Monday, 28 December 2009

Holy agnosis

Carl McColman has just posted an excellent reflection on the experience of grace in the Christian tradition. I really admire his honesty about his uncertainty, his 'holy agnosis'.
So I am enough of a “questioner” to be unable to accept the simple, literal story at face value, but I lack the intellectual prowess to really understand all of the issues that scholars and philosophers and theologians have raised in response to the Christ story. So, what am I left with? I’m left with what I have called on this blog, “holy agnosis.” In other words, I am comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” I don’t know if the Christ story is historically true or not; I do believe that at this late date it is not historically verifiable, so I know that only by faith can anyone accept it as true. Likewise, I don’t know if the Christ story is only “true” on a mythic or metaphorical level. It seems to me that those who object to the mythical or metaphorical reading of the Christ story fall into two camps: those who reject Christianity altogether, and those who believe that if you do not accept the Gospel as literal, historical fact, then you cannot be a Christian. Since I am in neither of those camps, I am perfectly happy if people find faith and meaning through a mythical or metaphorical approach.
Personally, if I thought that the resurrection was literally true (which I don't), then I would subscribe to Christus Victor theology rather than vicarious atonement, as it is much more humane; but I think that a physical resurrection from the dead is extremely unlikely. Therefore I regard it as a metaphor. Also, the story of Christ seems to draw on a number of similar stories about the death and resurrection of god-men (e.g. Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Orpheus), which clearly relate to the psychological aspects of the spiritual journey — the death of the ego and its rebirth in a new form that is more in balance with the rest of the psyche. On this level, the story is valuable; whereas, when taken literally, it seems quite harmful, especially when couched in terms of vicarious atonement or penal substitution. And, as Yeshua himself said, "By their fruits ye shall know them" — in other words, the consequences of a belief can be used to demonstrate its soundness or unsoundness.

The consequences of Carl's holy agnosis is that he can tolerate ambiguity and see others' points of view and tolerate difference, and these seems like good consequences to me.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Christmas songs

My favourite Christmas songs (a post inspired by Jarred):

The Holly and the Ivy (preferably in a Pagan version as I don't agree with the theology of the Christian version). I love the evocation of the solstice fire and its connection with the holly berries.
The Holly and the Ivy
When they are both full-grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The Holly bears the crown

O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer...
Along the same lines, I also like The Sans Day Carol:
And the first tree in the greenwood, it is the holly.
But again I prefer a Pagan version written by a friend of mine, as I don't like the theology of the Christian version.

I also really like O Little Town of Bethlehem (though I prefer the Unitarian version). I love these lines:
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
It makes me think of the deep blue midnight and the shining golden light of the stable reflecting on the narrow stone streets of a Middle Eastern town.

It also perhaps implies that the miracle of the incarnation is endlessly repeated, and that the Divine child is reborn in each new birth, as John Andrew Storey's marvellous hymn, The Universal Incarnation, shows:
Each time a girl or boy is born,
Incarnate deity we find.
Another of my favourite carols is Silent Night, which always reminds me of the Christmas truce of 1914, when the British troops heard the German troops singing this carol, and joined in across No-man's Land. I find the story of the Christmas truce incredibly moving, and only wish that it could have been extended beyond Christmas.

Another favourite (written by a Unitarian) is It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, which is focused on the splendour and beauty of peace, and the angels as its messengers:
For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.
A new favourite, with which I was previously unfamiliar, but was introduced to me by Rev Lindy Latham, is People Look East by Eleanor Farjeon (who also wrote Morning Has Broken, apparently). I like People Look East because of its mystical and nature-inspired imagery. It is actually an Advent hymn, but it's beautiful anyway.

As an evocation of the compassion and giving associated with Christmas, I must include Good King Wenceslas. And this carol has just taken on a new meaning for me, as I was recently informed that Wenceslas was in a same-sex relationship with his page, Podiven. Both were martyred by Wenceslas' political opponents.

I also like the tune of Joy to the World (and the Unitarian version of the lyrics). Its author was Isaac Watts, the son of a Nonconformist (Independent) minister, and the music was written by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759). It's a very rousing tune.

After Christmas, it was traditional to wassail (wish health to) houses and apple trees. One of my favourite wassail songs is The Gower Wassail, which has the beautiful lines:
We know by the moon that we are not too soon
And we know by the sky that we are not too high
And we know by the stars that we are not too far
And we know by the ground that we are within sound

One of the things that I love about Christmas is the way that the Christian and Pagan elements of it are inextricably fused together. You can't really have one without the other, and they enhance and complement each other.

Prayer by Carol Ann Duffy

What a beautiful poem - it expresses very well the sudden moments of gratitude for life and love and beauty; the moments when a pattern becomes apparent, even though we know that there is no pattern but the one that we weave out of the moments of beauty and despair and love.

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Carol Ann Duffy

The Times Saturday Review, 1992

Thanks to monastico for the tip-off.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

What is worship?

Jarred at The Musings of a Confused Man got me thinking. What is worship, and when do we worship? What is worthy of worship?

I commented that, to me, worship is union with the Divine Beloved, or celebrating the thing we find to be of greatest worth. My concept of worship includes service to the community of life (including animals and the environment).

Worship is variously defined as deep love, reverence, adoration, and devotion.

The Congregation of Abraxas expanded and refined the UU understanding of worship in a 1976 essay, What does worship mean?
“Worship” is sometimes narrowly understood as bowing down to some supposed deity. The etymology of the word, however, leads us to a far more significant activity. The root of “worship” is worthship, considering things of worth. “Religion” (religare) means to bind up, to reconnect, to get it all together. Worship is thus the central activity of religion because through worship we reconnect with worth. Worship is a compelling vision of life in its fullness. Its scope, diversity, coherence and power engender the fundamental meanings, values and relations for our lives. Worship centers us. It gives us a perspective that orders the Void, the chaos of unconnected fragments of experience. Through worship we find our connections and take our place in society and the cosmos. Here beholding and becoming are the same.
By this definition, we are worshipping when we live most fully and truly. Worship doesn't only happen in organised religion; it happens in the midst of love-making, gardening, eating and creative activities. "All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals", as it says in The Charge of the Goddess. Or as the lovely Sarah over at Gospel Pagan is fond of saying, "pray without ceasing".

That which is worthy of worship is whatever causes us to live our highest values and our deepest integrity. Perhaps we could call worship a sort of focused attention or meditation as much as the reverence and devotion traditionally associated with it.

Of course, this also raises the question of what we are worshipping. When I worship (in the sense of deep devotion), I am connecting with the ultimate void, the Tao, the divine source; it is beyond personality, has no name, and is only love: a love that includes wisdom, balance, awe, wonder, light and darkness.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

axial tilt

Yes, Virginia, axial tilt is the reason for the season... and the perpetual mystery of the light being born from the darkness. The light of the sun, the darkness of night; the light of the divine spark in each one of us, born from the joyous mystery of flesh; the light of consciousness welling up from the dark waters of the unconscious.

One of the reasons why the celebration of the solstice runs so deep in the human psyche is that people feared, deep down, that the light of the sun might not return. It's also a moment of jollity and colour in the midst of the wet, cold, dark winter.

The winter solstice occurs exactly when the earth's axial tilt is farthest away from the sun at its maximum of 23° 26'. Just about every culture has a festival around the winter solstice.

