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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Andrea Mantegna's 'Lamentation over the Dead Christ', noted for emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. 

This time of year is considered the holiest for most Christians. However, there are some - for various theological reasons - who diverge from dominant church opinion.

For the Quakers, although some do mark Easter - particularly those within congregations known as Friends Churches rather than Meetings - many do not. This is based firstly on the reason-based observation that there is no direct Biblical instruction for a set Easter period and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, based on an experiential observation that all days given to us are holy. 

The Quaker testimony against 'times and seasons' extends from Easter to the traditional keeping of Christmas and Pentecost - with Quakers of yesteryear going even further and refusing to use the terminology of the Gregorian calendar, instead using 'first day', 'third month' etc. when speaking of dates.

Speaking to an older Friend about this some weeks ago, he noted this practice still existed during his childhood although it was already fading from use all of the time to use in official documentation - and is now maintained only as the preserve of a few 'quirky' traditionalists.

As with Christmas, in recent years I have continued to mark Easter with a nominal keeping of Lent usually followed by attending a more traditional church during the Easter weekend. This year may be the first in which I do not - instead choosing to maintain my Sunday habit and attend Meeting for Worship.

The key factor in me becoming less engaged with Easter is the atonement theology that goes hand-in-hand with it - and the fact there is not much substantive alternative interpretation out there. And of those other readings which do exist, I have found the Easter story mainly becomes reduced to a story of socio-political martyrdom - interesting and inspiring but not fully sufficient given the Bible is essentially a didactic text, a spiritual discourse, rather than a historical record.

Having said that, I recently read a quote from Margaret Fell and it caused me to reflect on how we, as in those Christians who do not fully subscribe to Trinitarian doctrine, have a responsibility to know scripture and arrive at our own credible narratives for what remains a landmark Gospel event. The quote is from 'The testimony of Margaret Fox concerning her late husband,' from 'The Journal of George Fox'. In this excerpt, Margaret Fell is describing George Fox's sermon at a church in Ulverston. It was the first time she had heard him speak;

"And so he went on, and said, "That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God," ...I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, "The scriptures were the prophets' words, and Christ's and the apostles' words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord": and said, "Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, 'Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?" ... This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, "We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves."

I think, in some ways, this relates to my previous entries to this blog which express concern and frustration over the seeming lack of theology within liberal Christian circles, and more specifically, within the Quaker tradition. Yet it is also a prompt, words to the effect of 'stop moaning and start rebuilding'.

Another extract, from 'This We Can Say - Australian Quaker Life, Faith and Thought', has also stayed with me this past week or so:

"The human spirit finds its witness in metaphor rather than in definition, in poetry rather than in dissertation, but the clearest evidence for the reality of the human spirit is to be found in the lives of human beings in whom the Spirit has struggled for expression.

Surely this was the source of Socrates' willingness to drink the cup of hemlock rather than betray his 'inner god'. This too was the 'inner voice' which Gandhi said had urged him to lead his people to freedom without recourse to violence. This too was the source of the dream of Martin Luther King which called him to walk up the mountain of his vision even though this meant the assassin's bullet.

But the richest evidence of all is in the person of that intriguing, elusive, yet compelling figure of Jesus of Nazareth. He, like so many other explorers of the potential of the human spirit, suffered not only a death from crucifixion, but another sort of death at the hands of those who would exalt him by enshrining him in an institution and encasing his inspiring life in a mesh of dogma and ritual.

Jesus represents one of those great quantum leaps in the evolution of the human spirit. No distinctive culture, no self-appointed religious cult has proprietary claims of possession, nor exclusive rights of dispensation. There, deep within each one of us, is this evolutionary potential.

It can stand the searching light of reason, but it relies upon its own intuitive powers of imagination to guide it through the surrounding darkness beyond the reach of reason's searchlight.

This too is the source of the promptings of love and truth in every one of us, if we but heed them and trust them." - William Oats 1990

This is useful in reminding us that any reworking of Easter and theology in general, in which our brains must be deployed, must remain heartfelt and free rather than academic or inadvertently overbearing. We could add that it also must be done, at least in part, with others. It is a worthy reflection at this time of year but also requires a longer term commitment - such is the challenge of liberal Christianity.

Whatever your reading, may your Easter prove restful and fruitful.


My Universalism

Today, on reading on Facebook how the BBC had interviewed a 'Muslim Quaker', I posed a question in the comments section asking how two distinct traditions can be integrated on equal terms. 

