Monday, 23 July 2012

The Coming Religion

Gerald Massey
I've been reading the works of Gerald Massey (1828-1907) recently. Described as 'Chartist, Poet, Radical, Freethinker', he was an autodidact who became something of a self-styled expert in Egyptology. He claimed that the Christian story was poached from Egyptian mythology, a theory which, although receiving no support from academia, has influenced contemporary avant garde thinkers such as Acharya S., Tom Harpur, and the author of the Zeitgeist video. In one of his essays, he considers what the religion of the future will be like. I think most of this will appeal to Unitarians. Here's the final paragraph. The rest, along with a biography and numerous other essays can be found at

Possibly my Coming Religion may suggest a coming revolution?  I should not wonder if it does.  Anyway, we mean to do our own thinking, and to have absolute freedom of thought and expression.  We mean to rescue our Sunday from the sacerdotal ring.  But we do not mean that the day of rest and recreation shall fall into the hands of the capitalists.  We mean to try and rescue this world from the clutches of those who profess to have the keys and the keeping of the other—they who hold up the other world in front of that beast of burden, the producer, as a decoying lure, like the bunch of carrots before the donkey's nose, in order that the suggestion of plenty in paradise may induce him to forego his common right to grazing-ground on earth.  We mean to have a day of reckoning with the unjust stewards of the earth.  We mean to have the national property restored to the people, which the churches and other bodies have withheld from the people.  We mean that the land, with its inalienable right of living, its mineral wealth below the soil and its waters above, shall be open to all.  We mean to have our banking done by the State, and our railways worked for the benefit of the whole people.  We mean to temper the terror of rampant individualism with the principles of co-operation.  We mean to show that the wages' system is a relic of barbarism and social serfdom.  That under it labour must remain a slave in the prison-house of property.  We mean for woman to have perfect equality with man, social, religious, and political, and her fair share in that equity which is of no sex.  We mean also that the same standard of morality shall apply to the woman as to the man.  In short, we intend that the redress of wrongs and the righting of inequalities, which can only be rectified in this world, shall not be put off and postponed to any future stage of existence.  The religion of the future has got to include not only Spiritualism, but the salvation of humanity for this life—any other may be left to follow hereafter.  It has to be a sincerity of life, in place of pretended belief.  A religion of science, in place of superstition.  Of joy, instead of sorrow.  Of man's Ascent, instead of his Fall.  A religion of fact in the present, and not of mere faith for the future.  A religion in which the temple reared to God will be in human form, instead of being built of brick or stone.  A religion of work, rather than worship; and, in place of the deathly creeds, with all their hungry parasites of prey, a religion of life—life actual, life here, life now, as well as the promise of life everlasting!

