Sunday, 27 May 2012

Sunday Sermon: Lao Tsu and Moses

Every, good morning! Thank you for all things. Thank you for your endless ocean of logos. I can not do it any justice, but I make my humble contribution sincerely, with as pure a heart as I can manage, and I hope that it is helpful or useful to people who read it. Amen.


I'm going to tell the story of Lao Tsu's writing the Tao Te Ching. The story probably isn't true, and I won't get all the details right anyway, but it's a traditional story and it is sort of within its own tradition to retell the story freshly.

For those not familiar with the Tao Te Ching, it is the most important text of the Taoists. It is very short and is made up of beautiful, meditative, always paradoxical poems. It is one of my most dearly favoured ancient texts and I heartily commend it.

But Lao Tsu, already a noted philosopher in his lifetime, had not written anything down. In this he was like his near-contemporary Socrates, and like Jesus. As far as Lao Tsu was concerned, when he came to the conclusion that he was dying, that was the way it was going to be. Apparently he could write, so he didn't have the excuse Jesus has of probable illiteracy. He was either too lazy to write - unlikely, since he held down a job as Keeper of the Archives, read a lot of classical texts and maintained a school of philosophy - or he had his reasons.

When he discovered he was dying Lao Tsu travelled toward the western borders of China in order to go into the Himalayas to die in his own chosen, peaceful way, in nature. The Emperor found out about this plan and sent to the borders to stop Lao Tsu. He was taken hostage in a sense, a hostage from his own peaceful end, until he wrote down his teaching. According to this story we would not have the Tao Te Ching if this political intervention and unjust internment had not occurred, which leaves us wondering whether we should thank the fates or hold the Tao Te Ching itself somewhat skeptically, or both.

Anyway this is how it came to be that Lao Tsu wrote. By far the most important and most remembered lines are the first two, which appear to tell us why he didn't wish to write, and why we should treat all religious writings as implicitly suspect or, at least, non-canonical.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name

What he then went on to write is a pantheistic collection of paeans to paradox, which frankly is hard to make any clear sense out of (I may be stupid but I have read it many times, and made a sincere attempt to learn the language in order to understand it and other literature from the Chinese Spring-Autumn period, but that was 25 or so years ago). Also it is beautiful, evocative, challenging and has been the basis of the meditations of millions for two and a half thousand years. But in my mind, it is these two first lines that are the most important ones, Lao Tsu's own 'first layer' of teaching, of which all the rest, and indeed almost all religion and literature if it's right, is subordinate.

Because if you paint a picture of a parrot, regardless of how detailed; indeed even if you took high resolution video of a parrot, it is not the eternal parrot. It is not a parrot at all.

The repetition of the pattern (the first line actually kind-of says, "The Tao that can be tao-ed is not the eternal Tao"; dào ke dào fei cháng dào) invites us to repeat the pattern, so let's play:

The religion that can be lived is not the eternal religion.
The life that can be lived is not eternal life.
The god that can be represented is not God.
A name of God is not the name of God.
A future that can be predicted is not the future.
A past that can be storied is not the past.
The present that can be comprehended is not the present.
The chord that can be played is not the perfect chord.
The strategy that can be conducted is not the ideal strategy.
The map is not the territory.
The you now is not you.

My apologies for getting carried away there but I really like the formulation.

It might seem a strange place for me to find illumination on the second and third of the Ten Commandments, penned some centuries earlier very far to the West. So far to the West was it penned in fact, and so relatively recently (along with secular scholarship, I place the Mosaic writings much later than does tradition) that it is virtually impossible that the respective traditions had any contact on the matter. And they do have a very different... um, voice. In short (Exodus 20):

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing. (verse 4)
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. (verse 7)

These are shortened versions of the King James Version. I render them quite differently in Ten Responsibilities in order to make my own meaning as clear as possible to begin with. But in a way they are saying the same thing as the first verses of the Taoist text, and personally I really like what the Taoist version does to the Mosaic version's meaning.

I am yet to really rationalise my inclusion of a version of the Ten Commandments at all into the House of Every's initial presentation. I am aware I need to, but this isn't it. Here I am talking about the standard version of the Mosaic edicts to make no images and speak no names (or not 'vainly' anyway, whatever that means). The Taoist version seems to provide the Mosaic version with a 'why'.

