Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Then sings my soul

O Universe! When I in awe-struck wonder
Consider all the beauty of the earth,
I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,
The nebulae where stars are come to birth;

Then sings my soul, o Universe, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, o wondrous mystery,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze;


When I behold the wondrous evolution
Of diverse forms, adapted to their place
And know that life, arisen from the ocean
Can love and laugh, and move with fluid grace


And when I die, and pass into a memory
I know that all my molecules shall be
Part of some life, some bird or flower or tree
For life is change, and death's a mystery.


And life goes on, in all its splendid rhythm
And love is all the grace we'll ever know
Death yields to birth, and so the wheel turns always:
Love turns the wheel, and makes the dancers go.


(pantheist version by Yvonne Aburrow)

(tune and original words)

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

What to call you?

Mother Spirit, Father Spirit, where are you?
In the sky song, in the forest, sounds your cry.
What to give you, what to call you, what am I?

Norbert ńĆapek
So who or what is "God"? For me, the Divine (as I prefer to refer to it) is not a person, not a thing, and probably not an energy. For me, the Divine is an experience.

In Pagan religions, deities have specific names. Some people regard them as energies, some regard them as archetypes; some regard them as individual people. This gets complicated by issues like whether Odin and Woden are the same person. And then what about Thor, Perkunas, Jupiter, Taranis, or even Yahweh - they are all thunder gods, but maybe they are distinct from each other (they certainly are culturally distinct).

In monotheist religions, there are plenty of arguments about whether the "one true god" (TM) is the same as someone else's "one true god". Are the gods of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism the same? What about Brahma in Hinduism? What about the Spirit of Life worshipped by many Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists? How far does your concept of "God" extend? If it does not include other deity-forms, should you enlarge your concept? Desmond Tutu has recently written a book, God is not a Christian, making the point that Gandhi's God is the same as Tutu's God.

When I address the Divine in a Unitarian service, I am not addressing Yahweh, or the god of Abraham, Jacob et al (except insofar as subsequent tradition has identified that view of the Divine with the ultimate divine source); I am addressing the Neoplatonic Divine Source, which as far as I am concerned precedes and transcends all other deity-forms.The divine source can be addressed in many ways: "Spirit of Life", "Source of All Life", "Ground of All Being", "Genderless Engenderer", the Tao, "Mother Spirit", "God", "Goddess", "Divine mystery at the heart of all that is" etc. There is even a Unitarian hymn addressed to the God beyond God. These kind of terms can include pantheists, "soft" polytheists, polymorphists, monotheists, theists, Unitarian Christians, non-theists, atheists, agnostics, and maybe a few other theological positions I haven't thought of.

In all of this, I try to keep in mind that the Divine does not exist; it is existence itself, and it's not a person or a thing, but an experience.

I would not use Pagan deity names when leading a prayer in a Unitarian service, because it's not part of the tradition, and because many people join Unitarian churches because they want to get away from viewing the Divine through the lens of personality, whether it's the personality of Jesus or the personality of a Pagan deity. And also, I think it would be difficult for some Unitarian Christians if prayers were addressed to Pagan deities. However, I have addressed prayers to the Shekhinah (the Jewish name for the feminine Divine presence), and read Thunder, Perfect Mind (a Gnostic hymn to Sophia).

I have privately communed with Pagan deities in a Unitarian service from time to time, when I was not leading the service. But mainly, I like the fact that Unitarian liturgy addresses a vague and undefined Divine mystery, and not specific deity-forms. I do think it is important to include feminine imagery as well as masculine and gender-neutral imagery, though.

Does it matter? I hear you ask. Well, it matters to me what I am talking to; and it matters to others, too. I think it is all too easy for people from a monotheist tradition to gloss over these differences.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

What is truth?

Truth is a much-debated concept.

There is (presumably) an objective underlying reality which is the same for everyone. But perspectives on it, and perceptions of it, differ.

Psychologists talk about qualia: sense perceptions which we know have an objective referent, e.g. what red looks like, what celery tastes like. But we can never be sure if another person's experience of qualia is exactly the same as ours.

The universe is infinite and we are finite (located in a particular place and time). So our perception is local and finite. That includes our idea of God. Hence the story of the blind men and the elephant.

So, we don't automatically know what the truth is about a lot of stuff, apart from obvious physical facts, such as seeing one person kissing another. We see them kiss, but we don't know their motivation for doing so. Perhaps even they are not fully aware of their own motives, though they are aware of most of them, and have a reasonable idea of each other's motives, and whether the kiss signifies a romantic relationship, or something else.

