Sunday, 26 April 2015

An Assembly of Presences — A short address for the church AGM and my brief remarks written for the annual report

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church
Readings: Genesis 1:27: So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

From “The Coming Insurrection” by the Invisible Committee (Semiotext(e), MIT Press, 2009)

The need to assemble is as constant among humans as the necessity of making decisions is rare. Assembling corresponds to the joy of feeling a common power. Decisions are vital only in emergency situations, where the exercise of democracy is already compromised. The rest of the time, “the democratic character of decision making” is only a problem for the fanatics of process. It’s not a matter of critiquing assemblies or abandoning them, but of liberating the speech, gestures, and interplay of beings that take place within them. We just have to see that each person comes to an assembly not only with a point of view or a motion, but with desires, attachments, capacities, forces, sadnesses and a certain disposition toward others, an openness. If we manage to set aside the fantasy of the General Assembly and replace it with an assembly of presences, if we manage to foil the constantly renewed temptation of hegemony, if we stop making the decision our final aim, then there is a chance for a kind of massification, one of those moments of collective crystallisation where a decision suddenly takes hold of beings, completely or only in part. [. . .] There’s no ideal form of action. What’s essential is that action assume a certain form, that it give rise to a form instead of having one imposed on it. [. . .] As for deciding on actions, the principle could be as follows: each person should do their own reconnaissance, the information would then be put together, and the decision will occur to us rather than being made by us. The circulation of knowledge cancels hierarchy; it equalises by raising up. 

—o0o—

ADDRESS

Inside the Memorial Church
We meet today for our own community’s AGM. Around this time of the year, all over the country, many of our congregations do likewise. Also, just a few weeks ago, there was held the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. Now is the season for our AGMs and General Assemblies.

Given the formal, legal and financial structure we have, AGMs and GAs are inevitable and required. They are important meetings that should be taken seriously and I’m absolutely sure we will do this today.

But there is in play in our general culture a deadening air around these kinds of meetings. At the mere thought of them otherwise brave hearts sink, and the fear of entering the dullest and most pointless of all meetings on the planet begins to loom ever closer on the horizon, a horizon for us now only half an hour away. Why is this feeling part of our general culture? Why is it that people are so keen to avoid them?

Well, it seems to me to have arisen from having in our culture too many organisations that have lost the ability to be anything else but organisations and who now seem only to have meetings about meetings about being an organisation that meets.

I have spent most of my life involved in some way with left-wing politics. Although they are very far from having a monopoly on this, the left are notoriously prone to engage in the most pointless, procedural hair-splitting nonsense, something brilliantly parodied by Monty Python in their “Life of Brian”, especially in the scenes concerning the “People’s Front of Judea”. The PFJ, you may remember, remained vehemently opposed to their rivals the “Judean People’s Front”, the “Judean Popular People’s Front”, the “Campaign for a Free Galilee”, and the “Popular Front of Judea”, calling them all “splitters”. The last of these groups, the “Popular Front of Judea”, consisted simply of one old man which was, for those of us in the know, a marvellous piece of mockery of the size of some actually existing revolutionary Trotskyist factions. One man and not even one dog, and you could almost guarantee that this single man, were he to get a dog, would continue to have with it pointless procedural meetings. Now, if this is a representative informing picture of what an AGM and a GA is like then it is no surprise that they fill us with dread.



Although by a very long chalk I’m far from agreeing with everything they say, I am with the Invisible Committee when they want strongly to push against this state of affairs, not “by critiquing assemblies or abandoning them, but of liberating the speech, gestures, and interplay of beings that take place within them.”

I understand this to mean for us that when we meet together in half an hour, we need to ensure our AGM is about releasing us to do together the things we both need and want to do, and not about stopping us from doing them in a morass of pointless procedure. An AGM must not be an end in itself but, instead, an initiating, liberating event of releasement (gelassenheit).

When we attend an AGM fully aware “that each person comes to an assembly not only with a point of view or a motion, but with desires, attachments, capacities, forces, sadnesses and a certain disposition toward others, an openness” then we begin to meet as a living people and not as a pointless expression of process.

If we succeed in this then spending a short, but focused time together ensuring that the buildings, finance, governance are in sufficient and good (enough) order then we become, not merely a General Meeting, or a General Assembly, but rather an “assembly of presences”.

In such an assembly of presences we can see that we are freed to bring our own genuine reconnaissances about faith and order (and life and work) into conversational play with each other and that, when all the information our reconnaissances contain is properly put together, the decisions required will occur to us rather than being made by us. As the Invisible Committee suggest, “The circulation of such knowledge cancels hierarchy; it equalizes by raising up”.

This cancellation of hierarchy and equalisation is something absolutely vital for the kind of radical, liberal, lay-church community we aspire to be because, as one of our greatest twentieth-century theologians, James Luther Adams (1901-1994), said: “Liberalism, in its social articulation, might be defined as a protest against ‘pecking orders.’”

