Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Baptist and the Christ: Cancer vs Capricorn

The Baptist and the Christ: Cancer vs Capricorn

(This sermon was given in Dublin on 19th June 2005)

Next Tuesday, 21st June, is Midsummer Day, the longest day of the year. Barely will the sun set before it is rising again. In former times, when people were more attuned to the rhythms of the earth and sky than we are, it was celebrated with bonfires and feasting, and no doubt the neo-pagans among us will be out in the woods and on the hillsides, at Stonehenge and Newgrange, on Tuesday, keeping alive our ancestral customs, acknowledging our dependence upon the sun for life and livelihood. It’s always been a rather special day for me, because it was my dad’s birthday – he would have been 98 on Tuesday – and it is also the anniversary of my ordination to the ministry.

Astronomically it is the day of the summer solstice, when the sun reaches its point of maximum elevation in the northern hemisphere. From that point on it will begin its slow decline, the days growing progressively shorter, until it reaches its lowest point on December 21st, the winter solstice, when it barely rises before it sets, and motorists are troubled, even at midday, by the low-lying sun shining directly into the windscreen.
Mary with John the Baptist and Jesus (Raphael)
From the very beginning of Christianity, the time of the summer solstice has been associated with John the Baptist, and his feast day will be celebrated in Catholic churches next Friday, June 24th. The ostensible reason for this is that, in the Gospel of Luke, we learn that John’s mother, Elizabeth, was already six months pregnant with John when Mary became pregnant with Jesus, so if Jesus was born on 25th December, John should have been born six months earlier, on 24th/25th June.
This six month gap in their ages could be a pure historical accident, of course, but I am inclined to think that their births have been spaced six months apart in order to identify them with the two solstices. One clue for this comes in something John says in the Gospel of John: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’, which is a perfect description of the sun’s behaviour between the two solstices: at the summer solstice, when John the Baptist is born, the sun begins its southerly journey – it ‘decreases’; at the winter solstice, when Jesus is born, it begins its northerly ascent – it ‘increases’.
And there is a further clue which does not come directly from the Gospels. In the ancient mystical schools, out of which Christianity sprang, there was the belief that souls incarnated on earth through two celestial gates: one gate was the zodiacal constellation of Cancer, through which human souls came to birth; the other was the constellation Capricorn, through which the souls of the gods were born. Such thinking is reflected in Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus faces two doorways in a cave in Ithaca: one, facing north, is Cancer, the door through which human beings may go; the other, facing south, is Capricorn, and is reserved for the gods. ‘No mortal feet may pass there,’ says the text. The sun enters Cancer at the time of the summer solstice, and Capricorn at the winter solstice. John is born through the gate of Cancer, so his birth is a mortal birth, which helps to explain what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Of all those born of woman, there is none greater than John the Baptist; but even the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.’ John represents the finest qualities of a human being, but Jesus calls us to something higher.
(You no doubt find this astrological stuff strange, but I stress now as I always stress when I mention these things, that the Gospels were not written last week by graduates in media studies and journalism from UCD. They belong to a culture very different from our own, one in which the starry sky played a very significant part. We forget this at our peril.)
The Gospels contrast the teachings of the two. As we saw in our reading today, John’s teaching is purely conventional and pragmatic. He tells those who have two coats to give one away, and those who have plenty of food to share with those who have none. He himself lives frugally, dressed only in animal skins, and he eats locusts and wild honey – not a terribly appealing diet, but one that is hardly likely to upset the ecological balance. His advice to the tax collectors is, ‘Don’t collect more than you are entitled to collect,’ and he tells the soldiers to stop extorting money and to be content with their pay. What John the Baptist is really saying is ‘behave yourself’, ‘do your duty,’ ‘remember that you share the earth with other people and you must respect their rights as well as your own’. If John were alive today he would probably be a member of the Green Party, demonstrating at the G.8 Summit in a duffel coat and sandals, calling for a cancellation of the Third World debt, while eating vegetarian cheese and wholemeal bread. John would also make a good, earnest, worthy, Unitarian, convinced that the sum of human happiness would be immeasurably increased if only we would start to act with a bit more consideration and civic responsibility. We Unitarians don’t have patron saints, but if we did John the Baptist would probably head the list.
Contrast this kind of conventional teaching with that of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t tell us to share what we have, but to give it all away; he doesn’t tell us to consider the rights of our neighbours, but to love them as we love ourselves; he doesn’t tell us to fight fairly, he tells us not to fight at all, even if we have to pay for our submissiveness with our lives. Jesus doesn’t tell us to keep the rules; he says there are no rules for those who genuinely love. He doesn’t, like some reformist politician, encourage us to build a tidier and more just version of the society in which we are now living; he holds out the prospect of a way of life so radically different from the one we have now that it will be as if the stars have fallen from the sky and a new heaven and a new earth have come into being.
