Sunday, 29 March 2015

Le Pas au–delà (the step/not beyond) — a Palm Sunday meditation

A theme that one can see emerge in almost every reading of the Palm Sunday story (Mark 11:1-11 and parallels) speaks of the common situation in which many of the people who first gather to welcome any great person or movement during it’s early days, at the moment they must commit to it and actually see the project through, simply fade away to nothing.

Palm Sunday is, then, a day which demands we ask again the question about what might actually be involved by following in Jesus’ steps, a programme that as a church we still claim we attempt. As I’m sure you know, when you come in to this church, hanging on the wall to the left of the door, is a hand-lettered inscription that includes the sentence “Our religious thinking is related to the teaching of Jesus and its application in the modern world” (see below right).

However, when we ask what this means in relation to the first Palm Sunday we are easily tempted to offer up an answer that relies upon a plainly false idea that the whole complex Christian story we know today in the twenty-first century was somehow accessible (and even obvious) to Jesus’ those standing by the roadside in Jerusalem. It wasn’t; they had no way of knowing what was going to transpire and whether it was going to be good, mad or bad.

Another temptation is to think that the complex path the religious community to which any of us belongs is the clearly right one, the one most consistent with Jesus’ original message — of believing that “we” are the only ones who really didn’t betray Jesus teaching. But were you to walk into another church today you would hear sermons which would claim precisely the opposite — that “our” way of following Jesus is there seen most assuredly as a betrayal.

But all this judging (whether done silently or publicly and by us or others) about who is a true follower or betrayer in relation to Jesus, offers the wider world a very unpleasant sight and it’s something which understandably puts off countless people in our culture from being able consciously and publicly to follow Jesus either as an individual or within any kind of Christian community. So, whatever else you take from today’s address I really want you to hear Jesus’ teaching:

Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven (Matthew 6:37).

It’s important to do this because it seems to me that only when we make a concerted effort to follow this teaching that are we in with a chance of giving ourselves some interpretative space to see in the Palm Sunday story another matter that seems much more important to address in our ongoing attempt better to understand our world and our place in it.

We can begin to see this something through a contingent fact (which is also to say an act of grace) that shows up in the French language. In French the word “pas” has two meanings. The first meaning is straightforwardly a “step”, as in a taking a step forward. But it also has the meaning of “not” as in “Je n’avance pas.” This literally means “I do not move forward, not even a step.” On this account pas as “not” (ne) is simply shorthand for “(not a) step” (John D. Caputo, What would Jesus Deconstruct, p. 141). John D. Caputo notes about this that:

Thus pas means “step/not”; it means to take a step but then again not to, to be following in someone’s steps but then again not to. Steps cannot be insulated in an absolute way from missteps and sidesteps, and paths cannot be protected from dead-ends. To take steps in a certain direction, to be en route, to follow in someone’s steps cannot be protected absolutely from detours, road blocks, misleading road signs, false steps and impasses [. . .] (ibid. p. 43).

This shows up very clearly when we consider taking steps towards another person as the relationship we have with them is always a journey we cannot complete. Marriage shows this up well because when you say, “I do”, you say it, not simply to whom the person is, or to whom you think this person is, but “to whomsoever or whatever this person is to become, which is unknown and unforeseen to the both of you” (ibid. p. 45). It is vitally important to see that this risk is constitutive of the vow and commitment. Without it the vow and commitment mean nothing.

There are other examples we could examine but in Caputo’s felicitous phrase they all show ‘how deeply not is embedded in the path, how deeply the impasse is embedded in the pass, how deeply the impossible is embedded in the possible – almost to the point that, far from being a simple play on words . . . it is beginning to look like a law, and one very close to the religious heart’ (ibid p. 45).

So, now, in our imaginations let’s return to the roadside in first-century Jerusalem. You’ve heard about this man whose been doing and saying extraordinary things about a completely new way of being in the world. A way of being that promises a certain kind of freedom and justice for all, a kingdom of God that turns the whole world upside down such that it doesn’t resemble anything that has ever before been called a kingdom. All other kingdoms have been ruled by powerful rulers who rigidly impose upon the people a law that feels, and indeed is, a heavy and painful yoke. But Jesus says that the yoke of his kingdom is a light one and that the power in his kingdom is one based, not upon brute will and might, but upon love and compassion. These are strange but attractive words that speak of a condition which seems almost impossible ever to imagine as really coming to pass. But, for all that, you feel deep in your heart that it could be so and, faced with the less than desirable conditions of the time, why not at least go out and welcome such a man? So you step out onto the streets of Jerusalem, you find your palm branch and hail with Hosannas this possible Messiah, this Son of David.

But with your first step onto that roadside you immediately run into the structural reality I’ve already mentioned and you see that it simultaneously brings with it the possibility of a “not” or a “misstep”. As you look around, yes, there’s lots of acclamatory noise but, over there behind the crowds, the Roman officials don’t look at all pleased and neither do the Temple authorities. Hmm. Is their displeasure a sign that Jesus is who he says, that the kingdom of which he speaks can actually come to pass? Or is it perhaps an indication that he is not who he says he is and that his kingdom is a foolish, even dangerous, piece of nonsense? Suddenly, you are face to face with the realisation that you don’t know and that the next step is not clear. So, do you now take the risk of following him or are you just going to go away?

