Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Credulity, superstition and fanaticism

Watching Jon Ronson's documentary on Channel 4 last Sunday I was reminded of an old-chestnut Unitarian Universalist joke:
At one Sunday morning service, in one of the big Unitarian churches in Boston, a man was making a rukus in the back pew. After every sentence the minister spoke he would say “Amen! Halleluia”. The minister replied, “look, this is not the Baptist Church of America. There will be time for discussion and reflection over coffee after the service”. The man protested, “but I got religion”! The minister replied, “you certainly didn’t get it here”!

I would say that as a depiction of the Alpha course, (which I experienced on route to becoming a Unitarian) it was fairly accurate. You might say I should have had some idea of what to expect, but the first time I experienced people "speaking-in-toungues" and attempting healing though the laying on of hands, it was something of a shock to the system. It is all there in The Acts of the Apostles, (should you care to look it up) but as a minister up in Manchester later pointed out, there is nothing to say that they were not speaking human languages. Of course healing ministry also goes on at Rosslyn Hill. However, it is not part of the service, and it is qualitatively different from the kind of thing done by "charismatics".

In many ways I concur with the author of this article in New Humanist, when he says Alpha is really for people who want to consolidate their existing convictions, rather than an avenue for agnostics to objectively, "explore the meaning of life".

It is interesting to consider how of the 2 million people in the UK who have tried an Alpha course a significant proportion must have made the tough and unsettling decision to walk out after deciding it was not for them. It is also interesting that my Quaker friends have adopted a remarkably "Alpha-esque" outreach course called Quaker Quest. I have heard of people floating the idea of a Unitarian outreach course (provocatively named the Omega course). This might be worth considering, given that it has been suggested new members of the Chapel be offered some kind of induction procedure. I would sign up to help run it, as long as we could use Goldfrapp's Happiness as the theme tune!
Find happiness and peace of mind! Scott

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Shocking the Victorians

A group from Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel recently visited Tate Britain to take a tour of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings on display. The Chapel has a link with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood because two of its stained glass windows were designed by the Burne-Jones/Morris partnership. The values of the PRB and the Arts & Crafts movement was also similar to those of the Unitarians at the time and the Gothic Victorian style of the Chapel, which is unusual for Unitarian buildings, reflects the move from neo Classical architecture to Gothic during Victorian times.

These days, images of Pre-Raphaelite paintings are ubiquitous on greetings cards, dinner mats and cushions so it's difficult to imagine just how shocking the original paintings were when they first appeared. During the tour we discussed the image of the Virgin Mary in Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti which shows a frightened girl cowering at the sight of the angel Gabriel thrusting a lilly at her womb. The dramatic realism of Millais' huge painting Christ in the House of his Parents
was shocking to Victorian sensibilities as the holy family is dipicted as ordinary people with working hands and ruddy complexions. Charles Dickens was horrified by this painting and the scene that was usually portrayed in a reverent and glorious manner. There's also an interesting article in the Telegraph discussing subject.

The paintings of the PRB are full of signs and symbols and you can find something new with each visit. Minister Jim and arts graduate Maya, guided the group through a series of paintings from the PRB with religious themes. We discussed as a group the choice of models, the difference made by the use of dramatic lighting and positioning as well as sharing our spiritual feelings about the paintings.

This visit was timely, since the BBC is showing a series on The Pre-Raphaelites which can be viewed via iPlayer or on TV. Also, the work of later Pre-Raphaelite artist, John William Waterhouse, will be exhibited at the Royal Academy from 27 June. Posted by Kate.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Glad to be a Darwinian!

The term "Darwinian" has become somewhat loaded and the latest spin on it comes courtesy of the TV show "Sex and the City"....
Miranda: Y'see, this is why I don't date -- the men out there are freaks.
Carrie: Well that's completely unfair.
Miranda: I'm sorry, if a man is over 30 and single, there's something wrong with him, it's Darwinian -- they're being weeded out from propagating the species.
The message I came home from the "Evolution, Religion and Politics" seminar was that it is time for Darwin to be reclaimed. Primarily, RHUC's own David Williams discussed how the theory of evolution through natural selection has changed our concept of how we view the world and our place in it. Whilst the religious right can feel theatened by seeing man as the product of a process of adaptation, occupying a seemingly insignificant place in the cosmos, religious liberals can argue this knowledge enobles mankind and life on earth. Secondly, Pejman Khojasteh discussed his paper of how religions themselves can be analysed as part of an evolutionary process, since by encouraging and disseminating moral sentiments they give mankind a "survival advantage". Finally, Unitarian minister Richard Boeke (a former airforce chaplin to the custodians of nuclear weapons) discussed how when faced with global warming, we should not be complacent about the possibility of our own species' extinction.
I have heard some people describe Richard Dawkins as a "secular fundamentalist". However, on the whole I think his defence of the science of evolution against "intelligent design" theorists is sound. Since our denomination has never shied away from siding with reason against credulity I think his arguments are at least worth hearing out. Instead of Richard Dawkins, I think the people who could most be accused of abusing Darwin are the advocates of untrammelled individualism. There is a popular misconception that the phrase "survival of the fittest" is an apology for everything from Nazi Eugenics to its more benign form in the antics of "Sex and the City". In fact Darwin's point is best expressed as, "survivial of the most well adapted" and refers more to the species as a whole than any individual. As such, if it is found that religious experience and spiritual sentiments have an explanation in evolutionary biology, Unitarians should be the first to celebrate that finding. Rather than "explaining away" what we do, it might underpin its value and enoble it.
Posted by Scott

Friday, 5 June 2009

Fashion and Faith

The other day, I bumped into someone wearing the same scarf as me. One woman’s pretty pashmina scarf is another’s pretty hijab headscarf…

‘Fashion and Faith’ was a debate held at the V&A Museum recently. It brought together a panel that included academic experts in religious costume, a legal spokesman from Liberty (the organisation, not the department store!) and a fashion columnist. The panel showed us many new design collections that show modest Islamic clothing with a modern twist from Islamic Design House and Imaan. Fashion designer Elenany was in the audience, modelling her own funky jacket, and she spoke about the way Islamic influences resulted in a clothing range that can be worn by anyone.

Although the debate about how people display symbols of faith tended to focus on Muslims, there were also examples of other faiths such as
Nadia Eweida, the British Airways worker who was banned from displaying her crucifix publically. Conforming to religious dress may not be immediately apparent; some Jewish women choose not to wear trousers but walking down the street in skirt, you may not know that she was practising her faith in this way.

The fashion columnist spoke about ‘the new modesty’, a trend in fashion that links to a more puritan spirit of dress and lifestyle as a backlash to the luxury designer-bling of recent years. This simplicity in fashion also mirrors the austere vibe ushered in by the current recession.
There are of course risks in mixing faith with fashion. One panellist admitted to wearing a rosary purely as a fashion necklace and being caught out by a Hollywood star who congratulated her on having the courage to display her Catholic faith publically! The general consensus of the panel appeared to be that religious dress should be a matter of choice and people should be allowed to express their faith appropriately if they wished but shouldn’t be forced to do so.