I have been dipping in to twitter a little of late – I was challenged to try to do a bit of twitter poetry, and so have been dropping in a few lines each day. It is perhaps a futile pursuit, which I may not do for long, but for the first time in my life it has put me in regular contact with the vast seething mess of the twittersphere.
And what a place it is. So much anger. So much righteous indignation. The delight taken in the shaming of other people. But you know all this. You probably stay away for all of these reasons, and I salute you for it.
Of course, even if the platform has an unfortunate way of highlighting the worst of us, it is not all hate and vitriol. Yesterday I read a tweet from author and activist Alistair McIntosh. Here it is;
This, on #TheoryOfChange. Vaclav Havel describes “the pre-political” zone, the work of artists, musicians “or simply ordinary citizens” who refuse to live in the lie and insist on living “within the truth”; the “theatre of the spirit” that transfigures social consciousness.
It his me like an arrow, because I needed it to. I have been feeling very low recently – as I examine myself to try to understand why, I think it comes down to a feeling of pointlessness. I started a spiral which began with seeing myself as over, failed, unsuccessful. This felt true both in a personal sense and more generally, as if the ideals and passions I have lived my life towards are over, done.
At the same time as feeling like this, I was trying hard to look for hope. Perhaps the hold of right wing ideology was starting to crumble? Perhaps we were finally starting to turn towards climate justice and economic justice?
The problem is that for every tiny ray of hope there is so much looming darkness. It can be almost impossible at times like this to dream of things getting better; a lonely and broken place to be; a dark well with few hand or foot holds.
I do not share this account in order to wallow, or to seek sympathy. Many of us go through these times, particularly creative people because the sensitivities we bear are often related to woundedness and this makes us vulnerable. Add to this the overarching historical and cultural context and it can be very hard to keep going, to keep creating, to keep hoping.
Perhaps these things are cyclical.
Every year I plant seeds early in spring, riding the crest of spring optimism. I till the ground, mulch it and trust in future fertility. I thrill to the emergence of green shoots, then carefully and tenderly transplant them to beds inside and outside the polytunnels. I water them and wait in hope and expectation.
Then there are the crops that fail, through slugs or birds or some other mystery. The rain never falls just when we need it, the sun scorches. The cold nights nip and curl the leaves. Weeds start to choke out new growth at just the time when I am busy with something else, so that when I come to pull them out, damage has been done. This year, bumble bees have nested in the best patch of spuds so that I do not harvest them. The big squashes seem slow and the second planting of carrots have not germinated. It all seems hard work and I wonder if it is worth it. The supermarket is not far away, after all.
Then I start to question why I am doing this. I accuse myself of pursuing some kind of middle-class fantasy, preening myself with a coat of green virtue whilst in reality living fully within the norms of an overconsuming and unsustainable society. In the words of Ecclesiastes (ch 1);
Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
My recovery from this kind of cynicism is never complete, but I was also greatly helped by listening to this man again. Brian McLaren was talking about his new book Do I Stay Christian? over on the Nomad podcast. You can listen here. McLaren has been one of the most important thinkers/writers in my life, so it was lovely to hear him speak again, in that way he has, skewed towards kindness. The book deals head on with the problem that many of us have with Christianity- an inability to see ourselves part of what the whole thing has become, alongside a deep yearning for what it might be. McLaren actually says that some people, for all sorts of reasons, need to leave, but he also hopes that those that can will stay and try to be part of the change.
(As an aside, I’m not sure where I fit in to this. Did I leave or did I stay?)
In the middle of this conversation, McLaren made some comments about change, which reminded me of Havel’s comments above. McLaren said sometihng like this; most of the work for change happens before hope has arrived.
In other words, those who work for change do so in spite of hopelessness, and in the very presence of suffocating futility.
It happens in what Havel calls th ‘pre-political zone’, before ideas have become solidified. Before disatisfaction has colectivised into protest. Before fringe activism has beome a movement.
Long before ideals have been made into policy. Long before any solution can be visulised, let along laid down in law.
I have been thinking about this idea of artists, poets and musicians who play within the ‘theatre of the spirit’, and how these murmurings might become the seeds of change.
If this (17 year old!) blog is about anything, it is about a search for meaning. I seldom have any desire to look back at early entries but this seems consistent throughout. Often I have found myself concerned with religion – as a source of inspiration and frustration in equal measure – because surely religion is also primarily concerned with meaning?
But the religion I knew most intimately was not really about meaning – not directly anyway. It was mainly about providing ‘answers’, albeit to questions framed only in a way that we wanted them to be considered. The rest was more about belonging- using the right words and singing the right songs. We were not encouraged to search too far from the fixed tramlines that we were given or to do too much questioning of the certainties that our tradition provided.
