Saturday 25 February 2012

Are you a Christian? Gandhi, Jesus and Professor Dawkins

My sister contacted me the other day to tell me that she and my mum had been arguing over whether or not I was a Christian. She wanted me to settle the argument, to answer whether or not I was. By the way she contacted me by text, so my answer had to be brief. I said “well it depends what you mean”. She replied a little later to say “well we’ve stopped arguing now and have both agreed, that you are an awkward bugger”...well at least they’d stopped arguing about me, I thought.

No doubt the conversation had been kick started by the findings of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. During last year's census it conducted a survey on religious attitudes in Britain. It found that only 54% identified themselves as Christian, compared 72% in 2001. Almost three quarters who described themselves as Christian said they did so because they were born into the faith rather than it being their current belief. Only a third believed that Jesus was physically resurrected and that one in five did not believe in the resurrection, even in a spiritual sense. Almost half did not believe that Jesus was the son of God, while one in twenty five of those who declared themselves as Christian did not believe he existed at all.

The findings have concluded that most people who identify themselves as Christian turn out, when questioned on what they actually think, to be overwhelmingly secular in their attitudes on issues ranging from gay rights to religion in public life. It concludes that these people who identify as Christian are not actually Christian at all. The report triumphantly heralds the end of faith in this country and the victory of secularism.

During a a recent conversation on Radio 4’s “Today Programme”, between Professor Dawkins and Rev Giles Fraser, the former Canon of St Paul’s, Professor Dawkins announced triumphantly that an “astonishing number (of Christians) couldn’t identify the first book in the New Testament. In Professor Dawkins view people who identified as Christians and yet were not fully conversant with the bible and did not follow and subscribe to the teachings and or doctrines of the church were wrong to do so. Rev Fraser questioned these conclusions claiming that people had the right to identify as they saw fit. There then followed a brief interchange...

Rev Fraser: Richard, If I said to you what is the full title of “The Origin of Species”, I’m sure you could tell me that.

Prof Dawkins: Yes I could.

Rev Fraser: Go on then.

Prof Dawkins: On the Origin of Species...uh...with, oh God, On the Origin of Species. There is a sub-title with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.

Rev Fraser: You’re the high pope of Darwinism...if you ask people who believed in evolution that question and you came back and said two percent got it right, it would be terribly easy for me to go “they don’t believe it after all.” It’s just not fair to ask people these questions. They self identify as Christians and I think you should respect that.

I heard an awful lot of hysteria from all sides during the debate over the findings of Professor Dawkins foundation. I occasionally heard a little sense. My favourite quote came from Linda Woodhead, a professor of Philosophy and religion at Lancaster University. She said:

"There's nothing new in Richard Dawkins's findings about the British way of being religious. But it's always good to be reminded of the findings of a poll commissioned by his Foundation for Reason and Science: that most of us are not "true believers" in either religion or in secularism and that Britain is neither a religious country nor a secular one, but an interesting mix of both. That doesn't make us muddled, or woolly, or confused – it just makes us British."

 “It just makes us British” I love that.

What has always troubled me about the fundamentalists either of religion or secularism is that they believe that they have the right to define what makes a person a believer or not. I find such positions arrogant. Who decides whether a person’s is a believer or not? Who has the right to set the boundaries? Of course no one is immune from this; I know I’ve done it myself. I could be accused of it in a previous blog (naughty me).

Anyhow I'd just about given up on them all when something remarkable happened, during a debate between Professor Dawkins and the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams at Oxford University. The two men politely discussed “the nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin”. They also touched upon the meaning of consciousness, the evolution of human language and the Arch Bishop’s beard.

For most of the discussion the Arch Bishop quieltly listened to Professor Dawkins explanations of human evolution and said that he was inspired by the elegance of explanation for the origins of life and agreed with much of it. Professor Dawkins told the Arch Bishop "What I can't understand is why you can't see the extraordinary idea that life started from nothing - that is such a staggering, elegant, beautiful thing, why would you want to clutter it up with something as messy as a God?" Dr Williams replied that he "entirely agreed" with the "beauty" of Professor Dawkins argument but added. "I'm not talking about God as an extra who you shoehorn on to that."

