaturally or, as I and the liberal Christian tradition generally does, metaphorically and naturalistically — relies upon a journey through the cross.

Given this journey, it is quite understandable why it became THE symbol of Christianity. Whether it was the best symbol for the kind of religion Jesus practised is another matter but, for many complex reasons (metaphysical and political), the cross eventually won out as the central symbol of the new faith and this simply cannot be ignored.

(In passing it is worth recalling that the earliest Christian depictions involve Jesus in eating and healing scenes. Also worthy of note is our Czech Church's decision in the 1920s to adopt the sunflower as its symbol).

Being strongly influenced by the sixteenth-century radical reformation tradition with its emphasis on what became called inner experience, light or conscience, along with people such as the Society of Friends (the Quakers) we have generally avoided the use of external symbols such as the cross because this struck our forebears, rightly or wrongly, as being but a step on the way to idolatry. But, even for those churches like our own that do not openly display the cross, it self-evidently remains in our cultural imagination as the central symbol of the Christian faith.

However, from the Renaissance onwards, one of the oddities of humanity's increasing knowledge of both the natural universe and the human world was what it slowly began erode any easy understanding of in what consists the true "centrality" of anything.

In terms of the natural universe, following Copernicus's (1473–1543) discovery that the earth revolved around the sun  we began to realise that human kind did not lie at the centre of the universe, in fact, far from it. We began to recognise that we had instead to understand our place in the universe as peripheral and liminal.

In terms of our human world - the worlds of thought, faith, belief and practice - we simultaneously began to discover that there were many, many other religious, philosophical and ethical systems at work in the world - systems which people of evident good will and the highest intelligence and learning could, and did, practise instead of Christianity. Once again we began to recognise that we had instead to understand the place of Christianity in the world as being peripheral and liminal in some way - and that, as we sung in our second hymn, "our faith is but a single gem upon a rosary of beads".

The unspoken and very hard question this change of perspective posed was how to show (to others and ourselves) both the continuing importance of the life and death of Jesus for our own community and, at the same time, also clearly to display our recognition that our own faith in the value and efficacy of Jesus' example was not the absolute centre of all things, that he was not the only teacher that people of good will could follow with full belief (pathos) and a clean heart.

Now, most attempts to answer this question have been done at a highly abstract, technical philosophical and theological level and in our own tradition of churches we developed some very complex Unitarian and Universalist theologies - and trust me they were very complex. But, all of them may be summed up as saying, at heart, that the God of Love in whom they believed was able to save all people, whether unbelievers or people who believed in different Gods to the one in which our own community believed. But, for our forbears, it is important to realise that Jesus remained THE central, definitive revelation of this all-loving God and they took passages such as that we heard earlier from Hebrews (10:5-10) to say Christ died once, FOR ALL. And for them "all" really did mean all people.

The cross was for our forebears the symbol of this universalist insight and, as the first Universalist symbol of 1870 - that of the Universalist General Convention - clearly shows, the cross (and, notice too, the Bible) was placed confidently at the centre of all things and, as the text on the symbol makes clear, they firmly believed that, in the end, "Christ will conquer."

It was a very powerful, progressive and reforming faith and it played a hugely important role in the liberalisation of Christianity both in Europe, in Great Britain and Ireland and also in America.

Later, another symbol was designed for the Universalist Church of Albany N.Y. that has become known as “the Old Universalist Cross”. As you can see it shows an equal-sided cross upon which is centrally placed a circle - i.e the circle is now clearly part of the symbol and not merely an accidental border. The circle becomes increasingly important in our iconography. It is, of course, a very ancient symbol representing all kinds of things such as the earth, the seasons, eternity and also the whole universe. By an obvious extension it easily became the symbol of universalism itself. It is clear, however, that the overall design of the symbol means it still explicitly expresses the idea that the cross itself is central.

Until 1961 the Unitarians still formed a separate denomination from the Universalists and they had yet to develop their own religious symbol. In 1941 the Unitarians were very active in working with refugees in Europe through the Unitarian Service Committee. Its director, the Revd Charles Joy, felt that an official letterhead with a distinctive religious symbol on it would help the organization do it's work better. As he said: "When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important." To this end Joy commissioned an artist, Hans Deutsch, to come up with a design. Deutsche chose a chalice with a flame. Joy said of this design:

". . . a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.... This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love."

