Saturday, 30 May 2015

A Gathered People

When I joined the Religious Society of Friends eleven years ago, what I found most moving was the sense of becoming part of an extended family of Quakers past and present. It is a family which contains some wonderful ancestors and fascinating far-flung cousins, as well as a full share of rather peculiar aunts and uncles. By becoming a Quaker, I felt that I was being accepted into the shared history and inner life of this world-wide, centuries-old Quaker family. I was no longer just an individual seeker on a solitary spiritual journey, but part of a 'people', with its own shared stories and culture; sometimes baffling or infuriating, but now also part of my story too.

Most of us in modern, western societies have been taught to value above all else the virtues of freedom, privacy, independence, self-reliance and individuality. In fact, our culture has formed us in the image of the restless, dynamic capitalism memorably described by Karl Marx:

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
(Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848)

The prospect of complete freedom from all 'fixed, fast-frozen relations' can be exhilarating, and it has exercised a powerful attraction for the modern imagination; but for many of us there comes a time when the absence of social rootedness leaves us feeling isolated, anxious and depressed. In severe cases this condition contributes to the current epidemic of anxiety and depression in western societies, but it is even more commonly experienced as a pervasive sense of emptiness and meaninglessness. These appear to be symptomatic of our collective uprootedness and isolation; the starvation of our soul-needs for connection, identity, meaning, value and purpose.

In more traditional societies, that have been less uprooted by the forces of modernity, this condition of drastic solitude is virtually unknown. In rural Africa or Asia, you know who you are through your kinship relations and the shared stories, ancestors and religion of your people; as expressed in the African proverb 'a person is a person through other people.' People are born into a pre-existing sea of meaning, a vast network of relationships and mutual obligations within a specific culture and social identity. This is not a romanticised portrait of imaginary 'unspoilt' cultures. I have lived in a South African shanty town and a semi-rural community in Zimbabwe, where I saw at first hand the stark age, gender and tribal discrimination of traditional African culture. Traditional societies are often oppressive and violent, but they are not haunted by meaninglessness and isolation. People know who they are, and what the the purpose and meaning of their life is, because they are part of a people, which gives them a place in a wider story, embedded in relationships with a multitude of others in the past, present and future. This is the way that all people throughout human history have lived until very recently. The very evident advantages of industrial societies that have attracted people throughout the world into cities and away from the limitations of traditional rural life, like most modern remedies, also have their inevitable side-effects.

Wherever traditional people have been dispossessed of their land, culture and social bonds they have been devastated by suicide, crime, mental illness and addiction. As modern Europeans this is our story too; it happened in England first, at the start of the industrial era, before encompassing almost every nation on earth. It is the traumatic experience of industrialisation and urbanisation, and the continuing neoliberal assault on all social bonds, that has created the lonely, anxious, rootless and insecure modern psyche.

The unmet human soul needs for meaning, belonging and purpose have never gone away. Instead they provide a powerful source of motivation within a consumer economy. These needs are targeted by the entertainment and marketing industries, which offer to fulfil deep human needs for connection, status, identity, transcendence and security through the purchase of clothes, technology, holidays and insurance. These commodified experiences and products hook into soul needs that they can never satisfy, creating a cycle of addiction that is the perfect mechanism to drive the endless growth required by a capitalist economy. Consumerism is the hollow, ersatz spirituality of the industrial growth society.

We cannot overcome the hollow meaninglessness of modern society on our own. The solitary existential heroes of Sartre or Ayn Rand prove to be immature fantasies when tested by the reality of our vulnerable human lives. Our deeply rooted needs for meaning and belonging can only be satisfied by the same means that every other human culture has provided; through becoming part of a people. Modern westerners and other deracinated people throughout the world can do this in several ways, but it often involves identification with a religious or ethnic group. It is this impulse to overcome the rootless isolation of modern life that seems to be contributing to the resurgence of religious identity across the world, what John Michael Greer calls 'the second religiosity'. This new religiosity often takes fundamentalist forms, but it is not necessary for religious belonging to be authoritarian or dogmatic. In the Quaker tradition, it takes the form of what early Friends called 'a gathered people'.

A gathered people is not just an association of individuals who happen to share overlapping values or interests. It is formed by the raising and quickening of a new spiritual life and power within each person. Recognising this same Spirit at work in each other draws us into a bond of mutual belonging and commitment – a 'covenant', as described by the early Quaker Francis Howgill in this famous passage:

“And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God; and that was a strong obligation or bond upon all our spirits, which united us one unto another. We met together in the unity of the Spirit, and of the bond of peace, treading down under our feet all reasoning about religion. And holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire which the Life kindled in us to serve the Lord while we had a being, and mightily did the Word of God grow amongst us, and the desires of many were after the Name of the Lord. O happy day! O blessed day! the memorial of which can never pass out of my mind. And thus the Lord, in short, did form us to be a people for his praise in our generation.”
(Quaker faith & practice, 19.08)

When we recognise the life of the Spirit being kindled in another person, it calls forth an answering response in us; this is what early Friends meant by 'answering that of God' in others. A gathered people does not necessarily take the shape of a church, or any kind of formal organisation. It is a belonging to one another through shared hardship, commitment, mutual support, affection, obligation and forgiveness. My family experienced this most powerfully when we were living in Zimbabwe, through the faithful support of many members of our meeting in Sheffield through some very difficult times. Even Friends from our large Meeting who knew us very slightly wrote letters and sent parcels of gifts and books, and gave money to support us when we had to turn to them for help.

