Wednesday, 25 March 2009


Magic is quite often defined as "the art of changing consciousness in accordance with one's will" (e.g. Aleister Crowley defined it as this).

Clarke's Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic." So magnetism was magic until we understood it. When we understand telepathy (if it exists), that will cease to be magic and become psychology.

I guess magic could also be defined as "the manipulation of external symbols in order to affect internal states of mind".  As Ross Nichols once said, "Ritual is poetry in the world of acts."

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Now the green blade rises

Words: John M. C. Crum, in The Oxford Book of Carols, 1928.
Music: Noël Nouvelet, 15th Century French melody

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

In the grave they laid Him, Love Whom we had slain,
Thinking that He’d never wake to life again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain;
Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

This really is a beautiful Easter hymn, with echoes of John Barleycorn and other Pagan fertility deities.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

What is a Messiah?

The Jewish view of the Messiah (as explained in Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish), was that he was to be an earthly king who would usher in a golden age of justice and peace. 

But the followers of Jesus were sorely disappointed to hear that his kingdom was not of this earth.   And yet he had said earlier, “The Kingdom of Heaven is all around you but you do not see it.” These two texts seem to me to contradict each other; either this is one of those mystical things beyond my ken, or someone has been tampering with the text – someone who did not want a thousand-year reign of justice and peace on earth. Someone like an emperor, who needed armies to fight for him – and it just so happens that such a person – the emperor Constantine – presided over the Council of Niceaea, where the canonical gospels were decided upon, and from which we get the Nicene Creed (the foundational text of Christianity).

A few weeks ago we heard the story of the fire-maker, who was killed for having the impertinence to make fire, and then people erected houses where they would sing of the miraculous gift of fire-making, and commemorate the miracles of the fire-maker, but never actually made fire themselves. Earlier we heard the story of the little creatures who spent their whole lives on the river-bed and never let go; and when one of them did they hailed him as a messiah, but did not copy him (from Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach). It seems to me that Christianity is like the creatures on the river bed and the people who lost their fire-maker; they make legends of the fire-maker, but do not dare to kindle a blaze themselves. When Jesus said that his holy spirit (his Ruach) would be with the disciples after his death, I believe that he meant he would pass on the mantle of fire-making to them. Perhaps this is the true meaning of the story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples – they too became messiahs, the anointed of God.

St Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Catholic nun and mystic, echoes this thought in her poem, You are Christ’s hands:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.
According to the Buddhist tradition, we are all future Buddhas and contain essential Buddha-nature. As the seed of our consciousness journeys from life to life, our Buddha-nature emerges. As everything in the universe expresses the Buddha-nature, so we are all connected. It is possible that some such idea was originally part of Christianity, until it got entangled with the Roman and Byzantine Empires, after which it would have been seen as dangerously radical and subversive, because it made all beings equal – whereas under the imperial Church, Christ became an emperor ruling over heaven and earth, far too distant for ordinary people to approach or pray to.

If we delve into the gospels and epistles, these radical ideas are never far below the surface. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus,” writes St Paul in his letter to the Galatians.

But the Church has always been more interested in the miracles of Jesus than in the actual values he embraced. It took an Indian, none other than Rammohun Roy, to point out to the West that they had completely ignored the original message of Jesus (which he helpfully summarised in his book, The Precepts of Jesus: The Guide to Peace and Happiness).  When it was published in 1825, it caused an outcry, even though it was simply a series of excerpts from the Gospels of what Jesus actually said, together with introductory remarks – but its message has still not been heard by many people. Those who have heard the message have changed the world, though. Mahatma Gandhi read The Precepts of Jesus, and applied the ideas in it to his movement of non-violent resistance that eventually resulted in freedom for India. Martin Luther King learnt from Gandhi’s example, and used these ideas to help the Civil Rights movement achieve its aims. While at seminary, King became acquainted with Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent social protest. On a trip to India in 1959, King met with followers of Gandhi. During these discussions he became more convinced than ever that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. So the values of Jesus – freedom, justice, peace, and love – triumphed again.

In his novel, The Anointed One, Z’ev Ben Shimon Halevi (a Jewish mystic) explores the Jewish idea that there is a Messiah in every generation – a holy one who is working for freedom, justice, peace, and love. The hero of the novel is a holy man who seeks to unite Jews, Muslims and Christians in their quest for the Divine; the setting is the Catholic reconquest of Spain from the Muslims. Muslim Spain was known for its tolerance, intellectual freedom, and interplay of mystical and magical ideas from the three Abrahamic faiths. All this was brutally crushed by the Catholic Church, who forced the conversion of Muslims and Jews, and then persecuted any who sought to practice their original faith in secret. The hero is killed by the Inquisition, and the mantle of the Anointed One passes to one of his followers, a Muslim.

In the 12th century, St Francis was seen as so holy that he was often referred to as “another Christ” (alter Christus). He preached poverty and equality, and is considered the patron saint of animals and the environment. Curiously, the story of his early life is very similar to that of the Buddha. Francis was a rich young merchant’s son who gave all his money to a beggar; the Buddha was a prince whose parents sought to shelter him from the suffering of the world, but when he saw a sick man laid at his gate, he vowed to work to end that suffering.

The problem with the Christian idea of Christ as the only means of accessing the Divine is, how can people who have never heard or understood the message be “saved”? The claim of a unique revelation of the Trinity as the true nature of God means that Christianity necessarily rejects all other faiths, because they do not have the same view of the Divine.

According to the Unitarian booklet, A Faith Worth Thinking About, we are called Unitarians because of our traditional insistence on divine unity, the oneness of God, and because we affirm the essential unity of humankind and all creation.  

The idea that the Divine is one implies that all religions can contact the Divine by their own names for it, and it will respond to them – so Unitarianism is inherently based on the acceptance of other faiths; and this is why the Unitarian idea of the unity of God is so important. 

So if the Messiah – the Christos – is not part of the Godhead, what is it? Again, St Paul gives us the clue. He writes, “so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5) The faithful become the anointed ones – indeed in Orthodoxy, there is the rite of chrismation (anointing), more commonly known in the West as confirmation.
As the lovely meditation by Victoria Weinstein that we heard earlier says, there is no point waiting for the Messiah to return; in fact the Messiah has always been with us, waiting for our hands to do the healing, spread the compassion, share the feast.

As John Andrew Storey wrote in his lovely carol, The Universal Incarnation:
Each time a girl or boy is born,
Incarnate deity we find.
Or as Roger Taylor Walke wrote in Children of a Bright Tomorrow:
May we know our timeless mission –
Universal avatars.
Universal avatars – an avatar is a deity incarnate as a human being – so we are manifestations of the divine universe.

So the answer to the question, what is a messiah, is: You are! You are the anointed ones of God.

(address given at Frenchay Chapel, Bristol, this morning - the reception this received reminded me why I love Unitarians so much - it was greatly appreciated)