As with gladness those of old
Did the guiding star behold
As with joy they hailed its light
Leading onward, beaming bright.
I light here the chalice of liberal faith!
[Light the chalice]
This is the light
Energy giving, burning,
Our star for this hour:
Manifesting, transforming, revealing.
Worship this hour in this Unitarian church
With sacrifice, and hope, and love.
That ideal which is beyond and yet which we strive to build:
We may call it spiritual.
It will come,
It will be done here, we imagine and hope.
For now, though, live well enough.
We set ourselves up to be forgiven
And forgive those who transgress us;
Restrain from what is bad
And do not fall into further bad ways.
This way we can start to build the ideal life
And go on to make it powerful and in glory
Using the sound foundation that will last.
Hymn - 137 We shall be Strong and Free
Now a time of prayer and meditation.
In our inner minds
Where all desires are known and none can be truly hidden away,
Seek inner cleansing, and purity,
Focus to give out perfect love,
And build the sound foundation for the future.
Be led by your guiding star;
Everyone has their own star.
Follow the star in anticipation,
And do so in this New Year.
We have our gifts to give
And gratefully receive that which is taken.
We bind ourselves through giving and receiving
To everyone around us
Let us hear the five precepts of Buddhism, with added commentaries:
I undertake to observe the rule:
to abstain from taking life (this means terminating the life-force of anything which has bodily action)
to abstain from taking what is not given (meaning any strategy of theft)
to abstain from sensuous misconduct (meaning sexual violation and breaking taboos)
to abstain from false speech (this means intimating that something is the case when it is not)
to abstain from intoxicants as tending to cloud the mind (clarity of mind is a necessary prerequisite of Buddhist practice)
In each case, the offence committed depends on the circumstances, on the thought, on the action, and who received the wrong deed. [From various Buddhist sources]
In these difficult days
We pray for those in government
That they may come to honourable decisions
Difficult that these may be,
That they may serve us, and others, in a God-like observing manner.
The lives we lead are built upon tender foundations,
And our life-houses, built so slowly, reformed so often
Are vulnerable, and need nurturing, and protecting.
We pray for peace, the necessary wealth, and Godliness.
We pray for those in faith and the faiths
That we all think again about our life paths
To see the aims of religion, but not to be captors of religion
Faithful, yet not extreme; devoted, yet not slavish, focussed, yet not narrow minded.
We pray for faith that is tolerant towards all.
We pray for the world in all its aspects
The world interrelates in unity,
Plant and animal life:
All living creatures have their rightful places
And we pray for the great responsibility of those who know, and see, and speak, and do to others
We pray for all life, and a responsible humankind.
And in these meditations and prayers, which we consider together, we consider also those we know ourselves. Perhaps they are our lovers, or come to us as friends, or come indifferently, or they present themselves as enemies. We pray for those whom we see and in silence.
In this church
We the people, its congregation, have many interpretations
Of matters spiritual and religious
The creative spirit is behind life, within life, and makes us artists of meaning
We hail those gifted with clearest sight
like Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Gandhi
We remember the liberal Christian tradition, evolving and changing in continuous revelation
We recall the Humanist tradition, with its appeal to rational thinking
We import the Eastern traditions, with their timeless philosophies
And we live again the home Pagan rebirths, with their natural insights and their spiritual sensualities
All of religions' stories are an endless resource
Who give basis for our redirections
Means to continuously learn and self-correct
to be artists of meaning
And be saved into the good life.
Hymn - 36 Star Born
I have three short readings from the Jewish and Christian bibles and one that is secular. For each reading I shall light a candle, appropriate to the message of revelatory light.
This first reading is the origin of the star, rather than, of course, some astronomical event. It is from Numbers, 25, starting from within verse 15 to within 17.
The oracle of Balaam, the son of Be'or,
The oracle of the man whose eye is opened,
The oracle of him who hears the words of God,
and knows the knowledge of the Most High,
who sees the vision of the Almighty,
falling down, but having his eyes uncovered:
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not nigh:
a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel;...
[Numbers 25. within 15-within 17].
[Light a Candle]
Of course Bethlehem itself came from Micah. That reading and the next took on a Jewish messianic interpretation, and the reading for this Epiphany Sunday is from Isaiah 60 verses 1 to 6.
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will rise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lift up your eyes round about, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far,
and your daughters shall be carried in the arms.