What could make it clear? Nothing could of course – just like you know nothing can make it clear what is exactly to be involved when you say “I do” to your espoused. And by that road-side you also suddenly see that to follow in Jesus’ footsteps would be to engage in something like marriage. It could never be merely to follow who Jesus is, or who you think Jesus is, but to follow whomsoever or whatever he is (and who you are) to become and that is always-already unknown and unforeseen to all of us right up to today and infinitely beyond.

And let’s not forget that key to the Gospel story we inherit is the fact that the nots and missteps (the fact that there was betrayal, that Jesus was executed, that Jesus’ kingdom didn’t come about in any way that would be recognised by the powers that be) play as great a role as any of the story’s “I dos” and apparent right-steps. The whole story is clearly characterised by the ambiguity of the “step/not”.

So, were the crowds who so quickly appeared and disappeared on Palm Sunday betrayers and cowards? Was their disappearance a “not-step” or a “misstep”? What, too, about the disciples all of whom also later disappeared? Well, we simply cannot say one way or the other and we must not judge lest we be judged for we are all tied together by the “step/not” nature of reality no matter which steps we eventually choose to take.

The most important thing to see in all this is that to try to step with Jesus as individuals and as a member of a congregation is, for our liberal tradition anyway, not to be loyal to some simple predetermined scheme or belief about in what consist the right steps (steps that some church authority has decided it knows and which are fixed forever in certain rules or creeds) but to be loyal to a certain open-ended, trusting, loving way of walking through the world that helps us discern together how we might best take the next step, and the next, and the next and always revising our understanding as we go.

This is to proclaim a Christianity after Christianity, a secular Christianity after all the security of believing that it is ever possible absolutely to know what the right steps are has fallen away and we are left simply with the need to live a life of trust, love, friendship and forgivness – central aspects of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. Since we can never know in any final sense what following Jesus’ steps means, it is to proclaim to the world an understanding of the Christian faith that insists we must always be walking and talking lovingly and respectfully together and, in open conversation and shared work, to see what shows up for us as a possible, reasonable shared next step – just like we do in a marriage, in any great friendship or in any true secular democracy. As Caputo notes, this would be to begin faithfully to live in a tradition that “keeps happening (arriver) without ever quite arriving at a final, fixed, and finished destination.” It would mean living in such a way that we can see it was and never is possible merely to derive (dériver) direct instruction from Jesus, the story of Palm Sunday or from the rest of the Bible, and that we can only “allow it a certain drift or free play (dérive)”.

To follow Jesus in this fashion would be to allow the Christian tradition to be creative and to reinvent itself so that there is a chance it can be, as Augustine said of God, “ever ancient yet ever new” (ibid. p. 57). It would allow Christianity to become a religious tradition which could, with ease and grace, meaningfully take into account of the fact humanity’s step/not has continually revealed new worlds of possibility that, for example, has shown us that women should be fully involved at all levels of human life, that a same-sex relationships or marriage is to be celebrated, that disbelief in a supernatural God is fine, that no religious text or person is ever infallibly authoritative and that other religious and non-religious traditions have fine and great insights we should take time to listen to.

But, alas, in the current climate the Christian churches as a whole seem hell bent on maintaining the illusion that there are simple and definitive answers to be found in life and that the open, secular way of following Jesus I present here is a monumental betrayal of those same answers.

Perhaps, but perhaps not, and the only way any one of us can find out is by picking a palm frond and chosing ourselves to step/not in Jesus’ step/not. What that will eventually mean no one has ever known, but as long as it is done with trust and love and in the spirit of friendship and forgiveness then there is a chance our vow and commitment to follow in Jesus' step/not will lead to a better, and not to a worse, world.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

" . . . neither a form, nor some thing, but a rhythm, a certain way of vibrating, a resonance." Thinking about Lucretius, Elliott Carter and Franco "Bifo" Berardi on a early spring walk by the River Cam to Fen Ditton

Whenever spring begins clearly to come upon us my mind always turns to Lucretius and his great poem De Rerum Natura — especially the beginning of Book One, and especially in John Dryden's translation (which you can find at this link). It was this, perhaps, that made a desire well-up within me this morning to listen again to Elliott Carter's Double Concerto of 1961 (which you can here via the following YouTube video):


The liner notes by Paul Griffiths of the wonderful Elliott Carter Nonesuch Retrospective says of the piece that it is:

". . . an exuberant turmoil of notes, colours, speeds, and directions. In constant change [Carter] associated with the vision of the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius, who saw a universe in which everything, everywhere is in movement:

           All things keep on, in everlasting motion,
           Out of the infinite come the particles
           Speeding above, below, in endless dance.

But this is also a contemporary vision, and Carter, as a keen observer of scientific developments, could have had in mind images of subatomic particles streaming, colliding, conjoining, disintegrating, or of stars and galaxies in perpetual evolution."

As I took a early spring walk along the River Cam to Fen Ditton to have lunch and a pint in The Ancient Shepherds the day was, itself constantly changing, sunny, cloudy, warm, cold, rainy and sunny again — it even managed to sleet a bit. This constant movement (and my own constant movement as I walked) made me think of Lucretius famous "swerve" (clinamen) and that, in turn, "bumped" me into remembering Jason Smith's introduction to Franco "Bifo" Berardi's book "The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy" :

The soul is the clinamen of the body. It is how it falls, and what makes it fall in with other bodies. The soul is its gravity. This tendency for certain bodies to fall in with others is what constitutes a world. The materialist tradition represented by Epicurus and Lucretius proposed a worldless time in which bodies rain down through the plumbless void, straight down and side-by-side, until a sudden, unpredictable deviation or swerve — clinamen — leans bodies toward one another, so that they come together in a lasting way. The soul does not lie beneath the skin. It is the angle of this swerve and what then holds these bodies together. It spaces bodies, rather than hiding within them; it is among them, their consistency, the affinity they have for one another. It is what they share in com­mon: neither a form, nor some thing, but a rhythm, a certain way of vibrating, a resonance. Frequency, tuning or tone.