As modern Quakers, how can we recover this experience of being a gathered people? It means recognising that we are not isolated individuals on our own spiritual journeys, or just members of a particular local Quaker community, but also part of a living current of spiritual awakening that links us to Friends in the past and future throughout the world.

Do you have a sense of being part of a gathered people? How have you experienced this in your journey with Quakers?

Friday, 1 May 2015

The Happy Seeker

As Quakers, we often pride ourselves on being 'seekers', who are continually "open to new light, from whatever source it may come" (Advices & Queries 7).

Historically, the Quaker movement grew out of groups of people known as 'Seekers'. They had become disillusioned with all the religious factions of their time, and began meeting together in silent waiting on God for a new revelation. When George Fox came to them, these Seekers discovered the insight that they had been waiting for, and the dynamic young Quaker movement was born. That discovery, proclaimed by Fox and other early Friends, was that the source of spiritual guidance and power, the 'Inward Christ', 'Light' or 'Seed', is within each one of us, and can be found simply by attending and submitting to it.

Fox enabled these groups of Seekers to give up searching outside themselves for new ideas or revelations, and to discover the source of insight and power within their own experience. This was what the early Quaker Francis Howgill called the 'narrow search' – discovering the truth within, through the action of the Inward Light upon the heart and mind:

"Early Friends rejected speculations upon new dispensations, new paradigms just around the corner. Such notions kept the mind searching in the outward mode, looking here and there for the latest thing. The light that was in each person was the same light that had shone in every age. The point was to stand still and deal with what the light revealed then and there."
(Douglas Gwyn, Words in Time – Essays and Addresses, 1997)

In the light of this, it is interesting that so many contemporary Friends want to return to being a movement of Seekers, and seem content to remain in the seeking mode forever. Douglas Gwyn describes these Friends as 'happy seekers'; those who are content to continue seeking new ideas and revelations, and do not even want to become 'finders'. This approach finds eloquent expression in this popular passage from Quaker faith & practice (20.06):

"Some among us have a clear sense of what is right and wrong – for themselves personally if not for everyone else. They have a reassuring certitude and steadiness which can serve as a reference point by which others may navigate. There are others who live in a state of uncertainty, constantly re-thinking their responses to changing circumstances, trying to hold onto what seems fundamental but impelled to reinterpret, often even unsure where lies the boundary between the fundamental and the interpretation…
Please be patient, those of you who have found a rock to stand on, with those of us who haven’t and with those of us who are not even looking for one. We live on the wave’s edge, where sea, sand and sky are all mixed up together: we are tossed head over heels in the surf, catching only occasional glimpses of any fixed horizon. Some of us stay there from choice because it is exciting and it feels like the right place to be."
(Philip Rack, 1979)

This passage highlights a distinction between two very different spiritual temperaments. The happy seeker's focus is on inclusivity, openness and celebrating diverse paths and perspectives. This sensibility rejects the prospect of ever finding 'a rock to stand on', and is content to stay 'on the wave's edge', without looking for any definitive truth beyond their own changing experience.

There are others whose spirituality finds expression in images of rootedness and depth, and who are drawn to religious traditions that require discipline, commitment and even sacrifice. They are seekers after truth, and they are serious about finding it, in order to be transformed by it. This is the kind of person that William James (in The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902) calls the 'twice-born'. They are often, either by temperament or experience, driven by an urgent soul-need to overcome meaninglessness and despair. James describes them as "sick souls, who must be twice-born in order to be happy" (ibid). This is the condition described by George Fox in this famous autobiographical passage:

"As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy."
(Journal, 1647).

Both the 'happy seeker' and the 'twice-born' approaches have their own validity, as well as their pathologies. The 'twice-born' are notoriously liable to lapse into dogmatism. They may assume that their discoveries are the only valid path for everyone, becoming dismissive and intolerant of those whose temperaments and experiences are very different. The 'happy seeker' may be a short step from superficiality. The sampling of diverse spiritualities can become an excuse for never taking any tradition seriously enough to practice its disciplines; never allowing themselves to be formed by a reality greater than their own ego. People with these opposing sensibilities are notoriously uncomprehending and critical of each other, but some also move between these approaches in both directions, in both healthy and harmful ways.