We may have begun “as a protest against ecclesiastical pecking orders” but we quickly also extended this protest against to political and economic pecking orders and, as Adams makes crystal clear:

“This protest often found its sanction in the basic theological assertion that all are children of one God, by which is meant that all persons by nature potentially share in the deepest meanings of existence, all have the capacity for discovering or responding to ‘saving truth,’ and all are responsible for selecting and putting into action the right means and ends of cooperation for the fulfilment of human destiny. These religious affirmations are thus the basis of the liberal’s belief that the method of free inquiry is the necessary condition for the preservation of human dignity. This method of free inquiry and persuasion is the only one consistent with both the dignity and the limitations of human nature, and it is the method that yields the maximum of discovery and criticism” (From “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” by James Luther Adams in “On Being Human Religiously: Selected Essays In Religion and Society”, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1976)

So when we gather for our AGM may we all remember that we meet, not merely as a formal, procedural body but, primarily and fundamentally, as an assembly of presences open to the infinite, creative possibilities that may be found in each other and the world. Nothing less is equal to the task that faces us.

MINISTER’S REMARKS FOR THE ANNUAL REPORT &AGM

Inside the Memorial Church
Over the years in this report I’ve often gone back to something said by one of our own great theologians, James Luther Adams (1901-1994), namely that what people want in a liberal church is “ultimacy and intimacy”. In other words people want both to have a place where, in an open-hearted and appropriately critical way, they can address the deep theological and philosophical questions of life and where, at the same time, they can find the intimacy of friendship and support that should come with any genuine community. The former is always easier to provide and sustain than the latter. The former can be sustained by just a few people whereas the latter requires that everyone gets involved in some way.

Without doubt, for me the great joy of the past year has been to see how just such a more intimate community has begun to develop here. We see it together most noticeably in our monthly bring and share lunches, the fourth Wednesday lunch-club, the Christmas Day meal, the Wednesday Evening Conversations and in the other tea parties and social get togethers we have been having. But, as your minister, I also see it in the many personal connections and friendships that are being made between various individuals within the community.

It is these more intimate bonds of friendship and support that help all of us address better and more consistently the always difficult, ultimate questions of life. A church such as ours can survive (just) by only addressing questions of ultimacy, but it will never thrive until it takes care also to address questions of intimacy.

In this task of providing ultimacy and intimacy we need, of course, to remember some people are going to be particularly good at one and less good at the other and this, in turn, means that we should always looking for ways appropriately to share the load among us.

Which point leads me to something else I have often mentioned in my annual remarks, namely, the idea that the modern liberal church needs to move away from being a minister-led organisation and increasingly towards becoming a ministry-led one. That today, everywhere I look, I see a much greater sharing of the load of providing ultimacy AND intimacy to ourselves and the world gives me real hope for the future of this local liberal church community.

Thank you to you all for making this possibility ever more real.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Standing in awe of heaven . . .

My last post dealt with what I see as one of the most deeply problematic aspects of formal religion — particularly Christianity in its orthodox, doctrinal forms. In a nutshell,  it mostly just drives me nuts. What a relief it was then, yesterday, to spend some goodly time with a good and old friend from my college days who has found a home within a Quaker community. To be able to talk at length about the divine and the sacred without getting bogged down in belief and doctrines is such a rare and wonderful thing. As is our want we did all that talking whilst walking over to Grantchester by the river in the spring sun. And then, today, Susanna and I, taking advantage of the continuing fine weather, went over to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden to spend sometime together ourselves in conversation amidst the glories of spring. (All the photos here are from this visit except the last two which are of Emmanuel College where Susanna arranges the chapel flowers during term time. As always just click on a photo to enlarge it.)

Both these splendid events served to remind me, as Howard Wettstein (in his Significance of Religious Experience) is very keen to point out, that the concept of ‘belief’ or a ‘believer’ is entirely absent from the Hebrew Bible. Instead of a believer we find there the idea of y’re shamayim, that is to say someone who stands in awe of heaven

Well, in the presence of such natural beauty my friend, and my wife and I, for sure, found ourselves repeatedly standing in "awe of heaven"— with no doctrines and no belief in play, just awe and gratitude.














Sunday, 19 April 2015

Maintenance or mission? — A problem with the current ecumenical situation in the UK or, "Would Jesus Join A Christian Church Today?"

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church in the evening sun
READINGS: Luke 10:25-37 (The Good Samaritan)

“Would Jesus Join A Christian Church Today?” from “Without Apology: Collected Meditations on Liberal Religion” by A. Powell Davies (ed. Forrest Church, Skinner House Books, 1998, pp. 61-62).

Davies was a English Methodist minister born of Welsh parents who, in 1933, became a Unitarian and who then had a long and influential ministry at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington DC. The essay from which the following extract is taken was first published in November 1947. 

Jesus was never a Christian. He was a Jewish prophet upon whose life and work Christianity was partly founded. I am not sure that Jesus would ever have wanted to be a Christian, or that he would want to be one now. I doubt whether he would have felt that any religious institution that narrowed itself to so dubious a theological formula was big enough for the job it was attempting to do. I can easily imagine him telling the story of the Good Samaritan over again and saying with added weight of emphasis, “Go thou and do likewise.” I can imagine him trying to cleanse the temple once more — whether the temple of our national honour, corrupted by avarice and greed, or the temple of the Christian churches, selling their moral birthright to maintain a worn-out creed. What I cannot imagine him doing is going about saying that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
          Because he never did go about saying it — and, being a Jewish prophet and a monotheist, he never could have said it. Every respectable scholar in Christendom knows perfectly well that Jesus made no claim to be God and was even uncertain as to whether he was God’s Messiah — God’s Jewish Messiah. What Jesus would have told the churches is that they cannot serve two masters — the God of truth and the God they put into their creeds. And he would have said that a religious movement should be based upon a way of life, not a theological opinion, and that, therefore, the churches, if they are to unite, should unite upon a purpose, not a creed. This purpose would have been the one he spent his public life declaring — the kinship of all people. And he would have said — as he did — that this meant food, clothing, and shelter for whoever needed it, since religion has to be lived and not merely talked. “Inasmuch as ye did it not unto the least of these,” he should have said, “ye did it not unto me.” And until the churches had accepted this as the true Christian basis, leaving people to believe whatever other doctrines they decided were persuasive, Jesus would, I think, have refused to join them.