Challenging stuff. No wonder we’ve chosen to ignore Jesus and follow John the Baptist instead. Indeed, Christianity should really be called Baptistianity, since we’ve opted to go down the route of political and economic pragmatism outlined by John. And where has it got us? A quick trawl through any textbook of world history should remind us that we human beings have never been able to get the political or economic formulae right, and a glance at the news on any day of the week should alert us to the fact that we don’t seem to be any nearer finding a solution to our ills than we were two thousand years ago. Thousands of children will die today because they don’t have access to clean water. Thousands more will go blind through eye diseases which are perfectly and easily preventable. The world is torn apart by war today as it has been since the beginning of time, and I, like many of you, have lived most of my life under the threat of nuclear annihilation, a threat which has still not receded completely. Instead of the gradual amelioration of conditions envisaged by our optimistic ancestors, the last century witnessed the cruel death is warfare of more people than at any other time in the past. By the bitterest of ironies, the 20th Christian century was more bloody than the first. And just last week, a new biography of Mao Tse Tung claims that this man, hailed by so many in China and throughout the world as a political saviour, was responsible for the death of 70 million Chinese people, putting him above both Hitler and Stalin as the 20th century’s most notorious political tyrant.  
Closer to home, the marching season will soon be getting under way in the north, and last night UTV showed film of the first salvos being launched – the stones, the water cannons, the riot shields, the ambulances. And although we in the developed west may have cleaner bodies, better diets, and longer lives than our ancestors, the aimless hedonism of our material prosperity only serves to highlight our cultural and spiritual bankruptcy. Last week’s Searchlight programme was asking why 300 young people – mostly men – have committed suicide in the past few years in Northern Ireland. And our prosperity has not freed us from vindictiveness and spite. (This is a trivial but telling example.) A little while ago, the highly respected British radio broadcaster, John Humphries, said that his ten-year-old son could read the news better than Huw Edwards or Fiona Bruce (he was really complaining about the high salaries these T.V. presenters earn). A few days later, Hugh Edwards – smart, intelligent, urbane, educated, sophisticated – got his own back in a speech, referring to John Humphries as ‘the dwarf, John Humphries’. I despair when I read such things. What chance is there of peace and harmony, of a genuine new world, when even our most accomplished citizens see fit to trade hurtful insults like this?
The answer is, of course, that there is no chance. We are going to hell in a handcart, and our best efforts seem to be devoted to damage limitation. And Bob Geldof – a reincarnation of John the Baptist if ever there was one – is currently goading us all into action on behalf of Africa’s dispossessed and starving millions, but even his heroic efforts will have little more than cosmetic effect, as he himself will freely admit.
Concentrating on that which is purely human within us, that which is symbolically born at the summer solstice, has failed and is destined to fail, for the simple reason that, as the children’s story today illustrated, none of us is, in our human nature, fit to plant the tree which will yield the golden peaches. But we are forgetting the other side of the polarity, that which is born at the winter solstice, the divine nature in which we all, as sons and daughters of God, participate. Mystical Christianity – along with the mystical strands of all the spiritual systems – teaches that we are more than physical organisms, more than random assemblages of molecules, more than super-intelligent apes. It tells us that all of us, without exception, have, as the Quakers say, ‘that of God within us’, that we are sharers in the creative process, ‘gods in ruins’ as Emerson put it. The secular philosophies which dominate the intellectual world in the materialistic west have done their best to drive such thinking from our consciousness, with catastrophic results I might add, and even the conventional Christian systems seem to imply that we can only become adopted sons and daughters of God if we behave ourselves and if the right magical formulae are chanted over our heads. When the Calvinist, Ian Paisley, was asked, ‘Surely we are all children of God, aren’t, we?’ he thundered in reply, ‘No, we are not. We are children of wrath!’ This, along with countless other misguided theological and philosophical attempts to stress our sinfulness, our wickedness, and our insignificance has succeeded in rendering us little better than naughty squabbling, children, fighting for the last biscuit on the plate.
But Jesus, symbolically born as the light is born at the winter solstice, calls us to recognise our divinity, and tells us that when we do, when we acknowledge our oneness with God and with each other, when we crucify the false self of the grasping, fearful ego, and discover our true identity as sharers in the divine essence, the kingdom of God will appear automatically.
It won’t come with politics. As the Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani wrote just before his death: ‘I have always had great sympathy for revolution. I was in favour of the Vietnamese revolution, the Chinese revolution – all revolutions interest me. And now I realise; all the external revolutions have changed nothing, have only created more violence, more death, more tears. So there is only one possible revolution, the spiritual one, that each person has to learn by himself, but probably all together, can change the fate of mankind.’
We have put our hopes in the way of John the Baptist, the political way, and we have no option but to keep following it. But remember, John is only the precursor, the forerunner. John, like Moses, could never take people into the Promised Land. That role fell to Joshua, whose name is just the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek name Jesus. The way of Jesus is the way of internal, spiritual revolution. It’s time to rediscover it and give it a try.

