Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Reading the Sky

Christmas Day 2004:  Reading the Sky


As Morag was leaving to go back to England about ten days ago, she told me she had left me a present on my desk in the bedroom.  ‘Just so you’ll have something to open on Christmas morning,’ she said.  When I got back from seeing her off to the airport, I noticed the beautifully wrapped package and I noticed it every day thereafter, but I didn’t open it.  What’s more, I didn’t even pick it up, prod it, or shake it.  I waited, as instructed, until this morning.  How different, I’ve been thinking, from years gone by when I would have eagerly ransacked the house to find out what Santa had brought me!  Now – probably because I’ve got just about everything I need – the urgent desire to satisfy my curiosity seems well and truly under control.  And, of course, there’s also the fact that as one gets older Christmas doesn’t seem such a rare event as it used to be.  When I was a child Christmas night seemed like a terrible anticlimax, the beginning of an interminable 364-day wait until the next Christmas Day.  How would I be able to bear such a protracted interlude? But now Christmases tumble on top of each other with unseemly and frightening haste.  No sooner have I put my Christmas books back on the shelf – which I shall do immediately after this service ends – than I am picking them up again as Advent rolls round once more.

Christmas is different when you get older.  And, in addition to these purely subjective experiences of change, there are some objective ones.  In recent years there has most certainly been a move to eliminate all specifically Christian motifs from this mid-winter celebration.  Coca Cola and Budweiser don’t mention Christmas in their lengthy and expensive advertisements.  ‘Holidays are coming!’ they sing, as the festive Coke wagon trundles through the snow; and the ‘people at Budweiser’ wish us, not ‘Happy Christmas!’ but ‘a happy holiday season’.  And it seems that a new celebration has taken off in America.  It’s not Christmas or Hanukkah – these are far too religious; it’s not even Yuletide or Saturnalia – these are far too archaic.  It’s Festivus, first proposed by George Costanza’s father in the sitcom Seinfeld.  ‘Festivus,’ he said, ‘is a festival for the rest of us’ – modern people with no particular religious affiliation.  He proposed that, instead of a Christmas tree, there should be an aluminium pole around which the family should gather on 23rd December, not for the exchange of presents, but for a ceremony called The Airing of the Grievances, in which each family member in turn informs the others of the ways in which they have disappointed them during the year.  And the headmaster of a school in England decided that there would be no traditional Nativity Play this year.  Instead, there would be a production of Little Red Riding Hood.  As Ronnie Corbett commented on last week’s edition of Have I Got News For You, the headmaster presumably believes that a story containing a terrified girl, a talking wolf, and a disembowelling is more edifying than a story about the birth of a baby!

Christmas seems to be troubling us more now than it used to.  We don’t know what it means anymore.  There’s lots of scholarly debate about the historical accuracy of the nativity stories, so much indeed that this week’s issue of both Time and Newsweek have lengthy articles on Christmas controversies.  Both articles go over the same old tiresome ground:  When was Jesus born? they ask.  Was it when Herod the Great ruled in Palestine as Matthew’s Gospel tells us, or some ten years later when Quirinius was Governor of Syria, as Luke has it?  And was he born on 25th December or on one of about 150 other dates which have been proposed down the centuries.  (On Thursday, a learned professor suggested in a T.V. programme about the Star of Bethlehem, that, in all likelihood, Jesus was born on April 7th 7BC.)  Was he born in Nazareth or in Bethlehem, and, if Bethlehem, was it Bethlehem in Judea or Bethlehem in Galilee?  (I’d never heard about this latter place until last week!)

And so on, and so forth.  Enough historical conundrums to keep the scholars in doctoral topics and the rest of us in confusion until the end of time.  Why?  Because the gospel stories are full of historical inaccuracies, logical contradictions, and scientific implausibilities.  But these are not present in the text because of unreliable sources, defective memories, or mistaken observations; they are there to stop us taking the stories literally.  On Easter Sunday a few years ago I mentioned what the great Church Father Origen wrote in the third Christian century, and it bears repeating here:  absurdities and contradictions appear in the text to force us to look beneath the surface to find the real meaning of the story.  This statement should be printed in block capitals in the front of every Bible, and it should be tattooed on the forehead of every student of scripture.  Unless we take Origen’s  statement seriously we are at the mercy of squabbling historians and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a terrifying situation to be in. 


Outrageous and gratuitously insulting statement no. 1:  Whenever religion falls into the hands of historians it has the life sucked out of it!


I remember many years ago going with the whole school to see Lawrence Olivier’s film of Shakespeare’s Richard III.  As we were filing out after the film, one of the history teachers was shaking his head and saying to a colleague, ‘That’s not what happened.’  A shallow judgement indeed!  As if Shakespeare, in his great study of the depths of human tyranny and malice was even remotely concerned with something as trivial as what actually happened!  Richard was Shakespeare’s vehicle for conveying some insights into the nature of human depravity; Jesus is the evangelists’ vehicle for conveying insights into the nature of the spiritual life.


 Outrageous and deliberately provocative statement no. 2:  the birth stories in Matthew and Luke do not describe the physical birth of one individual in a cave two thousand years ago; they describe the spiritual birth in the soul of everyone who aspires to walk the path towards enlightenment.