The early Quaker movement was composed largely of the 'twice-born'; of seekers who had become finders:

"They were changed men themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments, and they knew the power and work of God upon them."
(William Penn, 1694, Quaker faith & practice 19.48)

The membership of Britain Yearly Meeting today, by contrast, leans strongly toward the 'happy seeker' sensibility. Friends continually assure each other that 'we are seekers rather than finders'. The happy seekers' virtues of inclusivity and openness are well-publicised, and we frequently congratulate ourselves on them. But if we allow ourselves to become a community that has no place for finding, or even for seeking with a serious intent to find, then we will become an exclusive club; open to happy seekers only.

How many people with an urgent soul-need attend a Quaker meeting for a while, but go away unsatisfied? We often reassure ourselves that these potential Quakers are 'not in tune with Friends' way of doing things' and 'would be happier elsewhere'; but where else can they go? There are few religious communities in Britain where someone on a serious religious search can find the support they need from experienced practitioners, especially if they cannot accept the dogmatic orthodoxies of evangelical churches, or the social disengagement of most Buddhist groups. These twice-born almost-Friends are a serious loss to the Quaker movement. As well as failing to nurture them, we are missing out on the much-needed gifts of passion and commitment, and the connection with the well-springs of Quaker spirituality, that they could have brought to our meetings.

Do you recognise this distinction between twice-born and happy seekers in your own experience? What are the special gifts and insights that your own approach to spirituality has to offer to our communities and our witness in the world?

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Quakerism as a Second Language

Religions are often caricatured as a set of competing 'belief systems', whose incompatible claims to knowledge about the universe are based on irrational faith rather than reason and evidence.

In a recent post on Brigid, Fox, and Buddha, Rhiannon Grant has explored an alternative way of understanding religions, as being similar in many ways to languages. She writes that “knowing your religion really well, or being really competent in it, is like being fluent in a language.” She also points to the possibility that “without enough fluent users, religion might change beyond recognition, just as a language dies without speakers.”

This is a very fruitful way of understanding a religious tradition such as the Quaker way. It is obvious that a shared language doesn't require identical beliefs, (although different languages may inflect our perceptions in various ways), but it does provide a shared vocabulary for communication. Less obviously, this is also true of many religious traditions, including Quakerism. Religious traditions offer shared words, images, stories and practices that enable a community to communicate their experiences and engage in common projects. Any religion that is broader than a fundamentalist sect provides space for a wide range of beliefs and interpretations to be expressed through a shared vocabulary, just as different language communities do. The point of a religious tradition such as the Quaker way is not to provide a pre-packaged set of beliefs about the universe. Instead, it embodies a set of teachings and practices whose purpose is to enable us to become changed men and women, growing into our calling to contribute to the healing of the world.

For most of us in Britain, even those who have grown up in Quaker families, our first language is much more likely to be some form of secular liberalism than anything else. In addition, many of us have come to Quakers after, or alongside, exploring one or more other religious traditions, which we may have learned with varying degrees of fluency. So Quakerism is most often a second, third or fourth language rather than our 'mother tongue'.

Given that most of us are not 'native speakers' of the Quaker way, just as with any new language it takes some effort to become fluent in it. We will certainly not acquire fluency simply 'by immersion', as has often been assumed in the past, as we are most likely to be in meetings with Friends whose grasp of the Quaker way is at least as patchy and broken as our own.

For many decades Quaker communities have neglected to actively teach the 'language' of the Quaker way to newcomers. The assumption has often been that people will 'pick it up as they go along'. Instead,what has increasingly happened is that the Quaker way has been largely replaced by the secular and individualist language of the dominant culture, leaving only an impoverished remnant of the original rich grammar and vocabulary of Quaker thought and practice. We have retained just a few token phrases, often misinterpreted and out of context – 'that of God in everyone', 'walk cheerfully over the world', 'the inner Light', divorced from the richness of imagery, stories and concepts that makes up the full 'language' of the Quaker way. The Book of Discipline that we have discerned together as a Religious Society - our 'Quaker grammar', is widely ignored or dismissed as 'just for guidance', rather than the foundation of 'Gospel Order'.

Fluency in a language is required to practice it fully. Even a few words and phrases of a foreign language can be useful or thought-provoking, but without at least one language in which we are reasonably fluent our options for expression and relationship will be severely limited. Similarly, a degree of practised knowledge of the Quaker way is essential if we are to allow ourselves to be formed and changed by it. Without this fluency, we will miss its full potential to change us, to build us up into authentic communities, and to be agents of healing and transformation for the world.

