Note - this is an adapted version of an address I used at Lewisham Unitarian Meeting for a service back in 2010. I came across it again recently and decided it was worth sharing. I didn't use the Emma Goldman quote at the time but it expresses the general thought of the piece well.
When I was 18, I went to my first outdoor music festival. Back then, for a quiet, bookish kid who was just getting into music seriously, this was a real adventure. And as I look back, the impressions I received are still surprisngly clear in my mind. Not just the endless array of different musics over the four days, but the tailbacks on the tiny country roads leading to the festival site; the cheap plastic sunglasses I bought at the festival stall; the weather, which in the fine English tradition ranged from bakingly hot to sudden downpours.
Above all, it is the dancing that I remember. In full-to-the-brim tents, on stages, in small circles – it was everywhere. I remember throwing myself around one lunchtime alongside a small but ecstatic crowd to Underworld on the main stage as the rain came down, the frontman of the band pogoing from left to right across the stage, urging his bandmates and ourselves onto greater heights.
That weekend remains one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. Apart from perhaps the contemplation of nature, listening to music, dancing and singing are still the closest I've come to a sense of overpowering joy. A religious feeling, if you like, where emotion temporarily surpasses logic, where all that matters is the moment and celebrating the moment with others. I doubt I'm the only person to have experienced this as one of the times when they've felt most alive.
So, my starting point is that joy – an active, participatory joy – is not only tremendously important for us as human beings, but that spiritual practice ignores it at its peril. And my question is – what does this mean for us as people gathered here for worship in that very temple of rationalism, a Unitarian meeting house?
Performance, and participation in performance, has been a key part of religion around the world. Let's look at the Christian tradition. You can find sanction for letting your hair down and having a good time in the Bible; from that old time joyful singer and dancer King David of Israel to the parties which Jesus and his disciples attended in the New Testament. Both the Catholic and Protestant traditions – each in their own way – build space for joy and participation into their services, whether that's the timeless ritual of mass or the call and response script of a modern high-tempo evangelical service.
Islam, often associated with austerity, gives us festivals in Egypt where the very recitation of the verses of the Qu'ran has been elevated to an art form, where the best performers are lauded for their work. And dancing is a part of religious celebration wherever you go, from the South London wedding to Diwali to Sufi whirling dervishes.
Here in this Meeting House, singing is a central part of what we have in Sunday worship. We're also fortunate to have not one but two very skilled organists, and our young people are also musically talented. The luckiest meetings have whole choirs of their own.
However, there's been another side to religious practice which looks upon art and joyous practice as a threat, a distraction or a 'barrier to God'. Most of the successive divisions in established religions have been accompanied by new lists of things to disapprove of, whether seventeenth century Puritans, nineteenth century American fundamentalists, or the extremists of all faiths of today. Music and dancing have and continue to feature highly on these blacklists.
It may surprise you to hear I have on the one hand some understanding of this position. I think of what I call the Wizard of Oz argument – if you take away the song and dance show from life and religion then ultimately what's left behind the curtain has to stand and fall on its own merits. When I was dancing in a field, I wasn't thinking about anything other than dancing – it is not a particularly rational experience, and the nearest thing to an ethic of dancing is not to stand on your partners feet or to jostle the other dancers!
On the other hand, I side firmly with those who see in joyous practice, music, art, ritual and dancing – part of what makes human life and sprituality so richly rewarding. As someone who comes at life from a cerebral, rationalist point of view – one of life's right brainers – I think I value it all the more because it doesn't come easy to me. As with indiviudal human beings, I don't think the solution to the mind/body problem in religion is to deny either but to try and reconicle both.
Now, you'll be relieved to hear I'm not going to play loud four-to-the-floor techno music at you, nor am I going to suggest that suddenly all get out of our seats and start dancing. But what I am going to do is close by answering my question: what does talking about joy, about music and dancing mean for us here as people gathered here this morning .
One, is that I believe that as individuals finding ways to connect with joy through - music, dance, art, singing – whatever works for you – is really important.
Second, as I've suggested, we can have our cake and eat it in these services. In other words, we can have all the ethical discussions, rationalism and contemplation we need and also connect with joy through singing, music and art . To express this in terms John (our lay leader) used last week, joyous communion is what we do and what we should be aiming for.