Sunday, 12 September 2021

Lost in translation

from Lost in translation? James Gordon digs deep into Matthew’s Gospel:  James Gordon The Friend, 26th August:

I have checked over twenty different translations of these passages into English (easy to do these days with the internet), and in every case the words διὰ τοὺς ἐκλεκτοὺς (dia tous eklektous) are translated ‘for the sake of the [elect/chosen]’. Wycliffe has ‘for the chosen’, and the Latin Vulgate, which Catholics rely on to this day, has ‘propter electos’, where the preposition means ‘because of’. We need to be clear. Jerome (author of the Vulgate in the fourth century CE) was using the Greek that we have, which is the nearest we have to an original (scholars think Matthew and possibly Mark may go back to Aramaic originals but, if so, they are lost).


Letter to The Friend, 10th September, 2021  

Lost in translation?

In his article James Gordon (27 August) says that the Aramaic originals of the gospels are lost.

Not so lost! In fact found through the work of a Quaker scholar along with others, in ancient Syriac text; a text often used by Western Aramaic speakers.

J Rendel Harris, later to become the first director of studies at Woodbrooke, was in the habit of taking his vacations exploring for ancient documents in Egypt. He made several major discoveries at the Orthodox monastery on Mount Sinai. He advised the twin sisters, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, of the existence of many other ancient documents at the monastery and provided them with letters of introduction. During their stay at the monastery they discovered what is known as the Sinaitic Palimpsest of Saint Catherine’s Monastery, the oldest known version of the Gospels. The following year, Rendel Harris accompanied the sisters and others to Mount Sinai to painstakingly copy the retrieved texts.

Shockingly this earliest version of the Gospel of Mark – itself believed to be the oldest of the gospels – was shorter than the versions we have now, ending with the discovery of the empty grave, rather than with the resurrection and ascension.

As Rendel Harris himself put it: ‘There is no suggestion nor fragment of evidence that we might, by excavating a thousand years, unearth an ecclesiastical Christ. He, at all events, is the dream and creation of a later age.’

David Lockyer


Saturday, 4 September 2021


 I was asked the other day what Quakers believed, or, more precisely, what I believed. I realised that I was completely unable to answer this apparently simple question. I was left floundering.

I could have given a formulaic answer, something on the lines of 'being guided by the light' or 'answering to that of God in everyone' or, as I have often done, pointing to the Testimonies, but, instead I 'fessed up' – as the modern phrase puts it – and said “I don't know”. And then “I don't do belief.”

That answer came from quite deep: a knowing that I needed to be honest in response to a genuine question, but also a knowing that I feel deeply uncomfortable about claiming any form of belief. I had not until that moment formulated why that was.

I know what I experience. I know what comes to me in the silence. I know what moves me in the words of others. I know what makes me reflect and feel compassion. I know what challenges me and makes me feel uncomfortable. I know that I have blind spots and prejudices that are far clearer to others than they are, or ever will be, to me – but belief? No. I don't do that: it pretends to certainties where there are none. I think that is because it is a substitute for the hard work of not knowing, of being open, of being receptive, of discovering.

I do know that marinated in our collective silence, in attending to the words that arise, sometimes in the mouths of others, sometimes, even against my will, on occasions in my own mouth, I become more mellow and less hasty to judge; more inclined to listen and to see different sides; to be less partisan. This makes me understand why we speak of Quakers being 'seasoned', much like we season timbers before they are fit to use: Quakerism is not a slate of beliefs to be acceded to, but a process of putting aside and untangling, or even, to borrow yet again from modern parlance, of unplugging; of simply being in the presence of being; of being with others and what envelops us all.

I feel the more we name and label what we experience the more we diminish those experiences; the more we package them and put them into boxes, the safer and the less demanding they are: packed, wrapped and contained. For me this lacks integrity and authenticity: it takes us away from the raw stuff of simply being, and the honesty of not knowing.

In some ways I feel as if beliefs are like Christmas wrapping paper – tinselly and appealing, but insubstantial – when the real gifts are inside, and what you might do with what is inside.

I am on a spiritual journey, but it is no package tour – the point is the journey, not any supposed destination: is that why I do not 'do belief'?

