Sunday, 8 July 2012

Did the tortoise really beat the hare? St Batholomew & 1662

The Hare and the Tortoise
Once upon a time there was a hare and a tortoise. The hare liked to run and jump and roll in the flowers. The tortoise stuck to the ground looking always to the front, never to the left, never to the right.
One day the tortoise began to argue with the hare.
"You have no direction. You are aimless. You are wasting your life," the tortoise said. The hare chewed on a dandelion to see what it was like.
"Whereas I on the other claw," the tortoise continued, "have purpose. I have drive. I have ambition." The hare began doing backward somersaults.
"And I can prove it!" the tortoise shouted, getting angry. "We will race through the wood to the river. The first one onto the bridge is the winner!"
And so that's how the race began. All the other animals gathered to watch and the crow, who was a bird and could fly, agreed to be the invigilator. When all was ready the squirrel opened a nut as a starting signal.
"Crack!" The race was on! The hare was into the wood in a couple of bounds. The tortoise moved slowly forward looking always to the front, never to the left, never to the right.
The hare ran halfway through the wood. Then the hare stopped to watch a cobweb dancing in a patch of sunlight. The sound of music drifted by on the breeze. The hare hopped off to investigate. The hare loved music. Music always reminded the hare of food. The hare began looking for some baby grass shoots to nibble. The tortoise continued, always looking to the front, never to the left, never to the right.
The hare found an old, hollow log covered in toadstools. It made a great hide away and for a while the hare hid in it imagining the fox was outside. After that it felt good to jump and stretch, stretch and jump, and jump some more.
The tortoise plodded on looking straight ahead. To the left there was a wild raspberry bush so heavy with fruit that its top was brushing the ground. To the right a fledgling fell from its nest to lie helpless caught in some undergrowth. The tortoise noticed neither.
After the jumping and stretching the hare felt hot and thirsty. So the hare ran to the river and had a drink. Then finding a shady spot the hare settled down for a nap.
The tortoise left the wood and neared the bridge, looking never to the left and never to the right. The tortoise reached the bridge, looking never to the left and never to the right. The hare woke up. The tortoise crawled onto the bridge, triumphant. The crow reported to the animals at the starting line that the tortoise had won. Some of them cheered and then they all went about their business.
When it got dark and there was no one to see the hare as he climbed up carefully from under the bridge and went home. The moon was very beautiful.

Now while it is certainly true that the tortoise won the race did he gain the most from the experience? Did he give most to the experience? Sometimes it’s nice to turn truth upside down and to look at things from an entirely different angle. I'm a great believer in uncommon sense as opposed to common sense. I'm a great believer in seeking truth rather than just accepting what I am told is true, without question...
I recently enjoyed a trip to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. It is an incredible place, full of the fineries of life. In the middle of my meanderings around the vast rooms I entered the chapel area. Towards the back of the chapel and just in front of the alter stood a dark looking figure, a statue. In one hand it seemed to be holding what looked like some kind of blanket or cloth and a in the other some scissors. The figure intrigued me, so I looked a little more closely and searched for some information about it. I soon found it.

The sculpture is called “Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain” it is a bronze figure standing two and half metres tall and is the creation of the controversial Turner prize winning artist Damian Hirst. He says that the inspiration for the piece “comes from memories I have of woodcuts and etchings I remember seeing when I was younger. As Saint Batholomew was a martyr who was skinned alive, he was often used by artists and doctors to show the anatomy of the human body and this is also what I’ve done. He holds his own skin over his arm and he holds a scalpel and a pair of scissors in his hands so that his exposure and pain are seemingly self-inflicted. It’s beautiful yet tragic and like Saint Sebastian his face shows no pain. I added the scissors because I thought Edward Scissorhands was in a similar tragic yet difficult position – it has a feel of the rape of the innocents about it.”

The 24th of August is St Batholomew’s Day. On this day in 1572 there was a terrible massacre of defenceless Protestants in France. This became known as “Black Batholomew’s Day”. The Great ejection of 1662 is also sometimes referred to by the same name. Unitarians and other “dissenters” are currently commemorating the 350th anniversary of this event. It was really the starting point of denominational non-conformity in England, from which the Unitarian and Free Christian tradition, to which I have chosen to belong, has developed. Next Saturday in Knutsford we Unitarians, from the Manchester District Association, will be re-enacting the events of 1662.

