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.

02/11/2017

Continuity as Reality

"Birth is not a beginning; death is not an end. 
There is existence without limitation; there is continuity without a starting point. 
Existence without limitation is Space.
Continuity without a starting point is Time.
There is birth, there is death, there is issuing forth, there is entering in."

– Chuang Tzu

29/10/2017

Elysium

Bear's Den never fail...

 

Goodbye Nan, love you

I'm breaking my blogging hiatus (again) to mark the passing of my dearly-loved grandmother, Collette.

She reached a fairly grand old age of 85, having had six children, sixteen grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren (and counting).

This was some feat, given her beginnings which saw her abandoned by her mother at a very young age. The story goes that she was placed in the care of strangers and it was only the determined intervention of her Aunt Edna (sister of her father, Colin) that rescued her. Collette was brought up in particular by Edna and her grandfather, William - it was the love they modelled to her that set her on a path to dedicated motherhood and grandmotherhood.

My grandmother embraced life from start to finish. Nan was very plain speaking and had this sharp, casual wit - she was a woman who seemingly died with no bitterness and no lingering regrets (other than the loss of my grandfather, who she mourned badly). Nan didn't want to leave us and even when she knew the end was coming - having been diagnosed just weeks ago with a long-undiscovered, highly-developed lung cancer - she refused to give up. "The only place I'm going is The Moor!" (a shopping precinct in Sheffield) she decried defiantly, despite being hooked up to powerful ventilators and confined to the living room of her home.

Nan had had a particularly tough year, having seen the return of cancer in her nose - and, with the intent of saving her, having had her nose surgically removed. For such a proud lady - one who would dress up for shopping trips to Aldi - this destruction of her face must have been a huge blow. I saw the aftermath in its fullest - having helped clean her face one day - and the permanent wound that replaced her nose was devastating. I wondered quietly how she would psychologically survive the ordeal, but she saw it pragmatically as a means to survive - to stay with the family she loved so dearly. As much as she missed my grandfather sorely, and clearly continued to have desolate, dark days and lonely, restless nights without her lifelong soulmate, it became her calling to witness the continuing stream of great-grandchildren.

I remember vividly speaking with her a few months ago, as we looked out upon Sheffield from the upper floors of the Hallamshire Hospital, and she talked about World War Two and the bombings she had experienced first-hand. Her lung cancer was unknown at that point but Nan said, plainly as ever, that she believed she was dying - that she would be 'dead by September'. Nan lasted a little longer than that but sadly she wasn't far wrong. And with her passing, that generation of the early to mid 20th Century dwindles further - we still have a lot to learn from the character of this generation, in this era of rampant individualism and the burning desire to appear as 'the offended'.

My grandmother - five foot nothing - astounded me with both her great physical resilience and her colossal strength of mind. She was an inspiration in the face of so much, joking in conversation about how her prosthetic nose might 'bounce down The Moor' if she didn't glue it on properly and comparing herself to Mrs Doubtfire.

Nan, you were beautiful to the end.



~

As my Christian brother profoundly said at her funeral, we mourn not only the passing of the person, but the passing of a generation and our identity as children and grandchildren alongside the end of a matriarchal figure and central connection for us as a large, increasingly-spread family. We have to accept and to a point embrace this change, for we can do no other. And as my other, atheist, brother added, her spark has left her physical body and has moved onwards, to reunion with my grandfather - we can view this rationally or mystically, or both. I have lost a love of my life but I remain fortunate to have a diverse, enriching - sometimes conflicting but always loving - family.

Having distanced myself from the organised church, I have once again found myself turning to Eastern philosophy - to the works of Taoism in particular. The following story has provided sustenance during these challenging times...


When Chuang Tzu’s wife died, his friend Hui Tzu came to offer his condolences and found Chuang Tzu hunkered down, playing an instrument and singing.

Hui Tzu said, “You lived with her, raised children with her, and grew old together. That you no longer mourn for her with weeping is not enough, but now you are singing. Is it a bit too much?”

Chuang Tzu said, “That is not how it is. When she just died, how could I not feel grief? I was in despair, as any man well might be.”

“But with time I pondered it and saw that she was not alive, as we see it, before she was born. She was without substance and form, she was energy or spirit or soul. Somewhere in the vast mysterious universe there was a change and then she was born into substance and form, and into this lifetime, after which she grew to become the person that I knew and loved.

Now her substance and form has changed again, and as we see it, she is dead. She has passed from one phase to another as spring turns to summer, autumn and then winter. Whatever peaceful place she was in before she came into this lifetime, she has now returned, as shall we all.