When looking at a theory, physicists and mathematicians use its beauty and elegance as a test of its truth.

Science, of course, uses the scientific method to find out whether something is true or not. The scientist carries out an experiment which either confirms or denies the hypothesis. This works well for statements which are falsifiable (can be confirmed or denied through experiment), but not for ones which aren't.

So given that we can't know everything, how do we ascertain what is true?

Even when you accept the doctrines of a religion, there must have been something about them that made you decide at least some were true and you would trust the rest. (It is worth reading Godless Morality by Richard Holloway on this issue.)

So, one can look at the intentions behind a policy or practice or belief, or its effects, to decide if it is valid.
One can look at the internal consistency of a set of beliefs: do they contradict each other? Do they follow logically from their starting premise?

We can also look at their external consistency: do they contradict known facts about the world? Are they consistent with other religions and philosophies? Example: a religion must have a theology to account for other religions (and in my view, preferably not that all other religions are inspired by the devil).

Different types of truth:
  • objective fact, something actually seen; 
  • something taken on trust, because we know the methods by which it was discovered, e.g. molecules;
  • metaphor and analogy: a good description or model; 
  • mythopoeic truth - something that rings true; a mythological story that conveys something about human nature or the way the world is. It is not literally true, but it rings true.
  • qualia;
  • finite and infinite perspectives.
There ought to be different words for these different types or levels.

I find the Greek for truth interesting and poetically apt: aletheia. The opposite of oblivion.

Wittgenstein said "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). Even if one cannot remain silent, one should be aware that conclusions reached are provisional and transitory. That's why the Dalai Lama said that if science proved that reincarnation does not exist, he would stop believing in it.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Lent and Borrowed

Many people are now celebrating Lent, a period of time commemorating Jesus' sojourn in the wilderness before starting his public ministry.

In some ways, his time of testing in the desert resembles a Native American vision quest.

The traditional Western Christian practice during this period is to give something up, usually a luxury. It is a period of penitence.

Pagans and Unitarians have always been a bit suspicious of the notion of penitence - especially when Christianity is so fixated on sexual sin. But perhaps we do need a time of self-audit.

Maybe there is a period in the Pagan wheel of the year, or in more traditional festivals such as those celebrated by Religio Romana, when a period of self-examination would be appropriate. After all, Pagan ethics is all about the cultivation of virtues, rather than the following of commandments, so sometimes the garden of virtues might require a little weeding and pruning. One possible Pagan festival that might serve our purpose here is the Roman festival of Tacita (18 February), sacred to Tacita, goddess of silence and the halting of unfriendly speech and hostile tongues. Just the thing for the internet generation.

Unitarian Universalists have suggested the idea of trying to develop a spiritual practice during this time, or to engage in social justice work.

Danny Crosby has a wonderful reflection on Lent, using a Native American story to illuminate the whole concept.

Alain de Botton, in Religion for Atheists, points out that one of the useful things about religion is that it puts dates in our calendars to remind us to focus on specific aspects of life. I would suggest that Lent is an example of this, in that it reminds us to prune back on excess (whether excess busyness or excess consumption).

I have often joked that I celebrate the festival of Borrowed, but I have just realised that this could be taken seriously to highlight the idea that we do not own the Earth and its finite resources, we only borrow them, and share them with all other life. We would do well to remember this, and to build in times in our lives when we cut back on the excess.

A friend of mine has given up Facebook for Lent - which is an excellent idea, but I just can't quite manage it. So instead I have resolved to slow down and take some time for meditation every day.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

 ~ Rumi

Source: Panhala

Today this poem speaks to my condition. Someone on Facebook (a complete stranger on a friend's comment thread) said something about me that I found really offensive, and I got quite angry. I might reach a place of forgiveness later, but I'm not there yet. This poem might help.

Update: just received a message from the person. Feeling slightly less cross.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Universalism ancient and modern

The earliest form of universalism was universal salvation or apocatastasis (literally 'restoration to the primordial condition') proposed by Origen and others. This was the idea that all would ultimately be reconciled with God, because just as the universe emanated from God, so it would ultimately return to its source, and nothing would be rejected in that final taking-up. This view had its origins in Stoic thought and the idea of cosmic cycles of creation, destruction and re-creation.

The restoration of the world to a primal condition (a sort of prelapsarian unity with the Divine) is also found in Jewish thought, where humanity can participate in the process of restoration by performing acts of kindness (tikkun olam). In the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), the equivalent Hebrew word has the sense of the return of captives and the restoration of Jerusalem.

