These are my principles, if you don't like them I have others.
Faith Hope and Clarity
I have as yet little idea as what direction this page will take, and so I'll start with a couple of items that have already seen the light of day. The first was written in 2016 for the Cross Street Rag, a lively news-sheet produced for the congregation of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester.
The French philosopher Voltaire is said to have remarked that in England, there were sixty different religions and only one sauce, whereas in France it was of course the other way round.
My own family has illustrated this rather well. Way back on my father's side they were middle-of-the-road Scottish Presbyterians, but my three times great grandfather took his congregation from Glasgow to the coastal town of Girvan, and set up the Church of The Future, who were later joined by the Christian Universalists.
His son, also a clergyman, was strongly influenced by the remarkable scientific advances of that century, and promoted a variety of Natural Theology, the creation of the material universe being seen as direct evidence of a purposeful incorporeal creator. Perhaps not dissimilar to the ideas of today's Unitarians?
Two generations on, my grandfather though nominally Presbyterian, had lapsed into atheism, though his wife-to-be was very high-church Anglican, having at the age of 19 secretly eloped from Glasgow to London's East End to be baptised into the Church of England by an evangelical clergyman who practised a life of apostolic poverty.
My father was pretty much of his father's opinion, but in early adulthood became very interested in the then-popular mysticism of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, which invoked ideas of higher dimensionality, well in advance of cosmologists in this era. In his later years, my father became almost obsessively interested in Manichean history and theology, and the tragic fate of the Cathars, who in fact believed that this world was intrinsically evil, the work not of God but his antithesis.
He had two sisters, one of whom was happy to convert to Catholicism after marrying in middle age, and the other who married at the age of seventy, spent twelve years learning Gaelic and took to the Celtic tradition of St Columba rather than the Roman one of St Augustine (though I'm pretty hazy about the fine distinctions!). She loved the weekly Gaelic choral evening at her church in Victoria BC.
My mother's family had their roots in industrial Birmingham, and belonged to the Congregational church, though later moving south to the Middlesex area. Her parents actually first met at a church choir practice, and her father (who was a book-binder by trade) bound two copies of Handel's Messiah in leather, his and hers. In her middle years, however my grandmother took to Christian Science, with its emphasis on illness being a symptom of spiritual maladjustment, and I think this had a persistent negative effect on the family.
I think this is probably way too long already but, reverting to Voltaire, there was certainly no evidence in the very unimaginative meals I remember from childhood, whether at home or staying with relatives, of any intrusive flavour, whether or not the result of anything other than gravy!
And the second was scripted in 2012 for a ten-minute presentation at the Friends' Meeting House in Reading, during the national Quaker Outreach week that year. I've inserted a few square-bracket parentheses.
My name is Robin, and I've been an Attender at the Reading FMH [Friends' Meeting House] since 1982, though only intermittently until about 6 or 8 years ago.
I'm going to share with you some background stuff about the origins of Quakerism and its roots in the Christian tradition.
I'm not an expert on the subject, and the views I express are purely personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views or attitudes of any other Attenders or Friends, or the Quaker Faith and Practice manual.
I'll start by recounting just a bit about my own journey (as it's always called these days) towards a form of religious belief, and then I'll delve back into history for a while, to consider the Quaker Journey. Finally I'll briefly compare the outcomes of these journeys, and then I'll stop.
I'll have to refer to my notes pretty frequently, but at least that should keep me on track and up to schedule. It should take about 10 minutes.
Both my parents had been scarred by excessive indoctrination as children, and so I was brought up in a non-religious household.
But I liked the Christmas carols at school, and the Christmas story, and it is of course very beautiful. Nevertheless, it was really just an annual thing, and for the rest of the year it was on the back burner, so to speak.
However, as a teenager, I succumbed to the crude sort of materialism so popular back in the 1960's: Angels? Miracles? Don't make me laugh!
But I was still strangely drawn to the personality of Christ himself. Even if he "hadn't ever existed", he was still a powerful role model, and one that I did try to stay with over the next 30 years or more.
In 1997 I was persuaded to attend an Alpha course. It was very well-meaning but completely unconvincing. It still didn't explain the miracles (whether Old or New Testament). But it did get me thinking again.
Some years later, the penny dropped, and I realised that miracles were the rule rather than the exception. Rightly viewed, everything is a miracle. I also came to a personal interpretation of the New Testament that made sense to me. I can explain all that on another occasion, if anybody is interested [they weren't].
But could this be squared with continued attendance at MfW [Meeting for Worship] and, even more to the point, regular and meaningful attendance?
THE QUAKER JOURNEY
We have to briefly revisit the England of the 1640's and 50's, during and just after the Civil War.
The Church of England had emerged from its domination by the Pope, and it now conducted its services in English, and we now had the wonderful King James' bible to read.