I have found the idea that what I, you and all things have in common is neither a form, nor some thing, but a rhythm, a certain way of vibrating, a resonance a very powerful, healing and helpful one and with it, and some photos below from today's walk, I'll leave you.









Sunday, 22 March 2015

Just like Jericho, "let these walls come tumbling down" — After the Future, a Post-Futurist Manifesto — some thoughts following the Jeremy Clarkson fracas

The Walls of Jericho from my Children's Bible
As some of you know, when I was a child I was given an illustrated Children’s Bible and I spent many hours reading the stories it contained and pouring over the accompanying pictures. As you might imagine the story of the Walls of Jericho was a particularly good one to illustrate and I enjoyed it immensely.

It’s fair to say, I think, that it’s a very strange story indeed and one which, as Matthew Henry says rather dryly in his famous commentary, certainly describes an “uncommon method of besieging the city”. Uncommon indeed — unique, I think. But if the siege method described was uncommon it has to be said that the general Christian interpretation of the story serves simply to turn it into just another way merely to persuade people of God’s supreme power and, as Henry says, that “all the victories were [and are] from him”.

Whenever I was offered this interpretation by my Sunday School teachers or ministers, it always seemed to me to destroy its wonder and oddness and left me with nothing other than a rather boring religious, so-called “fact” about God’s power, the truth of which, even by the age of ten, I was already beginning seriously to doubt.

If that’s all the story could teach me then I could safely forget it . . . and, as a teaching story, forget it I have. That was until this week when two things came together which allowed a rather more interesting, amenable and useful interpretation of the story to emerge. What those two things were we’ll come to in the address, but first, here’s the very odd story of the walls of Jericho:


The first was the surprising number of people (five) who came up to me specifically to ask about the Italian philosopher, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, after I mentioned his book “The Uprising: Poetry and Finance” during last week’s service. Later on, two other people in email correspondence did the same and said they were getting hold of the book. This is, I assure you, a very unusual occurrence —none, one or, tops, two is the usual figure.

The second was the continuing brouhaha over Jeremy Clarkson’s suspension as presenter of “Top Gear”. “Top Gear” is the TV show that, more than any other, has glamourised and pandered to the cult of the very fast, powerful and very expensive car. Today, I don’t want in any shape or form to get involved in the rights and wrongs of the whole Clarkson debacle but, instead, wish simply to note that the sheer number of people signing a petition to have him reinstated (nearing a million as I write) and the four million drop in viewers for the replacement programme, clearly reveals there remains in our culture an obsession with both speed and power. It is not at all insignificant to my theme today that the petition was delivered to the BBC in a tank (an iconic symbol of violent power) and that the driver of the tank was a character called "The Stig" who, as always, was dressed as a Formula 1 racing driver (an iconic symbol of speed).

It is all this that brings me back to Bifo. One of the things he has written, to which I’m going to introduce you to today, is a “Post-Futurist Manifesto” (found in his book, "After the Future") . But before we can consider that you need to know a little something about the Futurist movement and its associated manifesto written in 1908 by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

Futurism (Italian: Futurismo) was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century and which rejected the past and emphasised and glorified speed, technology, youth, violence, war and objects such as the car, the aeroplane and the industrial city. Marinetti brought all these things together in his Manifesto and he produced a document which, as will quickly become evident, was to prove highly congenial to the nascent Italian Fascist movement. The manifesto also gave birth to a twin, Russian Futurism, many of whose ideas were were borrowed by those who created totalitarian Soviet Communism. So here is the Manifesto. Do be warned, it is a thoroughly nasty little document:

Manifesto of Futurism (Translated by R. W. Flint)

1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.

2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.

3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.

4. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath — a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.

6. The poet must spend himself with ardour, splendour, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervour of the primordial elements.

7. Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.

8. We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.

9. We will glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.

10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.

11. We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicoloured, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervour of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.

It is profoundly disturbing to see how this manifesto so accurately predicted the way our European culture would go during the twentieth-century. To be sure, the fact that, here at least, we find much of what it contains abhorrent is a sign that we may have matured just a little since then, but the additional fact that the document as a whole still seems to speak accurately of so many of our own culture’s current attitudes and ways of behaving should be, I think, a cause of great worry. Notice, too, how so many of these ideas also resonate with those currently trumpeted by a modern extremist group like ISIS.

And you know what? I don’t like the world it promotes at all. In fact it is this kind of world-view — whether expressed in our own or another culture — that brings me closest to expressing my own anger about it in aggressive and violent ways. Fortunately (in my opinion) I’m so shaped by Jesus’ calls to non-violent direct action (and the calls of people like Tolstoy) that I have some real hope I will never be tempted myself down the route of violence but I know, first hand, that similar feelings to my own are abroad amongst many people like me who are increasingly aware of the desperate need to find ways meaningfully and effectively to protest and campaign against war, violence, speed, hatred of women, patriotism, militarism, nationalism and the wilful destruction and exploitation of earth’s resources and our museums, libraries, academies of every kind.

