Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Youness of the Universe

Image: Karl Stapelfe/ESA/Hubble, NASA
This is the fundamental insight of religious theism: that the reality we encounter when we encounter reality most powerfully is a Someone, is a "you". This is the insight that the universe has a quality of "youness" to it. 

While other religious (or nonreligious) approaches may encounter an "it", the theist encounters a "you" - a "you" that we label as "God". There seems to be no way to judge the truth of an approach that finds a "you" versus an approach that finds an "it", and that might be a very fruitless thing to try to establish. But I think it helps to clarify this difference.

What theistic practices of prayer are designed to do is to open you up to a real-life encounter with the "you" - the "you" that is always and everywhere present and always available, and always seeking relationship. The sure sense of faith that theists rest upon is not some intellectual proof that the universe is designed or created, but that in the encounter of the heart we encounter one is a "you", and fundamentally one who loves. This is the most profound statement given to Moses at the story of the encounter with the burning bush - "I Am What I Am" says the voice - this is the central insight: that the encounter is with a "you" that speaks as an "I". 

We grapple for ways to talk about this, and most of us settle on a language of ecstatic love. The encounter is not observation or the receiving of information or knowledge, the encounter is erotic, bodily, ecstatic, joyous, it is love.

So the way to know God, even if the idea of God makes no sense to you, is to begin to treat the universe as a "you". Once we begin to speak to the empty space, to listen to it, to be in its presence, and to literally say in our minds: "Who are you? What are you? Do you have anything to say to me?" then we begin to hear, very dimly, the still small voice of calm. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

A Method of Contemplation

There are of course many ways to practice meditative contemplative prayer. Many people want to jump straight into silence and mindfulness, but for most people this becomes dry and feels like hard work after a while (if it doesn't for you, great! But I want to talk to those who do struggle). So often there is a need for some scaffolding, some structure of words to hold the deeper silence. I use prayer books by John Philip Newell, who for me offers a poetic language that opens up the heart. Using reading and chanting as punctuation, I use a fourfold method of prayer: intention, compassion, meditation, and communion. 

This is a form of prayer that last for about an hour:


Begin with speaking a written prayer and/or chanting.

Intention: Then five or ten minutes of silence in which you express a desire, an intention, to enter into deeper prayer. You try to open yourself to the divine, but you are also full of forgiveness and love for yourself as your mind wanders. You let is wander if it needs to. Allow yourself to think the thoughts if you really feel you need to process something.

Written prayer/chanting.

Compassion: Then five or ten minutes of prayer for the life of the world. Hold all those you know in need this day, all the suffering of the world, hold it in the presence of God. Again your mind might wander as you think of your friends, your family, and the state of the world, but try to bring the attention back to God.

Written prayer/chanting.

Meditation: Then ten minutes of mindfulness meditation. You sit with your mind on your breathing, your body, listening to the Universe/God all around you. Many people practice breath meditation, but I find listening works best for me. I listen to the sounds of the room: traffic, the ticking of a clock, a dog barking. Don't analyse these sounds, don't think about them, just purely listen with as much attention as possible. You can begin to realise in this that you are within a whole body, the body of the universe, the earth, and you are part of it. You in a womb listening to the heartbeat of your mother's body. You are intimately connected and held in the body of God/Earth.

Written prayer/chanting.

Communion: Finally speak intimately with God, express your desire to be close and connected, to be filled with love, or simply rest in the silence of God's peace. Five or ten minutes. 

Brief song or spoken blessing to end.  

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The revolution that nearly happened

 



I recently found something out that astounded me. Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, and Thich Nhat Hanh were supposed to go on a retreat together in 1968. This was scheduled and the only reason it didn't happen was the assassination of King on 4th April 1968.

This astounds me because I feel like that retreat might just have been the start of a revolution, a spiritual revolution that might have transformed the world. 

Here were three men: one white, one Asian, one black; one Protestant, one Catholic, one Zen Buddhist; two American, one Vietnamese (at the height of the American-Vietnamese war). Sure, they didn't represent all the diversity that exists on earth (they were all men for a start) but there was significant diversity there.

But also significant unity. Here were three men all committed to radical activism as well as spiritual practice - to a vision of spiritual activism that I genuinely feel could have transformed the world (and might still do). These were three men who knew we needed to transform the heart, purify the soul, to create a revolution of love that might just save the world.