Aside from the frustrations that many of us feel about such religious restrictions, there are many problems with this kind of closed-circuit religious thinking, particularly in a changing world dominated by problems that our old doctrines either provide no answers to (such as climate change, or economic injustice) or actually seem to make worse (such as polarised attitudes towards gay people or other conflict with other religions.)
If we are to be seekers of truth (which is just another way of saying seekers of meaning) then integrity must draw us to adventure further. I do not necessary mean a rejection of our tradition (although many of us have found this to be a necessary step) rather that we remain open to renewal and re-reformation.
I need to say a little more about this word ‘truth’.
Truth, according to Jesus, will set us free. What he might have meant by that has been debated down the generations, but any religious types think that truth is found in the literal sense from the words of scripture. It will be of no surprise to you to hear that I do not believe this reading is correct. If it were, I find it odd that Jesus used his words in the context of challenging religious bigotry (check out John chapter 8) not underlining it.
And here is the rub. If we use scripture like a definiative rule book/text book/blueprint that has been locked and closed, all we have open to us is to learn what has already been decreed and declared to be ‘correct’. There may still be many subtleties and depths that we can dive in to, but fundementally the only way we can read these old stories is the way that our religion has mapped out for us. To put it another way, we are presented with stories that have already been shaped to tell the over-arching story that has been provided by our tradition. It has all been made to ‘fit’ this narrative, a feat that has always required considerable contortions and calisthenics.
Typically we miss the many blind spots and assumptions behind these readings, because our first concern will be ‘correctness’; a feeling rendered all the more urgent by the fact that getting it wrong might result in eternal damnation.
I am speaking here with intimate knowledge only of my own religious beginnings but I think there is good evidence to suggest that we can generalise this to other forms of religion – both Christian and other faiths – particularly those who rely on scripture as their primary (and sometimes only) reference point. I think this is a terrible shame, for a number of reasons, which I will try to tease out below.
The first thing that I would say is that closed system readings of scripture are not honest. They are only made possible by imposing restrictions on the minds of the reader, who is expected to read them only in the way that is authorised. For example, readers are expected to accept the ‘inerrancy’ of the bible, no matter how hard it is to make it all fit together as a coherant whole.
It is also often intellectually blind, in that it ignores or rejects any knowledge that might be seen to challenge the closed reading of those stories. For example, most of the people in the tradition I grew up in have no idea about how the canon of the bible came to be compiled. Asking questions about how the events told in these ancient stories mapped on to archeological discoveries or alternative histories would be seen as dangerous and subversive to correct belief. For the same reason, our knowlege of other streams of Christian theological thinking was limited indeed- mostly to just knowing that ‘they’ were all wrong.
The reader is also asked not to question certain underlying assumptions, without which the whole closed system would collapse. For example, we might be encouraged to read backwards from understandings gained from narrow readings of one part of scripture, interpreting complete other sections of the canon in the light of those understandings. The key assumption here is that the bible must not be seen as a library-like collection of ancient scriptures written by ancient people over a considerable length of time, but rather as a complete and whole manuscript that was always intended to be provided in its current form from the beginning of time. Perhaps you might protest that it can be both, but it does not change the fact that the assumptions we make changes the readings immeasurably.
The effect of these assumptions means that we have to ignore contradictions. If the reformation taught us to value scripture, it also soon taught us to value our own understandings of this scripture more. Truth wars became the way we did religion for hundreds of years and we in the West live at the end of all this; arguably an increasingly irrelevant remnant, defined more by our narrow religious views than our capacity to live for grace and goodness.
Perhaps the most problematic result of these closed system readings is that they lock us in to black-and-white thinking. Any command-words from anywhere in the canon of scripture have to be taken as fixed instructions handed down directly from God. It is true that we did not do this completely (ignoring purity codes from Leviticus about mensturation cycles for example) but this was a bit of a guilty secret, with no easy explanation when confronted.
Another aspect of this is how our approach to religion becomes highy legalistic, as if the scriptures themselves exist as a code of instruction that is applied and interpreted by our priest/judges, or our bishops/supreme court. Legal correctness takes precedent over anything else, even if the outcome is undesired, as in the rejection of homosexuality alongside the desire to remain loving and accepting of outsiders, and the church has to endure more of this sort of thing.
Finally, if we use only closed reading systems, there is little room for adventure. Institutions will tend towards control, order and a resistance to radical diversity. Arguably, any spiritual journey worth making will be towards personal (and hopefully collective) transformation, NOT towards greater doctrinal convergance. It is not impossible to make these journeys within closed reading systems but I would suggest that this will always be difficult.
So what value have these old stories? Why not just treat them as quaint old folk tales intended for children? Why continue to expect them to be relevant all these thousands of years after they were written?
