Cain & Abel
The two brothers, Cain and Abel, are the first two sons of Adam and Eve. It’s an episode which appears very early on in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. In Genesis chapter 1 we have the first creation account, in chapter 2 the second creation account, in chapter 3 the whole ‘eating of the forbidden fruit’ incident, the first sin, and the couple’s subsequent expulsion from the garden of Eden. And then in chapter 4 is the story of Cain and Abel. The story goes like this: Once Adam and Eve had been expelled and were living outside of the garden of Eden, Eve bore Cain, and then she bore Abel. As far as the mythological account is concerned, Cain and Abel are therefore the first two people to be born of natural means. We’re told that Abel grew up to become a keeper of sheep, and Cain grew up to become a tiller of the ground. But for reasons we’ll get into, their relationship went sour. They became adversarial, and ultimately Cain murdered Abel.
As far as I’m concerned, this is not an historical account, it’s not a record of events - it’s a story, a myth, but that actually makes it more important, not less. Let me explain why. If someone was to write a short story or article today, they could immediately publish it online…
Haunting the Wood
Although I have referenced ‘Christ Consciousness’ several times from this pulpit I have never fully articulated what I understand it to be. It’s a way of recognising that in Jesus, there is something intrinsically more important than the mere words he spoke, more important than his teachings. Because teachings alone are problematic. A teaching, or a rule, or law, or precept, is by default a surface level thing, and Jesus wasn’t very concerned with surface level things. Whether we understand an individual to be adhering to a teaching or rule is, however, entirely dependent upon our observation of that person, on the external appearance of things. One might appear to be observant, following as they do the letter of the law, but in fact, be entirely disregarding the spirit of the law. To think about this in more depth, we can turn to some of the Mosaic Laws laid down in the Old Testament. Namely, the most well known, The Ten Commandments: ‘Thou shall not kill’, and ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’ to take two. In examining these two you will see just how wide the gulf can be between what we might instinctively feel these commandments are driving at, and how they were actually implemented.
So, to take the first ‘Thou shall not kill’ - pretty clear right? ‘Do not kill.’ Well, it is certainly not that straightforward…
The Eschatology Parables
I went walking in Rendlesham Forest, to escape into woodlands, to escape into Nature. I went along one of the popular trails that skirted the Woodbridge Airfield, a place with its own interesting Cold War mythology. For portions of the trail there were others in sight, families out for a walk, and at other times I found myself to be alone. At one such time, probably about a mile east of the airbase, I was struck by the quality of the silence, and so I left the dirt path and strolled into the forest a little way until I found the ideal spot. It is surprisingly difficult to find a spot such as this in Suffolk, to find yourself in thick woodland, and for the only sound to be that of the wind in the trees. A spot devoid of the traffic’s hum. I was standing amongst the tall conifers and silver birches, light reaching down to the detritus-strewn woodland floor, pines, leaves, and clusters of bracken growing, the sound of the birds singing, as I took a deep breath, and breathed in the smell of pine resin, and the wild air. That’s the spot where I simply waited. This morning, let us wait together in the wood.
Spirit of Love and Light,
Light that reaches between the swaying branches,
Bringing its vitality to all it touches,
Even to this place,
Wherein your secrets are hidden,
Æ’s Religious Cosmology
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” This morning I thought we could consider a set of parables often overlooked. We’re all familiar with the parable of the sower, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the parable of the lost sheep. But there is a set of parables that are often passed over, known as the Eschatology parables - the parables concerned with the end of days. Much like any religious teacher, Jesus has a handful of topics he cannot help returning to time and time again. And this is reflected in the parables (the teaching stories) he tells, most of which fit into five subject areas; and those are: 1) the Kingdom of Heaven (how to recognise, see it, and hear it); 2) the journey of the lost one; 3) on love and forgiveness generally; 4) on the nature of prayer; and finally, 5) on Eschatology. And out of those five, the most prevalent, the topics which Jesus returns to most often in his parables, are the Kingdom of Heaven, and most of all, eschatology. And yet that prevalence is certainly not reflected in sermons preached subsequently throughout the world over the last two millennia.
Our reading was the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree, one such eschatology parable. Jesus says in the same way that a fig tree becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, and so you know summer is approaching, so also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near…
Lammas & the Mundus Imaginalis
George William Russell was an Irish nationalist, poet, artist, and mystic, who went by the pseudonym Æ. Today I’ll be exploring his religious views, and his overall religious cosmology. And by ‘religious cosmology’ I mean that set of myths and narratives, through which he understood and orientated himself within the universe. Whenever we’re considering a thinker or writer, we of course gain a great deal of insight by merely learning which thinkers and writers they themselves held in high regard, and the three individuals held in high regard by Æ were Madame Blavatsky, alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.
When it comes to the foundational principle that underlies Æ’s religious cosmology, it is, in an Emersonian fashion, Nature, the breath and pulse of Nature, infusing his imagination. But unlike Emerson, whom we imagine, between his time lecturing, reading, and writing, strolling through Concord’s surrounding natural beauty, Æ had no such luxury. His artistic endeavours were not notable enough in his day to constitute a livelihood in and of themselves, and so he was obligated to take on various clerical jobs throughout his life, working in particular for the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, a co-operative movement in Ireland. As such, when Æ reflected on Nature, or remembered back upon those times he spent in Nature as a child, he did so in an office surrounded by heaps of paper…
The Lost Sheep/Coin
When I think of Lammas tide, I think of one tearing the first loaf of the harvest, a move from scarcity to abundance.