And this spiritual birth is always a virgin birth, because it is not related in any sense (except symbolically) to physical birth.  It is brought about in the individual without the help of external agencies.  As St. John’s Gospel informs us, it is a birth that comes about, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (1:13).  And it always occurs in Bethlehem, which means, in Hebrew, The House of Bread; Bethlehem symbolises Virgo, the Virgin, the harvest sign of the woman carrying a sheaf of corn, (which will ultimately be made into bread).  And the birth of God-consciousness in the soul is always, throughout the Mystery religions of the ancient world, celebrated at this time of the year.  


And here is outrageous and profoundly heretical statement no. 3:  Christianity began life as a Mystery religion, based on the universal myth of the dying and rising God, who, in the myths of Attis, Dionysus, Isis, and Mithras was always born after the winter solstice in late December, when the sun reverses its direction in the sky and light returns to the world. 


The newly emerging, gradually increasing physical light of the sun symbolises the birth of the spiritual light in those who have discovered that spark of God within themselves and who acknowledge its latent presence in every other human soul.


In Timothy O’Grady’s beautiful lyrical novel I Could Read the Sky an old Irishman talks about his life as a labourer in England in the middle of the 20th century.  This is what I could do, he says: 


‘I could mend nets.  Thatch a roof.  Build stairs.  Make a basket from reeds.  Splint the leg of a cow.  Cut turf.  Build a wall.  Read the sky...
 But he couldn’t trust banks, wear a watch, drive a car, wear a collar in comfort, drink coffee, face the dentist, or understand the speech of a man from west Kerry. One night he looks up at the sky: 
‘To the south is Orion.  Across I find the Plough, the Seven Sisters, the Bear.  There’s Venus with a very white star above, and Cassiopeia.  The wide streak of the Milky Way like an exploded spine, Lyra, Pegasus.  I am sitting against the wall of a pig shed smoking a Woodbine and thinking about the mathematics of space....’


We sophisticated moderns, who wear watches, drink coffee, trust banks, and no longer smoke Woodbines, and who never think about the mathematics of space, haven’t got a clue what he is talking about: he may as well be talking like a man from west Kerry!  We can’t read the sky, and so we make nonsense of those stories written by people who read little else.  Getting a historian to interpret such stories for us is like bringing a plumber in to deal with the electrics.  You might be lucky, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

When we learn how to read the sky we realise that Christmas calls upon us to be bearers of the light, to bring to birth the God who lies dormant within the soul.  The ancient church called Mary Theotokos, a Greek term meaning ‘God-bearer’, and the Catholic Church, which preserves the vocabulary of these ancient mysteries but which has forgotten their meaning, honours her with that title today.  But, as Meister Eckhart said in the 12th century:  ‘Mary is blessed, not because she bore Christ physically, but because she bore him spiritually, and in this everyone can become like her’, a sentiment echoed by Angelus Silesius in the 17th century.  He wrote:


                   Though Christ were yearly born in Bethlehem and never

                   Had birth in you yourself, then were you lost forever.


‘A human being is nothing but a frightened God,’ said Maeterlink in the 19th century and, at a time when we are daily alerted to our collective follies by the media, and consistently told of our insignificance by influential thinkers, never have we, as a species, been more in need of such a tribute. 

James Martineau
And our very own James Martineau, who was Unitarian minister here in Dublin in the 19th century, said: ‘The Incarnation (God’s presence among human beings) is true not of Jesus exclusively, but of humankind generally and of God everlastingly.’

As the sun awakens once more in the sky, let us pray for the awakening of the light of God within the soul, because this – not presents, not sentimentality, not families even – is the perennial meaning of Christmas, its mystical meaning, and it has been since the dawn of time, ever since the poets among us started to read the sky.


25th December, 2004


Sunday, 23 December 2012

How to Write an Anti-God Book


There is undoubtedly a great deal of money to be made by writing a book against religion. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion has been among the best sellers for well over a year; yesterday (12th April) it was the 27th best-selling book on Amazon, which, when you think about it, is an amazing achievement. Ahead of it are the usual cookery books and popular novels, but to have a philosophical work so highly placed on the Amazon lists demonstrates that there is a real hunger among the British and Irish reading public for serious works about religion, particularly iconoclastic ones. God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens, Against all Gods, by A.C. Grayling, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell are selling well too; so well, in fact, that I thought that today I would give you a few tips so that you can get your snout in the trough and make a little money yourself.

            However, there is one major problem. We Unitarians have a lot in common with those who vent their spleen on conventional religion, and as I was reading through Dawkins’ book a few months ago, and re-reading Hitchens’ book on Friday, I was struck – a little reluctantly I must admit - by the number of times I felt I had to agree with them. Both authors are strongly critical of the religious indoctrination of the young, both reject the idea of ‘revelation’ (obviously), and both lament the way in which religion’s metaphysical claims, which, by their very nature, cannot be proved, have been – and still are – barriers to the acceptance of the rational and evidence-based conclusions of science. Unitarians would generally find themselves in the same camp on all these matters, so there is no doubt a great deal that these two books can teach us, and I would recommend Hitchens’ book particularly. Hitchens is one of the foremost journalists in the English speaking world, and he has an engaging, witty and accessible style which enables him to make sophisticated arguments in beautiful and intelligible prose. In addition, he doesn’t feel he has to be objective. His book is a polemic – an attack -, and he is not afraid to sprinkle his paragraphs with highly entertaining, if, at times, excessive, put-downs.    

            So this is lesson one in our course on writing a profitable anti-religious book: do not strive to be fair. There’s no need. We are living in a time when religion is on the back foot, struggling to maintain any vestiges of credibility, so few people among the ‘chattering classes’ are going to admonish you for your lack of objectivity. Certainly no Guardian columnist will do it. The intellectual climate is on your side; religion has become something to sneer at, so sneer away.

