Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Reason and rationality

"There is as great a difference between rationality and rationalism as there is between spirituality and spiritualism, individuality and individualism, and community and communism."

~ Philip Hewett (1985), The Unitarian Way (quoted by Arthur Long in Unitarian Thought in the 20th Century, part 2

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Words of inclusive love

A prayer

Source of all life and love,
We give thanks for the beautiful diversity of love,
The glorious rainbow of sexuality,
and the myriad ways to give and receive love.
We give thanks for the love of lesbians, gays, heterosexuals, bisexuals, transgender, chosen celibates, whose souls are aflame with eros and agape.
We give thanks for the love of friends, families, companion animals, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts and second cousins once removed.
We give thanks for the random acts of kindness shown by strangers to each other.
We give thanks for our beloved community.
May all these loves be strengthened and renewed
by wisdom, patience, tolerance, forbearance, forgiveness and courtesy.
May all these loves recognise and rejoice in each other
as part of the great tapestry of love.
May all beings be filled with loving-kindness,
and may justice roll down like waters
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

A Benediction

Let us embody the values of the rainbow flag of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Red is the root of spirit, found in beloved community,
Orange is for Eros, the fire of spirit, the experience of erotic connection,
Yellow is for self-esteem, the strong core of spirit,
Green is for love, the heart of spirit, the verdant growth of the soul,
Blue is for self-expression, the voice of spirit, calling out for justice,
Purple is the eye of spirit, which sees inwardly with the eye of wisdom.
And all the colours together form the crown of spirit, the experience of spirituality.

(These could be used for a Bridge of Light celebration)

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Sometimes we do not hear the call

Sometimes we do not hear the call,
the still small voice that speaks to us
in the watches of the night.
Sometimes we do not recognise the messenger,
nor hear the message,
though reality patiently sends it over and over,
showing the way, opening the door.
O source of all wisdom,
help us to discern the subtle whispers
among the tumult of conflicting messages.
Help us to find the harmonious way
among the many branching possibilities.
Help us to recognise the messengers from the Divine
in their many forms.
Help us to hear the voice of love
calling us to community, to justice and to peace.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Asparagus and religious liberty

What is the connection between asparagus and religious liberty? The fact that for 200 years, the Midland Unitarian Association has held an asparagus lunch, initially as a cover for the meeting of Unitarian ministers when Unitarianism was still illegal, and subsequently to continue the tradition, and it must have helped that asparagus is really tasty. Ant Howe explains:
The tradition goes back at least 200 years - and you might wonder why on earth a group of Unitarian ministers would do such a thing! After all, whilst asparagus is lovely to eat, why would we go to such trouble to eat it?
Well, our group of Ministers in the Midlands have been meeting each month since 1782. Back then, Unitarianism was still illegal. If you professed Unitarian beliefs, you could not only face prosecution, but also persecution in your community. In fact, our churches which date back to that time had to be very careful as there was a very real risk. Unitarianism didn't finally become legal until 1813.
So, if you are a group of Ministers in the Midlands who belong to an illegal organisation, you'd have to be careful about where you meet. In fact, a disguise might be necessary. And so the idea came up of going to Evesham and meeting there when the Asparagus crop was harvested. There would've been lots of strangers in Evesham at that time: farmers selling their asparagus crop and many people there to buy. A group of Ministers could easily meet and pretend they were there to buy asparagus .... and so the Asparagus Lunch was born!
You might think that all this sounds rather a great deal of effort just to hold a meeting, but we have to remember what a risk it was to be a Unitarian minister in those days. Right up until 1813, if you were caught proclaiming Unitarian beliefs, you could be heavily fined, and if you did it a second time, you could go to prison for up to three years and lose all your civil rights permanently. Unitarians couldn't go to university or hold civil office, and many of our earliest churches and chapels were built to look like barns or houses, so that they didn't attract too much attention. 
I discovered this because I was searching for the Unitarian toast, which I have heard mentioned by people from the Midlands, but which doesn't seem to be much used further south. The toast is to "Civil and Religious Liberty the World Over" - I'll certainly drink to that.

Embracing the shadow

The human capacity for compassion and wisdom is in stark contrast to our capacity for cruelty and destruction. It is difficult to maintain an optimistic view of human nature in the face of the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Abu Ghreib, torture, murder and rape. The only explanation that I find helpful for the human capacity for evil is the Jungian idea that we project our shadow selves onto others, and seek to destroy the shadow side by destroying the other. If we accepted our shadow side and sought to integrate it into consciousness, we would not persecute others, regard them as less human, and seek to destroy them.

But where did the shadow come from? Initially it may have emerged as a defence mechanism, or a by-product of the emergence of consciousness. This is suggested by the myth of the Garden of Eden, when the serpent reveals the distinction between good and evil to Adam and Eve, and then Yahweh says that the woman shall crush the serpent beneath her heel. If the knowledge of good and evil is equated with consciousness, and what is allowed into the light of consciousness is regarded as good, then the serpent (which represents the shadow and the unconscious) must be crushed in order to retain a sense of the self as good.

We can break out of this vicious circle by embracing the shadow, and taming the beast rather than seeking to destroy it.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

unity and diversity

One of the many things I value about being Unitarian is the freedom to think about religion, and explore many different spiritual traditions: Unitarianism, Universalism, humanism, Buddhism, atheism, liberal Christianity, pantheism, Paganism, Judaism, Hinduism, and so on.

Occasionally someone says, but how can you be a Unitarian and an atheist (or one of the other traditions listed above? It's simple - you love and cherish your own tradition, but you respect and value the insights of others as a corrective to any blind-spots in your own tradition. When writing sermons / addresses, my approach is to use the insights of different religious traditions to illuminate my theme; so for instance if my address was about compassion, I would draw mainly on Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity; if it was about hospitality, I would draw mainly on Heathenry and Religio Romana; if it was about the concept of a Messiah, I would draw mainly on Judaism, Christianity and Gnosticism. If my address was about religion and science, I would draw on atheist spirituality, among other things.

I count myself as a non-theist, in that I do not think the Divine is an entity with a personality; rather it is an experience or an all-pervading quality, and we can experience it through many images and archetypes. But I wholeheartedly embrace the Unitarian ethos and tradition, and many other Unitarians before me have held this view; so I do not think it makes me any less of a Unitarian.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Epimenedes and Aratus

I have always rather liked this quote about the immanence of the Divine, but had not realised that it was entirely lifted from Greek pagan poetry - hurrah! (thanks to my chum Gerardus for pointing this out).

For in Him we live and move and have our being, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring'. (Acts 17:28)

But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being. (Epimenides' Cretica)

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring... (Phaenomena 1-5).

Sunday, 3 October 2010


Address given at Trowbridge, 3 October 2010

The Christian harvest festival seems to be a movable feast, but is generally celebrated at the end of harvest in any given region, and is associated with various harvest customs. Now that we rely less heavily on the outcome of our harvest, the thoughts of churches in the developed world have turned to people in the developing world for whom food production is less secure, and to those in our own society who do not know where the next meal is coming from.