It is one of the ironies of contemporary Quaker culture that many Friends are more familiar with the spiritual teachings and practices of Buddhism, Sufism or Paganism than those of the Quaker way itself. For many of these Friends, Quakerism is simply the absence of any distinctive spiritual teaching, a place where everyone is free to bring their own beliefs and preferences into the accepting 'Quaker Space', rather than a religious tradition with its own wisdom and insights that are at least as valuable as those of other traditions.

Those of us with a concern to revive the practice of a distinctive Quaker spirituality have similarities with movements to preserve minority languages threatened by over-dominant neighbours, such as Gaelic and Welsh. Just as modern speakers of these minority languages are engaged in creatively developing their vocabulary to keep it useful for contemporary life, our aim is not to freeze the Quaker tradition at some point in history, but to keep it alive and engaged with current concerns.

Fortunately, one of the hopeful signs of renewal among contemporary Quakers is the flourishing of opportunities for learning the riches of the Quaker way. These include accessible and contemporary books such as Patricia Loring's 'Listening Spirituality' and Rex Ambler's 'The Quaker Way', recent Swarthmore Lectures and Pendle Hill pamphlets, Quaker blogs and videos, Woodbrooke courses, and the new online collection of learning resources from Woodbrooke and Quaker Life called 'Being Friends Together'.

How are you learning to 'speak the language' of the Quaker way? What resources or teachers have helped you to appreciate the richness of our unique spiritual tradition?

Monday, 9 March 2015

Quaker Social Media

Considering how much of our lives is now spent online, there seems to be remarkably little reflection by British Friends about how this might affect or be influenced by our Quaker practice. Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of the internet in Quaker faith & practice, which was produced in 1994, shortly before internet use became widespread in the UK.

Over the last twenty years, online tools such as email, blogs and social networking have already begun to affect aspects of Quaker culture and practice. They also exercise more subtle influences on our modes of consciousness, identity, relationships and spirituality. Some of these have been considered by Young Friends General Meeting, which has produced several 'Advices & Queries' on the use of communications technology, including this thought-provoking passage:

'Consider the value of communications technology in nurturing or re-establishing relationships and communities where physical distance or time may be barriers. Which form of technology is most appropriate? The written word or electronic images may be interpreted differently when viewed without interaction in person. Be careful of over dependence on this sense of constant connectivity and consider 'switching off' from time to time. Time alone can provide its own source of spiritual nourishment.'

Social media and other online media offer powerful tools for enabling, nurturing and re-establishing relationships. They have obvious benefits for overcoming barriers of distance, particularly for people who are geographically isolated or who have difficulties with mobility. Social media have also created new possibilities for Quaker ministry. In the USA, Quaker bloggers have had a significant influence on the wider Quaker culture through the 'Convergent Friends' movement and the blogging network at QuakerQuaker. Quaker bloggers also respond to and share each other's writings, and readers comment on posts and discuss them with each other, creating a lively shared dialogue. In some ways this echoes the vigorous pamphleteering of early Friends, which made use of the new communications technology of the printing press to create a new participatory culture of religious publishing.

As with all forms of religious ministry, blog writing requires a degree of maturity and self-discipline. Bloggers can easily be tempted by the absence of editorial oversight to fall into self-righteous or aggressive posturing. At their best, Quaker blogs offer an extraordinary range of insightful, informed and spiritually profound written ministry. Steven Davison has written about our times as a 'third golden age of Quaker theology', partly due to the extraordinary range and depth of Quaker writing online, which is becoming an increasingly important vehicle for prophetic and teaching ministry.

Many Friends are also using online technologies for conducting Quaker practices, including committee business and 'online Meetings for Worship'. These applications raise the question of how the relationships we have with others at a distance differ from those that are face-to-face. There seems to have been remarkably little collective discernment about the role of these innovations in our shared Quaker practice. There is some guidance from Quaker Life on teleconferencing for business meetings, which recommends restricting telephone conferences to matters that do not require significant discernment. This implicitly acknowledges that there may be significant limits to long-distance communication.

Meeting together in virtual space, we can scarcely avoid presenting a persona that is only a fragment of who we are as whole people. This is certainly not a new phenomenon; it has been a part of human experience since people started communicating regularly by letter (the pen is also a 'communication technology'). In modern times, however, there is a widespread assumption that any differences between long-distance and face-to-face relationships are relatively trivial, and that text-based communication or Skype conversations are effectively equivalent to meeting in person. This seems to neglect the extent to which who we are is not fully reflected by our written words. It is intimately bound up with our embodied presence.

