Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

If you've stumbled upon here randomly, then I suggest you check out my biography and other pages.

Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.

29/02/2012

Steel City peacemaking

I wrote the above letter to my hometown paper, The Sheffield Star, following the Steel City Derby - a football match between the two major clubs in the city, Sheffield Wednesday FC and Sheffield United FC. The current rivalry between the clubs is particularly fierce as this season they are both competing for promotion from League One, the third tier of English football, which arguably is a position that places them both as 'fallen giants' - and at risk of eventual financial collapse.

I've been a Sheffield Wednesday fan from a young age, but grew up in a Sheffield United household, and experience a mix of feelings about the nature of the rivalry. Naturally I wish to see my beloved Owls succeed on the field, and that includes gaining victory over Sheffield United. But I am also concerned we do not see the rivalry taken too far in terms of violence or the kind of daily hatred that arises from the Old Firm Derby in Glasgow. And so on Sunday, having attended Sheffield Quaker meeting and then cheered my team onto victory over the 'old enemy' at Hillsborough, I returned home to Manchester and decided to offer a gesture of friendship.

24/02/2012

Fellow-Terrestrials

This week it was widely reported that some scientists are now arguing dolphins and whales have a complex, self-aware intelligence - and that they should be given rights beyond that of 'mere animal'. I find this really interesting, and it takes me back to an article I once wrote for The Herald - Spring 2006 which posed the questions:

"Perhaps we are all being a little too complacent about the course in which the world is headed? Is humankind a little too arrogant about its apparent dominance over our planet? ...if there is extra-terrestrial life—particularly if it is as intelligent, self-aware and God aware as us (which is a real possibility given the magnitude of the universe)—then how might this affect humanity’s view of itself as God’s chosen creature?"

It seems we may now have to countenance the idea of not just extra-terrestrial intelligence, equivalent to our own, but other intelligent life on this planet. How can Christian theology adapt to this?

23/02/2012

Save Youcef Nadarkhani


The case of Christian Iranian dissenter Youcef Nadarkhani is not being reported, from what I can see, by major media outlets in the UK. I suspect this is because Youcef Nadarkhani doesn't fit into the 'worthy victim' criteria of the secularist liberal-left (I write this realising there are many other victims of persecution I too am not focusing on either).

As a Christian standing on the liberal side of the spectrum, I too also realise that we tend to hold back in our criticism of adherents of other religions that persecute our faith and some of the theology that drives them to do so. I reason that this is because we fear this may cross a line into prejudice, and I hazard to guess, because it is less safe than criticising 'our own', so to speak. It is worth noting that the International Association of Religious Freedom has yet to mention the case of Youcef Nadarkhani on its homepage or newsblog.

Christians on the conservative end of the spectrum, such as the prominent blogger Cranmer, do not share the same reticence, although I would also argue they have more tendency to cross the line into prejudice - dividing the world into an imagined us and an imagined them.

The tragedy amongst all of this is there is a fellow human suffering imprisonment for his beliefs - unable to kiss & hug his wife, unable to ruffle his children's hair, unable to see the sunlight even. And he will be possibly end up slowly strangled by a rope until his brain, heart and other vital organs are starved of oxygen (if his neck isn't crudely broken or he isn't decapitated by the initial fall). This will take place either in front of a baying mob or in some darkened room. He will suffer this fate just for simply believing something different - arguably very slightly different, when placed in the context of the wide variations of human philosophies and religions.

The crime on our part will be, through fear of falling off the tightrope between criticism and prejudice, that we forget him.

22/02/2012

RIP Maria Colvin et al

Today the Times correspondent Marie Colvin has died, along with French journalist Remi Ochlik, reporting on the Homs massacres. This is further to reports of prominent Arab videoblogger Rami al-Sayed dying in Syria this week.