Published in The Friend of 30 July 2021

Saturday, 16 January 2021

I am an orphan in death

 I am an orphan in death having neither grave stone, cemetery, grave yard, burial ground or even place of scattered ashes by which to remember those from whose flesh I am grown.

My mother's ashes are scattered in the sea of a beach on an island I only visited twice: once in her life and once in her death. I know not the place, and would be hard pressed to find it.

My father lies I know not where, his dying having passed some fifteen years before I even knew of it. My memory of him being only that of a child not yet five. Who the man was, I barely know, only his shadow hangs over me, half loved, half feared, and his voice coiled in anger.

As for those who share my parentage, wholly or in part, one yet lives, the others ashes are somewhere I know not fully. I know the county, and have some idea on which downland ridge they lie, but beyond that, I know not.

My cousins? I think they are no more, being much older than I, but may be they live, who knows? Of the four, two I met in life, the one twice only. Only other did I know more fully, but she was married when I was just seven. 

Perhaps we do need places where we can go and sit and be a while to remember? It is not my lot to have that, or so it would seem.

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Still a non-theist?

 I was asked the question whether I was still a non-theist?

You said, quite rightly I think, that my understanding is somewhat Taoist. Naming the nameless is to damage and limit: it is also an arrogance. Being open to the profoundness of what is - to the naked force of being - and knowing that you cannot know - that is fundamental. Imagining that we can have a transactional relationship with the totality of being is delusional: reality is remorseless. In the preciousness and precariousness of life we find the divine light. The spark that ignites the transmutation of the inert into the vital: the promethean fire that burns through us all. Minding, nurturing and guarding that light, both in ourselves and in others, is the function of religion.

So, am I still a non-theist?

Friday, 28 April 2017

Peace: A Three Piece Suite

Peace: A Three Piece Suite

The first peace, the deepest, the root from which it grows; the silence that calms and heals; the point of is-ness when there is no I, no me, no not me, no knowing, no not-knowing, no you, no not-you, no us, no not us – just pure being and the ground-of-being – the rest point of being in the moment – at one with the in-breath, the drawing-in of all that there is and all we are part of – open and accepting to whatever comes. At one with the out-breath, circulating fully and giving out all that we are. Being without attachment or aversion as the Buddhists say. Knowing that the attachments and aversions are what distorts and blinds.

The second being at peace with those around you. Being at peace with the small things of life; a peace that begets patience and concern; a ministry of presence for others, wholeheartedly witnessing their being, no matter how small the transaction, no matter how small the moment. Others are not simply instruments to our well-being - they are not background music to our songs - it is together that we are the choir of life. We are each and all witness to each other; we are each and all ministers one to another. It is of the small things of life that the world is woven.

The third piece is that world peace; that of governments and societies; that of renouncing violence as a means, as a political weapon, of not letting war be, as Clausewitz remarked, “… a continuation of politics by other means”. It is not the continuation of politics - it is the failure of politics, in fact, the greatest of all its failures.

Having recently visited a country that has been at peace for two-hundred years, that has not killed or harmed even so much as one person in its name, I cannot but feel shame to come from a country that has not even managed a decade in those two hundred years when it has not killed and maimed, has not wrought violence and havoc, has not devastated lives in its name.
This is the three piece suite of peace - and one on which we could all sit comfortably if we choose.

[Published in the Friend of 24 February 2017]

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The soldier as hero is an icon which we should fear.

Reflections on the changing symbolism of the red poppy.

Support our Heroes” the poster emblazoned with the poppy logo declared. On it, a photo of a gun-carrying soldier in battle fatigues striding manfully. How different, I reflected, to those earlier Remembrance Day parades that I recall, at which those who really had cause to remember collected in the cold and damp of dull November mornings to truly spend the silence remembering: those they had known; the horrors they had seen; the deaths too immediate and violent to bear: the tortured wounds of those who only half survived. For them remembrance was real. They knew war as a place of remorseless carnage that made no distinction between the brave and the rest.

When the wreaths were laid they were laid in grief, grief for all those sons and lovers destroyed, for the fathers that never came home, for the comrades and friends who suffered and died. It was the mourning for the dead: it was the knowing of the darkness of war.