A disregard for the significance of the body is one of the pathologies of the current technological era. There is a widespread fantasy that we are essentially disembodied brains that unfortunately just happen to be imprisoned in fleshy bodies. In reality our bodies are integral to our identity and relationships. My language-based persona can communicate with others in virtual space, and these conversations can, of course, be satisfying and helpful, and may also lead to or complement face-to-face relationships. But full human relationships, which are what we aim at in Quaker community, depend on physical presence. In a recent discussion on Quaker Renewal UK, Gordon Ferguson wrote: 

For me being a 'whole person' includes physical embodiment, emotional engagement and intimate relationships in family and friends, and in the physical place where I am. I therefore by definition cannot be a 'whole person' in social media. You only see a small (and to me relatively unimportant) part of the wholeness of body, place and relationships that is me. And in particular you only see the intellectual, rational, language-limited part of me... If you want to get to know me, you need to come to our (to know me is to know my wife, Chriss) home and share food and drink, and join us in worship, and walk with us in our neighbourhood and meet our friends.

Quaker worship is not exclusively an activity of the rational, disembodied mind (albeit it is easy to receive this impression in some meetings). Our physical presence is not irrelevant to our participation in communal worship. Worship is the response of our whole being to the presence of God – a response which involves our bodies and the physical presence of our fellow worshippers at least as much as our words and thoughts.

It seems unavoidable that the experience of participation in an 'online Meeting for Worship' will be significantly different from worshipping together in the same place. Clearly this practice is helpful to the people who take part in it, but it is not clear to me that we should consider it 'the same thing' as Quaker worship. The growing use of online communications for Quaker business and worship calls for collective discernment about the role of these practices, rather than taking for granted that what we do online is the same as what happens in person, simply because we are using the same word for it.

Online networks are often referred to as 'communities', but this is community in a significantly different sense to the embodied relationships of our Meetings and neighbourhoods. An essential element of local community is that we cannot evade accountability for our words and actions. In our Quaker meetings we know that what we do and say will have potentially long-lasting consequences for our relationships with each other, which may affect our lives beyond the Meeting House. Purely online relationships do not necessarily have this characteristic. Participants in an online group or discussion can instantly disappear, and may choose to be anonymous or adopt an alternative identity. It is this capacity for anonymity, combined with the increased potential for misunderstandings and lack of contextual information, that encourages such widespread hostility and argumentativeness in online discussions, including in Quaker forums.

Online discussion forums seems to work best when they are related to physical communities and maintain some connection with face-to-face relationships. Local or area meeting blogs can function extremely well as forums for sharing ideas and discussion for this reason. The Sheffield Quakers blog, for example, has been running continuously for ten years, with a consistently high level of considerate and thoughtful contributions, even when discussing the sort of controversial issues that invariably give rise to hostile exchanges in more anonymous contexts. When writing for this blog, or posting on the Quaker Renewal UK group, I am conscious of the Friends from my own and other meetings who might read it, and the potential effect on our relationships in other contexts. This awareness has been a helpful restraint when I have sometimes been tempted to express myself in an overheated or ungenerous manner.

The effect of ubiquitous communications technology on the quality of our consciousness is controversial. Claims of 'internet addiction' and reduced attention span are controversial, but there does seem to be a strong tendency toward compulsiveness in our relationship with tools such as email and Facebook, including excessive checking of emails and feeling anxious when deprived of internet access. Whether or not we call this kind of behaviour 'addiction', it is something that anyone who is trying to follow a spiritual practice should be concerned about. We are all aware of the way that email and social media can easily invade our mental worlds; creating a sense of information overload, a pressure to read and respond to ever-growing volumes of communication, and social anxiety about how we are regarded by others. It is easy for us to dismiss such concerns as trivial, or shuffle them off into a mental compartment that is separated from our spiritual life. But our spiritual practice is the whole of our life, and anything that affects our consciousness, behaviour and relationships is a part of our spiritual life, for good or ill.

The condition of our consciousness, and our capacity for sustained, concentrated attention, is of particular importance for Quakers, whose spiritual practice is grounded in a continuous awareness of the Inward Guide and sensitivity to the 'promptings of love and truth' in our hearts. Where we find that our relationship with any technology has a tendency to disrupt this balanced awareness, we need to take it seriously. As with other practices, we are free make conscious decisions about the way that we use technology, rather than accepting the typical patterns of our culture as inevitable. Having recognised this in my own life, I have established the discipline of a 'Sabbath rest' from online communication each Sunday. I find that having at least one day each week without checking emails or social media helps me to regularly detach from the impulse to become dependent on constant connectivity. This helps to re-establish a quality of consciousness that is not restlessly seeking stimulation and distraction. Some Friends find other ways to avoid getting lost in distraction, such as choosing internet passwords that remind them to be mindful or take a break from the screen, or even restricting their computer's internet access at certain times.

What is your relationship with online media? Do you have practices that help to keep it in balance? Are there ways that social media supports your spiritual practice or ministry?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

What Can We Say?

Part of the Quaker way we have inherited is a tradition of corporate testimony. Quakers are well-known for our opposition to war, but there are many other kinds of testimony that Friends in modern times have acknowledged as collective commitments. These include refusing to tell lies, participate in gambling (including financial speculation), take oaths and use or accept honours or titles (such as 'Reverend' and 'Your Majesty').