            In addition, try to cultivate an air of cultural superiority, showing how religion is primitive, and comes, in Hitchens’s fine phrase, ‘from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species’ (page 64), but how you are now part of the grown up portion of the human race. Exhibit, even when you deny you are exhibiting, what E.P. Thompson calls ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’, that is the wonderful benefits of hindsight which enable you to look down on the people of the past and to belittle their efforts at understanding.

            Next, don’t be afraid to blame religion for things which it may have played a part in but which it certainly hasn’t caused. A world without religion, says Richard Dawkins, would be a world


with no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, ......no persecution of Jews as Christ-killers, no Northern Ireland troubles, no ‘honour killings’....[i].


Goodness! Does he really think, for example, that the Northern Ireland troubles were – and are still – just about religion?  Religion has played its part, but has Dawkins so little sense of history, so little knowledge of sociology, of economics, of politics, of human nature – and particularly the psychological make up of young men -, that he can lay the last 40 years of Northern Ireland violence squarely at the door of religion? Does he think that the average member of the Provisional IRA gave two hoots about the veneration of the Virgin Mary and transubstantiation, or that the Red Hand Defenders believed that unless one had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ one couldn’t be saved? Such ideas are preposterous – and Dawkins knows it, or else he is incredibly naive. His paragraph is rhetoric – unfair, biased and myopic; which, of course, are the very charges he levels against religion.

            However, once you’ve made your wild and unsubstantiated claim, you can spend a good deal of your book analysing these various world ‘trouble spots’, showing how the ugly face of religion has been responsible for countless thousands of deaths, implying all the while that had religion not been a factor, everyone would have been able to live in peace and harmony. Maybe Professor Dawkins could be forgiven for such an outrageous intellectual gaffe, because his expertise is in biology not in sociology, but Christopher Hitchens cannot. As an ex-Marxist, he cannot have forgotten so quickly one of the basic tenets of his former faith: that people fight and kill over jobs, land, money, and power, not over doctrines. Doctrines are among the weapons employed, but they are not the cause of the conflict.

            And while you’re in the business of setting up ‘straw men’- that is easy targets for you to demolish - have a cursory read through the Bible and pick out a few choice bits which seem to show God or Jesus in a bad light. And make sure when you do this that you take everything literally; don’t allow for any scholarly or liberal interpretation; don’t make any concessions for the time your chosen passages were written or for the style they were written in. Take them absolutely at face value, just as do the fundamentalists whose ideas you attack with such vehemence. And don’t worry about getting your terminology wrong or about making elementary blunders. So what if, like Hitchens, you think that the word ‘synoptic’ is a synonym for ‘canonical’. These things don’t matter. Only a few people will realise that you don’t know what you are talking about.   

            In order to ensure that you don’t get lost in the multitudinous ramifications of religious activity, make sure that you keep your definition of religion simple. Restrict your analysis to religious ideas, creeds, metaphysics, all of which form part of the religious experience, but which do not exhaust it. In fact, it would be a good idea not to delve too deeply into the way people actually live their religion, by considering how the average believer understands the creeds and doctrines and applies them to her life. Mention the strident anti-abortion fanatics, and the anti-homosexual bigots, but don’t say anything about how millions of ordinary believers ‘will daily be giving some thought to their souls through prayer, meditation, Bible-reading and the like, activities which reach into the depths of the soul where the switches are thrown between kindness and cruelty, hope and despair’[ii]. This would be far too lengthy a process, and require much more sophisticated analysis than you have time or patience for. The less you know about religion the better. Professor Terry Eagleton, who, as far as I am aware, is himself no friend of conventional religion, says that Richard Dawkins has written a book about religion when he knows virtually nothing about it. ‘It’s like someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject comes from The Book of British Birds’, says Eagleton.

            But don’t let criticisms like this put you off. Not everybody can be an expert on biology, but, as we all know, anyone can appear to be an expert on religion.

            This leads us to what I consider to be the most important ingredient in your book: make sure that you don’t include very much about women. Religion, as Dawkins and Hitchens understand it, is about men arguing and fighting over doctrines, so it is a good idea to disregard the female experience. It is a strange fact – one that both our authors ignore – that while almost all religion is controlled by men, its main practitioners are women. Just like nursing and primary school teaching: women do them, but men are generally in charge.

            Christopher Hitchens has another book on the go at the moment: The Portable Atheist, and a very useful and interesting book it is too. It contains 47 contributions, but only 3 are by women, and one of those is George Eliot who, while certainly not a believer, was not a militant atheist either. In fact, she was associated for a while with the Unitarians in Shrewsbury. Judging by all these tomes, women have played very little part in the anti-religious movement down the centuries. This is not to imply that women can’t be atheists; it’s just that they don’t seem to have had the desire to shout too loudly about it.

            Women approach religion differently from men. This is a deliberate generalisation, but it’s not without substance. Doctrines are not that important to women, and fighting over them is certainly not important. Women come to religion in search of community, of belonging. They are impelled by those aspects of their experience that reason and logic can’t make anything of, the feeling that they are part of something bigger than themselves and that they are connected to this ‘something’ and to the world in subtle and mysterious ways. Women are more open to the numinous, and are less likely than men to dismiss so-called ‘paranormal’ experiences as irrational and delusory. Women are acutely aware that, in the words of our second reading today,[iii] you can’t say to your child ‘evolution loves you’, because the story ‘stinks of extinction’, and has no power, in itself, to explain those feelings of love, tenderness, and belonging that are undoubtedly part of our make-up, and undoubtedly necessary for our sanity.   

