The State of Liberal ReligionIn what is today the South of France someone entered a cave 17,000 years ago and painted bulls, horses, and deer; painted with the aid of candles deep into the cave network. The Lascaux paintings have been nicknamed the prehistoric Sistine Chapel. And this example is not even the oldest. In Indonesia there is one of a boar dating back over 35,000 years.
Of the thousands of Cave Paintings discovered throughout the world, they almost always depict animals - bulls or bears, deer or horses. They represent a fundamental shift in our evolution: the awakening of imagination, the awakening of consciousness. The poet Clayton Eshleman put it like this; clearly at some point we were all of an animal nature, and then at some point we weren’t.
I have spoken before about the fundamental disconnect human beings have with nature. We are irrevocably cast forth from Eden. Clayton believes that these examples of cave paintings point to a ritualised culture of art and magic that recognised this fact, the fact of our disconnect from Nature. Throughout the art, throughout the ritual and magic of these Stone Age peoples, there is a nostalgia and a longing to rekindle, to make a connection with nature which has been irrevocably lost.
Here are the roots of all spiritual discontent, the roots of existential angst, the roots of ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ And it’s in the very core of all of us, we are all quite literally brothers and sisters, all descended from the same small group of a thousand people who left Africa roughly 70,000 years ago.
From our Stone Age ancestors onwards, what followed is the History of Religion. Splintering people groups going this way and that, trying to rekindle that elemental connection they somehow knew they were missing. Through art, through ritual, through moments of transcendence, and moments of awe they caught fleeting glimpses of holiness. Through inhabiting myth, acting our ritual, being enveloped in art and music, our ancestors transcended the limitations of self.
Then from the enlightenment onwards some of us started to take a slightly different route. We moved into the realm of ideas and words. We began to believe that there were principles that lay at the heart of all our various myths and rituals the world over, underlying truths which could unite us all. Largely this experiment appears to be failing.
It’s very antithesis appears to be on the rise - the vulgarity of sectarianism and nationalism. Where have we gone wrong? Where has liberal religion gone wrong? And that brings me back to our flower communion. We can use words. We use a lot of words; I like words. But to really get inside people, to really make a deep impression in people’s lives we have to draw things on the walls of caves, we have to dance around fires, we have enact our principles out in rich traditions full of meaning and intent which inform our very identity, which gets under our skin.
The Czechoslovakian pastor Norbert Čapek was building up his newly founded Unitarian Church in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s, but something was missing. There needed to be something more tangible. Being a very Catholic country, he didn’t feel a traditional Christian communion service would cut the mustard. We obviously do Christian communion services here, but it can’t speak to all Unitarians’ spirituality in quite the same way a Flower Communion service can.
In the simple act of each person bringing a flower and placing it in a vase, we express our desire to join with others in a religious community, to be accountable within communal life. After we sing our final hymn I will give some closing words and then invite everyone to take a flower as they leave – a different flower to the one they came in with. A different flower to represent the other, another here in this community in need of our time, our love, or our attention, or another out there, one of those quiet voices I mentioned earlier, someone who is in their time of trial, and in need of our patience, time, and love.
By placing your flower into the vase you enter into the vision of what we are: a people that put on divinity, turn away from barbarism, embrace radical inclusivity, and a fiery love for all peoples – a vision that in Čapek’s country of instability flew in the face of public cynicism. To put a flower in Čapek’s vase was an act of great courage. To not feel the weight of that risk here this morning is to not understand.
I will end with Čapek’s words – the words I began the service with.
My conviction is that my life has meaning and purpose if I live in God and for God . . . Anytime I want something only for myself, and anytime I hesitate to forgive, tolerate, suffer for truth, or sacrifice for goodness – it is me in separation from God. But anytime I want only truth and goodness and enjoy goodness and truth wherever it appears, and anytime I roll up my sleeves to start work that will serve the human whole and the world to progress so that everybody will live and breathe in a better way – it is God in me, who is in all other people in the same way. Then God’s spark glimmers in me which is connected with all others in the whole universe as the source and substance and manifestation of the eternal fire, the fire of God.