In Jewish tradition, the festival of harvest is Shavuot, which was traditionally the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. It is also believed to be the day when the Jewish people received the Torah from Mount Sinai. Traditionally, the 49 days between Passover (Pesach) and Shavuot were a period of semi-mourning, and they are also counted in anticipation of the giving of the Torah. There are a number of theories for why Jews view this period with sadness, one of which refers to a plague that killed many students of the famed Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva. It is also a custom to stay awake and study the Torah the night before Shavuot, as it was believed that the Israelites mistakenly feel asleep the night before receiving the Ten Commandments.

One of the traditional readings for the festival of Shavuot is the story of Ruth and Naomi, which is why I chose it for our story today.

In Pagan tradition, there are three harvests; the corn harvest at Lammas; the fruit harvest at Autumn Equinox; and the harvest of meat at Samhain, when some of the cattle would have been slaughtered and preserved for the winter. Lammas commemorates the death of John Barleycorn, the dying-and-resurrecting vegetation god. The corn was believed to be inhabited by the corn-spirit, which was killed at every harvest and resurrected in the planting of the new corn. In Ireland, Lammas was celebrated with games in honour of the goddess Tailtiu, the mother of Lugh the sun god, and was called Lughnasadh.

Autumn Equinox was not celebrated everywhere in the ancient world, but it is regarded by contemporary Pagans as a point of balance, because it is the time when day and night are equal. It is also the fruit harvest and a time to celebrate Pomona, goddess of fruit, and her consort Vertumnus, god of change. In Jewish tradition, it is Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, when God created everything.

Samhain or Hallowe’en is a much-misunderstood festival. To the ancient Celts it was a celebration of freedom from oppression; contemporary Pagans have adapted the Catholic festival of All Souls, and regard Samhain as a time when the veil between the worlds is thin, and people can commune with the ancestors and the beloved dead. Some Unitarian congregations have started to celebrate Samhain by commemorating their relatives and friends who have died.

People like customs and festivals because they mark transitions; the changing seasons, the tides of our lives. The Jewish tradition is particularly rich in seasonal customs, special foods, and symbolic actions, which help to connect the life of the individual to the great cosmic story. Similarly, contemporary Pagans have sought to re-create the richness of the seasonal festivals. Unitarians can draw from the festivals of many traditions; but I think we should be respectful of their original meaning and context.

But what is the inner meaning of harvest? I am reminded of Jesus’ saying: “As you sow, so shall ye reap.” Many of you are probably familiar with the film It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a man is just about to commit suicide because he has ceased to see meaning in his life, when an angel comes and shows him all the differences he has made to the lives of others, and what the world would be like without him in it. He is a bank manager, who has lent people money when they really needed it; he is a family man who has made his wife and children happy. He has carried out many small kindnesses, and that has made all the difference.

Each of our small acts of kindness can make a real difference in the lives of others; even a smile can make someone else happier, which means they are more likely to smile at others, or be kind to them – who knows how far the harvest of one small act of kindness may spread?

As Louis Macneice observed in his poem, Fanfare for the Makers (which was quoted recently in the TV comedy Rev), sometimes we plant trees but do not see them reaching their full height, and “sometimes one man’s kindness pervades / A room or house or village”, and “mothers sit up late night after night / Moulding a life”, so each act of kindness can “lend the passing moment words and wings”.

Sometimes we feel powerless in the face of all the suffering and oppression in the world, but we can each do our bit. Even signing internet petitions and donating to charity can make a real difference to the lives of others, and you don’t even have to leave your chair to do that.

Another saying of Jesus was “By their fruits ye shall know them”. I once attended a sermon by Ashley Hills where he told the story of a 19th century Unitarian tea merchant. Although his fellow-citizens deplored his choice of theology, they always bought their tea from him because they knew he was an honest fellow who always bought the best quality tea and never adulterated it with other things. They knew him by his fruits, or should that be by his tea? This seems to me to be harvest-related, too.

Harvest is a time when we count our blessings, and seek to share them with others less fortunate than ourselves. Just as Boaz shared the harvest of his fields with Ruth and Naomi, so we are sharing the harvest with the homeless. We are mindful of the gleaners at the margins of the fields. Ruth was a Moabite and not an Israelite, and was related to Ruth by marriage. She had decided to go with Naomi, her mother-in-law, after her husband had died, because of the great love she felt for her. If she gleaned the leavings of the harvesters in any other field, the book of Ruth implies that it was likely she would have been harmed by the harvesters, perhaps raped. So it was an act of radical hospitality on the part of Boaz to allow her to glean in his field. More recently, lesbian Christians have interpreted the story of Ruth and Naomi as an example of same-sex love, because 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
This quote has often been used as a marriage vow, apparently. Whether or not they were actually lesbians in the modern sense is not important; the fact is they clearly loved each other a great deal, and their story is very inspiring to women who love women.

Unitarianism is also radically hospitable, since we were the first denomination to ordain women, the first to include lesbian and gay people as complete equals, and we have consistently sought to widen our circle of inclusivity. Why, then, are people not flocking to our door? The reasons could be many and varied; but one reason may be that we are hiding our light under a bushel, and not getting out there and showing people that they are welcome at our table. In order to reap the blessings of community, we need to be radically hospitable; and sometimes that can mean being open to change – change that might not be particularly comfortable to embrace.

There is also the problem that people generally do not understand liberal religion, because they think religion is all about what you believe, not about what you do. But it’s up to us (and other liberal religious groups) to show them that it doesn’t have to be like that. You can have a religion where you don’t have to leave your brain at the door; where symbols are resonant with many layers of meaning; where heart and mind can be fed; where we can live in beloved community with one another.

Time and eternity

I continued my practice of lectio divina with Dry Salvages, the third poem in Eliot's Four Quartets. I have always liked the first section, which begins "The river is a strong brown god". This section seems to be about the immanence of the Divine in Nature, and the multiplicity of spirits of place. In the second stanza, the rhythms of the sea could be seen as a metaphor for the Divine in which we live, move and have our being.

I found the rest of Dry Salvages quite difficult. Eliot contrasts cyclical time and linear time with Christian ideas of eternity, and the eternal now. I like the idea of cyclical time, with its tides of sowing, growing, reaping and resting, its shifts from outwardness to inwardness. I also like the idea of the eternal now, but Eliot seems to regard both past and future as rather dreary (which they are in linear time), and to regard cyclical time as an endless repeating of the same old stuff. In my experience, cyclical time is the repetition of stages, but each stage has similar elements and different elements, so the combinations of experience are always new.

I did enjoy the descriptions of the eternal now: apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement

Friday, 24 September 2010

Vast deep silence

I have continued with the practice of Lectio Divina, using T S Eliot's Four Quartets, every day since my previous post about it. Here are some notes I made after some of the sessions.

17-9-10 (Stanzas 3 & 4 of Burnt Norton)
I've realised that these poems are about the experience of contemplative prayer - descending into the vast deep silence beneath everything. Reading them has also inspired some poetry in response.

Stillness and dancing
Centre and circumference
the stillness is everywhere
and the dance is everywhere
source welling up
eternally from the depths
the music to which we dance
the air we breathe
the life that lives us.

18-9-10 (Stanza 5 of Burnt Norton)

Stanza 5 seems to be about apophatic and paradoxical theology.

O living waters rise in me
Refresh the desert places
that cry out for rain.

23-9-10 (Stanza 4, East Coker)

This stanza uses Christian imagery to talk about the wounded healer archetype.