ADDRESS

Last Thursday I went to a meeting of the Cambridgeshire Ecumenical Council to hear a talk by the Revd Dr David Cornick, General Secretary of Churches Together in England, about the changing ecumenical landscape.

Before I begin I want to make it clear that I have some good friends and colleagues connected with the council with whom I continue to work well. I also want to say that I like and respect David Cornick very much. In the words which follow I hope simply to present to you a set of reflections to bring back to you to help us all as a community do some thinking about our own place in the current ecumenical landscape.

An opportunity arose in the Q&As which followed David's talk to ask specifically whether, in the changing landscape of ecumenical relations, a Unitarian church such as our own was now considered inside or outside the definition of Christianity that satisfied Churches Together in England. The answer, gently but firmly and clearly given, was that we remain “outside” — Churches Together's self-understanding remains wholly Trinitarian and, well, that is that. There continue to be ways we may work together but the relationship is increasingly like an interfaith relationship rather than an ecumenical one.

I wasn’t at all surprised by this as it’s been that way since the British Council of Churches (of which we were a part) ended and, in 1990, when it was replaced by Churches Together (Henceforth CT).

So, the ecumenical landscape may be changing in England but not in this specific matter.

But that doesn't quite map the terrain properly because the changing overall landscape ensures that what it means to be excluded from CT today is not what it meant to be excluded in 1990. Why this is so began to be revealed when David reminded us that it seems clear we, in Britain anyway, are on the cusp of transformation from Christendom to post-Christendom and that this has helped bring about a change of emphasis “from maintenance to mission”.

What does that mean and how does it effect us?

Well, when the more-or-less liberal, mainstream churches held sway in what was a generally Christian culture (Christendom) any given church’s role was centred on maintaining or upholding this general culture in various ways. We may not be (nor ever have been), doctrinally speaking, a Christian church but we’re clearly a culturally Christian one and in the context of “maintenance” we had a role to play.

As I occasionally point out there is a notice in the vestibule — hand-lettered by Gee Horsely sometime in the 1980s — which says “Our religious thinking is related to the teaching of Jesus and its application in the modern world”.

I hope it is clear how this basic stance ensured a continuing meaningful, and often close, working relationship with other Christian churches particularly in the sphere of practical social action and, for example, in debates about the ethical and moral questions facing our society.

In his talk David said something that initially seemed simply to reaffirm this area of practical collaboration, namely that in his opinion what brings the churches together now is doing things – Street Pastors, Night Shelters, and serving the community in countless other initiatives, particularly at the moment, through foodbanks.

Over the fifteen years I’ve been your minister I’ve consistently encouraged us to maintain a reasonably high level of ecumenical involvement in such practical things. However, something’s been quietly but persistently nagging away at me for the past four or five years that’s resulted in me gently withdrawing little by little from my involvement in the local formal ecumenical scene. The trouble is that I’ve not quite been able properly to put my finger on what the problem is. To some extent I’ve been concerned that the problem was due primarily to changes in my own theological thinking. Inevitably, this has had an effect but, because I’m not so radically different from the person who came here in 2000, this didn’t seem properly to account for the problem.  

Well, it was during David Cornick’s talk that I was suddenly able to see what the problem is. I saw it the moment he pointed out that there had been this change of emphasis “from maintenance to mission”.

When I was able to be involved in the maintenance of "Christendom", which to me meant the maintenance of a certain kind of broadly secular, practical liberal Christian culture, all was fine and dandy enough. But this background is no longer so strong and clear and, for good or ill (and it will always be a mixture of both), the general, clearly Christian (if also secular) flavour of our culture does seem to be going and we are, as David said, “on the cusp of transformation from Christendom to post-Christendom.”

But what about mission? Well mission begins to come into play whenever a church finds itself in a situation when it is no longer the main-game nor even a (let alone “the”) main-figure in whatever the new-game is. As the churches have begun to become increasingly conscious that they are in a post-Christendom situation they have also realised they cannot be any longer in the business of maintenance and so, in their paradigm, they must now shift to mission.

To see the full extent of the problem I saw you need to be clear how Christian mission is generally understood.

Christian mission is the organised effort for the propagation of the Christian faith. This involves preaching a set of beliefs for the purpose of conversion to Christianity. Mission has, of course, always included a large element of humanitarian work, especially among the poor and disadvantaged, but this work has always closely been tied to the task of persuading a person, community, or country to adopt Christian belief.