            So, if you are going to write your anti-religious book, it would be advantageous to be a man. What’s more, it’s probably a good idea for you to be born under the zodiac sign of Aries – the sign, as we discovered last year at this time, of the pugnacious crusader. All four leading figures in the current group of anti-God campaigners were born in late March or early April: Richard Dawkins on 26th March; his American counterpart, Daniel Dennett on 28th March, A.C. Grayling, author of Against all Gods, on 3rd April, and Christopher Hitchens is 59 today, 13th April. Now the female mind might be tempted – as I am tempted – to consider that this strange fact might have some significance, but the male attitude is to say that it is statistically meaningless, and to push it out of sight into a big box labelled ‘coincidence’, which has been specially constructed to accommodate every anomolous fact which offends against the materialist premise upon which their whole intellectual edifice is built.

            Which brings us to another stance you will have to take: throughout your work: you will have to claim that your system of thought doesn’t have dogmas, but is based entirely on rational and empirical deductions from observable facts. This is the biggest con of all, because Materialism, i.e. the doctrine that the material universe is all that exists, and its corollary, Epiphenomenalism, which holds that consciousness is a by-product of matter, are cornerstones of the whole philosophy, and are unwarranted assumptions, as much religious dogmas as anything emanating from the Vatican.

            Do you remember the episode of Father Ted in which three bishops come to Craggy Island to elevate the Holy Stone of Clonricket to a grade two relic? At the end of the episode, Father Dougal is asked by one of the bishops, ‘Are you having any trouble with your faith, Father?’ Dougal replies, ‘You know that stuff about God creating the world in six days, and his son Jesus coming to earth to die for our sins and after three days rising from the dead?’ ‘Yes,’ says the bishop. ‘Well, that’s the bit I’m having trouble with!’ says Dougal. I feel the same about the dogmas of Materialism. ‘You know that bit about there being nothing and then there was a big explosion when everything came into existence, and then after billions of years that little speck of matter called the Earth had just the right conditions for life to start, and then after millions more years life developed in such amazing profusion, culminating finally in the incredible mystery of human consciousness? And how all this happened because of a series of accidents? Well, that’s the bit I’m having trouble with!’

            Don’t let any doubts like this enter your anti-religious book; it would be fatal. Make sure that you belittle anyone who entertains such ideas, implying that they are intellectual pygmies, or soft minded fantasists, lacking the courage to accept the bleak and pointless universe you offer to them.

            And finally, don’t weaken your case by mentioning that there are religious systems which are not based on dogmas or on metaphysical speculation, which are genuinely open to insights from science, literature, philosophy, introspection, even though you use the work of people who were members of or sympathisers with such groups. So, quote liberally from Thomas Jefferson, as both Dawkins and Hitchens do, without mentioning that he was avowedly a Unitarian in outlook even if he was never a formal member of any Unitarian church.

            So there you have it: a recipe for a bestselling anti-religious book. Have a go for yourself. Make a little money. Or maybe not. Perhaps it might be best to save your energies for a book about genuine free thought, unhindered by dogmas of any kind, a book which would not start from the arrogant assumption that certain superior members of the human race (‘Brights’ as Dawkins call them) have come out of infancy and moved into intellectual adulthood, but from the much more modest – and realistic – assumption that we are all still in our collective intellectual childhood, and that we have a long way to go before we come of age.


Bill Darlison

A sermon given in Dublin Unitarian Church on 13th April, 2008




[i] From the Preface
[ii] Smith, Huston, (2001), Why Religion Matters, Harper San Francisco, page 115
[iii] Dunn, Stephen, At the Smithville Methodist Church

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Hanukkah – Festival of Rededication

My dad was considered to be something of a sceptic, a cynic even. A man of few words himself, he was always suspicious of anyone – particularly politicians – whose verbal skills seemed able to justify even the most disreputable of actions. ‘Whatever they say, they are just out to make money,’ was one of his recurring sentiments, and he even saw fiddling and chicanery in what seemed to us the most unlikely places. For example, he thought that cricket matches were ‘fixed’. Now, one can easily imagine a boxing match being fixed, or a formula one car race, or the Tour de France, but cricket? How on earth could they do it? Why on earth would they do it? My dad’s answer was simple. Cricket test matches are scheduled to last for five days, but they can be over earlier if each side has had its allotted two innings. So, to gain maximum revenue from spectators, steps are taken to ensure that the game lasts as long as possible. We used to laugh at this particular opinion, but twenty years after his death a number of scandals broke which vindicated him. The South African cricket captain Hanse Kronje was convicted of match fraud, and other top-class cricketers were implicated. They were betting that their own side would lose and taking steps to facilitate that outcome. Later, footballers, particularly goalkeepers, were accused of similar fraudulent activity.

My dad’s pessimistic approach to life can be explained, in part at least, by his life-experiences. He was born in 1907 and began to work down the mines at just 13. He lived through the First World War, the General Strike of 1926, the great economic slump of the thirties, and the Second World War. It would have been hard for a working class man to find too much in these experiences to give him confidence in the political or economic systems which seemed always to benefit the rich and to keep people like him in their place.

For all that my dad was a powerful presence within the family, I never followed his example. I was more influenced by my mother who, despite living through substantially the same experiences as my dad, always seemed more optimistic. She was conventionally religious, and she would generally give people the benefit of the doubt, rarely imputing mercenary motives to people in the way that my dad customarily would.

