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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31/07/2014

Summer Update

The very few, if any, regular readers of this online journal may wonder where I have disappeared to given my absence over the past month or so. The simple answer is to say I've been busy, not just with the day job but with other pursuits brought on by a English summer that is so far proving to involve sun! I've re-taken up running, motivated in part by the stunning canal and woodland scenery now almost on my doorstep, and I've become an increasingly obsessive gardener. Both activities, I have found, have some level of meditative quality as I spend them 'alone' without mobile phone, without background music or radio.

I've continued to read, reflect and write around religious issues - usually inspired by my continued attendance of a Quaker meeting but also through my participation on a Unitarian worship leader course and involvement with the recently formed Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians.

As anyone casting an eye on my entries to this online journal, and with some experience of Quakerism and/or Unitarianism, will understand, a number of my recent reflections have focused on the question of theological pluralism within these respective communities. I would take this further to call it a pressing concern I have over 'ephemeralism', a tendency I have observed of liberal religious groups towards increasing individualism and relativism - starting with theology but then moving to moral and social justice issues. I very much believe in the 'mosaic' of religion, of many distinct paths leading to the One, rather than the 'melting pot' where all paths are somehow thrown together.

I have submitted two pieces to The Friend, the weekly publication of the Quakers in Britain (and a very good one, as far as church magazines go). The first offering, looking at the general question of theological pluralism, didn't make it past the editors desk whereas the second offering, on the proposed 'assisted dying' legislation, was published.

I have also had a piece published by the newly formed Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians, in the first edition of their aptly titled publication, 'The Fellowship'. This was a response to David Cameron's comments around Britain being a 'Christian country', which he was condemned for as being 'divisive' by various atheist and humanist figures - the piece I wrote took a different note, in some ways offering tacit support to the Prime Minister, for what were actually fairly progressive views on religion.

It was also designed as an introduction to the Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians. The group has caused some concern amongst British Unitarians - which I have responded to briefly on Scott Wells' Universalist Christian blog. I have long felt my own outlook is ultimately a 'Free Christian' one, one that is serious about theological exploration within a mainly Christian context but via a clear path - a discipline - rather than overly-academic hand-wringing and toe-dipping. I have found this to an extent with the local Quaker group I attend, being 'forced' to sit in silent prayer for an hour each week matched with their distinct, consensual approach they have towards dialogue and 'out in the world' action. However, I am aware that I am out-of-sync with the larger Quaker movement, just as I am with the larger Unitarian movement - a liberal, but seemingly 'not liberal enough'. I am hoping membership of the Fellowship on Non-Subscribing Christians will counter this sense of  isolation from a larger movement - and keep me connected with other small 'u' unitarians, and small 't' trinitarians, of a similar position.

I am currently in the process of writing other bits and pieces, and I will soon take my first service - as part of the  Unitarian worship leader course mentioned above - at Oldham Chapel. I am also set to visit Budapest at the start of August and plans are being made to visit the Hungarian Unitarians there. I'll try to keep readers posted in due course.

The pieces I mentioned above are included below.

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"Questions of Integrity and Inclusivity (submitted to The Friend, April 2014 - not published)

I start this query with two cautionary remarks. I am aware that in the development of religion, and wider human life, there have always been radicals initially dismissed as beyond the pale only later to be rightly recognised as catalysts and creators – I may well be on the wrong side of history. Additionally, I admit to being uncertain as to whether, in airing the following questions publicly, I am speaking to the Quaker family as a whole or responding in kind to the loudest voices at the table. 

Recently, I saw via social media that BBC Radio Scotland had run a piece on Quakers, featuring an interview with a self-described ‘Muslim Quaker’. On questioning the meaning of this term, I was simply advised this was not out of the ordinary as there are also ‘Buddhist Quakers’.

This brought me back to a conversation I had with a Friend at a national conference in which they told me they were first and foremost a Daoist. When I commented that I too had an interest in Daoism stemming from a visit to China some years ago, and felt it had enriched my ‘Christian roots and core’, the Friend expressed surprise that there could be any coming together of the two. 

As a fairly new found Friend with long ties to liberal Christianity, I am very much committed to remaining open to insights beyond my particular tradition - be that from other churches, the wider world of faith, science, nature or more ordinarily from colleagues, relatives, friends and passers-by. In a globalised society I believe this openness is not simply a matter of choice, it is necessary.

Yet surely it is one thing to say you are a Quaker open to new light - but another to say you are a [insert faith] Quaker? Or is it that the clause of relative pluralism - as seen in the opening paragraphs of Advices & Queries - has been gradually transformed into an absolute pluralism, and in turn become the raison d'être of the movement?

It is a question we must ask ourselves, can we integrate - on equal terms - distinct and sometimes contrasting spiritual outlooks? Not just in terms of 'serving two masters’ on an intrapersonal level, but as members of one body? If we attempt to break down the above examples ever so slightly, how does the 'affirming mysticism' of Quakers sit with the ‘negating mysticism’ of Buddhism? And in terms of 'Muslim Quakers', how does Islamic belief in the complete finality of Muhammed's teaching fit with continuing revelation?

Going further, I recently read the thought-provoking piece, ‘Perspectives of Belief’, in The Friend (03/04/14) reporting on the conference of the Nontheist Friends Network. It appears, admittedly as an outsider looking in, this group are developing an increasingly distinct position evolving from their website’s tagline of ‘seeking an alternative view of God’ to ‘leaving God behind’. It seems there has been a shift to more outright atheism – albeit with the proviso that religious practice is ultimately still a good thing (what amounts to a milder-mannered re-working of Marx’s ‘opiate of the people’).

