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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Returning to Worship

It's been a busy two months work-wise, and quite challenging when seemingly day after day you are getting ready to leave the house well before sunrise and aren't arriving home until well after sunset. Britain is very much a season-defined land and our moods tend to move with them, not forgetting our vitamin D levels. Now, well into February, the mornings are getting noticeably lighter and in turn our sense of being weighed down tends to lift. With my wife and I now living in semi-rural parts, we have also noticed an array of birds in the trees surrounding our garden getting louder as the sun returns (causing our cat much excitement) - again, the gradual resurrection of our surroundings is gladdening. It seems entirely understandable to me that our ancient ancestors would marry their attunement to nature with the powerful narratives of the East that arrived on our shores over a millenia and a half ago.

Having missed last Sunday's Meeting for Worship  due to a trip to Abingdon, this week I eagerly looked forward to the coming Sunday and the thought of calming down ahead of a hard-earned week holiday. As I sat down in the silence, I found myself acutely aware of being afflicted with what Buddhists would call a monkey mind. I jumped from thought to thought, and despite wanting to come to meeting to 'cool off', initially felt uncomfortable to the point of wanting to leave. 

As a side note, we are now in the Year of the Horse which Chinese astrologists suggest is a period of both high energy and impulsively with a risk of conflict - I was also born in the Year of the Monkey which suggests similar traits of restlessness and impatience. I guess, if I was to believe in this, I could put my current state down to a 'crossing of the streams'.

As it happens, I don't hold any belief in astrology (although I maintain an as yet unpursued interest, particularly in the work of Unitarian minister Bill Darlison) and view my state of mind, and heart, as being subject primarily to the constant interplay of my own self-discipline and self-neglect. 

In this sense, I tend to take a Buddhist-like stance on things; I realise that much of the lure and my approach to Meeting for Worship is the same as when I took up Zen meditation - approaching it as a kind of practical self-help therapy as opposed to (or more accurately put, as well as) viewing it as a mystical practice. There is also the simple fact that attending Meeting for Worship meets the basic need to belong and to be recognised, the third and fourth tiers on Maslow's Hierarchy.

It would seem that for most if not all Quakers today, they too approach Meeting for Worship in this pragmatic way. But for some, they have gone a step further, and a big step at that, to declare they have no belief whatsoever in the mystical aspect - and this has in turn given rise to the 'Nontheist Friends Network'. I admit that I find this 'movement within a movement' (for how else can it be viewed?) concerning as much as I am curious about their apparent aim of exploring alternative views of God.

Of course, within every church we find natural human diversity manifesting itself as factions, and some factions often inevitably come to be viewed as 'corruption' by other factions. This can prove to be positive in allowing for a creative tension in which existing narratives, practices and structures can be reviewed, reaffirmed and renewed. Indeed, some of the greatest Christian reformers started out as perceived heretics. But, having said this, my recent experience of the Unitarian and Free Christian movement in Britain also leads me to believe that there is a fine line between conglomeration and dissonance - and that headstrong individualism under the guise of diversity can become a false idol.

In many ways, the 'theist vs atheist' tension within the Unitarian and Free Christian movement is entering its final stages with the atheist faction now seemingly dominant (at least in the power structures and public domain) whereas the tension within the Quaker movement is still at a much earlier, grassroots 'niche interest' stage. The very fact Quakers with what are clearly atheist positions have euphemistically termed themselves 'nontheist' is perhaps an indication of this - but it may also be due to the fact difference of opinion amongst Quakers, whilst being honestly expressed, is more gently worked through (a knock-on effect of their consensual model of governance perhaps?). Comparatively, the atheist current within the Unitarian and Free Christian movement has been far more upfront, and arguably at times, more combative - approaching matters as a debate to be won rather than a conversation to be explored.

Looking in The Friend (a publication I would recommend to free-minded Christians of all types) recently, I also noted the discussion about God being framed as follows:

"Among Friends there are two common ways of looking at the idea of God. First, as an eternal being or presence that permeates the universe - a being or presence that is beyond human comprehension and yet, fundamentally real. Second, a more specific belief in which God has a role in human affairs and human lives, perhaps (but not necessarily) mediated through the person of Jesus Christ. 

To many Friends, the first of these is a view that they take for granted. It seems self-evident that the world has a creator and the feeling that he/it permeates the world is a widespread spiritual experience. But this God is remote and without influence in our lives: some of us feel that we can, without strong feelings, take this view or leave it.

The second view of God is much warmer and more comforting: God is a being to whom we can relate and to whom we can pray. This is a God who is concerned for what happens in the world and in our lives. We may go along with the orthodox Christian view that Jesus was used by God as a unique link into human affairs. Inevitably, though, this leads us into well-known problems..."