The design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for its volunteers moving refugees to freedom and, over the next decade, it quickly became the universal symbol of Unitarian communities all around the world, including our own British churches who adopted what was quickly nicknamed "the chunky chalice". Notice that in both the examples before you the chalice - with it's (accidentally) cross-like shape - is still placed firmly in the centre.

At this point, in 1946, we come to the design that captured and expressed what is, I think, an extraordinally powerful insight - the one upon which I would like us to meditate today and during Holy-Week. As I mentioned earlier the Unitarians and Universalists did not merge until 1961 so the Universalists had not adopted the chalice as their corporate symbol. Instead they continued independently to develop their own and the off-centre cross came into being. In our readings you heard the words of two of its originators.

It was a design of great genius because it finally gave a positive, simple and an appropriate symbolic expression of the change in perspective which followed Copernicus' momentous discovery. The symbol of the cross moved to one side simultaneously affirmed the continuing importance of the Christian story for the Universalist community but, at the same time it also clearly expressed their realisation that their own faith did not hold all the answers, that it did not occupy all the religious and ethical space in the world and, most importantly, that Jesus' example could not be considered THE absolute, one and only, true centre of the whole world and universe.

It is vitally important to understand that the moving of the cross to one side was not at a retreat from or collapse in their confidence in the meaning and value of Jesus' life and death. It was, instead, a confident, conscious, positive expression of the open, inclusive and inviting religious space they felt Jesus constantly promoted in his teaching about the kingdom of God which was centred upon love of neighbour (whether friend or enemy) and God.

The focus of this symbol is no longer the cross but rather the open space - the space which represented the whole world and universe. They did not feel the cross could be lost because it was through the Jesus and cross that they had come to recognise the value of a shared, open, universal space. As Ziegler said:

"We feel that universalism is not the product of any one cultural or religious tradition, but is in fact implicit in all the great faiths ... we consider ourselves to be "Universalists of Christian descent."

The merger of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961 required the development of a new, shared symbol and so was born the off-centre chalice. A symbol which, as you can see, kept alive the distinctive symbols of both the Unitarians and the Universalists.

But it seems to me to be a matter of regret that, since then, the Unitarian Universalist Association has, at least symbolically speaking in it's last two "rebrandings", taken a backwards step in placing the chalice back at the centre of the symbol.

You can begin to read something of the current American debate about the newest change of symbols at this link.

The previous symbol of the UUA 
In an age in which all kinds of fundamentalisms (religious and political) are again trying to muscle into the centre and occupy all the space I would like to ask whether it is really sensible for us to retire from use the simple but powerful, visual liberal religious message conveyed by either the off-centre cross or the off-centre, cross-like shape of the chalice?

Making (or, in the British case, keeping) our own liberal religious symbols centred and symmetrical worries me, for I feel it can easily and quietly encourage in us the development of an unconscious desire to do our own muscling in to the centre and this can also quietly fuel the always dangerous idea that our own faith, religion or philosophy is central, that is has all the right answers and should occupy all the space.

The current UUA symbol

The symbol of the off-centre cross and chalice pushed beautifully and gently against such a thinking - as, of course, did Jesus - and so I mourn their demise.

As we, this week, begin to walk towards Good Friday and the first cross surely it is worth considering whether Jesus' message of non-sectarian love to the whole world is better expressed by a cross or a light placed to one-side than it is by a cross or light placed in the middle?

Another question - with which I will leave you today - What symbol, if any, best expresses the kind of liberal religious community we are today?

The Current British Unitarian symbol

Sunday, 6 April 2014

"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" - a brief address before the church's Annual General Meeting

Today is our AGM, a time when, as a church, we review the past year and look forward to the coming one. It is worth remembering at this time that, as we sang earlier, "The Church is not where altar stands/Within the hallowed walls, But where the strong reach out their hands/To raise the one who falls" and, as we will sing at the end of this brief service, "A church is a place of human trust/More than of brick and stone"

In the beginning was the living, supportive fellowship, only later does this become translated into the bricks and mortar of an altar in a holy shrine.

The holy shrine can be a wonderful living thing, it can be a home, a true sanctuary, the holy elsewhere in the midst of a too busy and uncaring world, but this wonderful living quality only remains possible when the holy shrine is used and cared for by a living fellowship, one that lives in something like the living spirit and power that caused the building to be constructed in the first place.

