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.