And the something staggering happened, Professor Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100% certain of his conviction that there is no creator. At this Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: "Why don't you call yourself an agnostic?" to which Professor Dawkins answered that he did. To which the flabbergasted Sir Anthony replied: You are described as the worlds most famous atheist." Professor Dawkins went on to say that he was "6.9 out of seven" sure of his beliefs that the probability of a supernatural creator is very low.

Later the Arch Bishop said that he believed that human beings had evolved from non-human ancestors but were nevertheless “in the image of God” and added that the explanation for the creation of the world in the Book of Genesis could not be taken literally. Stating that “The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, they were nonetheless not inspired to do 21st Century physics,” he said.

Sanity at last after a week of madness. The God of surprises does indeed appear to be alive and well and at work in the most remarkable of places. I do wonder though if some people will now accuse Professor Dawkins of not being a proper Atheist and if others will claim that Dr Williams is not a proper Christian...I wonder what my sister and mum think...

We have now entered into the season of Lent, perhaps the most important period of the Christian calendar. For many Lent is about giving things up, it is about self sacrifice. It is about that central religious message of self giving love.

According to the Biblical accounts at the beginning of his ministry Jesus is “led by the spirit” into the wilderness, a place of transformation and temptation. He is taken to the pinnacle of the temple and to the top of a high mountain. Here he is offered the world, but rejects the allure of an easier showier more obvious path. Instead he chooses the road less travelled, the heroes path.

This is a universal tale; many of the great sages went on similar journeys, before embarking on their missions to heal their people. The Buddha had to leave the comforts of home, abandon his weeping family, shave his head and don the robes of a world renouncing ascetic when he began his journey to discover a cure for the pain of the world. Long before his revelations Muhammad use to retreat to Mount Hira, outside of Mecca, where he fasted, performed spiritual exercises and gave alms to the poor. He did this in an attempt to discover a remedy for the troubles of his time. When Ghandi began his mission he left the comforts of the elite in which he had lived his whole life and travelled India carefully observing the plight of the ordinary people.

During their own times in the wilderness the great sages found their answers. Through taking the road less travelled, the hard road, the difficult road, the answers came to them. They discovered the knowledge they needed to impact positively on their people in their time and place.

This is the spiritual life in its essence. It is often the hardest most difficult path and it can certainly appear to be the loneliest. That said it is the one where the answers are usually found.

Now none of these meanderings answers my sisters initial question I know. I promise I am not being evasive. I’d like to explore one of the more recent great sages Gandhi and his relationship with Christianity and specifically Jesus in an attempt to answer her question.

Gandhi saw Jesus as an ideal Satyagrahi, which is resistance to evil through soul force . Gandhi studied the Bible everyday for years and was greatly impressed with the New Testament particularly “The sermon on the Mount”. Like many Hindu’s it was the gentle figure of Jesus that he admired, who taught his followers not to retaliate and to resist violence. For him it was not the historical event of Jesus that mattered, but what the example of the message of his life had to offer humanity.  For Gandhi Jesus exemplified what it meant to serve your fellow humans and saw this as the guiding principle of his life. He saw the cross as being the perfect example of this sacrifice. 

He said:

 “Of all the things that I have read what remained with me forever was that Jesus came almost to give a new law – not an eye for an eye but to receive two blows when only one was given, and to go two miles when they were asked to go one...The message of Jesus as I understand it is contained in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole...If then I had to face only the sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I would not hesitate to say, “oh, yes, I am a Christian.” But negatively I can tell you that in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount...I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity as it is understood in the west.”