We are constantly slaying the image of God in each other:
That one walks too tall, looks too free and happy.
Each of us is wounded and inflicts wounds in our turn.
The only way to break free is to accept ourselves:
To feel the constant outpouring of divine love
From the depths of silence.
We must descend again and again into the abyss
To rescue the forgotten parts of ourselves.

24-9-10 (Stanza 5, East Coker)

The last stanza of East Coker seems to be about coinherence, the idea that we are all members of each other; but also that the now contains both the past and the future: "a lifetime burning in every moment".

The whole of East Coker is more melancholy than Burnt Norton - perhaps it represents the descent into the abyss, the dark night of the soul. But it concludes on a hopeful note: "We must be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion..."

I am finding it really helpful to read the poems as slowly as this (one stanza a day) and reflect on their meaning. Four Quartets is not the easiest poem to understand, but the meaning becomes more apparent after reflection.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Lectio Divina: Four Quartets

I had been meaning to embark upon the practice of lectio divina for some time, but was unsure what text I wanted to contemplate. I had thought of the Tao Te Ching (and that will be next). This morning, I realised that my first effort would be with T S Eliot's wonderfully rich series of poems, Four Quartets, bits of which resonate very much with me.

So this morning, I began with the Buddhist practice of Metta Bhavana (loving kindness meditation) and then read the first stanza of Burnt Norton out loud, then contemplated its imagery, then engaged in wordless contemplation of the deep silence within, and the relationship of time and eternity, and then formulated a spoken prayer out of some of the imagery of the poem. It made me realise that one purpose of spoken prayer is to speak to one's own depths and make a statement of intent.

I did the steps in the wrong order for the classic form of lectio divina, but it felt like the right order at the time.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

To be a pilgrim

Richard Wiseman asks what your pilgrimage would be...

I consider all travel that involves engaging with the landscape, culture and/or people to be a form of pilgrimage.

Some of the more consciously pilgrimish travel I have done, though, included going to Down House where Darwin lived and walking along the gravel path where he thought about evolution, and having a conversation about evolution. I think the re-enactment element was important there.

Another example was going to Canterbury Cathedral. I am not a Christian but I find the story of Thomas a Becket moving, and I like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Jean Anouilh's play Becket.

Visiting stone circles always feels like a pilgrimage to me. They are beautiful and numinous places, and some archaeologists think they were made to represent a microcosm of the landscape.

Landscape itself - the wild places - is a place of pilgrimage for me; it is where I go to feel renewed and refreshed.

I also think that places where other people have made a connection with the numinous are special. As T S Eliot wrote in Little Gidding,
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Friday, 10 September 2010

food blessings

Rev Naomi started a conversation on Twitter about blessings for food. If you want to see it, the tag is #tablebless. It's a great idea for integrating spirituality with daily life, so I'm really interested in what people come up with.

I suggested the Pantheist Grace and a Pagan Grace by Isaac and Phaedra Bonewits. I also came up with a Lolcat blessing: "Hallowed be thy Noms".

Other offerings include:
  • "We thank every being that brought this food to our table. We are all a part of the web of life" (by me)
  • "Blessed be God who is our bread, may all the world be clothed and fed" (by chickpastor)
  • "Thanks for what we receive! With joy, may we give far more than we receive and bless the world." (by Rev Naomi)
  • "Rejoice in what gifts upon this table lay! Nourished here, may we go forth and feed the world." (by Rev Naomi)
  • "We give thanks for the life that sustains our life, and the web of which we are all a part." (by TrulySocial)
  • "For those who grew this food, those who made this meal, and for life that sustains us all, we give thanks!" (by Rev Naomi)
There's a collection of prayers before meals from various faith traditions at BeliefNet. Many traditions seem to have the impulse to honour where the food came from and to wish that everyone else will be fed too. For example, this Pagan prayer and this Buddhist prayer do that, and so does chickpastor's prayer (above).

Please add your ideas in the comments. Brevity is of the essence here - it needs to be easy to memorise and not make the food get cold!

Thursday, 9 September 2010


An address given to Golders Green Unitarians on 5 September 2010

Empiricism, according to Alister McGrath, is the idea that 'truth arises from reflection within the mind on what the human faculties experience through sense perception'.  So we experience something through our senses, then we reflect upon it, and from this, truth arises.
According to Karen Armstrong, in The Case for God (which should really be called the case for religion), belief and faith both originally meant loyalty to an evolving tradition; first you did the ritual, and then the teachings were revealed – and they only made sense in the context of the ritual. The ritual was experienced through the senses, and then its symbolism made sense.
In the eighteenth century, rationalists and empiricists sharply disagreed about the nature of truth.  For rationalists, the power to reason was an innate quality of the human mind.  But for empiricists, babies were born as a “blank slate” for experience to write upon – with no innate qualities or faculties.  The conflict continued well into the twentieth century, with the nature versus nurture debate in psychology, which was an argument about whether hereditary traits were more important in the development of the personality, or whether your environment could override your genetic inheritance.
But as far as I can see, it is not a case of either / or – it’s a case of both / and.  We need reason to work things out logically, and to ensure our ideas are consistent with reality.  But we also need experiment and experience.  We do not sit isolated in our ivory towers formulating an abstract theology or philosophy.  We derive our understandings of the world from our experience, the stimuli that come in through our senses: taste, touch, smell, hearing, sight and proprioception (the sense of your location in space, which is governed by your inner ear, and enables you to stay upright and balanced).  We can then compare our experiences with those of others, and reflect upon them.  And we learn new things by experimenting, hopefully in a safe space.  The first time you do a new thing is an experiment – you are testing an aspect of your environment.  And it is by experimenting that we gain experience.  Interestingly in the French language, the word for both experiment and experience is expĂ©rience.
Charles Darwin had a long-running experiment with worms, where he put a millstone in his lawn and then measured how much it settled into the earth because it was being undermined by earthworms burrowing underneath it.  I have seen the millstone set into his lawn at Down House in Kent; the experiment is still going on.  Thanks to Darwin’s curiosity and imagination, a tiny puzzle about the way the world works is being solved.
They say that curiosity killed the cat; but on the other hand, fortunately the cat has nine lives.  And in fact, curiosity is not generally fatal to cats.  Curiosity is a good thing, as long as it is balanced with discernment and compassion.  I am sure we can all think of scientific experiments that are not done with sufficient compassion; and of experiments that were not done with sufficient discernment (such as the development of atomic weapons or genetically modified crops).  So we cannot allow curiosity a completely free rein; it must be tempered with wisdom.  It’s not that any knowledge is forbidden to us by divine edict; knowledge must be tempered with wisdom. In Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy, he explores the ideas of Montaigne, who decried education that imparted facts but did not teach people how to live well.  It is the great divorce of science and religion that has allowed this split in awareness to develop – the fact that fundamentalists continue to insist on literal interpretations which are contrary to reason and science, makes scientists dismiss the whole of religion as a waste of space.  But Unitarians steadfastly maintain, and many other religions affirm, that religion is not about beliefs, doctrines and dogmas – it is about values, and about experiencing the world with a sense of awe and wonder and gratitude.  It is about celebrating life, and experiencing it to the full; letting our imagination and creativity play over the vast panoply of nature.
Imagination is also an important quality; it enables us to imagine the world differently.  And this is what liberal religions do, too.  For my MA, I studied the relationship between Pagans and science, including their interest in science fiction. One of the reasons that Pagans like science fiction (and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was true of Unitarians too) is that it dreams of worlds with different societies, different ethical systems, and different ways of interacting with the planet than our own.  Science fiction is a thought experiment about how things might play out if you had a different set of starting conditions – for example, if people lived in caves with very little living space, how would that affect their sense of space?  They would be agoraphobic and have no sense of personal space.  And if there was another planet that was sparsely populated, they might be claustrophobic and get used to large amounts of personal space.  Now imagine the dramatic possibilities if you transplant the inhabitant of the sparsely populated planet to the cave planet, or vice versa, and how that would affect them.  This is the premise of Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel.  The message of the novel is a hopeful one: that people can overcome the conditioning of their home environment – but they have to be willing to try.
It is the same with our spiritual life.  If we always do the same old stuff, we might get stuck in a rut; but if we try new things, we might gain new insights.  I don’t necessarily mean that the new thing has to be something scary or difficult – it could just be trying again at something you have failed at in the past.  I thought I was rubbish at meditation until I tried again in a morning meditation session at Great Hucklow Summer School, and something that was said – that you can begin again each moment, and that if thoughts arise, do not follow them – gave me the key to learning to relax and just do it.  Sometimes trying something with a different person in a different context can give a different perspective on it.
Similarly with prayer: I didn’t really understand prayer until I read a book about it by a Russian Orthodox monk called Staretz Silouan.  I would never have come across this book unless I had tried Orthodoxy and been lent the book by an Orthodox nun called Mother Sarah.  So doing something outside one’s comfort zone can sometimes be beneficial.  Ultimately Orthodoxy wasn’t for me, but I learnt a lot while I was involved in it, especially about the differences between Eastern and Western Christian doctrine, which enabled me to read the Gospels in a very different way, and look at the Christian tradition differently.
As the Quakers say, “Be open to new light, wherever it may come from” – a very wise saying, I feel.
Another aspect of an empirical approach to religion and spirituality is its pragmatism.  We can try new things and persist with them for a while – but if they don’t work for us, we can stop doing them.  I can’t imagine Unitarians persisting in doing something unpleasant or detrimental just because it was the custom to do it, or because tradition demanded it.  (Come to think of it, this must be the case, because I can’t think of any Unitarian practices that are unpleasant.)
Of course human beings are always a bit reluctant to try new things – we like our safe comfortable ruts and grooves, our tried and tested ways of doing things.  But remember when your mum and dad got you to try that new vegetable on your plate, and you actually liked it?  Or when you first learnt to ride a bike, the feeling of exhilaration when you realised that your dad wasn’t holding on to the back of the bike any more? It can be pleasurable to experiment with new ways of doing things.
So let us approach the world with wonder and a willingness to experiment. Let’s be willing to try new things – even Brussels sprouts. 