One of my favourite sites about the winter solstice is Candlegrove, which has reflections on Solstice, Sacaea and Saturnalia, Yule and celebrating the solstice today.
"Shall we liken Christmas to the web in a loom? There are many weavers, who work into the pattern the experience of their lives. When one generation goes, another comes to take up the weft where it has been dropped. The pattern changes as the mind changes, yet never begins quite anew. At first, we are not sure that we discern the pattern, but at last we see that, unknown to the weavers themselves, something has taken shape before our eyes, and that they have made something very beautiful, something which compels our understanding."

--Earl W. Count, 4,000 Years of Christmas

Advent as coming out

Kittredge Cherry has published a lovely Advent poem by Chris Glaser over at the Jesus in Love blog.
Out of dark soil sprouts new life,
from darkness springs embodied hope.
Both stretch for the illumination
of the cosmic landscape.

This reminds me of another Advent reflection by a gay Anglican priest, written in 1997, and still relevant today.
So I was in love with the dark; not a dark which was cold or menacing, not a dark in which nasty things lurked but rather a dark where I could begin to feel. The dark was nurturing, it was where, in church, I was connected to everyone else; living, dead, present or not, mentally disturbed, outcast, old, young, poor, rich, intelligent, of the establishment, or criminal - in fact, everyone gathered around that table. All Eucharists are like that for me but Advent held special mystery.

At the end of Advent the church plunges itself into a tiny stable and all the church throughout the world stands crowded into a small and dangerously revolutionary room in Bethlehem.


Two excellent posts about Advent.
Advent – A Humanist Adventure (1984) from The Sermons and Musings of Carl J. Westman, DD.
Perhaps it is a cliché to remind ourselves that the reality is that Christmas celebrations are a blend of many customs, brought not only from the legends, music, poetry and theology of Christianity, but also from the evergreens of the German forests, the pagan celebrations of Rome, and other sources. Clichés may not be new, sparkling insights, but they are frequently repetitions of truth and folk wisdom. The winter solstice has always been a drama of the human adventure, a time of celebration of nature’s reliable cycles, a time to recall the trials and joys of human liberation, a time to confront justice unfulfilled, a time to meditate on the idea of the holy family and what makes it holy, a time to re-assert hope over fear.
Celebrating Advent without misrepresentation, sentimentalism or parody (and a couple of recommended books) by Andrew Brown
The issue with the word 'coming' in this religious context is that for anyone to 'come' there has to be a 'there' from which to come and an associated divine will or desire for that someone to make the journey to 'here'.

But in the radical and skeptical liberal religious tradition to which we belong are any of us *really* able to say there exists a transcendent 'there' (heaven) from which to come and an immanent 'here' (earth) to which God (or God's representative) may arrive?

Both these articles beautifully articulate the difficulties I have with Advent, and offer constructive ways to look at it - the first from a UU humanist perspective, the second from a liberal Christian one.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The quest continues

The Bible in five statements thing is spreading. I tagged Carl McColman, who tagged five more people. It's worth reading the comments on these posts, too, as people have posted some lovely ones in the comments.

Carl's five statements
Zoecarnate's five statements

Also, Sally at Eternal Echoes has a nice one.

It appears the whole thing was started by clayboy, who has a curiously Arian Christology.

Friday, 27 November 2009


The Bible in five statements challenge. I wasn't tagged but I was intrigued.
Summarise the Bible in five statements, the first one word long, the second two, the third three, the fourth four and the last five words long. Or possibly you could do this in descending order. Tag five people.
What aspect of this multivalent text to focus on? The liberal or the conservative interpretation? Western Christianity or Eastern Orthodoxy? A Kabbalistic or esoteric interpretation? The Arian and Unitarian views? Changing human perceptions of the divine – from tribal thunder god to all-embracing universal consciousness? How notions of justice changed from tribal codes apparently dictated from the top of Mount Sinai towards concepts of compassion and inner conscience (starting with Micah and Amos, and later promoted by Yeshua)? Very tricky to summarise all that in 15 words... but here goes.
  1. Law
  2. Prophetic conscience
  3. Widening compassion, justice
  4. Love is the key
  5. Heaven around and within you
I tag Andrew Brown, Paul Oakley, Cat & Peter Carl McColman and Stephen Lingwood. You don't have to play but I thought you would enjoy this challenge. I think it would be quite fun to do this with haiku, too.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

O Captain, my Captain

So, what I was actually going to blog about before I got distracted was that I just watched the film Dead Poets Society (1989) directed by Peter Weir. I must admit that the first time I saw it (probably in 1989, because I think I watched it at the cinema), I didn't get all the references to the Transcendentalists, because you don't get to learn about Thoreau and Whitman and Emerson at school in England.

Even though the film ends tragically, I don't think it undermines the main message, that conformity is the death of the true self. It is a deeply moving and powerful film, with some great acting from both the boys and Robin Williams.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived … I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms..." (61) (Walden, 1854).

The blue god

Just seen this: Hinduism Today: The Blue God of Judaism
Examination and discussion of biblical, talmudic, midrashic, and mystical texts reveal that the body of the Lord is blue. The fact that the Hebrew term used to describe the Lord’s blue body comes from Sanskrit, as do other Hebrew terms associated with him, is nothing short of amazing and invites further exploration of the many similarities between Judaism and Hinduism, particularly Shaivism.
That is so cool. I have thought for ages that there was a certain similarity between the symbolism of esoteric Judaism and Shaivism. Yahweh is separated from the Shekhinah, and they yearn to rejoin each other, and Shiva sits atop the world mountain, and Shakti is at its base, yearning for him. Both Shiva and Yahweh embody creativity and destruction. Yahweh was a storm god; Shiva got assimilated to Rudra, a storm god. I'd be surprised if they were culturally the same god, but they are certainly archetypally similar.

Hat-tip to Copper.

On a lighter note, it reminded me of this: SatireWire: Religious Merger Creates 900 Million HinJews: Attainment of Nirvana Still Goal, But Not So Important That You Should Miss Cousin Vijay's Bar Mitzvah - which isn't so far-fetched when you consider earth-based Judaism and Jewitches. Syncretism - what's not to like?

It also reminds me of the article Polytheism and nonduality by Jay Michaelson, in which the author had a fleeting vision of Ganesh whilst meditating on the Divine.

Stoicism & Epicureanism

I've just been reading about the tenets of Stoicism, and realised that it broadly expresses my views on things. The idea of aligning one's will to that of the universe; the idea that both good and evil reside in the human soul, and are not intrinsic properties of matter; the focus on the here and now. I am not a determinist, but other than that, Stoicism makes a lot of sense to me.

Apparently Epicureanism, which also attracts me in some ways, was a rival school to Stoicism. Epicurus said that the highest pleasure (tranquility and freedom from fear) was obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life. He lauded the enjoyment of simple pleasures - though these included refraining from bodily desires (well that's no fun at all).

Perhaps the opposition between the two schools was partly because Stoicism was rationalist and Epicureanism was empiricist.

Who was Yeshua?

Who was Jesus really? Some scholars think he was an apocalyptic prophet of the end times who went around shouting at the liberals of the day (the Pharisees); others think he was a radical left-wing type. It's difficult to know now what he was really like, after so many centuries of obfuscation, interpretation and re-interpretation. Did he really say that people would go to hell, or was that a later insertion or mistranslation? Or were the liberal bits of the text a later insertion?

