Friday 17 July 2015

On condition

Tim Farron lives in paradise already / Liberal Democrats
Is there anything in today's political life that is more willfully misunderstood than religion?

This is what I thought when a hatchet job was written after Tim Farron's ascension to the Liberal Democrat throne, for they had elected a Christian, one suspected of being evangelical.

Interviewed on BBC's Today programme, the aural morning mass to the movers and shakers, Farron was asked if he prayed, to which he replied that of course he did. What about? thundered the presenter. Farron said that he asked for wisdom to make the right choices, adding, "I don't ask him to present the answer to me". He pointed out that all people make value judgments, not just the religious.

This has been made into a call that we should be "suspicious" of the new Liberal leader in an article that uses cheap hack tricks, by setting out an emotional analysis, designed for the writers own value judgments with an edited version of the transcript tacked to the end of the piece.

For my sins, I know a cheap trick when I see one and this was one.

It's not hard to see why, in particular evangelicalism is treated with such wariness, I prefer the quiet solitude of the Quakers rather than the loud bleatings of those that remind more of the Pharisee than the widow and her mite.

The problem is that, looking for certainty and validation, man often makes God into his own image.

This is most noticeable in the American right, where God, guns and apple pie seems to be the eleventh commandment. Our vanity will lead us all to easily from asking "What should I do?" and hearing the answer from within, not without, that agrees with the values and judgments of the petitioner.

It's not a giant leap from believing you're doing God's work, how he wants it, to a full blown messiah complex, that Achilles heel of Tony Blair. Not even the most devout can truly know they are obeying divine commands exactly right, not that this stops the tele-evangelists or on the other side, ISIS.

Far better to ask for wisdom, to have the courage to admit uncertainty, the humility to know you need to consider, to learn.

The writer Karen Armstrong, who has a deep knowledge of the worlds religions told me that people were complaining her books were too difficult, "Of course they're difficult," she said, "They're about God!"

I've found that religion has been the most difficult part of life, brought up in a faith I just didn't understand then switched into a world of the charismatics, the expressive, the emotional, I walked away as far as I could, then began slowly to walk back in darkness and confusion.

It would have been easy to start attending one of the established churches and go along with their views, to adopt them as a shield against a world I found increasingly difficult, but it was this sense of certainty that dissuaded, for I've heard many spiritual questions answered with the phrase, 'Well, the church says this or that'.

I've no idea why I started going to Quaker meetings several years ago, but for me, it seems the right place, and that's the only person I can say that for, as the internet says, 'Your mileage may vary'.

The founder, George Fox was a troubled man and wandered over England looking for spiritual solace, but found none. As he wrote in his journal, "But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition";and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy."

 His insight was that the divine could be experienced directly, without going through priests, pastors or clergy. The phrase "speak to my condition" is a revealing one, for it refers to the whole person, not thoughts, worries or dreams or a mere aspect of a person.

We've all experienced it, that moment when something strikes with clarity, the words or phrase that grabs the whole of your attention and I've learned to pay attention to it, even occasionally hearing clues.

This is how my memory was alerted after a Quaker meeting, when the name Gerald Priestland was raised and I recalled the cover of a book of his in the family home. We had a lot of books but all theological apart from, oddly enough 'The Moon's A Balloon,' David Niven's autobiography.

Google reminded me that he was a BBC foreign correspondent who had a breakdown, oppressed by the troubles he saw and then became a Quaker and a religious correspondent. There was something speaking to my condition there, I thought.

So, I'm reading his autobiography, full of cracking anecdotes from the golden age or reporting and his collections of his religious broadcasts and I'm finding humour, kindness and a mischievousness that may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering his religious affiliation, but as he said, the "distressingly virtuous reputation" of the Quakers "can only be healthily undermined by putting up a gin-drinking hack like me. If they'll let me in, they will let anyone in. Maybe even you."

Being attentive to what speaks to your condition is a step towards wisdom, something that a burned out hack and a leading politician both need more of, and it's there if you look beyond yourself.

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