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

A syllogism

God doesn't exist. (Many theologians have pointed this out, including John Scotus Eriugena, Paul Tillich, Karen Armstrong, and various thinkers from Judaism and Islam. This is because "God" is Being itself, or the Ground of All Being, or Nothing, or a process.)

God is love (according to various Christian commentators).

Love does not exist. (There's no thing you can point to and say it is love.)

Love is an experience shared between people.

God is an experience shared between people.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Norwich Pride Interfaith Service

The Norwich Pride 2010 interfaith service will be held at the Octagon Unitarian Chapel in Colegate in Norwich city centre. The service is at 6pm on 31 July. The church's beautiful walled garden will be open to picnickers prior to the service.

Stephen Lingwood, an ordained Unitarian minister, will lead the service entitled 'Coming Out as a Spiritual Practice'. He also plans to march in the parade with the diversity banner. He said he is pleased to be involved with Norwich Pride.
Ooh I would very much like to go to that. Well done to all involved. I wrote some bits about coming out as a spiritual practice as part of my essay on LGBT Spirituality.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

prayer for liberation

O deep and ineffable Silence
That speaks from the depths
O space carved out by suffering
That is inexplicably filled with joy
You are the inspiration of our going forth
To connect with others
Move our hearts to compassion
That we may genuinely lift up the poor
Move our hands to action
That we may lift the burdens of the oppressed
Fill our heads with inspiration
That we may behold the vision of a just society
And work to bring it into being

(inspired by liberation theology)

Friday, 18 June 2010

Labyrinth walk at GA

The room was silent, the lighting subdued. Barefoot people waited meditatively to enter the labyrinth, which was surrounded by electric tealights. They stood on the threshold for a moment before embarking on the journey.

Each person’s journey was unique, although the labyrinth has a single pathway to the centre. We were all travelling on the same pathway, but each person was going at a different speed, travelling in a different way. Rather like life, the path twists and turns, in and out, and you never know how close to the centre you are. When the path appears to take you furthest away from the centre, you are nearer, and when you appear to be closest, you are actually further away.

The centre – the goal of the journey – can mean different things to different people. For me, it is a metaphor for the Divine: always present, always hidden. In Pagan labyrinths, the centre symbolises the underworld, the inner realm; in Christian labyrinths, it represents the goal of the pilgrim, Jerusalem, with Christ at the centre.

The centre is a place to meditate and reflect on the journey, connect with the Divine, or just look into yourself. The space at the centre is shaped like a flower, or like the rose window of a cathedral. Each of its petals represents one of six kingdoms: mineral, vegetable, animal, human, angelic and the unknown.

The journey back from the centre depicts bringing back the blessing and insight from the other realm to share with your community. On the way out from the centre, I felt like dancing, I was so full of energy. As you cross the threshold once more into the outer world, it is a good idea to meditate on the experience, and only gradually ease back into normal conversation.

Pagan labyrinths generally have the path winding through one quadrant at a time, possibly so the walker can meditate on each of the four elements in turn. Christian labyrinths have the path winding back and forth between the quadrants, so that you never know where you are. This is in many ways a more powerful experience, because you never know how close you are to the goal of the journey, so it is a revelation when you reach it. One such labyrinth is the one in Chartres Cathedral, which was constructed around 1200.

The oldest labyrinth design is the Cretan labyrinth, which is a very simple design and can be drawn quite quickly; it is easy to make out of pebbles in your garden or at a camp.

The labyrinth at GA was made of cloth, with the design of the Chartres labyrinth printed on it. It is owned by Danielle Wilson, an interfaith minister from London. If you did not get a chance to walk it at GA, you can attend one of the monthly walks at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel.

It is a very ancient form of meditation, very relaxing, and it’s well worth giving it a try. It’s very personal and inwardly focussed, and yet shared with your fellow-travellers in a wordless communion.

More information from Danielle Wilson and Rosslyn Hill Chapel

A brief history of mazes and labyrinths

Mazes are recorded in Egypt, Rome, Scandinavia, England, India, and the American Southwest. They are generally believed to symbolise the soul’s journey through life, or the journey of the dead to the underworld.

There are two types of maze: the unicursal (single path) maze and the puzzle maze. Both of these are referred to as both a labyrinth and a maze. However, in the myth of the Minotaur, the labyrinth in which the Minotaur dwells is clearly a puzzle maze (i.e. having dead ends), as Theseus needs a thread to find his way through to the centre. Apparently the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur refers to the maze-like palace at Knossos, which burned to the ground in the 15th century BCE.

