My journey to Ithica

The earth is my sacred home.

I have changed over the years.   The early years my life was conventional.    Prep school in Surrey until we moved to Liverpool where I went to the Liverpool College.

We attended the church in Princes Park. Liverpool which had been built for my great great grandfather, there’s a statue of him in St George’s Hall Liverpool.

At thirteen I was shipped off to public school near Nottingham.    All this had been paid for partly by my father. He died on my seventh birthday while working in Iran.  My grandfather then picked up the tab. He had been a vicar at Tunbridge Wells and had been a maths scholar, a wrangler, at Cambridge.

My public school was low church Christian, it was called evangelical in those days.   We had chapel every morning and evening six days a week and three times on Sunday. I was fairly well cemented into the Christian tradition and never doubted any of it.    I knew my place in the world and it was at the top of the heap.

The school had an arboretum of a thousand different trees and a chemistry teacher who took a group of us to the Lake District for two weeks every Easter hol.   We walked all the great hills.

My other grandfather was a gamekeeper.   He had once lived near the Barrel pub at Hucklow.    As kids we saw more of him than of the wrangler in Tunbridge Wells.     The gamekeeper lived in a cottage in Cheshire in what we would now call romantic poverty.   We spent holidays with him, eating mostly rabbit stew or pigeon pie. The rabbits caught by his ferrets and the pigeons usually had a bit of buckshot in them from his gun.

We read our books by the light of paraffin lamps, meals were cooked on the openfire and the toilet was thirty yards away from the house through the nettles.    One of our holiday jobs was to walk to the three miles to the village to change the accumulator that ran the radio. I loved it there, tramping beside him as he walked his patch of several square miles, looking after the young pheasants and trying to shoot their predators

The chemistry teacher and my gamekeeper grandfather began the unravelling of my Christian faith.    They knocked me off the path of Protestant certainty.

There’s a scene in the film Blade Runner where Rud Hullet is talking as his life as a replicant is fading away, ‘ I have seen the most amazing things, sunrises and sunsets, and the most amazing places’

I know what he meant.     When I left my public school I went to sea on a tub of a ship that the Bay of Biscay was always trying to sink.   We went to West Africa to pick up mahogany logs, sailing up the creeks of the Benin river. Nigeria was a poor country then.  One day I had to dress our ship overall with flags and blow the ships whistle as the first of their oil was pumped onto a tanker.

Recently Nigeria celebrated the fifty years of daily pumping oil on to tankers .It is still a poor country.

Later when I was living in London I found it a lonely place and there was an opportunity to join the TA, so I did.   Belonging to them meant I had to train as a parachutist and accept the obligation to make lots of night jumps.

At night the moment between the parachute opening and thinking of landing is quite exhilarating.    You hang beneath the stars in a beautiful nothingness. It doesn’t last long but you can never forget it.

Then too I went to the alps with some friends and at twelve thousand feet witnessed the sun rise turning the snow clad peaks crimson and then gold.

One of my last jobs before training for ministry was working on an oil field in Libya.   It was a three hour plane ride into the Sahara on the way to Chad to work at a remote oilfield.    On the surface of the desert you could pick up sea shells because once it had been the floor of an ocean.   More than a thousand feet below was the oil field which had once been a forest or a lake.

What had I learned?   That the earth was the most beautiful place; you can’t be a soldier and a Christian; the world is terribly unfair;    I didn’t have the divine right to rule. There are the most incredibly kind people in this world and they come from all faiths and all nations.

I started going to church again after going to a service at the Unitarian chapel in Knutsford where I was living.  And I only went there because they were in the rota for civic Sunday and my brownie daughter was taking part.

But it spoke to me and I saw a lot of friends were there who had never said they were Unitarians.

After a while I thought, I could take a service too so I applied for the ministry and they took me on.

What a stroke of good fortune.     I turned up with my Bible which I had always thought was the word of God.  The lecturers of Owens College and Luther King House systematically took that Bible apart.    I studied it all, Old Testament, inter testament literature, New Testament, other world faiths and traditions.