Alas, I think there can be no doubt that violent angry protest against these things will begin to occur more frequently in the next few decades and that it will be challenged by an equal and opposite violent reaction. We caught a minor glimpse of this process unfolding just this week with the protests outside the new European Central Bank HQ in Frankfurt.

But I’m completely with Berardi in believing that the “organisation of violent actions . . . would not be smart, as violence is a pathological demonstration of impotence when power is protected by armies of professional killers” (The Uprising, p. 132).

If Berardi and I are right in holding this opinion what are we to do if we wish to protest effectively and non-violently against the ideals found in Futurism? Here we turn finally to the story of the Walls of Jericho because Berardi thinks we need to be communicating to the world an important truth, namely:

“. . . that a collective mantra chanted by millions of people will tear down the walls of Jericho much better than a pickaxe or a bomb” (The Uprising, p. 133).

Now that is an uncommon method of bringing change! But, in the current political and cultural situation when so many of us are acutely feeling our lack of power this approach rings so true with me. In this sentence of Bifo’s I think we can see a glimpse of how in the coming decades we might, perhaps, best be playing out our own radical church tradition. I'd venture to suggest that we need to find ways to contribute to the explicit creation of such a mantra that might poetically, and non-violently, be powerful enough to pull down the walls that divide us and so begin to transform the world in gentle and peaceful ways.

But what might such a mantra look like? Is there any model we can begin to work with and perhaps begin to disseminate? Well, the answer is “yes” for Berardi has offered up to us a first-take in his own “Post-Futurist Manifesto” published in February 2009, a manifesto that deliberately recasts the horrific Futurist manifesto published a hundred-years previously.

With it I’ll finish — let it stand today as a kind of “Amen” to my address for you to think about in your own time and ways. I won’t interpret it in anyway but just let it’s poetic force strike you (or not) as it will. Following the manifesto I have put a link to a short twenty minute interview with Bifo about this subject which you may wish to see.

So now, imagine me walking with millions of others round the walls of our many unfit for purpose institutions ("Jerichos" all) and saying together, again and again, this mantra/manifesto for a different world . . .

”Post-Futurist Manifesto” (creatively read in English by Erik Empson and Arianna Bove)

1. We want to sing of the danger of love, the daily creation of a sweet energy that is never dispersed.

2. The essential elements of our poetry will be irony, tenderness and rebellion.

3. Ideology and advertising have exalted the permanent mobilisation of the productive and nervous energies of humankind towards profit and war. We want to exalt tenderness, sleep and ecstasy, the frugality of needs and the pleasure of the senses.

4. We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of autonomy. Each to her own rhythm; nobody must be constrained to march on a uniform pace. Cars have lost their allure of rarity and above all they can no longer perform the task they were conceived for: speed has slowed down. Cars are immobile like stupid slumbering tortoises in the city traffic. Only slowness is fast.

5. We want to sing of the men and the women who caress one another to know one another and the world better.

6. The poet must expend herself with warmth and prodigality to increase the power of collective intelligence and reduce the time of wage labour.

7. Beauty exists only in autonomy. No work that fails to express the intelligence of the possible can be a masterpiece. Poetry is a bridge cast over the abyss of nothingness to allow the sharing of different imaginations and to free singularities.

8. We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries… We must look behind to remember the abyss of violence and horror that military aggressiveness and nationalist ignorance is capable of conjuring up at any moment in time. We have lived in the stagnant time of religion for too long. Omnipresent and eternal speed is already behind us, in the Internet, so we can forget its syncopated rhymes and find our singular rhythm.

9. We want to ridicule the idiots who spread the discourse of war: the fanatics of competition, the fanatics of the bearded gods who incite massacres, the fanatics terrorised by the disarming femininity blossoming in all of us.

10. We demand that art turns into a life-changing force. We seek to abolish the separation between poetry and mass communication, to reclaim the power of media from the merchants and return it to the poets and the sages.

11. We will sing of the great crowds who can finally free themselves from the slavery of wage labour and through solidarity revolt against exploitation. We will sing of the infinite web of knowledge and invention, the immaterial technology that frees us from physical hardship. We will sing of the rebellious cognitariat who is in touch with her own body. We will sing to the infinity of the present and abandon the illusion of a future.


Saturday, 21 March 2015

I wish to speak a word for nature . . .

Salts Hole, Holkham, Norfolk taken this February
Henry David Thoreau in Walking:

"I WISH 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. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make a emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization; the minister, and the school-committee, and every one of you will take care of that."

Thursday, 19 March 2015

A jazz blast from a jazz past — The Flanagan Ingham Quartet, 8pm Friday March 20th, Bury St Edmunds

In a reunion rarer than a sighting of Pink Floyd, the Flanagan Ingham Quartet (a band I was in during the 90s) re-convenes a few hundred yards from its birthplace for a one-off 2015 Spring Reawakening.

First heard in the mythical Blue Note Jazz Restaurant, a venue that operated in the St Edmunds Fayre arcade 1991-92 in Bury St Edmunds. (That unit that is now Iceland.)

Their two albums Zanzibar (1995) and Textile Lunch (1999) were deliriously reviewed and the band enjoyed a flurry of jazz almost-fame before imploding under the weight of expectation in 2001.