Well, in these fast changing times, I think we need these old stories more than ever, and I am not willing to throw any babies out with the bathwater.
It is perhaps worth remembering that there are many other ways that Christians have always read scripture. There is a summary of some of these in this post, in which I listed the following kinds of reading;
Narrative reading- where we get into the story, the context and history from which the words emerge from.
Conversational reading- where we engage with the different conversations across the generations embraced in the Bible- for example Jesus with the religious powers of his day, the Priests and the Prophets, the Jews and the Gentiles.
Missional reading- in which we ask we ask, in each passage of Scripture, how is God extending his overarching mission of blessing all nations through a community of people.
Political/Economic reading- the skew of God’s attention towards those who suffer injustice at the hands of earthly empire involving money, sexuality, power, violence, and law.
Rhetorical reading– in which we look for what the text it trying to do, rather than just what it is saying.
Contextual reading – in which we try to understand how the specific context might have influenced the writing of the text
Literary reading– “…when readers of the Bible develop sensitivity to the ways poets, protesters, storytellers, activists, priests and mystics use language, the Bible is liberated from its constitutional captivity to be the wild, inspired, and impassioned collection of literary artifacts that it is.” (Brian McLaren)
Close reading– better readings of scripture will examine the small details of the narrative- the bits that we easily miss that the writer chose to include in the text, which is rich in culture and traditions that we easily miss.
Communal reading– the Bible is complex and hard, and the only way we can really engage with it is through the broader community- firstly in terms of “the community of the dead” where we listen respectfully to how previous generations have understood scripture, whilst understanding their skew towards a western, wealthy, white, male perspective. Secondly we look for the voices of minorities- those who have been forced to the margins. It is not ONE perspective, but rather both/and.
Recursive reading– understanding of the Bible, and emphases within it change, ebb and flow across generations, and within lifetimes. This might be one of the ways that the Holy Spirit brings renewal.
Ethical reading– text applied without ethics have allowed our faith to justify slavery, genocide, anti-Semitism, oppression of women and gay people- therefore we have to accept that interpretation is a MORAL ACT, so we should test an interpretation by reason and scholarship,using our rational intelligence, and a sense of justice and ethics. How might I treat people if I follow this interpretation? Whom might I harm? What unintended social consequences can we predict if this interpretation is widely embraced? Could people be vilified, harmed, or even killed because of this interpretation? McLaren points to those in Scripture who have wrestled with God in the face of his seeming injustice… Job, Moses, Abraham.
Personal reading– “the reader is himself or herself in the predicament the text addresses. So faithful readings are habitually humble, expectant, open, and hungry and thirsty to encounter the Living God. Even the “professional” reader and teacher of the Bible must remain forever an “amateur” too …”
Mystical reading– we must “…develop the habit of mystical openness, receptivity not only to understanding from the text but to enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, not only to interpretation but to revelation, not only to intelligent engagement with the text but also to personal abduction by its message.”
Christo-focussed reading – where we no longer approach the Bible as a collection of words of equal weight- but rather that we approach all other words through those of Jesus.
This is far from an exhaustive list and whilst some of these might be seen to be more practiced by theologians, the point here is that scripture has ALWAYS been used in a much wider way than the narrow closed readings that we have locked them it within.
My argument here is not against scripture, but for it. It is not a tirade against the value of these old stories, but a desire to rediscover them, to reframe them for our new context, to set the power they contain free again to do new things.
I am comfortable with seeing the Christian scriptures as a library of generations of people trying to make both personal and collective meaning out of chaos- much as we are trying to do now. Much of these stories also seemed to have been written down in the context of abject failure (slavery in the OT, occupation in the NT) – again, much like the feeling that some of us feel now. Nevertheless, throughout the whole mess of this scripture, themes emerge of a longing for justice, restoration and wholeness. Above all, these themes come together in the stories told about a man called Jesus.
The relevance of these stories, when encountered outside the closed readings that we have been used to, is startling. Consider, for example, the stories from the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, that go something like this;
Simple people, living in harmony with nature, rise and seperate themselves through the accumulation of knowledge. Soon there is conflict between the hunter-gatherers and those who fence the land and accumulate belongings, leading to the murder of one brother by another. The accumulation gets more extreme, leading first to cities, then to empires, followed by more empires. God is so angry that he wants to wipe the world clean in a flood and start again.
You can read these stories in all of the ways discussed above, but I want to propose one last reading, one that I will call a ‘radical reading‘. Radical, that is, in the sense of looking for prophetic inspiration towards change. Looking for ways towards justice that might be relevant to our situation.