Maybe it doesn't matter who the historical Jesus was (it's quite possible that he didn't exist, like King Arthur, Robin Hood and Ned Ludd). One thing that is certain, is that if he existed, he was only human.

What matters more is how others of a liberal persuasion have interpreted his teachings and been inspired by them, and by each other: Francis of Assisi, Rammohun Roy, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many more people who weren't famous but did their best.

What matters is the ideas of compassion, social justice, truth and love, and the people who put these ideas into practice. Something is good and true and right in and of itself, not just because a particular teacher endorsed it.

Classical paganism celebrated the virtues of compassion, justice and love; they weren't invented by Christianity. These ideas would have come to the fore no matter which religion happened to be promoting them. But it's a great tragedy that Christianity wiped out the great pagan traditions, and a shame that so many illiberal ideas appear in the New Testament.

Friday, 20 November 2009

atheist spirituality

I just finished reading the excellent Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville.

He defines God as a supernatural creator deity who is fully transcendent. He bases atheist spirituality on the awareness of humanity, love and truth in the universe. He makes an elegant and impassioned argument for immanence and the oceanic feeling as the basis of atheist spirituality.

Personally I have long since ceased to see the Divine/Deities as a Person or Persons, and certainly not as omnipotent, omniscient, transcendent, or creating the universe. Occasionally one has flashes of communion with the immanent energy, but these are not the same as communication.

It's also worth reading the excellent Richard Holloway, who has reached much the same conclusions from within the Christian tradition.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Arianism and Unitarianism

The importance of the Arian heresy is that it makes Jesus either semi-divine, or divine by adoption, or divine by birth (rather than divine since the beginning of time). If this is the theological position one adopts, it means that he ceases to be seen as the sole means of access to the "Father" (the Divine Source in Neoplatonic terminology), because if he is a son of God, rather than the Son of God, then there are other sons and daughters. And this quickly leads to Unitarianism - the belief that the Divine is One and can be accessed by reason and intuition, and does not require revelation to be known. That's not to suggest we can fully know the nature of the Divine, but we can see it reflected in the world around us, in other people, and the beauty of the universe. It also means that if we are all children of God, then we all have the potential to develop our inner "Christ" / Messiah / Buddha / Enlightened One.

I wonder how different the world would be if the Arian heresy had won out at the Council of Nicaea.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

More books

I went on a shopping spree at lunchtime and bought:
  • The Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville
    It is obvious to non-theist mystics that you can have spirituality without God, but it needed re-stating. I disagree with Comte-Sponville's definition of religion, but he is refreshingly dismissive of the unpleasant dogmatism of New Atheism
  • Godless morality by Richard Holloway
    I enjoyed his other books, so thought I would read more; and I certainly agree that you can have morality without any notion of a creator
  • The Book of Shadows by Don Paterson
    No, it has nothing to do with Wicca - it's a book of aphorisms - a couple of them made me laugh out loud in the shop, so I had to buy it
  • A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland
    This is all about the blessedness of silence, contemplation and the absence of noise in the lives of mystics, which sounds awesome.
  • Theatre Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
    I really loved Ballet Shoes, and this appears to be a sequel, so I bought it for a childhood nostalgia trip and comfort reading.

Books I have loved

Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.
  1. The Prophet - Kahlil Gibran
  2. Jonathan Livingston Seagull - Richard Bach
  3. The Telling - Ursula Le Guin
  4. Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah - Richard Bach
  5. The Tao Te Ching - Lao Tsu
  6. The Fifth Sacred Thing - Starhawk
  7. The Deptford Trilogy - Robertson Davies
  8. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
  9. Taking Care - David Smail
  10. Poems of Sylvia Plath
  11. Poems of Ursula Fanthorpe
  12. The Wild Girl - Michèle Roberts
  13. The Gnostic Gospels - Elaine Pagels
  14. Puck of Pook's Hill - Rudyard Kipling
  15. The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci - Barry Patterson
(these are in the order that I recalled them, rather than ranked by amount of influence on me)

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Burne-Jones windows

This morning I visited Rochdale Unitarian Church, met some lovely people, heard a lovely service about Jonathan Livingston Seagull (one of my favourite books), and saw the beautiful windows by Edward Burne-Jones (one of my favourite artists) there. They also sang some hymns from the new purple book, including the lovely Name Unnamed (one of my favourite hymns). So, all in all, a very satisfying experience.

The windows represent a series of Virtues: Truth, Justice, Liberty, Prudence, Knowledge, Love, Faith, Humility (all very Unitarian values). Burne-Jones wasn't a Unitarian, but another Pre-Raphaelite painter, Barbara Bodichon, was one.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Touching base

Andrew Brown has posted an outline of the basis of Unitarianism. It is true that this is a very important part of our heritage and continuing tradition, but I would have to add the results of interfaith dialogue, namely an openness to insights from other religious traditions. The dialogue with other traditions began early on, and appears even in the writings of Servetus, who referred to "Hermetic" texts, according to Earl Morse Wilbur, historian of Unitarianism. The pantheist tendency (which Andrew Brown embraces) and the nature-loving tendency both began fairly early on, as I explored in my article Pagan tendencies in Unitarianism. Another very important factor was the encounter with Rammohun Roy and the continuing relationship with the Brahmo Samaj.

I have always thought that a tradition's theology (whatever it is) cannot exist meaningfully if it behaves as if there were no other possible understandings of the world, but must explain and celebrate the existence of other religions - as liberal traditions generally do. For instance, when a liberal polytheistic religion meets another tradition, it adds some of the gods, goddesses and heroes of that tradition to its own pantheon, or assumes them to be equivalents; when a liberal monotheistic tradition meets another tradition, it assumes that they are worshipping a different manifestation of the same Ultimate Reality.

Doing this does not have to undermine the coherence of the original tradition; in fact it should strengthen it, because it takes the other tradition as a confirmation that the Divine is everywhere and speaks to all humanity.

So yes, there are certain values and ideas which are outside the Unitarian tradition - for instance, I imagine that a hard polytheist would be most uncomfortable within it, as would political conservatives. But there is a broad range of ways in which we can interpret the Bible, and cross-reference it with other great spiritual texts in order to elucidate its meaning, as John Andrew Storey did. Because the Bible is part of our culture, we cannot understand our legal and moral system unless we engage with it (even if we want to change the system, it is important to understand what it is based on). And the Bible is too important a text to be left to conservatives.

I very much liked Stephen Lingwood's outline of Unitarianism and how it brings about spiritual transformation. This emphasises practices and values rather than beliefs.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Marcella Althaus-Reid

The LGBT Religious Archives Network has posted a profile of one of my favourite theologians, Marcella Althaus-Reid.
Her first book, Indecent Theology (2000), received widespread recognition in the theological field and earned her self-described reputation as an "indecent, Latina, bisexual theologian." Her next book, Queer God (2004), was a bold and provocative challenge to the sexual oppression inherent in most Christian theologies and established her as a fresh, cutting-edge thinker.
Here's a quote from one of her books:
Our task and our joy is to find or simply recognise God sitting amongst us, at any time, in any gay bar or in the home of a camp friend who decorates her living room as a chapel and doesn’t leave her rosary at home when going to a salsa bar.
— Althaus-Reid, M. (2004) The Queer God. London: Routledge.