I do hold a long-term belief that whatever your religious affiliation, you should remain open to the insights of other traditions. However, it seems a much trickier proposition, on both personal and communal levels, to declare yourself to be a Jewish Buddhist, a Sikh Christian and so on.

In terms of small 'u' universalism, I submitted the following personal reflection to a Unitarian Christian publication last year about what I consider to be the benefits and limits of the approach:

"For me the universalist mindset – the modern meaning of the word rather than the older Christian-specific meaning - is not necessarily about embracing all religions and trying to follow all paths at once. Nor is it that which C. S. Lewis described as ‘amiable agnosticism’.

Rather, it is firstly borne out of a recognition that as the world becomes smaller – and in turn as the materially-richer societies in which we live become increasingly globalised - we can no longer hide within tribes, fencing ourselves according to rigid definitions of ethnicity, nationality, religion and so on. Instead we have to recognise we have reached a point in human history where we cannot escape diversity, and must therefore seek ways to live peacefully with difference. To achieve this we must find new affinities with our ever nearer neighbours. We must agree they are not damned, we must acknowledge they too may well be saved without turning to our Jesus and our God. We must prepare for humanity’s gradual evolution towards a borderless society.

For faiths that have long declared each other heretics and infidels, this represents a potentially radical departure. For citizens under political and media powers that continue to fall periodically - and opportunistically - into jingoism, this potentially represents a radical act of dissent.

But this radical yet ultimately pragmatic approach could describe any adherent who passionately acts to further what we term as ‘ecumenism’, ‘interfaith dialogue’ etc. What turns this into universalism, from my point of view at least, is a commitment to go further and learn from those we regard as ‘other’. To not simply tolerate difference, but to actively seek challenge and enrichment from differing views and ways of living. To approach them with open mind and open heart as well as open arms. For me over the years this has meant an exploration firstly of different Christian paths, as a ‘Free Range Christian’, both in terms of theology and worship. It has led to me being christened in an Anglican Church, brought up around Methodists, matured in a Unitarian church and currently finding home in a Quaker Meeting House.

Over the years this mindset has also led me towards non-Christian faith traditions, first engaging in Buddhist practice following discussions with a friend who had spent time in Japan, and more recently, exploring Taoist thinking and mindfulness following a trip to China.

This has not been simply about intellectual curiosity or drawing small comfort from noble sayings. I feel deeply shaped by these explorations. To leave your church community out of conscience, to test your faith to the point you may have to abandon it for another - or none, these are signs of a burning commitment to discover Truth, to connect with the one God, to becoming a better person.

With Buddhism, I spent time experiencing the discipline and benefits of purist zazen – seated, silent meditation. However, I also eventually realised what I naturally sought from this practice varied to that of the community, what Rufus M. Jones calls affirmation mysticism rather than negation mysticism – bringing me full circle back to Christianity.

More recently with Taoism, this has helped broaden my understanding of God, growing beyond the false dichotomy that Western society now holds to – Sky God versus No God. The Tao of Taoism is generally translated as ‘The Way’ but we could also think of it as meaning ‘the flow of the universe’, ‘the way of nature’, ‘the source of all things’ - or simply, and beautifully, as ‘expression’. The Tao is also always described with the disclaimer that it is ultimately indescribable, yet nonetheless tangible. To rebalance my vision of the one God in this way has strengthened my Christian faith.

Interestingly enough also, is the view of the ‘founder’ of Taoism compared to the ‘founder’ of Christianity, the man known as Jesus. Lao Tzu is termed poetically by many Taoists as the ‘First God of Taoism’, as a personal manifestation of the Tao. So for all the transcendence and transpersonality of the Tao, we see that for a connection to be made with the Tao, Taoist disciples first connect with a human figure. Again, this we can also see in the beliefs and approaches of Christianity, from Jesus and his disciples to the Catholic saints to the myriad of Protestant greats.

For me this is a reminder that the path of a more aware, more appreciative, more giving, more lived life is not a solitary abstract pursuit but rather is found primarily by opening ourselves up to the insights and examples set by those who came before us - and more importantly, to those who travel alongside us now. It also comes from within ourselves - the still, small voice within. It is fascinating to think there are 6 billion possible gateways to God out there at any one moment - and you too are one of them. All this from Taoism again returns me to my ‘starting point’ tradition, renewed and refocused.

The Quakers speak of being ‘rooted in Christianity, open to new light’. I think this is a good enough way (for there is no perfect way) of describing my universalism and that of similar seekers on the Christian end of the Unitarian spectrum."