These are of course not the only tragic deaths in Syria, and I make no claim to have connection with them other than the fact I also write, but these events leave me feeling particularly saddened and humbled. It is easy for us to sit here and write in the comfort of our homes about freedom, it is requires an incomparable amount of courage - and skill - to write from streets drenched in gunfire and bombs where the battle for freedom is taking place.

Tristian Stewart-Roberton provides a fitting tribute to / comment on the importance of professional journalists here.  And here is a prayer from St Bride's Fleet Street, the 'journalist's church':

Almighty God, strengthen and direct, we pray, the will of all whose work it is to write what many read, and to speak where many listen. 

May we be bold to confront evil and injustice: understanding and compassionate of human weakness; rejecting alike the half-truth which deceives, and the slanted word which corrupts. 

May the power which is ours, for good or ill, always be used with honesty and courage, with respect and integrity, so that when all here has been written, said and done, we may, unashamed, meet Thee face to face. 

Amen.

18/02/2012

CD armageddon

Today I logged onto Amazon to purchase Sigh No More by Mumford & Sons and What did you expect? by The Vaccines, in CD format. I estimate I own around 300 CDs - built up over years and years. The truth is I listen to very few of them but instead keep them as evidence of how my music tastes have changed, milestones on the journey. They're one of the few things I hoard - other things, such as clothes and books, I am happy to charity shop when I no longer use them. 

I've got an I-Pod, and a Kindle for that matter, but haven't been able to fully make the switch. I have been unable to break the need to have something material in my hands.

But what made me cancel my purchase today was the simple thought that I was damaging the environment by continuing this habit. It's not just the carbon footprint of CDs compared to MP3s - to which there has been some debate as to how greener downloads really are - it's the plastic. 

I watched Terminator Salvation last night, not the most conceptually-provocative sci-fi story but some light relief after a hard week intellectually, and I wonder whether the future will really be one blighted by nuclear war, or metallic monsters even - or will it be one damned by simple plastic? Certainly, the impact of carrier bags on the ocean suggest we maybe storing up a disasterous legacy for our sons & daughters.


So today I'm making a public pledge,  'giving testimony' as the Quakers say, to end my plastic addiction (and to try with paper books also).

Sweet-tasting humble pie

After a week of hard work, culminating in some success yesterday, I find truth in the following reflection:

Shout for joy to the Spirit, all the earth.
Worship the Spirit with gladness;
come with joyful songs.
Know that the Spirit is God.
who made us, to whom we belong;
we are people of the Spirit, like sheep of the pasture.
Enter the gates with thanksgiving, give praise.
For the Spirit is good, an enduring love;
continuing through all generations.
- based on Psalm 100:1-5

Just as in moments of hardship when we ask for God's hand, we must recognise the Spirit at work during moments of happiness and contentment. In doing so we maintain humility - and remain open to further nourishment - like sheep of the pasture.

14/02/2012

Beyond words

I'm up late tonight, tired from work but unable to let my analytical, problem-solving, agitated brain rest. So I opened that great work of Christian literature, Quaker Faith & Practice, and pretty much immediately found this:

"Love silence, even in the mind... Much speaking, as much thinking, spends; and in many thoughts, as well as words, there is sin. True silence is the rest of the mind; and is to the spirit, what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment." --William Penn, 1699

Open your heart


"You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided."-- Franz Kafka

12/02/2012

La Marche de l'empereur

The re-emergence of the Falkland Islands sovereignty dispute between Britain and Argentina is one I've followed with interest. Not because I fear there will be a war but rather, because there is something romantic in the thought of people building a new community in some faraway land. The story of Robinson Crusoe is a favourite of mine, as are the stories of the early European settlers in North America. Though of course this is not to ignore the darker side that often lies beneath these tales of pioneers - Crusoe and his treatment of Man Friday, the European settlers and their treatment of African slaves & the indigenous American peoples.

And maybe that's the case with the Falkland Islands, it's not so easily framed in terms of good and bad. There are clearly much more cynical motives behind the dispute - it is not just an idealistic one of self-determination vs. colonialism. Oil being one of them.

