Sunday, 16 February 2014

Lao Tzu meets Jesus - a story of accepting the gift of the liberal Christian tradition.

My Way of Life necklace
A foreword of sorts

I am only too aware that I have a reputation for being an "overly intellectual" minister. This address, at least in its published form below, is unlikely to change anybody's mind about that. But I hope that what follows will clearly reveal that, at the back of it all, lies a old-fashioned, "down-home" religious experience - one that was, at the time, felt viscerally in the deepest and, I suppose, in the simplest and most immediate of ways. It did nothing less than set the course for the rest of my life. My trouble has been what on earth to do with it? The truth is that everything I write on this blog, with all it's complexities (whether necessary or simply caused by poor thinking and bad style) finds its well-spring in the experience I recount below. In many ways I wish it were otherwise - but it's not. So, on with the show . . .
-o0o-

Readings: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

Chapter One of the Tao Te Ching 
trans. by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo (Hackett, Indianapolis 1993) 

Tao called Tao is not Tao

Names can name no lasting name.

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

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

These have the same source, but different names.
    Call them both deep –
        Deep and again deep:

The gateway to all mystery.

From James Luther Adams and the Transformation of Liberalism
Presented at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, June 2005,by George Kimmich Beach

James Luther Adams . . . said: More important than any particular idea of God is a belief that history has meaning, and its corollary: our responsibility to be engaged. Or there’s hell to pay—it’s that awesome. In sum, Adams’s life-long quest was to articulate a faith that “takes time seriously.”

If we “take time seriously” we will know ourselves as rooted in a sacred tradition—a tradition that is both our “gift” and our “task.” Adams characterized his faith in these few words: “The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth.” That is the gift. He continues: “In a world that has with some conscientiousness turned against this kind of witness and its vocabulary, the effect of this witness will in a special way depend upon the quality of its costingness in concrete action and upon its relevance to the history that is in the making.” That is the task.

In two sentences Jim Adams sounded two notes together—the tradition in which “the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth” is a central symbol and our gift—something given out of love—and the present, costing commitment that is our task. A transforming liberal faith is a faith that “takes time seriously,” that does not view faith as an escape hatch from the vicissitudes of personal life or communal history, but as pathway into the community of God. Its faith is both “gift and task,” a gift of grace and a task of personal and social responsibility.

The James Luther Adams essay Beach cites above can be found at the following link:
http://www.meadville.edu/uploads/files/111.pdf

-o0o- 

Every now and then a conversation begins in this church in which someone sheepishly, even embarrassedly, admits that they have had what can only be described as a religious experience.

This embarrassment exists, I'm sure, because we are a religious tradition that has come to value and trust particularly highly the more rational, intellectual and abstract aspects of religion. The concrete, visceral religious experience, the mystical if you like is, on the other hand, something that feels way too subjective and out of our rational control. It is something to be viewed with the greatest of suspicion. It has been my experience that most people who come into fellowship with us share this suspicion even when they have had some kind of religious experience themselves which has given their life a certain kind of real power and direction. But often the truth is that such experiences provide the real energy that sustains and directs a person through their whole life - the lived experience is way more important and energising than many of the rational theories about the world a person may hold.

So, whenever I encounter someone embarrassedly trying to sound out whether or not they can talk about and explore their own religious experience in this community I try to put them at their ease by telling something of my own and how it eventually helped me both to discover and accept the gift of the liberal Christian tradition. This religious experience continues to be the well-spring of my own religious life as your minister.

It is, of course, a very personal story and if you take nothing else from it please do take it as granting permission for you to speak of your own religious experiences that have brought you here into our church community.

Practising my Tai Chi in deepest Suffolk
I grew up wholly in an liberal Protestant, Anglican context and it decisively (though not absolutely) shaped the person I am today. However, on leaving school in 1984, I immediately entered the quite different, bohemian world of the arts, working in a poetry bookshop by day and as a jazz bassist by night. It was a wonderful, heady time during which I was introduced to and became passionate about, amongst many other things, the San Francisco Beat poets of the late 1940s and 50s. They and their associates had developed a deep interest in Zen Buddhism and Taoism and it was only natural that I, too, should become interested in these traditions and to study them as seriously as I could. This inevitably led me to the books of Alan Watts (1915-1973) - most importantly his 1959 book on Zen, "The Way of Zen" and his posthumous book on Taoism called "The Watercourse Way" written with Al Chung-liang Huang. (It was through this latter author that I discovered Tai Chi - something I still practise to this day.) Eventually I also came across Watts' very first book, published in 1948, called "Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion", in which I read some words that were to prove pivotal in my own religious development. In 1971, about a year before he died, the book was republished with a new preface in which Watts took time to look back at its writing. I discovered, to my great astonishment, that he'd once been an Anglican priest and an examining chaplain for candidates to the priesthood in the Diocese of Chicago. What came as a great surprise and shock was that he concluded his new preface by saying that what he found in Zen Buddhism and Taoism he now felt he could always have found, in some form, within his own Christian tradition. In short, he need never have left it behind. After reading this - and despite my particular passion for Taoist thinking, at least as he and Huang presented it - I felt that I had no choice but to go back and do some proper, conscientious study of my own religious tradition.