Then shall you see and be radiant,
Your heart shall thrill and rejoice;
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
The young camels of Midian and Ephah;
All those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
[Light a Candle]
So we see here again the construction of the New Testament birth narratives, regarding the gifts. More important however in that reading was the emergence of revelatory light out of darkness. The gospel reading collects together these Old Testament stories into a story to justify that this man was the saviour at birth. Here is Matthew 2 verses 10 to 12.
When they saw the star, the rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasure, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
[Light a Candle]
So we see the birth narrative picking up one element from Numbers and one from Isaiah, showing strange figures involved in the manifestations of God, and mysterious men of authority from the east, the revelation and the place of light. I'm also interested in the gifts which leads me to the final reading, an extract from Ideology, Science and Human Geography by Derek Gregory, one of the best books I've seen that summarises standard social science authors. This part is about the French sociologist, Marcel Mauss, whom I knew very little about before students mentioned him recently.
Marcel Mauss was at once [Emile] Durkheim's favourite nephew and his most distinguished pupil. After his uncle's death in 1917 he moved to the centre of the French sociological state, and eight years later he completed his Essay on the Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies.
Mauss's starting point had been a very simple question: "In primitive or archaic societies, what is the principle whereby the gift received has to be repaid?" (Mauss, 1970, 1)...
Mauss's answer [to complex social exchanges around a circuit of givers and receivers]... was as simple as his question: the gift exemplified both material and moral life by sheltering a restless spirit whose ceasless stirrings animated its progress around the circuit. [Mauss states:]
In this system of ideas one gives away what is in reality a part of one's nature and substance, while to receive something is to receive a part of someone's nature and spiritual essence. To keep this thing is dangerous, not only because it is illicit to do so, but also because it comes morally, physically and spiritually from a person. Whatever it is, food, possessions, women, children, or ritual, it retains a magical and religious hold over the recepient. The thing given is not inert. It is alive and often personifed, and strives to bring [back] to its original clan and homeland something equivalent to take its place. (Mauss, 1970, 10)
[Extracts from Gregory, D. (1978), Ideology, Science and Human Geography, 91-93]
[Light a Candle]
So he is saying that something very powerful, of one's own substance and essence, is given away in order to receive back spiritual essence. This is the theory of the exchange of gifts, it is also the theory of how people, and societies, bind themselves together. It is how to understand the story of the wise men.
Hymn - 146 'Tis the Gift to be Simple
When we speak or write or draw we create a signifier that we use to generate a mental picture in the mind that means something. So if I say cat, being c -a - t, then you think of a furry thing that has certain qualities including the call miaow. This connection between the word and the mind construct is called the sign. Thus the word, or sound, or picture becomes a sign that means the mind-concept of cat in its fullness.
I have just been describing the basics of semiotics, that in communication there is the signifier, sign and signified. Nothing now in sociology, in theology or philosophy or even science can ignore communication and semiotics.
Now notice the end result is a mind-concept, the understanding of cat, in the example just given. I did not say the cat out there, but the result, in the mind, of the cat like thing where it has meaning. This then is about the communication of all kinds of depth of meaning, and this is the power of the sign. So with c - a - t, you think of, yes, animal, but also furryness, warmth, friendliness, loyalty, warm log fires, rugs and all sorts.
What became obvious to philosophers was that the sign gains its meaning not from objects out there, but from its association, its comparison and its contrast with other signs. I have given some - furryness, warmth and so on.
So we understand cat by furry, and purring, but we also understand it by dog, and by tiger, and by dog we think of bone, but cat is not associated with bone, and tiger is fierce and related to cat but cat isn't fierce, not usually anyway. We get meaning, therefore, by running around the dictionary of comparative and contrasting signs.
This matter is more complicated than cats and dogs of course. It is the whole range of nuances and assumptions which become associated together. The way that signs are associated, or codes, form cultures. What is it that makes us British, European, Christian, humanist, Western? It is the collection and comparison of signs we put together, signs in communication, the codes that we share.
This is the important point: even before you finish your sentence I know a great deal of what you're thinking already. If you don't believe me, try and watch television with a wife from abroad like I do. The cultural assumptions are so often just taken for granted but Elena, highly intelligent as she is, doesn't receive many British and some Western nuances and must learn them all. Equally I do not understand the Russian sense of humour. I would be lost in Russia. This is because we learnt our own codes of related signs, our culture, from an early age.
Language in its complex richness carries culture and meaning. We are born into language and we grow up through it. It is why we are not just individuals. Absolutely no experience of ours is ever beyond language and ever beyond pre-conceived collective meanings. It is our ability to think in complex language that make us human; and language facilitates memory, planning, history, the museum and the library.
