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.