And even on a purely idealistic level I think Dr Ashton, writing for Politics.co.uk, makes some important points about the double standards involved - that both Britain, Argentina and the various Latin American nations now also weighing into the dispute have all failed, and continue to fail, to live up to the banners of freedom and territorial rights that they now fervently wave at one another. And if the UN decides to intervene, then what of lesser-known land disputes? Somaliland being just one of many seemingly straightforward examples, Republika Srpska being another more complicated one.

11/02/2012

Acts of Settlement

It seems to me the court battle, and subsequent media furore, over whether local councils should hold prayers before session is extreme at both ends. At one end we have defenders of all-things-Christian calling the banning of Christian prayers unjust, yet also speculating darkly on the risk of Islamic prayers taking centre stage in some councils. At the other end we have the campaign against any expression of spirituality, namely Christian spirituality - backed by a minority group, the National Secular Society, which with approx. 7000 members, is apparently similar in size to the British Sausage Appreciation Society (according to @colin_bloom).

I am by and large a secularist, and I do have a measure of respect for the National Secular Society, but I am a secularist that doesn't deal in black and whites. For example, I see good reason in the French approach to schooling - that religious guidance / tuition should be left at home. I understand the concerns about increased numbers of faith-based schools leading to a potentially dangerous segregation. However, having quite recently in my life taken up employment at a Catholic school, I have also come to see firsthand that the collectively-affirmed values of treating others with love, forgiveness and individual dignity - arising directly from religious beliefs - can lead to a more inclusive, relationship-driven, holistic education. Whereas some secular schools I have worked with - where there was no prevailing ethos or sense of mission other than 'success' - the focus is primarily on churning out academic results and a pretty rigid conformity to a code of conduct, which then sees some students left out in the cold - often damaged by their experience - before they've had any chance to grow and shine. These are clearly not wholly-representative examples, but I do think it points to the fact there are no absolutes. The point is we should be allowed some diversity, some grey areas - we shouldn't just start pulling down traditions in the name of secularism, or any other form of 'progress', if those traditions are benign.

Elizabeth Hunter, writing for the Huffington Post, is spot-on when she says:
"Our current discourse, which frames the debate as about competing 'rights', us and them, religious people vs. secular people, creates an impoverished and divided public space. We have forgotten how to handle our differences like grown-ups. Healthy, generous secularism, what Rowan Williams calls "procedural secularism", means holding open a space where all people and all voices are allowed space to flourish. It does not mean a programmatic and illiberal banishing of some points of view which are seen by others to be invalid- whether those are religious, ideological or other.

If the majority of council members wanted to say prayers, those that didn't should be able to join after they'd finished. This in the end was part of the judges ruling- that prayers could be said as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend. Was this not something that could have been worked out without the money and resources spent on a protracted case? There was no need for an unhelpful legal precedent to be set.

The NSS's misguided campaign to rid our public life of any hint that religious people might be a part of it simply continues the impression that religious people and non-religious people are not able to function together, respecting each other's differences, without all out war."
Ultimately this issue over prayers before council meetings could have been a case of people compromising - learning to accept that human beings believe and act differently, and even taking some joy & insight from that. Rather than fight this out in the courts an agreement could have been reached whereby an informal gathering for prayer is held before session formally starts to which councillors could opt-in, by turning up early, or opt-out by turning up on-time. Simple really. And a lot less hurtful to all involved.

07/02/2012

Un-Unitarian?

I've just come across this post, "YOU ARE NOT A QUAKER (so please stop calling yourself one", which is causing a stir amongst Quaker bloggers. It made me wonder, would Unitarians ever declare someone not a Unitarian? (Other than a Trinitarian Christian perhaps...)

And is this a strength or a weakness?

05/02/2012

No Labels Christian

Following my previous post about this morning's meeting for worship at the Sheffield Quakers, I thought I would add a further note. Does this now make me a Quaker? 

