Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Evolutionary Quakers

The Quaker way has changed profoundly over the last five decades. The liberal Quakerism that was developed by figures such as John Wilhelm Rowntree and Rufus Jones at the turn of the 20th Century was an explicitly Christian church, sharing much in common with other liberal Protestant denominations. By the beginning of the 21st Century, it had become something quite different - pluralist and hyper-diverse in belief, with explicit Christian language relegated to heavily-edited and frequently bowdlerised quotations from a small number of historic Quaker texts.

The large-scale movement of liberal Quakers away from an exclusively Christian worldview to embrace a wide diversity of spiritual and secular approaches is an accomplished fact, which has unfolded steadily over the last half century. It is easy to overlook the extent of this change by pointing to continuities in practice and organisation. But the meaning and lived experience of Quaker practices is hugely different according to the stories and images through which they are understood and interpreted. Quaker worship that is conceived as a space to recharge our spiritual batteries, to reflect on our values and to look for something good in everyone (as just one possible interpretation) is a very different practice to the outwardly identical behaviour that is understood as an act of surrender and devotion to a personal God, who is known through the judgements and leadings of the inward voice of Christ.

The steady migration of liberal Quakers away from the Christian story is usually interpreted in one of two ways. It is most often portrayed as a kind of progress - the outgrowing of a restrictive or limiting inheritance, and a development into a larger, freer and more inclusive outlook. Alternatively, some Quakers have criticised the growing secularisation and pluralism of liberal Quakers as leading to a more superficial, individualised ‘supermarket of ideas’ rather than a shared and transformative religious faith.

Is it possible to understand the transformation of the Quaker tradition other than through the concepts of ‘progress’ and ‘decline’?

All change involves loss. In this case, the loss of a shared culture; a common set of stories, images and a language for sharing our spiritual experiences. This has large consequences, because the stories and images that we use to interpret the world have a profound influence on the way that we experience and act in it. As our individual stories and images diverge, inevitably our experiences tend to have less in common as well, which contributes to a lack of mutual comprehension and erosion of the community’s ability to nourish and challenge its members through shared understandings of core Quaker practices.

At the same time, the expansion of the stories and symbolism in use by the Quaker community has been a significant benefit to many people, perhaps especially those for whom the Christian story, language and symbolism is impossible to accept, but who have found life-giving images and ideas in other traditions. Over recent decades our culture has experienced the explosion of monolithic narratives and the erosion of institutional claims to exclusive truth or virtue, helped along by continuing exposure of abuses of power by Church institutions of all kinds. As a result, the language and imagery of the Christian story has become toxic for large numbers of people. Many of those for whom Christian language has no resonance or positive associations at all have found the Quaker way to offer a path of spiritual nourishment, challenge and transformation, which would have been closed to them if it were still an exclusively Christian movement. In this context, it is futile to argue that the language of the Bible has an exclusive claim to validity and should be the sole authoritative resource for all Quakers.

Perhaps an alternative understanding of this transformation of the Quaker way, which avoids interpreting it as simply ‘progress’ or ‘decline’ might see it as an example of cultural evolution. In exactly the same way that other cultural forms, such as language or music, change and diversify over time, religious traditions are constantly being transformed, generating new meanings and frequently branching into different sects or denominations.

It is unfortunately common to misunderstand the concept of evolution as a kind of progress. In biology, evolution does not progress towards any goal, and does not aim at any overall improvement or superiority of one species over another. Natural selection simply works towards the best possible adaptation of organisms to their current environment (which includes the other organisms that inhabit it). It does not inevitably tend towards producing anything higher or better; instead, there is a constant and aimless drifting of genetic information, as species are gradually transformed in response to the random pressures of their environment.

By a very similar process, cultural forms are also subject to evolutionary pressures and are transformed in similar ways. All contemporary languages have evolved from a much smaller number of historical ancestors. They are all being transformed through random processes, such as drifts in the meanings and pronunciation of words, as well as the creation of new languages among isolated groups of language users (by the same process that creates new species of organisms).

Just as it would be ridiculous to claim that English is ‘superior’ to German, or that Afrikaans is ‘more advanced’ than Dutch, just because they have evolved from common ancestor-languages, it is equally false to see any kind of evolutionary change as evidence of progress. The misleading expression ‘more evolved’, which is often used to suggest superiority, is actually quite meaningless.

