Friday, November 23, 2018

Reflections on "A New Mecca"



The following words are a slightly extended version of the words I spoke as part of a performance event called “A New Mecca” marking the eightieth anniversary of the opening of the Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff on 23rd November 2018.

If there's one thing that struck me about the opening ceremony of the Temple of Peace in 1938 is that it's basically a Christian service. There's Bible readings and there's prayers and there's hymns. It's a perfect example of what we call Christendom – where church, and state power, and culture are seen as being in alignment: one God, one power, one empire, one culture, one story.

Of course it was never that simple, there were always different realities, different stories. But only one story got told. When this place was opened – this was the one story that they told.

Eighty years later that reality has been fractured. Some may regret it, but the truth cannot be denied. And today some of us look back with a degree of discomfort at that Christian service in a “secular temple” - that story is not our story, it's not our reality. We find ourselves in a post modern, post colonial, post Christendom reality where other stories get told, and the Christian narrative has been de-centred, de-throned.

I am a Christian minister, but I rejoice in this de-throning because I believe Christians are at their best when they embrace the margins, and at their worst when they align with power. Christendom corrupted genuine Christian faith.

So I don't want to be in this place out of assumed privilege of imposing a Christian narrative onto people of all faiths and none. Nor do I want to in any way “represent” Christianity – as being a radical heretical Unitarian Christian, most Christians do not even recognise me as a real Christian in any case. But just for a little bit I want to occupy the space between 1938 and 2018, and work as a little bit of a translator, and interpreter, and just a person thinking out loud about the contradictions and ironies and ambiguities. Because there's something a bit weird and ambiguous about this whole thing. Is it a temple or a church? Is it secular or religious? Does it look to the past or the future? Is it about Welshness of Britishness or internationalism? Who is it for? Who does it belong to? And how does 1938 relate to 2018?

This is just some of the discomfort and the ambiguity I experience in looking to 1938 – looking at that opening ceremony and Christian act of worship:

“O God our help in ages past” was sung, an old old hymn but one now generally associated with Remembrance Sunday. The line “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away” envisages originally only the natural passage of time, but as people lost their sons through the unnatural horror of war, these words took on a new meaning. War like an endless steam-roller, stole all our sons away.

One prayer offered in 1938 was “O God Who has made us members of this Empire, and bound us together under one King, unite us we beseech Thee, by the spirit of Jesus Christ which alone can make this Empire and the whole world one.” There's an irony there I think as I rather think the “spirit of Jesus Christ” was doing the opposite. Gandhi, though of course a committed Hindu, was at least partially inspired by the example of Jesus, and was in 1938 working through nonviolent direct action for the independence of India – for the disunity of the British Empire. Jesus, of course, was killed for the same crime. Crucifixion is the punishment for the crime of sedition against Empire.

In 1938 a reading was taken from the Hebrew prophet Micah, “and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks” - a prediction, or perhaps only a hope, of peace. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, I can't help also thinking of other words from that great tradition of Hebrew prophets. I think of the prophet Jeremiah, who many centuries ago had an impeding sense of war, “My anguish, my anguish!I writhe in pain! Oh the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.” Jeremiah criticises his leaders for saying “peace, peace,” when there is no peace, when war was coming. In Jeremiah's time, as in 1938, there was an impending sense of the doom of war, and an awareness that just talking about peace, was not going to create peace.

And the words of the prophet Amos:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The radical message is that God hates worship, ceremony, ritual, if it is only that, and is not part of the project of letting justice and peace “roll down like waters.” There it is in the Bible – God reserves the right to hate “solemn assemblies” to hate worship, to hate religion.

The God I know doesn't always show up at the solemn assemblies, at the posh dos with the lord mayors and archbishops. That voice is often heard in the margins, in those voices that are most silenced. Mrs Minnie James, a mother of three killed soldiers, opened the temple, but the words she used were written by men.

I'm reminded of the tradition of Mother's Day in the United States. An entirely independent tradition to British Mothering Sunday, American Mother's Day was begun as a Mother's Day for Peace in the late nineteenth century by Julia Ward Howe. She wrote an “appeal to womanhood throughout the world” after the American civil war, later known as the “Mother's Day Proclamation.” Those mother's voices were not heard in 1938, but perhaps we can hear them now.

Arise then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of fears!
Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, Disarm!” The sword of murder is not the balance of justice! Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, and each bearing after her own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Believing in God is totally nuts

It seems to me that believing in God is totally nuts.

I mean, it's totally nuts, isn't it? It sort of surprises me that "religious" people don't admit this, but talk like "oh yeah, this religion stuff totally makes sense, how silly to be an atheist."

But it really, absolutely doesn't make sense. I mean, "religious" people talk like there's this person in their life, who's in charge, and who has plans for them, and who they love, yet there's no one there. I mean, obviously there's no one there. This person is invisible and can't be seen or heard, you can't point to them, and say "there they are, let me introduce you to my friend God." There's no one there to be introduced to, no one to shake your hand, not a human, not an anything.

It seems to me that any person who is not insane has to admit that this is true. Trying to say, "oh no, you see, it's really logical to believe in God, and here is why" and then presenting some kind of philosophical argument is just missing the point. And is never going to convince anyone. Because you're talking like there's this person there, and there isn't, and that's just nuts. 

Some people might be convinced of some kind of Creator Intelligence (but not many), a very few really intellectual people might accept some kind of deeply philosophical definition of God. Some accept some very metaphorical and poetic definition. But these kinds of things really don't have much to do with the Living God that is worshipped and prayed to by believers.

It seems to me that the only intellectually honest thing to do is to say, "I know this sounds totally stupid, but I have discovered (and I am not the only one) that there is this quality of internal experience that feels like the presence of a living Someone." That is what I would say. In the depths of inner silence I encounter a Presence that feels like a Someone who loves me. Not only that, but the more I lean into this Presence, the more I trust them, and talk to them, and talk as if they are a real person in my life the more it feels like they are there, and they do love me, and the more I discover an inner sense of joy and peace.

Now, if I was the only one who felt this way, I would probably think there was something wrong with me. But guess what? There are millions (billions?) of people who feel pretty much the same, today, and in the past. Not only that, but we have discovered that if we lean in together to this Presence we discover something even deeper - a power that binds us together more deeply and commits us to live our lives more fully.

And yes, it's not always as simple as I've made it out here. Sometimes you lean in and the Presence doesn't feel like they are there. Sometimes it feels like Absence. And communities committed to being in the presence of the Presence are often deeply frustrating places that are dysfunctional and sometimes forget what they are there for. But there is enough of a scent, of a whiff of this divine reality that it (for the most part) seems to kind of work, if you keep coming back every week and every day.

In an ordinary way, I know, I know, it really doesn't make sense. And I can totally understand why someone would think this sounds like bullshit. I think that half the time too. But it really is true what Blaise Pascal once said, "Earthly things must be known to be loved; Divine things must be loved to be known." There is this quality of internal experience that leads you to God, it's not all thunderbolts and visions, but just a quiet deepening sense. And it really doesn't make sense unless you experience it yourself. But my belief is still that this is possible for every person.