Saturday, 31 January 2009

Soul baby

Amy was chatting with her girlfriend, who is pregnant, and they were wondering just when the baby in the womb gets its soul. In line with my post of 6th January 2009 on hosting the spirit, I thought the question should be turned round: When does the soul get its baby? Answer: Probably at the point of conception.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Technology and humanity:a few thoughts

In looking at the Arts & Letters Daily site, (recommended by Gordon F. and very good) I encountered an article by P.W. Singer called Robots at War:The New Battlefield,, in which the developing use of new technologies in war is considered. About two thirds of the way through there is a mention of the growth of 'war porn', this being the use of mobile phones etc to take pictures of the conflict and, in particular, the wounding and death of the enemy, and the posting of these images on Internet sites.
I can't help but feel that this is disturbing and while I can't find the exact words to give my thoughts on the matter it feels like a step along the path to dehumanising conflict and make it more of a video game than a harsh aspect of reality. I think Sassoon wrote words about WW1 to the effect that 'After 2,ooo years of saying Mass/We've got as far as poison gas' but after 60(?) years of developing computing and related technologies how far have we gone down the line of taking the human aspect out of war and making it an acceptable game?
Whilst there are also underlying issues of saying that the technology is being used to reduce casualties doesn't the other side of this lie in that it is being used to maximise casualties on the part of the opposition? I remember arguments to the effect that war has often driven the development of technologies but how can technology be used to take away the need for war and its acceptability? ( In this I am remembering the work of Alan Turing etc and the early developments of computing.) If the television played a key part in the American attitude to the war in Vietman what role is the mobile phone taking in current conflict where free reporting is not allowed? Should we now be considering the role of the Internet and not just the television? Certainly its role in the way it has been used by terrorists etc. has been reported but shouldn't its counterpart also be considered and not simply its role in the development of the dehumanising of suicide bombers?
The article has raised many thoughts but I can see few answers to some of the issues raised and while I realise that there has always been a dehumanising effect on the participants in conflict but is technology allowing that to affect greater numbers of people and making the unacceptable acceptable to all sides involved?

Saturday, 24 January 2009


Though in general I do not sing hymns etc. there is one Sankey hymn which has been on my mind today. I first heard it as part of a production of Mystery Plays at The Crucible in Sheffield about 20 years ago. Given what has been happening to me and many around me over the last year I feel it appropriate to share. The pity is I can't give the tune here. ONLY REMEMBERED
1. Fading away like the stars in the morning,
Losing their light in the glorious sun
Thus would we pass from this earth and its toiling,
Only remembered by what we have done.
Refrain: Only remembered, only remembered,
Only remembered by what we have done,
Thus would we pass from this earth and its toiling,
Only remembered by what we have done.
2. Shall we be miss'd tho' by others succeeded.
Reaping the fields we in springtime have sown?
No, for the sowers may pass from their labors,
Only remembered by what they have done.
3. Only the truth that in life we have spoken,
Only the seed that on earth we have sown;
These will pass onward when we are forgotten,
Fruits of the harvest and what we have done.
4. Oh, when the Saviour shall make up His Jewels,
When the bright crowns of rejoicing are won,
Then shall His weary and faithful disciples,
All be remembered by what they have done.
This strikes something within me about life, and our purpose, and history. History is too often the story of the great and the winners whilst life, which becomes history, is made of the acts of the many no matter how insignificant in status or apparent value. Some may say that I am talking about the butterfly effect so often used in explaining Chaos Theory; that may be so but if it is the case we are all butterflies. It could be said that we should make our lives' speak but is it really just relating to our being in the world and the effects known, and unknown, which existence brings?We will never know the consequences of our lives but we must be true to them in the sense that Khrisna said to Arjuna the words to the effect it is better to die in your own life than live in another's. As Melville says in Moby Dick we must 'strike through the mask' and see what actually lies beneath which I feel relates to those who cry 'Lord Lord' but without sincerity or honesty.Sorry for the rant.
In Friendship
P.S. Rather than tell the story here of the man who fell asleep and dreamed he was a butterfly then on waking wondered if he was a butterfly he was a man I prefer the story for the two caterpillars on a leaf watching a butterfly pass. One said to the other 'You'll never get me up in one of those things!
'Was it Augustine who said that inside every sinner there's a saint and inside every saint there is a sinner?

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Hosting the Spirit

Where does the spirit find a home? In you and in me.

God, or the gods, were thought to live on mountain tops and precipitous places – very atmospheric, very impressive. Later, people would build a temple or acropolis, of the finest aromatic woods or the cleanest, whitest marble, on top of a hill, would dedicate it to Pallas Athena and call the city Athens. Maybe in those days, they felt it was necessary to suck up to the gods in order to be safe. It also impressed the locals.