But if and whenever that spirit and power begins to ebb the holy shrine quickly starts to die and become a dead shell because it no longer gathers in its precincts a real, intentional, inspirited and empowered community.

This happens whenever the central focus of the community moves from its living spirit and power and towards a inanimate building and a consequence of this is that, by degrees, the building begins increasingly to weigh down and concern the community. The building becomes for them an end in itself which stifles the possibility of free lives truly lived in spirit and in power. Lest people think I'm thinking only about religious life and not something everyday let's recall that Henry David Thoreau saw this process also clearly occurring amongst his farmer neighbours around Walden. The farmers he sees have forgotten the living spirit and power of farming and have become weighed down by the accoutrement of farming. As he writes:

"I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in" (Walden Ch. 1)  

It is important to understand that Thoreau is not precisely insisting that everyone who has inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, farming tools and, as far as we are concerned, churches, should simply to get rid of them - though at times this may be required. Instead, he is much more concerned to help those same people see with clearer eyes what field they were really called to labour in. In other words Thoreau desires that the farmer recovers the spirit, power and purpose of farming that caused his farm to be built in the first place and, for us here, to recover the spirit, power and purpose that caused this church to be built. As to what for us that spirit, power and purpose is I will return in the briefest of moments.

As Thoreau says, we "labor under a mistake" if we ever think that our true life as farmers or religious people is to be directed only towards the obvious, physical accoutrements in the world; after all, he observes, the material part of us "is soon plowed into the soil for compost." To drive this point home he silently cites Jesus by reminding his readers that in "an old book" it is said that it is a fool's life to lay up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal (cf. Matthew 6:19-21)

Thoreau relies, of course, upon us knowing that this passage ends with Jesus saying "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:20). The implicit question he places before us is, "Where is your heart?"

This question brings me to our purpose today both in terms of our short AGM but also our communities overall purpose and mission.

In any AGM we will, naturally, spend some of our time talking about our material accoutrements on earth - our inherited buildings and finances - where moth and rust most certainly doth corrupt, and where there is always the danger that thieves will break through and steal. But recent events among us have restored my faith that, as a community, we are truly recovering a sense that our treasure does not lie in these things and so too, neither does our heart.

It is a recovery of the truth that our heart and our treasure lies in the extraordinary worth of a liberal religion that, in the spirit and power of its founder, the human teacher Jesus of Nazareth, remains committed to the exercise of "complete spiritual freedom."

That is to say our religious purpose is to encourage in ourselves and the wider society in which we live, a consuming passion for ongoing learning and a willingness to change in the light of that new knowledge, a radical openness to the lessons taught by the wholly natural yet still sacred world with all its lilies of the field and birds of the air, and also a profound belief that it is possible for humanity better to grow and flourish together in love and compassion.

When this treasure is acknowledged we know we can still truly sing with clean hearts and full belief (pathos) that this "church is a place of human trust/More than of brick and stone" and, as we will sing in a moment that, "the Church is not where altar stands/Within the hallowed walls, But where the strong reach out their hands/To raise the one who falls."

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The blossoming of the World-Bud - A religious naturalist Mothering Sunday Meditation

Today is "Mothering Sunday", the traditional day upon which to visit, or send gifts to, our mother church wherever and whatever we thought it was. This earthly mother church was believed to be a symbol of, or even portal through which we could glimpse in the here and now, the heavenly Jerusalem above. As you heard in our reading (Galatians 4:21-31), Paul thought this free city was symbolised by Sarah - and she, he thought, was our mother. This idea of a heavenly mother later came to rest more securely for our culture in the image of the Madonna which has become beloved of and adopted as a symbol by both Christians and Humanists alike. I have prominently included the image of Raphael's Madonna di San Sisto (1512) in this post (and on the order of service) not only because of its obvious religious resonances but also because it was a key icon in Auguste Comte's non-theistic "Religion of Humanity". Given this, Raphael's image of the mother still seems to me to offer our present day culture, with its current, unhelpful theist/atheist, religious/secular splits, a powerful, potentially unifying symbol.

St Paul's words gesture, of course, towards the common and completely understandable hope that most of us will have felt at some point in our lives, namely, that behind our transient world - a world in which all actual mothers and all actual individual instances of mothering die - there lies a permanent, foundational true mother and mothering to which we can turn in our moments of greatest need and to which, at the end of our earthly lives, we will return.