And so now here’s the issue. A few years ago I, we, could be involved in many different ecumenical activities because, at the end of the day, what really counted for most of us was the practical action itself. It was never the case that Christian belief never mattered in these things, but it could be left gently and quietly in the background because everybody knew that most people involved were sort of vaguely Christian anyway because, of course, we were all still living in the general context of some kind of “Christendom”. As A. Powell Davies indicated I, we, were involved in the formal ecumenical scene because we felt that “the churches, if they are to unite, “should unite upon a purpose, not a creed.”

But that underlying context has probably been gone for at least a good twenty years, if not more, but the point is that this wasn’t until recently fully appreciated (or at least explicitly acknowledge) within the ecumenical setting. Now it is and, in consequence, the ecumenical scene’s centre of gravity has decisively shifted towards belief and doctrine and any social action that it is now carrying out has Christian belief increasingly foregrounded because this is a necessary part of Christian mission.

(NB. The primary reason for me stopping my work as a Police Chaplain a couple of years ago — this is a local ecumenical project — was because those of us who were there as Christian Chaplains were given access to Bibles, printed up with Cambridgeshire Constabulary logos, and were being encouraged to find ways actively to distribute them to members of the force as part of an overall attempt at Christian mission.)

The problem is that I, we as a church, simply have not for a long, long while done Christian belief nor engaged in Christian mission. This church’s non-creedal religious faith is one centred, as you know, simply on taking the human Jesus as our personal, primary (but not sole) exemplar and model of how we are to behave in the world. A. Powell Davies’ words we heard earlier gave a powerful illustration of that position.

It’s a teaching which means, for example, we give food to a hungry person because we believe Jesus' example revealed to us that this was a good and proper human thing to do. But, as we follow him in this we feel no desire, nor any obligation engage in an underlying Christian mission which requires us, or them, to have Christian belief.

As David spoke last week I experienced a powerful moment of epiphany: I suddenly saw how, although I could do certain kinds of maintenance in the ecumenical setting, I couldn’t do mission. I don’t believe it, I don’t like it and I won’t do it.

In consequence, I don’t think my changes in thinking can really be blamed for my backing-off from ecumenical things rather it’s been caused by an until now, unarticulated realisation the there has been this significant change from maintainace to mission.

So when David, gently said to me last week, that as a Unitarian church we were still excluded from CT, the scales fell from my eyes, and I heard his words now as an exclusion, not from maintenance, but from mission.

I always resisted and strongly pushed against our exclusion from CT’s work of maintenance because, when push comes to shove, I still think a broadly humanistic, secular kind of Christian society is pretty damned good one to try and maintain. It’s not the only way a good and open society might be organised and maintained but it has been our way and I still think it has so much to offer the world.

However, I found myself breathing a deep sigh of relief as I understood that, in the current context, we were now really being excluded from CT’s work of mission. If I, we, weren’t already excluded I realised I’d have to leave anyway.

For me, personally, this is a very important and profound realisation because the first twenty-five years of my life were spent as an Anglican fully inside both national and local ecumenical structures and activities (indeed, some of you will know that I nearly became an Anglican priest in the very early 1990s), and my second twenty-five years of life as a Unitarian lay-person and minister have been spent trying to find ways to remain fully inside those same ecumenical structures and activities. So when, on Thursday, this effort finished I felt it viscerally.

This realisation doesn’t mean, of course, that I’m suddenly going to stop working with other Christians where and whenever I can. That would be ridiculous not least of all because many of the people still involved with CT are still working within the maintenance paradigm which I have already admitted to have been happy (enough) to work with.  But Thursday evening does for me mark the moment after which I feel the need to say, quite publicly, that I have no choice but to consider myself now definitely outside the orbit of formal Christianity and it's ecumenical structures. I was very lucky to have Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch as one of my tutors at Oxford and I was very taken by the fact that he now calls himself “a candid friend of Christianity.” I feel minded increasingly to borrow and use his pithy phrase to express my relationship with my birthright faith.

It seems clear (to me) that involvement in the formal ecumenical scene is now finally ruled out for us and so, regardless of my own personal feelings about all this, in the end this is not just about me, it’s about us as a religious community who still have a real sense of commitment to the human Jesus. It’s about where we understand ourselves to be, in what circles of belonging we wish now to move, to ask what it is we want to be doing and with whom and how we want to be working and collaborating?

These are big questions with no easy or obvious answers but still, they must be asked.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Embracing the creative possibilities of exhaustion

A "useless" tree in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden
READING: “The Useless Tree” in Thomas Merton’s “The Way of Chuang Tzu”


Hui Tzu said to Chuang: 
I have a big tree, 
the kind they call a “stinktree”. 
The trunk is so distorted, 
so full of knots, 
no one can get a straight plank 
Out of it. The branches are so crooked 
You cannot cut them up 
In any way that makes sense. 

There it stands beside the road. 
No carpenter will even look at it. 

Such is your teaching — 
Big and useless. 

Chuang Tzu replied: 
Have you ever watched the wildcat 
Crouching, watching his prey —  
This way it leaps, and that way, 
High and low, and at last 
Lands in the trap. 

But have you seen the yak? 
Great as a thundercloud he stands in his might. 
Big? Sure,  
He can’t catch mice! 

So for your big tree, no use? 
Then plant it in the wasteland 
In emptiness. Walk idly around, 
Rest under it’s shadow. 
No axe or bill prepares its end. 
No one will ever cut it down. 

Useless? You should worry!”