Monday, 16 July 2012

Consecrated Chicken Soup

A sermon preached in Dublin in July 2005

At the beginning of June 2005, we were visited by Rev. Dr. Alicia Forsey, who is Professor of Church History at the Starr King Divinity School in Berkeley, California, and a fully-fledged minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church in the U.S.A. On the Saturday night she asked me what the programme would be at church the next day, and I explained that there would be a normal service at 11 o’clock, followed by a baptism, after which we would repair to the Damer Hall for refreshments. Her eyes lit up at the mention of a baptism. ‘I’ve never been baptised,’ she said. ‘Do you think you could baptise me, too?’ At first I thought she was joking, but she explained that her parents were both Unitarians of the old school, and that baptism wasn’t a feature of their religious practice. But she had now reached a very important stage in her life and she would like to mark it with some kind of ceremony. However, she didn’t want to intrude on the christening of little Solomon, so she suggested that we do it at some other time. And this is what we did. While everybody was drinking coffee and eating cake in the Damer Hall after the service, I grabbed the first people to hand – Paul and Bridget, Diarmuid and Margaret – and we brought Alicia back into church and performed a short ceremony of baptism. I read the words of Walt Whitman which are printed on our baptism certificate, anointed her forehead, ears, eyes, mouth, and hands with oil, and poured water over her head. Alicia wept, and all of us were moved by the unexpected power and solemnity of this series of quite simple and commonplace actions. Somebody remarked that maybe more adults might like to undergo such a ceremony.
A few weeks earlier, when Pope John Paul II was dying, it was announced on the news that his body had been anointed in anticipation of his death, and my wife Morag, who is not a particularly religious person, remarked casually on the beauty and appropriateness of such a ceremony, and she expressed a wish that somebody would be around to anoint her when it was her time to go.
These two incidents, plus the fact that on five successive Sundays during May and June we have had baptism ceremonies here in the church, set me thinking about the place of symbolism in our worship – and in our lives in general – and I would like to share some of these thoughts with you this morning.
Like many of you, I come from a richly symbolic religious tradition – Roman Catholicism – and I joined a movement which can best be described, and most charitably described, as minimalist. The fact that Alicia Forsey was not baptised should not surprise us: Unitarians in the mid twentieth century concentrated on the spoken word, and very little emphasis was placed on symbolic rites of passage. This is the reason why the pulpit is such a prominent feature in nonconformist worship: we are a religion of words and ideas; symbols are at best distracting, and at worst downright misleading, so it’s best to downplay them, if not to avoid them altogether, we think. When I first came to Unitarianism I found it strange that people were arguing over whether we should light candles in our worship, an argument that was still raging when I came to Dublin in 1996. What the objection is I really am at a loss to know; perhaps some people think that candles, anointing, baptism, communion, and the like, are creeping Romanism, best eschewed by those who want to eliminate all elements of magic and hocus-pocus from their worship.
But what has become increasingly clear to me over the years is that these things are not the preserve of Rome. They are found throughout the religious traditions of the world, and Rome did not invent them, it inherited them. Virtually everything in the Catholic sacramental system can be traced to the Mystery religions of the ancient world, and in particular to Mithraism, and most religions have some kind of symbolic food sharing as part of their worship. For example, the Hindu tradition of prasad, in which food is offered to God at the beginning of worship and then eaten by the congregation at the end, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Christian Eucharist. A movement like ours, which tries to find links between the religions of the world, would do well to look at those symbolic actions which are found everywhere, because the fact of their ubiquity might be telling us something very important about our human nature and our human needs.
What it tells us, I venture to suggest, is this: that we humans are natural symbol makers; we have a propensity towards the poetic, the metaphorical. We see the tangible as an expression of the intangible, and we ascribe meanings to things and actions which transcend their ordinary prosaic description. So, for example, to say that Mr. A. shook hands with Mr. B. goes beyond the mere fact of touching limbs: it shows friendship, harmony, cooperation. Anyone who does not understand this and similar symbolic actions – people who are autistic have great difficulty with such things – find themselves on the fringes of ordinary human society, locked in a prosaic, literalist world, which can be severely debilitating. That we are natural creators and interpreters of metaphor is proved by the counter-intuitive fact that the earliest literature in any civilisation is always poetry. Writing does not begin with shopping lists, scientific descriptions, and philosophical treatises; it begins with rhythm, and metaphor, and story. Prose comes later. If we would reacquaint ourselves with the wellsprings of our human creativity, we need to rediscover our instinctive appreciation for symbolism.