The useful thing about communities is that they can give rise to shared values and a consensus view of reality. This is also the dangerous thing about them: communities under stress can produce really scary norms and values (Jonestown, Nazi Germany, Cambodia under Pol Pot, etc). So we need individuals to balance this out sometimes, and produce new paradigms (it's a bit like Kuhn's theory of scientific advances). Examples of such individuals triggering paradigm shifts include the founders of religions and great collective surges of conscience (early Unitarians, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, early feminists, etc.)

But assuming for the moment that a community is going to tend towards sanity... whom should a community include? If it is going to call itself a community, should it exclude the "walking wounded"? If its collective values are strong enough, can't it include (and help to heal) the damaged people? OK, some people are too damaged and need professional help, but we ought to be able to help the "walking wounded".

How do we create and nurture community? By meeting regularly in large and small groups; sharing our feelings and thoughts. By discussing and negotiating our shared values. And by developing collective ways of putting those shared values into practice.

I've just been reading On Forgiveness: how can we forgive the unforgivable? by Richard Holloway. In it, he talks about the radical change that can be brought about by forgiveness (for example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa). Forgiveness is one of the practices that a community needs if it is going to function effectively. It is not something that can be done lightly; it's not about just forgetting what has been done. It is a radical act, and not one that you can command people to do - but it can be developed as a spiritual practice. Another important factor in the development of community is compassion (for ourselves as well as others, and for all living things, not just humans). Compassion can include empathy, love, pity, and mercy. And finally, a certain amount of humility might be useful. Humility literally means "closeness to the Earth". By humility I mean a willingness to accept our own shortcomings. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." I do not mean that we should only focus on our shortcomings; compassion requires that we and the community should also celebrate our strengths; and if the community celebrates our strengths, it can also benefit from them.

Monday, 5 October 2009


Street Magician in BathThe Magician from the Tarot of Marseille

I saw this street entertainer yesterday doing a show that has been popular since the medieval period, and she reminded me of the classic Tarot card of The Magician.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Two overviews of Unitarianism

In his excellent blog-post, How does Unitarianism bring about spiritual transformation? Stephen Lingwood outlines the main aspects of Unitarianism, and describes them as a coherent set of values and ideas. If you're confused about where Unitarianism is heading and what it stands for, I recommend reading it. He suggests the following as the key ideas:
  • Look within
  • Communion with Nature
  • Thinking
  • Loving the world around you
  • Wholeness
  • Dialogue
He is also the author of an excellent book, The Unitarian Life, which is an anthology of Unitarian writers past and present giving their views on aspects of life, values and issues. The book is organised thematically for ease of reference, and would be very useful for anyone preparing services to find relevant readings. I found the quotations excellent and inspiring, and agreed with about 99% of them.

Part one deals with Unitarian principles and values; part two deals with specific issues (the environment, sexuality, gender, etc.) and part three is about how to live Unitarianly. There's a good balance between male and female authors, and the various different perspectives from within Unitarianism are included - Christian Unitarians, Buddhist Unitarians, Earth Spirit / Pagan Unitarians, Humanist Unitarians, universalist (in both the modern and the older sense) Unitarians, and just plain Unitarians. It also includes voices from both sides of the Atlantic, and Unitarians and Universalists of both the past and the present. If you are wondering what all these diverse groups within Unitarianism have in common, it is the shared values of freedom, reason and tolerance (and all that stems from these three).

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Community among Unitarians and Pagans

As a long-term participant in Pagan groups (since 1990) and having joined a Unitarian church in 2007 (for those who don't know, there are plenty of Pagans in British Unitarianism), I have been mentally comparing the two. There is no clear "winner" but the comparison is interesting.

Pagans are more focussed on individual friendships; Unitarians are more focused on gathering in community.

Unitarians are better at including everyone in the community, even if they are different from others in some way. (Lesson for Pagans - we need to gather in larger groups, and focus on shared values instead of differing beliefs.)

In a crisis, Pagan friends will rally round, which is great, but if you want a trained full-time minister, with all that that entails, then you're more likely to find one via Unitarianism.

In terms of age and class and education, Unitarians are more diverse than Pagans. This is probably because Paganisms haven't been around so long.

In terms of the values we embrace, Unitarians are much less diverse than Pagans. Even though a Christian Unitarian may differ from a Pagan Unitarian in the mythology they happen to like, their values are remarkably similar.

Unitarians are better at focussing on values and regarding beliefs as less important. Unitarians have more shared values in common, simply because we are very explicit about what Unitarian values are. (Hopefully Pax's recent Pagan Values Blogging Month will go some way towards changing that - and I hope it will happen again in 2010).

Both communities are inclusive and welcoming and non-judgmental.

I'd be interested to hear from UU and Unitarian Pagans on this.

Incidentally, while I am still philosophically pagan, I have stopped referring to myself as Pagan (I now call myself Unitarian and Wiccan) because it is no longer clear what "Pagan" actually means (due to things like the reburial issue).

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Grandfather God

I have trouble seeing the Divine as a father, due to too much Christian imagery of the stern and patriarchal "Lord and Father of mankind". The word Grandfather makes me think of Native American spirituality instead. But the imagery of this prayer does not draw on that source, but rather on childhood experiences of my own grandfather.

Grandfather God,
who trails beards of moss over the rocks and the trees
and decks the bushes in autumn with hairy seed-cases;
you are not an authority figure but a playmate.
We come to your house on holy days
to play hide and seek,
sing lustily,
and have tea and cakes.
Your wisdom is of the humble variety,
quietly spoken, close to the earth.
You love to gaze at the stars
and give bread to the ducks.
You don't tell me off,
you just hold me close
and tell me jokes about life.
Tell us another story, Grandpa.
Tell us how we are loved.
Let me bring you something -
a cup of tea? a biscuit?
No. Only my heart will do,
as I sit cradled in your arms
by the hearth of dreams.
A heart bruised by experience,
brimming with joy,
suffused with love.
Well, then.
Cheerio, Grandpa.
See you soon.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

prayer of Yeshua

Do we need yet another version of the Lord's Prayer, I hear you ask? Well I think everyone should write their own version; it may not be the world's greatest prayer, but it is deeply embedded in our culture, and most people can still recite it even after years and years of not doing so. Also, it was itself a version of the classic Jewish prayer the Kaddish, so why not create new versions of it?

So, here's my version.

O Genderless Engenderer,
Flame of life at the heart of all things,
Holy, holy, holy are your names.
Your republic of informed hearts is always within us and around us.
Your mysterious way unfolds before us
as matter and spirit dance together to create life.
May the finite tell its stories to the infinite
and may the infinite lend its everlasting peace to the finite.
May our hearts be open to forgiveness given and received,
and may we move accurately in harmony with all
and remain present in the now.
The republic of heaven on earth is all and each of us
reverberating with glory and power
in infinite space-time.

UPDATE: I have removed the link to the Nazarene Way website, because there are issues with the "translations" there. The Aramaic blog explains all.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Happy Vertumnalia

Today is the festival of Vertumnus, the lover of Pomona.

I like this story because Vertumnus appears in disguise to woo Pomona, and wins her by his eloquence. Because of his disguise, he is the god of seasons, change and growth. I also love the turning seasons, and approve strongly of change and growth.

Wikimedia Commons has an interesting selection of pictures of Vertumnus in a very convincing disguise.

