Howard Grace
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18 October, 2016

This article was first published in 'the Friend', the UK National Quaker magazine, the ‘Quaker Week’ issue 30 September 2016.

Howard Grace 2004
Many people have had experiences which transform their lives. Some are stirred to action by seeing the plight of people in need. Others are inspired by music, or maybe by a walk in the beauty of nature. Those of a religious persuasion usually link the inspiration or transformation to their belief. But what is actually causing the change? For those of religious persuasion is it the God that they come to believe in, or is it the transforming power of ‘belief’ that makes the impact?

For decades I have worked with Initiatives of Change, a fellowship with many similarities to Quakers. The founder was Frank Buchman, a Christian minister whose life was transformed by a vision of Jesus on the cross. The self-centred aspect of his pride was summed up by the words of a hymn. 'When I survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride.'

This set him on a journey that, like George Fox, has made a big impact on the wider world, and one which was rooted in personal change. Frank Buchman was clearly motivated by his Christian beliefs. But some who gave their lives to work with the organisation he inspired were from other religions or, in my case initially, were antagonistic towards any religion.

A Christian might say that if a person’s life is transformed while remaining a nonbeliever that is God at work anyway; but is there a different reality operating here? Paul Tillich wrote about, ‘The God who lives beyond the Gods of men and women.’ Some, because of misunderstandings and misuses in the past, will not want to use the word ‘God’ for this ‘reality within and beyond’.

Last year I was one of 70 people from a wide variety of backgrounds and faiths who met in Newbury to compare notes on Personal Transformation.

To set the scene for our discussions one initial speaker was Jo Berry whose father Sir Antony Berry MP was killed when the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton 30 years ago. Jo shared with us that an inner shift in her was required to hear the story and understand the motivations of Pat Magee, the IRA man who planted the bomb. This led to her letting go of the need to blame. It was a journey unrelated to religion. She felt that on a deeper level this was an inner struggle that was common for all human beings. Jo and Pat now work together as peacemakers.

Their story is one of over 100 such experiences recounted by The Forgiveness Project on their website. I asked the founder of this Project, Marina Cantacuzino, how many of the people included in these stories were motivated by a religious faith. She looked into this and concluded that it was about 50 per cent, though the vast majority claimed to follow a spiritual path.

When hearts are touched and lives are changed in this way a distinction clearly needs to be made between describing it as a religious or as a spiritual experience. For some a belief in God is pivotal. But it can be counterproductive to imply that deep change is inevitably tied to religious belief. Had Jo Berry and Pat Magee been told that what was needed depended on acceptance of belief in God they would not have got to square one. Their transforming journey has come about primarily because they ‘lived into’ each other’s narratives. The key for Jo was the realisation that no matter which side of the conflict we’re on, had we lived each other’s lives, we might all have done what the other did.

As a relatively new Quaker what attracts me is the spiritual quest, beyond religion, emerging from silence, which allows our hearts to focus on both a personal and a global transformation.

Howard Grace is one of the founders of the West Berkshire Peace and Integration Forum. Howard works with IofC and has conducted workshops in hundreds of Sixth Forms around the UK. He is also executive producer of the film Beyond Forgiving.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.

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