With this caveat, it might be possible to see the changes in the Quaker way as a normal example of cultural evolution, by which a religious tradition is continuously adapting to the evolutionary pressures of its social environment, including the needs and motivations of the people who make up the Quaker community at a given time. Contemporary liberal Quakerism has changed and diversified in modern times, in response to the growing secularism and pluralism of its cultural environment. At the same time, it has diverged from other branches of the Quaker family, with which it shares a fairly recent common ancestry, as well other branches of the Christian church, from which it started to diverge in the mid-17th Century.

This evolutionary change towards a pluralist and post-Christian movement is not straightforwardly better or worse. It has certainly been a useful adaptation for enabling many people to find a home in a spiritually welcoming community, while at the same time producing a loss of shared religious experience and language. But the only real test for any cultural form or species subject to natural selection is how well it fits its environment, which determines its ability to survive and reproduce itself.

In the biological world, the preferences and satisfaction of individual organisms are irrelevant to the survival of the species. In cultural evolution, the needs of human beings are part of the environment that shapes the survival and transmission of cultural forms such as religious traditions. In this sense, the environment of the Quaker way includes all of the current social, cultural and economic factors that affect it, and the preferences and assumptions that the culture tends to produce in current and potential Friends. But the ‘environment’ also includes the enduring and deep-seated needs of the human beings that the tradition needs to retain and attract in order to reproduce itself.

If, as seems undeniable, the current form of the Quaker way is on a gradual but steady path towards extinction through failure to renew its numbers, perhaps this is evidence of a lack of ‘fit’ with the underlying reality of human beings’ need and desire for profound experiences of spiritual reality. In this case, perhaps the path towards renewal is not by returning to the cultural forms that were well-adapted to the society and culture of a previous Christian culture. Neither is it necessarily to be even more conformed to contemporary culture, if that means failing to meet the deep and compelling spiritual needs that are ignored or denied by a purely secular society. Instead, the renewal of the Quaker way may depend on a new ‘mutation’ in its language, imagery and concepts, that enables it to answer the deepest human needs in a way that fits their experience and the reality of our society, now and in the future.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Wrestling with the Angel

“Isn’t it the greatest possible disaster, when you are wrestling with God, not to be beaten?”
(Simone Weil)

In the mysterious Biblical story, Jacob is alone one night during a journey, when ‘a man’ appears and wrestles with him until dawn. When Jacob refuses to let him go, the stranger dislocates Jacob’s hip, but also gives him a blessing and a new name; ‘Israel’, which means ‘struggles with God’ (Genesis 32:22-32).

This story is an image of the struggle with God that is central to the Quaker way, although it is often absent from modern descriptions of Quaker experience. Early Quakers recorded that their initial encounter with the Inward Guide was often conflictual - the Light revealed aspects of themselves that they would rather not see, and urged them in directions they would rather avoid. As the leadings of the Inward Guide were resisted, the struggle would intensify, sometimes leading to severe physical illness or emotional crisis. Perhaps this kind of experience is so often glossed over today because modern Friends are understandably suspicious of anything that suggests coercion or threat in religion. The Biblical stories that portray God as threatening and punishing are usually rejected as outdated and unhelpful. But there is nevertheless an important reality of ‘struggling with God’ that takes place in our own experience, for many of us who have encountered the reality of the Inward Guide, but who have resisted what it has tried to show us and how it has tried to lead us.

This resistance can take many forms. We usually want to defend a favourable view of ourselves, and to ignore any inklings of our self-interested motives, resentments or narcissism. We are often reluctant to embrace nudges of the Spirit that suggest we might be led to disturb our habitual comforts in some way, by reaching out to unfamiliar people, or making some change in our daily life that involves risk or inconvenience. This kind of spiritual sluggishness or inertia is common to almost all of us, and perhaps acts as a necessary ballast to avoid being swept away by temporary enthusiasms. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to stay stuck in the defensive posture that insists on digging in, refusing to hear what the Spirit has to say to us, or to follow where it leads. All too often, the result is a life that goes nowhere, that continually circles around its collection of small concerns, and never breaks out of the track of narrow, habitual self-interest. It is perfectly possible to pass a whole lifetime in this way, in which the call of the Inward Guide is smothered so insistently that life withers away, and one becomes haunted by vague regrets and anxieties, crowded around by the insistent threat of meaninglessness.