But I prefer the word-picture painted by Ursula Fanthorpe in her poem, Pomona and Vertumnus.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Auras are real

Hurrah! Auras are real (I knew that of course, but it's nice to see science catching up with magic). Humans glow in visible light.
The human body literally glows, emitting a visible light in extremely small quantities at levels that rise and fall with the day, scientists now reveal. In fact, virtually all living creatures emit very weak light, which is thought to be a byproduct of biochemical reactions involving free radicals. The researchers found the body glow rose and fell over the day, with its lowest point at 10 a.m. and its peak at 4 p.m., dropping gradually after that. These findings suggest there is light emission linked to our body clocks, most likely due to how our metabolic rhythms fluctuate over the course of the day.
(via Geekologie)

I can't see auras but I can feel them as heat.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Naomi and Ruth

I just put up a post at my other blog about Naomi and Ruth as depicted in art over the centuries (a search inspired by recent posts at Monkey Mind and Jesus in Love), and remembered the poem by John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, that mentions Ruth.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

I particularly liked this painting, from a blogpost entitled Ruth and Naomi: The Bible on Lesbians. I like the pinky desert landscape. It looks as if they are just going to kiss...
Ruth and Naomi, Orpah departing
by Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833-1898)
And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.

Ruth 1:16-17

Friday, 26 June 2009

staying compassionate

Liz Williams has a great post about how TV can make one blasé about suffering.

This is why I don't watch the news on TV and have not done so for about 2 decades (deliberately so for the last decade). Watching things on TV inures us to them - it is external, somehow unreal, "just a story" — an attitude which is encouraged by the way the newscasters constantly refer to items as "stories".

I listen to things on the radio, where they frequently make me cry. This morning I heard a story about the death of a 17-year-old pilot in WW2, which made me cry. It was on Desert Island Discs with Martin Shaw. His mother met a young pilot in a tea-shop, just before he was sent to war. They danced to a song called J'attendrai by Tino Rossi. He asked if he could write to her. Three weeks later she received a letter from his commanding officer saying that he had been killed on his first sortie, and they had found her address in his wallet.

I frequently cry at things on the radio, because the pictures are in my head, not external to me on a screen. As someone once said "The pictures are better on the radio."

When they recited the list of those killed in the World Trade Centre, that made me cry. Another occasion when I cried at radio news was a story about some Australians crossing the desert to free some asylum seekers from a detention centre. It always makes me cry when people help others where there is no particular benefit to them for doing so.

Another way to prevent oneself becoming blasé about news is only to read the weekly newspapers, which summarise the events and give a slightly longer-term perspective. (This was an approach recommended by Thomas Merton.)

Of course, if one spent all one's time weeping over the suffering of others, one would be completely useless for anything else, including doing something to alleviate it — but I still wouldn't want to ever become inured to it. There is a sort of mental trick whereby one can set aside one's involvement and focus on solving the problem and seeing it objectively, but that takes some time to acquire.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

building bridges

Queer theologians are in no doubt that the message of religion, and the nature of the divine, transcends gender and sexuality, and yet embraces gender and sexuality, the world and our bodies. But mainstream theology is having a hard time keeping up with the cutting edge.

Should religion be about transforming the world, or celebrating it? This is at the heart of religious conflict on the issue of human sexuality. But if the central message of religion is love, connection, compassion, then loving relationships are part of the solution, not part of the problem. In Wicca, we have a saying, "All acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals", and that means all, including same-sex love. Similarly, Unitarians and UUs have been LGBT-affirming for decades.

I want to celebrate the brave pioneers of LGBT spirituality, and the continuing activism of those who seek to end religious homophobia.

Soulforce is an organisation that campaigns for freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from religious and political oppression. They engage in dialogue with homophobic organisations and religious spokespersons.

The LGBT Religious Archives Network coordinates identification, collection and preservation of personal papers and organizational records from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender religious people. There are some truly inspirational stories on their website, and it is a vital historical resource.

There are many more individuals and groups out there speaking up for the inclusion of LGBT people in religious life - too many to list here. I will leave you with two examples to illustrate why including LGBT people is so important:
Peggy Neff and Sheila Hein made their lives together for eighteen years. Then, on September 11th in 2001, Peggy was aboard the plane that was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon. Like so many surviving husbands and wives, Sheila’s life was torn apart. And like so many others in her situation she sought assistance in her home state. The response she received was “Please accept our condolences on the loss of your friend. We regret to inform you that you are not eligible to file a claim under (the) Virginia Victims of Crime Act.”

from Don't be Afraid of Change: A Briefest Reflection on the Dynamic of Creation by James Ishmael Ford
There are many more examples like the one above that happen every day around the world.

The second example was a leaflet, If I told you, a collection of essays by LGBT college students. It was the saddest thing I ever read. In it, various college students told of their isolation and fear at having to hide their sexuality. Sadly it is no longer available online, but I copied some excerpts.

Of course, none of this will reassure people who feel that their tradition, or their holy book, tells them that LGBT sexuality is wrong. I am sure they feel that they are listening for the Divine will in their adherence to this view. So there's no point in shouting at them - we need to calmly engage in dialogue, examining their (and our) underlying assumptions, patiently going through the texts and the traditions, listening to their fears, and so on. That is why the work of people like Soulforce and the Equality Riders is so important, because it's all about changing the hearts and minds of the anti-gay lobby in a non-confrontational way.

This post is part of the Bridging the Gap synchroblog.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

We have been with you from the beginning

I have just finished an article on the historical Pagan tendencies in Unitarianism (and UUism). Many people think that the Pagan or Earth Spirit element in Unitarianism started around 1980 with the foundation of CUUPs (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) in America. In fact, it has its roots in some much earlier developments.

Both Paganism and Unitarianism are world-affirming, and share some important values - not least being the belief that the Divine is / deities are immanent in the world (held by most Pagans and many Unitarians). From this stems a belief in the importance of human reason (because we are inherently good), the tolerance of alternative visions of the world, and the importance of freedom to explore one's beliefs and values without constraint of creeds.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Loving your LGBT neighbour

Jarred at Musings of a Confused Man has drawn attention to a forthcoming synchroblog about bridging the (perceived) gap between faith and sexuality.

I have my doubts about the intentions and outcomes, but I'll certainly be participating on 24 June and sharing the Wiccan and Unitarian perspectives on this.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

particularity and essence

If one were to try to pare religion down to its common essentials, there wouldn't be much left. The only thing that I can see that all religions have in common is the symbolism of the union of masculine and feminine: in Christianity, Christ and His Bride the Church, who are waiting till the end of time for the wedding; in Hinduism, the union of Shiva and Shakti; in Judaism, Yahweh and the Shekhinah; in Sufism, the union of Lover and Beloved, or Allah and the soul; in Wicca, the union of the God and the Goddess; and so on. There are many values that different religions have in common, though.

If you do the Belief-o-matic questionnaire, you can see exactly how much your religion's beliefs and values overlap with others.

The different philosophy, theology, atmosphere, traditions, practices, meanings and mythology of different religions is what makes them unique. Some people call this particularity. It can be distinguished from exclusivity (the view that each religion is self-contained and does not need input from outside) and sectarianism (the idea that only your religion is true) by the fact that, while its practitioners love its unique features, they are prepared to acknowledge the worth of other people's traditions for them. Each religion has its own stories, its own colours, its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous; and each has blind spots towards certain aspects of the Divine (e.g. mainstream Christianity's is the inability to see sexuality as Divine and spiritual) but that doesn't mean we can't appreciate each other's stories and learn from them.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Pagan values

It is difficult to say with certainty that all members of the Pagan community subscribe to the same or similar values (it's always possible to find an exception who still counts as Pagan), but certainly many, if not most, Pagans aspire to certain core values, even if we don't always achieve them.

