Philip and the Eunuch
The Isle of the Dead
This morning I’m going to be getting into the weeds of Acts - the passage we heard, the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. As we read the Bible, we encounter a wall of text, a text which can at times be pretty daunting and inaccessible. The Bible often assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of its readers. The New Testament assumes we’re familiar with the stories in the Hebrew Bible, St Paul’s letters assume we are broadly familiar with Jesus, his ministry, and the salient points of Christianity, and the whole biblical text, being written two thousand odd years ago, assumes we’re familiar with the cultural and social norms of first-century Palestine. There’s also the text itself. Although the Bible, with its multiple translations, has brought forth some of the most beautiful poetry and prose ever committed to paper or parchment, it is not all worthy of such acclamation. It is in parts, clunky, and in parts, dull, and that’s before you’ve even begun to consider some of the claims contained within its pages - those claims which are simply wrong or contradictory.
But the nice thing about the passage we read, in which Philip overhears the Eunuch reading from Isaiah (one of the books in the Hebrew Bible), is that the inexplicable nature of the Bible is acknowledged…
A Green Apple
Last week I was in Florence, Italy, and on Friday, just as the weather began to turn, and the Tuscan sun turned to dark cloud, I visited a place I’d only read about. On the north side of the city, in the middle of a ring of traffic, there is an ‘isle of the dead’, a hill that rises out of the busy landscape, a richly green terrain furnished with marble memorials. As one passes through the gatehouse and across that threshold, you enter a curiously solitary place. On account, perhaps, of the elevation, or the canopy of trees, or some inexplicable veil that one passes through, the noise of urban life fades into the background, the present becomes all the more perceptible, and you discern yourself to now be in a thin place out of time. A forgotten place. For unlike Florence’s many tourism hot spots, in which you queue for hours to see Michelangelo’s David, or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, here, there is not a single other soul.
This place has a few different names. It's sometimes referred to as the ‘The English Cemetery’, and sometimes as ‘The Protestant Cemetery’. Both names are a bit misleading, as this oval graveyard does not contain exclusively either, but it is, nonetheless, predominantly protestants from the anglosphere…
Reinterpreting the Resurrection Mythos
To quote Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century Swedish philosopher and mystic, “We can see from this (from Nature), as though in a mirror, how perfection stems from variety in heaven as well, since things that happen in the natural world offer us a reflection of things in the spiritual world.” When we look upon variety in Nature, that variety corresponds to a spiritual reality. I find myself standing in a wheat field; before me the crop stretches out across the undulating topography. As I walk the path, my eyes catch upon the uniform lines, the crops, perfectly ordered. After a short time, I reach the edge of a wood, and stepping across the threshold, moving from the field to the wood, my spirit is lifted, for I have gone from the singular to the varied. From the land ordered by man, to the land ordered by God.
Here, where the variety is at its greatest, there is a more perfect whole. To engage with it, to be caught up with it, to commune with this sacred symbiotic, is to have one’s spirit revivified. Swedenborg’s insights concerning spirituality and the natural order, have had a profound effect upon the landscape of ideas. This notion that we can view the natural world as a sacred experience, a place to encounter the divine, has influenced many…
Neville Goddard and your Imagination
He is risen! He is risen indeed, hallelujah! There can be no doubt that without resurrection, without that event at the heart of Christianity, there could be no Easter, there could be no Christianity, there could be no dissenters who come along down the line, and thus, there could be no Ipswich Unitarians. The temptation is, within liberal church contexts such as ours, to avoid the crux of the matter on Easter morning. No doubt in many churches today, there are liberal religious ministers taking special pains to avoid St Paul’s stark words, as he states them plainly in 1 Corinthians (15:11-15): “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ.”
What are we sceptics to do, we who cannot believe? Paul is so critical to Christianity, we should surely be taking his lead, and yet, do we not find ourselves to be his adversaries, the very people that Paul condemns?