To pay for a pre-booking (+ £1 booking fee), visit www.headhunterslive.org and follow the links.

And to conclude, below, looking much younger than we do today, is a video of us on Look East in 1996 and, below that, is another link to a live performance on ITV's "Front Row".




Sunday, 15 March 2015

Mothering Sunday: Revolutionary Ballads, Poetry and Finance

Frankie Armstrong singing with Mikey Price (guitar)
Readings: “Years ago when I” by Bertolt Brecht

Years ago when I was studying the ways of the Chicago Wheat Exchange
I suddenly grasped how they managed the whole world’s wheat there
And yet I did not grasp it either and lowered the book
I knew at once: you’ve run
Into bad trouble.

There was no feeling of enmity in me and it was not the injustice
Frightened me, only the thought that
Their way of going about it won’t do
Filled me completely.

These people, I saw, lived by the harm
Which they did, not by the good.
This was a situation, I saw, that could only be maintained
By crime because too bad for most people.
In this way every
Achievement of reason, invention or discovery
Must lead only to still greater wretchedness.

Such and suchlike I thought at the moment
Far from anger or lamenting, as I lowered the book
With its description of the Chicago wheat market and exchange.

Much trouble and tribulation
Awaited me.

From The Communist Postscript (Verso Press, 2010) by Boris Groys

So long as humans live under conditions of the capitalist economy they remain fundamentally mute because their fate does not speak to them. If a human is not addressed by his or her fate, then he or she is incapable of answering it. Economic processes are anonymous, and not expressed in words. For this reason one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one’s side. All that can be done is to adapt one’s own behaviour to what is occurring. Economic failure brooks no argument, just as economic success requires no additional discursive justification. In capitalism, the ultimate confirmation or refutation of human action is not linguistic but economic: it is expressed not with words but with numbers. The force of language as such is thereby annulled (p. xvi).

I Timothy 6:6-10

. . . there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

ADDRESS

The Chalk Circle Collective singing this morning
Today, with the visit of Frankie Armstrong and the Chalk Circle Collective to sing for us some revolutionary ballads by Bertolt Brecht, I began to reflect on the fact, often forgotten by many contemporary Unitarian congregations, that our religious movement has, for important and lengthy periods of it’s existence, been revolutionary in outlook and intent.

In it’s earliest years in Poland and Transylvania during the sixteenth-century it challenged the power of the Catholic church in order to promote freedom of thought and conscience in religion. In the eighteenth-century Enlightenment period many of its ministers (e.g. Joseph Priestley) supported the French and American Revolutions with their calls for liberté, égalité and fraternité. And then, between the mid-nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries there was a close connection with the rapidly developing socialist movement; this was especially visible in something called the Labour Church Movement.

However, by the mid-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries our earlier, more obviously revolutionary concerns, became subsumed in more generally reformist ones that were shared by the liberal democratic mainstream political establishment which we had done so much to help create. In consequence our activist energy turned more towards issues like gender equality and gay-rights — still revolutionary in their own way, to be sure, but now, undoubtedly, part of a generally reformist, rather than revolutionary, agenda.

But, as we all know, it is this same mainstream culture that, in its late-capitalist, neoliberal form has managed to create a monstrous, global financial system, which is far from serving well its citizens and which is, by now, seriously damaging both the ways we interact with each other as human beings and with the wider environment. It’s something that seems to require from us a solution that is more than just a bit of reformist tinkering around the edges.

This leaves me with a question: given our history as a radical religious movement, what important, even revolutionary thing might we be doing today do that could help change things for the better? That Brecht was a poet is central to the answer I’m going to propose we might think about. Also, perhaps surprisingly, I think that in this answer there also emerges a hopeful Mothering Sunday message.

Now many, many people didn’t see the present, monstrous, global financial system coming but, in his poem, “Years ago when I” about the Chicago Wheat Exchange, I feel we can see indications that Brecht may have had intimations of it.

(The information in the following paragraph was drawn from the article to be found at this link)

The Chicago Wheat Exchange was an institution founded in 1848 thanks to Chicago’s close proximity to some of the most productive farmland in the world. The region’s extraordinary ability to produce enormous quantities of corn and wheat forced the city’s commercial community to consider how best temporarily to store and then ship these goods in bulk both to domestic and international markets. In the initial stages, of course, everything that went on there was tied to actual wheat in and actual wheat out, i.e. to real, existing food, produced by and for real existing people. But during the Civil War (1861-1865) the Union quartermaster began procuring supplies with contracts that postponed delivery until they were needed and payment was secured. We can easily imagine why this way of proceeding was required during that particular period. What began at this point was the creation of a market for what became known as “futures” and it was not long before speculative purchases and sales of wheat and corn were more routinely occurring. It is important to see that in the 1930s — when Brecht was writing — although these futures were still tied to actual wheat and corn produced by and for actual people, by then there was underway a significant move away from the real to the theoretical, from real wheat and corn towards abstract numbers that were beginning to have value in themselves alone and which might also be traded as a kind of commodity.

Brecht was, or course, no fan of the way capitalism was playing out and, in his play “St Joan of the Stockyards” (1929-1931), we see a sustained attempt to write something about about it. Initially he wanted to set the play in the Chicago wheat industry but it eventually became centred on its meat industry, another of the important commodities traded in Chicago. Brecht was initially hampered in his writing because at the time he didn’t know much about economic matters. So, as the poem reveals, he set about studying it.