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Tears of Things (Lacrimae Rerum)

Lacrimae Rerum – The Tears of Things

‘Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward.’ (Job 5:7)

The Aeneid by Virgil is one of the most important literary works of the western world, and probably the most celebrated poem in the Latin language. The poem was completed about 20 years before the birth of Jesus. Its hero is Aeneas, a veteran of the Trojan War, who has escaped the burning ruins of Troy and has been wandering on sea and land for six years in search of a new city for himself and his companions. As the poem opens, his implacable enemy, the goddess Juno, has just engineered a terrific storm, forcing Aeneas to take refuge in Carthage, on the North African coast. The queen of this land is the beautiful Dido, who is fated to fall in love with Aeneas, and who will eventually take her own life when that love goes unrequited.
          Before this fateful meeting, however, Aeneas looks around the huge temple of Juno which is under construction, and he marvels at its size and its magnificence. Suddenly his attention is caught by a series of murals depicting incidents from the Trojan War, the war in which he himself had lately fought.

In one picture he sees a young boy, stripped of his armour, being dragged along, helpless, behind his horse, his neck and hair trailing on the ground. In another, the women of Troy, their hair unbound, are beating their breasts in grief imploring the assistance of the goddess Pallas Athene, but the goddess has turned her face away. A third picture shows Achilles, who has dragged the body of Hector three times round the walls of Troy and is now selling his corpse for gold. 

Achiles Drags Hector Round the Walls of Troy (Matsch)
While viewing these scenes of carnage and grief, Aeneas weeps and utters the famous line, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’, ‘There are tears at the heart of things, and men’s hearts are touched by what human beings have to bear’.  
          The abiding relevance of Virgil’s poem lies in its stark presentation of the human situation. Here we are, all of us, like Aeneas, born into a world we don’t understand, struggling against forces we can’t control, all the while conscious of our transience and our mortality. The 20th century British poet, A.E. Houseman, puts it like this:
I a stranger and afraid
          In a world I never made.