For some of us, the rejection of the Light is more deliberate. The dark impulses of addiction and compulsion, even when we recognise them and know them to be destructive, can draw us towards choices that are deliberately damaging - self harming through over-eating, alcohol, drugs or dangerous behaviour. The deliberate impulse to self-destruction will be familiar to everyone who has struggled with addiction or despair. It is the urge to escape the agonising tensions, regrets, humiliations of life, by extinguishing feeling and responsibility. We can choose to fight against the Light, tearing at ourselves and wounding those around us in our furious rejection of inward life.

The experiences of early Quakers, like the story of Jacob, suggest that the struggle with God does not have to end like this. For some of us, the greatest blessing we ever receive might be a painful dislocation, when our life is interrupted by a suffering, failure or humiliation that knocks us out of our habitual self-justification and distractions. We might find that none of our goals are any longer worthwhile, that our cherished opinions or attitudes were meaningless posturing, and that we no longer know what to do or who to be. We have been brought to the point of surrender to the inward springs of life that were struggling to be born within us. Now we can receive a new name, a new identity and purpose for our life, because we have ‘struggled with God’ and thankfully, blessedly, we have been defeated.

How have you 'struggled with God'? and have you received a gift or blessing?

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The Way of a Ship in the Sea

The Quaker movement grew out of the chaos and confusion of the English civil war. During the 1640s, a rigidly ordered and tightly controlled society broke down under the pressure of war. The strict system of censorship and religious conformity collapsed and society splintered into a multitude of competing sects and opinions on political and religious questions.

Some of these dissidents from the established Church broke away to form groups of ‘Seekers’ who met in each others’ homes in expectant, silent gatherings, waiting for a new revelation of God’s purposes for them and their society. These were people living in a ‘world turned upside down’ by war, social and religious confusion, and political revolution. All stable and unquestioned beliefs and assumptions, from the authority of the King and Church to the roles of women and common people, had been thrown up in the air, and were landing in every possible direction.

Early Quaker leaders such as George Fox had been deeply shaken by this experience of moral and spiritual chaos. What they discovered, and what transformed the scattered groups of Seekers into the first Quaker communities, was that there was no set of beliefs, adopted on the basis of external authority, that could provide authentic meaning, purpose and direction. They discovered for themselves a source of inward guidance that they identified as the same inner Spirit of Truth that had been in Christ and the Biblical prophets. These original Quakers found that their Teacher was within, and could be encountered directly through the practice of gathered, attentive stillness that became the basis of Quaker worship.

While the western religious tradition for over a thousand years had focused on correct belief as the path to right relationship with God, these early Quaker communities discovered that beliefs were not the answer - not even a belief in the ‘Inward Teacher’. Instead, it was only the direct experience of this Inward Guide that could help them, and the way to this experience of divine encounter was not by new beliefs or opinions but a new practice, a way of worship they called ‘waiting in the Light’.

In our own times, many people are responding to the disorientating experience of radical insecurity and the absence of shared cultural stories by looking to external sources of authority. The renewed appeal of authoritarian political leaders, fundamentalist religion and dogmatic ideology grows out of legitimate unmet needs for belonging, meaning and purpose.

The Quaker way offers an alternative path of collective practices for encountering an inward source of guidance and meaning. This way of Quaker practice does not provide ‘answers’ to life’s problems and dilemmas in the form of statements of belief or reliance on authority. Sustained participation in Quaker practices of worship, discernment and testimony gradually shapes our experience so that we become able to perceive aspects of ourselves and the world that were formerly hidden from us. Instead of spurious formulas for evading the human condition of insecurity and uncertainty, the Quaker way offers a gradual process of letting go of masks, a growing recognition of of the reality of oneself and others.

Some Friends, through the maturity of long experience, have been able to let go of any need to defend an illusory identity, to pretend, to please or impress anyone. Through their years of practice, they have become familiar with their own darkness and with the seeds of life and human sympathy within themselves, and deeply perceptive of the presence and activity of those seeds in others.

This is not a learned conformity to a pattern of predictable ‘Quakerliness’. It is the cultivation of habits, choices and capacities that enables each of us to grow into an inner maturity, and to realise our own path in life, as a unique personality that does not need to model itself according to any outward convention.