It is in these meanings that we locate and reflect and work out moral responses. What is real is what is interpreted and meaningful, and what is real and moral and good and bad is carried in culture, in related signs, and language.
Now as these views took hold, and the main man was Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the consequences of such thought about language were huge. Because if reality, being meaningful, is delivered to us as we grow into language, where is the ground of this reality? Why isn't everything just made up subjectively?
Once in the past, Plato said that there is a heavenly realm to reflect every existence and thought on earth. The heavenly guarantees the existence and reality of what is on earth. Then we said that the ground of being is in the one true God: ultimate truth, ultimate goodness, ultimate reality, and this guarantees everything else. But even without God, Marx said truth was located in the scientific unfolding of history, Weber in the rational process, and everyone has had their bet as to where it is. But now we cannot ignore language, not in science, not in theology, nor philosophy, nor sociology.
Some say that the location of reality is obvious, like the chair here is real. But other than hitting the stuffness of its stuff, what is a chair? Is it a chair before you sit in it, or afterwards, or because of exclusive use, or have you just categorised it that way? When is a cattle shed a house - when the cattle leave and the humans move in? What is a cattle shed compared with a house?
The answer is something becomes something when it is categorised, and categorising is word play. Reality is word play, it is categorising, like a librarian categorises everything neatly. Our catalogue is not so clear and found in the dictionary. Otherwise all you have is the stuffness of all stuff, which is nothing really.
In my last job I spent quite some hours discussing this semiotics with students as they had to learn about it. And where did the language theoreticians locate reality? They decided at first that reality was finally located, when push came to shove, in absolute contrast. So hot gains its real meaning by being opposite to cold, dry to wet, and so on. So we define the sign dry by not wet and vice versa. Such signs are opposite, they are even binary, and nothing gets more fundamental than binary mathematics.
People have analysed primitive societies (and by projection, complex societies). Societies bind together through give and take, trading if you like, economic and social, and the action and meaning of give and take is like an opposite motion, and we can say that give and take is binary. People said societies are like language! It is because societies come together through communicating; reciprocating is also communicating.
There is nothing more fundamental than a binary relationship - it's even the basis of computers - and so reality was located. Final definitions are like zero to one. The people who followed this structural approach were called structuralists. You found structure in language and in society, just as you do in mathematics. So not only do people in societies communicate, but societies are themselves a form of communication. Societies can be understood as an extension of semiotics: and so, interestingly, and by extension, can religion be understood in this way.
I have an example of this while we were drinking champagne as the New Year came in. We were watching The Wicker Man, or at least I did, a film and story of a devout Calvinist policeman who goes to the feudal island Summerisle on a case of a missing girl, and the policeman finds something approaching a cover up and deception first of apparent murder and then what increasingly looks like a preparation for the missing girl's coming sacrifice. Eventually the policeman sees the Laird of the island, who tells him that his grandfather, after many crop failures, introduced new crops to take advantage of the volcanic soil and the warm air of the misnamed Gulf Stream (actually it is called the North Atlantic Drift). And to involve the villagers in this change he linked the new crops and their successful growth to the pagan religion. This religion took hold, and displaced the other religions on the island in the community.
The pagan religion is very well observed within the film, and so is the clash with this straight laced Protestant policeman who also claims to represent rationality against their irrationalism. In the story, the policeman believes that the costumed May Day procession will lead to the sacrifice. He is able to get himself into a costume, incognito, and indeed by the arrival at the sea the missing girl appears from the cliffs. I shall not give away the ending, if you do not know the film, but nevertheless the film does end with a sacrifice, or a burning inside the Wicker Man, a huge structure that looks something like a gigantic corn dolly.
Whilst this Paganism is shown to be a happy religion on the regenerative principle, the film shows that, using a ritual researched from ancient Scandinavia, when things go wrong, like a failed harvest, a terrible sacrifice has to be made.
In other words, the film shows that something substantially material has to be given in order to receive a spiritual benefit in return. That spiritual reciprocation goes into the growing process towards a successful material crop harvest in the emerging year.
Now, that society is bound together by its religion. And in the film the Laird knows that whilst the sacrifice is technically rubbish, after all it won't do anything, the sacrifice must still go ahead because the island society depends on it for its own continuation. The ritual is ultimately a social act.