Virgil in the 1st century BCE, Houseman in the 20th century CE, and five centuries before Virgil, the biblical Book of Job – another neglected work of genius – asks the same perennial question: why do people suffer? Or, more precisely, why do innocent people suffer?
          Job, we are told, is a man ‘blameless and upright’. He fears God and shuns evil. As the story opens, he has seven sons and three daughters, seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred donkeys. He has numerous servants. He is the greatest man of all the peoples of the East, renowned for his piety, sacrificing burnt offerings to God on behalf of each of his children, just in case they had sinned inadvertently.
          And yet, calamity strikes and he is left bereft. His children are all killed when the house collapses on them; his livestock is plundered by bandits, his servants put to the sword. Job himself is afflicted with painful sores from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. All he can do is sit in the dust and scrape his diseased skin with a piece of broken pottery.
Job's Comforters (Blake)
          Then, his friends arrive: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. ‘Job’s comforters’, we call them, ironically, because, of course, they offer him no comfort. They tell him that it is his own fault. God does not punish the innocent. Job may think that he is blameless, but he can’t be. He may not be aware of his great sins, but he must have committed some. Job knows that his own actions do not merit such reward and that the explanations of his ‘friends’ are worthless, so he cries out to God for answers, but answers there are none. At the end of the book, God speaks to Job, telling him, in effect, that mortals can never fathom the divine mind. ‘Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know,’ says Job humbly. We leave the book profoundly dissatisfied and disappointed. But we get no answer to our question because there is no answer. The innocent suffer. That’s all that can be said. ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum’; ‘there are tears at the heart of things’.
          The Buddhists tell the story of Kisogotami, a young woman whose child has died. She is searching frantically for some medicine to restore his life. She goes for advice to Gautama, the Buddha. ‘My son is dead,’ she tells him. ‘Do you know where I can get some medicine?’ ‘Go and bring me some mustard seed and we’ll make some medicine,’ replies Gautama, but just as she is leaving to fulfil this simple task, he adds: ‘But the mustard seed must come from a house in which no one has ever died.’
          Kisogotami goes on her way, asking at this house and at that. All have mustard seed, but there is no house in which no death has occurred. ‘Have you been able to bring me some mustard seed?’ asks Gautama, when Kisagotami returns. ‘I have not,’ she replies. ‘In one house a child has died, in another a husband, in another a wife; in all the houses, parents or grandparents have died. Everyone tells me that the living are few but the dead are many’. 
          Kisogotami has learned the same lesson as Aeneas and Job. There are tears at the heart of things, a sentiment expressed in the first Noble Truth of Buddhism, ‘All life is pain’.
          The biological sciences point us in a similar direction. The celebrated naturalist David Attenborough said this in a recent interview:

......when Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that's going to make him blind. And [I ask them], 'Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child's eyeball? Because that doesn't seem to me to coincide with a God who's full of mercy'.

Darwin was plagued by similar observations, as was Tennyson, who wrote:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law --
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against his creed.

Robert Fulghum, in our second reading today, (It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It) adds another dimension to our theme. Fate: knowing that what we are going to do will bring calamity, and doing it anyway. ‘When did the bed start to burn?’ ‘I don’t know. It was on fire when I lay down on it,’ says the man. As Fulghum comments, quoting the Roman poet Horace: ‘Why do you laugh? Change the name, and the story is told of you!’ Why do we behave so irrationally, so stupidly? Because, as both Virgil and the author of the Book of Job tell us, employing the conventions of their respective cultures, human behaviour is not determined entirely – if at all – by human choice. The ‘gods’, invisible, intangible forces, play their part; they bring circumstances to us, almost for their own entertainment, and we are powerless to resist. Shakespeare has Gloucester say in King Lear:
                   Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
                   They kill us for their sport.

