Monday, 27 August 2012

Impossible Things

“I can’t believe that,” said Alice, “It’s impossible!”

“Then you’ve not had any practice,” said the Queen.  “I’ve had so much practice in believing the impossible, that I can believe six impossible things before breakfast!”
(Lewis Carroll:  Alice Through the Looking Glass)
We Unitarians think of ourselves very much like Alice.  We’ve given up believing impossible things.  Centuries ago Unitarians gave up believing in impossible theological things.  The Trinity we discarded very early, and it wasn’t too long after that the Virginal Conception of Jesus, and the Resurrection of Jesus were excised from our individual and collective credos.  Then, all the miracles were thrown out, as was the idea of special revelation.  Unitarians have just about given up on the idea of God; in a recent survey, 48% of American Unitarian Universalists declared themselves to be humanists, presumably implying a disbelief in all so-called supernatural things, coupled with a commitment to what they consider to be a rational and empirical approach to life.
However, it seems to me increasingly strange that we can hold up to scrutiny the theological assumptions of our culture, while blithely and unquestioningly accepting its scientific dogmas.  The atheistic and humanistic mind-set of our time is predicated upon the tacit acceptance of scientific theories which are staggeringly improbable as they are generally presented to us, but which we never question because we have unconsciously invested their proponents with an authority which the popes and priests of old could only dream about.  We may be like Alice in matters of religion, but we are very much like the Queen when it comes to science.
 Here are what I consider to be the four scientific dogmas of the contemporary Western world; four “impossible things”, if you like.
1.     That the Universe began with a big bang; that there was nothing and then, in a fraction of a millisecond, there was everything.
2.     That life on earth began accidentally; a series of incredible coincidences within the natural world turned inorganic matter into living, self-replicating, cells.
3.     That these simple cells, through another sequence of accidents and coincidences were transformed over aeons of time into the innumerable life forms we see around us.
4.     That self-consciousness, which we human beings enjoy, is itself the chance outcome of the evolutionary process.
So, nothing produces everything; non-living matter produces living cells; a blind, random, evolutionary process produces the profusion of life-forms, and non-conscious entities eventually bring forth conscious beings like ourselves who can love and hate, think like Einstein, write like Shakespeare, and paint like Michelangelo.  In the words of our second reading today (see below):  “Thinking meat! Loving meat! Conscious meat! Dreaming meat!”  And it all came out of nothing.  Indeed, we’ve all had a lot of practice in believing impossible things!
Now please don’t get me wrong.  I am not questioning the validity of these scientific theories.  I am not equipped to do so.  I have little or no scientific education beyond what I learned in secondary school.  And this is just my point.  Few of us have any substantial knowledge about these things.  We haven’t investigated them in any real way and yet, impossible though they seem, we have allowed them to become the cornerstones of our thinking and, to some extent, to inform our opinions on everything – on God, on the Bible, on morality, on life after death, on virtually every important issue you can imagine.
Take the theory of evolution for example.  I’ll bet that if I were to give you each a piece of paper and ask you to write all you know about it you wouldn’t be able to produce more than half a dozen lines.  Maybe there’d be something in the back of your mind about Darwin in the mid-19th century (but when exactly?), and something about moths changing colour in industrial landscapes, and then that film (what was it called? Oh, yes, “Inherit the Wind”) in which a handsome attorney, played by Spencer Tracy, defends a brave schoolteacher whose teaching of evolution has incensed the obscurantist bible-thumping half-wits in the American deep south.  There’s not much else.  And yet we stake our lives and our thinking on such a paucity of information.  Ah, well, we think, I may not know too much about it, but there are plenty who do, and I’ll just believe what they say.  How different is this, Mr and Mrs Enlightened Rationalist Unitarian from the much-mocked deferential attitude of our grannies with their “Father knows best” submission to priestly authority?  We’ve not discarded authority, we’ve just changed our allegiance, and not necessarily through conviction, either, but for the sake of convenience.
I think that we Unitarians have a duty to examine every dogma, no matter what its source.  We have no excuse for lazy thinking.  In what remains of this address I want to consider briefly the second of our scientific dogmas:  that non-living matter accidentally produced living cells.
I have been quite comfortable with this theory for most of my life.  I had this hazy idea that there was something called “the primordial soup”, a random mixture of inorganic chemicals which was fortuitously struck by lightning to produce the first living cell.  Darwin, who had no real idea about how life began either, postulated, in a letter written in 1871, that there might have been, “some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity etc.”) (Davies, page 61).  The classic film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has a somewhat similar approach to the relationship between non-living and living things:  Frankenstein’s monster is cobbled together from bits of dead bodies, but a simple charge of electricity brings him to life and sends him lumbering uncontrollably into the world.
These unstudied images – gleaned as much from Hollywood as from investigation – I was content with.  But, in recent years, I have become uneasy with them, and a month or so ago, after reading an article in the Guardian written by Professor Paul Davies, I became acutely aware of their inadequacy.  Paul Davies is a physicist and astrobiologist from the University of Sydney who is currently here in the northern hemisphere lecturing on the origins of life.  He is no crank anti-evolutionist; he’s not a reactionary religious bigot, but his honest account of the difficulties involved in the production of life by non-living matter is arresting and salutary.  This is what he says about the simplest living cell.
The living cell is the most complex system of its kind known to mankind.  Its host of specialised molecules, many found nowhere else but within living material, are themselves already enormously complex.  They execute a dance of exquisite fidelity, orchestrated with breath-taking precision.  Vastly more elaborate that the most complicated ballet, the dance of life encompasses countless molecular performers in synergetic coordination.  Yet this is a dance with no sign of a choreographer, no conscious controlling agency swings the molecules into place at the right time, chooses the appropriate players, closes the links, uncouples the partners, moves them on.  The dance of life is spontaneous, self-sustaining, and self-creating.  (Page 5)