And so in a sense it's not surprising that King was killed to prevent this revolution from happening, as was Merton soon after (probably by the CIA). I think political forces of darkness absolutely saw how revolutionary these men were, and put a stop to this happening. 

But I keep imagining - what would have happened? I would love to see someone write a play based on this retreat that never was - to show King, Merton, and Hanh sitting in silence together, eating together, and sharing their words on peace, justice and prayer. I so long for that play to exist. Please make it exist someone!

Although this realisation for me is kind of tragic, it is also kind of hopeful, because I feel like we were that close to this revolution happening. Three men might have sat in silence together for days and then come into the world more deeply renewed and powerful than ever before (and these were already powerful influential people). I just feel like these men were already spiritual giants, and a united front from them would have been truly truly transformational for the world. From the silence of a hermitage in Kentucky the world would never have been the same again. It was a revolution that so very nearly happened. 

Sunday, August 09, 2020

I'm really tired of negativity

I've got to the stage when I'm really tired of the negativity of liberal religion, defining itself over and against conservative religion. It often feels to me like liberal religion has got nothing to say apart from saying that it is not conservative religion, and that conservative religion is wrong.

For a while this is refreshing. When you move from conservative religion to liberal religion you feel reassured by this. I moved from, well let's say orthodox religion, not necessarily conservative, to liberalism and I needed to be affirmed in that movement. 

But after years (or decades) of this, you look around and ask, "Yeah, but is there anything more to say? To learn? To do? To grow into?"

This came to my mind recently when I was listening to a liberal religious podcast. Someone had written in to say, "I didn't really grow up with any religion. My question is - how can I get to know God?" And the answer of the podcasters was, "Well conservative religion says there's only one way to know God, but that's wrong, and it's not necessarily what conservative religion says about this...." But they didn't really have any positive answer to this question.

I decided at the moment to turn off the podcast and unsubscribe to it (and I've probably been listening every week for five years). Because I'm just really tired of that kind of stuff, it doesn't feed me spiritually, it's not edifying or useful in my spiritual journey. I know what I'm not, I really want to work on what I am. I know what I reject, but I really want to work on what I affirm. I know the spiritual paths I reject, but I really want to work on the spiritual path that I do walk. 

I do know that I am guilty of this too. It's very easy to slip into it as a preacher, to say, "Well, not this, and not that." But I'm going to try to work on this because it's just not good enough, and the times we live in demand more than that. The times we live in demand spiritually transformed people, so I'm going to work on my transformation and the transformation of my communities, there's no time to waste so much energy on the the things that I reject.

I've also been influenced by this article that says:

People also repeat bad ideas when they complain about them. Before you can criticize an idea, you have to reference that idea. You end up repeating the ideas you’re hoping people will forget—but, of course, people can’t forget them because you keep talking about them. The more you repeat a bad idea, the more likely people are to believe it. 

Let's call this phenomenon Clear's Law of Recurrence: The number of people who believe an idea is directly proportional to the number of times it has been repeated during the last year—even if the idea is false.  

Each time you attack a bad idea, you are feeding the very monster you are trying to destroy. As one Twitter employee wrote, “Every time you retweet or quote tweet someone you’re angry with, it helps them. It disseminates their BS. Hell for the ideas you deplore is silence. Have the discipline to give it to them.” 

Your time is better spent championing good ideas than tearing down bad ones. Don't waste time explaining why bad ideas are bad. You are simply fanning the flame of ignorance and stupidity. 

The best thing that can happen to a bad idea is that it is forgotten. The best thing that can happen to a good idea is that it is shared. It makes me think of Tyler Cowen's quote, “Spend as little time as possible talking about how other people are wrong.” 

Feed the good ideas and let bad ideas die of starvation.

So (unless a group is actively doing harm or threatening rights) I'm just going to ignore them. I'm going to try to commit, now, to let bad ideas die of starvation, to ignore conservative religion rather than define myself as being against it. 

I'm starting to hear a little bell go off in my head each time I hear someone criticise someone else's religion, including myself, and I'm going to say, "Ignore it, stop talking about it, move on."

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

My current thoughts about Extinction Rebellion

Obviously there's not been much public activism in the last few months in lockdown. But I'm beginning now to think a bit more about Extinction Rebellion, what I think about it, how I relate to it, and where it's going.