We don’t need to believe in literal supernatural forces to appreciate how perceptively these poetic authors describe human experience. Looking at the situation in Gaza over the past few weeks – and at every other trouble spot I’ve had the misfortune to become aware of over the past half century – I am struck by the utter irrationality of it all. Don’t the Palestinians know that firing rockets at Israel will invite terrible reprisals? Don’t the Israelis appreciate that they are treating their Palestinian neighbours in ways which invite comparison with Hitler’s treatment of their own ancestors? Don’t both sides know that taking revenge simply prolongs the agony, and ensures even more atrocities? Of course they know it. But what can they do? What can they say? They don’t have the benefit of objectivity. We, sitting on the sidelines, know how the problem could be solved easily. We can distinguish the goodies from the baddies. We make the right pious noises, take the right liberal stances, fondly imagine that there are tidy political solutions to problems which seem so far removed from rational appraisal that I almost feel that it is impertinent, blasphemous even, to offer an opinion.
          One of the best loved psalms in the Bible is Psalm 137, which begins, ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion’. (Boney M sang a version of it in the 1960s.) The Jewish people are being taken into exile and their captors have asked them to sing a song. ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ they ask. The verses that we say or sing are moving and beautiful. But there is a final verse, which is always omitted, and which goes like this:
          O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
          Happy is he who repays you
          For what you have done to us –
          He who seizes your infants
          And dashes them against the rocks.

Ironically, two weeks ago I saw a Palestinian woman mourning her dead child and screaming for vengeance upon the Jews in similar fashion.
          How rational are we? How long are our memories? How strong is our pride? How all-consuming is our greed, our thirst for revenge and reprisals, no matter what the cost? The Trojan War, remember, was fought over one woman! Ten years of fighting; tens of thousands dead; homes destroyed; crops plundered; women widowed; children left fatherless. And all, so Homer’s story goes, because Paris stole Helen from Menelaus and carried her off to Troy! Homer, I’m sure, doesn’t want us to believe the literal truth of this. He simply wants us to appreciate what the 3000 years between his time and ours have done nothing to dispel: human follies are boundless. On August 2nd 216 BC the Romans faced the Carthaginians at the Battle of Cannae.  It has been estimated that the Romans lost nearly 50,OOO men on that one day, 600 legionaries slaughtered each minute ‘until darkness put an end to the bloodletting’. Two thousand years later, in the Battle of the Somme, fought from July to November 1916, 1.5 million men lost their lives. On the first day of the battle, July 1st, the British suffered 57,470 casualties, nearly 20, 000 of them fatal. And for what? It defies reason, just as every other battle, every other fight fuelled by fate and testosterone in the history of the human race defies reason. Last week Morag and I went to the Salvador Dali exhibition in Prague. One painting caught my eye: ‘Fighting over a Dandelion’ it’s called, and it just about sums up the 

Dali: Fighting over a Dandelion

pointless cruelty of warfare, past and present. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,’ says Jesus on the cross. This is not, as some have thought, simply a prayer for the forgiveness of his killers. It is also a prayer of
profound grief at the blindness and ignorance of the whole human race.
          I offer no solutions, and, on this occasion I make no attempt to reconcile these undeniable facts with the concept of a loving God. To suggest that we will overcome these problems by voting for the right person or joining the right religion, would be naive and infantile. The testimony of the great artists and the great scientists is unanimous and overwhelming. In the light of such testimony and of our own experience there can only be one response: pity. Bertrand Russell puts it as well as anyone. In an essay called What I have lived for, he says that three things have dominated his approach to life: Love, Knowledge, and Pity. This is how he ends:

Bertrand Russell
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people, a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

Sunt lacrimae rerum. There are tears at the heart of things. Awareness of this fact is the beginning of wisdom, and increasing our sensitivity to the suffering of the world is the function of all worthwhile religion. But it is testimony to the indomitable courage and resilience of human beings that for the most part we can struggle on despite fate and despite folly. That we too can say with Bertrand Russell that we have found life worth living, and would gladly live again if we had the chance. Our greatness is our ability to smile through the tears. But that’s a subject for another day.


