I’ve been thinking about Christianity a lot recently, not least because it was a very significant part of my upbringing and a source of great joy and comfort to me until my early twenties, but also because I find myself in a religious community that (like me) has its historical roots in Christianity while not, perhaps, being immediately recognisable as such and/or taking a rather unconventional view of it (also like me).
I draw great inspiration from the literature we call the Bible, and while my mind cannot accept a virgin birth and a resurrection, Jesus’ message is as important to me today as it ever was in my church days. I live by what I consider to be the greatest metaphor of history – that of love overcoming death, and even ‘death’ there has to be a metaphor, doesn’t it, because no matter how much you love someone you cannot stop their life from ending. Would we ever have to grieve, if that were the case? But it is clear that we do not stop loving people after they are gone, and that whatever that person was to us in life, can continue to be after its close. I don’t think we’re going anywhere after our fragile bodies give out. I don’t believe my mum is waiting for me to join her in some glorious paradise where we will recognise and remember each other, nor, indeed, that she’s waiting in some strange stasis for judgement to seal her eternal fate. But I do believe – no, I know – that everything she was, still is. ‘Not a bit of her is gone; she’s just less orderly,’ in the words of one of my favourite pieces of writing.
And there are other deaths we can experience, too – deaths of hope, of spirit, deaths where we feel absent from our lives even as we watch ourselves living them, and love in its many and varied forms surely overcomes these. (My Buddhist influences teach me to accept only that for which I have evidence, experiential or otherwise; so far so good.)
I see a symbolic Jesus teaching compassion and humility and acceptance as being more important than the gods you worship, or don’t. I see a historical figure, figures indeed, developing and spreading and living by a message of hope so startling and so beautiful that they were prepared to die for it. I see a gospel preaching radical, revolutionary love, a gospel with the power to incite rebellion, to overthrow inequitable social orders, to bring equality and fairness and justice to a broken world.
So here I am. A cultural Christian, perhaps, most comfortable expressing the truths of my heart in the language of Christianity while still unable to buy into all that contemporary Christian faith demands. I love the metaphors, and not only are the metaphors enough for me, they actually make the message deeper and more beautiful than a literal ‘truth’ could ever be.
Since leaving the mainstream church, first Methodism then Anglicanism, I’ve wandered from atheism to Buddhism to Unitarianism, finding fertile ground in each but never anywhere I could root. There was nothing wrong with the soil, as I met some beautiful plants that were flourishing in each of those environments, but I wasn’t one of them. So I followed a little voice that had been gently calling me, on and off, for perhaps over a decade and found myself, not for the first time, in a Quaker meeting.
In those meetings, words have been shared of finding joy in the little things, of special importance when the rest of the world seems so utterly bleak. One week, my last in-person meeting before we moved online, the birds were singing joyfully in the meeting house garden, and it was raining. The birds sing through the rain, I thought. Whatever causes them to sing endures despite the conditions they find themselves in; they know nothing over viruses, or stock markets, or food shortages. Look to that constant, that light, the thread that runs through our lives. It’s still there; lean into it, whatever name you may give it.
Before one of our online meetings, I had a brief word with my (extremely loud and talkative) cat.
‘Loki’, I said to him, ‘please note that anything you miaow over the next half hour will be picked up on the microphone and may be taken as ministry.’ (He ignored me completely, as cats do, and went to watch the birds.)
And why shouldn’t it be considered as ministry? I think of what my cat teaches me. His world is unchanged; he joyfully demands love, affection, treats, play, warmth, security just as before. Despite the uncertainty and fear of the current situation, these are basic and fundamental needs for him – and for us.
I am trying my hardest to return to my roots in this situation. I see it as a rare and wonderful opportunity to strip away all the ‘fluff’ of modern life, and practice simplicity more wholly. There are certain things that we can provide for each other and share with each other even when everything feels so uncertain. I see people developing creative ways to do this in the face of current restrictions, and it gives me hope.
Quakers talk of that of God in everyone. I see no reason to restrict that to humans. What I consider to be God is the source of life, of love, of creation of all kinds, and we can approach this in myriad different ways – through art, through science, through nature. Listening to the birds in my garden in this morning’s meeting, I wondered what distinguished their song from the more conventional spoken ministry we heard. Nothing at all, I thought. Their songs are ministry; a reassurance to me that there is something constant, something unchanging in all this, and that there is something constant, something unchanging in me, too. In the stillness, I am able to approach it, make contact with it, draw strength from it. Once upon a time this was through mindfulness meditation; it still is, sometimes, but now I see it as so much broader than the confines of my own mind.
I almost envy the birds, and my darling cat, because they must live in it constantly.