I inherited my mother’s religious outlook and her general optimism, but as the years have gone on I have at times found myself drifting more and more in the direction of my father. Getting older is certainly the main reason for this. You realise that you have seen it all before, and that despite the rhetoric of politicians and religious leaders, things will go along pretty much as they always have, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. You become resigned to the fact that commercial interests will continue to exploit our insecurities in the name of profit; that popular culture will continue its descent into previously unimagined depths of banality and tawdriness; and that religions will continue to squabble over trivialities. One is often tempted to ask whether it is all worthwhile, whether liberal religion, and liberal values in general have any merit, whether one’s own puny efforts are not impotent and irrelevant, and whether it wouldn’t be better to forget about it all, protect oneself against the encroachments of a corrupt society and live out one’s days in curmudgeonly isolation. As we get older we tend to become more right wing (although my father never did), and we begin to suspect that the old solutions – more discipline in schools, more punishment of criminals, and the iron fist against the enemy all seem to have more appeal.

Things are made worse, of course, by the winter cold and darkness; it’s much more difficult to be hopeful in the dark, and much more difficult to be sociable in the cold. In recent years, too, the gloom has increased because of the general economic downturn, which has left us all feeling vulnerable and exposed.

And it is at such a time, in the very depths of the earth’s winter and the soul’s dismay that the Jewish festival of Hanukkah comes round. Hanukkah is a moveable feast. It begins on 25th of the Jewish month Kislev, and is usually in December, but it can occur in November. This year it begins on the 8th December and lasts until the 16th. We Christians tend to ignore it, even if we are aware of it, or to see it as just an attempt on the part of the Jews to share in the Christmas spirit. But I think it has something very important to teach us.

Hanukkah means ‘dedication’. The festival celebrates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE, after it had been desecrated by the soldiers of the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus had invaded Palestine and had attempted a wholesale Hellenisation of Jewish culture. Circumcision was outlawed, a huge statue of the pagan god Zeus was erected in the Jerusalem Temple, and pigs were slaughtered on the Temple altar. Judas Maccabeus organised a revolt and eventually the invaders were expelled.


Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, olive oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. But there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle. (Wikipedia entry ‘Hanukkah’)

What could possibly be the relevance of this rather fanciful story to people like us? Rabbi Arthur Waskow, an American Jew who works closely with liberals in all the religious traditions, including Unitarians, tells us: we may not have a temple of stone to rededicate, but we can and must rededicate ourselves. Now is the time, the time of maximum darkness, to light, or relight our own little candle and recommit ourselves to those very values which time and circumstance seem to be eroding.

There are a number of ways of doing this. We can do it publicly, and maybe it would be no bad idea to develop a ritual of rededication which we can perform annually, perhaps on Membership Sunday or at the Anniversary Service. Perhaps we could perform it each year at Hanukkah time, and show our solidarity with Jewish people at the same time. But, since, as yet, we have no recognised public ritual, we need to do it on our own. This is what I do. Each morning, before I get out of bed, I recommit myself to those principles that have held my life together for five decades:


A reaffirmation of my belief that my life is a gift not a burden;

A recommitment to the principle of human brotherhood and sisterhood;

A determination not to take more than my fair share of the world’s goods and resources;

A resolution not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task

A determination to bear in mind these words of the American poet Miller Williams: Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don't want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.


You no doubt have your own list of principles that it would do well for you to reconsider and then silently renew. The morning is the best time for this. Before you fall asleep at night you should review your day; the night is best for contemplation. But the morning is best for commitment. Catholics are taught to say a ‘morning offering’ first thing, a dedication of everything they do that day to the higher purposes of God. Our ‘morning rededication’ has a similar purpose and should be done with as much fervour and regularity as we can muster. In this way we can help fight against the dreadful encroachments of world weariness and resignation.

We need to renew our dedication to the community which gives us strength and support in our efforts. Maybe it’s our Unitarian community, maybe it’s some other one. Whatever it is, we must constantly tell ourselves that on our own we are weak, but together we are strong. On each day of the festival, the Jewish people will light one more candle on their Hanukkah menorah. It’s a good image of the power of community: the flame spreads, the light increases. This poem by Marge Piercy, which I used to read on membership Sunday in Dublin, reminds us of the importance of solidarity.


Alone, you can fight,

You can refuse, you can

Take what revenge you can

But they roll over you.


But two people fighting

Back to back can cut through

A mob, a snake-dancing file

Can break a cordon, an army

Can meet an army.


Two people can keep each other

Sane, can give support, conviction,

Love massage, hope, sex.

Three people are a delegation,

A committee, a wedge. With four

You can play bridge and start

An organisation. With six

You can rent a whole house,

Eat pie for dinner with no

Seconds, and hold a fund-raising party.


A dozen makes a demonstration.

A hundred fill a hall.

A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;

Ten thousand, power and your own paper;

A hundred thousand, your own media;

Ten million, your own country.


It goes on one at a time.

It starts when you care

To act, it starts when you do

It again after they said no

It starts when you say We

And know who you mean, and each

Day you mean one more.


Together we have power. Judas Maccabeus and small band of committed fighters overcame the might of an empire. ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,’ said Margaret Mead.

But the Hanukkah story has another lesson to teach us. It tells us that when we rededicate ourselves miracles occur. Although there was only enough oil for one day, it held out for the duration of the festival. But, says Arthur Waskow, this was not the real miracle of Hanukkah. The real miracle was that although they only had enough oil to last for one day, they lit the menorah anyway. They could have given up. They could have followed the advice of the pessimists who were no doubt telling them that it was pointless. Just as Homer Simpson said to Bart, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, give up.’ But they didn’t. They went ahead, in spite of the odds that were stacked against them.