What I find particularly intriguing about this poem is that in it Brecht suggests it was not the Wheat Exchange itself that frightened him. Rather it was “their way of going about it” which, he says, “won’t do.” It was this thought that filled him completely and frightened him.

So what was their way of going about their business? Clearly one can point, as Brecht does directly in his play and indirectly in the poem, to the obvious physical and social injustices present in any industry when an elite, rich few used and abused a vulnerable workforce to produce a surplus, the profits of which primarily went to fill their own pockets. As says, “These people, I saw, lived by the harm/Which they did, not by the good.” Thanks to his mother Brecht knew the Bible well and it’s hard not to hear in general play at this point the words we heard earlier from 1 Timothy.

But for me the truly haunting, prophetic moment of the poem is found in the lines “In this way every/Achievement of reason, invention or discovery/Must lead only to still greater wretchedness.” What were these achievements of reason, what were the inventions and discoveries that lead to still greater wretchedness? I’m sure he’s referring in part to physical plant, to machinery, to bigger grain silos, to the bigger and more powerful trains and ships required to move the enormous quantity of grain and the cattle for the least amount of labour and pay.

But is this all Brecht is referring to? Perhaps not, because we mustn’t forget that trade in futures I mentioned earlier — he would have known about that. Though the use of reason the discovery that such futures were possible (and, it is important to stress not in any necessary way a bad thing) opened the door to the development of the most powerful and destructive inventions of late-capitalism and the neoliberal economy — namely, the creation of a world of virtual value cut completely free from any actual, labour commodity or other real benchmark that can be found in the everyday world you and I live and work in.

Following the financial crash of 2008 which, as it continues to unfold is bringing with it, as Brecht foresaw, still greater wretchedness, many of us not well-versed in economics and finance suddenly became aware of a truly shocking truth, namely, that significant aspects of our culture had silently, and without democratic permission, been transcribed from word to number.

In 2010, in the midst of my own profound shock at this state of affairs — and I cannot stress enough to you how much of a shock it was — I was struck by something said by Boris Groys (b. 1947) in his book “The Communist Postscript”. As you heard earlier,  he wrote:

“So long as humans live under conditions of the capitalist economy they remain fundamentally mute because their fate does not speak to them. If a human is not addressed by his or her fate, then he or she is incapable of answering it. Economic processes are anonymous, and not expressed in words. For this reason one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one’s side. All that can be done is to adapt one’s own behaviour to what is occurring. Economic failure brooks no argument, just as economic success requires no additional discursive justification. In capitalism, the ultimate confirmation or refutation of human action is not linguistic but economic: it is expressed not with words but with numbers. The force of language as such is thereby annulled” (p. xvi).

In essence, for Groys and, I have to say for me, the revolution needed right now is one which reverses this trend so we can begin again to build and live in a society where we can genuinely address our fate; to rebuild a culture where, at its centre, people take time to sit down together, read poetry and sing and converse about our hopes for a better life for all. This kind of conversational activity is central, of course, to any proper functioning democracy and where only abstract numbers rule there can be no genuine democracy.

Since 2008 I’ve carried on thinking and reading around this idea and I’ve recently been struck by another thinker who feels something similar, the Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi (b. 1948).

Berardi feels that real alternative approaches to the current financial crisis will only emerge once we understand that it is something more fundamental than an economic crisis. For Berardi  “it is a crisis of the social imagination, and [as such] demands a new language by which to address it.”

In a wonderful, provocative little book written in 2011 called “The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance” he attempts to offer up some kind of manifesto for this. As the book’s blurb reads:

“ . . . Berardi introduces an unexpected linguistic political weapon — poetry: poetry as the insolvency of language, as the sensuous birth of meaning and desire, as that which cannot be reduced to information and exchanged like currency.” 

The blurb goes on to say that, “If the protests now stirring about the world are to take shape and direction, then the revolution will be neither peaceful nor violent — it will be linguistic, or will not be at all.”

And Berardi himself says that:

“Poetry is language’s excess: poetry is what in language cannot be reduced to information, and it is not exchangeable, but gives way to a new common ground of understanding, of shared meaning: the creation of a new world” (p. 147).

Is there anyone here who, after 2008, doesn’t think we need such a new common ground of understanding and shared meaning, who doesn’t think we need to create a new world?

Of course, there will be intense disagreements amongst us about just exactly how we might best go about building this new world. But that’s OK, because that’s how democracy and real politics works. When we can together, once again, address our fate in words, the disputes and disagreements are real, they count, they really are worth something.

What we can, perhaps, all agree on, regardless of our own political preferences, is that we need a revolution which restores to our culture in some way the power of the word and, therefore, to the power of arguments, programmes, petitions, resolutions and decrees (cf. Boris Groys, “The Communist Postscript” p. xv).

The Madonna di San Sisto - Raphael
What’s happening today in this church reveals us to be a little cell of revolutionary resistance. We are gathered here today because, like Brecht in his own age, we feel we can still address our fate and envision and encourage a better world and we have chosen to do it in word, prayer, meditation, poetry and song. We are gathered here to talk, to agree and disagree, to kick about ideas and values that count. Meeting together in the word to address our fate is, in these strange financial times, a revolutionary act. It gently proclaims that we are free men and women and we will not be reduced to abstract numbers, mere units of value and production.

And to conclude, here is where the Mothering Sunday theme emerges for a mother's love cannot be expressed towards her child numerically, algorithmically and without a real body acting in a real world of real things.