ADDRESS

It seems that a very common complaint presented to GPs by their patients is the feeling of extreme tiredness and exhaustion. It even has a name TATT — an acronym for "tired all the time". I’m sure none of us has been, or is, immune from this syndrome — myself included, of course.

A number of things suggest that what is true of so many of us as individuals seems also to true about our general culture. But we have a deep problem talking about it because, as Franco Berardi notes:

“The notion of exhaustion has always been anathema to the discourse of modernity, of romantic Sturm und Drang, of the Faustian drive to immortality, the endless thirst for economic growth and profit, the denial of organic limits” (e-flux).

This discourse has brought with it many problems, not least of because it has generally played itself out in the “romantic cult of youth” which has helped create for us a culture which devalues old people, and particularly old women, for their apparent weaknesses and uselessness.

This thought is always very much in my mind whenever we hold events like our Fourth Wednesday Lunch Clubs which, in a gentle but radical way, attempts to push against this view. Also, as I’m sure you realise, as a minister of religion I’m constantly engaged pastorally in some aspect or other connected with both ageing and feelings of tiredness and exhaustion. Today, I want to try and bring out a positive message about these things that I think is pertinent not only to us as individuals but also one which says something of profound political and social importance to our own age.

Now, I’m soon to hit fifty and, whilst I realise that this is not old in so many ways, one thing we can all agree on is that it isn’t to be young any more. I realise, especially in my parallel career as a jazz musician which still involves lots of travel and late nights, that I simply haven’t got the energy I had only five years ago. Were my weak flesh willing the strong musical spirit that is still within me would snap up every gig going but these days I find myself letting some of them go, and good ones too. This serves to make me very aware, at both a physical and existential level, that I’m growing old and that I need to pay careful, creative attention to this, both for my own benefit and also in my role as your minister.

I consider myself lucky that very early on in my life — at school via the poet A. E. Housman — I came across the philosophy of the third-century Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC). It was through him and his first century Roman follower, the poet Lucretius (c. 99 – c. 55 BC), that I was gently inducted into a religious naturalist philosophy of life that never bought into the cult of youth. Here are just two examples of Epicurus' general view:

We should not view the young man as happy, but rather the old man whose life has been fortunate. The young man at the height of his powers is often befuddled by chance and driven from his course; but the old man has dropped anchor in old age as in a harbour, since he secures in sure and thankful memory goods for which he was once scarcely confident of (Vatican Sayings No. 17).

No one should postpone the study of philosophy when they are young, nor should they weary of it when they become mature, because the search for mental health is never untimely or out of season. To say that the time to study philosophy has not yet arrived or that it is past is like saying the time for happiness is not yet at hand or is no longer present. This both the young and the mature should pursue philosophy, the latter in order to be rejuvenated as they age by the blessings that accrue from pleasurable past experience, and the youthful in order to become mature immediately through having no fear of the future. Hence we should make a practice of the things that make for happiness, for assuredly when we have this we have everything, and we do everything we can to get it when we don’t have it (Opening paragraph of his letter to Menoeceus).

But early Christianity did such a good job of actively suppressing Epicurean philosophy that it was not until Lucretius’ poem, the De Rerum Natura, was rediscovered in 1417 in a monastery in Germany by Poggio Bracciolini that it began, oh so slowly, to find its way back into our culture’s thinking.

The importance of this philosophy has, as you know, grown significantly in importance for me over the years I have been your minister and, all in all, I’m pleased to see signs that this philosophy is continuing to make its way back into the popular imagination. A particularly enjoyable example of this can be found in Daniel Klein’s recent short and accessible book for Penguin Press called “Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life”. Here's an extract from the publisher's blurb:

In his early 70s, author Daniel Klein saw his peers taking up jogging, studying new languages and wearing hormone patches to charge their libidos. Klein already harboured a few misgivings about the frantic striving of the “new old age” when a trip to the dentist prompted an epiphany. Klein recalled that the dentist said ’I had to get these implants over the course of a year [or] I would look older with denture plates . . . and my teeth would pop out once in a while. And I thought, what do I care if have a goofy old man smile? I am an old man!’ Klein returned to the Greek village and philosophers he has visited for decades to discover authentic ways of ageing. In his funny and wry account. . . he concludes that old age is a privilege to be savoured, rather than a disease to be cured or a condition to be denied.

Now, all this is, I think, highly relevant to us for a number of reasons.

The first is that, although our own local congregation’s average age has dropped significantly over the past ten years, the truth is that we live in an ageing society and our age profile, indeed the age profile of every organisation in Europe is, overall, going to continue to rise, not to drop. The consequence of this is something we, as a culture, haven’t properly begun to think about although we are now slowly being forced to do so.

Initially, this not a pleasant or easy thing to do because in the first instance it tends to produce in our culture what Berardi calls “a generalized form of dementia senilis: fear of the unknown, xenophobia, loss of historical memory” (e-flux).

Now why he points to fear of the unknown is reasonably obvious but why mention xenophobia, loss of historical memory?