We Quakers believe that the spirit resides in each of us human beings – not just in those who believe as we do, but in all of us. This being so, what sort of home do you offer the spirit, not just in your body but in your self? Just as it is important to offer hospitality to anyone who needs it, so it is essential to look after the spirit whom you house for a while in your life – by paying careful and loving attention to what you do to your body, your eating and hygiene, mental and spiritual nourishment, as well as physical.

The one sort of person who usually pays this careful and loving attention to how she looks after herself, because she is now hosting someone else, is a pregnant woman. But all of us, including those who are not pregnant women, would do well to look after our sacred guest with the same care.

Quaker Priorities

I've been reading the new 'Framework for Action 2009-2014' (available to download as a pdf here).

The introduction states that:

'This document, from Meeting for Sufferings, the standing representative of Quakers in Britain, provides a framework to guide and unite Quakers in Britain and their central organisation, Britain Yearly Meeting, in their life and work at every level. It provides the basis for allocating resources over the years 2009-2014, though much of the work may extend beyond that time boundary... The framework is a strategic focus for activity, not a straightjacket; it outlaws nothing but provides a focus for work for and of Friends across Britain and an opportunity to achieve a more visible and effective witness for our faith.' So this is clearly an important document for British Quakers. I am still struggling to understand what its implications are, so I would appreciate any clarification from Friends who have been involved in producing it.

The Framework has some promising elements, especially the intention to reform centrally managed work in the direction of 'empowering and supporting, serving Friends by bringing together those active in a field rather than drawing them into central work'. The intention seems to be to decentralise much of the work currently carried out by departments based at Friends House, so that resources are redirected away from centrally managed programmes and towards resourcing and networking individual Friends and local Meetings. This seems to me a useful approach, which addresses the current separation between Quaker activity at local and national levels.

There is also an explicit principle for the framework that states: 'All the work must be led by the Spirit and arise from tested concerns.' This should prevent the framework becoming an exercise in abstract planning, divorced from our practices of spiritual discernment.

So far, so good.

The list of 'priorities for Quakers in Britain for 2009-2014' that follows is a rather broad and probably uncontroversial set of categories: 'Strengthening the spiritual roots in our meetings and in ourselves', 'Speaking out in the world', 'Peace', 'Sustainability', 'Strengthening local communities', 'crime, community and justice' and 'Using our resources well'.

I don't have a problem with any of these categories. I am not clear though about the function of such a 'list of priorities' in practice. Is it simply an arbitrary way of classifying the wide diversity of work undertaken by Friends? Or if its function is to prioritise the allocation of central resources, what currently resourced work will fall outside these areas and hence no longer be a priority?

If these priorities do have a meaningful application, then it is important that the procedure used to identify them has transparency and credibility. This is the main failing of the framework in my view. The 'consultation' process carried out to identify BYM's priorities was shockingly inadequate. I understand that our Meeting had a couple of weeks to make a formal response to the consultation, which did not allow time for an adequate response to be prepared and approved. Given that quite minor matters can often take several monthly Business Meetings to resolve, expecting local Meetings to reach clearness on their priorities for Quakers as a whole to such a short deadline was simply ridiculous, and I understand that our response, and that of many other Meetings, was largely to object to the imposed deadlines.

There was also an online questionnaire which individuals could respond to, consisting primarily of checkboxes against different kinds of Quaker work. There was also a facility to make written comments, which again many Friends used to raise questions about the procedure. Nevertheless, somehow this 'consultation' has resulted in a list of 'priorities for Quakers in Britain'. I'm sorry, but no it is not.

I do appreciate that it is not easy to do a genuine consultation process, especially with such a large and frankly awkward set of people as British Friends. But I have participated in several sham consultation exercises perpetrated by 'Regeneration' agencies and Local Strategic Partnerships, and I am frankly ashamed that BYM has produced something that falls into that category.

Above all it strikes me as a missed opportunity to really engage local Meetings in a patient process of discerning the 'signs of the times' and how we are called to respond corporately as a people and a religious movement. We are living in extraordinary times, as climate change, financial collapse and energy and resource crises are in the process of bringing down the industrial civilisation that has ransacked the globe for the last two centuries. The Framework contains no hint of the profound questions that these times demand of us; how do we prepare for a future of diminishing energy resources and a contracting economy? what aspects of our religious tradition need to be revived or transformed to meet the needs of the future? what ways of life, habits of thought, practical skills and spiritual practices can sustain us and our children through the profound changes that we are facing?

These are the kinds of questions I would love to see British Friends considering as part of our planning for the coming years. Your thoughts and responses would be very much appreciated.