But the Church still retained the traditional hierarchy and patriarchy inherited from the Roman Empire on the one hand and the teachings of St Paul on the other. And this status quo suited the authorities just fine.
However, Diggers (1649) and Levellers (1647), Quakers (1647) and (later on) Shakers (1747) now began to vocalise the widespread feeling amongst ordinary Englishmen – and women – that things needed continued change and further questioning, both socially and religiously.
They were anarchists in a way, refusing to pay tithes, or to accept the doctrinal leadership of clergy and bishops, or to fight the monarch's wars for him, or to accept the continued lock-out of women from religious responsibility.
And when George Fox, and other Quaker evangelists, started their open-air ministries they found a massive popular response to the new Quaker mode of worship, despite cruel repression by magistrates and militia.
WHAT WAS THEIR MESSAGE?
Crucially, they insisted that genuine religious experience could not be delivered at second hand by the clergy, but should spring from within the hearts of people gathered together in common cause – and certainly not in churches dedicated to the old way of doing things.
And that the Second Coming would now be in peoples' hearts, rather than a physical return of Christ and all those complicated apocalyptic expectations.
Also, Quakers turned their backs on the churches' traditional obsession with Sin, both Original and Casual. Genesis had something to say on the subject, of course, and Christ himself when healing people often said 'Thy sins be forgiven thee' – sin in the context of being out of alignment with God's purpose, covering bodily illness as well as actual misdemeanours.
And the church had compiled numerous lists of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins that could imperil your chances of going to Heaven, such as:
- Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride
Of course the avoidance of Greed, Envy and Pride are central to modern Quaker teachings about Fairness, Sustainability and Simplicity, whilst the others are just completely out of character anyway!
But in any case Quakers don't dwell on Sin or Redemption in the way that even modern Anglicanism or Catholicism do, which I find a great relief, as I personally don't accept that the Crucifixion had a redemptive purpose. Quaker teaching has a much greater focus on the positive than on the negative, on what we should do rather than on what we shouldn't do.
The early Quakers also abandoned ritual and ceremony, especially Eucharist, also called Holy Communion, and paid little attention to Christmas and Easter, feeling that the significance of these occasions should be kept in mind throughout the year. I couldn't agree more, especially as I find the body-and-blood idea of Holy Communion utterly repugnant, an echo of primitive pagan theophagic ritual.
HAVE WE REACHED THE SAME PLACE?
The early Quakers experienced Jesus in their hearts, and sometimes described this as the Light Within, but modern Quakers refer to this as the Inner Light, most frequently identified with God.
But which God? The rather scary angry Old Testament Jehovah, or the loving God to whom Jesus referred, or the tripartite Trinitarian God cooked up at the Council of Nicea centuries later? Or indeed the Holy Spirit, the messenger of God?
I know which I prefer, though I'm happy for other participants in a MfW to think differently. But for Enquirers it could be a considerable hurdle to begin with.
And who was Jesus? This must be the most-often-asked question in history. And there have been such varied answers, and so much blood spilt between the rival factions. Some would say it doesn't really matter, he was a good man who preached brotherly love and came to a sticky end. Others that he wasn't the Messiah, just a very naughty boy, as Jewish Friends might well privately agree. Others that he was the Son of God, whatever that may mean, and is now part of the Holy Trinity. Or always was, opinions differ.
C S Lewis asked rhetorically was Jesus mad, bad or God? Like the Unitarians, I don't think he was any of these things – perhaps he was simply the last and greatest of the Prophets, with a uniquely close relationship with God. And for many of us he will always remain the Light of The World, the defining figure through whom God, who laid the foundations of the Universe, reaches down to reassure us that we are part of his blueprint.
Quaker ministries at Reading MfW frequently mention the G word, but seldom the J word, and in a way that's no bad thing as it enhances our appeal to enquirers from other religious backgrounds. And I've never heard any mention of the Holy Trinity at MfW, and to that extent I have a great deal of sympathy with those who say that Quakerism (at least in the unprogrammed format such as at Reading MfW) is moving away from its traditional Christian roots and is reaching towards a simpler, clearer form of faith that can be reconciled with the other great Abrahamic religions.
And that's got to be go(o)d.
Thank you for listening to me. I've now finished.
To Be Continued
... but meanwhile you might well like to ask yourselves
Who Mowed The Lawns of Eden?
Who mowed the lawns of Eden? Who kept the garden trim?
Adam never volunteered, I'm sure it wasn't him.
Who pruned all the fruit trees to which Genesis refers?
Did the angel Gabriel [possess] some secateurs?
Who mowed the lawns of Eden? Who kept the garden green?
Eve was not a gardener, and the Cherubs were not keen.
The angels and archangels, they were pretty much the same,
They refused to [do the weeding] as well as magnify His name.
The Seraphim, they could have helped in several different ways,
But they had all their time used up with singing hymns of praise.