I have ended up with none of them.    I ditched the Old Testament because it bore no relationship to the New, the Old had a quarrelsome god of vengeance whom the people ignored.   It is a book of heroes where every hero is flawed and none follow their God. It is a wonderful source for sermons.

The New Testament was the esoteric mystical teaching of an ageless wisdom.    Not for me historical Jesus but the phantom teacher of truths. I really bought into that but not the church created sacrificial Easter Lamb.

To me the whole Jesus story is deeply symbolic and allegorical.    It points the way to universal friendship and universal love and a connection beyond what is simply of the earth and everyday.

I let the Old Protestant God fade out of my life and found myself free to be in a chaotic unpredictable world that was nevertheless travelling towards its own Ithaca.

Godless, the world revealed the universal consciousness in which all things are connected.     From the snowdrop to the mountain top all is within it. It is of the whole universe.

There is an energy flowing that is of joy and loving kindness.   That is the energy we feel when we look at the hill or climb up it, or sit under the stars, or watch the sun rise or set on the sea’s horizon, or sit quietly in a chapel like this one.

Call it the spiritual energy of the world and it is all around us and all within us.

Treat another person with loving kindness and their soul responds.   Treat them with anger or contempt and they shut down and shut you out.     Our treatment of animals is the same.

There is magic and mystery in the world and within ourselves but it has been built over and hidden by the advancing civilisations.   We still have the power to heal with our loving kindness.

Some religions and beliefs do point to this spiritual world.

But however crushing religious or political institutions have been over the centuries wisdom teachers have still emerged from within the universal consciousness to keep its truth alive.     Paracelsus with holistic healing, Rudolph Steiner with education and philosophy.

In the last century  George Ivanovitch Gurjieff said that most people in the world were spiritual sleep walkers.  Their souls were asleep and they lived disconnected lives of consumerism. Unaware they were consuming the world they depended on for life.

When the soul awakes, loving kindness flows both outwards and inwards.    The world is seen for what it is, beautiful, living and energising.

We are all on a journey to Ithaca.   We have a sense that the soul is immortal.   We have a sense that death means change and not an end.  We have a sense of divinity.

We are not always sure why we are here, why we are on this journey but it is a fact that we are here.

The Christian religion had taught me that my goal was heaven and I and my fellow Christians were special.    That the earth was my gift to live on as I pleased, the nations of the world were our servants.

It taught, Go to Ithaca but don’t stop at the markets or deal with the Lestrygonions.    That my life was sacred, my earthly home wasn’t.

On my journey I have found the opposite to be true.   The earth is my sacred home. It rings out an anthem of joy.

The earth carries the message of the universe in all its wondrous spaces and places, in all it growing and living covered surfaces and depths,  that the soul that is filled with loving kindness is the one.that sings with joy and knows the meaning and purpose of life.

The road to Ithaca is for free spirits.    May we all enjoy it and love it.

 

 

 

 

 

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What Christianity really is

Unitarians have been celebrating the fact it is the 450 years anniversary of the Diet of Torda.   The Inquirer shows that wonderful picture of Francis David speaking at the Diet and proclaiming the freedom of the pulpit and the right of people to follow their own religious conscience.

We don’t have anyone like Francis David.

Francis David had moved through all the denominations.   He had been a Roman Catholic and he had been a Lutheran.    He had not been satisfied by those religions because they tried to stop him thinking about what he really believed.

That freedom of religious belief is what has given the Unitarians their identity.

Our paper, th Inquirer has been full of reports of the recent theology conference held in Leeds.    To be honest I have not read all of it.

It is always interesting to read or hear what other people believe about religion.    Other people’s views can help to distil our own thoughts.    But I have a suspicion that there is an agenda to push the Unitarians back into the mainstream of the Christian faith.

I could never do that.    I left traditional christianity a long time ago.   Having left I don’t know whether I have moved back, moved forward or just slipped sideways.   Because so much of it has stuck to me.