Someone dear to me has been feeding from a trough of environmental despair. S/he knows the science rather too well- the degrees of warming, the predicted tipping points, the posisbilities (or probabilities) of ecosystem collapse. At times this knowledge becomes a clarion call for action, but faced with something so huge, so seemingly unassailable, it also leads them down towards a place where everything seems pointless.
This eperience is far from unique. There is even a name for it – climate trauma.
“I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,” said award-winning biologist Camille Parmesan in a National Wildlife Federation report. “Some of these people have been studying a particular reef or a particular bird or a particular mammal for 40 to 50 years and to start seeing it die off is a very hard thing.”
For people like me – non scientists whose thinking about climate change is driven most commonly by guilt and distraction – the whole debate can be so confusing and troubling as to be best ignored. What else can we do anyway?
Also, old lefties like me can struggle to fit climate change in to our old left/right dichotomies. Sure, the right wing tend towards sceptisim on this issue, but the dualistic right and wrong is harder to chart because human-scale victim and oppressors are harder to identify. Climate justice has been a harder concept to champion, or at least it seems so to me.
At times, it seems that the only actions we can take – and any relevant choices we can make – are all consumer driven. We choose to buy a different kind of car, or a tin of salmon with an impressive-sounding label, or refuse a plastic wrapped fruit in favour of one without. But we still consume. Our lifestyle makes at best only very small adjustments to the overconsumption that characterises the western world, and drives the very change we are trying to buy our way out of. No amount of beach cleaning or community gardening is going to change that, right?
So what can I say to my friend to encourage him to keep going?
What can I do myself that will make any difference whatsoever?
It seems to me that activism is one route open to us. Get involved in direct protest action or awareness raising of some kind. Shout loud and make people in power sit up and notice. Chain yourself to petrol pumps and handcuff yourself to trees.
But this kind of direct action may at best be something possible to you for only a season in your life, even when given the priority it deserves. Activists burn out, have families and need to make a living. Some kind of post-activist normality will eventually have assert itself, and if we are to hold on to any integrity, this new normality cannot be like the old one.
So how do we seek to live with passion, love and integrity? What does a good life look like in our present broken context? What needs to change, and where do I start?
All of which brings me back to the title of this piece. Lifestyle or beliefs.
Many of us have been making changes to our lifestyles for years. Often these micro-changes seem tokenistic in the way described above. It is easy (perhaps too easy) to dismiss them as the conscience-easing activities of the comfortable middle classes. We all know that the transformative changes necessary in our lifestyles require far more radical action. That is not to say that our efforts mean nothing however. Even knowing that an individual choice to eat less meat (for example) will make no difference to a global phenomenon, it is an individual step worth taking. More than this, our individual actions might connect with others to form chains of influence. This is not nothing, but neither is it enough.
The ancient Jain religion teaches a version of ahisma (or harmlessness) in which it is not just people who have souls, but also animals, trees, plants and even rocks. Out of this should then flow a radical empathy with all things, to which are owed the same respect that we might give to fellow humans. This is one of the stories told in Karen Armstrong’s new book ‘Sacred Nature’, in which she says that ‘recycling and political protests are not enough. Her call is towards a new world view – one that learns from the ancient spiritual traditions and practices that we have largely forgotten.
Much has been written on the scientific and technological aspects of climate change, explaining the impacts on our world and the measures we need to take to avert catastrophe. But Armstrong’s book is both more personal and more profound. Its urgent message is that hearts and minds need to change if we are to once more learn to revere our beautiful and fragile planet, and to stop polluting it. For this to happen we need to reconnect with the myths and even the rituals of ancient spiritual traditions that have the power to awaken our primal emotional bonds to nature and reveal our “utter dependence” on it.
The spiritual tradition I grew from has much to learn. We have been slow indeed to grasp the spiritual aspects of climate change – in fact, climate change skeptisim has often been heard from Christian pulpits.
However, there are many rich strands of Christianity that have direct relevance. I can give no greater recommendation than to point you towards Richard Rohr’s book The Universal Christ. Drawing from his own Fransiscan roots, Rohr paints a picture of the Christ as ‘another name for everything’. In a previous post, I tried to describe this in this way;
Jesus stepped into human history, but he was always the Christ.
Through him, all things were made, and have their being. He is both beginning and end. Through him all things are held together. He is the essence that lives in all creatures.
He is the unity of all things that we partially sense when the sunset fades into starlight.
He is love, light.
Through him all things are being made new, always, for all time.
And what of us? We are like him because he is the life within us. ALL of us, not just the chosen frozen few. Even the most dissolute, hardened, poisoned and venomous specimens of humanity, because even though we are like tombs in which the Christ is dead, he has this trick of coming back from the dead, remember.