But now those who truly remember are fewer each year and in place of remembrance I see a pageant emerging. A ritual performance invoking a pride in the warriors of now and of then, in their deeds of destruction and death, and I am worried that we are blinding ourselves to the tragedy of war and to the truth of it as the worst of human failures.

The soldier as hero is an icon which we should fear.

I wrote this on Armistice day 2013. The shift in meaning has continued since then, shifting from collective grief and remembrance towards celebration and lionisation; associating the current military and its operations with the sacrifices and losses of the past; encouraging the viewing of the military as heroes regardless of where they are deployed, or for what purposes. A subtle nudging of our critical faculties: to question what they are doing is to question their heroism - they are risking their lives for Britain – ask no more, question no more, think no more. Framing the military as 'heroes” stops us thinking beyond the label.

I fear we heard much the same when any dared question the use of our military to coerce recalcitrant populations throughout the length and breadth of our once extensive empire. “Our brave soldiers” defending Britain by wreaking havoc and violence on the reluctant subjects of empire were portrayed as heroes, defending Britain and its honour.

The death of two British service personnel in Afghanistan announced today, Monday the 12th of October, reveals that we still have some 500 military personnel engaged there. We have also learned that, in spite of parliament ruling out the deployment of British forces in Syria, we have RAF personnel flying missions there by being 'embedded' with other forces. We also learn of British drone strikes – some 200 so far this year according to Drone Wars UK – in Iraq and Syria. [Can we regard drone strike operators as heroes, or do we view them as office workers with unusual jobs?]. Are we witnessing the normalisation of war? Making it just part of the routine operation of government and no more exceptional than the collecting of rubbish.

I worry about the effect on the young of this shift in meaning from the collective expression of grief and loss to lionising. Forces Watch are concerned about the “embedding of military values in civilian society” and I think the shift in the symbolism of the poppies reflects this process. A process that means that war dead are no longer viewed as victims of war but as heroes, as icons of manliness, as those who sacrificed their lives; but those who served in the two world wars knew there was little heroism involved but masses of suffering – you did your bit and prayed to survive.

Last week [Thursday 8th October 2015] it is reported by The Independent on their i100 website that Mr Evans, a survivor of one of the worst battles in Normandy in 1944, where 70% casualties were sustained, has, according to the organiser from the local Loyal British Legion, “offended many people” and that “most people were horrified” when he read his anti-war poem at last year's Remembrance Day Service, and so this year he will be banned from reading it or any similar digression from their agreed script. His poem Lessons read:

I remember my friends and my enemies too
We all did our duties for our countries
We all obeyed our orders
Then we murdered each other
Isn't war stupid?

Mr Evans is reported as saying: "I still don't know who I offended, or what I said to offend them. I have no intention of upsetting anybody. I'm a pacifist - and pacifism isn't supposed to upset people."

The young need to hear Mr Evan's words and need to see through the hero images if we are to really honour those that died.

And when we are encouraged to stand in silence at eleven o'clock on the eleventh, we should also remember those millions who died at the hands of our military in so many parts of the world, for only when we have that real honesty about what our “heroes” have done can we say that we have truly learned from their deaths.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Escatalogical faiths versus karmic faiths

The monotheistic faiths offer a static view of the human's position in life. The task is to avoid becoming tarnished with sin. We starts pure[ish] - original sin aside - and, only if we proceeds blamelessly throughout life will we have succeeded. We must preserve the innocence of childhood in our minds and lives. The development of all adult characteristics is a deterioration from this paradigm state. As of necessity we will become defiled by developing into adulthood we must throw ourselves upon the mercy or grace of the deity as our only hope of not suffering eternal punishment.

Buddhism and Taoism by contrast are developmental. One grows with experience. One learns the path and trains the inner and outer being, honing them to greater degrees of perfection. We are all Buddhas becoming, if not in this life, then in the next. We are seekers after enlightenment, both separately and collectively. For the Taoist it is the white haired sage who is the epitome of attainment. He has shaped and honed his being until, being totally at one with the Tao, he becomes an immortal.