My prayer-book with my promise written on the left 
In 1987, a year or so after this discovery, I was staying with some friends near the Angel of Islington - surely an apt place to have a Christian vision! There, for three nights on the trot, I could not sleep properly. Why not? Well, who knows? One thing I do know was that, at the time, I was not having any kind of obvious religious or material crisis. Sometime late on the third evening, I had an extraordinary sense of what at the time I could only call "Presence" - something which was powerful enough to get me out of bed. I found myself saying into the dark, "All right, I'll do it." The sense of Presence slowly left, I lay back down, opened my prayer-cum-note-book and wrote, in the stylised, grandiloquent way one does as a serious twenty-two year old needing to record some profound experience: "It is on this evening, the 23rd October 1987, that I vowed to dedicate my life to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen" (see photo above). I closed the book and quickly fell into a deep and peaceful asleep. When I woke up I immediately remembered my experience. Was it just a dream? I opened my book and, to my dismay - and it was dismay - I discovered that I had, indeed, written the words you have just heard. Even then, completely alone, I was highly embarrassed by their explicitly Christian flavour - this was especially acute given my deep love of Taoist thought and Tai Chi. (I'm fairly certain I feared that some kind of negative, narrowing might have just occurred.) Not only was I embarrassed by my words but, because, I'm one of those people who believes in honouring the promises I make, I was highly alarmed at the possible consequences of having made such a commitment. What, on earth, had I done? What did my words mean? Whatever the answer to those questions was to be, from that moment on, I had an uncomfortable promise to fulfil, one which I eventually discovered I could only properly fulfil within a Unitarian, liberal Christian, context.

Now I can't tell you every practical consequence that followed from my experience - all you need to know was that by 1990 it had taken me to the verge of the Anglican priesthood and then, in 1991 when I realised I could not go down that route, to the door of the Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House and then, in 1997, to Oxford University, to study theology and train for the ministry. But what does need to be told - in a highly compressed way - is something of the thought process that unfolded during the ten years between 1987 and 1997.

The first thing I slowly came to realise was that every person who has a "religious experience" is forced to record it in the religious or philosophical language they speak most fluently. Despite the powerful and enduring influence upon me of Taoist thinking and Tai Chi, in the short time available to me on that evening I was only ever going to succeed in appropriately recording my experience if I did it in the language in which I was, and am, completely fluent - namely that of Christianity.

The second thing I slowly came to realise was that my words could only have been what you might call an initial "grasp" at expressing what I had experienced. I realised that such words, if they are to remain of any real use, must remain open to being surpassed, twisted, and reinterpreted (this is "verwindung" again) and that they must never be taken literally nor thrown out on literalistic grounds. I saw that I always had to be careful to seek out, as St Paul encouraged, the living spirit that informs every written letter - even my own letters. (Even the meaning of our own words is not always - if ever - wholly clear to us.)

The third thing I slowly came to realise was that, when not taken literally, my Christian religious experience did not close me down to my experiences of Taoism and Tai Chi but actually gave me a more grounded and rooted way to think about and engage with them in a coherent, creative and life-enhancing way. In fact, as you will shortly see, I discovered that they would prove to be key in helping me understand and accept the gift of the liberal Christian tradition.

The reason I found I could not unfold all the above (and much more besides) in an orthodox Christian setting was the constant demand made upon me to interpret my experience too literally and to a pre-determined measure - an act which I felt always distorted the open, creative and living spirit of my experience and which cut me off from its depth. Here's one, amusing example of what I mean. I remember telling my story to an ecumenical group of Christian ministers here in Cambridge sometime in 2000. On finishing, one of them said to me, knowing I was a Unitarian minister, "That's marvellous, you had a personal encounter with the second person of the Trinity, our risen, crucified Lord!" I demurred and said, well no, actually, from my perspective my experience seemed better described simply as an encounter with some kind of sacred or divine, creative power felt as "Presence". He replied, "No, you're wrong, you've had a personal encounter with the Trinitarian God." He simply wouldn't accept my rather more open interpretation had any validity at all and he got especially irritated by my evident desire to allow my experience - and my promise to follow Jesus - to keep me open to expressions of the divine and sacred, of creative presence in religious and philosophical traditions other than Christianity. We began to have a very heated argument as he tried to show me how wrong, wrong, wrong I was. It was a timely and salutary reminder of just why I had become a Unitarian minister.