A 'simple' cell
Elsewhere in his book, The Origin of Life, he tells us that the living cell is as complicated as a vast city in the degree of its elaborate activity (page 77), and is “packed with tiny structures that might have come straight from an engineer’s manual – minuscule tweezers, scissors, pumps, motors, levers, valves, pipes, chains and even vehicles abound” (page 76).  The miracle of life is not that it is made of such “nanotools”, he goes on to say, “but that these tiny diverse parts are integrated in a highly organised way.”  (page 76)

Homer, Mr. Burns, and the Monkeys
What are the chances of such a cell coming into existence accidentally?  This is called the chemical fluke theory, which most of us, when we think about it at all, unconsciously subscribe to.  Davies tells us that the odds on such a fluke are enormous and have been computed as 10/40,000 – 1.  That is, 1 with forty thousand noughts after it!  Or, to put it another way, 1 with as many noughts after it as the letters in the chapter of a book.  The odds on dealing a perfect hand of cards a thousand times in succession is as nothing by comparison.  It’s like the old monkeys on the typewriter image:  a million monkeys, typing randomly on a million typewriters over millions of years have more chance of producing the complete works of Shakespeare than has life of originating by a chemical fluke.  The British scientist, Fred Hoyle, has compared it with a hurricane sweeping through a junkyard and producing a fully-functioning Boeing 747!
So incredible are the odds on life happening by a chemical fluke, says Davies, that it is unlikely to happen twice in the universe, or even, as he says in his Guardian article, in a trillion universes!  Perhaps, then, our search for extra-terrestrial life is absolutely forlorn.  Perhaps we are alone in the universe, the incredible outcome of billions of accidents, the only conscious, thinking, loving, dreaming meat in the whole universe.  If so, then the reductionist jibe that we are the inhabitants of an obscure lump of rock revolving round a middling star on one of the many arms of a pretty ordinary galaxy seems quite ridiculously demeaning to us.  Even if we are accidents, we are amazing accidents, the crown and summit of all that exists, blind nature’s greatest achievement.  We should consider ourselves as proud participants in the awe-inspiring dance of life.
But there is another way of looking at these things; perhaps life is not the product of a chemical fluke but is actually instinct within matter itself; perhaps the atoms of matter are not dead entities awaiting an accidental spark or charge to animate them, but alive in a rudimentary sense, possessing a seed of consciousness which would ultimately and inevitably grow into the fully self-conscious human being.  Perhaps, as someone has remarked, it’s as if the universe knew we were coming and has lovingly and painstakingly nourished our emergence.  Perhaps we are part of a great evolutionary unfolding, operating according to a blueprint which was there in the beginning, much like the mysterious way in which an acorn develops into an oak tree.  Perhaps those lovely words in the book of Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee” (1:6), echoed by Walt Whitman in his Song of Myself, are not just poetic fancy:

I am the acme of things accomplished, and I an encloser of things to be.
Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,

Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, the vapour from the nostrils of death,

I know I was even there……I waited unseen and always,

And slept while God carried me through the lethargic mist,

And took my time……And took no hurt from the foetid carbon.

Long was I hugged….close and long.

Immense have been the preparations for me,

Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.

Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen;

For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings,

They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.

Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,

My embryo has never been torpid…..nothing could overlay it;

For it the nebula cohered to an orb…the long slow strata piled to rest on it…..vast vegetables gave it sustenance.

Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.

All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me,

Now I stand on this spot with my soul.

Perhaps we are not the products of 'blind' chance, but the end and purpose of everything.  But, of course, purpose implies a purpose-giver, and a purpose-giver takes us back to the God we thought we had abandoned.  Is there evidence of design in the universe and if so, what are the implications?  I’ll leave you to ponder these questions, which, as thinking, conscious meat it is your privilege, nay, your duty, to do


An alien explorer, just returned from an earth visit, is reporting to his commander.
“They’re made out of meat.”
“There’s no doubt about it.  We picked several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through.  They’re completely meat.”
“That’s impossible.  What about the radio signals?  The messages to the stars?”
“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them.  The signals come from the machines.”
“So who made the machines?  That’s what we want to contact.”
“They made the machines.  That’s what I’m trying to tell you.  Meat made the machines.”
“That’s ridiculous.  How can meat make a machine?  You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”
“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you.  These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector and they’re made out of meat.”
“Maybe they’re like the Orfolei.  You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”
“Nope.  They’re born meat and they die meat.  We studied them for several of their lifespans, which didn’t take too long.  Do you have any idea of the lifespan of meat?”
“Spare me.  Okay, maybe they’re only part meat.  You know, like the Weddilei.  A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.”
“Nope, we thought of that, since they do have meat heads like the Weddilei.  But I told you, we probed them.  They’re meat all the way through.”
“No brain?”
“Oh, there’s a brain all right.  It’s just that the brain is made out of meat!”
“So….what does the thinking?”
“You’re not understanding, are you?  The brain does the thinking.  The meat.”
“Thinking meat!  You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”
“Yes, thinking meat!  Conscious meat!  Loving meat!  Dreaming meat!  The meat is the whole deal!”
Terry Bisson



Thursday, 16 August 2012

Are Unitarians Really Radical Thinkers?