Saturday, 16 June 2012


Morag and I went to Prague last weekend. We went as guests of the Prague Unitarian Church, to help celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Prague congregation. Prague is a charming city - even my philistine eyes can see that - but it is full of tiny squares which make it impossible to negotiate for those (like me) who have no sense of direction. Fortunately, our hotel was only seconds away from the church and only minutes away from the astronomical clock, which was built no later than 1410 and is a wonder to behold.

We went to the Salvador Dali exhibition and I was particularly struck by his painting Fighting over a Dandelion, which just about sums up many of the conflicts throughout human history.

There's a tiny museum devoted to Johannes Kepler, and it honours Kepler the astrologer as well as Kepler the astronomer. Most people don't realise that he had a collection of over 800 horoscopes and wrote that, for all its imperfections, astrology 'compelled his unwilling belief'.

His horoscope shows Neptune rising in Gemini, giving him something of a mystical bent, and his astronomical-astrological interests are indicated by the conjunction of Mercury and Uranus in Capricorn. Unfortunately, Kepler wouldn't know about either Uranus or Neptune! Here are two versions of his chart - one in the old style 'square' format (which Kepler himself used) and in the more conventional circular style.

The Unitarian Church is not a beautiful building, but it couldn't be more centrally situated. It is on Karlova Street, just seconds away from the Charles Bridge and thousands pass it every day. Charles Bridge is full of highly entertaining buskers (we bought a DVD of a trad jazz band) and portrait painters.

On Sunday morning Morag and I attended the 90th birthday celebrations of the congregation, along with Rev. Mark Shiels (who leads the English speaking Unitarians in worship twice per month), Rev. Steve Dick, representing the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists,  Rev. Eric Cherry from the UUA, and a woman called Freya, representing German Unitarians. Dozens of 'virtual greetings' had been sent from all over the Unitarian world, and these were on display. The service itself was extraordinary. It was a 'flower communion', to honour Norbert Capek, the Czech Unitarian minister who devised the ceremony, and who died in Dachau in 1942. A large choir, half of which were Unitarians, and a group of musicians, sang and played a 'mass' which had been specially written for the occasion by the church's musical director. This was filmed and will no doubt be on the web soon. The sermon, which concerned 'tending one's own garden', was delivered in Czech by the minister, Rev. Petr Somjsky and an English translation was read by Rev. Mark Shiels. A splendid occasion. Morag and I felt very privileged to be invited.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Trinity Sunday - for Unitarians