Gandhi saw Jesus as the example to humanity, for Gandhi he pointed the way to liberation through self giving love. He believed that within all of us is this impulse for compassion and that this spark of divinity will one day burst into full flower and that Jesus was the personified example of this to every person. As he said “I believe that he belongs not solely to Christianity, but to the entire world; to all races and people, it matters little under what flag, name or doctrine they may work, profess a faith or worship a God inherited from their ancestors.”

So to answer my sisters question as to whether or not I am a Christian my answer is still the same, “it depends how you define Christianity.” For me, like Gandhi, Jesus is the example of self giving love that I aspire to. If being a Christian means following Jesus as the example to humanity then I am a Christian; if it means that I have to believe in the teachings of the established church then I am not. I am sure that by the definition of the fundamentalists of Christianity or Secularism then I am not. That said I do believe in the Jesus that Gandhi held up as the perfect Satyagraha. I see him as the embodiment of self giving love, as the example to us all. That said I do not see him as the only one, many of the great sages have also shown the way too and I also see those same heroic figures in my world today. We are all capable of being them.

Lent for me is about attempting to practise this in my life day by day. It’s not about giving up sweets or chocolate etc, it’s about giving of myself to life each and every day in whatever small ways that I can. It’s about practising non-violence not only with myself but others too, it’s about facing up to my own demons, those within and those without and about attempting to build the commonwealth of love here on earth. It’s about self transcendence; it’s about the full realisation of the truth that it is giving that we truly receive and that it is in these moments that we can know God.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Wilderness: A Lenten Reflection

This is a story from the native American, Comanche tradition, “She-Who-Sits-Alone”.

A terrible time once befell the Comanche people. It was a time of drought. The land was dying and the people were dying too. In their despair, they called upon the Great Spirit.

“Great Spirt,” they implored, “our land is dying and our people are dying. How have we angered you? Bring an end to this drought and save your people, for soon there will be nothing left alive.”

And so they prayed, and they danced. They waited, and they prayed. But no rain came. And the little ones and the old ones suffered, and no one knew how to end the suffering.

But there was one small girl who had not yet died of hunger. Her name was She-Who-Sits-Alone. Sitting alone, she watched her people pray and dance, and she held her beloved doll in her arms. The doll was her ultimate companion, her second self, dressed in its warrior clothing, with a bone belt and beaded leggings, and bearing the feathers of the blue jay on its head.

She-Who-sits-Alone watched, with her doll, as the elders went to the top of the mountain to receive the wisdom of the great Spirit. Several times did the sun rise above the mountain, and several times did the light fade behind the mountain’s bulk before they returned. On the mountain top, the people gathered round to hear the message of the Great Spirit, and this is what the Great Spirit said to them:

“For many generations, the people have taken from the earth whatever they needed and wanted, but they have given nothing back to the earth. Now the earth is in distress, and the people must make a sacrifice. They must bring to the fire of sacrifice their most treasured possessions. The ashes of the sacrifice must be scattered to the four winds. When this has been done, the rains will come and the earth will live again”

The people gave thanks and then returned to their teepees to search out their most treasured possessions.

“surely the Great Spirit does not want my bow,” said the archer. “Nor could the Great Spirit possibly desire my treasured blanket,” said the mother.

“I know that the Great spirit could not be asking for my herbs,” said the medicine man.
And so it continued. Everyone had a reason not to give the Great Spirit their greatest treasure.
Meanwhile, She-Who-Sits-alone took her warrior doll into her arms, held it tight and whispered, “It is you the Great Spirit desires. I know what I must do.”

So that night, when everyone slept, She-who-sits-alone threw off her sleeping blanket and climbed to the top of the mountain, carrying her warrior doll in one hand, and a lighted stick from the campfire in the other. When she reached the mountain top, she spoke to the Great Spirit.
“Great Spirit,” she said, “here is my warrior doll, the gift of my mother and my father before they died, and my most treasured possession. Please accept it,” As she kindled the fire, she wept, and she remembered her parents and grandparents and friends who had died of hunger, and she thrust her doll into the flames.