The Christ, in the human form of Jesus, gave us the Sermon on the mount, in which he told us over and over again to love one another, particularly the poor and the broken, the weak and the stumbling. The Christ, in the human form of Jesus, excluded no one from his love. He became angry at those who sought to do so in the name of religion and he said ‘Follow me.”
The eternal, cosmic Christ, loves things by becoming them.
In this way, everything that we see and touch – everything of rock or fur or feathers; everything that smiles or weeps; everything that grows leaves or feathers; everything that hides in pools or in a twist in the stream or the tide – all these things are by their very nature, the Christ.
If we look, we will see him. That is what he longs for us to do. If we see him then everything changes, right? That climate change thing? The mass extinctions? The poverty? The racism? The sexism? The exclusion and dividing up into good and bad, in and out, saved and unsaved?
Remember that trick he does in making things new, even when everything seems too late? Even when the tomb is closed and the funeral party has ended?
Far from being subject to logical legalism, the Christ is much more interested in restoration- you could say, restorative justice. He seeks to connect us again to our own deep humanity, which is where he waits for us, at the core of our being.
Christ-who-was-also-Jesus calls us to participate with him in the great divide dance. It is remarkably close and remarkably ordinary.
What might this do to what I beleive? What statements can I make about this belief? Why does it matter?
Back in 2019 I wrote this as my own statement of beleif. I think I still stand on it. I hope it is shaping my lifestyle in both big and small ways. It is all I am, and all I can do.
I believe in the Christ, through whom all things have their being. He came into history as a brown-skinned man with the heart of a woman, but he is so much more than that; he is the very essence of all things and the glue that holds it all together.
Other cultures know him by other names.
He calls us to follow the way of love, which means looking for him in the most unlikely places; in the eyes of our enemies for example, or in a tangle of endangered forest.
He is particularly to be found in all that is beautiful and all that is broken.
I have just realised that the last three posts on this blog have been tree-centric. This was in no way deliberate, so must say something about where I am at I suppose.
I live amongst trees. Up the hill, they are mostly commercial spruce and larch, but downwards, it is mostly old oak trees, with a smattering of birch and our small orchard of apples, pears, nuts and soft fruit. In do not take this privilege for granted.
Many years ago, I was driving a friend from London up through Argyll and pointed out a beautiful copper beech tree- the sort that must have been planted as a specimen tree a couple of hundred years ago, and now has the shape and beauty that those who planted it could only imagine.
Look said, in over-excited tones, that is my favourite tree.
My friend, who is inclined towards the larconic, glanced at me with confusion, and after a while said I don’t think I have ever met anyone with a favourite tree before.
I felt a little stung, like some kind of yokel with too much straw behind my ears, but then reflected that he probably had a favourite bus shelter, or a favourite railway arch. He is from London after all. I, however, live amongst the remnants of the great Argyll rainforest and in this I am richly blessed (although there is this one bus shelter I remember fondly…)
Trees, or so we are told, have healing powers. Check out this old post examining the psychologically restorative powers of wilderness (and how it even helps our concentration and attentiveness towards random tasks.)
Then there is all that forest bathing stuff, which turns out not to be a new fad, but rather an ancient Japanese meditiative practice known as shinrin yoku in which we are encouraged to be amongst trees, observe nature and breathe deeply.
Trees do something else though, which we are only just beginning to appreciate. They are the mothers of soil. These benign giants are the shelter beneath which life can be lived. They remind us of the long view; of how change that matters is not measured only in human lifetimes.
The other truth that soon comes to us is that, like man, no tree is an island alone to itself. It lives in community.
We entered a competition piece at a ceramics exhibition that tried to describe this relational nature of trees. It contrasted two trees, one on top of each other, seperated by prespex as if in a mirror or an hourglass, and used the two ‘hermaneutic’ poems from this post. I really liked it, but sadly, no prizes this time…
Some of the greatest joys of my post-career career have involved the sharing of poetry with small groups of people. Poets are solitary beasts mostly, skulking around in the shadows, so when we can share our secrets with others and find common meanings, this is something special indeed.
Yesterday was a case in point. A small group of people gathered in a church hall, sharing stories of grief and loss, through the mediums of laughter, tears and poetry. What a wonderful thing to be part of.
One of the simple exercises we used was to walk in the woods nearby and find a tree, then imagine that tree speaking to us with kindness. What people wrote reduced us all to tears.
Outside the doors of the old Kirk stands a gnarled old sycamore tree. It looks older than the stone building it shelters, and despite the timeless impression, I vaguely remembered that sycamores are not native to this country, perhaps being introduced by the Romans, or some time in the middle ages- no-one knows for sure. They must have offered some kind of commodity that was appreciated, even though they have been villified as invasive species ever since.
I stood beneath this venerable benign giant and wrote this;
We did not do it lightly, or without justification, but it feels highly significant.