A month or so ago, I received an email from Amazon, the booksellers.  ‘We thought you might be interested in the following titles,’ it said. One of them was a series of lectures by Gerald Massey, a radical thinker of the early twentieth century, who claimed that Christianity was derived from the religion of ancient Egypt and was not simply a branch of heretical Judaism. I’d heard of Massey before and wanted some of his work, so I clicked on the link and decided to order the book. But, of course, they tempt you to buy more stuff, and underneath the information on Massey’s book it said, ‘Some of the people who bought this book also bought these’.  One caught my eye, Caesar’s Messiah, by Joseph Atwill.  I’d never heard of this book or its author, who makes an even more astonishing claim than Massey: Christianity, says Atwill, was an invention of the Flavian dynasty of Roman Emperors – Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian - in the second half of the first century A.D., in an attempt to convert the ever-troublesome Jews to a less warlike version of their religion. Naturally, I ordered this book too.
          Both books arrived two days later, and when I’d read the first fifty pages or so of Atwill’s book, I thought to myself, ‘I must get into contact with this man. His ideas on the origins of Christianity seem even more radical than mine, and it would be good for us to compare notes.’  Later that day I went on to Facebook and discovered a little message to Rev. Ant Howe. ‘Dear Ant,’ it read, ‘thanks for the ad; I hope your back’s better’. Why this personal message to Ant had appeared on my Facebook page I have no idea, but what really astonished me was that the message came from ‘Joseph Atwill’. Well, I thought. That’s amazing. Ant knows this man, and, what’s more, he might even be a Unitarian. I immediately emailed Ant to ask for details. ‘Is the Joseph Atwill whose message appears on your timeline today the Joseph Atwill who wrote Caesar’s Messiah? If he is, I’d like you to introduce me to him.’  Ant replied, ‘No. I don’t move in such exalted circles. Joseph is a young man who’s just joined my congregation.’ I googled Joseph Atwill the author and found out that he is a middle-aged man who lives in America.
          I mention this strange incident for the simple reason that I want to suggest that neither the coincidence nor Atwill’s theory will be of much interest to contemporary Unitarians, and, what’s more, that this lack of interest lies at the heart of our current decline. We have simply ceased to be radical thinkers. Centuries ago our forebears stood up against the tyranny of the majority and, in many cases, risked penury and even death in order to be true to their principles. They wanted the freedom to think and to worship as their conscience dictated. We claim the same freedom, but, alas, we’ve started to think just like everyone else. In fact, we’ve taken on the prevailing intellectual dogmas of our age with hardly a whimper of protest. Richard Dawkins would probably be more welcome in many of our churches than the Archbishop of Canterbury. We’ve become secularists and naturalists, rejecting the supernatural out of hand, dispensing with God, life after death, petitionary prayer, angels, and much of the rest of what our ancestors would have called religion. And, of course, we have no truck with fanciful theories about coincidences. These are just random events in a chaotic universe, which are endowed with meaning by the pattern-seeking mind. That I should become aware of two men called Joseph Atwill on the same day has no meaning whatsoever.  This would be our general Unitarian response.
          And as to Atwill’s theory about the origins of the Gospels, well, it can be dismissed without even bothering to read it. Just another fanciful idea, a bit like Bill Darlison’s theory on the zodiacal structure of Mark. We don’t need to read it to realise that it has no substance. We are quite happy to go along with the accepted scholarly account of Gospel origins, and we send our students to conventional universities where they imbibe the fruits of contemporary orthodox scholarship and that will do for us. Forget your crazy theories. And anyway, isn't Darlison's theory based on a taboo subject – astrology - which, as everyone knows, even without giving it ten minutes serious consideration, is discredited and primitive, the preserve of the superstitious and the feeble minded. How do we know this? Well other people have told us, people whose opinions we respect. (Isn’t this what used to be called ‘dogma’, taking on the conclusions of others without even giving them a thought?)
          Last week I watched a programme on EWTN, the American Roman Catholic channel. It concerned the Gospel of Mark, my area of expertise. I wanted to know what Catholics are teaching about it these days. I wasn’t surprised to find that the Catholic version of the Gospel’s origins and purpose had not even taken account of 19th century scholarship, let alone 20th century scholarship. The lecturer was smilingly and confidently telling us that the Gospel was written at the dictation of the Apostle Peter; that it was a kind of synopsis of the life of Jesus; that the young man who appears dressed in only a linen cloth at the crucifixion of Jesus was Mark himself, and all the rest of the stuff which is routinely trotted out to give credibility to the idea that the Gospel is substantially a historical document. At the end of the programme I thought to myself, ‘Not one thing this woman has said is correct. Not one thing. It is all pious guff’.