Over recent years these collective testimonies seem to have fallen increasingly into disuse. Many Friends have either never heard of them, or don't consider them relevant to their own lives. Even our national representative body Meeting for Sufferings has sometimes forgotten its centuries' old rejection of flattering titles, to the extent of delivering a 'Loyal Address to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II', for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Over the last few decades we have changed our understanding of testimony, turning it into a set of abstract 'Quaker principles' instead of specific commitments to action. I have argued in another post that this is unhelpful, because it sets us up to fail at 'living up to' impossible ideals. Another effect of this understanding of testimony is that by focussing on vague ideals rather than concrete actions, it encourages a wide range of individualistic interpretations. Instead of a collective public witness that Quakers will not take part in lotteries or tell a lie, we now expect to interpret for ourselves the very general 'shared values' of Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace, and even to select which of these separate values is more or less important to me as an individual.

A much broader cultural shift towards ethical relativism has also encouraged Friends to adopt a privatised version of discernment. It is common to hear Friends talk about 'my truth' and even 'my inner light', with the implication that what is 'true for me' cannot justifiably be questioned or challenged by anyone else. If there is no acceptance of over-arching moral or religious claims, then we cannot be accountable to each other for our faithfulness to shared standards of behaviour. At most, we can only encourage each other to decide for ourselves what is true 'for me'.

Despite this individualistic emphasis, our Advices & Queries still sometimes assume that Quakers will acknowledge some shared specific standards of behaviour, eg 'Taking oaths implies a double standard of truth; in choosing to affirm instead, be aware of the claim to integrity that you are making.' (A&Q 37), and 'Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparations for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? (A&Q 31).

The recent commitment of Britain Yearly Meeting to 'work towards becoming a low carbon community' might even be considered an attempt to revive the tradition of corporate Quaker testimony. The vision for this originated from Pam Lunn's 2011 Swarthmore Lecture, which called for a collective Quaker response to the climate crisis. In the event, despite adopting the 'Canterbury Commitment' as official policy (including Britain Yearly Meeting's disinvestment from fossil fuel companies), response at local meeting level has so far been patchy and ambivalent. While a few meetings have embraced the challenge to green their meeting houses or undertake other carbon reduction projects, there has not been a discernible Society-wide response. My sense is that the reason for this is not so much the issue itself, since most Friends are probably making some individual attempts at a 'greener lifestyle' already. It seems to be more an expression of resistance to any call to collective witness and action, which is increasingly perceived as contrary to Friends' right to decide for themselves.

A balance between collective and personal discernment has traditionally been central to Quaker spirituality. Testing our individual leadings through the discernment of our Quaker community, from our local meeting outwards to the national level of Yearly Meeting, is how we have balanced the centrifugal pressures of individual liberty of conscience, with its dangers of impulsive and misdirected enthusiasm.

At the same time, our responsibility for discerning how the Spirit is leading us to act cannot simply be surrendered to the collective, no matter how much we trust its processes and its wisdom. Early Friends such as Isaac Penington were insistent that each of us is 'not to take things for truths because others see them to be truths, but to wait till the spirit makes them manifest to me.' (The works of the long-mournful and sorely-distressed Isaac Penington, 1761) It is our own fidelity to the 'Inward Guide' rather than our conformity to the customs or mandates of any group that keeps our faith and witness authentic. What if our personal discernment is at odds with the discernment of our community, whether our local, area or yearly meeting? Should we simply copy the testimony of other Quakers, even if we have no inward leading to avoid gambling or oppose war?

My own understanding is that being a Quaker involves a respect for our collective discernment, but not necessarily a submission to it. Individual Friends have often been a source of new insight for the Society as a whole, even when they have maintained a solitary position in tension with the Society's collective discernment for many years. Specific testimonies, such as the original Quaker rejection of music, have changed in response to an altered context or new insights. This kind of change is not just a forgetting of former testimony, but deliberately testing and questioning it, to discover what, if anything, is still of value. Such 'faithful challenging' is not the same as simply ignoring our collective testimony and treating it as irrelevant if it doesn't immediately agree with me.

Simone Weil wrote in a similar way about her relationship to (Catholic) Church teachings as 'a permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention, but not an adherence.' (Letter to a Priest, 1951). In another text, she added '[f]or me, in the effort of reflection, a real or apparent disagreement with the Church's teachings is simply a reason for a considerable slowing-down of my thought, and for pushing attentive and scrupulous inquiry as far as it will go, before daring to affirm anything. But that is all.' (Last Text, 1962).