Well, one of the common ways energy has been restored to a society that feels exhausted is via the myth of national renewal which has often been associated with an excessive (and sometimes frankly embarrassing) over-promotion and valuing of youthful strength and energy — just think, for example, of Vladimir Putin’s many attempts to present such a picture by, for example his macho topless pose atop a horse. Nationalism in many forms is very much on the rise across Europe and as we all know this has nearly always brought with it some of the most unpleasant forms of violent and oppressive politics. And Berardi mentions loss of memory because if our culture only values and privileges youth and youthful energy then there are in play no experienced voices which can to help put things into the widest possible perspective which can remind people of the great value, worth and wisdom that emerges into the world when you are forced to slow down, look carefully and consider patiently. But, as Berardi notes,

. . . in a different scenario — one that we should anticipate at the cultural level [which is what I’m seeking to do now] — the process of senilization may open the way to a cultural revolution based on the force of exhaustion, of facing the inevitable with grace, discovering the sensuous slowness of those who do not expect any more from life than wisdom — the wisdom of those who have seen a great deal without forgetting, who look at each thing as if for the first time (e-flux).

This is, in my opinion, a beautiful insight which meshes almost seamlessly with Epicurus’ basic teachings and with the things I am trying to encourage here through the practice of our Epicurean Gatherings, mindfulness meditation and a consideration of thinkers like Thoreau and Henry Bugbee and their practice of “patiency” and “gelasseheit” that I explored with you over Advent and Christmas. (Here's an interesting link to an Open Democracy piece on mindfulness and social activism and here is a link to a video a "School of Life" video about Thoreau).

It also connects with an idea I offered up last summer through a consideration of Boccachio's fourteenth-century humanist vision found in his Decameron. You will remember that he offers us a vision of the small voluntary community acting as a place where people can gather and slow down together with wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability in order to offer ourselves and the world more creative, compassionate and civilising interpretations of the world than those we are currently being offered by reality.

This change of paradigm is surely necessary because we are slowly becoming increasingly aware that we cannot continue living the kind of excessive, profligate, consumerist life we currently do, one that is obsessed with youth, energy, endless accumulation, wealth and unlimited growth.

We know we need to change both our own lives our world and culture and, consequently, many of us feel even more pressured to become, or remain, activists in some way. But one of the odd, almost paradoxical things, about the activist tradition we have inherited is that our activism has, itself, been significantly shaped by two of same obsessions it seeks to challenge, namely youth and energy.

But, over and over again, both in my study and via email I often have conversations with traditional activists — both religious and political — who, as they get older, find themselves utterly burnt out after seemingly getting absolutely nowhere in their campaigns, or at least nowhere significant. The levels of exhaustion and depression are, in my experience, high and getting higher and this plays out in either some kind of “quiet desperation” (in my circles the most usual response) or, alas, even at times in violence and/or suicide. (Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged between 20 and 49).

This is, I realise, potentially a bleak piece of news to bring you — but that is no reason not to face up to it — in fact, unless we collectively face up to it we won’t have any proper and positive way to change the picture and find new, more sustainable, effective and joyous and satisfying ways of being “activists” (or whatever the new word must be) in an ageing culture in which we are all feeling increasingly exhausted by it all.

Berardi is of the opinion, and I'm coming to agree with him, that under these conditions we

 . . . should abandon the mode of activism, and adopt a passive mode. A radical passivity would dispel the ethos of relentless productivity that neoliberal politics has imposed. The mother of all the bubbles, the bubble of work, would finally deflate. We have been working too much over the past three or four centuries, and outrageously too much over the last thirty years. If a creative consciousness of exhaustion could arise, the current depression may mark the beginning of a massive abandonment of competition, consumerist drive, and dependence on work (e-flux).

I realise that this will strike many of you here as hopelessly idealistic, if not simply impossible. This will be especially true if you find yourself (as I know many of you do) in situations where doing more and more work is the only way to survive at the moment. This is felt even more powerfully if you find yourself doing the lowest paid jobs on a zero hour contract.

I am not denying this reality but the truth is each of us can begin to play a part in giving birth to “a creative consciousness of exhaustion that, to repeat Berardi’s words we heard earlier, might just help us face the inevitable with grace and discover the sensuous slowness of those who do not expect any more from life than wisdom — the wisdom of those who have seen a great deal without forgetting, and who look at each thing as if for the first time.

We know there needs to be a revolution in our culture’s way of being in the world and Berardi’s suggestion could be a very effective, new form of non-violent civil disobedience and “activism” that might help to bring this about. In connection with all this it’s worth remembering that, as Tolstoy once wrote “There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one: the regeneration of the inner man. " He then asks, "How is this revolution to take place?" He replies:

"Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself” (On Anarchy, 1900).

I think this is true, we do need to change ourselves first — and I include myself in this call to slow down and discover something of this sensuous slowness. Only a non-violent revolution like this will help bring to pass for everyone Daniel Klein's hope that old age (in ourselves and our culture) will come to be seen and felt as a privilege to be savoured rather than a disease to be cured or a condition to be denied.

So, to conclude, I’m being entirely serious when today I suggest to you that, as individuals and as a religious community, we might be able to do nothing better to help our world as new kinds of “activists” than becoming more and more like Chuang Tzu’s highly inactive, big, useless tree.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Spring in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Sometimes it goes that way, suddenly a couple of free hours wonderfully show up in the day. Well, today it happened to Susanna and me. Ministerial and familial duties done we took ourselves off to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden to enjoy each other's company, the sun and the spring blossom. Tomorrow's address has an Epicurean related theme and, as many of you will know Epicurus taught in his famous garden so it seemed highly appropriate to make our way to the Botanic Garden. The address itself really centres on the need for us to resist the obsession with ceaselessness activity and endless growth so a little downtime was for me the perfect way to put my own "amen" to this piece of writing.