If I constantly lament her loss, I would move beyond despair into anger and be trying to stop the natural course of things, which brought her here in the first place. Therefore I came to a time when I stopped railing against her death and found joy and thankfulness for her life.” 

01/10/2017

Education as ministry

Here's a break to my hiatus to make note of my recent contribution to a Sunday service, at a local church, to mark 'Education Sunday'. You can read more about this here:

http://www.humansnotrobots.co.uk/2017/10/education-sunday.html

22/07/2017

Hiatus

I am deciding to take a break from writing on this blog - perhaps indefinitely. The past six months have seen a number of events in my personal life, at times horrendous yet also somehow affirming.

I witnessed my Grandfather's last awful breaths, strung out over hours, way back in 2010 - as he suffocated from the side-effects of lung cancer. His face contorted like the figure from Edvard Munch's The Scream. In recent months I have seen similar, watching a loved one go through days of physical suffering and related trauma that will last a lifetime - that same contorted face. I know another relative has experienced the same, often in the lonely hours of nighttime.


One consequence of witnessing this is I have ceased pretty much all connections with the church, which in turn 'powered' much of the writing on this blog.

This disconnection is firstly borne out of being unable to 'connect the dots' anymore with regards to core beliefs of the Christian faith. As this blog reflects, I have always struggled to connect some of the dots but now I am at a point where I struggle to connect any of the dots - or at least not enough dots to feel I can engage authentically in church life.

In particular, the question of suffering - why we must become The Scream - cannot be answered, as I see it, by the Christian faith. There are speculative answers to the question, such as this article by Jeffrey Small which rests its case on Paul Tillich's 'Ground of Being' - and, for me at least, speculative answers may also be partially found by some of the work around Pandeism and Process Theology (an extension of pantheism / panentheism and classical deism).

But this is ultimately not Christianity. I have long not been regarded as a 'proper Christian', due to my unitarian leanings - and any move to a deistic or panentheistic school of thought will not help such views. Although it is always said politely, in my experience many Christians are so wedded to the Nicene Creed that it obscures the possibility of them offering the hand of friendship to a Unitarian. After various polite but nonetheless heartless run-ins, I find myself reasoning, 'If you can't see I'm a Christian, then why do I keep trying? Does this loss of a label lead to any great loss in my life? No... so why bother?'

So whilst I am not an atheist and I am not hostile to the teachings and example of Jesus, I do have to 'own up' and say a belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, actively loving God is currently just no longer there. I've sat on it a while and it's simply not there, for the first time in my life.

This in turn has resulted in me not attending church and disengaging from any other Christian connections I had established over the years. As such, it no longer matters whether I am viewed as a Christian or not.

And, from there, it's also brought with it another realisation. I have come to realise I enjoy not having these connections - I feel unburdened, liberated even. The truth is - although I have met a sizable number of people through the churches I have attended (Methodist, Unitarian, Quaker) who I consider to be truly inspirational people (one in particular has become one of closest friends) - I cannot say I have ever really felt 'at home' with Christians by and large.

In my time away, I have reflected on things and I have realised a great deal of self-declared Christians make me feel claustrophobic - and some of them make me feel outright angry with their mealy-mouthed smugness and snarkiness. As Gandhi is often quoted as saying, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians..."

Instead, for the time being I have decided to focus on other means of affinity and fulfilment - authentic affinity and fulfilment, rather than what has come to feel like an acted-out, faux fulfilment. This authentic affinity and fulfilment was already there and is found in precious time with family and friends, in the challenges and rewards of my working day, in the discipline of fitness and exercise and in the joy of my garden. 


So, as we Yorkshire folk (more or less) say, "That's me done for nah - si thi..."

--------

Addendum...

It has been suggested to me, in light of what I have written above, that maybe I am a Unitarian - in the modern, post-Christian sense - after all. 

There is one standout memory of attending a Unitarian church which I think answers this...

When my wife and I decided to marry, we picked a Unitarian church. The truth is she liked the church because it was pretty and near the venue we had chosen, whereas I liked it because it was Unitarian - Unitarian in the classical liberal Christian sense. We started attending the Unitarian church on a weekly to fortnightly basis - partly because we had to but, for me, because I wanted to commit to a church having recently moved to the area.

We had a beautiful wedding day there and those memories will never be spoiled. I remain thankful to the church members who made the day possible.