But, as we are all acutely aware, though this thought remains a highly attractive one it doesn't have the real "inevitableness" (i.e. it just seems true) that it did for St Paul and his culture. Very few of us today can believe that when we die we will later find ourselves waking up in this heavenly city of Jerusalem - that is to say, waking up safely back home in the womb of our true mother. For we secular moderns the image of the "true mother" is today simply a powerful ideal that can inspire us both either to make of ourselves better actual mothers and to display better mothering to the world, and also to give proper thanks to our own human mothers for all they have done for us. It is at this point, of course, that we see how the theological celebration of "Mothering Sunday" has elided seamlessly into the humanist celebration of "Mother's Day".

In nearly every way I wholly support this humanist move towards the celebration of our earthly mothers - after all you'd have to be a real curmudgeon to think that celebrating and thanking them is something that shouldn't be encouraged. However, for all that, I find I'm reluctant entirely to let go something captured by the more theological celebration of "Mothering Sunday". I find myself agreeing with the Unitarian minister, economist, Dante scholar and fellow traveller of Comte's "Religion of Humanity", Philip Henry Wicksteed (1844-1927) who once said that, although he was "not sure whether the religion of the future will be strongly Theistic" he did feel that "it will have to embrace things that only Theism has hitherto reached" (quoted in "Philip Henry Wicksteed" by C. H. Herford, Dent & Sons, London, 1931, p. xx).

Well, thanks to certain forms of twentieth-century continental philosophy we, with our own scientific, skeptical non-Theistic mindset can, I think, still have access to something analogous to the theological Mothering Sunday that we might be persuaded to embrace as "inevitable" (i.e. showing up to us as true).

What I find when I work through the idea of Mothering Sunday is something that helps restore to our often disenchanted secular world a sense of surpassing wonder and awe and immense gratitude so that I, personally, feel impelled to give thanks for being, for being here, and for being here together. Those of you who regularly come to this church will know that I have just quoted the grace we use at every one of our shared meals and that Susanna and I use every time we sit down to eat. In a way this address is an indication of why I think that prayer is so apt and important.

Now, the kind of continental philosophy I'm referring to (- it's basically Heideggerian) always encourages us to look to the phenomena and, one thing we can see and can be clear about is that, whatever else any human mother is, she is clearly the very doorway through which each of us has come into this extraordinary natural world. This undeniable natural phenomenon is explicitly referenced in the Catholic tradition which has sometimes called Mary the "Gate of Heaven" because it was through her that Jesus entered into this world - as with Jesus so, too, of course, with us.

But the temptation is to then go on to interpret this language in an old-school theological way and understand Mary to be a gateway standing between two real worlds - a supernatural world above and natural world below. We can't go with this particular interpretation of the gateway image because most of us can no longer believe in the existence of two worlds. For most of us there is but one world - this present, wholly natural one. But there is another way to interpret the gateway image. To get to that interpretation let's return to the phenomenon of human birth as revealed by the natural sciences - a view simply not accessible to St Paul in the first-century.

Today, we know that, after the initiating event of sexual intercourse with the father, a human mother begins to bring-forth her child - we might say a child "bud" begins to form in her womb and, by degrees, this bud begins to blossom into a foetus and thence, on the birth-day, into a child. Surely one of the wonders of the modern age is, thanks to ultrasound technology, the ability to see this "bud" and something of its extraordinary blossoming as the pregnancy unfolds.

Now, let's return to my use of the language of "bringing-forth". A mother brings-forth a child in her womb in a very, direct un-self conscious, natural, physical way and, after birth, she (and other people, including fathers) then consciously begin to mother the child so as to bring forth their fullest human potential.

The Greek word for "bringing-forth" is, as many of you know, "poeisis" and from it we derive the English words "poet" and "poetry". In an image highly appropriate to this season of spring, Julian Young notes,

"The model for poiesis is . . . the blossom rising forth out of its bud. The blossoming of (let us say) a rose is something that happens *within* nature" (Heidegger's Later Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 41).

Now, let us replace the rose with the child. The child is the blossom rising forth out of its bud. The blossoming of the child is, like the rose, something that happens *within* nature.