And now, for your delectation — and as an encouragement to you all to relax and enjoy the beauty of spring and life itself — here are a few photos I took as we wandered slowly round the garden. They were made using Hipstamatic's Tintype app.
My portrait of Susanna
Susanna's portrait of me



















Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter Sunday: Living in between the doubtful pleasures of a mysterious supernatural heaven and the tedium of contemplating the hard, material reality of the grave

Indian Rope Trick (Wikipedia)
In a liberal religious context the writing of an Easter Sunday address remains, for me anyway, one of the most difficult things to do even though, at first sight, it might appear rather an easy task. After all, for many philosophical, theological, historical and scientific reasons I’m sure I don’t need to rehearse with you right now, most of us here today no longer find at all plausible the idea that the bodily resurrection of Christ really occurred and this should, or so the accepted liberal religious wisdom has it, free someone like me to write about the story as simply a metaphor.

To some extent I think that’s right and today I could have given any number of perfectly serviceable addresses relating to metaphorical resurrections of the spirit.

But this approach has recently given me pause because I realise it all too easily allows me to make a strong type of truth-claim that I’m increasingly unhappy to make, namely, that stories such as those surrounding Easter, beautiful though they may be, are just or only captivating surface illusions, behind which hides an inner, or underlying, static body of truth that I can know in a direct, non-illusory way as the really-real.

Recently, in another, related, context a good friend and helpful critic of mine, the philosopher Ed Mooney, reminded me that whenever I am tempted to say that something or other is really just or only an illusion, this “plays into the hand of letting the skeptical hard-materialist have all the say about what’s real or not”.

If I do this in connection with Easter and the resurrection then there is a real danger that I’ll end up saying  something like, “That beautiful open A played on the cello was really only vibrations at 220 Hz assaulting our ear-drums”.

We all know that when that “A” forms an integral part of a great and beautifully played melody it’s ridiculous to reduce it simply to some hard materialist fact — in this case vibrations at 220 Hz. It is vibrations at 220 Hz but it is clearly not only that.

Here we begin to see more clearly why whenever the hard-materialist tendency is pressed too far we begin to loose sight of something very important but ineffable that significantly diminishes our ability to live as fully as we might in this extraordinary and mysterious world of ours.

But, as with all ineffable things, it can be astonishingly difficult to get enough of a grip on what this “something” is so as to be able to bring it before you in comprehensible (enough) words for your consideration. However, last week as I was reading Raoul Vaneigem’s famous book connected with the upheavals in France of May 1968, the Traité de savoir-faire à l’usage des jeunes générations (English trans: “The Revolution of Everyday Life”), I came across a story that seems to me to do the job remarkably well.

Indian Rope Trick (Wikipedia)
From the ruins of Heaven, humanity fell into the ruins of its own world. What happened? Something like this: ten thousand people are convinced that they have seen a fakir’s rope rise into the air, while so many cameras prove that it hasn’t moved an inch. Scientific objectivity exposes mystification. Very good, but what does it show us? A coiled rope of absolutely no interest. I have little inclination to choose between the doubtful pleasure of being mystified and the tedium of contemplating a reality which does not concern me. A reality which I have no grasp of—isn’t this just the old lie recycled, the highest stage of mystification? From now on the analysts are in the streets. Lucidity is not their only weapon. Their thinking is no longer in danger of being imprisoned, either by the false reality of gods or by the false reality of technocrats” (Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, PM Press, Oakland, 2012, p. 7).

When his insight is brought close to the Easter stories and you replace the coiled rope with the dead body of Christ in his final grave you will, I hope, see what I mean.

I realise that, wherever Christ’s dead body now lies which, as a religious naturalist I’m pretty sure it does, I find it, as a dead body, of absolutely no interest at all. It’s not interesting because it’s no different to any other dead body — a dead body is, in itself, an utterly unremarkable, even tedious, natural fact. To be sure I would experience some real archeological/historical/anthropological interest in actually finding Christ’s body but that it is a dead body is, itself, uninteresting; it’s just what I’d expect to find.

But Vaneigem’s words help me see, never more so than on this Easter Sunday morning and in this liberal religious setting, that I have little inclination to choose between, on the one hand, the tedium of contemplating the materialist reality of a dead body which does not concern me and, on the other hand, the doubtful pleasure of being mystified by some supernatural bodily resurrection that you will find proclaimed in many other churches today.

Unless there is something more to Easter than either mere material fact on the one hand and mere mystification on the other then, to be frank, I’d really rather forget the whole thing and go and do something else instead.

As we know, most people in our modern culture who have come down on the materialist side of things have chosen to do just this and no longer have anything to do with religion at all. But, alas, on the other side of the equation, those in our culture who have decided that there is something more to Easter than this are, for the most part, far too preoccupied (for me at least) with encouraging in people the doubtful pleasure of being mystified.

I really don’t find either of these two options at all attractive and what I want to do today is ask you to consider whether an attempt simultaneously to push against them helps reveal an ineffable something in between them which gets lost when we land too firmly on either side?