I think of the crops, the rain falling on blackened soil, Fields, trees, the thicket, green on green, From the highlands, to Suffolk’s Coast and Heaths, From Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’, and even further afield, my thoughts migrate to the god-haunted Central sea, Or to the peaks of Snowdonia, and from there to the very shore of Galilee. I think of the multiplicity that I’ve trod; the purple heather, gravely paths up mountains, and the running, living water. I think of the rhythms of creation, the rising and falling…
I think of the glory which inhabits nature, that inexplicable force, and I think of my own task as I increasingly see it here in this Meeting House, to be an ambassador for that plane beyond this world of illusion, that realm within the depths of the self, the mundus imaginalis. And my uplifting task to grope around for the words to express something of that realm, that I myself have only but momentarily beheld, as through a “dusky transparency” as this morning’s sage - George William Russell - expresses it. He was an Irish mystic, and poet, who I have only just discovered this week, and yet his words I have felt a resonance to. I haven’t been able to put him down…
A transcendental crossing
The parable of the Lost Sheep, and the parable of the Lost Coin. At their most straightforward, they are both parables around the theme of being lost, lost individual, lost souls, and who are they lost from? God. And so God goes out of his way to find the lost individuals, and when he does, he rejoices; as the reading concludes ‘there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ That is the commonly given interpretation, that is the Sunday School version of the two parables if you like, but as is the case with most simple things, if we take the time to look closer, we tend to uncover hidden depths, hidden mysteries. So, let us begin by exploring the context.
We’re told Jesus is gathered with tax collectors and sinners, tax collectors being a group so sinful that they warrant special mention, and then ‘sinners’ being a catch-all term for all the other offenders present. The reason tax collectors (and this would be a reference to ‘Jewish tax collectors’) were seen as so deplorable, was that they were in service to the occupying force, the Roman Empire, and as such were regarded as being traitors against the Jewish people. Tax collectors’ livelihoods was literally dependent upon the oppression being wrought against fellow Jews…
Philosophy of the Bouquet
I had shut my eyes and walked backwards only a little way, trying as hard as I could to pay no heed to the loud noises about me. Someone tried to have me sign a petition, to save some Amazonian moth, but I managed to get past them. Then I stumbled through a door, and I heard a girl’s voice, and she sounded terribly bored; she tried to sell me on a cup of coffee. It was pricey, but didn’t I know that the coffee bean farmers in Ethiopia were poorly paid? I told her that I didn’t drink coffee, but she didn’t seem to care, it wasn’t about the coffee really, it wasn’t even about the farmer. It was about the brand, and what the brand said about me. But I managed to get away. I had backed up even further, and that sound, that constant noise, finally began to abate. It was still then, for a moment, as I went eyes-shut backwards along my way, before finally, in a singular backward stride, my right foot landed with a splash in some water.
I opened my eyes. It was a shallow river, gently flowing, with a forest on the other side. I could have easily waded across, but I noticed an old bridge just a little way along from where I was, so I made my way to it. The old bridge was made of granite stones; it must have been there for thousands of years, so perfectly was it integrated into the landscape about it…
Britannia, Marianne, & Columbia
Here is a bouquet of flowers, made beautiful in its diversity, and in its variety of colours. But also made beautiful in the fast-paced decisions we made as we entered the Meeting House this morning. As we approached the vase, we perhaps unconsciously made some snap decisions about how we would thread our flower into this bouquet; there were choices surrounding the flower we would contribute, where we would position it within the bouquet, and even how we would orientate it in relation to the other flowers already present. Whenever we arrange a bouquet, we’re making a similar set of decisions, and they’re not necessarily calculated decisions (they’re probably not), they’re decisions based on our intuition, and based on our sense of what we feel looks right. An interesting phenomenon for us to consider. We look at a bouquet in progress, and we discern what we need to do to it, the foliage we need to add, the gaps we need to fill, the clusters of sameness here or there that we need to distribute more evenly, the balance we’re trying to achieve, a balance which counter-intuitively arises out of chaos, out of the odd numbers of flowers. We arrange the bouquet much like how we arrange baubles on a Christmas tree. Slowly we add layers to the bouquet, and slowly it takes on a unique character, which nonetheless conforms to an indwelling sense of beauty…
Barfield and the landscape of Imagination
In Christian liturgy there is an often-used salutation, ‘The Lord be with you’, and the congregation responds, ‘And also with you.’ Of course, English Christian liturgy is by and large derived from the Catholic Latin liturgy. The salutation in Latin is ‘pax vobis’, meaning ‘peace to you’. The greeting is often called, simply, ‘The Pax’. The word ‘Pax’, recurs in the Latin interpretation of the Gospels, which became the standard version, and Latin the standard language of the Church during the fourth century. ‘Pax’, however, is not simply a word which invokes the concept of peace, it goes deeper than that. Pax was a Roman goddess, the Roman goddess of Peace. And so ‘Pax’ is a word which invokes the personification of peace and all that entails: in peacetime there is social harmony, there’s prosperity (because trade can be conducted freely), and ‘Pax’ is also closely associated with the feminine or maternal spirit, for in peacetime things can be nurtured into life - new life can come forth - and as such ‘Pax’ is also closely associated with the season of Spring.