An example of inability to appreciate the symbolic can be found in J.D. Salinger’s novel Frannie and Zooey. Frannie comes home from college a nervous wreck. Her well-intentioned but misguided efforts to explore the depths of religious mysticism have left her extremely tense. Bessie, her mother, is concerned and shows that concern by bringing her distressed daughter a cup of chicken soup. Even though Frannie knows her mother is trying to comfort her, the offer of the chicken soup annoys her and she lashes out at her mother.
Frannie’s brother confronts her and tells her that her approach to religion is all wrong. He says, ‘I’ll tell you one thing Frannie. If it’s religious life you want, you ought to know that you are missing out on every single religious action that’s going on in this house. You don’t have enough sense to drink when someone brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup, which is the only kind of chicken soup that Mom ever brings to anybody.’
‘Consecrated chicken soup.’ Frannie’s mother is not trying to nourish her body: her offering is a sacrament, a symbolic gesture of concern, a profoundly religious act, as Frannie’s brother realises. Religion is not just about the big metaphysical ideas which occupy our minds – indeed, on one level, it is not about these at all – it is about the sanctification of ordinary things, which most of us do unconsciously. Bessie’s chicken soup is not consecrated because she has mumbled some magic words over it; it is consecrated because it has been prepared with love, and offered as a token of love. Frannie’s inability to perceive this betrays her lack of genuine religious sensitivity.
Sacraments say something very important about our attitude to the physical world; they tell us that the world is essentially good, and that objects within the world are expressions of the creative power of God. ‘Everything that lives is holy,’ says William Blake, and the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, tells us that every created thing, animate and inanimate, is an expression of God, and a poem about God. ‘If I understood even the simplest thing,’ he writes, ‘I would never need to write (or listen to!) another sermon.’ And St. Francis of Assisi, in the hymn we will sing at the end of our worship today, sees the whole of creation – sun, moon, earth, wind, water – singing its praise to God, an idea taken up by the great 20th century Jesuit mystic and geologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his celebrated work The Hymn of the Universe.
Last weekend a number of us went to Great Hucklow in Derbyshire, and became acquainted with the ancient custom, peculiar to that part of England, of well dressing, in which wells, and indeed all sources of water, are honoured. ‘Well dressing is the art of decorating wells or springs with natural objects to form pictures and designs as a thanksgiving for the gift of water, especially in times of drought,’ says the guidebook. This custom is undoubtedly pagan in origin, but we should not be disturbed by this: the pagans – who were really the country dwellers as opposed to those who lived in towns and cities – understood (and understand) the dependence of the human being on the natural world, and our intimate connection with it, in a way that we city folk do not, and we have a lot to learn from them.
So, I am in favour of more sacraments. The Catholic Church has seven, but I see no reason why we can’t have just as many, or even more. Sr. Hobday’s medicine bag (see below) seems to me a beautiful sacramental offering which we could easily accommodate in modified form into our own baptismal ceremony. And I would like us to have a sacrament which celebrates the third stage of life, which would be performed when a person attains the age of sixty, ‘the birthday of the soul’ according to some eastern traditions. I don’t know what form it would take, or what elements we would use, but I think it would help to ease the burden of ageing, by honouring it, and it would encourage and legitimise the sense of withdrawal and reflection which seems to come naturally to us at this time of life.
‘What about the dangers?’ I hear the puritans among us asking. (Remember how G. K. Chesterton defined a puritan as someone whose mind never takes a holiday, who thinks we can only worship God with our head, and not with our hands and feet!). ‘Surely it’s a short step from sacraments to magic?’ Indeed it is, but we should not avoid things simply because they can go wrong. If we adopted this attitude we would never get out of bed in the morning. We can avoid the drift into magic by constantly reminding ourselves that any effects these sacraments may have (or seem to have) are purely psychological, and are not attempts to manipulate God in any way. In addition, we can minimise the magical element by ensuring that any sacraments we may employ are conducted by as many members of the congregation as possible, and that their administration is not the preserve of some ‘special person’, an ordained minister. This is why our communion services these days are always led by a member of the congregation and not by me, and I would like to see more baptisms performed by members of the congregation: there is something profoundly beautiful about a baptism performed by a parent or grandparent, an uncle or an aunt, and I would encourage more of you to take this option.
We are in a unique position among religious groups in that we have the freedom to devise ceremonies and to discard them. We have no bishops to please or to obey. We can accommodate our own needs. What these needs may be, and how we can best satisfy them is something we Unitarians need to discuss urgently.