In Christianity, apocatastasis came to mean universal salvation, but discussion about it was complicated and incomplete. An anathema was pronounced against Origen's thought at an ecumenical council in 553, but traces of this thinking was found in other early fathers. The extent of salvation varied even in Origen's writings.

Other writers who embraced this view included Johannes Scotus Eriugena, who was an early medieval philosopher who also pointed out that God does not exist, because God is existence, and that communion is a symbolic act.

After the Reformation, the Arminians emerged as a distinct group among Protestants. Arminians rejected the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (the idea that only the elect, those chosen by God, would be saved) and embraced the idea that all who turned to God would be saved - so not actually universal salvation, but a universal offer of salvation. The early General Baptists were mainly Arminian in outlook (and indeed so are modern Evangelicals).

The Universalist denomination (which initially formed based around the belief that salvation applied to everyone unconditionally) existed in both Britain and America, but it was largely absorbed into Unitarianism. Several Unitarian churches started life as Universalist churches.

According to Wikipedia:
Christian Universalist ideas are first undisputedly documented in 17th-century England and 18th-century Europe and America. Gerrard Winstanley (1648), Richard Coppin (1652), Jane Leade (1697), and then George de Benneville in America, taught that God would grant all human beings salvation. Those in America teaching this became known as the Universalists.
 The Glasgow Universalist Church was founded in 1804 by Neil Douglas (Christodoulou, 1997) and had its roots in the Chartist movement. It was the first church in Britain to ordain a woman, Caroline Soule, in 1880. The General Baptists also largely embraced Unitarian views, and the General Baptist Assembly still exists as a distinct body within the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian churches.

Gradually, the Universalist denomination in America came to embrace universalism in its wider sense, that is the idea that all religions have an underlying universal theme; this idea was also known as the perennial philosophy, which was the title of a book by Aldous Huxley, but the term has gained wider currency to mean the inner core of spiritual truth found in all religions.

An attempt to create a universal religion (atheist, secular and scientific) was made by Auguste Comte in the eighteenth century. This is described in a chapter in Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists. Comte called his religion the Religion of Humanity, and it was influential in the development of modern humanism.

There was also a Druid form of universalism (which was more like the Perennial Philosophy). The earliest Druid revival groups were trying to get back to the primordial religion, which was believed to be a form of the ancient Hebrew religion brought to the British Isles by the Phoenicians. Pagan ideas were not really part of the Druid revival till the 20th century.

In 1961, the Universalist church in America merged with the American Unitarian Association to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Prior to that, there was significant cross-fertilisation between Unitarianism and Universalism. One instance of such cross-fertilisation was the ministry of Kenneth L Patton. Patton started as a minister in the Disciples of Christ church, was then the minister of a Universalist congregation, and then of a Unitarian church. He was a religious humanist and his spirituality celebrated being alive, human, and the Earth and Nature. He was one of the editors of the 1964 UUA hymnbook, Hymns for the celebration of life, which includes several pieces of liturgy that he wrote.

Another modern proponent of universalism (in the sense of all religions sharing a core truth) was Forrest Church, who came up with the beautiful image of the cathedral of the world, which was an image to express the underlying sanctity of all religions, and their different perspectives on the holy.

One thing to be careful of when embracing universalism in the modern sense, is that a pick and mix approach to religion can be confusing and miss out the subtle nuances of different spiritual traditions. Each religion is like a language, rooted in its own culture, time and space. So perhaps a motto for universalists ought to be "Think global, act local". Acknowledge that the same light illuminates us all; that there is a universal truth; but there is not a universal religion, and that one's own beloved tradition has grown organically in its own particular culture, and that is good.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Contemplative prayer

"When you pray, rather let your heart be without words than your words without heart." ~ John Bunyan
"Prayer, springing from a deep place in the heart, may bring healing and unity as nothing else can." ~ Quaker Advices and Queries
"To navigate this ancient way of prayer is to “put out into the deep,” as Luke says, let down our nets for our catch. Paradoxically, we discover that it is we ourselves who are caught and held in this net…" ~ Martin Laird
"What awakens in this awareness is the sanctity of the other, and to see how all things are reflections of this mystery that we call God. We’re simply one with all that is, the way that God is one with all that is. And the illusion that we can possibly or have ever been separate from God falls away." ~ Martin Laird
"When you are praying, do not shape within yourself any image of the Deity, and do not let your intellect be stamped with the impress of any form; but approach the Immaterial in an immaterial manner, and then you will understand." ~ Evagrius Ponticus
"The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao" - Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching
“Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him.” ~ Thomas Merton
“If a man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit.” ~ Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
“But there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.” ~ Thomas Merton
“When we are alone on a starlit night, when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children, when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet, Basho, we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash - at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the "newness," the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, all these provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.” ~ Thomas Merton

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

For my beloved

I wish I could swim in the sea of our love once again
But Time will not turn back,
and neither will you,
so I would be swimming upstream,
against the tide that is carrying you away
to other lovers, other seas.
May you have joy in those unknown waters.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Seven Jars of Gold

This is a story from Northern India, which I heard at a Unitarian service today, and liked.