After the meeting I spoke with a Friend and he asked me about my background, I think observing that I have attended the meeting seemingly sporadically. I talked about how I currently find myself "inbetween places" - visiting a local Unitarian & Free Christian church on occasion whilst in Manchester and visiting the Quakers whilst back in my hometown. I probably could have also talked also about how my life working in a Catholic school often feels quite like 'going to church'.

I mentioned to him that I was no longer able or willing to identify as any particular form of Christian, that it's no good for me to do that - precisely because I feel it raises boundaries. I was once advised by fellow blogger, Andrew Brown, that it is better to write simply as yourself rather than on behalf of some particular tradition. This has taken me some years to come to practically but it feels liberating to be here.

Peace yet No Peace

I visited a Quaker meeting this morning and once again encountered some deeply powerful Christian ministry and prayer. The theme that arose came from Holocaust Memorial Week and the question of evil. The reflections provided through a series of contributions looked at how humankind is capable of both evil and good, in terms of how we view and subsequently treat others - and ourselves. We have to accept ourselves and others for who we are by seeing both the Humanity and the Divine within each of us, breaking down the boundaries built up by fear,  midjudgement and anger - by our sinning - and also, by the hurt from being sinned against (I use the term 'sin' both hesitantly and deliberately here). 

After a difficult few weeks, in which I have been rocked by doubts about myself and others, this meeting for worship spoke directly to my currect condition - it  actually stunned me to tears in its relevance, especially given that on my way there I had considered giving it a miss. 

You could say it gave me a measure of peace, yet left no peace. A homeless man stood at the end of the meeting and asked for a room to stay in a short fumbling speech, contrasting starkly with the eloquence of the previous contributors and raising up those very boundaries - a stark reminder of the need to not judge, to simply love. And that we do have to work at it but we can find inspiration by looking at that great teacher, that great example, that great ideal; Jesus of Nazareth.

04/02/2012

Bonuses and bones

I wrote in my last post about the simmering disillusionment, anger even, over the current state of things (by this I mean economy, politics, media) that seems to have set in amongst the British public - I questioned whether this was the slow build to some kind of revolution.

This could be read as a Socialist view ("capitalism in crisis" and all that), and I would guess that the sense of being deliberately manipulated by the establishment that I have felt this week over the stripping of Fred Goodwin's knighthood might also be read in this way. Because history tells us that before a revolution is due to take place, the under-threat establishment government typically offers concessions - just enough to try calm protests, but not enough to embrace in wholescale change. The undergraduate lectures I attended many years ago in Latin American politics, under a charismatic and (apparently) left-leaning Chilean lecturer who had fled Pinochet, spring to mind here. I always remember listening with fascination to his re-telling of how the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico ruled unchallenged for 70 years by systematically co-opting radicals with government positions and curbing mass dissent through grand gestures. And this appears to be the (small 't') Socialist viewpoint now - they're throwing us a bone, Fred Goodwin's bones to be precise.

However, it's not necessarily a radical left-wing view, as Charles Moore - a conservative writer employed by the conservative Daily Telegraph - demonstrates today with a powerful piece on the threat this hounding of Fred Goodwin poses to our rights within a supposedly modern democracy. He perhaps also inadvertently points to the need for wider, more pervasive, more radical democratic reform - certainly I would argue that this situation is deeply rooted in the fact Britain continues to have a monarchy, and a lack of a single written constitution and bill of rights.

And then there's the (small 't' again) Christian view. Yes Jesus challenged the corruptions of the establishment - the 'domination systems' of the time as Progressive scholar Marcus Borg says - but he also passionately believed in forgiveness and redemption of people. Fred Goodwin has publicly repented for the harm he caused and, despite his material riches, has seen aspects of his personal life fall apart since the banking collapse - he is living with the consequences also.

And so my point is this: the call for change is not about people, it's about the systems and structures - the 'ways of working' currently in place.