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.

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05/01/2013

Voices of The Light

Since joining in fellowship with the Quakers, a few people have asked what this means for my relationship with Unitarianism. 

Although I no longer regularly attend a Unitarian church, I feel I haven't really turned my back on the Unitarians in the sense I still have a sense of deep connection with the philosophical / theological current I term as 'Classical Unitarianism and Free Christianity'. 

By this I mean the stream of radical Christian thought that came primarily out of Boston and the surrounding American East Coast in the 19th Century with William Ellery Channing as its figurehead, which ran more or less parallel to a shorter-lived, less documented 'Free Christian' project undertaken by Liverpool's Unitarian-minister-at-large, James Martineau.

When I read the keynote speeches and articles from this era, I personally sense that the Spirit (or Inner Light, as Quakers often call it) was very much at work through their work. William Ellery Channing's 1819 Baltimore Sermon on Unitarian Christianity has been described as 'The Pentecost of American Unitarianism' and it perhaps the most familiar and still-treasured work. However, there are many others from William Ellery Channing and his contemporaries which take this initial opening much further in various directions, not without a degree of controversy and conflict with one another.

In terms of the work of James Martineau, I have to admit to finding him very difficult to read - his keynote text in relation to Free Christianity, 'The New Affinities of Faith: A Plea for Free Christian Union' is immensely difficult to get through (so much so I genuinely think it needs somehow translating!) yet underneath it I again think there is a sense of him being moved by the Spirit to put such thoughts and proposals to print. It was not lost on me when I saw James Martineau described as 'The Teacher of Teachers' in terms of his role as a leading theologian and senior minister. I know very little about why his Free Christian Union did not gather momentum but I wonder if perhaps he had been more accessible / 'layperson focused' in his communications and actions, say like the 20th Century's Billy Graham or today's Rob Bell, then history may have turned out differently.

I would also be interested to know if there was much cross-pollination between Unitarians and Quakers during the 19th Century - perhaps more so in America - as their understanding of Christianity and the religious life appears, to me at least, very similar.

Which leads me to now. I read somewhere recently a Quaker commenting something along the lines of "the Quaker path enables me to be a better Christian" and I would tend to agree with that sentiment - although I might say "the Quaker path enables me to put Classical Unitarian thought into practice, and in turn pursue a Christian life."

A final point in terms of Unitarians and Quakers, based on my limited experience so far, is that present-day Quakers seem to collectively display far more knowledge of and reverence for the works of their founding figures than present-day Unitarians do. Not slavishly so, but certainly an understanding of their roots, and an appreciation of the legacy entrusted to them. Maybe this is a result of the Quakers keeping a 'Book of Discipline' as a running record of their standout voices, spanning seamlessly and beautifully  over the centuries, and maybe it is because they have not really embarked on a whole scale revision of their faith as many Unitarians have. 

I do think present-day Unitarians would be enriched by returning in some way to study their past. Not to somehow resurrect it, but rather to maintain a connection with it - after all, as with Quakers, many ancestors of Unitarianism paid a very heavy price (can we honestly say we would do the same?) to keep upright the banner of faith the current generation now stands under. It is also interesting to note that the Quaker meetings I have attended seem to have a rolling programme of sessions to introduce newcomers to their community, including a substantial part on the history of their movement. Again, a similar initiative might lead Unitarians to have a clearer sense of identity and community, which in turn may well heal some of the fragmentation that has occurred in recent decades.

The final three quotes, I think, are fitting in reflecting on these issues:

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." - L.P Hartley

Given the scale of science and social change, to what extent are we a continuation or break from the past?

"No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house." - Matthew 5:15

To what extent can we, and do we, celebrate our ancestor's voices?
"The Truth is one and the same always, and though ages and generations pass away, and one generation goes and another comes, yet the word and power and spirit of the living God endures for ever, and is the same and never changes." - Margaret Fell

To what extent can we speak of eternal truths?

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For those who are interested in reading some of the texts from Unitarianism of times gone by, I suggest the American Unitarian Conference website as a good starting point. In addition, I have also started collecting together and re-formatting my favourite Classical Unitarian and Free Christian sermons and articles, and sharing them on Scribd.  The collection is open source in that others can add documents - I would just politely ask any contributors to try follow similar formatting (the Arial font, 1.5 line spacing etc. have been used to increase readability). 

For more at a glance reading, I have also started creating themed reflections which reflect a Unitarian-Quaker perspective  - so far, these are:

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