I think a lot about this article that states the tactics of Extinction Rebellion are flawed. Since the 2019 election that seems clearer than ever to me.

The social science behind XR's strategy is that if enough disruption is caused, if enough nonviolent direct action happens, it changes government policy.

But that article shows how that is just not true. The social science research supposedly behind XR's tactics show what mass nonviolent movements can and cannot achieve. They can achieve the downfall of dictators. They can achieve change in one particular area of government policy if governments become embarrassed that the public mood has gone against them. This means that the current Black Lives Matter protests in the States do have a good chance of bringing about major reform of the police (and possibly bringing down the proto-Fascist government). The research fits well with the BLM movement.

But there's no evidence that mass nonviolent campaigns can achieve radical and complex change in democratic western nations. The thing is the climate crisis requires not just a change of government policy, not even just a change of government, but a whole series of complex changes in the very way economics and politics and society functions.

It doesn't seem likely that nonviolent direct action will create that change. This seems especially true after the decisive election of a right wing government. I've been a bit disappointed that I've not detected much change in strategy from Extinction Rebellion during or after last year's election. Do we really think that 2000 arrests, or 10,000 arrests will make Boris Johnson say, "Oh OK then, I will abandon neoliberal economic policy and implement a radical green socialist agenda"? I just don't see that happening, and if it's not going to happen, then why the tactic of mass arrests?

There is an argument of course that we do what is right, spiritually and morally, even if we believe it to be ineffective. We take prophetic symbolic action even though we know we will lose. This is after all the way of Jesus. I get that, and I'm open to it. But the thing is it's not just that XR's tactics are ineffective, it's also that they alienate people. From not sufficiently recognising the racism and violence inherent in the institution of the police to creating actions that primarily disrupt working class commuters XR's actions seem to be turning people against them more than for them.

There are other things as well that I find myself uncomfortable with in XR. Things like a strange obsession with Citizen's Assemblies, which rather than being "here's a good tool we could use in dealing with this crisis" has become the central dogmatic commitment of XR, which I find really strange.

I say all this as someone part of XR right now, and I'm trying to think if I still want to be. This is me thinking out loud.

People will say "it's easy to criticise, but what's the alternative?" and that's a good question, and I'm not sure I have an answer. But that in itself doesn't convince me that there aren't serious problems with both the brand and the tactics of XR.

We do need a mass climate movement. We do need radical action. But I'm wondering out loud if that movement needs to mature beyond XR into... something else? I'm wondering if XR has now grown the climate movement as much as it can now, and at this point has become a barrier to further growth. What does a post-XR climate movement look like?

These are all questions I don't have answers to. But it feels urgent to ask them right now.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Possibilities of a Contemplative Universalism

"This was the attraction, the power, which inwardly affected me, to desire reward for my preaching, in these last days of great tribulation. And my reward is this: that each father and mother of a family, with all the children and domestics, may devote an hour of every day to the Lord our God, in assembling in stillness, side by side, as in the presence of God, and in humility waiting on the inward illumination of the spirit of grace in their hearts."
George de Benneville (1703-1793)
We often ask, "are church buildings necessary?" and in 2020 we have been given a definite answer: no, they are not. At least in extreme circumstances, they are not. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying all churches would be better off without buildings, I'm saying it is very clear today that the core of faith practice is something other than "going to church" because we haven't "gone to church" in four months and we're still "doing faith".

What is becoming clearer to me is that there is a significant need for the transformational practices of faith, though the structures of a previous era means most churches are unable to offer them.

My current thoughts orbit around the need for a practice-based faith. What I mean by that is that churches have defined "success" by the ability to persuade someone to come to a particular place for an hour every Sunday, whereas we should have been more interested in inviting people into daily personal spiritual practice. It is only daily personal spiritual practice that is actually transformational - that actually brings about the growth of the soul, the awakening of the heart. Every Buddhist group I know is really clear about this, and the Buddhist groups continue to grow, while the Christian groups continue to decline because they're not offering this.

I think churches put the cart before the horse. They try to get people to "come to church" and then as an optional extra, if you're lucky, there might be some clues for how to develop a personal practice. Whereas I'm starting to feel like it should be the other way around, that the primary invitation is to spiritual practice, and then the gathered church is seen as the community of people guiding each other into deeper practice. Community is still essential, but it is happening out of a context of commitment to personal practice.