I began my journey into the heart of our own liberal Christian tradition because of something that happened shortly after joining the Ipswich Unitarians in 1990/1991. Their minister, Cliff Reed, introduced me to the work of James Luther Adams (1901-1994), one of the most important Unitarian theologians of the twentieth century. Lots of things immediately fell into place for me after this encounter. As much as I'd love to I simply cannot in this address rehearse fully his rich and powerful thought - here I will only refer you to the key words you heard in our reading which are found in his 1959 essay "Neither Mere Morality nor Mere God". You will recall that he wrote:

"The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth."

At last I had found some words which, in a highly compressed way, gave me a liberal interpretation of my religious experience that I could live by with full belief (pathos) and a clean heart - one which allowed my passion for a certain Taoist influenced way of thinking and acting to remain meaningfully connected with my promise to follow Jesus. (Adams' words are today pasted into the cover of my book of daily meditations by my colleague John Morgan (Awakening the Soul), my little pocket Bible, and my edition of Jefferson's "Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" - the so-called "Jefferson Bible".)

What I called "Presence" back in 1987 felt as if it were better described as "a Power that is living". (These days - i.e. 2014 - I have good Heideggerian reasons for wanting to avoid using the language of "presence" too much, but I'll leave them to one side today and simply say that, today, I'd perhaps speak about this power more in terms of Wieman's "Creative Event".) I think that, for me, Adams' genius in coining this line was that, even as it reminded me constantly of the need to identify (name in some way) this Power so I could better direct myself to it, his words simultaneously allowed me to articulate what I had learnt from the Tao Te Ching, namely, that it was not a good idea to try to define such a Power (Creative Event) too narrowly by giving it some fixed, doctrinal form or even insisting that it must always and everywhere be given the name "God" - for even the name "God" is not a lasting name. Adams' words also allowed me to find a way of saying, in a Christian context, that such a living, creative Power would, across the centuries, always be known in countless ways and have been given many names. Anyway - in short - I found, at last, an interpretation of my experience that helped centre me in, and keep me focused upon, something (in the language of the Tao Te Ching) deep, deep and again deep, mysterious and nameless, something which constantly gives birth to ten-thousand things - namely all that is.

And what about the response to my experience of this Power that is living, namely, my vow to follow Jesus? Well, Adam's words helped me see that, given my upbringing in a generally liberal Protestant setting, it made perfect sense to acknowledge that I found the decisive response to this Power in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth. Adams, mixed with my reading of the Tao Te Ching, allowed me to articulate the thought that, for all human beings, the deep, mysterious source, the "Power that is living" (the Creative Event) must find its manifestation in some kind of actual, concrete form, something that we could see and be filled with a desire to imitate. For me that was and remains the man Jesus.

This mixture of a certain kind of (Western) Taoist inspired thinking (the word Tao means, of course, "Way") and a deep commitment to Jesus after a kind of mystical experience explains, I think, why I have worn very publicly for many years a symbol called "The Way of Life" (see picture at the top of this post). It is for me a perfect symbol of my own (ongoing) journey of faith within our liberal Christian tradition. As my blog's strapline says ". . .just travelling hopefully . . ."

-o0o-

Postscript

As I was preparing this address for this blog I realised that an appropriate postscript could be added in the form of a poem by the wonderful Mary Oliver which points well to the task that simultaneously comes with the gift (as Adams knew).

 'What I Have Learned So Far' 

    Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
    not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
    looking into the shining world? Because, properly
    attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
    Can one be passionate about the just, the
    ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
    to no labor in its cause? I don't think so.

    All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
    story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
    Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
    light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.

    Be ignited, or be gone.

            (From New and Selected Poems, Volume Two)

3 comments:

Rob Crompton said...

Andrew, I was really interested to read your story here because your experience is very similar to my own. In my case it brought me into the Methodist ministry. My band on the spectrum of belief is probably occupied by many Unitarians and vanishingly few of my own denomination but I am sure that it ought to be represented. It is an uncomfortable position, though, even within a sidelined retirement.

Andrew Brown said...

Dear Rob,

Many thanks for taking the time to comment. I have a number of colleagues and friends who find themselves in the kind of liminal place you are experiencing and they, too, are concerned that it is still hard to speak truly and openly. The Unitarian movement is far, far from being perfect - it has its own significant challenges and internal difficulties - but it has provided me, and the members of my own congregation, with a place of genuine openness where our true stories can be told.

I certainly wish you well in the future.

Oh, and by the way, I went to visit your blog and noticed that you went to Wesley House in Cambridge and, on a picture of the college, you indicate where your old room was. Well, I worked for a number of years for the Woolf Institute which has rented out most of that corridor. Your room, as you know, is now the Theological Federation's library office and so I know it well. As always we find it's a small world!

Warmest wishes,

Andrew

Matt said...

This was an interesting and really inspirational read, Andrew. I think the words of James Luther Adams are a great summary, and starting point, for liberal Christians.