The tree in question was an oak, of uncertain age, but most likely it was growing long before the first world war. It had a long straight stem and an uneven canopy, possibly from damage some time when it was young. It has been framed in our window ever since we moved here- a sheltering friend not just to our house, but to red squirrels and siskins.
Over the last couple of years it seemed to us that it had taken on a slight tilt- but like all things in the real world it was difficult to tell, because nothing natural is in a straight line except the far horizon (and even that is curved when you look from height.) Eventually, given the proximity to our neighbours, we decided that we needed to get it checked out, and the arborist delivered an unwelcome verdict.
The trunk was hollowed out with rot, and the good wood left was affected by a kind of fungus that would soon bring the old girl down. So down she had to come.
It feels like a great beast is gone, as if some fat fool shot and killed a lion or a great white rhino.
But so it should feel like that. I feel more than ever before in my life that any future we humans have on this planet depends on our ability to remember our connection with all manner of living things. This being so, any decision to break this connection can not be taken lightly. Our lives have already placed us at such disadvantage, so that when confronted with this disconnection at close hand we surely have to look up and take notice?
There is another side to this story that also speaks of disconnection. The potential high value target of our potentially falling tree is the house neighbours with whom we have become disconnected. There is a long and winding story here, which I will not recount as who wants to hear such things? No-one comes out well from such stories, which always have two sides. Suffice it to say that the decision to pay a tree surgeon a lot of money to cut down this tree for the benefit of our neighbours was not without irony. Like I said, it is all about connection and when we break this, there are consequences.
In cutting down this tree, I speak soft words of regret. I promise to plant again in the hope that the future contains brand new oak trees.
In relation to our neighbours, I speak softly and do not seek escalation or justification. I hold Michaela who is hurting and try to get her to let it go, let it go.
Today I went in to Glasgow to lead a session at a poetry writing group at Kibble Palace, in the Botanical Gardens. I very much enjoyed it. A lovely group of people, all of whom write beautifully, so much so that I felt like a fraud being asked to ‘lead’ them. I hope that I might yet connect with them again.
I set a couple of writing tasks, one of which involved taking some time to walk out in to the park and write sometihng from the perspective of an object or plant that they encountered. People wrote as fish, as park benches and, of course, as trees.
I too chose a tree. It was a rather odd one; a highly scented tree that seemed to have two different kind of blossoms on it at once. A laburnum perhaps and something else. At first I was fascinated, wondering what miraculous wizardry or natural phenomena had formed this exotic oddity. Here it is, at distance so as not to interupt the girl sitting beneath it;
It reminded me of one of those creatures popular at Victorian freak shows; half rabit and half cat, or the woman whose legs were that of a deer or a goat.
The tree seemed to me to be a beautiful abomination.
A few weeks ago I went with some old and new friends to a small island, for our annual ‘wildernss retreat’. These trips are very special to me, connecting me, grounding me and shaping me in ways that are sometimes only understandable in hindsight. Always I come away with things that need more thought, in the sense of things that have inspired me, or have troubled me. (The latter seem, if anything, more important.) One of the things that has stayed with me this weekend was the memory of a number of questions about hope.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend towards the melancholic and few of my friends would regard me as an optimist. Despite all of this, I found myself in a conversation with one of my island friends in which he seemed increasingly frustrated by what he apeared to regard as my blind, unenlighted, unrepentant desire to pursue this thing called hope. With hindsight perhaps I pushed back too hard, but he seemed committed to a gospel of nihalism that I found profoundly troubling. He spoke about it on an intellectual level and I made the mistake of replying in the same vein, forgetting that we often intellectualise deeper emotional states. I am not even saying I fully disagreed with him. After all, there is so much to feel overwhelmed by at the moment.
But this seems to me to be neither the whole truth nor a very useful lens with which to examine the world.
This song comes to mind;
Perhaps hope, when imposed or dictated in the way that I ofund myself in danger of doing, will always feel like a toxic cloud.
But I have walked this tightrope of hope and hopelessness for a long time. I am hoping to put the finishing touches to a book of poetry which charts some of this journey. This begins with the election of Trump and his pound-shop imitator this side of the Atlantic, and was then poured out into a series of protest poems about the state of the world; climate change, widening inequality, injustice, a loss of community and the rise of individualism. However, the pandemic shifted something in me. I feel those injustices as keenly as ever, but I decided that anger, unyoked from hope, achieved nothing. As we all stopped during the lockdowns, a different way seemed possible.