I see the potential for this in Pietist Universalist origins. Pietism was a German Lutheran movement emphasising personal spiritual practice. It was an influence on early Universalist George de Benneville who was born in London and died in Pennsylvania. As quoted above he was interested in promoting daily prayer for one hour every day. This was never taken on as a core practice in the Universalist Church of America, and his style of Universalism, with an emphasis on prayer, mysticism, and visions never became dominant in American Universalism, which became much more an Enlightenment rationalistic faith.

But this might be such a time for a different kind of Universalism, a contemplative Universalism, a de Bennevillian Universalism, a Universalism about the personal and intimate experience of the universal love of God, a Universalism defined by a commitment to an hour a day of spiritual practice "waiting on inward illumination".

What could that Universalism look like? Influenced by the past, but plotting a new course primary rooted in the commitment to a daily personal practice of prayer, could such a Universalism be ready to be (re)born in a such a time as this?

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

We are being led by a deadly political ideology

(Edited on 30th July 2020 to add Newsnight video)

What's becoming clearer and clearer to me is that we're being led by a UK government which has a deadly ideology. Of course that was always true because of the government's criminal inaction on the climate crisis, but the corona virus pandemic has shown it to be true on a smaller scale of this particular crisis.

I think this video of an interview with government adviser John Edmunds is really instructive.


I think the key part of the interview is from about minute 9. At 13.40 he says, "It is hard to imagine we would do that [take restrictive measures] here in the UK.... I don't think anybody looked at it [lockdown]... it was difficult to imagine just how easy the lockdown was... that people actually would go along with it."

In other words we didn't go into lockdown as early as we should have done (which most people seem to be saying now would have cut our death toll by a half, if not three quarters) because of what we believed about human nature. In other words those making decisions thought that people were basically selfish, and would not restrict their freedoms, would not make sacrifices to save lives. Therefore they believed the lockdown would not work.

They were surprised by how much people were prepared to make sacrifices. They were surprised by how good we were because their ideology was based on the idea that human beings are basically selfish.

That wasn't a scientific assessment. It was a theological one. The decision not to go into lockdown earlier was based on a Thatcherite neoliberal ideology that people are basically selfish and want the biggest freedoms to do whatever they like regardless of the consequences. As John Edmunds says repeatedly in that video - it was a failure of imagination. They just couldn't imagine that people would be prepared to make those sacrifices. They were entirely blind to the potential of human nature.

They were wrong. The British public were prepared to make very large sacrifices for the sake of saving lives.

It demonstrates how deadly that political/theological ideology is. It is an ideology that is literally responsible for the death of about 50,000 people in the last few months.

I wonder if we will get a reckoning about this. And if we're prepared to learn the lessons from this crisis, and apply it to the climate crisis.

Video from Newsnight in July 2020 that deals with this:

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

If we want to decolonise the world

If we want to decolonise the world,
we must decolonise our nations.

If we want to decolonise the nations,
we must decolonise our cities.

If we want to decolonise the cities,
we must decolonise our neighbourhoods.

If we want to decolonise our neighbourhoods,
we must decolonise our homes.

If we want to decolonise our homes,
we must decolonise our hearts.


(With apologies to Lau Tzu's (apparent) words)

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Where are our rituals of mourning?

This time is devastating.

In the last few months we've seen at least 40,000 people, and probably closer to 60,000 killed by a deadly virus in the UK. Sixty thousand grieving families. Lives torn from this earth. And those who are mourning are unable to receive a comforting hand on a shoulder, unable to have a hug in their grief.

This is awful. But what is almost as awful is the ludicrously blasé, flippant attitude through all this that has come from government, media, and (by extension, it feels) society in general.

Where is our grief? Where are out rituals of mourning? Where are our sackcloth and ashes?

The Prime Minister should be appearing on TV every night beating his chest and saying, "This is terrible, I'm so so sorry."

Instead throughout all of this we've had this "ra ra, cheer up, let's get the pubs open" bullshit from the beginning from this UK government. It's totally sickening. It's a total denial of an unfolding tragedy of epic proportions.

And it's not just the government, the right wing tabloids and the BBC have been terrible too. What would it feel like coming back form the funeral of a loved one (where no one could give you a hand of comfort), and turning on the BBC to see the top story is people shopping in Primark, and have you have to get to minute 15 or 16 before the newsreader says, "oh yeah, also dozens of people were killed today of this virus." Where is our respect for grief?