The Medicine Bag, by Sister Jose Hobday

When children were born in my family, they got a special birth gift.  My father made us each a little leather pouch – our own little medicine bag.  It was something he learned from my mother, who was a Seneca Iroquois.  My mother put two things in it, and so did my dad.  Then they gave the medicine bag to us, and we were to put it in a special place.  If you died without your medicine bag, as some of my brothers did during the war, then it was buried separately.  Otherwise the medicine bag was buried with you.
When we were old enough to understand, we were told what was in our medicine bag.  One thing my mother put in mine was a pinch of land from the state of Texas.  That’s because I was born there.  Imagine putting Texas in a bag!  She also kept a piece of umbilical cord from my birth, about two inches.  She dried it in the sun.  Then she put this into the bag, crumbling it into the Texas soil.  These two things, the cord and the pinch of Texas, symbolized that I came out of the land and out of my parents.  They were to help me remember that I didn’t start out by myself, that I was dependent upon the land and upon my family.
My father put a bird feather into each child’s medicine bag.  He burned a small part of the feather and mixed it in with the things mother had put in.  The reason was that birds were of the sky.  They can soar to the horizon and beyond.  The feather said that each of us was to soar, also, and find our own place in the world.  None of us ever knew what other item dad put into our bags.  It represented the unknown, the mystery in life.  No matter how we tried to wheedle it out of him, he would not tell us.  We had our suspicions and we guessed and guessed, but he would never even give us a hint.
To have a mystery set before me like this early in life proved a big help when I began to work with the mysteries in my life that came along later.  It also helped me to understand that God is the centre of all mystery.  I still have my medicine bag.  It was a wonderful gift from my parents, and it has shown me the importance of making symbols that tie us to places and to people and to God.

Sr. Jose Hobday (from A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers, by William Bausch, page 240)

Monday, 9 July 2012

Was Jesus a Mason?

Everybody knows that Jesus was a carpenter. Car window stickers in America proclaim, ‘My boss is a Jewish carpenter’, and Woody Guthrie wrote a song in 1940, recorded more recently by Johnnie Cash, which makes much of Jesus’ humble trade:

Jesus Christ was a man that travelled through this land
A carpenter true and brave,
Said to the rich, ‘Give your goods to the poor,’
So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

Jesus Christ was a man, a carpenter by hand,
A carpenter true and brave,
And a dirty little coward called Judas Iscariot
Laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

Woody Guthrie said that he wrote the song while he was looking for somewhere to stay in New York City, because he wanted to put down on paper what he felt about rich folks and poor ones. Jesus was on the side of the poor, says Woody, and if he were alive today, preaching the same message, we would kill him:

This song was written in New York City,
Of rich man, preachers and slaves,
Yes, if Jesus was to preach like he preached in Galilee,
They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.