Most of our values stem from the belief that the Divine is immanent in the world, not separate and distant from it; because All That Is is a manifestation of the Divine, a theophany, it is sacred, not profane.  Therefore sexuality is sacred, food is sacred, the Earth is sacred, animals are sacred, plants are sacred, pleasure is sacred.  I am holy, you are holy.

Tolerance / acceptance: most Pagans aspire to tolerance of what they disagree with, and sometimes even acceptance of it, as something they cannot change.  Many argue for genuine acceptance of other paths and lifestyles.  

Personal responsibility ("An it harm none, do what thou wilt"): we are each responsible for our own actions.  That includes an ethic of environmental responsibility.

Inclusivity:  Most Pagans believe that sexuality in all its forms is sacred; that includes all forms of consensual sex between adult humans, including same-sex relationships, SM and polyamory.  Pagans are also strongly feminist, affirming the equal worth of women and men.

Most Pagans do not exclude others on the grounds of different belief; rather we look for companions on the spiritual path who share our values and interests.

Tread gently on the Earth: Most Pagans are concerned about climate change, animal experimentation, and pollution, and try to tread gently on the Earth.

Interest in science and rational/empirical enquiry:  Most Pagans affirm the worth of science as a way of understanding the world and appreciating the wonders of the universe.  Pagan understandings of the world do not conflict with science.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

An ode to fair trade

With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt,
Enriched from ancestral merchandize,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quiver'd loins did melt
In blood from stinging whip;--with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.

For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush'd blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half-ignorant, they turn'd an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.

Why were they proud? Because their marble founts
Gush'd with more pride than do a wretch's tears?--
Why were they proud? Because fair orange-mounts
Were of more soft ascent than lazar stairs?--
Why were they proud? Because red-lin'd accounts
Were richer than the songs of Grecian years?--
Why were they proud? again we ask aloud,
Why in the name of Glory were they proud?

from Isabella or the Pot of Basil, by John Keats
The latest post at CAUTE, about money and relationships, reminded me in part of these stanzas by Keats, which make the connections between trade and exploitation explicit. As Andrew Brown suggests,
The challenge we have in this modern society is how we (you and me) might reconnect our moral and ethical selves with our money [and] see anew that our money's value is always tied up in how it is used.
If we buy clothes that have been made in a third world sweatshop, or invest in funds that support the purchase of tanks and guns, or experimentation on animals, isn't our money turning an easy wheel, that sets sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel?

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The republic of heaven on earth

Those Christian synchrobloggers are at it again, this time with a series of posts about the Kingdom of God.

Well now, I'm a member of the republic of heaven on earth - the Divine is, after all, immanent in Nature, and the universe is a theophany (a divine manifestation) but I would say the "kingdom of God" (or whichever label you prefer) is already here.  All those who are seeking enlightenment by whatever religious or spiritual path are fully signed-up members of the Republic.  As Yeshua himself said, "The Kingdom of God is all around you and you do not see it." and "The Kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21).  He also taught his disciples (who weren't listening, as usual) how to access the awareness of the divine presence (aka "Kingdom of God" in his parlance): 'Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.' (Matthew 6:28.)  All you have to do is relax and sense the divine presence in all things.  "Do without doing and everything gets done" as Lao Tsu said.

There was no Fall, only an Arising.  The Earth herself is divine; and the Tao is within all things, ebbing and flowing.  The Divine has not withdrawn from Nature - Nature is Divine.
      Before ever land was,
Before ever the sea,
Or soft hair of the grass,
Or fair limbs of the tree,
Or the flesh-colour'd fruit of my branches, I was, and thy soul was in me.

First life on my sources
First drifted and swam;
Out of me are the forces
That save it or damn;
Out of me man and woman, and wild-beast and bird: before God was, I am.
from Hertha by Algernon Swinburne
Oh yes, and I must draw attention to the lovely poem by  Beth Patterson of Virtual Tea House on What it’s like rather than what it is, which is very nature-inspired, and also involves cake, and isn't missional like some of the other posts.  Also Steve Hayes' post is very interesting, reflecting on the different meanings of the words "kingdom, power and glory" in Eastern and Western Christianity.  My comment on this was that Kingdom (Malkuth), Power (Hod) and Glory (Netzach) are also the lowest three of the Sephiroth (spheres) on the Kabbalistic tree of life, where they symbolise Divine power descending into the realm of the manifest.  And finally, Phil Wyman talks about Jesus as an archetypal shaman - well yes he was, but he's not the only one.  There's also Odin, and Buddha, and many others.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Happy Beltane

Beltane is the festival of rampant Eros, when the Earth is fully woken from sleep and all Nature is desirous of mating.  Maypoles and Beltane fires remind us of the leaping life-force.

Jason at The Wild Hunt has a round-up of Beltane blogging.

Here's some Beltane poetry to get you in the mood...

And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid,
Follows with dancing and fills with delight
    The Mænad and the Bassarid;
And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
    The god pursuing, the maiden hid.

The ivy falls with the Bacchanal's hair
Over her eyebrows hiding her eyes;
The wild vine slipping down leaves bare
Her bright breast shortening into sighs;
The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves,
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare
The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies.

from Atalanta in Calydon by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Pagan lectio divina

Recently, Cat at Quaker Pagan Reflections posted about lectio divina; and there's a post at The Naked Theologian about how to do it.

This seems like a valuable technique for solo practice; I wonder what a specifically Pagan version of it might look like? And what books might we choose? I recommend Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, or the Tao Te Ching. There's lots of wonderful poetry out there, too. I'm sure you can think of your own examples. You would also need to decide on what deity to focus your devotions.

In the original version, there are four steps: reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. The reading stage involves critical engagement with the text, analysing its meanings and metaphors. The meditation stage involves dwelling on the images that particularly resonate with you. This could be developed into a visualisation or journey into the scene described.

The prayer part is difficult - I find petitionary prayer (asking the Divine, or deities, for things or qualities) meaningless and stupid. It's hard to ask a being whom you do not believe to be omnipotent or interested in your trivial problems for stuff. For this part, you could substitute focussing on the qualities you would like to develop (if, like me, you have a problem with asking for stuff). Or perhaps a bit of sympathetic magic.

Finally, contemplation - wordless communion with the Divine (or your chosen deity). This part works fine for me. I think it's always worth trying to see the Divine as immanent in all that is around us, too. Just relax and see the glow and sparkle in everything.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


You know the way splinters work their way deep into the flesh, and really aggravate you until they're gone? Well, Andrew Brown has been having trouble with splinters...
I did smile at the picture of him carrying a cross through the middle of Cambridge, chiefly because I was imagining how I would feel under the same circumstances; very awkward.
There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.
That is very true. The Greek pagan mystery traditions made a distinction between "that which cannot be spoken of" and "that which myst not be spoken of"; rather like the distinction between the apophatic and cataphatic qualities of God.

I would say that Andrew's position is deeply Unitarian - in the tradition of the Martineaus, and indeed Rammohun Roy, author of the Precepts of Jesus and all the thinkers who were influenced by him, including Emerson, Thoreau, and Joseph Estlin Carpenter.