OK, all very uncontentious. But now begin to ask yourself the much more difficult question of what is the bud of nature itself, what is the bud of the world? Young goes on to say:

"At its most fundamental level, however, poiesis is the sense of it as a blossoming forth, an 'upsurgent presencing' out of, as it were . . ., the 'world bud'" (ibid p. 41).

However, as Young notes, the rose (or the child bud) is very different from the world-bud:

"Whereas the rose bud is visible and known, the 'world bud' is utterly mysterious, incomprehensible. And in the majesty of its overwhelming creative power, it is breathtakingly awesome" (ibid p. 41).

The key point really to get is that the "world-bud" - even though we can give it a name - remains utterly mysterious and incomprehensible both to science and religion. It is NOT, repeat, NOT possible to say anything about it but that it is the mysterious bud of our world, the bud of all buds. This "world-bud" is not within our world like a rose-bud or a child-bud but it is does seem to be capable of being called mother-like as the Tao Te Ching explicitly says:

"Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.
Naming: the mother of ten thousand things."

Our human mothers are the origin of child-bud but the "mother" of all mothers, of all selves and all entities and things animate and inanimate - the ten-thousand things in the language of the Tao - is this wholly mysterious and incomprehensible "world-bud".

As the Tao Te Ching says, this is "deep – Deep and again deep: The gateway to all mystery."

Our mother, our source, our home, the bud of our world always remains an utterly dark, impenetrable mystery. But this need not be read as a frightening darkness or mystery, for it seems to me to be more like the creative darkness of the earth out of which the rose blooms, or that of the womb in which the child grows. Out of the impenetrable darkness of the world-bud the world blossoms.

And here we come face to face with perennial question of philosophy, the mystery of why there is something not nothing? The mother of mothers is a mystery that simply won't go away, it is the mystery that the new atheism cannot clear off the table and it is the mystery that for too long only Theism has hitherto reached for.

In this address I am trying to reach for this mystery but without recourse to any kind of super-naturalism or theism and all I really want to do today is leave you with the suggestion that we can say, with a clean heart and full belief, that our true mother, the mother of all mothers is this utterly mysterious, no-thing, this world-bud that is not within the world but which is rather the 'upsurgent presencing' of all things. We are all children, blooms of the world-bud, this mysterious but natural mother that is analogous to St Paul's mother above.

My hope is that on this day as we remember our earthly mothers and celebrate Mother's Day we don't, at the same time, forget the utterly mysterious, incomprehensible mother of all mothers, Being itself, and to take time to celebrate her breathtakingly awesome creative power; it is this that I think we should celebrate on Mothering Sunday.

As (the Heidegger scholar) Richard Polt helpfully suggests, maybe the 'why' in the question is not a search for a cause but, instead, an act of celebration. Mothering Sunday is, I want to suggest, just such a celebration and it is why I feel compelled, particularly on this day, to say the prayer I said earlier:

We give thanks for being,
We give thanks for being here,
We give thanks for being here together.


Happy Mothering Sunday to you all.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

An M. R. James inspired set of photos taken on an evening stroll around Cambridge

At the beginning of the week, after a tiring, but delightful and rewarding few days looking after her three-and-a-half year old grandson, Harrison, neither my wife, Susanna, nor I could face the thought of preparing a meal and doing the washing up afterwards so we decided to go out and eat somewhere in town. It was a lovely evening - wonderfully crepuscular. I could not resist taking a few photos as we walked choosing to use Hipstamatic and their cyanotype-inspired colour plate film. The result, as you will see below, was very "M. R. Jamesian." Now what do I mean by that?

Well, for many years Cambridge was the home of M. R. James. He was provost of King's College, a medieval scholar and the writer of some of the most famous ghost stories in the English language - these stories are, perhaps, my favourite pieces of fiction and are never not to be found by my bedside. The photos below have, I think, something of the atmosphere of those stories and I thought I'd share them with you.

James also translated the New Testament Apocrypha which caught my interest when I was in my teens and I owe to him my knowledge that Christianity was always-already a very diverse and complex human creation. I cannot but think that this must have had some influence upon me eventually ending up on the roll of ministers of the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches who finds himself very much in the Sea-of-Faith "camp" with its stated aim to ‘explore and promote religious faith as a human creation’. Although it has been superseded by the excellent edition of the apocrypha prepared by J. K. Elliott I'm still very fond of my copy of James' edition.

Anyway, enough said, to the photos . . .