It suits the sentiments of Woody’s song to suggest that Jesus was a carpenter, because it seems to be one of the most honourable of trades. Not too fancy, not too lowly. Had he been said to belong to the professional class – a lawyer, a politician, or an academic – we might have been inclined to suspect his motives or his integrity. These are people who never get their hands dirty, but who live quite well off the physical labours of others. Not all trades would do either. Even today, some trades enjoy higher status than others. Car mechanics and plumbers may soil their hands, but there is something quite disreputable about them in the popular mind: they have the expertise to baffle us and to swindle us. That sharp intake of breath through the teeth when the plumber first looks at the job and tells you that it can’t be done cheaply; that extortionate call out fee; the wink-wink nudge-nudge as he offers you a discount for cash payment. These are the tradesmen we need in a hurry, called to sort out an emergency, and while we are always glad when they appear, we’d very much rather that we didn’t have to call them out at all.
            But a carpenter is different. There are few ‘emergency’ carpentry jobs. We don’t need an emergency table or an emergency chest of drawers; we never have to call out a carpenter in the middle of the night. Carpenters can’t really capitalise upon our misfortunes. We associate a kind of gentle, slow creativity with carpentry. It is, we think, a profession for the honourable, the trustworthy, and the honest.
The Carpenter's Son
            So, it’s perfect for our sentimentalised portrait of Jesus. Mel Gibson made much of it in his film The Passion of the Christ. Jesus is shown in flashback, making some item of furniture or other in his workshop, his mother looking on proudly. And there can be no doubt that somewhere in the world there is a table or a chair which, its owners claim, was fashioned by the very hand of Jesus.
            In the light of all this, it’s a pity that this whole ‘carpenter’ thing should rest on such flimsy evidence. In the Gospels Jesus is referred to as a ‘tekton’, a Greek word which can mean ‘builder’ just as easily as it can mean ‘carpenter’. Our word ‘architect’ comes from this root. An architect is a ‘chief builder’, or one who supervises a building from its beginning. ‘Isn’t this the son of the tekton?’ ask some bystanders in the Gospel of Matthew. ‘And isn’t his mother called Mary, and his brothers James and Joses and Simon and Judas? And aren’t his sisters all with us?’[1]
One reason that I think builder is a better translation than carpenter is because the Gospels contain absolutely no reference to carpentry but plenty of references to building. Nowhere does Jesus use an image drawn from furniture making. In his teaching on marriage, for example, he doesn’t say that a man and women should be joined together as firmly as a mortice and tenon joint. He doesn’t say that we should smooth away our vices like a plane smooths wood; he doesn’t say that God grants rest to the soul like a well-made bed grants rest to the body. But he does say that ‘the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’; that one who pays no heed to Jesus’ words is like a man who builds his house upon the sand; that his community will be built upon a rock; that no stone will be left upon another when the Temple is destroyed. These are the kind of metaphors we would expect in a story about a man who was once engaged in the building trade. Curiously, Jesus as a mason, or a builder, helps us to understand the puzzling word that Mary Magdalene uses when greeting the resurrected Jesus. ‘Rabboni,’ she exclaims, and this is generally left untranslated or explained as an Aramaic idiom meaning ‘my rabbi, or my teacher’. But the word could just as easily come from the Hebrew where it means, ‘my master builder’.
            But there is another reason to consider Jesus as a builder or a mason. Builders always seem to have been associated with the spiritual life, and there can be no doubt that a great deal of esoteric lore has been transmitted through the ages by the stonemasons. The great cathedrals of Christendom are treasure houses of spiritual wisdom, presenting in stone and stained glass many ancient teachings and insights which have been lost to academic theology and popular preaching. To give one quite trivial example, Brigid Marlin writes about gargoyles:

I remember once when I was in Paris, I visited Notre Dame Cathedral. There I saw on the lower levels gargoyles representing the different vices of man. As one went up higher the gargoyles seemed to become more abstract – to represent pure hatred or greed or lust. High above them soared the spires, seeming at last to have rid themselves of all vices except one. For leaping out from the great heights were the cold serpents of pride.[2]