Before going any further, I have to say the article overall was a decent effort in terms of prompting the reader to reflect. However, I do feel the writer presents us with a very limited choice between what amounts to the 'Watchmaker God' of deism (or perhaps the 'Electric God' of pantheism) versus the 'Puppeteer God' of classical theism - which is ultimately an outdated, long-passed stage in Christian thinking. Certainly this is so for Unitarianism - courtesy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing and more recently, Charles Hartshorne. It also overlooks the fact, as I mention above, that a significant number of Nontheist Friends are actually committed atheists - albeit tending to subscribe to Don Cupitt's non-realism, where the occurrence of religion is interpreted positively as a human-made coping mechanism (a more middle-class take on Marx's 'opium for the people' perhaps?).

For me personally, I am neither classical theist or deist, nor am I a non-realist. Although I do recognise the psychological benefits of being a Quaker, quite powerfully so in my own recent history, I do believe that there is something greater that can - sometimes, though not necessarily always or even often - take place in Meeting for Worship. Something that lies beyond our imagination and reasoning, as important as they are. I hold to Marcus Borg's view (and that of others) - one that he has arrived at through both scholarship and personal experience - that we as human beings have the potential to find 'thin places' where we meet deeply with the eternal, with the divine, with that we call God.

What this 'God' accurately and comprehensively is I don't know and have become, over the years, somewhat hesitant to define. I admit I have even at times felt the tendency, as Paul Tillich proposed, to ditch the word due to the misconceptions attached to it (much of which I think is deliberately expounded by atheists to create a convenient 'Straw Man God'). However, the frustrating ambiguity of the word 'God' is also surely its greatest strength, allowing it act as a pliable yet nonetheless powerful linguistic placeholder - and one that keeps us connected with a conversation that travels back throughout human history.

Speaking personally, in terms of trying to explain what lies behind the word, the best theoretical / theological model I have encountered is 'panentheism' - coined by Karl Christian Friedrich Krause - which put very briefly, states:

"Panentheism has its linguistic roots in the Greek words pan, en and Theos, and therefore literally means All-in-God. Krause qualified his overall perspective with the assertion: “Everything is in God and God is in everything, but God is more than everything." According to this outlook, God is an essence that contains the entire universe within itself but is not exhausted by it."

(For a longer introduction, see this excellent article by Stephen Nuttall)

An extension of this is 'process theology', which takes panentheism further by stating our role in the universe is that of co-creator, contributing to its continuous evolution - and in turn to the evolution of God. Another extension of this is Larry Copling's 'panendeism' which places emphasis on science rather than scripture as basis for Krause's original model. All three terms have their finer details, their evidences, their critiques, their speculations and so on. And perhaps herein lies the risk in getting too tied into 'isms' and 'ists' - it  can leave you journeying as an anorak rather than an adventurer. Therefore, whilst I think it is important to enter into dialogue about the nature of God - and as Christians, the nature of Jesus also - there needs to be self-awareness of the pitfalls.

Going back to Meeting for Worship today, and my struggles to tame my 'monkey mind', I picked up Quaker Faith & Practice and began to look up the entries on silence - I admit I was probably trying to find a nice, cosy little settler. As it happened, the following two entries hit me in succession

2.14 "We highly prize silent waiting upon the Lord in humble dependence upon him. We esteem it to be a precious part of spiritual worship, and trust that no vocal offering will ever exclude it from its true place in our religious meetings. Let not the silence… be spent in indolent or vacant musing but in patient waiting in humble prayerful expectancy before the Lord."  - Yearly Meeting in London, 1884; 1886

2.15 "I know of no other way, in these deeper depths, of trusting in the name of the Lord, and staying upon God, than sinking into silence and nothingness before HimSo long as the enemy can keep us reasoning he can buffet us to and fro; but into the true solemn silence of the soul before God he cannot follow us."  - John Bellows, 1895

In particular, the words highlighted spoke to my condition - and even more so, the word 'Lord'. I found this word - which in all our apparent theological modernity appears at first glance very outdated - acting as a recurring, moving metaphor as I increasingly bowed my head and clasped my hands, entering into a more traditional prayer position for the remainder of the hour. Through it, I was prompted to acknowledge my own 'monkey mindedness' was borne out of a need to control - to define, to decide and to determine - and crucially, that in doing so I was being tangled up and closed off of that which is bigger, wider, much more beautiful than my own schemes.

And this includes worship itself, if we approach it only as a device - if we enter through the door with concrete parameters of what it is and what it is not - we in fact enter with our backs turned. On further reflection, I hope and pray future worship proves to be less about allaying everyday anxiety, more about rekindling awe and wonder.

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