Soon the fire died down. She gathered the cooling ashes and cast them to the four winds. Exhausted, she lay down on the mountain top and fell asleep.

When the rising sun kissed her awake the next morning, she looked around, dazed. There, where she had offered her sacrifice, lay a shinning feather of the blue jay. And as she knelt to look more closely, the first drops of rain caressed her face.

From then on, She-Who-Sits-alone was given a new name by her grateful people. she became known as One-Who-Loved-Her –People.

Today marks the beginning of Lent. Lent reminds us that there are journeys we all have to make in life; physical journeys, spiritual journeys. Some journeys we can share with others, but other journeys lead us into the wilderness alone.

The New Testament accounts tell us that Jesus was baptized in the river Jordon. At that very moment the heavens opened and he heard God accepting him as “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

You would have thought that this would have been a moment to savour and enjoy; a moment to soak up this incredible realisation; a moment of total bliss and happiness, but it wasn’t. Instead what happens is that he is led “by the spirit” into the wilderness to be tested. There is no time to rest on his laurels and enjoy this moment of connection and wholeness. For some reason Jesus had to immediately live out his calling, rather than sit around and enjoy his moment of blessing.

This journey that was forced on him was not a pleasant jaunt through the Cheshire countryside, like I have begun to enjoy in my time living in Altrincham, it was not a saunter through Dunham Park. It was in no sense a picnic or walk in the park. Instead he spent forty days enduring extreme deprivation and confrontations and endured a great deal of self examination. The Biblical accounts describe him being tested by the devil, by temptation. He suffered greatly and he struggled with this suffering and he suffered alone. His solitary struggle to remain true to his covenant and his calling echoed those of his ancestors who had spent forty years in the wilderness establishing a religious community after they had escaped the Pharaoh and Egypt.

Jesus and his struggles are a great metaphor for our common human experience. Entering into a time of wilderness is something that every person’s soul must journey through. At some point we all have to leave our childhoods behind and enter into adulthood. We cannot live in our childish Eden forever, we are all cast out into the wilderness at one point or another. We gain knowledge of life and when we do, this hurts. So what do we do? Well we discover the resources that we need in order to live, or we flounder.

I have experienced this sense of being cast into the wilderness many times in my life. Sometimes I have risen to the challenge and overcome the obstacles, sometimes alone and at other times with friends. On other occasions I have not. I have run away and I have hidden from whatever life has thrown at me, thus destroying my “self worth”.

During the last few years I have generally risen to the occasion, less and less do I run from life. This is what faith, the religious life, has given me above anything else. It has given me the strength to be who I am and to live with honesty and integrity. I can look the world in the eye today and say, this is who I am. I do not hide in shame, I speak my truth in love. I no longer need someone else to define who I am. That is the power of faith!

The journey into the wilderness reminds us that we are alone and yet we are not alone. Neither are we where we have been or where we are going to. The time in the wilderness is a time of danger and possibility, a time of risk and a time of promise. While we wander in the wilderness the spirit may well descend like a dove and lift us up on its wings of hope and then drive us down into the depths of despair. It may affirm us with gifts of grace and then challenge us to change. In all the great religious traditions of both the east and the west this journey into the wilderness represents a time when we both pursue and resist the Holy.

I love the following poem “A Journey” by Edward Field

When he got up that morning everything was different:
He enjoyed the bright spring day
But he did not realise it exactly, he just enjoyed it.

And walking down the street to the railroad station
Past magnolia trees with dying flowers like old socks
It was a long time since he had breathed so simply.

Tears filled his eyes and it felt good
but he held them back
Because men didn’t walk around crying in that town.

Waiting on the platform at the station
The fear came over him of something terrible about to happen:
The train was late and he recited the alphabet to keep hold.

And in its time it came screeching in
And as it went on making its usual stops,
People coming and going, telephone poles passing,

He hid his head behind a newspaper
No longer able to hold back the sobs, and willed his eyes
To follow the rational weavings of the seat fabrics.