The Classical Maze comes in four types, the Serpentine, Spiral, Simple Meander, and Complex Meander. The Roman ones were usually square, but these designs work as circular mazes too.

The principle of the maze was probably discovered in the Neolithic. The earliest recorded mazes were in Crete, 4000 years ago. In Egypt, there was a huge palace complex on the shores of a lake seven days journey up the Nile from the pyramids in form of a labyrinth. This was built by pharaoh Amenemhet III in the 19th century BCE. It consisted of thousands of rooms and twelve large maze-like courtyards, which were probably intended to keep out unwelcome visitors. Amenemhet also created a maze inside his nearby pyramid to thwart tomb robbers. Most Roman labyrinths, on the other hand, were too small to have been walked, and are typically found on the floor near the entrances to houses and villas; many have small city walls (perhaps indicating the walls of Troy) drawn around them. This suggests they served a protective function, and were perhaps believed to have warded off evil influences or intruders — a common function of the labyrinth in many other cultures as well. The tomb of Lars Porsenna (an Etruscan king) at Chiusi in Italy was said to be surrounded by a labyrinth.

The turf mazes of Britain and Scandinavia may have served a similar purpose, but in the Middle Ages they acquired an additional association with May games; hence the name “Robin Hood’s Race” or “Julian’s Bower”. The Celtic name for a maze was Caer Droia, the place of turning, and this was transliterated into English as Troy Town. It was widely believed that England was founded by Brutus fleeing Troy, and the mazes were believed to represent Troy. Mazes in Finland were often called Jericho, referring to the legend that it was destroyed by the Israelite army marching around it seven times. A maze called ‘the walls of Jericho’ also appears in a Hebrew manuscript.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Enlightenment

A motion was proposed at the UK GA in defence of the Enlightenment. The author of the motion was sitting in front of me, and said that he just wanted to start a conversation about it. What a good idea, I said. So here goes.

The Enlightenment was a complex phenomenon with many strands. One of those strands was the origin of the Pagan revival. Another was the rise of rational religion in the form of Unitarianism, deism and humanism. A further strand was the rise of rationalism, which at the time was in opposition to the empiricism of Locke and others. The rationalists held that reason was a priori, God-given; the empiricists held that we are born with a blank slate (tabula rasa) and acquire reasoning skills by experience. It was only in the early 20th century that a synthesis of rationalism and empiricism was finally achieved. Another strand of the Enlightenment was the concept of the sublime - the experience of awe when confronted by natural phenomena such as mountains, waterfalls and wilderness. This represented a considerable shift in attitudes to nature, and it was out of this that Romanticism emerged. A further aspect of the Enlightenment was the rise of feminism, with the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and others. There had been previous feminist writings, but Wollstonecraft represents the beginnings of a movement as opposed to a few isolated individuals. Remember also that evolution by natural selection had not yet been discovered; hardly anyone was aware of the great age of the Earth; science was still called natural philosophy; Oxford and Cambridge were Anglican-only universities and generally not very science-focussed; if you wanted to study science, the best place to go was a Dissenting Academy, like Joseph Priestley.

So the Enlightenment was a multi-faceted phenomenon, a mixture of sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory discourses. It was an intellectual ferment, an explosion of interest in natural phenomena, history, and literature - an awakening.

The legacy of the Enlightenment is therefore also a mixed blessing. Pure rationalism has given rise to reductionism, logical positivism, behaviourism and other scientific dead-ends; but the idea that we should subject all impulses and beliefs to reason before acting on them seems to me an excellent idea. Empiricism - the primacy of experience and experiment - is also a good principle to work by. Always asking, "Yes but does it work? What are the consequences?" is a good test for most situations. And utilitarianism (another Enlightenment idea) is also useful if not carried to extremes. Seeking the greatest happiness of the greatest possible number of people is good, as long as the rights of the remaining few are not trampled.

Where the legacy of the Enlightenment has failed us is when we assume that science does not need to be tempered with other approaches. The worst excesses of industry, pollution, eugenics, behaviourist psychology and other extreme science should have been tempered with compassion and humanity.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

A happy whale

I just received this very touching story via email.
If you had read a recent front page story of the San Francisco Chronicle, you would have known about a female humpback whale that had become entangled in a spider web of crab traps and lines. She was weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat. She also had yards of line rope wrapped around her body, her tail, her torso, and a line tugging in her mouth.

A fisherman spotted her just east of the Farallon Islands (outside the Golden Gate ) and radioed an environmental group for help.

Within a few hours, the rescue team arrived and determined that she was so badly off, the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her.

They worked for hours with curved knives and eventually freed her.

When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles.

She then came back to each and every diver, one at a time, and nudged them, pushed them gently if thanking them.

Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives.

The guy who cut the rope out of her mouth said her eyes were following him the whole time, and he will never be the same.
I found the original story in the SF Chronicle.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

My GA UK experience

At the weekend, I went to the Unitarian General Assembly event. It was a great opportunity to see old friends and make new ones, and find out more about other Unitarians and their spirituality. There were a number of business meetings with votes on various issues (none particularly ground-breaking this year, though they were important, and there have been some very important motions in the past). The sense of participating in the democratic process of the Unitarian movement is quite important to me - it means that there is a mechanism for change.

There was the opening ceremony (I am afraid the drumming in the opening ceremony was too loud for me, but I appreciated its energy); and the Anniversary Service, which was excellent and I experienced a genuine sense of the divine in it.

I also attended some of the fringe meetings. The Unitarian Earth Spirit Network meeting had Prudence Jones as its guest speaker (an excellent choice). Perhaps ironically, I see her Enlightenment-inspired version of Paganism as being much closer to Unitarianism than to the views expressed by most Pagans these days. But then that's why I am a Unitarian, because I agree with most of her views.

I also attended the Unitarian Christian Association session, which was holding a launch of a new book by David Doel, entitled The Man they called the Christ, which embraces the mythological view of Jesus, which regards the whole story as mythology along the lines of other dying-and-resurrecting Middle Eastern vegetation gods. This does not make the story any less valid; it just sets it in the context of other similar mythology and allows us to experience it as the death of the ego and the resurrection of the larger self as we turn towards the Divine in the experience of metanoia.

Another really great session was the Labyrinth Walk. The labyrinth is a metaphor for life's journey; it twists and turns towards the centre, but you never know how close you are to the centre until you get there. You meet people on the way, and pass people, but each journey is an unique experience, even though we're all travelling on the same path. This is the second time I have walked this labyrinth, which is based on the Chartres Labyrinth.

The Nottingham University campus, where the event was held, is lovely - lots of water and modern wooden buildings, and a very tame heron. The food was quite nice, the rooms comfortable, and the staff were very friendly and helpful.

