An Exploration of Meaning and Purpose in our Lives
Over 60 participants attended QUG’s annual conference at Woodbrooke. Five speakers addressed the theme of meaning and purpose from different angles.
Tony Philpott, known to many of us from his book From Christian to Quaker, a spiritual journey from evangelical Christian to universalist Quaker, spoke on Friday evening. Meaning itself is a word full of difficulties and nuances, often implying something hidden which has to be sought. He quoted four definitions from Chambers Dictionary and asked us to consider where we stood in relation to six polarities including that of ‘having one world view’ to ‘accepting the multiplicity’ of the universalist position and the dimension of ‘a grand meaning’ to ‘no grand meaning’. Tony’s own journey moved from his time as an evangelical entirely sure of his God and belief in eternal life – a grand meaning – to his present position in which he draws meaning from the richness of all experience, love and companionship, music and nature. He also told us something of the religions he had met on the way. Confucianism, for example, finds meaning in community with the emphasis on relationships and duty, while the Tao promotes the idea of living in harmony with the natural world.
Saturday brought us three speakers, the first a Sufi. Justine Huxley spoke without a script, from the heart, and recounted something of her own history. Story and meaning are intertwined and hers was told from a Sufi perspective. Although brought up by non-believers she was always searching. Having no baggage she sampled a variety of religions but in India she had a religious experience at a Sufi shrine and within a few months converted to Islamic Sufism in Istanbul. Two years later she met another teacher and exchanged Islamic Sufism for Universalist Sufism. For her, Sufism has two strands which give her life meaning. The first is the practice of silence – she belongs to the ‘silent Sufis’ – and in the silence undertakes an inner journey to ‘truth’ which is a realm beyond the limitations of the ego. The second strand is service. Justine works for St.Ethelberga’s, a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in London. We face huge challenges and ecological crises. We need a new global story which recognises the interconnectedness of all things and the sacredness of the earth. Daily Life is sufficient
The next speaker, Udayan Chakrabarti, is a Buddhist and a psychiatrist. Once again the importance of story was emphasised. All religions use stories and myths and these are retained because they serve humanity. Udayan told us how he had wanted to be a Zen monk and go on retreat but his teacher pointed out that he was married with small children. That was where his practice should be based. Working with the little things can enable us to cut the stream of thought. Although it is dangerous to be entrenched in any one tradition and all paths can lead up the mountain it is nevertheless important to find a suitable path and be part of a group or have a teacher. The Buddhist practice of Mindfulness is currently popular in therapeutic circles. However, he felt that this often omits the necessary element of humility. The student should bow to his guru or to the divine. Service is also important. A good Buddhist forgets he is a Buddhist in the service of humanity. Christian qualities are more important than Christian dogma. The core message is love.
Michael Wright, our third speaker, is a Quaker and currently chair of the Nontheist Friends Network. He said that the concepts of meaning and purpose were not ones on which he spent much time and he did not have a destiny to fulfil. He, too, told us something of his own religious journey from a non-religious, but socially committed, family to the Anglican Church in which he served for many years as a priest. Despite the religious experiences of his early days, his understanding of God changed and he came to view religion as a purely human construct. We now have natural explanations of the things that religions used to explain. He warms to the teaching of Jesus but sees the Bible as myth not history. He no longer accepts the personal God of his earlier days and although he would not wish to interfere with the faith of those people who need to feel they talk to God this is no longer so for him. He does however practise an awareness of awe, concerns, thankfulness and self- examination (ACTS) which provides the basis for his pastoral care and service to others. Community is important. There is no divine purpose but compassionate living is all important for a fulfilling life.
The speakers gave us much food for thought to take to our base groups.
On Sunday morning our final speaker, Eleanor Nesbit, an academic from the field of religious studies and education, had the task of telling us about Hinduism and Sikhism while also drawing together the varied strands of the earlier talks. Reality is One Eleanor Nesbit resisted the idea of an absence of meaning and looked into the linguistic aspects of the word. One of the ‘meanings of meaning’ is what I want my life to say. Think, for example, of translating the verb to mean into French – vouloir dire – to wish to say. The Hindu tradition equates meaning with the goals of life, passing through desire, material wellbeing and righteousness to eventual liberation. The Sikh religion emphasises the importance of balance, the worldly and the spiritual, the saint and the warrior. Common elements for all speakers were the importance of community and/or having a teacher, the importance of story (as a guide, not as a straightjacket), the importance of compassion which leads to service for others and the importance of ordinary living.. Pilgrimage is a frequent theme in many religions. Guru Nanak suggested that the pilgrimage is within (and earlier, Justine had also referred to the inner journey). Eleanor noted that in times gone by the earth could be taken for granted but today we must consider our current environmental crisis. What do religions imply about the Earth and how we should treat it? Does it matter who turned the light on?
For many members, the QUG conference is one of the highlights of the year and 2015 was both well attended and inspirational. Our thanks go to the organisers and to Woodbrooke for the range of material and smooth running of events. Windows were opened for us on many religions showing colourful differences but similar themes nevertheless surfacing time and again. This was not just as an academic exercise but a picture of how people try to live their lives. In final ministry one of the participants said: Does it matter who turned the Light on? We see things from our own angle but we respect the perspectives of others.