He didn’t do anything violent as he had imagined.
He cried for a long time, but when he finally quieted down
A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open,

And at the end of the ride he stood up and got off that train:
And through the streets and in all the places he lived in later on
He walked, himself at last, a man among men,

With such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered.

The poem portrays that sense of letting go of something at the end of the journey and how this is often a struggle, to open up the clenched fist. How even at the end of something when we are about to release these pent up emotions, we can often still be afraid of how vulnerable and exposed we can appear to others. I love and identify strongly with the man hiding behind his newspaper before he is able to allow the tears to roll from his eyes.

“He hid his head behind a newspaper

No longer able to hold back the sobs, and willed his eyes
To follow the rational weavings of the seat fabrics.

He didn’t do anything violent as he had imagined.
He cried for a long time, but when he finally quieted down
A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open,”

Powerful imagery

In the story “She-Who-Sits Alone” has to go up the mountain top to let go of her doll. The rain fall, like tears on her face, only comes at the end of her journey. Jesus, of course, often went away from his people to commune openly and honestly with his father.

I have had similar experiences myself. I often go away on my own, either in the countryside or sometimes in the chapel to have those private moments, and I live alone. I do sometimes experience them while walking in a busy bustling street, but it rarely feels appropriate; I am still haunted with the age old saying “boys don’t cry” One of my demons.

This time in the wilderness is meant to be seen as one of purity, that is why one element of Lent is this idea of fasting, of giving something up. It is of course worth noting that virtually every religious tradition throughout human history has a period of fasting. There is value in this cleansing purifying commitment. It’s not just about food though, that is symbolic.

This time in the wilderness is not only a time of purity of letting go of things it is also a time of self sacrifice. Lent has a double meaning, it is about purification of the self and self sacrifice, universal religious principles. In the story “She-Who-Sits-Alone” is prepared to give up her doll her most prised possession, given to her by her now dead parents. She calls this doll her second self. She gives up this doll as she wanders into the wilderness and to the top of the mountain and sacrifices it. She falls asleep and when she awakens she finds the feather of a Blue Jay, just like the one that had sat on her dolls head. The rains soon follow, falling on her face, like tears, which save her people. From that day she becomes known as One-Who-Loved-Her –People. It is important to realise that she does not give her life, only her prized possession, this is because she loves her people more than her doll, her other self. Her people are more important to her than herself identity.

Most of us though cannot do what “She-Who-Sits-Alone” achieved. We are unwilling to let go of those things that we believe define and protect us, remember her doll was her id and it was her warrior too. Most of us are more like the archer, the woman, or the medicine man, unwilling to give up our blanket or bow or herbs, we are human. We believe these possessions identify and protect us.

Jesus, the great example, is difficult for us to live up to. He endured many tests during his time in the desert and was offered many temptations, but he resisted each time. I do not always resist these temptations, but I no longer beat myself up about my imperfections.

I do not think that Lent is asking us to be perfect; it’s a mistake to view it that way. That said it can be interpreted this way and there are real dangers in this. Trying to be perfect can create a paralysing fear that leads us to flee life and stops people doing the simple things they are more than capable of.

I love this line from the song “Purity” by New Model Army.

“Purity is a virtue, purity is an angel, purity is for madmen who make fools of us forgive yourself my friend all this will soon be over what happened here tonight is nothing at all”

This constant gnawing need for perfection, to transcend our humanity does us no good, in fact it can paralysing...I firmly believe in the mantra “progress, not perfection”...progress is tangible...where as perfection is something that seems way beyond my means.

Like everyone I will keep wandering off into the wilderness and experience the pain of battling with my demons. I will give what I am able to give to others too, but I won’t do it perfectly...I do not know what perfection is. That said I will do what I am able to do and perhaps that’s the real message of Lent, to give or give up what you can.