These are the lessons of Hanukkah: recommitment; rededication; solidarity; determination to act even though there seems little chance of any success. Its message is that we should light candles of hope, rather than curse the darkness in despair. These are the best antidotes we possess to that creeping cynicism which constantly tempts us to relax our efforts and even to abandon them. We must not give in to hopelessness.

My dad indeed tended towards pessimism, but he never surrendered to it completely, because he saw real positive and beneficial changes in his lifetime. In his view, the National Health Service in Britain was a colossal step forward, which was made because the people willed it and enlightened politicians engineered it. On a more personal level, the introduction of pit-head baths transformed his life and the life of his family. I can remember the miners coming home from work caked in coal dust and bathing in tin baths in front of the fire. But collective effort brought about a change which enabled the miners to walk home from work with some dignity.

 Pessimism is easy, because pessimists are usually right. But not always. Remember, David slew Goliath; Jack killed the giant. Pessimists are usually right, but only optimists have ever changed the world. Hanukkah calls upon us to keep alight the flame of our own optimism, inspired by Jesus’ promise that faith can move mountains, and by President Obama’s mantra, ‘Yes we can!’







Monday, 15 October 2012

What if Jesus had been a Follower of Ayn Rand?


I’ve been reading Charles Dickens all this year. To celebrate the bicentenary of his birth in 1812, I determined to read all his novels, in the order in which they were written, starting with The Pickwick Papers, which he wrote in 1836 – when he was 24 – and ending with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which he left unfinished at his death in 1870, aged 58.

          I finished Bleak House a few weeks ago, but rather than continue with Hard Times, the next in sequence, I decided to have a break and read something by Ayn Rand, the Russian-American novelist and philosopher, whose name seems to be appearing all over the place at the moment, principally because Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate in the forthcoming presidential election, has claimed that Ayn Rand is one of his sources of inspiration.

Ayn Rand
          Ayn Rand was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, and died in 1982. She called her philosophical system Objectivism, and wrote an essay called The Virtues of Selfishness, which, in a sense, tells you everything about her that you need to know. Her most famous novel is Atlas Shrugged, which she wrote in 1957. It was this novel that I decided to read since, I was informed, it presents a comprehensive account of her philosophical ideas in fictional form. At nearly 1200 pages, one needs the strength of Atlas to carry it around.

          In length it is very like Dickens. But that is where the similarity ends. In every other way, the two authors are diametrically opposed. Dickens was invariably on the side of the poor and dispossessed, extolling the virtues of simplicity and kindness and aiming his barbs at the rich and powerful. By contrast, Ayn Rand lionises the wealthy and successful, holding in contempt all those who depend upon the state for their livelihood, a whole class of people she refers to, dismissively, as ‘moochers’.

          Dickens presents a great array of characters, colourfully and entertainingly described in all their physical and psychological variety, and even his villains – like Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop – seem to have some redeeming features. Ayn Rand’s characters are flat by comparison. Her heroes are go-getters, empire builders, men (and they are usually men), who measure their success by the amount of money they make. Her villains are everyone else.

          Her villains, in fact, are the kind of people that other authors would praise, and it comes as quite a shock to the reader to find his cherished ideals held up to ridicule. Consider, for example, this little exchange between a certain Mr Lawson and Dagny Taggart, one of the novel’s principal characters (unusually, a woman).


‘I am perfectly innocent. Since I lost my money, since I lost all of my own money for a good cause. My motives were pure. I wanted nothing for myself Miss Taggart. I can proudly say that in all of my life I have never made a profit.’

  Her voice was quiet, steady and solemn:

  ‘Mr Lawson, I think I should let you know that of all the statements a man can make, that is the one I consider most despicable.’ (page 313)


Working for the common good, having a social conscience, being inspired by such ideals as fairness and equality, are signs of weakness and inferiority. For Ayn Rand, the only worthwhile motive anyone can have is profit, individual profit. This motive alone, she says, has transformed the world, brought inanimate nature under control, given us all the privilege of living with some measure of dignity and freedom. Those who have worked for their own profit are the real heroes of the human race, its real saints.

          The novel describes the chaos that would ensure were the great industrialists and entrepreneurs, whose enterprise has been stifled by high taxation and socialist bureaucracy, to withdraw their efforts, to disappear from the scene.  Atlas shrugged – the man who holds up the world has had enough. Let the ‘moochers’, the socialists, the liberals, the trade unionists, the Unitarians, get on with it. See what happens then.

          You can see how such an individualist philosophy would appeal to the political right-wing. Margaret Thatcher preached a similar doctrine in Britain in the 1980s, and it was satirised in the film Wall Street, which popularised the slogans, ‘Greed is good’, and ‘lunch is for wimps.’

A few weeks ago, President Obama was criticised for saying that no business was ever created by just one person. Some American businessmen were incensed, and a photograph appeared on the Internet of a group of men carrying placards which read, ‘I created my business myself’ or ‘I did it myself’. Ironically, it appeared during the Olympic Games, when every victorious athlete, without exception, was declaring, in their post-event interview, that their success would not have been possible without the aid of their   coaches, their teachers, their parents, their siblings, their spouses, their training partners and even, at times, their opponents. Incidentally, the opening ceremony of the Olympics featured an appearance by Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the Internet, who could have become the richest man who ever lived, had even a modest charge been made every time his invention was used. Instead, he chose not to profit from it. ‘This is for everyone’ he typed onto the giant screen in the Olympic stadium.  Ayn Rand would have despised him. By the way, Tim Berners Lee is a Unitarian Universalist.