I think the answer is “Yes” and why I think this begins to emerge if we consider Vaneigem’s thought that, when we do actually push simultaneously against these two tendencies, our “thinking is no longer in danger of being imprisoned, either by the false reality of gods or by the false reality of technocrats.”

Now, I’m sure don’t need to rehearse with you the dangers of being imprisoned by the false reality of gods because most people who come to a church such as this generally do so because they wish finally to be free from this false reality and the accompanying, doubtful pleasure of being mystified by those wanting to make certain, strong, supernaturalist claims.

However, because most of us here have such a high opinion of the scientific method and approach we most certainly need to rehearse the dangers of being seduced by the false reality of technocrats.

To see why this is the case we need firstly to know what Vaneigem seems to mean by “a technocrat”. Broadly speaking, the word “technocrat” simply refers to any person who exercises authority because of the technical knowledge they possess but, for Vaneigem, it seems to have a specific and highly negative connotation and refers to any person who advocates the supremacy of technical experts who subscribe to what is called “scientism”. Scientism is the “belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints” (my emphasis, source: Wikipedia).

The danger is that we, who wish to escape being imprisoned by the false reality of gods and the doubtful pleasure of being mystified, and who value the scientific method as a way of protecting us from this fate, come to believe the technocrats are right and that the true and only answer to life the universe and everything is to be found through a hard-materialist, skeptical interpretation and application of the scientific method.

But to do this, as I hope you can see, is merely to jump from the frying pan of those promulgating the false reality of gods and the doubtful pleasure of being mystified into the tedious fire of those promulgating the false reality of technocrats — of saying to the cellist that their open A is just vibrations at 220 Hz.

I hope you can see that we really do need to be mapping out some free, open and creative territory that lies between these two, imprisoning options.

To bring us to a temporary close let me draw once again on some perspicacious comments by my friend Ed Mooney and very briefly walk round the matter in a different and more obviously grounded way.

Ed points out that for human beings reality is anomalous. That is to say it is always-already “of uncertain nature or classification” and “marked by incongruity or contradiction” (Merriam-Webster). This is because we are creatures that engage with and understand the world in many, complex, overlapping interpenetrating ways; ways that are symbolic, poetic, fictive, figurative and metaphorical and also ways that are derived from the use of the scientific method and approach.

Let’s take water. For our culture water is unbelievably rich in symbolic meaning and never more so than at Easter in which water is intimately connected with ideas of baptism, renewal and new life. Now, when I use water in this church as part of a naming ceremony for a new-born child and I say to them and those gathered about, “this water is a symbol of the purity with which you were born” the hard-materialist skeptic (the technocrat) will be interrupting destructively our perception of the whole event if they pretentiously informed us that we were not really seeing “water-as-purity” but only seeing H2O, or that we were only really having our retinas bombarded by atoms.

But, and here’s Ed’s vitally important point, if there’s no real case here where we might be deceived, and if it’s preposterous to think that here we are ever deceived in this way, then it’s preposterous to tell me that seeing water as a symbol of purity alongside knowing it in scientific ways is an illusion.

Which thought finally brings me back to the ineffable something I mentioned at the beginning of this address.

It is the feeling that in a church like this a space (clearing) can be opened up where no one is deceived — a place of genuine freedom and human creativity which knowingly remains in-between the binary opposites and absolute either/ors that are all too often offered up to us by our "leaders" as being the only way to proceed. It is a space where people can learn how constantly to be moving between poetic and scientific paradigms with graceful ease, allowing each of them in their endless push and pull to show up for us the richest and freest possible kind of human life we can have. It is a place where it is possible simultaneously to play with the thought that the resurrection never happened and that it also always happens.

If we can find ways to begin daily to inhabit this in-between space then it seems to me possible that for each of us a new form of liberal human life really can rise up from the old, one which bursts beautifully and life-affirmingly forth in between the doubtful pleasures of a mysterious supernatural heaven and the tedium of contemplating the hard, material reality of the grave.

Happy Easter to you all.

—o0o—

Through out the writing of this address some words of Wittgenstein's were constantly in my mind. They seem to have something important to say in connection with my own feelings about Easter expressed above. I didn't refer to them as I gave the address but they can be added here:

Ludwig Wittgenstein MS 120, 12 December 1937
Culture and Value (rev. ed.), Oxford 2006, Blackwell Publishing pp. 38-39e

What inclines me even to believe in Christ’s resurrection? I play as it were with the thought. – If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like every human being. He is dead & decomposed. In that case he is a teacher, like any other & can no longer help; & and we are once more orphaned and alone. And we have to make do with wisdom & speculation. It is as though we are in a hell, where we can only dream & are shut out from heaven, roofed in as it were. But if I am to be REALLY redeemed, – I need certainty – not wisdom, dreams, speculation – and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what my heart, my soul, needs, not my speculative intellect. For my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, must be redeemed, not my abstract mind. Perhaps one may say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: it is love that believes the Resurrection. We might say Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to the Resurrection. What fights doubt is, as it were redemption. Holding fast to it must be holding fast to that belief. So this means: first be redeemed and hold tightly to your redemption (keep hold of your redemption) – then you will see that you are holding on to is this belief. So this can only come about if you no longer support yourself on this earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then everything will be different and it is ‘no wonder’ if you can then do what now you cannot do.

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.