If ten people died of a terrorist attack we'd all be shocked and our leaders would be stony faced and serious and we would mourn and commemorate. But 60,000 people die of a virus and we just shrug our shoulders and say, "When are the pubs open?" It really feels like the old adage, "the death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic."

We are profoundly sick. We are profoundly in denial. Our society is profoundly emotionally unwell.

I find it genuinely bizarre. Why haven't we declared a national day of mourning? Why aren't we holding a minute's silence for the dead? We have such massive rituals of mourning for war dead every November. Why are we incapable of commemorating the dead falling about us right now? It must feel so strange to have lost a family member in these months. Because everyone around you is actively trying to deny the tragedy, deny your pain.

Why this denial? I tend to think that it's because grief is too close to anger; that if we get upset, we will also get angry and start asking questions of a government that is undoubtedly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands through serious mismanagement.

But it also points to something that is profoundly spiritually wrong with our society. We have lost any ability to properly deal with death, to properly deal with grief, even when it is as present as it possibly could be (the only way death could make itself more obviously in front of our eyes is if bombs were dropping on us every night,  and yet now double the number of people who died in the Blitz have died of coronavirus).

How can we start to grieve? How can we build rituals of grief?

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Gospel of John is Irredeemably Antisemitic

Christianity started as a Jewish sect. Despite this, or in some ways because of this, there is a strongly anti-Jewish message very early on in Christian history. What started as a debate between different Jewish communities became something different as Christianity became Gentile, and then became an imperial religion with considerably power.

How Christianity shaped European antisemitism is something that Christians needed to seriously address after the Holocaust, and to a certain extent have done, though not nearly enough.

In looking at this many Christians have noted how the Gospel of John has particularly troublesome phrases. There's constant negative references to "the Jews". Even though Jesus and the disciples are Jewish, the phrase "the Jews" always refers to those against Jesus. As I say, this insight is in no way original to me. But I think I've come to the view that the problem is much much worse than most Christians want to admit, because the consequences would be too big for Christianity.

I've come to think that the primary purpose of the Gospel of John is to be an anti-Jewish text. 

Written much later than the other Gospels, John comes from a time when there is a definite Christian split from Judaism, and the author really wants to make the point that God's revelation is now in the path of Christ and not in the Jewish religion. 

I think the key passage is 5:39-40, "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life."

This is the message of the whole of the Gospel of John, repeated again and again.

Think of the famous prologue, "In the beginning was the Word" so adored at Christmas services. But we miss that the whole point of that passage is that, "he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."

And another famous passage: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except by me." What this primarily means is that no gets to the Father through Jewish religion.
God's relationship with the Jewish people has ended. That's what the author wants to tell you.

Throughout the Gospel "the Jews" are the baddies, the ones to be feared, the ones who finally kill Jesus. This is despite the fact all the goodies in this story are Jewish too. And despite the historic fact that the Romans killed Jesus.

I'm not a New Testament scholar (and if you want to direct me to good resources on this, please do) but all this has led me further and further to the conclusion that the Gospel of John is irredeemably antisemitic, and despite being very well written and somewhat beautiful in times in its language, has done more harm than good to Christianity.

It's irredeemably antisemitic. It's the primary source of Christian antisemitism. And that's exactly what it was trying to be.

Let's bin it.

Or at least, let's radically decentre it from Christianity, and only very very rarely include it in worship.*

The good news is the Gospel of John has almost nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth. Almost no words in John's Gospel coincide with Jesus' recorded words in other Gospels, so we must assume were made up by the writer of John's Gospel.

When we exclude John and get our picture of Jesus from Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Thomas then what emerges is a much more compassionate, much more human, much more wise, and much more Jewish Jesus.

It begins to redeem Christianity of its antisemitism. It creates a Christianity that still affirms God's revelation in the Jewish religion, and by extension in other religions as well. It solves a lot of our most difficult theological problems. It makes it harder for people to claim to be Christian while ignoring the needs of the poor and oppressed.

Binning the Gospel of John makes Christianity a lot better. There, I said it.


*The one exception I'd make to this is the story of the woman caught in adultery. But actually that's an "orphan story" that was floating around on its own that later got edited into the Gospel of John. It doesn't really belong there, which kind of reinforces my point.