The policeman opposes this, of course, on rational and religious grounds. But his faith has only partly rationalised anyway. It also has at its centre the terrible sacrifice of its own prophetic figure, the Very God of Very God, for which there is an eternal spiritual benefit. From this point on, the Calvinist can live simply in faith, and his communion is but a remembrance, but it was once in history so very real.
Now the film is an example of "the gift" in action, the gift being where something material is given for a spiritual return. Another example is in the story of Epiphany, recreated from the Jewish Bible. Men of high standing give very high quality gifts. They do so because there is a spiritual return, in this case the Christ figure, the eternal saviour. The story is saying, this man is the saviour God, he therefore receives substantial gifts in terms of their value.
What happens in ritual, and indeed what happened in the Epiphany story and what Marcel Mauss showed, was that the gift, for ritual is a gift, is the highest, almost magical expression of human exchange. This is what gifts at Christmas were about (you give presents in relationship), this is what ritual is about, and the film The Wicker Man showed it to be. And we note that the gift is so basic that it works at the most fundamental mathematical relationship - the gift is reciprocal and binary. The gift is, in other words, a semiotic relationship, a communication of meanings in binary fashion. We see how language and reality and the very essence of religion and society join up.
Except that a philosopher called Jacques Derrida came along and said "no", because every sign in language carries within it some small fragment and implication of its opposite. Opposite signs he argued, are not opposites, and in fact if you make them opposite, they will undermine you. This breakdown happens because of how people use these words, the meanings in them. You have heard of the phrase "reading between the lines", and this is exactly what is involved - reading between the lines collapses binary opposites in language.
Sometimes culture even actively subverts meanings. I think of the American youth who says "I feel bad man" which means he feels good. Bad implies good and becomes good.
Recently I have been rethinking my religion on the basis of someone who thinks that in language opposites implode. He is a French man called Jean Baudrillard, about whom I have also had discussions with students.
Baudrillard realised that in a meaning-rich, highly symbolic culture like ours, full of comforts and ways of thinking and meaning, we cannot recover any real value of a consumer product or service behind all the advertising, if there ever was a real value of the good or service. This is because how much that good or service is worth depends on what we think about it, its meaning. What Baudrillard did say was, hang on, meanings are generated, and the value of the consumer good or service depends on the signs and meanings we already live within.
These meanings are not at all fixed any more, but forever changing and relative. In other words, we go around and around the dictionary for meanings, and find nothing to anchor anything. So we can say even that the economy, the value of anything, is driven by the semiotic system, and therefore nothing has any fixed real value at all.
Think of it: why are mobile phones suddenly all the fashion, and what is coming next? We are driven by fads. This is because the economy is symbolically and semiotically unstable.
And this is true of all meanings. The fads extend far beyond consumer products. The value of something, the meaning of something, rises up, is significant, and the moment you grasp it, it has gone. Nothing is stable, absolutely nothing. Now the people who think like this are called poststructuralists - where every meaning is relative to another, nothing is fixed, and meanings implode on one another all the time.
Baudrillard speaks of the simulacra. Simulacra is a desire that pops up giving an impression of valuable meaning, and as soon as you have grasped it, it has likely gone. It's a chaos of meaning. Simulacras come and go all the time.
I apply this in religion. A communion service is like a simulacra or indeed contains many smaller simulacras. The meaning of it, its value, was once fixed. We now see that once the Protestants undermined the original absolutism of the death of Christ really re-enacted, when you break the bread, they started a slippery slope to relativism. The gift of the ritual exchange was devalued, and indeed all rituals were devalued. The gift lost power. Unitarian churches for example largely abandoned the communion.
We do of course find other ways of giving materially, to produce something spiritual. I did so creating this service. It took my time and resources, to receive something back, I hope, spiritually. Supporting this church is also the principle of the gift, to create a community. We must, of course, expect to see a spiritual return.
But there is no certainty of this spiritual return anyway, no binary absolute, but only a coming and going of changing meanings. In ritual now, we must be active in our receiving of meanings, many meanings. But unless we do ritual, however we define it, of some sort, we shall receive nothing, with therefore no possibility of enacting the gift.
I have always believed that we must be more ritualistic, more pagan, more involving to get a spiritual return.
The language of the communion is the language of relationship. It is highly symbolic, and faith too is symbolic; we have to live even more in faith - we have to put meanings in, watch the stirring of the pot, and hope meanings come out in response. To me, the spiritual is simply meanings, meanings that emerge which are about one's direction in life, and one's ability to self-criticise and redirect.