It was fantastic to see old friends and make new ones, and I look forward to more of the same.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Carl McColman's Quote for the Day:
It is common for those who argue for and against the existence of God to assume that the word God is used by believers to refer to something that we can point toward, distance ourselves from, and dispassionately reflect upon. However, one can reject this idea of God as nothing but a form of idolatry . . . This approach questions any expression that would reduce God to the realm of objects. Here no theistic rendering of God is allowed to lay claim to God, for God dwells above and beyond all names. God is rather approached as the ineffable source that is received but never conceived. God is thus not approached as an object, but rather encountered as an absolute subject who transforms our relationship with all objects. Just as the light in the room cannot be seen but rather allows us to see, so God is not directly experienced but rather is the name we give to a whole new way of experiencing . . . Hence, religious experience is not really experience as such but the opening into a different way of experiencing.
— Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales

Excellent. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Beloved Community

An address given at Frenchay Chapel on 7th March.

What exactly is a spiritual community? People have defined it differently in different circumstances and in different religious traditions. To me the word community suggests communing and commonality: sharing at a deep level and having or holding something in common.

The word congregation means a flock, implying that the members are sheep and the vicar, representing Christ, is the shepherd. I don’t think Unitarians make very good sheep, and rightly so. We are proud to be individuals. But we do have something in common: our values of freedom, reason and tolerance – or perhaps to couch these in slightly more modern parlance: individuality, thinking and inclusivity. We also have a shared passion for social justice (one of the many reasons that I was attracted to Unitarianism) and openness to new ideas. Many Unitarians are worried by the diversity among Unitarians, and wonder how the denomination can possibly hold together; but I see (from the perspective of a newish Unitarian) remarkable similarity in the views of most Unitarians. Because we value reasonable religion but do not shun mystery; because we enjoy listening to the ideas and stories of others and don’t feel threatened by them – the most Pagan Unitarian and the most Christian Unitarian still have a lot in common, even though the mythology that inspires them is different.

So we are not a congregation; what about a network? Well, networks tend to be small clusters of like-minded people of similar age, social class, and level of education; they form and dissolve; and they do not tend to gather in larger groups on a regular basis.

For me, the most appropriate word for what we are is a community. We share our spiritual journeys; we gather in the chapel and for social events, and gradually get to know each other; and everyone offers their unique gifts to the community in a spirit of loving service. Sometimes we don’t get to know each other, and that’s OK too; we are still aware of the other person, and would be there for them if they needed us. Sometimes we annoy each other, and this is the real test of the sense of community. I’ll never forget the first time I saw two Unitarians having an argument. I was so impressed at the way they didn’t shout at each other, or even raise their voices. They just both stated clearly what was getting on their nerves, and left it at that. And when I have rubbed people up the wrong way, which has happened occasionally, I appreciated the calmness and humour with which they let me know about it, and even if I disagreed with them, I hope I responded in kind. And it is the process of rubbing up against each other, like pebbles on the sea-shore, that rounds us and shapes us as human beings.

Traditionally, Protestant Christianity has promoted the idea of the ministry of all believers (which is also a key concept in Eastern Orthodoxy). The Quakers call it giving ministry when anyone gets up to speak in a meeting. But ministry can be something really simple like smiling at someone, or hugging them, or listening to their problem, or making them a cup of tea: all things that let the other person know that they are cared for and held in beloved community. Each of us is unique and special and has their own gifts and talents to bring to the table. You never know when something you say or do will change someone’s life for the better.

In Buddhism, the community is called the sangha, which means ‘refuge’. When a Buddhist takes their vows, it is known as ‘taking refuge in the Buddha’. This does not necessarily mean that they become disengaged from the world, because they still practice mindfulness and compassion; but they have a safe place to stand from which to practice these virtues.

I certainly do experience Unitarian life as a safe space: a place where, for the most part, you can say what you really think; where all of life is celebrated; and where there are people who hunger and thirst after righteousness – real righteousness, not the po-faced sex-starved nonsense that passes for it in mainstream Christianity. No, the righteousness that Unitarians hunger and thirst after is a world where everyone has enough to eat and the Earth is not ravaged by industrial pollution, and where the body is celebrated instead of being denied.

So we are a people with a shared vision, shared values, and a shared history, and for the most part, agreement that we should treat mythology as a life-giving metaphor, even if some of us prefer different mythologies. It is our shared values that unite us, as many Unitarian authors agree. But is this enough to create community, or do we need to work at it?

What is it that makes a beloved community? Surely it is learning more about each other, sharing our life stories and our insights, caring about each other. If the same bunch of people stands at the front each week, we are not doing that. Of course some people find it uncomfortable speaking in public, but that is why having a circular space can sometimes makes it easier – there isn’t the fear of standing up at the front to speak. As you will doubtless be aware, I am not backward in coming forward. I used to be a teacher, and I have been leading covens and spirituality groups for about a decade – but I still felt nervous doing services to start with – partly because there was such a high standard to live up to, and partly because it involved standing at the front facing everyone.

The small engagement groups that we have on weekday evenings are an excellent way of getting to know people and discussing some of the issues that arise from the spiritual journey, and certainly contribute to the sense of community. Safe space is created in them by starting off by agreeing a set of ground-rules, formulated by the group.

The pub group has been good for giving an opportunity to chat for a longer period of time. Of course we must also be careful not to create cliques of those who take part in activities like this and those who don’t. That’s why Bright Lights is such a great idea, because it’s inter-generational, and has included people who wouldn’t normally “do church”.

The thing that creates community is doing things together. One of the quickest ways of getting to know people at Pagan camps is to take part in digging the fire-pit: there’s something about shared physical work that really creates community. And of course doing ritual together creates community too. When I say ritual I mean any intentional gathering in a sacred place – when Unitarians say ritual they tend to mean doing something other than the hymn sandwich format – but the usual church service is a ritual too, just one of a different kind. Going to the pub together, washing the dishes together, being on committees, doing the garden, fixing the chapel door, the Women’s League, Bright Lights, chatting over coffee after the service – all of this creates community. There’s always more that we can do, but we’re doing pretty well – let’s not forget that.

One of the most moving expressions of Unitarian community is the flower communion, first devised by Norbert Capek in 1920s Czechoslovakia. At this point in time it was dangerous and radical to be a Unitarian, and by actually saying that you were one, you risked persecution. So taking part in the flower communion at that time meant that you were willing to risk persecution for the sake of the beloved community. (I would like to thank Andrew Brown for this insight, as I got the story of the origins of the flower communion from his blog.) The other significant and moving thing about the flower communion is that each person brings a different flower, and someone else takes that flower home with them. This symbolises celebrating diversity and learning to live with other people who are different from us – in other words, true community.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Spring Equinox

(An address given at Notte Street Unitarian Church, Plymouth, 21 March 2010)

Many cultures celebrate the Spring Equinox.  In the Jewish tradition, it is the moment when the presence of God, the Shekhinah, entered into creation.  The Shekhinah is traditionally represented as feminine. According to the feminist Rabbi, Jill Hammer:
In the Jewish calendar, the first of the month of Nisan is the beginning to spring, and falls close to the spring equinox. It comes halfway between the playful holiday of Purim and the festival of Passover, when birds are beginning to sing and warmth and growth are beginning to take hold. The first of Nisan is one of the four new years of the Jewish calendar, marking the “first of the months” (rosh chadashim), or the beginning of time itself. Nisan is also the date when the Shekhinah first appeared within the mishkan (Divine dwelling-place. It is the moment of the descent of the Divine into the world—the budding of divinity within creation. If Tu B’Shevat represents the Divine sap flowing within the world, the 1st of Nisan is the moment when that sap bursts forth in new buds. The new revelation of the Divine is paired with the new life and beauty that appears in the spring. Within two weeks, the full moon festival of freedom, Passover, will arrive.
An important aspect of Shekhinah theology is the idea that the Shekhinah is separated from the Godhead, and it is human effort that will bring about their reunion. The human effort to reunite them involves all Jewish couples making love on the Sabbath eve, and the practice of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, and other mitzvot (commandments).  The idea behind Tikkun Olam is that the world is damaged and must be repaired, and it is the exercise of human love (in all its forms) that will bring about this restoration, and the reunion of the immanent and transcendent aspects of the Divine.  It is also about the restoration of harmony and balance.