For me, one of the obligations of membership in the Religious Society of Friends is to make myself aware of its practices, including the corporate testimony that it has adopted through the collective discernment of Friends. This does not just involve learning an acronym for four abstract 'Quaker principles', but something much more like an 'attentive and scrupulous inquiry' into the discernment of the wider community, including recent decisions of Britain Yearly Meeting such as the Canterbury Commitment. It is central to the Quaker way that our consciences cannot be compelled to follow others; but it is equally central that we each carry a responsibility for an 'attitude of respectful attention' to the discernment of the community as expressed in our corporate testimony.

Is corporate Quaker testimony important in your life? How do you see the balance between individual leadings and collective discernment in your meeting, and in the wider Quaker community?

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Imaginary Theist

In a Quaker committee meeting recently, a group of us were asked to place ourselves in a line, with one end marked ‘theist’ and the other ‘non-theist’. Along with one other Friend, I felt unable to participate in this exercise, because of my discomfort with both of those terms.

My sense is that the way in which our discussion about Quaker religious language has been framed in recent years is extremely unhelpful. If we genuinely want to understand each other’s experience, and to discern and worship together, we will not be served by thinking of our differences in terms of a debate between theists and non-theists. 

I am convinced that this is, in fact, a completely false distinction. It seems to be based on the assumption that anyone who uses the word ‘God’ is something called a ‘theist’, who holds a specific set of theological beliefs. Once this is assumed, it seems to follow that anyone who doesn’t hold those beliefs must be a ‘non-theist’. This leads directly into attempts to classify ourselves and others, and even to a competitive spirit, in which we line up on opposing sides. At the moment any use of the word ‘God’ in Quaker minutes and publications has become controversial, because it seems to privilege ‘theists’ and exclude ‘non-theists’. In the very worst tradition of religious factionalism, we have fallen into mutual suspicion over a word. 

Theism is an academic concept used in the comparative study of religion. According to the Oxford dictionary, it means ‘belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe.’ Crucially, theism is a label used to classify certain beliefs and teachings; it is not a word that people usually apply to themselves. In other words, the idea of 'theist Quakers' is a myth. It is a label applied to others, which almost always misrepresents their own experience and self-understanding.

Most Quakers who use the word God are not speaking of an ‘old man in the clouds’, or the omnipotent and omniscient supernatural God of pre-modern theology. Liberal Quakerism has inherited from the wider mystical religious tradition an understanding of spiritual reality as ultimately mysterious and unnameable. This tradition typically uses the word ‘God’, not as the name of an external ‘being’, but as a signpost that points towards our experience of spiritual reality. 

Religious language in this tradition is not used to make dogmatic intellectual propositions; it is much more like poetry. The poetic, allusive language of faith has plenty of room for flexible and diverse interpretations. Some Friends use the word ‘God’ to describe their personal experience of spiritual encounter, or being guided or accompanied. For others it points to their sense of awe at the mysteriousness of existence, of the interconnection of all of life, or the depth and holiness of personal relationships. Other Friends might have similar kinds of experience while using very different language to describe it.

For many people the word God has so many unpleasant associations with authoritarian or dogmatic religion that it is definitely unhelpful for them. For others, it is the most natural word to express their own experience and its continuity with traditional Quaker spirituality or with other religious paths. There is no right answer here; it is simply a matter of our personal histories and sensibilities, which may also change over time in response to different experiences.

My own thinking about spiritual reality has been influenced by people from many different traditions who have lived with compassion, selflessness and courage. Many of them have called the source of life within them ‘God’, and I am happy to use the same word for the inward dimension of reality that I recognise in my own experience. Does this make me something called a ‘theist’, as if I subscribed to a list of abstract intellectual propositions that are in reality completely meaningless to me?

The (extremely unorthodox) Christian mystic Simone Weil wrote that God has both 'personal and impersonal aspects', and 'an atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God.' (Letter to a Priest, 1951). This suggests that there may be different ‘faces’ of spiritual reality, which are more apparent to different people, at different times, and emphasised by different traditions. This understanding does not require us to divide ourselves into camps, according to whether we believe in the existence of a personal God or not. Just as physicists have learned to accept that light is neither a wave nor a particle, but exhibits wave-like or particle-like behaviour depending on how it is observed; there is no reason to expect that spiritual reality should be more straightforward than matter and energy.

Surely we can use a range of religious language to communicate with each other and the wider world, without trying to eliminate or insist on the use of any particular word. Instead of labelling others, or ourselves, as ‘theists’ or ’nontheists’, couldn’t we listen to each other’s actual experience? Instead of assuming that any use of the word 'God' in Quaker literature presupposes a particular set of theological beliefs, could we accept it as simply one word, among others, that is used by Friends in a range of ways and with diverse interpretations?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

A common tongue

Madonna and child mural at Cyrene Mission, Zimbabwe
Some years ago, I used to attend a Catholic church in a run-down area of inner-city Liverpool. The congregation was a mix of White working-class locals, African and Eastern European asylum-seekers, people with learning disabilities from the L'Arche community, young L'Arche volunteers from numerous countries, and a sprinkling of elderly nuns, political activists and left-wing intellectuals.