From the earliest days of the Quaker movement, Friends aimed to avoid setting up outward standards of conformity. They wanted to encourage the freedom of future generations to discover the reality of the Inward Guide for themselves, through their own experience of Quaker practice. They wrote of their intention “that no footsteps may be left for those that shall come after, or to walk by example, but that all may be directed and left to the truth, in it to live and walk, and by it to be guided… that our path may be as the way of a ship in the sea, which no deceit can follow or imitate.” (Friends met together at Durham, 1659)

Have you experienced the presence of the 'Inward Guide' in your life? What practices help you to become more perceptive and response to the inward 'promptings of love and truth'?

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Faith in Politics?

This year's Swarthmore Lecturer was Catherine West - a Labour MP and a former leader of Islington Council. With Islington councillor Andy Hull, she has written ‘Faith in Politics?’ as “a call to action, to encourage us as Quakers to own the challenge of inequality, offering civic leadership in all our communities.”

The book is largely a description of the policies she introduced to reduce social and economic inequality in Islington. It also includes examples of some community-led initiatives to address economic inequality, such as the Quaker project ‘Abolish Empty Office Buildings’ in Bristol and the Quaker Living Wage Campaign. Catherine also gives some recommendations for national government policies to reduce inequality in the areas of work, housing, debt, child services and public safety. Many of these recommendations involve returning more powers to local authorities, such as enabling Councils to borrow money for housebuilding.

One of the key initiatives adopted by Islington Council under Catherine’s leadership was the appointment of the UK’s first Fairness Commission, which consulted widely with the local community to shape Islington’s strategy for reducing inequality. This approach has since inspired many other fairness commissions across the UK. The commission’s first recommendation was to tackle income inequality by encouraging local employers to pay the ‘real’ Living Wage. This is a minimum rate of pay calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, based on the actual cost of living (currently £8.75 per hour or £10.20 in London), which is significantly higher than the statutory so-called ‘National Living Wage’. Islington Council was able to use its considerable financial and political influence to make striking advances towards this goal, including requiring Council contractors and grant recipients to pay all of their staff the Living Wage.

Catherine describes her controversial decision to fund a pay increase for Council cleaners by cutting the salary of the Council chief executive role by £50,000 (to a mere £160,000), as an example of the need to “level down” top rates of pay as well as “levelling up” the lowest. She also cites several Quaker organisations as particularly good examples of more equal pay differentials (the ratio of lowest to highest paid employees within an organisation). Friends House has a pay differential of 1:4 and Woodbrooke’s is 1:3, compared to the Co-operative Group at 1:47.

Catherine’s commitment and dedication to improving the lives of people in disadvantaged communities is very evident throughout this book. For anyone who is tempted to dismiss all politicians as self-interested or indifferent to ordinary people, this is a welcome reminder that all MPs are very far from the same.

While the book is rich in the concrete detail of practical initiatives for reducing inequality, it has much less to offer readers who are looking for reflection on alternative economic models or the spiritual roots of Quaker testimony. Given that many Friends are exploring more radical economic ideas such as a Citizen’s Income, land taxation or a steady-state economy, some may be disappointed by Catherine’s relatively mainstream economic thinking.

In fairness, it is not Catherine’s intention to offer a radical critique of capitalism or economic growth. She is an unashamedly pragmatic politician, who aims at achievable goals through gradual improvements and the art of compromise. She offers a tongue-in-cheek illustration of her approach in the form of a chant, “What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? In due course!”

For me, a more significant absence is the relative lack of reflection on the nature of our testimony to equality, especially given the book’s subtitle ("A testimony to equality"). Catherine describes her motivation to advance the cause of equality as “both a political imperative and a spiritual vocation” and cites the “Quaker belief” in “that of God in everyone” as meaning that “every life is equal and holy”. Beyond this, there is very little discussion of the spiritual significance of economic inequality for Quakers, and how we might be led as a community to respond to it.

It may seem self-evident that Quakers will consider economic inequality a bad thing, and be motivated to oppose it based on our testimony to equality. Throughout most of our history, however, it has been far from obvious to most Quakers that economic inequality is a problem in itself. Most of the Quaker practices that are usually lumped together under the “testimony of equality”, such as the rejection of flattering forms of speech, refusal to doff hats to social “superiors”, opposition to slavery, prison reform and support for refugees, have had little to do with economic inequality. They were primarily challenges to laws and conventions that gave some social groups greater status and significance than others.