I'm a Wiccan and a Unitarian, but I joined Unitarianism precisely because I wanted to engage with the Christian mythos and liberal Christian values, without having to actually believe literally in any of the stories. That's why a lot of the addresses that I have produced so far engage with Christian themes, albeit set in a context of comparative religion. I am much more interested in the heretical aspects of Christianity (especially those bits that fit with Taoism etc); but there's a lot of interesting stuff in the Jesus myth, and in the Bible, and for better or worse, it's part of our heritage.

Andrew Brown also points out that natural science has made it impossible for intellectuals to take the Christian mythos literally; in my opinion, natural science has completely squeezed out the need to explain the existence of the universe by the idea of a transcendent or supernatural creator deity (particularly one who is somehow mysteriously three persons in one entity).

It has not removed the need for the mystical Divine as posited by Tillich and others - the ground of our being, that which we hold to be most worthwhile, the existence of love, the immanent Presence in the world, etc.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Law does not produce virtue

I've just seen this quote from Harriet Martineau, and it reminded me of a passage from the Tao Te Ching.
"Laws and customs may be creative of vice; and should be therefore perpetually under process of observation and correction: but laws and customs cannot be creative of virtue: they may encourage and help to preserve it; but they cannot originate it."

- Harriet Martineau

If you want to be a great leader,you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.

The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.

Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law,
and people become honest.
I let go of economics,
and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
and the good becomes common as grass.

- Lao Tsu

If you want something too much, you end up producing the opposite; if you create laws to control people, you end up tempting them to do the opposite, because they resist oppression.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

a silent act of love

Where there is sorrow there is holy ground. Some day people will realise what that means. They will know nothing of life till they do...

When I was brought down from my prison to the Court of Bankruptcy, between two policemen, Robbie Ross waited in the long dreary corridor that, before the whole crowd, whom an action so sweet and simple hushed into silence, he might gravely raise his hat to me, as, handcuffed and with bowed head, I passed him by. Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that.

It was in this spirit, and with this mode of love, that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek. I have never said one single word to him about what he did. I do not know to the present moment whether he is aware that I was even conscious of his action. It is not a thing for which one can render formal thanks in formal words. I store it in the treasure-house of my heart. I keep it there as a secret debt that I am glad to think I can never possibly repay. It is embalmed and kept sweet by the myrrh and cassia of many tears. When wisdom has been profitless to me, philosophy barren, and the proverbs and phrases of those who have sought to give me consolation as dust and ashes in my mouth, the memory of that little, lovely, silent act of love has unsealed for me all the wells of pity: made the desert blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, and great heart of the world.

from De Profundis by Oscar Wilde

This beautiful passage from De Profundis was one of the readings from my Palm Sunday service; the others were the life story of Dudley Cave, and the account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday

(address given on April 5th 2009 at Frenchay Unitarian chapel.)

Palm Sunday is a curious festival, celebrating as it does a brief moment of happiness and glory before the tragic outcome we all know so well. According to the story in the gospels, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to a rapturous welcome from the people, who hailed him as a Messiah. Yet only a few days later another crowd was demanding his death. Where were the people who hailed him as a Messiah then, in his hour of need? Were they in hiding, denying that they ever knew him, like Peter? Had they turned against him, embarrassed by their earlier adulation? Of course we shall never know – because the truth or otherwise of the story is concealed beneath centuries of anti-Semitism and the terrible lie that it was the Jews that killed him (whereas, as I am sure we all know, crucifixion was a Roman method of execution; if the Jews had killed him, it would have been by stoning). This terrible lie resulted in centuries of persecution and genocide perpetrated by Christians towards Jews – pogroms in Eastern Europe, forced conversion of Muslims and Jews and then the burning of any who were found to be practicing Judaism in secret in Spain – the list is endless.

So, remembering that it’s only a story, what can we learn from this sudden reversal from adulation to revulsion? It reminds me of the way our society treats celebrities – investing them with all our hopes, and then reviling and despising them when they show their mere humanity. It is like being in love, except that the object of our love is not there to remind us that they have feet of clay; people project all they aspirations outwards onto these figures, and then are bitterly disappointed when they do not live up to the image that has been projected onto them.

It also reminds me of the rise and fall of one particular celebrity, Oscar Wilde. Oscar was the darling of fin-de-siècle Victorian society, until it was revealed that he had had a same-sex relationship. A revelation that cost him his life. He was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in prison, and it is fairly widely accepted that it dramatically shortened his life. George Bernard Shaw, another Irish writer, was born two years after Wilde and lived another forty-eight years beyond Wilde’s death. Whilst he was in prison, Wilde underwent a profound spiritual transformation, and wrote De Profundis (from the depths), a meditation on suffering.

Another gay martyrdom is the tragic death of Matthew Shepard, who was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die on a hillside in Wyoming by a homophobic mob. A promising young life cut short by a vicious, senseless murder. This is not the only case of homophobic murder – there have been many such murders before and since.

I am not the first person to make the connection between the persecution of Jesus and the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Several artists have done so, as documented in the excellent book Art that Dares by Kittredge Cherry, a lesbian minister in the Metropolitan Community Church. 

The homophobia of Christians was one of the reasons that I stopped being a Christian (the other reasons were the idea that non-believers would go to hell, the view that sexuality is not sacred, and the idea that other religions were false). I also assumed, wrongly, that the Bible condemned homosexuality, and so I ceased to view it as an authoritative text on pretty much anything. One of my best friends (then and now) is a gay man whose life is dedicated to helping others. All my Christian friends at the time said that if he made love to another man, God could not accept him. I could not believe that this was true, and so (in 1983), I ceased to be a Christian. It was only recently, whilst studying for my MA in Contemporary Religions and Spirituality, that I became aware that there was much excellent radical Christian theology being written by lesbian, gay and bisexual identified people; theology that wrestled with the Christian tradition and reforged it in new, exciting and radical shapes. Writers who dared to reinterpret the Bible to show that the Christian tradition is not inherently homophobic. People who were reflecting on the meaning of gender and spirituality.

Of course, none of this is new to Unitarians, who have been open and accepting of gays and lesbians for at least forty years. The first two ministers to be prosecuted in the United States for performing same-sex marriages appeared in court in 2004. Unitarian Universalist ministers Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey were charged with multiple counts of solemnising a marriage without a licence. All charges against the two ministers were dropped in July 2004. If they had been convicted, though, they would have faced a fine of between $25 and $500, or up to a year in jail. The British Unitarian movement includes a substantial number of gay and lesbian ministers; Unitarian churches welcome LGBT people. In the US, transgender people are also now found among the ordained Unitarian ministry.

Last year, a gunman walked into a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tennessee, and opened fire on the congregation. The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church has worked for social change since the 1950s, including desegregation, racial harmony, fair wages, women's rights and gay rights. The shooting was a hate crime motivated by the gunman’s hatred of gay people and liberals. The Tennessee Valley church was targeted for its liberal values. The two people who were killed were Greg McKendry, a 60-year-old usher at the church, and Linda Kraeger, who died of her injuries at a nearby hospital a few hours after the shooting. Church member Barbara Kemper said that Mr McKendry had "stood in front of the gunman and took the blast to protect the rest of us".  

"Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

So how can we help to bring an end to the terrible destructive violence and hatred of homophobia?

We can campaign for fairer laws – 86 member states of the United Nations still criminalise consensual same sex among adults. Among these, 7 have the death penalty for homosexuality. In addition, there are 6 provinces or territorial units which also imprison people for homosexuality. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people still do not receive completely equal treatment under British law.