What is indisputable, is that  Jesus, whether real or unreal, fact or fiction, god or spiritual human is the most significant person of the last two thousand years.   In a way when we think about our religion and our culture, we cannot escape the importance of his presence in the last two milennia.

I thought I would use the freedom offered to me by the Diet of Torda to tell you what I think.

And my thoughts start with the Wise Men who came from the East.   Why are they in the Jesus story and why their religion ?

   They were Zoroastrians.   Since the time of Alexander the Great, the Zoroastrian religion had spread through his empire.  It as they who carried the ideas of life after death, judgement at the gate of heaven, it was in fact a bridge, wicked souls fell off it, good souls walked over easily.  

It was the Zoroastrians who Introduced the idea of a spirit redeemer, the Saoshyant, who would come to pass judgement at the end of time on the souls of those who had fallen off the bridge.

This is what Christianity was to pick up.

In the Jewish religion, it was the Pharisees who had been influenced most by be Zoroastrians and were changing the laws of the Jewish people. and it was the conservative Sadducees who were resisting all change.

    In the Bible story Joseph, Mary and the baby fled to Egypt.   No one seems to know what they did there.  There were Jewish religious exiles in Egypt and one of the best known of the mystical religions was Gnosticism, based on a cosmic spiritual being whose body like that of the Egyptian god Horus was broken up and all the pieces scattered throughout humanity as shards of spiritual crystal light.    

That shard of light exists in everyone they said but it has to be discovered and then it will light up and you will be spiritually one with the god.

By the age of twelve Jesus and his family are back home and he is already well versed in the Jewish scriptures and is a strong debater with the elders of the synagogue.

Then he is a grown man gathering a following of disciples, healing the sick and performing miracles.   Why?   What did he want to achieve?   

Some will say that he wanted to reform his religion.   He wanted everyone to break the rules and release themselves from the strict rituals about the Sabbath and the Book of Exodus which controlled a person’s life in such detail.    He swept through the country with his healing and miracles.   He preached to thousands.    He preached the equality before God of all people.    Tax gatherer or Roman centurion, or woman, master or servant or slave.

But in challenging their religion, he was challenging the very identity of the Jewish people.    Even today Jewish people are defined by their religion more than by any country, caste or colour.

What sort of a person must he have been?   If he was just a man, was he Gentle Jesus meek and mild or an angry reformer with a mission to change the whole status quo of society?  

After eighteen months he led his followers on a great march to Jerusalem with a prophesy of change.   It was like Gandhi’s salt march to the ocean or Martin Luther King’s march to Washington.    

But for Jesus, The thousands who heard him preach never came with him.  They had only gathered to see a spectacle, like the old billy Graham fans.   They all stayed with the tried and trusted ways of their culture and their identity.   They did not want change, well not to their religion.   They did want to get rid of the Romans but that revolt came later.

That was the end of Jesus, he had few followers left, none at all in Israel after a while.  Some twenty years later, stories were circulating about this Jesus and he became a legend and not real person.

It was Paul who changed it again.    He became a follower and he too tried to change the culture and the identity of the people but he was too eventually rejected and tried as a blasphemer by the Jewish priests.

Paul had already taken the religion of Jesus outside Israel and created a new religion with Jesus becoming the spiritual  Christ, a cosmic God of Light, giving light to his followers.  

And Paul succeeded because he could give his followers an identity.   The gentiles he preached to were not restricted by religious rules.    They had been used to many gods.  Paul offered them a personal God who gave them a religion and a promise of real freedom.  

He wrote and told them Christ the god, the light of the world was coming to judge the world and coming soon.    In his letters he deliberated with them on belief and lifestyles.   His followers he said were unchained from the restrictions of everyday living and even the laws of the land.   They organised into churches and forsook the temples and synagogues they had been going to.

It caused a lot of trouble because groups of Christians sprung up all over the empire with their loyalty pledged not to Rome but to the Christ in heaven.

That couldn’t last.    Paul’s letters show how some groups fell away from his teaching and how they fell out with each other.    For the authorities it was a rebellion.   People saying they were above the laws of the land and only subject to the Christ.