Einstein said that the most important question a human being can ask is: Is the universe a friendly place? This is indeed the ultimate existential question, and while we may not ask it every day, and while we may not ask it in precisely this form, there can be few of us who, in those troubled and sleepless early morning hours, have not striven to find answers to this, the deepest of life’s perplexing riddles. Is there some point to my life, or is it, in the end, just ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’? And, as I can most certainly testify, when faced with the prospect of imminent death, the question is asked with a great deal more urgency than formerly, and the answers one considers are of more than passing intellectual interest. Those student posturings in late-night conversations over endless cups of coffee now seem vacuous and irrelevant: what one demands from oneself at times of crisis is honesty; the evasions and rhetoric of point-scoring debate on the meaning of life’s brief candle are no longer satisfying when that candle is on the point of being snuffed out.
While we have our health and strength we can often approach this question in a slightly dishonest way. It is common for men particularly to deny that life has any ultimate meaning. All that God stuff is for wimps, we say. Life just is, and, unfortunately, it’s tragic. There’s even a kind of sophisticated nihilism that some try to cultivate, a kind of coffee-and-absinthe existentialism, which, for some reason, seems to be very appealing to women, and is more of a strategy for getting laid (as the children say nowadays) than a genuine attempt to answer the big questions. But our actions often belie our rhetoric; our words (particularly in argument) do not always tell the truth about how we really feel. Woody Allen captured this perfectly when he said, ‘Life is painful, tragic, and burdensome, and, unfortunately, it is all over far too quickly!’ I was once arguing about the meaning of life with a man who took the pessimistic line. He said that to abort a child was actually to do it a favour since to bring it into the world was to burden it with unbearable existence. His reasoning was very similar to that of John Paul Sartre – a real coffee-and-absinthe existentialist – in his novel The Age of Reason. About an embryo, he has one of the characters say: ‘A child; another consciousness, a little-centre point of light that would flutter round and round, dashing against the walls, and never be able to escape.’ Unfortunately for my friend’s argument, his wife, who was sitting by his side at the time, was actually six months pregnant! What price consistency? Philip Larkin, in the last line of his most quoted poem, has it right: if you really find life terrible – as he apparently did – then ‘don’t have any kids yourself.’ And, as Mr. Micawber declared, life need never be burdensome to a man who has access to shaving equipment.
It might be supposed that having a religious approach to life would indicate that one perceived the universe as friendly, but this supposition would be wrong. There are types of Christianity which are decidedly pessimistic, but Buddhism is perhaps the clearest example of a world religion which actually starts from the premise that life is tragic. The Four Noble Truths teach that all life involves suffering; that suffering is caused by desire; and that suffering will cease when desire has been suppressed. The object of Buddhist practice is to attain Nirvana, a state in which all desire ceases, no more karma is generated, and rebirth is no longer necessary. For all it is the most compassionate of philosophies (I have never met an unkind Buddhist, nor, strangely, an unhappy one), it is, as far as I can discover from my (not very extensive) study of it, essentially a method of escape from the cruelties and sufferings that are inherent in life itself. Christianity and Buddhism have many things in common, and it seems likely that early Christian thought was, to some extent, influenced by Buddhist teachings, which, remember, were already five hundred years old at the time of Christ, but the two religions are essentially very different. Christianity seeks to transform the world and to ameliorate its suffering: Buddhism seeks to transcend the world and to avoid its suffering. The hope of the Christian life is the resurrection of the body, the continuance in some form or another of the conscious self: the aim of Buddhist striving is the annihilation of the conscious self, the extinction of all separateness. Buddhism purports to have a method whereby that isolated fragment of consciousness which so troubled John Paul Sartre may be released from its prison: Christianity contends that the atom of consciousness is an embryonic child of God with a glorious eternal destiny.
In most of its forms Buddhism is atheistic, and so the question of purpose in creation is really a redundant one. Is belief in God, then, a prerequisite to a belief that the universe is friendly and purposeful? Perhaps it is, but even this needs qualifying. Not all conceptions of God are benevolent. Many people profess a belief in a God who simply wound up the world at the beginning of time and then left it to its own devices. This was summed up rather neatly in the piece of graffiti that appeared here and there in the sixties: ‘God is not dead. He just doesn’t want to get involved!’ This, substantially, is Deism, the influential religious philosophy of the 18th century which denied revelation, miracles, supernaturalism, and, of course, life after death. God was kept as a kind of philosophical First Cause, but God had no more involvement in the world than a clockmaker has in the continuing life of one of his clocks. Deism was very appealing to Unitarians like Thomas Jefferson, and is still around in Unitarian circles, although one would like to ask the difference between an indifferent God who has hung a ‘gone fishing’ notice on his door, and no God at all. I, for one, wouldn’t cross the street to worship such a God.