We can challenge homophobic attitudes whenever we hear them. We can support campaigns like Stonewall (the gay rights lobby group) and IDAHO. IDAHO is the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. May 17th was chosen because it marks the anniversary of the day in 1990 when the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental diseases.

IDAHO day can also be celebratory because all over the world people are fighting against the persecution of LGBT people and are involved in positive initiatives and campaigns which can be celebrated and give hope for the future.

I want to finish with some words by Marcella Althaus-Reid, the queer theologian who died in February:
“Our task and our joy is to find or simply recognise God sitting amongst us, at any time, in any gay bar or in the home of a camp friend who decorates her living room as a chapel and doesn’t leave her rosary at home when going to a salsa bar.”

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Divine Feminine

(an address given at Frenchay Unitarian chapel on 8th February 2009)

Recently it was Imbolc or Candlemas, on the 2nd of February.

In Ireland, Imbolc is the feast of Brigit, originally a Goddess, and now a saint. The Goddess Brigit is associated with healing, poetry, and smithcraft. The saint is associated with them too, and with the perpetual flame tended by the nuns of Kildare - which possibly goes back to pre-Christian times. There are numerous folk-customs and stories associated with Brigit.

Candlemas is the Christian festival of the Purification of the Virgin, when Mary presented Jesus at the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete her purification after childbirth in accordance with the Law.

Both these festivals have traditionally also focused on the increasing light and life as the days lengthen and the trees start to blossom and bud. They are also a celebration of the Divine Feminine. This is an aspect of the divine that has been neglected in Christianity, due to its patriarchal traditions and its negative view of Eve as the one who brought sin into the world.

But mystics of all traditions have honoured the Divine Feminine. Julian of Norwich, the great Christian mystic, referred to God the Mother (in the context of Trinitarian theology):
And thus in our creation God Almighty is our natural father, and God all-wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit. These are all one God, one Lord. In the knitting and joining he is our real, true spouse and we are his loved wife and his fair maiden. ...The Second Person of the Trinity is our mother in nature, in our substantial making. In him we are grounded and rooted, and he is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh. Thus our mother, Christ, in whom our parts are kept unseparated, works in us in various ways. For in our mother, Christ, we profit and increase, and in mercy he reforms and restores us, and by virtue of his passion, death, and resurrection joins us to our substance. []

In the Orthodox Church, there is also a long tradition of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom (known as Sapientia in Western Christianity); indeed the great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was dedicated to Her. She is both the Bride of Christ and the feminine aspect of Christ. Also, many liberal Christians regard the Holy Spirit as the feminine aspect of God.

In Judaism, there is the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, and the Ruach, the Breath of God, both of which are seen as feminine. The Shekhinah is believed to descend on the Sabbath eve at the lighting of the candles (usually done by the lady of the house). The Shekhinah is exiled in the physical world and trying to rejoin the Godhead. We can help reunite them in the process of Tikkun - the exercise of compassion, which helps to heal the rift between the worlds. Also, it is regarded as a holy thing to make love on the Sabbath eve, as this helps to reunite the Shekhinah and the Godhead.
In Islam, there is the Sakina, the peace of God, which descends upon believers, who is mentioned twice in the Koran.

In Buddhism, there is Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. She has taken a vow not to pass in to Nirvana until all souls have achieved enlightenment.

There are also many goddesses in Hinduism and Paganism, and it is in these two traditions that we see the Divine Feminine in all her glorious variety. And yet, one would expect that the presence of goddesses in a religion would guarantee respect for women. That has been the assumption of feminist theologians who pressed for inclusive language, or wanted to throw out the masculine imagery and language and start again. But women didn't have equal status with men in Hinduism until recently - indeed, Rammohun Roy had to campaign for the abolition of widow-burning.

In Paganism, it is probably the existence of priestesses and the influence of feminism that have ensured the equality of women. Also, very importantly, all aspects of womanhood are represented: the maiden, the mother, the warrior, the sexual woman, the crone who is the embodiment of wisdom.

However, a certain amount of gender-role-stereotyping is present in Paganism, and perhaps Pagans need to think more about the Divine that transcends gender - this is one reason why I became interested in Christian mysticism, since that tradition has always insisted that God is beyond gender, even if they refer to the Divine with masculine nouns and pronouns.

The early advocates of the Great Mother Goddess were social conservatives. Jacquetta Hawkes, a prominent enthusiast for the Goddess in the 1930s, believed that women and men were fundamentally different and that the role of women was to remain in the home and bring up children. This is rather ironic in view of the next generation of enthusiasts, the separatist feminists of the sixties and seventies. Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca, was influenced by the idea of the Great Mother Goddess. This is apparent from much of the material that he wrote for use in Wiccan ritual. He was also (embarrassingly for most Wiccans who are largely left-leaning) a member of the Conservative Party. However, the women he portrays in his two novels are very feisty and independent characters.

In Unitarianism - the first denomination to have a female minister, Gertrude von Petzold, in 1904 - women are of course regarded as completely equal to men. Unitarians have also embraced the Divine Feminine to a certain extent, and use inclusive gender-neutral language wherever possible.

Nevertheless, when I hear the word "God", I hear it as a masculine noun. When I hear Spirit of Life, or the Divine, I hear it as gender-neutral. But it doesn't explicitly include the Divine Feminine - the Goddess.

So, how does the Goddess differ from traditional views of God?
  • In all traditions, she is regarded as immanent in the world, not transcendent.
  • She is not just an aspect of a male God, but a being in her own right. (If you want to be properly Unitarian about this, perhaps you could regard Her as an emanation of the Divine source.)
  • She is associated with Nature and the wilderness.
  • She is often seen as a mother who gives birth to the Universe and who also IS the Universe.
  • But she is also the wise crone and the wild maiden.
  • She is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.
  • She is not interested in imposing laws from on high, but on the emergence of harmony at the grass roots level.
  • She is much more than a Virgin Mother - this is an image which has been very damaging to women by holding out an unattainable ideal and denying the validity of sexual pleasure.
  • Her worship includes sacred sexuality.
Because she is Mother Nature, she is not always sweet and kind; sometimes she is the terrible mother, dealing death mercifully. In Paganism, death is regarded as a natural part of the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (in contrast to most of Christianity, which regards it as a result of the Fall).

The Divine Feminine was recognised by some Unitarians as early as 1980. A quick search on the web reveals that quite a lot of UK Unitarians honour the Goddess.

I think it is important, in honouring female images of the divine, not to start gender stereotyping, and assuming that some qualities are inherently masculine, and others inherently feminine. This is clearly not true; and in regarding the Divine as being beyond gender, Unitarians are ahead of the game. But rather than always using masculine and gender-neutral language to describe the divine, it would be great to use feminine language sometimes too, however you regard the Divine.

As Maud Robinson, of Dublin Unitarians, writes:
God does not have a gender and although we can readily accept that intellectually, we should be aware that many of us have a deep history of the use of male-centred language in prayer and that it is embedded in our collective psyche. The word God, in itself, causes me problems, it is a word, which despite our modern sophistication and political correctness can’t but conjure up images of a male godhead for many of us. How can we escape from these deeply ingrained images of a male godhead?
I think the answer to her question is to look at images of the Goddess in various religions, and start to explore this imagery in your preferred tradition, or traditions. There are numerous books and websites devoted to Her; and in a tradition dedicated to inclusivity, it seems only right to include both genders.