So the empire took control by establishing this runaway religion as the state religion.   They made it establishment and ruthlessly put down any dissent.   The church was ruled from Rome.    The people lost that freedom and were given the identity of the church.    Angry reformers were crushed in the flames of the stake.   And it lasted more than a thousand years until the church was undone by its own corruption.

This country formed its own version of the church, the state religion of the Church of England bound together by the Westminster confession of faith and the doctrine of the trinity.     Great Britain was identified as a Christian country,  Everyone in it a god fearing Christian.   Even though people have stopped going to church, most people will still identify themselves as British and Christian.    Peake’s commentary was the authority.

It is why the Unitarians had such a hard time in the early years.  They dissented from the identity of church and state.  For that they were vilified.

They followed the teaching of Jesus, they believed in the fatherhood of god, the humanity of Jesus but they also believed in religious freedom and reason as a tool for exploring faith.

They were probably most influenced by the writings and leadership of Dr James Martineau who wanted to reform the structure of the Christian religion but was not successful.

Martineau’s writings were an authority on Unitarian faith.    They probably still might be.  He said the authority of the human spirit was conscience.

But the world has changed and that Unitarianism too has had its day.    Unitarians have lost that identity as Christian dissenters, because now everyone is a dissenter, they show their dissent by not bothering about church at all.  

Everyone believes what we believe.   Following those Jesus qualities of being a Good Samaritan and living a good ethical life.  We say most people are Unitarians without knowing it.   The spiritual light is not necessary.

We Unitarians are small in number because we have lost an identity.   We have a new corporate identity logo.  But what does that identify?

We have to ask ourselves if we are a faith community then what do we have faith in?   If we are a spiritual community how do we display our spirituality.   How does it bond us as a community ?   

How are we seen by the world and actually is that important ?  Can Unitarians be  a recognisable community that gives it members an identity that inspires their lives.

Over the years I have often asked the question.   ‘Whom or what do the Unitarians worship when they meet on a Sunday?’.   To their credit they have never answered.

We no longer have a Dr Martineau.   We no longer have any kind of  spiritual leader who will give guidance on our faith and practice.   No one to explain and elucidate on the writings of our past sages.   Martineau, Channing and the others are all history.

There is no one to say to us collectively, ‘Here is some guidance to help our current thinking,  or these are our spiritual values that we should be proclaiming, or this is what our history tells us’

ll other faiths have their spiritual leaders or their gurus but not the Unitarians.    Would we have an identity if we had our own guru?

It is my view that when we gather to worship, people are not particularly worshipping anyone or anything.  

What we do do when we gather with our hymns and readings and talks is simply to affirm ourselves as Unitarians.   That we have a  personal faith and we belong to this church..   It is a pleasant experience.

 The content of the worship may or may not inspire us, it is being here together that makes us Unitarians.     That is the bond.

Jesus was trying to change the system.    Not just the system but each person too. to seek the light of the spirit and let the light shine within them.  

That all people should be treated as an equal whether women, slave, centurion or tax gatherer,

To be a community.

His teaching was hidden in the parables and the miracles.

The Christianity of today is collapsing and the Unitarian bow wave ahead of it disintegrating.   My view is that we need to go back to that early beginning.     To that spiritual light and then follow its trail through our history.    From Imhotep to Ptolemy to Jesus, to Paul, Galileo, Trismegistus,  Johann Valentin Andreae, Rudolf Steiner to Martineau.

Each has a message and a teaching for us to distil.

The truth of the spiritual light is not found in the Hebrew Bible nor the Good Friday story of dying for our sins.  

I wonder sometimes if we Unitarians should re-examine our Christianity.    Do we still believe in the fatherhood of god and gentle Jesus meek and mild ?    Do we still tie Jesus to the Old Testament of the faith that rejected him ?    

Or should we think of the preacher from Egypt who found the mystical light of god within his soul ?  And had a passion to teach the world what he has found no matter what the cost.   And think too of all those that have followed that light down the paths of time.

Who will teach us and who will inspire us?     Do the Unitarians need. Guru?
But that is only my view !