Why shouldn't we make images of God, of being? Because we can't. It's not possible, for any image or articulation we make will be infinitely finite compared to the real thing, and hence would be an insult and a mockery. Regardless of how careful we are our attempts to depict God will have our snotty cultural residue all over it. That's the pious reason anyway.

More pragmatically, imaging The God is divisive. So long as you believe in bunches of gods and maybe your main sacerdotal squeeze is, say, Athena, there really isn't a problem. But when you start talking about a transcendent-over-all 'God', a "God of gods," no less, your image of God is dangerous. That name you use is just a word in your language, that story you have is just the story of one people, that book you read is just one of thousands of books. Idolatry of a transcendent God will kill people, for four generations according to the curse appended to the second commandment (v.5). I don't believe in curses, but presumably the writer believed in this one, and it is the only curse in the Ten Commandments.

And looking back across the thousands of miles and the couple of centuries, we get a hint that early Taoism had a version of the edict against idolatry, though never named as such. It was, expressed much more passively, a, "Not." It is much more polite though. Rather than "Thou shalt not engrave an image" it says, "That image you engraved; it's not really God and doesn't look like God; just saying." Rather than saying, "Do not name God" it says, "That name of God that you use; it ain't really the name of God." It's the same principle, with a far different degree of tolerance. The Taoist Tao is not "a jealous God" (v.5), apparently, but more of a realist.

The book that can be written is not the eternal book.
The logos that can be incarnated is not the eternal logos.

Tao (more or less 'way', 'path' or at a stretch, 'being-in-change') is not a synonym of Yaweh ('being'), and it seems to be referring to a different idea than 'God'. The Tao Te Ching is pantheist throughout however, and Taoism is often considered, at these philosophical roots, to be pantheist. In a sense Tao is Yaweh, though with more of a process-edge to the meaning, 'Way of God' perhaps, or 'Way of Being'. They are both profound, universalist and transcendental terms, in any case.

Meanwhile, as is our existential lot, we will have a way, and a word, a song and a story, we will have a life, and we will have ten thousand images, just as Lao Tsu refers to the "ten thousand things." Even 'Everything' is a name, in a particular language with a particular story, however much it tries not to be, and even 'all world literature' is a finite text, and is incomplete, imperfect and, well... frankly not entirely clear on a few points. Meanwhile we will live our lives, as differently as any other lives that have been lived before and different to any lives which will ever again be lived.

Speaking of the ten thousand things, I would be amiss if I didn't provide the rest of the first Chapter of the Tao Te Ching. Here is all of it, for you to scratch your head over for as long as you like:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
 this appears as darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

Every, thank you for this strange but compelling calling as a modern preacher. Thank you for this very modern opportunity to blog. I pray that my preachings will be taken in, at the very worst, good humour and, at best, that they will bear good fruit. Bless my readers, and bless life on earth. Help us to do thy will. So be it.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Sunday Sermon: Recap of some Essentials

Everything, good morning. Thank you for dancing us through another week, and thank you for this new day and new week. Help us to do thy will. Amen.


To my estimated 30 or so regular readers and the other 60 or so that I expect to happen past, this is just a bit of a recap of what I'm trying to do here.

Religion is important for many of us and for society as a whole. Many disagree, and with very good reasons, but they are confusing content with form. Instead of rejecting the very form of religion the proposal here is that religion needs major and ongoing reform, beginning with rejecting the supernatural and rejecting the canonisation of holy texts.

Religion is not just personal. 'Spirituality' might be a useful term if we are just referring to a person's private beliefs. Religion implies a shared system and (ultimately) an institution and an institutional layer in society. It has a uniquely placed voice in society - one independent from political and commercial interests and heartfully committed to the truth as it revealed to us through the living logos - including the sciences (-o-logies).

For shared narrative we have not only all the ancient texts of the world, but the unfolding work of writers, historians, researchers and scientists. For so many questions, the quest for truth is a shared one, in theory and practice.

God=Everything, is not only an ancient and historically prevalent equation, but is the basis of the unity of the whole religious world, and of all humans. Theologically, it is the first law. It unites science with religion. Even atheists believe in Everything and can swap notes intelligibly with pantheists as to their insights about the same.

There is no holy text, for text itself - Logos - is a sacred thing, in all its many forms, and is in a singular sense seeking truth. It is an imperative to teach all to be able to read and write and it is a sacred act to engage with logos - ie read and write.