I agree exploring new perspectives of belief can enrich the Religious Society of Friends. Again, it is necessary if we wish to remain a living, growing church. But to say God definitely does not exist, to say promptings of the Holy Spirit are purely human imagination (as I understand some Friends are now saying), does this de facto statement of disbelief not represent a major break in continuity both within Quakerism and with the wider Judeao-Christian conversation?

As a side note, it would appear from the latest short report in The Friend (10/03/14) on the work of QCCIR that fellow churches - which many of us are working with ecumenically at grassroots level - are also concerned about this possible parting of ways.

To be clear, I feel these trends of qualifying labels and ‘movements within a movement’ point to a form of individualism and factionalism – an unconscious entryism even - that risks moving us from conglomeration to discord. Where are the boundaries that will prevent us drifting from one state of being to the other?

And as one of many faith communities attempting to stem numerical decline, we also must consider how this projects to the wider public. What can we say, plainly and coherently, to seekers looking for a measure of substance behind agreeable slogans such as ‘a spiritual path for our time’? Not just in terms of our processes and socio-political work but in terms of our theological essentials. We often speak confidently as Quakers about what we do and how we do it, but can we speak so confidently about why we do it? 

These are not easy questions. They may even hurt a little as they potentially cut deep. But I do not feel, in good conscience, we can ignore them."

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"Letter on Quakers and 'Assisted Dying' (submitted to The Friend, July 2014 - published)

I welcome the contribution from Gareth Evans (11/07/14) on a number of levels, from the specific to the general. 

My gut instinct is that ‘assisted dying’ cannot be reconciled with belief in the divine spark in each person. However, I think we all would benefit from a national commission around end of life care, covering both the elderly and the younger afflicted. This could include the question of whether there are cases where medicine unduly prolongs a life of suffering. Yet I would also say it is an altogether different matter to actively end a life and the currently proposed legislation is rushing us across this line.

I support our Friend in emphasising the Society’s deep roots in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christian tradition. Certainly, as Quakerism has always shown, there are transient aspects of the Christian tradition - things we might re-evaluate and leave behind in the light of today. However, there are also permanent aspects which are ultimately what make us who we are – things we might say are even more deeply rooted in the Spirit.

Finally, Gareth is right also to note the Society still stands on a collective process of discernment, despite a recent tendency towards individualism. Care should be taken by each of us, in expressing personal views and pursuing particular agendas, not to assume that we speak for the whole."

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"Welcome aboard Dave? (submitted to The Fellowship, June 2014 - published)

Much was made of the Prime Minister’s comments in The Church Times ahead of Easter, at least in media circles. Indeed, if you only read the protest letter to The Telegraph signed by various leading humanist and atheist types, you might be forgiven for thinking that David Cameron had declared Britain to be a ‘Christian country’ in a similar vein to Ruhollah Khomeini declaring Iran an ‘Islamic country’ in 1979. However, if like me, you took the time to see what all the fuss was about and googled the ‘My faith in the Church of England’ article – and detached a little from political cynicism – then you may have found, like me, that what David Cameron actually wrote was fairly reasonable.

Whilst our nation’s leader did say Britain is a Christian country, and there are various arguments for and against this viewpoint, he followed this immediately by acknowledging the value of other faiths – and followed this later on in his piece with an observation that some agnostics and atheists can be more disciplined in their day-to-day living out of a moral code than some Christians. We could perhaps assume such opinions point to a Christian who recognises the need for religious tolerance based on respect and humility.

But David Cameron didn’t just stop there, going further to note so-called Christian values are found in other faiths. And many Christians would agree they share much in common with their Muslim and Jewish neighbours, amongst others, in their concern for family life, marriage, the sanctity of life, social justice and so on. Not a uniformity of opinion by any means, but a shared sense of these being important concerns that require careful consideration. In drawing attention to such commonalities, we might go beyond mere tolerance, and suggest David Cameron has embraced a healthy level of universalism. Reading around on his comments, it is worth highlighting it was reported leading figures from the Muslim Council of Britain, Network of Sikh Organisations and Hindu Council UK, rather than being offended, in fact welcomed them.

What readers of The Fellowship may be particularly interested to note is that the Prime Minister also said, on the issue of belief, “I am not one for doctrinal purity, and I don't believe it is essential for evangelism about the Church's role in our society or its importance.” So on top of religious tolerance, on top of a healthy level of universalism, we may wonder if David Cameron is of the same position as ours?

A position that upholds Christianity, not as an institution that seeks to dominate society but rather as a stream of culture (or counter-culture) that seeks to enrich society, not as a rigid belief system but as a framework through which we can try to make sense of the world and act fruitfully in it, not as a sect that claims exclusive ownership of Truth but a way of being that we feel brings forth Truth for us, personally and communally.

This form of Christianity may well be a relatively new discovery for the Prime Minister but for the denomination in which we stand, it is a light that has been carried from generation to generation of Unitarian, Free and Non-Subscribing Christians for around four centuries – and not without cost. And it is a light in a too often dark world we feel called to continue to gather around, to preserve and renew, and to evangelise for.

So Prime Minister, if you are reading this, you are quite welcome to join us! (Although please don’t anticipate the same amount of agreement when it comes to some of your policies…)"

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