It is of course possible to point out that any hope for meaningful change that began during the cataclysm of the global pandemic (when we seemed to be rediscovering community and realising that collective action was not only possible, but the only way to survive) has been thwarted. Business as usual is now the name of the game, and a new war has pushed us further towards the abyss. Despite all this, I found myself writing poems of hope, like this one;
They say that hope comes
Only in the harshest times
When we need it most
I see it there in your eye
Feel it as our fingers touch
As our minds entwine
Inside this skin that bottles me
It moves like a liquid
Waiting for your cup
Not just the hope with feathers
But also sinew and carved stone
It is bone on bone
And when friends meet
Hope has breath
Hope has viral load
From ‘After the apocalypse’
Back to those conversations on the island. Because our group has (mostly) a shared faith background, even if this has taken us in very different directions, the lack of hope seemed all the more acute. Is that not what our faith is supposed to be based upon?
There is the rub, and perhaps this was the core of the debate with my friend. He is still very much within the institution of Church, frustrated at how the core messaging that Church contains still has not begun to engage with the unfolding stories that society tells itself. My impression is that this is pulling him towards his own adventure outside the institution, because if our faith has become irrellevant not only in the way the message is delivered, but in the message itsef, then how can it ever be a source of hope?
Christians talk a lot about hope, but this tends to be only the hope of being saved from the consequences of sin, and the punishment we are due for our own sinfulness waiting for those who do not heed the call to repent. There is also a hope that arises from ‘goodness’, measured mostly in seperation from the world in an enclave of holiness, but this offers no hope of the general kind, only an escape pod for a select few.
Meanwhile, the world is still warming. Rich people still get richer and poor poorer. Politicians profit from lies and corruption. The fabric of our society is threadbare and coming apart and the old Durkeim glue of religion has lost its stickyness because it has nothing coherant to say about any of this, right?
So why do I still feel hope and where do I see it? What am I hoping for? These are difficult questions to answer, which is why I grapple with them in poetry. However, I sense in myself and in the wider society a hunger for a different kind of spirituality that I think is starting to emerge. Partly this is a consequence of the large numbers of church leavers who are still striving to live out a meaningful faith journey, but also because we are all of us spiritual beings, seeking meaning and truth despite all the distraction.
I think we might characterise this emerging spirituality in two main ways;
Non duality, by which I mean a rejection of the old in/out, good/bad, sacred/profane, saved/unsaved dichotomies for something more fluid and generous.
Connectedness and the one-ness of all things. The Christ who is another name for everything. The source and substance of every created thing who live and move and have their being in him.
Of course, I have no evidence to support these ideas other than my own flawed perceptions, but if I am right, I think the emergence of this spirituality is the source of a new hope. For the first time in the post modern age, we have a story to live by that directy engages with the challenges of our times.
Sectarianism and hard inflexible doctrines
The ‘problem’ of the other, particularly the black other, or the Muslim other
Plurality and difference
Poverty and inequality
Our place in the natural world
Perhaps this all seems like incoherant rambling to you, and you may be right, but I will have one more go. I mentioned earlier that I can only make sense of much of this through poetry, so I will re-post a poem in which I was reaching towards these same conclusions.
The great Becoming
How small we made you.
How constrained by our constraints;
We wore you like a lapel badge,
Pocketed you like a personal passport, then
Raised you at our borders like a flag.
We locked you in the pages of
Our Book, then threw away the key.
But how we worshipped you.
How we pointed at you with steeples.
You asked us to follow you, to
Give away our second shirts, but instead
We made a million icons, each one framed in gold.
We swayed and raised our egos, singing love songs-
Not to you, but to idealised versions of ourselves.
How is it that still, you love things by becoming them?
How was it that this brown-skinned man with the heart of a woman
Took upon herself another name for everything, so we could
Encounter her in all these beautiful things and bleed with her when she
Lies broken? And just when all seems lost, she whispers still;
I am just preparing some things for our annual ‘wilderness retreat’, which is this weekend. This is a thing that I have been doing with friends for more years than I care to remember- we charter a boat and spend a few days on a deserted Scottish island. It is usually a wonderful combination of the sacred and the very profane- time in silence and time in uproarous laughter around a fireside- incidentally there are a couple of spaces free on the boat if anyone wants to jump in last minute and join us. (Drop me a message for more details.)
One of the things I find really useful about these weekends is that they make me stop and take stock- both over the weekend, but also in the prep for them. I always try hard to listen a take a reading of my perceptions of what feels important spiritually both personally and more broadly. When we commit ourselves to this work, it often seems to me that we discover (or perhaps we are gifted) a space in which oxygen seems richer and we breathe more deeply for a while.
As part of this I listened to this podcast, which seemed to have a lot of echoes with my own journey at the moment- the importance of wilderness to our spiritual journeys being one of the obvious themes.