And so, finally, I find can say that the model of revolution I have in mind by which we might most effectively begin to challenge the dangerous, out of control, abstract, violent, often male dominated financial craziness of our days is to found in the picture of a human mother taking time, lots of time, to caress her human child whilst singing into their ears revolutionary poems and ballads of love and justice for all. And all of us know in our hearts that true value for us is not created in the arms of algorithms but only in the arms of those who love and mother us.

Vive la révolution!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself — An early-spring meditation

As you will see below, following on from last week, I haven’t quite yet done with Jesus’ call to consider what the birds of the air might encourage us to notice and, to begin this address, click on the link below to hear the poet Wallace Stevens reading his poem:


At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow…
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mache…
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry—It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

The tress that sheltered us from the wind. Stiiffkey Salt Marsh to the left (click to enlarge)
Walking east along the Norfolk coast in mid-February on the way to Stiffkey from Wells with Susanna, I was well aware that we were still very much in the season of winter. True, this year it was not in any way a harsh one but it was winter nonetheless. Rounding a tree-lined bank we stepped out of the wind for a moment and were simultaneously caught in a brief and tenuous ray of sun making its way through the heavily overcast sky. Then, suddenly, I heard an unexpected bird song and called out to Susanna, “A skylark!” The combination of these three things served immediately to transform my winterly-being into springly-being and I felt a gentle, joyous, lightness of spirit within and around me.

Geese flying above Stiffkey Marsh
Of course, the sun disappeared within a few seconds and our eastward walk took us quickly back into the cold wind and the spring song of the skylark was replaced once again by the winter sound of geese coming into land on Stiffkey Salt Marsh to the north. This sudden return of winterly-being caused me to recall the opening line and a bit of Wallace Steven’s poem “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself”: “At the earliest ending of winter,/In March”. As I retied my scarf, pulled my woolly-hat further down over my ears and walked on, I said to myself, “Don’t fool yourself, old chap, it’s too early, spring isn’t here yet”.

In the early evening, on returning to the old fisherman’s cottage where we were staying and turning my attention to laying a fire so as to get some warmth into our small downstairs room, everything continued to speak of winter: on the back of a chair were my two thick jumpers and tweed-jacket temporarily  discarded to keep them clean while I cleaned up the dust and ashes of the previous night’s fire, there were the blankets hanging over the doors and back window, there was the curtain around the bottom of the stairs to keep the heat in the room and, finally, there was my mug of freshly brewed tea sending up white vapour like some idling steam-engine. This railway-inspired image was only added to by the fact that my cold hands now cradling the mug for warmth were blackened with coal dust.

The fire that evening
Later that evening, still fully in winterly-being but now with the fire burning warmly and glass of Whitstable Bay Pale Ale in my hand, I took advantage of a fleeting 3G connection to read again the whole of Steven’s short poem.

It never fails to fully to engage my imagination but that is not to say I have ever fully understood it — if, indeed, it is a poem capable of being fully understood, and whatever that word ‘fully’ might mean. It seems to me that, like all great works of art, it always remains capable of giving more than it is. But, for all that, there are certain times and places when and where the words of this or that poem, the lines and shapes of this or that picture, the cadences and dissonances of this or that piece of music, suddenly seem to speak with a clarity previously inaccessible to me. This was one such occasion though, please remember, the clarity I found — if clarity it is — was not absolute and the poem’s meaning is not even vaguely exhausted by what I saw and felt. (For instance, I have not said anything about the poem's possible relationship with Kant's "ding an sich" or with William Carlos Williams' mantra, "no ideas but in things". These and other ideas are explored on an episode of an excellent programme called PoemTalk which you can hear by clicking this link).

I think the place to begin is with that moment when the wind dropped, the sun came out and I heard the song of the skylark. You will recall that I said “the combination of these three things served immediately to transform my winterly-being into springly-being and I felt a gently joyous lightness of spirit within and around me.”

There I was, fully, knowingly in winter, and yet, suddenly, there I was fully, knowingly, in spring. But more than this. The moment of transformation was a change in everything about my being, I was winterly-being, then I was springly-being. It wasn’t that I was this particular, individual being to whom winter was happening, and then I was this same particular, individual being to whom a harbinger of spring was happening. I was myself winter then, suddenly, I was myself spring.

This kind of total feeling, a total change of being, raises all kinds of questions about what may meaningfully be said to be inside and outside of us.

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

Fully in this moment did it make proper sense to say that the skylark’s song was outside of me? From a certain rational point of view, of course, I’m minded to say the skylark was most assuredly outside me, fluttering and singing just above my head. Though it has to be said I never once saw it and, perhaps, I was mistaken. But, in the totality of this moment, it really seemed to me like a sound in my mind.

Steven’s use of the phrase “seemed like” — with it’s conditional sense — is important because he wishes, for good reason, to place some doubt in our minds. He wants us to ask whether the bird and its song was, is, inside or outside me? We’ll return to this question in a moment when we turn to the sun.

To be sure, Steven’s bird has a scrawny cry and mine had a considerably more varied and mellifluous song, but a key point here is, surely, to do with hearing a sound that spoke to me and Stevens of spring and not of winter.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry at daylight or before,
In the early March wind

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

I, too, knew I had heard it even though, for me, it was at two in the afternoon and in a mid-February wind but, nevertheless, it functioned for me as a wake up call too.