I use these terms - 'Everything', 'Logos'. They don't matter at all. They are meanings that need names and I have attempted to find good names for them. They have many other possible names, but it is the meaning that I hope is interesting. (Just to be sure, none of these are new ideas.)

The basic value is that Everything matters, that life matters, that it matters that there is still a good world for our grandchildren, that there is high biodiversity and a healthy ecology, that people are nice to each other. Together we express our wonder for it all, our gratitude and our willingness to attempt to serve it for the best. We do this in song and we do this in verbal engagement, but we do it together, regularly. We want to do the Sunday morning thing. That's the idea anyway.

This is a consciously engineered system. For that reason it is highly vulnerable to critique and any element of it should be discarded if it proves indefensible. The objective is to serve the needs of people and of civilisation.

For individuals, the religion is designed to be empowering, respectable and defensible. In terms of individual practice it is designed with a minimum essential theology that it may be a viable personal basis for any number of spiritual practices, stories and rituals. It is meant to unite without stifling creative religious expression of all flavours.

The sermons up until now are sort of the 'first series' in my mind and are now the first draft of a small book outlining the basic system used here. While I'm working on this book, which will be mostly expanded and edited versions of the previous sermons, I'll see where future sermons go.

I don't  really have a song, but I do love this one:

Everything, thank you for this opportunity to... um... blog. As usual I pray that my readers are blessed with keen critical discernment, that they may divide well words that are vain from those that might be fruitful, whether those words be mine or another's. So be it.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Sunday Sermon: Atheism or Pantheism?

Everything, good morning! Thank you for the privilege, the wealth and the technology by which I can write here and be read by people from around the world. It truly is an extraordinary thing. In this communication, help me. Help me to help you. Amen.


There is no questioning the explanatory power of science. Though to be sure we didn't learn everything we know all at once. And we keep learning more. What we have learned has come one step at a time. Meanwhile, no good scientist will claim that we know everything, or even close to everything, especially about something as complex as human society. The best science has a humility of sorts toward knowledge and is very careful about distinguishing things that are well-evidenced from things which are still very vague.

Perhaps a general statement that we can make about the progress of our learning is that we have managed to examine the particular much faster than we have learned about system processes. Biology came before ecology for example, and systems theories are relatively new in science. We know about termites in great detail but we still struggle to explain how they collectively construct their nests. We know a lot about birds but still struggle to explain how they fly in formation.

With this in mind it strikes me as somewhat smug and disingenuous for (some) modern rationalists to reject religion, a feature of not just all civilisation but all human existence, entirely and out of hand. Ironically, in my view, this shows a lapse of reason and a lack of rigour.

Human societies are societies bound together by meaning and song. We are social, beyond the most rudimentary family group, by means of religion. Up until quite recently in human history there are no exceptions to this and neither is there any ambiguity about it. Now modern science rightly dismisses a lot of superstitious nonsense, but to dismiss the community of meaning and song as such is a leap of faith, oddly, and may not merely be wrong. It may be social sabotage.

Reform! Like the political institutions of the past as well as the knowledge systems of the past, reform is surely required. No question there. But to say we should abolish the very idea of communities of meaning and song - religion - is a big leap. It's quite literally like saying that because feudalism or tribalism is wrong then all government and society should be abolished.

Like reason vis-à-vis knowledge and democracy vis-à-vis politics, there is a very ancient version of the divine - of God - that should not be ignored. That is pantheism - the conception of God as nature itself, as being, as Everything.

Pantheism is a conception of God which creatures from other planets will recognise (the only such conception, in fact). It does not depend on any cultural residue, and is utterly compatible with reason and science. Everything is the answer to all the standard religious riddles; the first cause, the highest conceivable concept, the ground of all being. Everything is omnipotent and omnipresent. Everything creates all, ordains all and destroys all. Everything most definitely exists, and there's only one of them. As an object of worship and prayer Everything is insurmountable, universal and transcends all culture.

Here is a fairly concise, fresh statement of what pantheism is but let's be clear that it is ancient and far more prevalent in history than the puerile Judeo-Christian god that our modern atheists spend so much time smugly refuting.

According to the famous atheist Richard Dawkins, in fact, there is no difference between atheism and pantheism except that atheism is impotent and useless to human needs. "Pantheism is sexed-up atheism," he candidly argues. Another way to say that of course is that atheism is de-sexed pantheism. He's not wrong. (The God Delusion, p.18).

Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking are just some of the scientists who, despite their rationalism, resort to the term 'God' to describe the nature which they perceive. For Dawkins they are committing some sort of political crime, an act of "intellectual high treason," no less. (ibid. p.19)

For Einstein, who also spoke highly of the nature-worshiper Spinoza, "Religiousness" is, "to sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection..." High treason, according to our modern atheist priest.

In the words of Leonard Cohen, "Come healing of the altar, come healing of the name":

Everything, I struggle to communicate the importance of collective reverence and worship of you - Being, Nature, the totality of existence - to the health of society. In the midst of the modern condition, even whilst so much is falling apart and ways forward are so unclear, this seems all but impossible to articulate. If my insights, which burn me, have merit, please help people see what I am seeing. If I am merely mad, and what I consider to be crucial insights are merely vain delusions, then please give any readers the critical capacity to see this. So be it.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Sunday Sermon: Doing Religion

Everything, good morning. Thank you for the blessings we so easily take for granted in this moment. Thank you for our lives, our education, our meals and our medicine. Help us to take none of it for granted, and further help us use the opportunity to help you make the lives of others, now and in the future, even more blessed than our own. Amen.


There are so many people, from so many points of view, who would agree that our modern society is not healthy. Just to be clear, and to keep this message relatively simple and to a point, I am speaking of my own world. I am speaking to my city, Brisbane in Australia.

It's a frustrating thing because we have so much going for us. We have so much wealth, such high levels of education and so many techniques for good life. We have plenty to eat - all manner of meats, more varieties of fruit and vegetables than anyone in history, as well as delicacies, cheeses, nuts, spices and herbs.

We have medicines. The women among us rarely die in childbirth and as a rule we live to a very ripe age. There is not much disease. We have tablets for pain. We have dental care - not free to be sure, but very accessible and beyond anything humans even conceived of until very recently. When we do complain that dental care, say, is not free, we are not comparing the lack to the human experience. We are comparing it to a reality which has never been.

We can communicate with anyone in the world, by face, and we can travel anywhere in the city and even beyond, pretty damn quickly. Our homes are full of extraordinary equipment for comfort and entertainment, our wardrobes have warm clothes, our beds have blankets and pillows.

We have access to good information about pretty much everything.

Clearly I am not speaking for everyone in the world, and it may be that I'm being insensitive here toward some readers. To those I apologise, but from where I stand I am talking to many, many people - not merely a tiny elite as I may have been at pretty much any other time in history. I confess I am speaking for myself, though strangely I do not consider myself wealthy, and I am speaking for virtually everyone I know - even, to a large extent, those who are unemployed, aged or disabled.

Also unlike virtually any other time in history we are fairly equal under the law. There is no public torture in my city, no executions. There is no military conflict for thousands of miles in any direction. Extraordinarily most people are not even armed and feel no need to be. We actually get to vote for our leaders and, despite continuing inequalities, no one is completely above the law.

There is plenty to criticise about our leaders, our institutions and our media, to be sure, and my point is not to stop us from making such criticism. But even in these areas we have greater influence and access to information and power than virtually anyone in history.

Amazing, really.

It seems a great pity that our society is not very happy and very optimistic indeed. It seems odd when we lay out our extraordinary privilege like this that we are not able to face the real problems we do have robustly and with confidence of strong outcomes. Surely we should also be able to reach out and help less privileged societies in a huge and powerful way, but we don't really.

There is something else that makes my society fairly unique in history. We're alienated from one another, even within our neighbourhoods. We're so bloody privileged but each of us is alone. It's not how humans have ever worked.

We evolved to work in societies, with communal narratives and values - societies who share songs, celebrations, calendars and sacred spaces. And while we scrap about for new political parties or new government policies or a new social program, what we need is the regular deep massage of social tissue that only worship has ever provided.

Religion? Frankly I don't care what you call it, and no I certainly don't think we need to believe a whole lot of supernatural bullshit or discredited narrative myths. But we do need to sing together and to find our story and our values together. That I am 100% convinced of.

And when we do, when we learn to once again do religion, but this time without illusions, our society will become something we now barely dare to dream about.

Everything - universe, being, existence, totality of all things, that which is - here I am burning, straining, weeping, bleeding with this burden to say these things, and hopelessly inadequate to the task. I believe I am doing your will by preaching these things and I can only pray that, if I am merely a madman, that you give readers the critical faculties to tell it, that I deceive no one. There is enough stupidity and deception in the world without me adding to it, after all. So be it.