On St Bartholomew’s day 1662 The Church of England was reconstituted under the Act of Uniformity. This meant that every clergyman in the land would be expelled from his charge if he did not declare assent to everything contained in the revised Book of Common Prayer. Also anyone who had not obtained Episcopal ordination during the period of the Commonwealth was commanded to obtain an oath of canonical obedience. Many refused and as a result 2000 clergy were expelled from the church.

St Batholomew’s Day 1662 is regarded as the “Genesis” of English descent and it is from this refusal to subscribe to the book of common prayer that the seeds for the Unitarian denomination were sown. I believe that this principle of non-subscription is the central characteristic of the free religious tradition to which I have chosen to belong. To use advertising speak, it is our unique selling point. There is no requirement to subscribe to any pre-determined beliefs and practices to be a member of a Unitarian congregation. Each individual follows the dictates of their conscience in matters of faith.

Now I’m not here give a history lecture, this is not the purpose of this blog. That said it is important to understand the “rock from which we were hewn”. The key to the Unitarian religious path is freedom, freedom to believe as one's conscience dictates, but to do so in community with others who may see things differently. The seat of authority, in terms of religious belief lies within the individual’s conscience and not from other human created authorities. It is always worth remembering that all religions, just as all nation states, are human created. No one set of people are chosen above any others, although many have claimed to be.

I love the re-telling of the famous hare and tortoise tale by Aesop. Now the original moral of the story is “Slow and steady wins the race”. Of course in this re-telling the tortoise obviously still wins the race. He never once takes his eye off the goal he just keeps on taking one step after another without once looking to the left and the right. He reaches his destination well before the Hare does. Actually we are not told if the hare ever reached his destination. He receives a little applause and then everyone just gets on with their business. As somebody once said “Today’s headlines are tomorrow’s fish and chip paper”.

Now while I believe that there is great wisdom in Aesop’s original fable, there is also some wonderful truth to be revealed in this re-telling. The tortoise never once wavers from what he knows to be true; his gaze never deviates; he sees nothing but the finishing line, he keeps his eyes firmly set on his goal on the final destination. Is this the only way to live? Surely by always looking straight ahead we miss out on so much of the beauty and wisdom that is on offer.

It’s the same with truth I believe. How many folk are absolutely fixated on what they believe is true. So much so that they never look to the left or the right and take in what they are surrounded by, for the fear that it might deviate them from their path. I am always wary of absolutist truth claims, mainly because they lack humility. Sadly absolutism seems to be on the increase. We see it amongst the religious and we see it amongst the secular. The voices of intolerance do seem to be getting louder and louder.
The religiously inclined who believe that they have a direct link to God and know not only what God’s will for them is, but also what it is for anyone else appear to me to be suffering from arrogance, from hubris. Who has the right to say that they are chosen above anyone else, come off it?

Sceptics are no better. To belittle someone’s genuine faith by calling it a superstition or merely a crutch is disrespectful. It certainly does not honour their humanity. No one can ever truly know what it is to have walked in another’s shoes, to have lived their life, to have experienced what they have experienced, or to have seen what they have seen. It seems to me that the absolutists whether secular or religious are like the tortoise and are too fixated on their truth, so much so that they cannot appreciate the beauty of the truth that so many others are uncovering and experiencing, while they just stare, half blindly, ahead.

The question I need to keep on asking myself and I think everyone needs to keep on asking themselves is “are we tortoises or are we hares?”

I believe that the faith tradition that I serve is more like the hare. It is a faith that is open and is therefore fed by all the senses, including the sixth one. It is an ever evolving tradition. It is rooted in Liberal Christianity, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus. The chalice symbol exemplifies this perfectly. It is a kind of cross, but an evolving one with the flames reaching out much further to a place way beyond any human imagination. So while it is rooted in the Liberal Christian tradition it has evolved beyond this starting point to embrace truth from a myriad of sources. That flame burning in the cup of love, the cup of sacrifice is deeply symbolic of the roots from which it has grown or from the rock from which it was hewn. The flames seem to symbolise something more too, something eternal, something way beyond human created earth bound limits, religious or secular.

It is said that we shall know the truth and that the truth will set us free. If this is true then surely it is everyone's task to seek that truth and to share that truth and set one another free. Our vision should never be limited by what is directly in front of us. Why you may well ask? Well because we will miss out on so much if it is. We will not see the whole truth, so how on earth could we then hope to be free?

Did the tortoise really win that race?

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