All of these people, with their vastly different backgrounds and educational experience, could not be said to have identical beliefs. Religious traditions such as Catholicism offer a broad umbrella for very different social groups and types of personality, with a correspondingly wide range of theologies and interpretations of their faith. What united this congregation, though, was more than just an agreement to kneel down at the altar rail together. They shared a common religious language, including the imagery and narrative of the Eucharist that enabled them to practise it together as one faith community. As they took part in the sacrament, they were united by their participation in a story that included, but was greater than, all of their personal interpretations.

Every religious tradition includes such a shared fund of stories and images. A shared language doesn't imply uniformity of thought or belief. A common language offers a set of stories, images and concepts, without necessarily imposing a single perspective or interpretation. It gives us common ground to communicate with each other, even across great divides of experience and temperament. A shared spiritual vocabulary allows us to share our experiences, to support, encourage and challenge each other, and to engage in common practices and dialogues within a diverse community.

It is this shared language that the Quaker community in Britain struggles with so much today. Instead of a common vocabulary we have a multitude of incompatible personal languages, often drawn from other spiritual or ideological traditions. In the absence of a shared repertoire of stories and images, we have no option but to resort to a continuous, and often unsuccessful, attempt to translate each others' words into something else that has meaning for us.

Each of us has our own personal story, our own distillation of narrative and belief worked out through the unique circumstances of our lives. Have we given up on the possibility of also having shared stories, that enable us to talk together in a common tongue, instead of continually having to translate between a host of private languages?

Buddhists throughout the world also share a collection of stories, images and teachings. Different schools of Buddhism have their own distinctive texts and traditions, and in different countries and cultures these are taught, expressed and interpreted very differently. Individual Buddhist practitioners also bring their own unique histories and personalities, which often include elements of other religious traditions. It is very common for western Buddhists to have a background in other spiritual traditions, and to continue to draw upon a wide range of spiritual resources. In that sense, there are plenty of Christian-Buddhists, Pagan-Buddhists, and possibly even Quaker-Buddhists.

Like Quaker meetings, Western Buddhist meditation classes are usually open to anyone who wants to attend them, without any requirement to adopt particular beliefs. A significant difference is that Buddhist groups are clear and explicit about the content of their teaching. If an attender at a Buddhist group were to state that they didn't like the word 'meditation' and preferred to spend the time thinking instead of watching their breath, they would be perfectly free to act in this way. The Buddhist community would be unlikely to recognise this attender as a practising Buddhist, however, and certainly wouldn't alter the teaching to accommodate these objections.

By contrast, many Quakers see it as the duty of the meeting to accommodate everyone's preferences, and to encourage everyone to interpret Quaker faith and practice in the way that is most congenial to them. Some Friends object to the language of 'worship', 'discernment' and 'divine guidance' because it does not fit with their rationalist intellectual conceptions. In many cases this leads to the shared language of the Quaker way being quietly dropped, and replaced with anodyne terms such as 'a time of quiet'. Without this shared language, what we can say to each other and to the world is reduced to a minimal vocabulary, largely drawn from the political and bureaucratic language of the dominant culture. This impoverished language leaves us few resources for expressing the distinctive teachings of the Quaker way and communicating the insights of Quaker experience.

The loss of a common language may also prevent us from engaging in core Quaker practices in mutually intelligible ways. Quaker practices such as meeting for worship and business meetings do not just rely on conformity to rules of behaviour. They rest on a level of shared understanding of what the activity is for. Without a shared language for meeting for worship it becomes simply a 'format' rather than a collective spiritual practice. The meeting can become a group of isolated individuals each on our own solitary spiritual journey, rather than a gathered people on a shared spiritual path.

A shared language need not be static or immune to development. Early Quakers developed a rich spiritual language, full of creative imagery. Much of it was drawn from the poetic language of the Bible, but used in creative ways to draw the imagination away from rigid, institutionalised and dogmatic interpretations. They described their spiritual experience in novel and unexpected ways, through expressions such as 'Inward Guide', 'Teacher' or 'Light', 'the Seed', 'the Principle of Life', 'openings', 'clearness' and 'testimony'.

Our Quaker language today has little of this exuberant creativity, although it proliferates in the bureaucratic language of committees, risk assessments, consultations and project management. Perhaps it is one of the tasks of contemporary Quakers to discover fresh possibilities for our religious language today. Instead of whittling it away to conform to the dominant culture, could we keep our language fluid and alive, responsive to the currents of the Spirit in our time and place? Might we come to extend our vocabulary of spiritual practice and experience, to echo all the struggles and joys of contemporary life, while staying rooted in the collective wisdom of Quaker practice over many generations? What might such a revived common tongue sound like?