          And yet, it is pious guff that millions are prepared to swallow. Do we Unitarians fare any better? I doubt it. The prevailing notion among Unitarians is that Jesus was an actual historical figure who went about doing good, who was a bit of a political radical, and who was crucified for falling foul of the Jewish authorities. Of course, we don't believe in the miracles, and we’ve long ago rejected such ideas as the resurrection and the virginal conception, and we think that Jesus got it wrong when he told us that the world was to end soon. But, by and large, he was a good guy and if we all paid attention to loving our neighbour as he taught, we could make the world a better place. Probably even Christopher Hitchens would have gone along with that. This, in substance, is Unitarian Christianity.
          Radical? Not a bit of it.
          If we don’t have a radical stance on Christian origins, surely we have a radical stance on issues of morality, don’t we? Aren’t we against capital punishment? Don’t we work for a more just and more egalitarian society? Don’t we read The Guardian? Don’t we support the right of gay and lesbian people to get married? Maybe, but there are still influential pockets of conservatism in our ranks. This month’s Unitarian (which we don’t seem to get here in Wakefield) has caused something of a controversy. We were all quite happy with it when it contained anodyne articles about church buildings and reports about coffee mornings and district association meetings. But Yvonne Aburrow, the new editor (she’s taken over from my friend, the late Frank Hytch), is determined to be a little bolder in her approach, and this month she printed an article by Desmond Ravenstone called Leather and Grace which argues that bondage and sado-masochism explore the ‘delicate balance of risk, trust, intensity and intimacy’ and has a deeply spiritual aspect.  What?! Sexuality – and particularly ‘kinky’ sexuality – is spiritual? Surely not! Sex is for reproduction or, we might (just) concede, for pleasure. But it’s not a spiritual activity. Haven’t we been conditioned to believe, along with St. Paul, that the spiritual person is the sexless person or, at least, the one who can keep his sexual urges to a minimum and express them within the culturally sanctioned norms of ‘respectable’ society?
          That’s what some Unitarians have decided. The August issue has been removed from the magazine table in one church that I know of, and Yvonne has received complaints from individuals and from the Manchester District Association, which sponsors the magazine. Can you imagine that? Unitarian ministers removing magazines in case they corrupt the delicate minds of their members! Editorial freedom compromised by high-handed Unitarians in positions of power! And all this happening when the book Fifty Shades of Grey – which deals with the very issue of sado-masochism - has become the biggest selling book of all time! Some people, it seems, (five million in Britain, and ten million worldwide at the last count) are interested in the idea. Should we Unitarians ignore it?
Now, if we were Hindus, this article would not have caused a ripple. The Hindus are much more open about sex than we are, and much more likely to accept that sexuality and spirituality are indeed intimately linked. The Kama Sutra is a sex manual, but, like tantric sexuality, it is based on the notion that physical ecstasy can lead us to the divine. Some years ago I saw an article in The Guardian about a group called the Bauls, Bengal’s wandering Tantric minstrels, at the centre of whose faith lies the idea of reaching God through opposing convention, challenging comforting ideas and violating approved social values. The Bauls see sex as a way of awakening latent energies in the body, using it as a sort of ‘rocket booster….to drive the mind out of the gravity of everyday life, to make sex not so much enjoyable as something approaching a divine experience.’  They use sex, along with other yogic and meditational practices, to make the body supple and coordinated, because, as one of them put it, ‘the body is a chariot that can take you up into the sky, towards the sun.’[i]
          That, I contend, is a genuinely radical approach, which challenges our puritanical, hypocritical cultural assumptions. Isn’t this what Unitarianism should be looking at, instead of tut tutting disapprovingly at anything which makes us feel uncomfortable?
          And God forbid that we should ever feel uncomfortable! Let’s not do anything in services which might cause someone even the slightest twinge of intellectual disquiet. Let’s not do anything new in case we offend the traditionalists. Let’s not sing a hymn which mentions God in case we offend the atheists. Let’s not say the Lord’s Prayer in case we offend the feminists. Let’s not even say the word ‘prayer’ without numerous caveats explaining that this is not a prescriptive term and is to be interpreted according to one’s own preferred definition. Is it any wonder that the only people we seem to be attracting are ‘difficult’, inflexible people who are only too ready to find something to be offended by?
          I think that the laughable toothlessness of contemporary Unitarianism can be summed up in our approach to the story of God’s Hat. You know it, I’m sure.