The Heavenly Host was small then, because nobody had died,
But none of them liked digging, even though they'd never tried.
I bet the saints and martyrs would have loved to dig and hoe,
For martyrs up in heaven are the same as here below.
Who mowed the lawns of Eden? Who helped the garden grow?
Who made of it a Paradise? I'll tell you, 'cos I know.
God. He fixed the garden, the first one that he made,
He pruned all the roses, and was handy with his spade.
On Sunday, nice and early He went out to smell the dew.
(There wasn't any Church then, so He'd nothing much to do).
He wandered to the potting-shed, behind the Tree of Life,
And got his spade and trowel out, His fork and pruning knife.
He looked after Eden, and He watched the lilies grow,
And Eden's still a Paradise where gardeners can go.
Who mowed the lawns of Eden? God mowed the lawns and more,
Adam couldn't help Him, for his rib was still quite sore.
The beasts that God created never helped in any way,
The lion lay down with the lamb, bone idle all the day
God built all the trellises for clematis to climb,
Cut back the wisteria and trained the columbine.
He pruned all the fruit trees: apple, peach and pear,
He had so many jobs to do, you'd always find Him there.
So if I get to Heaven, I'll just ask Peter if I can
Potter about in Eden, just to help out the Old Man.
(transcribed from a typescript found amongst Uncle Sandy's papers after he died; I've applied a couple of tweaks to help the scansion.)
Dr Laura Schlessinger is a US radio personality, who dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio show. In 2000, she said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination, according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned in any circumstances. The following ironic response is an open letter to Dr Schlessinger which was posted on the internet.
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination ... End of debate.
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God's Laws and how to follow them.
- Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?
- I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
- I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Leviticus 15:19-24). The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
- When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Leviticus1:9). The problem is, my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
- I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
- A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Leviticus 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? Are there 'degrees' of abomination?
- Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?
- Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Leviticus 19:27. How should they die?
- I know from Leviticus 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
- My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Leviticus 24:10-16).
Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Leviticus 20:14).
I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.
Your adoring fan,
Travelling overland back to England from Abu Dhabi in early 1964, I entrusted most of my personal effects to the warden of the youth hostel in Thessalonika (I had already entrusted much of the money I'd earned in Abu Dhabi to a currency swindler in Constantinople) and hitch-hiked southwards to spend a few days in Athens, planning to collect the belongings at a later date.
I never did reclaim them, but stumbled instead into the most kaleidoscopic mix of technicolour personalities and events ever before or afterwards to be experienced, compared with which much else of my life has been a pale shadow on the wall of a Platonic cave...
I was just 19, already entranced by the philosophy and culture of classical Greece, from my own reading and from vigorous late-evening discussions with Chris Kendall, by the light of a fitful paraffin lamp in a tent pitched in various lonely corners of the Trucial States.
But amongst all the emotional turbulence was a deep and lasting impression made by an allegorical poem I came across, by an obscure, rather seedy-looking Greek civil servant by the anglicised name of Cavafy, based on Odysseus' lengthy journey home to the island of Ithaca after the siege of Troy, as recounted in Homer's epic poem the Odyssey.
Cavafy, properly known as Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis (1863 – 1933), and more accurately described as Alexandrian, was once characterised as "a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe." And the poem should properly be written as Ithaka, to reflect the un-anglicised name of the island.
A fascinating book I acquired a good few years ago, and which I will hopefully one day find time to read in full, is Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography, by Alberto Manguel, publ by Atlantic Books, London 2007.
But meanwhile here are two rather differently worded versions, both with great merit. The first version is the one I was so impressed by in Athens all those years ago, and here I am now, rapidly closing in on Ithaca myself.
Version translated by George Valassopoulo 1924:
When you start on the way to Ithaca,
wish that the way be long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Laestrygones and the Cyclopes
and angry Poseidon, do not fear:
such, on your way, you shall never meet
if your thoughts are lofty, if a noble
emotion touch your mind, your body.
The Laestrygones and the Cyclopes
and angry Poseidon you shall not meet
if you carry them not in your soul,
if your soul sets them not up before you.
Wish that the way be long,
that on many summer mornings,
with great pleasure, great delight,
you enter harbours for the first time seen;
that you stop at Phoenician marts,
and procure the goodly merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
plenty of sensual perfumes especially;
to wend your way to many Egyptian cities,
to learn and yet to learn from the wise.
Ever keep Ithaca in your mind,
your return thither is your goal.
But do not hasten at all your voyage,
better that it last for many years;
And full of years at length you anchor at your isle
rich with all that you gained on the way;
do not expect Ithaca to give you riches.
Ithaca gave you your fair voyage.
Without her you would not have ventured on the way.
But she has no more to give you.
And if you find Ithaca a poor place,
she has not mocked you.
You have become so wise, so full of experience
that you should understand already what
these Ithacas mean.
Authorised version translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard 1992:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.