          As I said at the beginning, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate is a fan of Ayn Rand, and made her works compulsory reading for the interns who came to work in his office. But he has a problem. He’s also a Catholic, and it is difficult to see how any philosophy – with the possible exception of Satanism – could be as inimical to Catholicism, and indeed, to Christianity in general, as the philosophy of Ayn Rand. She was an atheist, a proponent of abortion on demand -  presumably so that the world could be rid of potential ‘moochers’ before they were born – and, like one of her own gurus, Friedrich Nietzsche, a despiser of Christianity because of its concern for the weak and dispossessed. Fr. Jim Martin wrote the following amusing Ayn Rand-inspired version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand:


The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve apostles came to Jesus and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.” 2 But Jesus said to them, “Why not give them something to eat?” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 3 For there were about five thousand men. And Jesus said to his disciples, “You know what? You’re right. Don’t waste your time and shekels. It would be positively immoral for you to spend any of your hard-earned money for these people. They knew full well that they were coming to a deserted place, and should have relied on themselves and brought more food. As far as I’m concerned, it’s every five thousand men for themselves.” 4. The disciples were astonished by this teaching. “But Lord,” said Thomas. “The crowd will surely go hungry.” Jesus was amazed at his hard-headedness. “That’s not my problem, Thomas. Better that their stomachs are empty than they become overly dependent on someone in authority to provide loaves and fishes for them on a regular basis. Where will it end? Will I have to feed them everyday?” “No, Lord,” said Thomas, “Just today. When they are without food. After they have eaten their fill, they will be healthy, and so better able to listen to your word and learn from you.” Jesus was grieved at Thomas’s answer. Jesus answered, “It is written: There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” So taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and took one loaf and one fish for himself, and gave the rest to the twelve, based on their previously agreed-upon contractual per diem. But he distributed none to the crowd, because they needed to be taught a lesson. So Jesus ate and he was satisfied. The disciples somewhat less so. “Delicious,” said Jesus. What was left over was gathered up and saved for Jesus, should he grow hungry in a few hours. The very poorly prepared crowd soon dispersed.


          So, Paul Ryan has a bit of intellectual juggling to do before the election in November. He’s already tried to distance himself from Ayn Rand by saying that he is inspired by her economic principles rather than her social teachings, and no doubt there is more back-pedalling to come. It will be interesting to see how he can square his free-market economics with Jesus’s teaching that we cannot serve God and money; we can love one or the other, but not both at the same time. ‘What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?’ is not a question that would have troubled Ayn Rand; but it must surely trouble Paul Ryan.

          I don’t want to give the impression that Ayn Rand is a poor writer. Atlas Shrugged has its flaws. It is too long for a start, and it could have benefited from some serious editing. George Orwell’s Animal Farm provides a critique of society which is probably only one fifteenth the length of Atlas Shrugged, and is all the more memorable and effective as a consequence. In addition, Atlas Shrugged contains lengthy passages in which the author’s philosophy is put into the mouths of her characters, a tiresome and somewhat unimaginative method of making a point. It’s impossible to believe, for example, that someone would stand in a group at a wedding reception and speak fluently for at least half an hour on how the words ‘to make money’ hold the essence of human morality (page 414 and following!).  People generally have better things to do at wedding receptions than stand and listen to lectures on economics.

          That said, she can write powerful prose, and she does remind us that that all the things we take for granted have been won at great cost by human ingenuity, effort, and risk. Reading her work I mused at how she would have been appalled at all the petty regulations that have been brought in to control our lives and keep us in cosy, comfortable, risk free environments. (When I was at the General Assembly meetings in Keele in April, I had a lovely room with an en suite bathroom beautifully tiled in white, but the whole effect was ruined by a little notice above the hot tap which said, ‘Caution; hot water’)

          Her work also reminded me at times how I felt when Morag and I were driving through the beautiful but rugged terrain of New Zealand’s South Island last November. We marvelled at the courage and expertise of the men who had travelled for months on rickety ships through dangerous seas, blasted roads through rock, cleared jungle, planted crops, built houses on mountainsides. As Ayn Rand says, these things were wrought ‘by the power of a living mind – the power of thought and choice and purpose’ (page 241), and no one can argue with that.

          I, who cannot even put up a bookshelf – felt my own inadequacy and ineptitude. I would never have made a pioneer, an entrepreneur. My talents, such as they are, lie in other directions. And this is just my point – the simple, obvious point that Ayn Rand and those who think like her seem to forget: that we are all different; there is not just one template for the human being. We are various, and while the intrepid explorers and risk takers are vitally necessary, there’s room for the rest of us – the ‘moochers’, the daydreamers, the poets, the music-makers, and even the physically inept. I am more and more convinced that our problems are in no small part caused by people who want to build a world which accommodates just one type of human being. The science fiction writer, Kurt Vonnegut (also a Unitarian), said that when he was in college in the 1930s they were teaching that we humans are all basically the same, with just a few cosmetic differences brought about by environmental factors. They are probably still teaching the same stuff today, Vonnegut said. Whether the universities are teaching it or not, it seems to be a commonly held belief.