One day God decides to go for a walk. She (remember, this is a Unitarian version of the story!) dresses in her finest clothes and takes a stroll through the streets of a small town. A few days later, two of the townsfolk are talking about the event. ‘Did you see God the other day?’ asks one.
‘Yes I did. Didn’t she look lovely? I particularly liked her red hat!’
‘Her hat wasn’t red, it was blue.’
‘No it wasn’t. It was red. I saw it clearly with my own eyes!’
‘Well I saw it with mine and there’s no doubt about it: she was wearing a blue hat.’
The two continue to argue. Their language gets stronger. They begin to insult each other. Bystanders take sides, blows are exchanged and eventually there’s mayhem. At this point, God herself shows up. ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ she asks.
‘Some people say the hat you were wearing the other day was red, others that it was blue.’ This makes God smile. ‘They are both right,’ she says. ‘I was wearing my two-colour hat – red on one side and blue on the other!’ When this information is relayed to the warring sides, hostilities cease and all are amused at how this misunderstanding could cause such a commotion.

The moral of the story is pretty plain: our view of God is partial, and while we have got some things right, those who think differently could well be right too.
But this liberal, saccharine, Unitarian version of the story is a cop-out. The original story comes from West Africa; it’s a myth of the Yoruba people, and it concerns the god Edshu. When Edshu walks among the people he is wearing a hat with four colours – red, white, green, and black – and his presence provokes argument, even warfare, just as it does in the modern version. But at the end, when Edshu appears, he does not come as a reconciler, as one who points out that it is all based on a simple misunderstanding. Instead, he says, ‘These people could not help but quarrel. I wanted it that way. Spreading strife is my greatest joy!’[ii]
Why does he want to spread strife? Is it because he’s wicked? Does he enjoy watching people suffer? No. Like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus he realises that ‘strife is the mother of all things’. Like the Unitarian philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, he realises that we can either have truth or repose, but not both. Like Jesus, who tells us that he has come not to bring peace but a sword,[iii] Edshu wants to wake us up, to force us out of our lethargy, with our cosy, non-threatening, inoffensive assumptions, so that we can present a genuine challenge to the tired but arrogant intellectual conventions of our time.
Here’s to the future, then. A dangerous, risky, exciting future, I hope, in which we, as a denomination, genuinely and fearlessly ‘bid the soul, in search of truth, adventure boldly and explore’.  It’s our only hope. If we persist with our current decaffeinated, bland inoffensiveness we are doomed. We may as well sell up now.

[i] The Guardian Weekend, 7/2/04
[ii] Campbell, J. (1949) The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, page 45.
[iii] Matthew 10:34

Monday, 13 August 2012

Champion Birthday

This little piece appeared in The Guardian on 13th August 2012

Planning on having a baby?  Want them to run a little like Mo Farah, cycle like Sir Chris Hoy or row like Sir Steve Redgrave? You could do worse than ring 23 March on the calendar and plan your efforts accordingly. For what these men have in common – apart from Olympic gold medals aplenty – is their date of birth.
            Although separated in age by decades, a cluster of male British sporting greats were born on the same date in spring – from Redgrave, rowing’s most decorated Olympian (gold medals: five), in 1962, to track cyclist Jason Kenny (gold medals: three) in 1968. In between came Hoy (gold medals: six) in 1976, and Farah (gold medals: as of Saturday night, two) in 1983.

 Add into the mix the four-minute mile runner Roger Bannister (born in 1929), Joe Calzaghe, the Pride of Wales boxing champion (born in 1972), and former England cricket captain Mike Atherton (1968), you have what appears to be a birthday of rare potential. But anyone hoping to give birth to a champion next year has already missed the ideal starting time – at the end of last month.

Mo Farah

Sir Steve Redgrave

Sir Chris Hoy

Jason Kenny

It will come as no surprise to students of astrology that champion athletes should be born at the beginning of spring, under the sign Aries. 'Aries,' writes Charles Carter, 'is characterised by extreme activity, especially physical. There is unlimited energy, daring, love of enterprise and adventure, and a quick, decided temper that ill brooks any opposition or restraint.'

Of course, there's nothing in it. It's just 'coincidence'. As we all know, astrology is foolishness. The fact that Galileo, Kepler, and Newton all practised it, and Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Henry Miller, Louis McNeice and Ted Hughes all 'believed' in it means nothing. We'd much rather take the word of such contemporary luminaries as Dara O'Briain (who's probably never read a word of serious astrology in his life).