However, there were other resonances too; to do with a shifting of the central assumptions that have long unperpinned western Christianity towards (and this is my summary) two main things;
Non dualism- a rejection of old simple certainties and a move towards a more fluid both/and approach to doctine
Connection/one-ness- a return, or a rediscovery, of the interconnectedness of all things.
I could say so much more about this, but suffice it to say that one point in the podcast helped me see this more clearly. Victoria Loorz makes a point about the greek word Logos, usually translated in the Bible as ‘the word’. The most famous use of this translation is the magnificent searing beginning to the gospel of John;
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.
Loorz suggests that the translation is problematic, and that Logos is often used in a much broader sense. It is used sometimes to suggest things like- plan, presence, reason, or conversation. It is this latter word that opens us up towards what I think might be a new slice of resurrection. If you read the passage above and insert ‘conversation’ for ‘word’ or ‘him’ this starts to illustrate the point.
In this reading, we see all things as being in relationship and dependency. Held together and connected by the essence. The Great Spirit. The Christ. Space-time continuum. The Word. Love. Yahweh. Allah.
The real question here is what this might mean for us as individuals as well as our wider cultures, or even the whole created world that we are part of. It seems to me that this puts us in a very different place… perhaps you disagree, but that is OK. We are connected anyway.
Every year I have tried to write a poem for Easter. This year I struggled, and so this one is late. Here it is though;
We are all dying
These molecules that make us are not ours at all
They are merely borrowed, soon to be passed to another.
All that we are;
The good, the bad
The broken, the beautiful
All our dreams. Our fears.
Our glories and grubby failures
All that we see. All the songs that sing in our souls.
All that passion that pulses where we are most alive.
The anger. The love.
The moments when we stand before the great big sky and wonder…
All of this lingers just for a while in our own Gethsemenes
On the way to our good Golgothas
Because without death, how can there ever be new life?
There is no meaning when even God is dead.
There is no point to anything.
There is no truth to find.
There is no hope to draw us.
There is no solution to be found.
It is always this way; change is always preceded by pointlessness and defeat.
It always begins when we are blinded by darkness.
It even follows the loss of hope, as if to remind us of our own powerlessness.
It tells the story of a girl growing up in the extreme poverty of Ugandan slums who discovers a gift for chess, which becomes her way out and up. Along the way she is supported by a remarkable man who recognises her talent and then through kindness and persistence, supports her learning. In common with all such Disney stories, the story had been made ‘safe’ in all sorts of ways but it still made me cry like a drain.
As I thought about why it was upsetting me so much, I realised it was about two things; firstly it was because of the kindness it contained. Whenever I see kindness, particularly towards small ordinary people, it breaks me open. Secondly it was because of the fact that chess is not an option for most poor children. Let me say more about this.
Films like this work because Phiona, the girl at the centre of the story, has a secret superpower that allows her to transcend the poverty that she was born in to – she can play chess. The story then becomes a redemption story of the self-made kind (albeit with the aforementioned help/kindness.) Phiona succeeds because of her inate abilities and her hard work and persistence which allow her to achieve an escape simply not available to others who grew up in her community. In many ways, this is the American dream, transplanted to Africa. It is the myth of meritocracy and exceptionalism applied to a place where the lie is most cruel.
Of course some people always transcend the poverty, they are born in to through luck, through good judgement, through hard work and through giftedness. These stories of survival and prospering can be inspirational and uplifting, but are they ever liberating? Or might they actually have the very opposite effect? The problem with gifted exceptionalism is that it is… exceptional. It has no relevance whatsoever to the vast proportion of the population.
It changes nothing.
The poor stay almost exclusively poor. The middle class can feel vindicated by their own worthyness. The rich can support a few chess tournaments and welfare programmes aimed at uncovering other exceptions.
We also learn nothing about the nature of poverty, whether in Manchester or Kampala. We can continue to blame the poor for their own squalor, as if it arose from indolence. We can watch programmes like ‘Benefits Street’ safe in the assumption that these people chose their own station in life and/or lack the gumption to emerge from it.
Or we can look to Africa and claim that the starvation and subsistence living are caused by corruption/poor education/over population – despite all evidence to the contrary. Despite the long term destructive effects of imperialism and globalised resource extraction. We can do this because clearly that girl can still thrive.
In case you are not familiar with the ancient Hebrew idea of Jubilee, it was given to the Israelites by Yaweh as a kind of reset, in which all the economic, social, cultural and environmental circumstances in the society where examined in the interests of justice and liberation. There were to be seven year ‘sabbath’ years and then every seventh sabbath would be- jubilee. There is of course much debate as to how and if this law was every applied, but whether or not it was, the idea still resonates.
What would jubilee look like in Kampala? Would it look like a chess tournament from which a gifted girl was plucked and elevated?