Saturday 18 February 2012

More lessons from Transylvania: Symbols

Transylvanian Unitarian Symbol
During my recent visit to Transylvania I was invited to preach at the anniversary service of our sister congregation of Maros St George. While preparing I was asked to wear a badge depicting the symbol of the Transylvania Unitarians. Tamas, the minister explained to meaning of the images  on the badge. They are deeply symbolic it would seem.

There are four distinct features to the symbol: a dove, a serpent, a mountain and a golden crown. The dove symbolises peace; the serpent symbolises wisdom; the mountain symbolises height; the crown symbolises kingship. It is inspired by a passage from Matthew's Gospel chapter 10 v 16 “Behold I am sending you forward as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be therefore wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” In this passage Jesus is warning his disciples of the dangers that they will face in carrying their message of radical love, to a wounded world. He is saying that they will be no safer than lambs amongst wolves; he is saying that they must employ wisdom in the way they impart this message, in a hostile world.

The Transylvania Unitarians have adopted this symbol because they have needed to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. Throughout their history they have always been a minority group and have faced persecution, from both religious and secular sources because of this. During the sixteenth century the threat came from many sides. Other none trinitarian thinkers of the time, such as Michael Servetus, were burned at the stake for proclaiming their heresy. Somehow the Unitarians in Transylvania survived, some might say miraculously. How did they survive? Well probably because they took head of this simple message, they were as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. A message that they still need to take heed of today.

At the centre of their symbol is a dove, an important image in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It makes its first appearance in the story of Noah’s Arc. Noah sends out a dove to find land, eventually it returns with an olive branch. This symbolises the re-birth of life, something very important to Transylvanian Unitarians. They are very much tied to the ground, to the soil and the cycles of life.

The dove of course is the symbol of peace. A dove is gentle, but only when it is free, when it can fly as it is meant to. A dove can become aggressive if enclosed in a cage. The dove symbolises the soul, our essence, our being. The dove symbolises our soul's need to remain open to all that life offers. We all need the openness of innocence in order to live peaceful, harmless and gentle lives. The dove is standing on a mountain, on solid rock. This symbolises the ethical heights that we need to reach in order fulfil our human potential and appreciate the earth on which we all stand. The rock is also symbolic of stability. To reach our potential we need to stand on solid ground.

I see parallels between the soaring of the dove to the top of the solid mountain and the chalice symbol, that identifies Unitarians globally. The flames of the chalice reach out beyond the cup of love in which the fire is set. This reminds me of the words from that beautiful Unitarian hymn "Spirit of Life"

The serpent symbolises wisdom. In the bible it first appears in the story of Adam and Eve. It reveals the forbidden knowledge of life and death. For this the serpent is cursed to sneak around on its belly near to the rocks. The wise serpent lives close to the water, the source of life and for this it is respected by people of desert cultures. They consider the serpent to be very wise indeed.

When we think of serpents or snakes we think of danger. Some can be venomous and can kill, but their venom can also heal. The serpent is indeed a source of life and death; it does carry the knowledge of life and death and it is of course the gaining of this knowledge that leads to the loss of innocence.

In the Transylvanian symbol the serpent is in a cirlce, a ring. This symbolises eternity, and the continual rebirth of life. As they say in Transylvania “life is eternal and the soul is invincible, we can be reborn every day” The dove stands within the circle. The wisdom of the circle protects the innocence of the dove. The message is to remain wise and innocent in order to live a full life.

There is a golden crown at the top of the Transylvanian symbol. This is the crown of the only Unitarian king in history John Sigismund, who by signing “The Edit of Toleration” in Torda in 1568, gave Unitarians protection. This meant that they were not wiped out as they were in other parts of Europe.

The crown is no ordinary crown, it is golden, it symbolises the God or Goddess, the creator of the universe. It also carries the message of infinite and perfect happiness, a goal worth striving for; it is a source of aspiration for the Transylvanian Unitarians. They believe that we can all be kings and queens, that we can all wear the crowns.