Recognition of the harmful consequences of economic inequality is a relatively recent development among Quakers, who have in the past concentrated far more on the philanthropic relief of poverty than challenging excessive concentrations of wealth. The “testimony of equality” does not provide a reason for this new sensitivity, because all of the testimonies are just handy labels for a collection of diverse Quakers practices, rather than fundamental grounds for action. Instead, the basis of all Quaker testimony is the practice of discernment within Quaker communities. It is practices such as Quaker worship, Meetings for Worship for Business, Meetings for Clearness or Experiment with Light that enable us to discern the inward “promptings of love and truth” that provide the springs of motivation for action in the world. These leadings to action are specific to our particular gifts and contexts rather than generalised principles. It is through individual Friends and Meetings becoming sensitised to the leadings of the Inward Guide in our own particular circumstances that Quaker testimony develops into new areas of concern and action.

There seems to be a growing awareness among Friends today of a leading to work for greater equality of economic conditions in our society. These attempts at social change will only be effective if we become able to tell a different story about the purpose and possibility of human community. Even among progressive politicians, discussions of society and the economy too often accept the dominant culture’s story of human beings as isolated individuals competing for scarce resources. A transformative politics needs to speak to the heart and imagination, to hold out the possibility of human community based on encounter and relationship, which enriches the whole of society by enabling every person’s gifts and leadings to flourish. Economic equality is crucial to the realisation of this kind of society, as Catherine suggests, when she argues persuasively that “more equal societies are not just more productive; they are happier, have lower levels of depression and suicide, show fewer signs of status competition, and exhibit more peaceful psychology. A world that is more equal economically would be a world that is spiritually better balanced as well.”

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Beliefs and Action

Many of us take for granted a picture of the relationship between our ideas and our behaviour, which looks something like this:


According to this image, beliefs are primary. We first have to decide ‘what we believe’, often in the form of statements, perhaps such as ‘There is that of God in everyone’. Our task is then to ‘put these beliefs into practice’, and our integrity is to be judged by the degree to which our actions conform to our stated beliefs.

This image is so familiar that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is just one way of making sense of our experience. It is useful for some purposes, but is not the only way to understand what is going on. It foregrounds the role of explicit belief statements, but it also obscures some things that are especially important for the Quaker way.

The early Quakers insisted that they were not offering just another set of beliefs, like all the other competing religious sects of their day. Instead, they were pointing to the possibility of a new experience of divine guidance and transformation. The way to that experience was not a different belief but a different practice, of ‘waiting in the Light’ or ‘returning within’. This was a deliberate process of silent, attentive waiting on the divine voice within; becoming sensitive to the leadings of the Inward Guide and acting on them, as individuals and as a Quaker community.

Our usual picture above of ‘putting beliefs into action’ does not serve us very well for making sense of Quaker practice. This is one reason why Friends struggle with the question ‘what do Quakers believe?’ which starts from the assumption that the Quaker way is defined by a set of beliefs rather than shared practices. In response, Friends often substitute ‘Quaker values’ for beliefs, but this usually involves keeping the same basic picture, according to which we first choose our values and then have to find ways to ‘live them out’.


Without an alternative to this simple, binary picture, we keep turning the Quaker way into just another set of arbitrary beliefs or values, words or ideas in our heads that we have to try somehow to live up to by acting them out in the world. But there are many other possibilities for picturing how our ideas relate to our actions. Just one example might be to imagine a circular process something like this:

Quaker practices include Meeting for Worship, Business Meetings, Experiment with Light, Meetings for Clearness, Worship sharing etc. These are not just forms of behaviour. Practices are an intimate combination of actions, ideas, stories and values. They embody shared expectations: for example that spoken ministry will be short, reflective, and generally avoid violent expressions of feeling. Quaker practices also refer to particular stories and traditions. Spoken ministry in a Meeting for Worship or Business will often refer to incidents from Quaker history or a particular Meeting community. These shared stories are part of the texture of Quaker practices, which contribute to their distinctive character.

Quaker practices give rise to very specific kinds of experience, including distinctive ones such as ‘quaking’ or the feeling of being ‘led’ to speak or act in a certain way. These experiences are significantly different from what happens in apparently similar practices such as Buddhist meditation. Quaker practices also shape our experience of being a particular kind of person. They help to form the things we value, what we enjoy or avoid, the kind of speech and behaviour that we cultivate. Practices such as Meeting for Worship for Business involve the regular self-discipline of letting go of fixed intentions and listening for the insights of those who differ from us. Through regular experience of disciplines such as this we are formed as people with distinctive capacities. This is one of the principal goals of Quaker practices, to help us to become changed men and women, to ‘feel the evil weakening in us and the good raised up’.