Blavatsky, Emerson, and The Tree of Knowledge
I’m going to begin this Palm Sunday morning by telling you a story about a man. His name is Neville Goddard, he’s married, and he has a young daughter whose name is Vicky. So, it’s him, his wife and his daughter all living together in New York. The year is 1943, it’s the height of WWII, and he is 39 years old. From 1940 onwards is when the US Army began drafting men. At first, they were drafting about 1 in 9 men, and by 1943 this number rose to about 1 in 5, because numbers were depleting so quickly. And so in 1943 Neville Goddard is drafted. Of course, most American men, called upon to serve their country in the 1940s, driven by their sense of patriotism, accepted their call as a matter of duty. Neville Goddard was not so willing. He regarded himself at 39 to be too old for war, and he wasn’t that keen on war anyway, and on top of that he had his wife and his daughter to think about at home. But of course, he didn’t have a choice, so he was sent to Boot Camp in Louisiana. Frustrated by this as he was, after a short time he went to see his commanding officer, and he asked to be discharged. And as you might imagine, he was essentially laughed out of the room. He was told in no uncertain terms that he had a mandate and a duty to serve his country…
The Great Mother
This morning I am entering territory I have not traversed before. I’m thinking about the emergence of what we might term western esotericism, or western occultism, or modern spirituality. When we think about the emergence of an idea, or a set of ideas, it's worth thinking about how such ideas arose. An idea does not just appear – ex nihilo - out of nothing. The conditions, the architecture of ideas prevalent at a particular time, the softening of prior-held precepts, these are all essential prerequisites for an idea to arise. In general, I find academic genealogy a fascinating subject. Samuel Coleridge wrote ‘The dwarf sees farther than the giant, when he has the giant's shoulder to mount on.’ A variant of the well-known idiom, ‘We all stand on the shoulders of giants.’ We all benefit from the insights of bygone thinkers, and our progress, our discoveries, depend upon those who came before. Scholarship often consists of tracing back the intellectual lineage of particular ideas. And indeed, even thinkers who we might consider as remarkably original, like Newton, Freud, Darwin, or Marx, all have their intellectual forerunners who preempted their work and theories to some measure, and set the stage for their advent.
Journey Through Lent
Every year I reflect upon the significance of Mother’s Day, and every year it brings to mind for me the fact that for many, Mother’s Day, or Mothering Sunday, conjures up a lot of pain and hurt. For many of us, the day highlights not so much joy and thankfulness, but more the loss in our own lives, the loss of mothers, of wives, and of children, or brokenness in relationships, hurts surrounding thoughts of what could be, or what could have been. I think also, on top of that, Mother’s Day conjures up quite a narrow image of motherhood, which is not always helpful in this day and age. And so, this morning, I will be thinking less about motherhood in terms of the mother/child relationship per se, and more in archetypal terms - the collectively inherited unconscious idea of motherhood or mothering - and in this respect we can find expressions that far exceed the confines of the mother/child dynamic.
I’d only gotten this little way into writing this morning’s address, when I heard a bang down in the kitchen, and my cat Pod came barrelling up the stairs and into my office. I have two cats, Daisy and Pod, mother and son, and they don’t like each other at all…
This morning, as I have already begun doing, I am going to be reflecting on this season of Lent, and in part, this does lead on from some of my thoughts from last week on the ‘Binding of Isaac’. Last week we thought about the episode in Genesis in which Abraham takes his child Isaac, at God’s bidding, and leads him to a mountain to be sacrificed, and God, at the last moment, steps in and stops it from happening. We went through a few different ways we might parse out that troubling event, none of which, however, I think are ultimately adequate. I suppose the world does not always offer us adequate explanations, we’re sometimes left in the dark, in an uneasy space unable to reconcile things. We’re left with no other choice but to sit with and inhabit that uncomfortable space, or alternatively (as many people do) deny it, and pretend it’s not there. And I have a strong bias towards the former. Allowing ourselves to sit with the paradox, to live with our sense of unease, and not run away from it – that is to be more authentic to reality. And ultimately, I suppose, striving to be an awakened sort of person is about a greater awareness of reality, as it plays out in its kaleidoscopic fashion upon that multitude of planes. When our eyes are open, paradoxes become the norm, not the exception.