In addition to the absent God of Buddhism, and the indifferent God of Deism there is also the evil God of certain strands of Gnostic thought. Now, Gnosticism is a very appealing philosophy to me, at least it is in so far as it stresses knowledge of God through direct experience, but there were Gnostic thinkers in the ancient world – in the second and third centuries of the Christian era particularly – who proposed that the creator of the world was actually less than good. If you think about it you will realise that this is a very neat way of explaining the evil we find around us in the world; if one believes that God is good, then the presence of evil is an almost insuperable problem, as generations of Christian thinkers have found. But, if one believes that the creator is less than good, then the problem ceases to be a problem; evil is just the natural result of a world created by an incompetent or malicious deity.
What these thinkers proposed was, in essence, as follows. There is an Eternal God who is so pure, holy, good, and self-contained that It cannot possibly sully Itself by involvement with matter, but from this God – or Godhead – has proceeded a series of ‘emanations’, each one less perfect and less holy than the one before it. These were called ‘archons’, or powers, the last of these is, in Yossarian’s words in Catch 22, ‘the bungling hayseed’ of a creator who thought it a good idea to create a world ‘containing tooth decay and phlegm’. Fortunately, however, each human being contains a spark of the true Godhead, and the object of religious practice is to free this spark from the matter which imprisons it, to let it escape from the evil creation and be united with the Godhead once more. Shades of Buddhism here, and it is more than likely that the same perception of the world as a hostile place lay behind both Buddhism and pessimistic Gnosticism.
It was against this sort of background that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity came to be forged. It is true that the Bible contains no unequivocal statement about the Trinity, and, to Jewish sensibilities, it would have been completely anathema. Our Unitarian forebears found the doctrine incomprehensible and logically nonsensical which, of course, from a purely rational point of view, it is. But religious statements in general will crumble when subjected to rational assessment. All religion is poetry, and the rules of poetry are not the rules of logic. As a non-logical, poetic insight, the paradoxical doctrine of the Trinity leads to an acknowledgement that God is beyond the comprehension of the feeble human mind. God is, and will always remain, a mystery. But, more significant than this, at least from the point of view of our present concerns, is what the doctrine of the Trinity tells us about the world. It answers Einstein’s question in the affirmative. The world, the universe, is a friendly place, it says. In mythological language (I cannot stress this enough), it affirms not just the creation of the world by God, but God’s continuing, loving, involvement with it. Jesus is not just Mary’s son, he is, according to Matthew’s Gospel, Emmanuel – ‘God with us’, and John’s Gospel tells us that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son’ to die on its behalf. The story of Jesus’s death on the cross expresses the conviction that God is present even in the most tragic and inexplicable and painful of events. This is not a picture of an uninvolved deity, but of one who shares our suffering. Jesus, in continuing Christian tradition, is ‘fully God and fully man’, another logical absurdity, granted, but a poetic statement of the intimate connection between human beings and the deity; in the words of the Catholic mass, ‘Christ humbled himself to share in our humanity, so that we may share in his divinity.’ And the Holy Spirit, who, by the way, is often depicted as feminine, is called the Comforter, the ever-present guiding hand of God, the source of grace and healing and consolation.
There is no God in Buddhism and no grace; just the unaided efforts of the individual to extricate himself from a pitiless universe. Deism’s God has gone to sleep and left us to clear up the mess. Gnosticism’s God is a monster who has to be outwitted. But the Christian Trinitarian God is a God of mystery, of involvement, of relationship, a God who created the world, loves the world, and is intimately involved with the salvation of the world. Strange as it may seem for a Unitarian to say this, but I think the idea of the Trinity is one of the most significant contributions that Christianity has made to religious thought. The Trinity doctrine has brought the Jewish God closer to us; He has left his home in the skies and pitched his tent among the inhabitants of the earth.
But these images are only valuable in so far as they are viewed poetically. The great mistake – made by Trinitarian and Unitarian apologists alike – is to insist that the Trinity doctrine is a mathematical statement about the very nature of God, rather than a poetic expression of a conviction about the nature of the world, and God’s relationship with the world. What repels our reason can enormously excite our imagination.
Unitarians have ever been suspicious of, perhaps even contemptuous of, the Trinitarian God of orthodox Christianity, preferring instead a simple and comprehensible God. But, a God we can understand is a God we can ignore; a God without mystery is a God without meaning. Is it any wonder then that the very notion of God seems to have gradually disappeared from the Unitarian consciousness? The step from Deism to Atheism is a short one.
But we Unitarians are, in the main, a life-affirming people. We regularly sing our thanks for the world and our gratitude for the gift of life. We perceive the universe as a friendly place, and in doing so we are more in harmony with the Trinitarian God than we may have previously been inclined to think.

Bill Darlison