These kinds of experience, and the kind of people we become, inevitably shape the quality of our Quaker community. Quaker practices are not just individual exercises: it is central to the Quaker way that it is practised in, and builds up, a faithful community. The quality of our community relationships is crucial for the vitality of our collective Quaker practices. Where a Quaker meeting does not have strong relationships of trust and affection between its members, or where there is little practical agreement about how to worship or discern together, the quality of Quaker practice will be significantly weakened. A community in which people share their lives and experience, and where there is a high level of agreement about how to practise the Quaker way together, will enjoy a virtuous circle of deepening experience, community and practice.

This picture of practice, experience and community might also be helpful for understanding Quaker testimony as a practice rather than a list of values or principles ‘in our heads’. Quaker testimonies such as opposing war, solidarity with refugees or simplifying lifestyle are forms of purposeful, meaningful action, that form us as individuals and as a community. They are continually re-shaped by new discernment and understood in a range of different ways. Testimonies are not just acts of individual conscience, but practised as part of a community tradition, in conversation with its collective discernment.

I have presented this circular model of Quaker practice, experience and community not as ‘the truth’, but simply to illustrate one alternative to the prevailing model of ‘belief and action’, which too often tends to push people into opposing identities on the basis of differing statements of belief. All three parts of this alternative model include values, expectations, goals, ideas and stories, but it does not require us to decide or agree on theological positions. Perhaps I am drawn to this approach because explicit statements of belief play a very small role in my own life. I have always struggled to understand the meaning or purpose of abstract convictions about the nature of God or the precise mechanisms of salvation. For me, religion is not a matter of ‘beliefs’; it is concerned with what I trust in and what I do.

How do you understand Quaker practice, experience and belief?

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Kingdom

If, like me, you happened to read the New Testament for the first time as an adult, without having any church background through which to interpret it, you might also have been struck by a surprising observation. In the four accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching collectively called the Gospels, he is described as preaching a very specific message to the people of Judea. This message is not a promise of life after death and a threat of eternal punishment. Instead, Jesus is constantly repeating the ‘good news’ that ‘the kingdom of God is near’.

The sayings, stories and miraculous healings attributed to Jesus were all ways of describing what this ‘kingdom of God’ (or in John’s Gospel ‘kingdom of heaven’) means. The kingdom is the place where those who are poor and the excluded are welcomed and respected, where there is no more exploitation or violence, where justice reigns and forgiveness flourishes. Those who are able to welcome the kingdom are not the rich and powerful, who are deeply invested in the status quo, but those who are dispossessed and excluded. It is ‘good news to the poor’ and bad news for those who want the world to stay just as it is:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort"
(Luke 6: 20, 24)
Jesus did not invent this vision; it is a powerful current in his own religious heritage. The Hebrew Torah is full of magnificent images of God’s reign of peace and justice. But what the Jewish prophet Jesus taught, and what got him executed, is that God’s kingdom is not far off - in an unworldly afterlife, or in the distant future. It is close - ‘the kingdom of God is near’. The stories and images he used to describe this kingdom constantly emphasise that it is not brought about by armies or dictated from the centres of power. The kingdom grows up among ordinary, disregarded people, in hidden ways in the midst of ordinary life, like yeast in bread, a woman sweeping the house for a lost coin, or seeds growing in a field.

The vision of God’s kingdom of peace and justice on earth has had a profound impact on religious history. It has inspired passionate Christian movements as diverse as the Franciscans,  Anabaptists and Dukhoubors. But, paradoxically, its most world-changing impact has been in secularised form, as the emotional centre of the political ideologies that have aimed to bring about a perfect society, by force if necessary.

From the French Revolution to Soviet and Chinese Communism, this dream of a world of peace, freedom, equality and justice has continually resurfaced in the modern imagination. Crucially, though, for all of these ideologies the goal of peace and justice was always somewhere off in the future. To reach such a perfect destination, so far removed from the present squalid reality of inequality and oppression, it seemed legitimate to use any means for bringing it about. Since the promised goal was always somewhere over the horizon, the revolutionaries and dictators could not be expected to act as if it had already arrived. Instead, they had to be prepared to sacrifice their scruples, and to commit whatever violence or deception was necessary to realise their historical destiny. In this, they unwittingly repeated the logic of State-allied churches throughout history that still find it necessary to commit and condone violence and persecution, compelled by the unfortunate distance between the promise of the kingdom and the realities of power in the imperfect present.