Within the pantheon of Roman gods, there is an interrelationship between the gods, an interrelationship which invokes an unconscious association between one personified concept and another, much like archetypes have an association. One God (or goddess in this case) associated with Pax, is Concordia…
So, there I am drinking a pint of beer. My life of ministry did not begin within Unitarianism, but in the Church of England. I did a curacy in the diocese of Portsmouth, which is essentially (if you don’t know) the probationary period you need to undertake before you can become a fully-fledged priest within your own parish. And the curacy part was quite enough for me to realise that the Church of England was not for me, for many reasons, but it essentially came down to my inability to be authentically me in that context, unable to roam freely across the landscape of my own curiosity. And my ability to do that, to freely explore ideas, to think about them, to talk about them, as I’m doing now, is at the heart of my vocation. It's why I get up in the morning.
So, I’m drinking my beer in a pub in Oxford. The pub’s name is ‘The Eagle and Child.’ I lived in Oxford for a year before I took up my post in Ipswich. The reason I was in Oxford is it just so happens that as I was trying to get out of Anglicanism, my wife Cat was herself trying to get in, and it just so happened that around the same time that I resigned from the Anglican Church, my wife was accepted to train for ministry in Oxford to become a priest herself. So, I had the very odd and strange experience of resigning from the Church of England, and immediately going to live in a college where they’re training priests for the Church of England…
The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily
We have before us a series of images, a series of pictures. It is almost like we are awakening some ancient memories. We have, from last week, ascension – we have the image of Jesus leaving his disciples, being taken up, and vanishing into the clouds. Now, we have the image of Pentecost, that of a rushing wind coming from heaven, and filling the house where the disciples were sitting. We have tongues of fire appearing among them, resting upon each of them. And following that, coming from them, we have every known language being spoken, and the perplexed people looking on. If we think of all this as a series of images, as opposed to a series of concepts, it can be easier to hear what they’re trying to communicate to us. A picture carries, after all, a higher bandwidth of information. We can imagine ourselves within a picture; we can’t imagine ourselves within a concept.
A concept has the added problem that it can shut us down. We listen and listen, until we’ve understood the concept, and once we’ve understood, we need not listen or ruminate any further. But a picture within our imagination works, on the contrary, in a living way. It cannot be exhausted, it speaks to each of us afresh. It goes beyond mind and reason, and speaks to us as spirit, or as the word appears in Greek, as pneuma. Pneuma, which is translated as spirit, wind, or breath.
This morning I’m returning to the world of esoteric culture, the theosophical society, the world of Madame Blavatsky, the world in which people explore the knowledge of the hidden. And in particular I wanted to think about one important person from that world - the turn of the century Austrian, Rudolf Steiner. His name in this country is most closely associated with education. You may have heard of Steiner Schools, which use the experimental education curriculum designed by Rudolf Steiner. Each day is punctuated with exercise, movement, and dance; it’s an education system which is supposed to be more holistic, spiritual, and focused on creating harmony within society.
Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861, and he was something of a polymath. He traversed a broad landscape of ideas; he was a philosopher, studying, in particular, German idealism, he was a contributor to a literary journal, and he was a Goethe scholar. Goethe, who we know as the author of Faust, was a very influential German thinker. He’s essentially the Shakespeare, or the Dante, of Germany. Goethe was the archetypal German scholar, and many Germanic scholars have latched on to Goethe and drawn a great deal of inspiration from him, including Hegel, Jung, Freud, and Nietzsche, to name a few…
Philip and the Eunuch
The enigmatic nature of the lyrics makes ‘American Pie’ a song practically begging to be analysed. I will certainly not be the first to do so; since it was first released in 1971, it has enticed many to consider its words, even though Don McLean himself has always been reticent to give us all the definitive meaning. We’re left needing to piece together the parts for ourselves. I can picture myself, quite vividly, sitting in the back of our Cherokee, looking out into the dry Texas landscape, as the music played. A long time ago, in a world so alien to my life as is now, it could almost be unreal. This simple scene epitomises my childhood nostalgia, the world I long to return to, although what that is specifically, what I long for, defies words and logic. There’s nothing specific, just a sense of things as were, a nostalgic sense. And the soundtrack of my nostalgic sense is American Pie.
American Pie itself is, of course, a song about nostalgia, which in harmony together - my memories and this song - deepens that sentimental quality and transports me back, in a synchronistic fashion (or in Walt Whitman’s miraculous everyday fashion, or in a Proustian, the infused moment of meaning, fashion), into a world I can now only glimpse but fleetingly. The lyrics themselves begin with looking back, back into the world of a little boy, remembering how, ‘That music used to make [him] smile.’
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…
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?