So, the gargoyles tell us, the last vice to leave us is pride, the last snake we tumble down in the game of spiritual snakes-and-ladders is the snake of pride, and it comes at number ninety-nine on the board, just as we think we are about to arrive safely at the winning post.
Chartres Cathedral
Each of the great cathedrals – but particularly Notre Dame and Chartres – would merit a lifetime of study, so rich is the symbolism deliberately incorporated into these wonderful buildings by stonemasons, inheritors of an ancient wisdom which they present to us in timeless images to delight our imagination, images which transcend the theological divisions generated by a purely verbal and rational approach to matters of the spirit. ‘The Giants’ Causeway,’ said Dr. Johnson, ‘is worth seeing, but it’s not worth going to see.’ The great cathedrals of Europe are definitely worth going to see.
And these massive symbol-filled constructions are not the preserve of Christendom. The Pyramids of Egypt, especially the Great Pyramid of Giza, were similarly built by craftsmen who were sages and who wanted not just to provide the world with beautiful and serviceable edifices, but to leave to posterity an account in stone of their knowledge and their wisdom. Stonehenge and Newgrange – both of which predate the Christian era by millennia – belong in this category.
The Jewish scriptures contain a great deal about building, but these passages are often overlooked, and in some copies of the Bible they are printed in almost minuscule letters, as if to suggest that they are of little consequence. There are the instructions given to Moses for the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and the even more detailed instructions given for the building of Solomon’s Temple. This massive edifice, which was said to stand on the Dome of the Rock is Jerusalem, was destroyed, according to legend by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, but scholars have been questioning for over a hundred years whether any such building ever existed. If it did not – and even if it did – why waste valuable ink and parchment recording the numerous details of its construction – the height of the walls, the position of the altar, the colours of the curtains, the size, shape, and materials of the vessels? It is a question which has perplexed scholars and casual readers of the Bible for centuries.
But, as I’ve said so often, the Jews have always believed that the Bible can be interpreted on a number of levels, and even passages like this, which seem to be straightforward descriptions of physical, tangible structures, can have metaphorical, symbolic and spiritual depths. This is certainly the position of certain strands of mystical Freemasonry which teach that the Temple under construction is not the historical temple in Jerusalem, but the Temple of the Spirit, which all of us are called upon to build from the materials of our individual lives.
Freemasonry claims a long history, its antecedents going back, in imagination at least, to the builders of the Pyramids and the builders of Solomon’s Temple. It has always been anathematized by the Catholic Church, ostensibly because it is a secret brotherhood owing no allegiance to the Roman pope. But it is also possible that Rome is suspicious of Freemasonry because Freemasonry transmits mystical teachings which undermine the orthodoxies of Catholicism.
Did Jesus, or to be more precise, did the writers of the Gospels have access to such teachings, and did they incorporate them into their work? I think they did, and my book on the zodiacal structure of Mark[3] is an attempt to show how these teachings are hidden just below the surface of what appears to be a quasi historical text. But Mark’s Gospel also presents Jesus in a way which Freemasons would recognise. A Freemason refers to himself as ‘the son of a widow’; (apparently, this is one of the secret passwords of Freemasonry). This is the Jesus we meet in Mark. There is no mention of Joseph in the Gospel of Mark, no mention even that Jesus had a father. Earlier I quoted from Matthew’s Gospel in which people ask, ‘isn’t this the tekton’s son?’ but the parallel passage in Mark reads, ‘Isn’t this the tekton?’[4] Since no father is mentioned, we can legitimately assume that Jesus is the ‘son of a widow’, and so a builder – a tekton – in his own right.
Why the ‘son of a widow’? Because  a son of a widow traditionally has to make his own way in the world, without the dominating influence of a father. A man inherits his father’s values, his father’s religion, and often his father’s job. He becomes a ‘chip off the old block’ (to use a carpentry metaphor!). But, in the spiritual life this will not do.  Each one has to make his or her own way. Each of us has to become, figuratively speaking, the son or daughter of a widow.
This is speculative, and I don’t want to make too much of it: on one level, it makes not a jot of difference to my life or to yours whether Jesus was a carpenter or a builder. However, I think there is an important lesson for us in all this, whether or not the details are all correct. Taken together, all these metaphors and symbols give us an image of the spiritual life upon which we Unitarians could profitably ponder. We are used to seeing the spiritual life as a ‘journey’, as a movement from one place to another. And, indeed, we are travellers. But ‘travelling’ should not mean aimless drifting. As the Israelites travelled through the wilderness, they carried their temple with them. They built it while they were on the move, and the very fact that they were ordered to construct it from gold and silver, from the finest wood and the finest cloth, shows that it is not a historical account. Where on earth would they get such things? The text says that they asked the Egyptians for precious things before they left; hardly convincing, and inserted no doubt to make the story plausible to the literalists.
We are engaged on the same task. We have work to do on our journey, work on ourselves, work of shaping, polishing, refining, beautifying, fortifying – ‘building work’, in fact. Each of us is – or should be – a tekton, just like Jesus, using the very best spiritual materials of all – courage, steadfastness, integrity, openness, self awareness, service to others - in order to construct a temple fit for the indwelling spirit of God.  

[1] Matthew 13:55
[2] Marlin, B., (1989) From East to West: Awakening to a Spiritual Search. Fount Paperbacks, London. Page 100.
[3] Darlison, B., (2007), The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus. Duckworth, London.
[4] Mark 6:3