What a powerful image this Transylvanian Unitarian symbol is. It teaches that we can all reach the summit of the mountain and wear the crown of happiness. A difficult journey no doubt, but one worthy of taking. It also teaches that we can attain this if we are wise enough to remain innocent and aspire to that perfect happiness.

I learnt a lot in Transylvania
Our lives are surrounded by symbols. Symbols are far more than pictures; they carry a story within them that is bursting to be let out. The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich talked extensively about symbols. He believed that they were more than simply signs pointing somewhere; they also possessed, within them, an element of qualities that they were pointing to. The purpose of the symbol is to open us up to deeper levels of reality that cannot be grasped by other forms of communication. They therefore reach the parts that words alone cannot. They enable us to connect to an ultimate reality (his name for what religions call God). They are seen as a window to a transcendent reality, rarely touched. The symbols are of course not the reality itself, just as the word describing it is not the reality either. They do though reveal something of this greater reality, that is called God.

The Transylvanian Unitarian symbol describes almost perfectly the soul of those beautiful people that I spent a short time with, last Autumn.

As a student minister I spent a year at the Unitarian Chapel and One World Centre in Oldham. Outside the chapel is a sign. It reads, “open to all who wish to worship with an open mind, in a spirit of freedom, reason and tolerance. We do not hold the same beliefs; rather each person is encouraged to develop his or her faith in a continuing search for truth.” I believe that this speaks powerfully and coherently to the Unitarian tradition that I am a part of.
The Unitarian faith is ever evolving, as all life is evolving. It has its roots in the Liberal Christian Tradition, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus. Our symbol, the chalice 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 our imaginations. So while we are rooted in the Liberal Christian tradition we have evolved beyond this starting point and embrace truth from a myriad of sources. 

A flame burning in the cup of love is deeply symbolic of the roots from which we were formed, but the flames seem to indicate something more, something eternal, something way beyond the limits of human vision. I see parallels with both the dove and the serpent and that golden crown of the Transylvanian symbol here. There is freedom in the flames, there is wisdom yet to be unearthed in those flames and there is that crown that we can all aspire to. I also see the rock on which all this stands; the solid base that sustains us as we reach further, to who knows where.

This is religion in its truest sense, this searching together, this working together, and this giving together. Each individual Unitarian adds to that flame and also takes from it. It is this continual communal search and struggle that is the rock, or the cup on which the Unitarian free religious faith is built. Where this leads, no one can know, certainly not I.

Monday 13 February 2012

St Valentine: Love Hurts

Who was St Valentine?

The truth is that no one knows for certain. It seems that there were several early Christian martyrs who bore the name. The best known and the one who the legend is probably built around was a third century physician priest, who conducted weddings for soldiers in Emperor Claudius II army. The Emperor had outlawed marriage for his conscripts, believing that it made them poor soldiers. Many defied these orders and secretly married, Valentine was one of the priests who conducted the ceremonies. He was eventually discovered and imprisoned for this. While in prison, awaiting execution, he fell in love with the jailers blind daughter who it is said he restored to sight. Shortly after his execution a love letter was found addressed to her, it read “love from your Valentine”. The date was 14th February 269. Two centuries later Pope Gelasius declared 14th February to be Saint Valentine’s day, and Valentine became the patron saint of lovers.

Charles, Duke of Orleans, who was taken prisoner at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, and held in captivity for twenty-five years, was the author of the earliest known written Valentines. He left about sixty of these love poems for his wife.

One of his Valentines reads as follows:

Wilt thou be mine? 
Dear Love, reply.
Sweetly consent or else deny. 
Whisper softly, 
none shall know, 
Wilt thou be mine, Love?
Aye or no?
"Spite of Fortune, 
we may be Happy by one word from thee. 
Life flies swiftly 
- ere it go 
Wilt thou be mine, Love? 
- aye or no?"

The first commercial Valentines card was manufactured in the mid nineteenth century by Esther A Howland and today Valentine’s day is celebrated all over the world. It has become a huge commercial enterprise and like Christmas it appears to have lost much of its true meaning. We can though still discover some of it's magic, if we look beneath the ribbons.