Unlike the communist revolutionaries and patriotic bishops, Jesus taught that the reign of peace was not far off, on the far side of the messy crimes of history. It is present now, wherever people who have been humiliated recover their dignity, where walls are dismantled and resources shared, where people who have been enemies learn to listen to each other. This kingdom is here every day, signs of it are all around us. Even in this society, with its inequality, racism, and callous indifference to migrants and the distant poor, there are people who welcome strangers into their homes, who defend the neighbours they are told to hate, and who choose forgiveness over revenge. The good news is that this is happening all around us:

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Taking What Is Good

In his book ‘A Path With Heart’, the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield describes a "famous old Burmese master” with whom he once studied meditation in a forest monastery:

“He was a grouchy old slob who threw rocks at the dogs, smoked Burmese cigars, and spent the morning reading the paper and talking with the loveliest of the young nuns.

“He was a great meditation teacher but otherwise a poor role model. I realised I could take what was beneficial and not buy the whole package… Then I became rather fond of him. I think of him now with affection and gratitude. I wouldn’t want to be like him, but I’m grateful for the many wonderful things he taught me.”

Kornfield calls this attitude “taking what is good”. It is a striking alternative to the more common tendency to reject outright any person, community or tradition that has disappointed or hurt us.

For several decades now, mainstream British culture has been secular and post-Christian, which often means a scornful rejection of Christian traditions, language, institutions and practices. Even among Quakers, it is common to hear wholesale condemnations such as “the Bible is misogynist”. What would it mean for people who are not Christians to try the Buddhist approach of “taking what is good” from Christianity, without feeling obliged either to “buy the whole package” or to reject it wholesale.

There is certainly much to criticise in the history of Christianity. Official churches have often allied themselves with State power to justify war, inequality, colonialism and the repression of women, children and minorities. Much Christian teaching and practice has been authoritarian, dogmatic and neurotically obsessed with sexuality. Arguably, some aspects of Christian belief have encouraged the human domination of nature and a generalised devaluation of the physical world. The Bible itself, in common with almost any broad collection of pre-modern literature, contains many disturbing passages, and even some that are morally abhorrent.

Taking what is good from Christianity does not mean turning a blind eye to any of these failings, and does not imply belief in traditional Christian creeds or doctrines. But it might open us to the possibility of appreciating the best of what the Christian tradition has to offer in art, literature, spiritual wisdom, and above all in the lives of countless people who continue to be guided by the teaching and example of Jesus.

It is not necessary to accept any particular religious doctrine in order to respond to the uncompromising message of the Sermon on the Mount, or the paradoxical wisdom of Jesus’ parables. The Gospels contain an explicit and ever-relevant rejection of religious hierarchy, hypocrisy and exploitation of the poor and powerless. At the heart of Jesus’ message is his vision of the nearness of the ‘upside-down Kingdom’ - a world that is made new by forgiveness, reconciliation and justice.

To appreciate these stories and images we don’t need to stay stuck in the sterile alternatives of 'belief or unbelief'. We can be challenged, questioned and changed by the power of images and stories, without succumbing to the naive literalism that treats the Bible as an imperfect species of modern journalism. Instead of dismissing Biblical stories as factually inaccurate, we might recognise them as richly symbolic compilations of memory, experience, theological speculation and artistic creation.

The Quaker way originated in a radical critique and rebellion against State Christianity. But it was a critique rooted within the Christian story, which understood the powerful transformative experience of early Friends through the language and vivid imagery of the Bible. If we are willing to take what is good from this Christian tradition, we will also be able to appreciate the experience of many generations of Quakers, including the vast majority of Friends throughout the world today, whose lives and imaginations are formed by the Christian story. If instead, we choose to reject and condemn the entire Christian tradition, and the whole Christian community throughout the world, we will isolate ourselves from their insights and from most of the riches of the Quaker tradition.

"Taking what is good" implies more than a passive tolerance, but actively seeking out what Christianity has to teach; to inspire and to challenge us. With this positive openness, some people who would never describe themselves as Christians might even one day discover an unexpected affection and gratitude for what the Christian tradition has given them.

What do you value in the Christian tradition? Have you been able to take something good from it without being a Christian?