Both Taoism and Paganism emphasise the dynamic balance in Nature between growth and decay, darkness and light, yin and yang, male and female, expansion and contraction.  Balance is not just a steady-state, but a dynamic equilibrium. New birth is balanced by death; growth is balanced by decay, light and activity is balanced by darkness and rest. If everything grew and expanded all the time, there would eventually be no space in the world for new growth - the old growth would block out the light.  So death and decay and darkness are not evil, but necessary components of the natural processes of life and change. The darkness is necessary for rest, growth, and regeneration. Death is not evil, but a necessary adjunct to life. If there was no death and dissolution, there could be no change or growth. The cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is part of the dance. Suffering is also part of the process of growth; just as a tree is shaped by the wind, we are shaped by our experiences. It is only by experiencing suffering that we acquire sufficient depth to know the fullness of joy. It is then that the full light of consciousness dawns in us, and we achieve mystical communion with the divine.  But we cannot connect with the divine by stressing about it, but rather by relaxing and finding the inner stillness and space that is already there. All we have to do is to remember who we really are; to reconnect with the ebb and flow of the cycles of life.  Everything is cyclical – the seasons, the tides, the orbits of the planets – why not human life?  But it is not just a ceaseless round of the same old things, repeated ad nauseam.  Everything changes; everything is always becoming something else; nothing is ever lost.

With all this talk of balance being a natural thing, it might be easy to conclude that we can just go with the flow and all will be well. But what if the flow is out of balance?  Then we might have to go against the flow.  Andrew Pakula recently wrote:
There is also a big problem with going with the flow. The flow is all too often in the wrong direction. The flow may be away from our vision of how the world could and should be and against what is best for each of us. The flow is leading us toward selfishness. The flow is leading us toward a lonely detached kind of fierce individualism. The flow is leading us toward environmental catastrophe. The flow is leading us toward an increasing separation between the rich and the poor.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said "...there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted." He was reminding us that we can get accustomed to injustice and inequality. We can contribute to the negative things in our world just by 'going with the flow'. 
Because human society is somewhat divorced from nature, we cannot assume that it functions in the same way as nature. Human society is constantly being tinkered with by people who do not necessarily have the best interests of people or the ecosystem at heart; they may be motivated by corporate greed, a desire for self-aggrandisement, or other murky motives.  So the flow that is created by actions motivated by greed does not seem likely to create a just and humane society, or a society where everyone's rights are respected and diversity is celebrated.

Another aspect of balance is being able to see others' points of view.  This is the Unitarian practice of tolerance: to try to enter into others' perspectives on life, even when we disagree with them. As Cliff Reed writes:
The values underpinning the Unitarian movement have to do with mutual caring and mutual respect. They involve a readiness to extend to each other a positive, involved and constructive tolerance. They are the values of a liberal religious community that honours individuality without idolising it; of a community that finds spiritual stimulation in the unique contribution of each person while feeling itself united by a bond too deep for words.
So here we have a balance between community and individuality; a way of understanding ourselves as part of a community without sacrificing our individuality. But what does tolerance mean?  Does it mean putting up with other people's views, without challenging those we disagree with? Or does it mean entering into dialogue with them, and trying to understand where they are coming from? Real tolerance cannot mean just putting up with or ignoring someone else's views. It means, among other things, not removing the speck from someone else's eye while ignoring the plank in your own eye. If someone in the community holds views that I consider immoral (such as homophobia), I have a responsibility to engage them in dialogue, because if I remain silent, I am complicit in their prejudice; but my challenge to their views should be delivered in a compassionate way that takes into account their reasons for holding such a view; and I should also be prepared to be challenged by others on views that I hold.

Trying to achieve balance is also a fruitful way of resolving moral dilemmas.  In his excellent book Godless Morality, Richard Holloway points out that moral dilemmas are not usually about a conflict between good and evil, but between two conflicting goods.  The dilemma presented by the issue of abortion is a conflict between the need to prevent harm to the mother (who may have been raped, or whose quality of life could be significantly decreased by having a child) and the potential for the foetus to have a life. These two goods need to be weighed carefully to discover which takes priority at any given stage of the pregnancy.

Similarly, the rights of the individual are in balance with his or her responsibilities.  The idea of inalienable human rights is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on 10 December, 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. These rights include freedom of religion (a right dear to Unitarians, who only won it in 1813 in Britain); freedom of speech; freedom of association, and so on. But as citizens, we also have responsibilities: to vote, to resist tyranny, to live sustainably, and so on.

So we do need to be active in maintaining the balance, not merely passive. We need to engage in Tikkun Olam, the restoration of balance and the practice of social justice, which is an integral part of many religious traditions, and a perennial concern of Unitarians. It is a way of restoring balance – caring for the poor and the oppressed, protecting the environment, standing up for human rights, and promoting freedom, peace and justice.  Indeed, we cannot really claim to be mystical or spiritual unless we put compassion into practice by helping others.  The two aspects of religion go hand-in-hand: without a sense of connection to others, there is no basis for compassion, and without the expression of compassion in the form of caring, the mystical experience can be barren and unproductive.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Embracing darkness

There's only one thing that annoys me about Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist theology. In fact, it really really bugs me. It is the use of light as a symbol for good, and darkness as a symbol for evil. Clearly Unitarians and UUs have inherited this from the Christian tradition, and failed to examine what's wrong with it.

In my hymn Freedom, Love, Reason, I wrote:
When reason sings in harmony
With intuition's tune
And light the darkness shall embrace
In deep soul alchemy
Then shall the Earth with freedom ring
The third line means, "when light shall embrace the darkness" but I had to invert it to fit the metre. It certainly does not mean that light will light the darkness.  It means that the conscious mind will embrace and accept the Shadow, bringing unconscious and repressed aspects of the self to the surface and working with them.  We descend into the darkness to find the lost treasure – creativity, and memory, and dreams.

In an address about Samhain and All Hallows, I wrote:
Pagans do not see darkness and death as evil, but as part of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. If there was no death, there would be no growth, no change, and no birth. If there was no darkness, the seeds could not gestate in the warm darkness of the earth; if there was no night, there would be no sleep, and no stars and moonlight. If there was no winter cold, there would be none of the beauty of autumn, the seeds would not germinate, and germs would not be killed by the frost. Darkness is the Yin spoken of by the Taoists – one half of the divine dance of the cosmos.
In another address on Darkness and Epiphany, I wrote:
Fear of the dark is civilisation's fear of the forest and the wilderness. The denigration of the dark is one of the foundation stones of Western civilisation and even the Enlightenment – so it is difficult to unravel it, to find out where it came from.