A barber, who was passing under a haunted tree, heard a voice say, "Will you accept seven jars full of gold?" The barber looked around, but could see no one. The offer of seven jars of gold, however, roused his cupidity and he cried aloud, "Yes, I shall accept the seven jars." At once came the reply. "Go home, I have carried the jars to your house." The barber ran home in hot haste to verify the truth of this strange announcement. And when he entered the house, he saw the jars before him. He opened them and found them all full of gold, except the last one which was only half-full.

A strong desire now arose in the mind of the barber to fill the seventh jar also; for without it his happiness was incomplete. He therefore converted all his ornaments into gold coins and put them into the jar; but the mysterious vessel was as before, unfilled. This exasperated the barber. Starving himself and his family, he saved some more amount and tried to fill the jar; but the jar remained as before. So one day he humbly requested the king to increase his pay, saying his income was not sufficient to maintain himself on.

Now the barber was a favourite of the king, and as soon as the request was made the king doubled his pay. All this pay he saved and put into the jar, but the greedy jar showed no signs of filling. At last he began to live by begging from door to door, and his professional income and the income from begging all went into the insatiable cavity of the mysterious jar. Months passed, and the condition of the miserable and miserly barber grew worse every day. Seeing his sad plight, the king asked him one day, "Hello! When your pay was half of what you now get, you were happy, cheerful and contented; but with double that pay, I see you morose, careworn and dejected. What isthe matter with you? Have you got 'the seven jars'?"

The barber was taken aback by this question and replied, "Your Majesty, who has informed you of this?" The king said, "Don't you know that these are the signs of the person to whom the Yaksha consigns the seven jars. He offered me also the same jars, but I asked him whether this money might be spent or was merely to be hoarded. No sooner had I asked this question than the Yaksha ran away without any reply. Don't you know that no one can spend that money? It only brings with it the desire of hoarding. Go at once and return the money." The barber was brought to his senses by this advice, and he went to the haunted tree and said, "Take back your gold, O Yaksha." The Yaksha replied, "All right."

When the barber returned home, he found that the seven jars had vanished as mysteriously as they were brought in, and with it also had vanished his life-long savings.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Towards a theology of prayer

I am currently reading the excellent A Book of Pagan Prayer by Ceisiwr Serith.

The prayers in it are wonderful, and I shall certainly be using them for my own spiritual practice. I'd like to thank Ceisiwr for reclaiming prayer as a Pagan spiritual practice.

However, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the theology of prayer expressed in the opening chapters. To me, the deities are fluid, changeable, and not necessarily real. I tried to regard them as real and it only led to heartbreak and craziness.

Spirits of place are real, because our interactions with place are real. Mythagos appear and disappear as mind interacts with the land. (A mythago is an entity that emerges from the interaction of psyche and landscape; the word was coined by Robert Holdstock.)

So, my theology of prayer is that when we pray, we are communing with our innermost depths, which connect with the Divine within us. Such prayer can be wordless, or involve very few words; it may focus on an image, or the land itself. It moves beyond desire on the part of either the Divine or the one who prays, to a communion between the two. When we pray for other people, we hold them in our minds in a loving way, focusing on the idea that we all "live, move and have our being" within the Divine (this was originally a pagan concept). So we commune with them at the level below individual personality, in the collective unconscious.

As the Divine has many forms and faces, I think Pagan prayer can remind us of this, and also of the sacredness of the Earth, and the immanence of the Divine in the world. The only God I really believe in is the NeoPlatonic Divine source, which is manifest as the universe itself, Deus sive Natura - Spinoza's God. And then I perceive it as feminine, i.e. the Goddess. I like the idea of a deity that both includes and transcends all genders -- but I respond most to Goddess-talk.

I think contemporary Pagan spirituality would be deepened if Pagans started to pray; and if we extended our understanding of prayer beyond petitionary prayer (which has always been dismissed by Pagans as "passive magic" - and rightly so, in my opinion) towards contemplative prayer - which is losing the ego in contemplation of the beauty of the Divine.