I have a Valentine in my family, My nephew is called Johnny Valentine Budby. He is named after two members of the rock band Electric 6. His older brother is called Joey Ramone Budby. He is named after Joey Ramone, from the punk band The Ramones. Joey and Johnny’s dad Rick has been a drummer in bands for years, he’s an old mate of mine from my past, when I was in bands too. He’s a great dad, although I do wonder about the stick that might come the way of these boys later in life. That said if either become famous, they’ve already got names that belong "up in lights."

On Valentine’s Day we are supposed to express our love for those who we feel passionately about. We are meant to do this publicly, but we are also meant to express the love we dare not reveal, our secret love. The love we dare not name. I’m sure everyone has, at one time or another, either sent or received a secret Valentine’s card.

There seems to be something very painful in all of this. Valentine’s day is really not about flowers and bunny rabbits it would seem. Is Valentine really about the love between two people or is it more about unrequited love? Is it about the light of love, or shadow side of love? Certainly its history, its mythology, is bathed in sadness and pain and loss.

Does Love, as Roy Orbison once sang, hurt?

In Greek Mythology passionate love begins when we are wounded by Eros’s Arrow. This suggests that we must first be pierced by it before we can experience its joy; that we must be opened up to hurt before we can begin to experience love. This message appears to be shared by many of the faith traditions. In Christianity God’s love is expressed through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The classic example in Judaism is Hosea’s continued faithfulness to his cheating wife, a metaphor of God’s faithfulness to his unfaithful people. Examples are found in Hinduism, which depicts Krishna continually returning to fight evil and in Buddhism where the Bodhisattva refrains from entering Nirvana in order to save others. All these positive, beautiful expressions of love are grounded in pain. It would appear that the faith traditions are suggesting that in order to experience the joy of love we must first know its pain..Cupid’s arrow must first pierce our skin before it can penetrate our hearts.

I recently attended the annual interfaith dinner at Altrincham Boys Grammar School. It was a fascinating and joy filled evening, it was great to see people of many faiths mixing and enjoying each other’s company. During the evening I got into conversation with someone at my table who asked me why I’d entered into the ministry? This is one of those questions I never like to answer, mainly because it begins with sadness. As I have expressed before my journey really began as I came to terms with Ethan’s death and witnessed the incredible compassionate love shown by the whole community to his family, in their time of need. The love I experienced through his short life and even through his death is why I entered into the ministry. His life and death changed me. If I had not felt that pain, would I have entered into the ministry? God knows. We do do not get to choose our pain, only our response to it.

I agree with Roy Orbison “love hurts”, however it manifests itself.

The Song of Songs reads:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
   as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
   passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
   a raging flame. 

Can love be as strong as death? Well I believe so. It is love that gives life meaning and purpose, even in its pain. Real love can survive and overcome just about anything, any hurt any pain. When we love someone deeply, we create an eternal bond. This is a spiritual connection in which personal anxiety and pain is dispelled through our relationship one to another.

Victor Franklin in “Man’s Search For Meaning” wrote about his life as a prisoner in the Nazi death camps. He remembered that those who had no connection to people, or hopes or dreams or to God gave up very quickly and died. This he said was because they had nothing to believe in but their own bodies, which were imprisoned; where as those who communed in their thoughts, dreams or prayers with someone or something they loved survived much longer.

Frankl recalls

... We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us."
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth -- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory...."

Frankl later reflected that even if he had know that his wife was dead, their relationship would have been as strong in that moment because the reality that their love created was stronger than death. It was a flame that neither water nor flood nor human frailty could quench. It was a power that could overcome any suffering and sustain him in in what was perhaps the darkest period in human history.

Love, however it may manifest itself, is what gives life meaning. Be it for wife or partner, family, friends, community, life, nature or God, it is the expression of this love that gives life its bliss, even in the darkest of hours.

Happy Valentine's Day. May you know the love that is present in life.