          But the Bible tells a different story. The Twelve Tribes of Israel, whatever their historical reality, are a metaphor for intrinsic differences among human beings, differences which constitute the remarkable and beautiful variety of human experience.

          The lesson is simple and obvious: individually, we are weak, incomplete, defective. No one is or ever can be self-sufficient. We need each other. Our weaknesses are compensated for by other people’s strengths. We’ve been created that way. We’ve evolved that way. We should rejoice in our vulnerability, in our individual inadequacies, the cracks that inevitably appear in each one of us, because acknowledging our individual cracks and inadequacies dispels the dangerous illusion of invincibility, and makes us acutely conscious of our interdependence.  In the words of Leonard Cohen:


Forget your perfect offering,

There is a crack, a crack in everything,

It’s where the light gets in.


The crack is where the light gets in. Recognising our individual weaknesses is the first stage of human maturity. St. Paul knew it, which is why he said, ‘In my weakness I am strong’. The English poet John Donne knew it, which is why he told us, ‘no man is an island entire unto himself’. And Dickens knew it, which is why he could depict and celebrate the great range and variety of physical and psychological characteristics among human beings, with all our foibles, follies, and failings.

          And Dickens did it with humour, which Ayn Rand couldn’t do. I never laughed once in nearly 1200 pages. There’s something seriously defective in any attempt to explain or depict human life which can’t even prompt a smile. It will be a sad day for the world if the disciples of this humourless woman gain any real political power.



Friday, 12 October 2012

Herodotus and Mark

While reading the Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE) yesterday (ah! the joys of retirement!) I came across a curious tale in Book IX of his Histories. It concerns King Xerxes (518-465 BCE) of Persia. He was married to Amestris, but he fell in love with the wife of his brother, Masistes, and in order to get closer to her, contrived to have his son Darius marry her daughter Artaynta. (Got that?) But, fickle soul that he was, Xerxes soon transferred his affections from mother to daughter. And for some strange reason, the young girl fell for him.

            His wife Amestris had made a beautiful robe for Xerxes and he wore it one day while visiting his niece/lover, Artaynta. She happened to ‘please him greatly’ on this occasion (I wonder how?), and so he said that she could ask him for anything at all and he would give it to her. She wanted the robe, but Xerxes, scared of what his wife - who already suspected that he was up to something - might say, offered the girl ‘cities, heaps of gold, and an army (!)’ in its stead. But she was adamant. Only the robe would do. So Xerxes, bound by his promise, reluctantly gave it to her.

            His wife found out. She assumed that the girl’s mother was behind it all, and determined to have her punished. ‘She waited till her husband gave a great royal banquet, a feast which takes place once a year, in celebration of the king’s birthday’ and asked him to give her the wife of his brother as a gift. Of course, he refused, but ‘wearied by her importunity, and constrained, moreover, by the law of the feast, which required that no one who asked a boon that day at the king’s board should be denied his request, he yielded, but with very ill will, and gave the woman into her power.’

Amestris had her mutilated: ‘her two breasts, her nose, ears, and lips were cut off and thrown to the dogs; her tongue was torn out by the roots, and thus disfigured she was sent back to her home. Her husband determined to have his revenge, but before he could ally himself with Xerxes’ enemies, the king had him and all his family slaughtered.


Now, I don’t know about you, but I see more than a hint here of the story of the death of John the Baptist as it is told in the Synoptic Gospels. Here’s my translation of Mark’s version:


Herod was in awe of John because he knew him to be an upright and holy man, and he kept him safe. He would listen to him gladly although he was puzzled by what he said.

      Jesus’ reputation was growing, and a report of his activities reached King Herod who thought that these amazing things were happening because John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. Others thought that it was Elijah or a prophet like one of the prophets of old. When Herod heard of it he said, ‘John, the one I beheaded, has been raised from the dead.’ This self-same Herod had sent for John, seized him, bound him, and imprisoned him, on account of Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip, whom Herod himself had married. John had told Herod that it wasn’t lawful for him to take his brother’s wife, and so Herodias held a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him, but she wasn’t able to.

      Herodias’ opportunity came when Herod threw a party on his birthday for his court, his high ranking military men, and the leading citizens of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests so much that the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for anything you want and I’ll give it to you!’ He gave a solemn promise, ‘Even if you ask for half my kingdom I’ll give it to you!’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’ Her mother replied, ‘The head of John the Baptist!’

The Death of John the Baptist, by Caravaggio
      She rushed straight back to the king and said, ‘I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter!’ The king was very sad, but because of his oaths and his guests there was no way he could refuse her. He dispatched an executioner with orders to bring John’s head immediately. He went off and beheaded him in the prison and brought the head on a platter and gave it to the girl, who gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it they came and took John’s body and placed it in a tomb.  (Mark 6:14-29)


Did you notice the similarities?
- King infatuated with his brother’s wife/married to his brother’s wife.

- Brother’s wife’s daughter 'pleases the king greatly'.

- King’s birthday celebration.

- King’s outrageous promises, oaths and offers.

- Scheming, jealous, vindictive queen.

- King’s reluctance to comply with the requests made to him.

- Brutal, tragic end.


There's also another if you count the fact that one is about Herod and the other is by Herodotus.


What’s going on here? Some years ago, Dennis R. McDonald showed how parts of Mark’s text were influenced by Homer’s epics, and now it seems that Herodotus features too. My own book (The Gospel and the Zodiac, available for £6.99 from Amazon) demonstrates that Mark’s Gospel is structured on the signs of the zodiac.


How long are people going to continue to maintain that the Gospels are history?