However, we attempted to continue to attend the church after we had married and, from there, ran into problems. Our continued attendance after marriage appeared to be seen as 'odd' as we were rigidly viewed as one of the 'marriage couples' (which was quite a lot, given how picturesque the church is) rather than members of the small clique of 'regulars'. This was conveyed through little things such as the 'Oh, you've come back' type comments from the 'greeter' when we entered and when notices / short lectures were given by one of the church officials about 'marriage couples parking inappropriately' (or some other indiscretion) with her eyes indiscreetly fixed on us and others.

But what decisively ended things was one Sunday we attended and picked up a regional magazine for the denomination on the way in, more out of habit than anything. In it we read a number of outraged letters about a 'spirituality and bondage' article that had apparently been published in the last issue. The article appeared to be a 'spiritual' take on the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' book (all the rage at the time). I understood more than my wife that this was another case of the factionalism within Unitarianism between Christians and 'trendy' post-Christians, of which I was very much on the Christian 'side' - my wife just found it amusing that in a church magazine there was this unfolding furore about getting tied up and whipped etc. as a 'spiritual practice'.

At the end of the service we instinctively went to the bookstand to pick up the previous issue. All the other previous issues were there except that one. As we rustled through, our backs turned to the door, a slightly shrill voice called out "Can I help you?"

We turned round to find four or five 'regulars' of the congregation stood staring at us, inadvertently blocking the door. My wife replied, "Oh, I was just looking for the last issue of this magazine..."


In response, one of the group stepped over to rustle through and said, "I think we've run out of copies...Why do you want it?" Her tone now more hostile.

To which I replied honestly, "We just wanted to read the article which the letters in the current issue are talking about... I am unlikely to agree with it, but sometimes you want to see what the fuss is about all the same..."

At this point, another regular - a gentleman with an erudite tone - stepped forward and said, "Well actually we've banned it, it's not theological and has no place in a Christian place of worship..."


My wife had gone silent at this point with her eyes to the floor (probably regretting not asking for an invisibility cloak on the wedding gift wishlist) but I continued the conversation with this regular, touching briefly on the issue facing the Unitarian denomination over theology and identity. This somehow led to a mention that my brother was training to be an Anglican minister and he had mentioned the Anglican church as a 'broad church' has similar tensions. To which the gentlemen commented, "Well we are not intolerant like the Anglicans..." before launching loftily into a short speech about his opposition to the 'dogmatic', 'illiberal' Anglican church - again, seeming to aim it at us by association. The same gentleman who had just proclaimed a publication to be banned.

We never went back to the church.

It was largely a comical situation - something we have laughed at since as it would not have been out of place on the Vicar of Dibley - but this typifies much of my experience of and frustration about the Unitarian denomination. For me, I have come to realise that the paralysing confusion (ultimately, weakness) over what the Unitarian church has been, is now and might become in the future stems as much from Christians as it does from so-called 'Post Christians'. There is no fellowship to be found with either 'side'.

24/01/2017

History, non-liberal

Once upon a time I was a history student, at masters degree level no less. Whilst I have not devoured lots of history books and documentaries over the years since then, it certainly did sharpen my mind and gave me skills, in terms evidence-gathering and evidence-processing, which have served me well in other areas. This includes one standout occasion where I resoundingly beat a cheap 'claims for you' lawyer in court on behalf of some family members he had victimised - I often think I did the masters really just for that, for the ability to pursue justice.

Whilst studying history, I also enjoyed the study of historical theory and discourse analysis - alongside studying actual events of the 20th century. This article I happened upon today, on the frontpage of the very readable 'Spiked Online', has taken be back to those 'glory years':

- www.spiked-online.com/spiked-review/article/history-begins/19149#.WIe3rlOLTIU

I was chided and condemned by some of my liberal friends for voting for Britain to leave the EU - so much so that I no longer call myself a 'liberal'. I have come to consider the term 'liberal' - in this day and age - as largely an inadvertent class-based label on the one hand, and on the other a deliberate label used to signify apparent intellect and a set of political positions masquerading as higher virtues. It inadvertently signifies a level of wealth and comfort, although those using the label make great play of speaking for the worker and the poor.

I stand by my vote and those millions of others who voted 'Brexit' because, for the reasons Brendan O'Neill highlights, having seen the social, economic and political situation apparently 'sewn up' with Blairism, it awoke humanity up. I don't agree one bit with Donald Trump but his election has similar hallmarks in America - the vanquishing of a deadening hegemony.

And for me - remembering the words of one of my esteemed tutors on the masters programme - the 'victory' will not be found in the short term news of Article 50 or Trump but what hopefully comes afterwards, for 'history is rarely if ever written in months and years but in decades...' I hope we are seeing the early shoots of a re-engagement of ordinary people in politics and the longer-term possibility of genuinely new leadership in the West...