Also, like Stevens, I was well aware that the sun was rising earlier and setting later as well as rising ever higher in the sky. In that brief shaft of clear sunlight, just for a moment, the sun had appeared to me higher and more colossal and with a panache more substantial than the battered and flattened out show it usually makes at this time of day and year. But again, fully in this moment did it make sense simply to say that “it” was outside of me? Stevens is deliberately very unclear at this point about whether the “it” here refers to the bird’s cry or the sun but, in either case, surely, they would have been outside me? Well, they would have been, wouldn’t they?

It was not from the vast ventriloquism 
Of sleep’s faded papier mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

Of course, from one perspective I had no doubt that the sun was coming from outside. But, once again, in the totality of the moment, it seemed to me that a colossal sun was not only risen outside me but was simultaneously risen inside me, not with battered, but with full panache. I know this because in that moment this inward dawn did not have the compressed quality of a dream about it, instead it felt like a phenomenally enlarged reality that was way, way more real than “the vast ventriloquism/Of sleep’s faded papier mâché” — those surreal, papered together constructions of a mere dreamlike state that we all know so well. No, the reality of this inward dawn was so encompassing that it was impossible only to say that “the sun was coming from outside”.

The three lines, “Seemed like a sound in his mind”, “It would have been outside” and “The sun was coming from outside” help us, I think, begin to grasp Stevens’ desire in this poem to collapse our simplistic, dualistic understanding of reality. Inside to outside, outside to inside is a both/and experience, one that is constantly moving, and one which is capable of showing up for us the infinitely rich, modal expression of Nature (or God), God (or Nature), showing up now as bird, now as sun, now as winter, now as spring, now as inside, now as outside, now as one, now as manifold, now as Andrewly-winterly being, now as Andrewly-springly being.

That scrawny cry—it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality. 

Although, unlike like Stevens’ scrawny single-note cry, the skylark was singing a complex melody it was still a solo voice and, as such, I heard it as if it were the solo chorister singing the opening verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” at the beginning of King’s College’s Nine Lessons and Carols and heralding the astonishing richness of the choir’s polyphony as it's voice fills the chapel to proclaim a new birth, a new being.

Filling the chapel that is the natural world in its fullness, both the single ‘c’ — the scrawny cry — and the skylark’s complex melody are also part of the sun and not a thing apart, for these sounds spread out like the flow of light from a star to fill the whole universe of being even though still far away.

As I stood on that marsh it was not simply that I knew spring was coming but that I felt I now knew that spring always already nests in winter and all the other seasons always already nest within all the others and all of them in me. The skylark, too, always already nests in my mind and I nest in hers, and so too does the sun, phoenix-like, nest within my being, always ready to rise and bring with it a new dawn filling the whole world with new light and meaning.

It was to me like a new knowledge of reality, something like standing for a moment “sub species aeternitatis” — under the form of eternity — a phrase which, from the time of blessed Spinoza onwards, has been used to describe that which we cannot but feel to be universally and eternally true and which needs make no reference to, nor be dependent upon, our usual, temporal experiences of reality. Though remember, this is not a proof of the unity of all things — it simply a poetic expression of an intuition out of which one may confidently, but always humbly, live.

Perhaps, I thought, “the thing itself” that Stevens was trying to write about was precisely this experience of being sub species aeternitatis. Of course Stevens, like me in writing this address, knew that his words about all this seem chocked-full of ideas about things, But in this poem he, to my mind, succeeds in pointing us to, to nudge us into, a direct appreciation of and gratitude for “the thing itself” which, in this case, is life in its lived fullness, here and now, with everything about it enfolded and nested within everything else.

And then, all of a sudden, the sun went in, the song of the skylark was replaced by the song of geese, our onward walk took us back into the wind and winterly-being returned.

Stiffkey Salt Marsh (click to enlarge)
You may say, this poetic stuff and nonsense is all well and good but what practical, religious/spiritual something might be gained from my telling you this? I might ask need it have any immediate, obvious practical use? Perhaps not, but all the foregoing does helps me to pass on something I first learnt from Henry David Thoreau. At the very end of “Walden” he writes: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

Reflecting on my experience in the Stiffkey marshes two weeks ago it has become clear to me in a new way, like a new knowledge of reality, the profound importance of awakening to the fact that in our lives there are always two endlessly interweaving and interpenetrating dawns. Yes, of course, we need to acknowledge the dawn signalled daily by the rising of our local star outside of us. This dawn is clearly vital, for without it there would be no life on this extraordinary planet that is our home. But we need to be awake to another dawn too and to acknowledge that within ourselves there is also always already the ever-present possibility of a daily, even hourly and minutely inward dawn. Without being awake to this other dawn then the sun outside us could rise for ever but never bring with it “the gift of life” that is a world filled with new possibilities for belonging, meaning and wonder.

The first day of this ever new world is always ready to break for those who are awake to its possibilities.  So I feel emboldened to say, "Wachet auf"—"Sleepers, awake!"

And, for myself, following on from last week’s address it seemed to me that the skylark — that chorister whose song preceded the choir — was a bird of the air who acted for me like an angel in our old myths, suddenly waking me up with a greeting and bringing with her the auspicious blessings of both the inward and outward dawns and the possibility of a new way of being in the world that seems like a new knowledge of reality.

On this beautiful, early spring day, to her and the mysterious source from whence she, the sun and all things come, I give the greatest of thanks.