It is the connection of darkness with the feminine, nature, and wilderness that gives us the key to explain why it is so denigrated for most of Christian history. In patriarchal culture, the assertive female is regarded as dark, dangerous and malevolent, and characterised as a witch.

When we say that darkness is evil, we create a split in ourselves, for we consist of both light and dark aspects. Carl Gustav Jung (the psychoanalyst) said that the psyche consists of Anima, Animus, and Shadow – the Shadow being the unconscious aspect, the parts of ourselves that we fear and repress. We need to bring these into the light in order to transform them into healthy aspects of ourselves – not slaying the monsters, but harnessing their power to work for good.

When we say that darkness is evil, we project that idea onto others – the terrorist, the witch, the deviant, the stranger. Racism and sexism and homophobia have their roots in this fear of the other, the fear of our own unconscious impulses that we project onto others.
There are many positive things about darkness, and they are celebrated in many different spiritual traditions. Darkness is the time when contemplation and meditation are most effective; it is a time of intuition, inspiration and communing with the inner reality. The darkness of God is a metaphor frequently used by mystics to describe the unknowable and ineffable aspects of the Divine. So please, stop denigrating darkness!

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Eden: the buried treasure

This is the book that Peter Godfrey referred to in his sermon the other day - I want one.
The myth of Adam and Eve is of a rise into wisdom and not a fall into Original Sin. This is the theme of an excellent book by a Unitarian, Eve Wood-Langford, entitled Eden: The Buried Treasure. In 'A Free Religious Faith. The Report of a Unitarian Commission' [Lindsey Press 1945], Eve read a reference to the Eden myth as an account of a process 'out of which have arisen all the distinctive achievements and possibilities of human life.' Eve says that this 'was a revelation: buried in the garden was an inspirational meaning having nothing to do with original sin, or a fall into shame and disgrace, but something quite opposite. From that moment I wanted to know how, why, when, where and by whose actions this unforgettable myth became misinterpreted'. Eve's answers to these questions makes fascinating reading. Eden - The Buried Treasure may be obtained from Amazon.

Monday, 15 February 2010

What is liberal religion?

What is liberal religion? Some have derived the word religion from the Latin word religare, to reconnect; others have derived it from relego, to re-read. I like both these meanings, as the first implies compassion and connection, and the second implies the living of the examined life, the interpretation of experience, and the pursuit of knowledge. Religions have been compared to languages, in that they are embedded in particular cultures; even when a religion claims to be universally applicable, it is still modified by each new culture that adopts it. A religion is a set of shared practices, values and narratives that make the world meaningful for its adherents. Most of the world’s religions are not based on shared beliefs in the same way as Christianity, but rather on a shared worldview.

Even in the traditions that have codified beliefs that their adherents are supposed to subscribe to, individual interpretations of their creeds can and do vary wildly. Many Liberal Jews are atheists. Also, Jews (Orthodox and Liberal & Reform) say that there are many different interpretations of the Torah - they really enjoy debating them in the schul / yeshiva attached to the synagogue. In Christianity, there are 17 different models of the Atonement, and in practice, individual believers do not all believe the same things, even if they pay lip service to the idea that they should do. Even though Islam has a fixed set of beliefs, there's still room for interpretation of the Qu'ran. Surprisingly, the word fatwa means an interpretation or an opinion. So if you are unsure about what to do about a particular thing, you go and ask a mullah or a qadi for an interpretation of the Koran. So it is not assumed by most Muslims (except Wahhabis) that there is only one possible interpretation of the Qu'ran. (Personally I'd just do as I saw fit.) Even in evangelical Christianity, there are a variety of opinions about being gay (there was a study of this by Kirsten Aune, a sociologist).

There is religion as it's officially supposed to be according to the doctrine of the tradition in question; and then there's the reassuringly messy, fuzzy and human way that people actually do it. The problem is that no-one apart from liberal religionists will actually admit that the fuzzy messy human way of doing it is actually the best way.

In liberal religion, where the "divine" is usually viewed as immanent in the world, or as so diffuse that it's not a person, the source of authority is viewed as the self (as in one's conscience) and not a "higher power". Fundamentalists and orthodox types believe that God is the source of moral commandments. I do not believe this. There's an excellent book by Richard Holloway called Godless Morality which explains exactly why God being the source of moral commandments can't possibly work even if you actually believe in God (which he doesn't). The reason is this: because we cannot be sure what "God" wants, or even if s/he exists, we cannot claim in our moral pronouncements to speak for God. If two people both claim to be doing what God wants, but do exactly the opposite, how do we decide between them? By using ordinary evidence, reason and compassion to decide.

Many Unitarians prefer to emphasise shared values as the basis of religion, rather than shared beliefs. I think this is an important feature of Unitarianism, and is what holds it together despite the diversity of beliefs within it. It is there from the earliest beginnings of Unitarianism, in Francis David’s famous saying “We need not think alike to love alike”, and the tolerance of different beliefs is the basis from which our core values of freedom, reason and tolerance gradually emerged.

For myself, I see liberal religion as spirituality practised in community. Spirituality is another concept that is difficult to define, but I regard it as a sense of mystical connection with the universe and all beings within it. In feeling this sense of connection, we experience compassion for the sufferings of other beings, and empathy with their joys. We can enhance this sense of connection by finding a community with whom we can practice compassion and mindfulness; if we don’t engage in spirituality in a community setting, it can become self-centred and shallow, disconnected from everyday reality. We need the experience of actually living and sharing with others to enable us to grow and become our authentic selves. This can be done by the creation of a community of shared values, which models in microcosm the desired qualities of human community. Of course there will be conflicts and tensions, but it is in how these are resolved that the real values of the community will be tested and refined. It is only by this kind of radical openness and humility that the beloved community can become strong and genuinely inclusive.

I believe that the religious life is a shared spiritual journey towards greater communion with the cosmos, where Spirit descends into matter rather than escaping from it – but this communion does not involve the effacement of individuality; rather it is the celebration of diversity and the quest for authenticity, because the "divine" (the vision of ultimate worth) is the potentiality of all life to share in mystical communion. But we must expand our compassion to all beings, not just to those whose values we share, and we do this by engaging in social action – caring for the poor and the oppressed, protecting the environment, standing up for human rights, and promoting freedom, peace and justice.

Fundamentalist religion is often the cause of compassion being withdrawn from people whose beliefs are not shared. My ethics trump religion every time. I left Christianity when I was 15 or 16 because huge swathes of it conflicted with my ethics (it was homophobic, sexist, anti-life and believed that the only way to salvation was through Jesus' death on the cross — there are huge ethical problems with all of that). I left Paganism when I realised that it was in conflict with my ethics. I would do the same with Unitarianism if it was in conflict with my ethics. I am sure that not everyone feels this way, but I know a lot of other people who do.

Indeed, we cannot really expect others to be convinced that we are "mystical" or "spiritual" unless we put compassion into practice by helping others. The two aspects of religion go hand-in-hand: without a sense of connection there is no basis for compassion, and without the expression of compassion in the form of caring, the life of a mystic can be barren and unproductive.

Note: By "mystical" and "spiritual", I do not mean anything supernatural - I mean a passionate, poetical sense of communion with all that is. I know that atheists are capable of mysticism - e.g. Richard Dawkins describes a mystical experience he had in the introduction to The God Delusion.