Living Compassionately

Living Compassionately
An address given by Professor John Toye to the Manchester College Chapel Society in Oxford on Sunday 5 November 2006

We all know the old joke about the person who was lost somewhere in the countryside, and asked one of the locals which road he should take to get to London. After a long pause for thought, the reply came back – “Well, if I wanted to get to London, I would not start from here”. Yet it is a fact of life that, in our spiritual journeys, just as in our actual journeys, we all have to start from where we happen to find ourselves.

For Unitarians, the point of departure is the Jewish-Christian religious tradition. In this country, this is the religious and cultural inheritance of most, although by no means all of us. We cherish the wisdom of that tradition, but at the same time we recognise that it can be enriched and expanded by the teachings of prophets outside that tradition, and by the prayers and devotional practices of other great religions. We do not believe that the spirit of God has confined itself, or will confine itself, to a single, narrow channel. We acknowledge that the divine spirit is like the wind. “The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from, or where it is going”. So it is, said Jesus, “with everyone who is born from the Spirit”. The true believers of other religions, too, take this broad view. Muslims see Mohammed as one of a line of great prophets. Much in the understanding of God is common between Christianity and Islam, including the image of God as Light, an image we cherish each time we light our chalice.

In her autobiography– The Spiral Staircase – the former nun and religious writer Karen Armstrong wrote: “Like great art, the best theology tends to be universalistic. Ethnic, tribal or ideological polemic is out of place in theology, as in art. If you are bent on proving that your own tradition alone is correct, and pouring scorn on all other points of view, you are interjecting your self and egotism into your [religious] study, and the [religious] texts will remain closed [to you]. She found the idea of the presence of God in all religions was beautifully expressed by the influential twelfth century Muslim mystic and philosopher Ibn al Arabi, who said: “Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively, so that you may disbelieve all the rest. Otherwise, you will lose much good, nay, you will fail to recognise the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and the omnipotent is not confined to any one creed, for, he says, ‘wheresoever you turn, there is the face of Allah.’ Everyone praises what he believes; his god is his own creature, and in praising it, he praises himself. Consequently, he blames the beliefs of other, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.”

Unitarians uphold the universal aspirations of the Jewish-Christian tradition, but it is important to Unitarians to know that other religions also have universal aspirations. The desire on all sides is to go beyond the confines of particular creeds and forms of worship to a universal human understanding and bonding. Such an understanding must involve the things that every human being shares. We share our single planet, and all the natural beauty that it contains. We share the human life cycle – our birth, our nurture within a family group, our choosing and following a way of life, perhaps giving birth and bringing up children ourselves, perhaps looking after our own parents in their later years, then physical and mental change, decline and eventual passing away. A religious consciousness that embraces our common environment and these universal life events is our challenge and our prize.

Liberty in religion is the root of Unitarian thinking today. Ingrid Tavkar, in a Unitarian pamphlet, wrote: “When asked to define my Unitarianism, I usually answer that I believe each life experience is unique, therefore each person’s understanding of the spiritual dimension has to be unique, and ultimately we must be our own authority in matters of belief.” The liberty to worship God as the individual conscience requires implies other freedoms – the freedom of opinion, the freedom of expression, and the freedom of association. The call for religious toleration brought in its train a greater harvest of civil and political liberty, related in our time to gender equality and non-discrimination on grounds of race or sexuality. These were causes that were championed by Richard Symonds. This is a harvest that we as Unitarians must always be vigilant to cherish and defend.

Why then does the Unitarian assertion of liberty of religion not lead to a spiritual anarchy, a great confusion of understanding? It is because my very assertion of the liberty of my individual conscience shows me that I cannot trample on other people’s consciences, provided that they are true to them. It is also because the essence of God is utterly indivisible. While each of us is inspired by a spark of the divine within us, and each of these billions of individual sparks is unique, the idea of God is for everyone single, pure and integral. As we respond in our own way to the divine spark within us, we are drawn towards an ever better understanding of the single, unitary principle of God.

I would like now to say something more about Richard Symonds. Richard was a member of this congregation, whose presence with us we have much missed since his death in July 2006. Richard’s spiritual journey did not start with any religious denomination, but from a strong personal conviction of the rightness of pacifism and of opposition to imperialism. These commitments would have been anathema to Rugby School, where he was educated, and at least contentious propositions at Oxford University in the late 1930s, where he read history. Yet Richard lived out his beliefs. When the Second World War broke out, he joined the Friends’ Ambulance Service. At the onset of the London blitz, he played a pivotal role in expanding the scope of the FAS relief work in East London, including helping those bombed out people living in temporary shelters. It was this experience that recommended him, through the good offices of the Quaker Geoffrey Wilson, to the Viceroy of India, when India was readying itself for a Japanese invasion. The last days of British India were in many ways horrific. Richard arrived in time to witness the 1943 famine in Bengal in which three million Indians died, largely as a result of wartime bureaucratic bungling. Then in 1947, on the granting of Independence from Britain and the acceptance of India-Pakistan partition, he saw another million or so people die in the orgies of communal violence and bloodshed that followed the partition of Punjab. His hopes of acting as a Platonic guardian of the Indian masses went unfulfilled, although he found solace in his personal relations with Mahatma Gandhi, which he described in our second reading today.

He joined the UN, whose post-war relief efforts embodied the ideals that he cherished, and then worked with the UN’s technical assistance agencies in a range of different countries. In the late 1960s, he was appointed first Director of the new Institute of Development Studies on the campus of the University of Sussex. This was another frustrating experience for him, as he was subjected to the interference of then powerful Oxford figures, such as Tommy Balogh. He told me how glad he was to escape back to the development work of the UN, where he rose to ambassadorial rank. When, a decade later, he retired from the UN, he returned to Oxford to produce a string of fine books, including his masterpiece, Oxford and Empire. In religious terms, this was the period in which he gravitated toward Unitarianism, and joined this Chapel Society. Fortunately, nobody can be a fanatical Unitarian – and Richard definitely was not. He was inquisitive, curious, observant, amused and amusing about being at the end of his life a Unitarian. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that he felt at home with the message of learning from the best that all human communities have produced in the way of wisdom. At the same time, he remained wryly aware of how difficult we find it to put those lessons into practice on a global scale.

Tonight I expect many of you will hear this incantation “Remember, remember the Fifth of November, Gunpowder, treason and plot. That is the reason that gunpowder treason Must never be forgot.” Why this particular incident of Stuart history still requires public celebration now that we are in the twenty-first century always escapes me, and continues to do so. Its main purpose, apart from exposing the general public to burns and other injuries, seems to be to perpetuate ancient antagonisms between Anglicans and Catholics that in fact reflect all too shamefully on both parties.

Today I offer you a different thought – an alternative Unitarian incantation. “Remember, remember our friend Richard Symonds, Improving humanity’s lot. Whose life is the reason that everything decent Must never be forgot.” The other day, I was speaking to Tim Lankester, the President of Corpus Christi, which was Richard’s college, about Richard’s life and career. I said to Tim rather emphatically: “Richard was a good man to have on your team!” Tim corrected me very, very gently. He said: “Richard was a good man.” Let that be his epitaph. Amen.