I see the ritual of communion, or its alternatives, as like a means of focus to put in one's participation, to live out its linguistic drama, its story, and then to use it for the spiritual payback of reorientating life's direction. In the communion we handle material elements as an echo of the material, even a reflection of the stuffness of stuff in the world that supports us, but it is a I suggest now spiritual input for a spiritual output.
The communion service I shall do is plural and poststructural. At this stage I have to make this obvious. Poststructural semiotics teaches us that communion services are in effect simulacras. The simulacras of the communion may be highly significant, for just a moment, or not very significant. What comes out as a spiritual reward for the spiritual input may be plentiful or may be minimal. I suggest we try to treat these emergent simulacras as epiphanic moments, manifestations, like we can, in a literary way, interpret the manifestation of the Christ figure at Epiphany. It is a story, and history is not an absolute, so in our case Christ lived, Christ died, Christ lived again, and he died again. Christ too is a simulacra, which exists and does not exist. Living and dying just goes on and on, just like the fruits of the earth, and all that binds us as a people and a planet together in a looser, liberal, changing society.
Hymn - 134 Faith of the Larger Liberty
Here we are gathered
Around the food and drink of life:
Bread, the staple diet, representing all nourishment
And therefore becoming the body;
Pure water, representing all life flows
And therefore becoming blood;
Sustenance to live and have our being.
We come to this eucharistic celebration
In a spirit of love and charity towards our neighbours,
Intending to live a new life, by following ethical precepts and holy ways.
So let us draw near with faith, and examine our conditions.
In this moment of silence, consider
What we have from time to time greviously committed
In thought, word and deed,
And how we can put ourselves right
With others, and with ourselves
Seeking the forgivenness of others and restoring ourselves.
And now we can and should go forward
In a spirit of forgivenness and repentance
Strengthened for goodness.
Hear these comfortable words of Jesus:
Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh them.
Hear these words of Gandhi's insight:
A nation that is capable of limitless sacrifice is capable of rising to limitless heights. The purer the sacrifice the quicker the progress. (Attenborough, R. (1982), The Words of Gandhi, 13)
And Buddha told us to:
Go forth on your journey, for the profit of many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the profit, the bliss of devas and humankind. (Vinaya, 1.21)
We raise our hearts and spirits!
We lift them high!
Let us give thanks for what is possible:
It is meet and right to do so.
It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, to appreciate the wondrous nature of all the world's living community, that we can meet and communicate within it, to speak and hear, and that in our participation we both give and receive.
And therefore with the angelic figures and devas we can say, "Holy is this community, for there is no heaven beyond earth, but it must be here, in and amongst us, waiting for us to release its potential."
The tides are a-changing!
Come to claim what is yours;
The days are longer, and the sun is being reborn.
Whilst taking counsel
Be wise and bold in actions
Coming to this table.
O God hear us,
For this ritual of bread and pure water
Is the most natural, with the produce of the earth
And has caused no suffering to any living creature.
Jesus of Nazareth, when he took passover,
Knowing that time was short, on a night that he was betrayed,
Took bread, and when he had given thanks broke it
And shared it among his company of supporters;
And then he took wine, and when he had given thanks, drank it
And shared it among the same company of supporters.
He said to them, "Do this often to remember me."
And they did.
And it symbolised that he, even he, could be put to death by the State.
And his followers do re-live who he was for them,
And we re-live what this pure water can be for us: [Hold some water]
Water that became wine,
And which is in all that refreshes and sustains;
And we re-live what this bread can be for us: [Hold some bread]
Bread and water
Upon the plentiful earth:
Its bountiful produce -
The food of life;
The life-force running through all that lives,
As in the running rivers,
The ever continuous round of life and death,
And the demand for the ethical and moral life.
We come now, all of us, committed to a renewed direction;
We come now, all of us, committed to a renewed direction;
We come now, all of us, committed to a renewed direction.
And so let us partake of these natural forms, our spiritual food, bread, and pure water, aware that those wo do not wish to still participate in their own holy way.
[The bread and pure water are offered and taken in silence to those who wish to partake.]
[And when everyone has eaten and drunk:]
And now after this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
We indeed offer holy and spirit given thanks
For this real food and drink,
Which we have taken as spiritual nourishment
To go out into the world
And live, committed to a renewed direction.
Hymn - 209 Wonders Still the World Shall Witness
With a peace that goes beyond earthly experience:
We keep our hearts and minds in love,
And are committed to renewed direction,
And all of us be blessed.
[Following the structure of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer; all hymns are from Hymns for Living]