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:

BELIEFS ⇒ ACTION

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’.

VALUES ⇒ ACTION

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?

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Truth and Lies

Truthfulness is a central virtue in traditional Quaker practice. Early Friends went to great lengths to uphold a collective testimony to plain and truthful speech at all times and on all occasions. Truthfulness, honesty and integrity were testimonies to the renewed lives of convinced Friends, who felt themselves to be freed from the self-serving motives that required dishonesty and deception. Through their experience of inward liberation, they became able to commit themselves to a fearless singleness of purpose, rejecting any desire for concealment or equivocation.

Our current Quaker discipline also contains an assumption that Friends are committed to truthfulness, with a high standard being set particularly by Advices & Queries 37:
"Are you honest and truthful in all you say and do?"
This is a remarkably challenging query, given that the goal of complete truthfulness is generally seen as both unrealistic and undesirable in contemporary culture, including among Quakers. For most people, including most modern Friends, ‘white lies’ are thought to be both inevitable and completely morally acceptable. Lying is usually considered essential to avoid giving offence and to smooth over potential embarrassments or social awkwardness.

Truthfulness is certainly very difficult to practice in everyday social and work situations. It is important to avoid giving unnecessary offence, and there are sometimes strong incentives to lie in order to avoid significant personal inconvenience. But the habit of reaching for the easy ‘social lie’ as a first resort evades the challenge to find a way of speaking honestly that is also tactful and considerate of others. A more truthful response will often require greater openness and vulnerability. It may mean exposing more of our real feelings, needs and values, instead of hiding behind conventional excuses.

Habits of truthfulness are important, not just for our own integrity, but principally for the building and maintenance of trust. Truthful speech and honest behaviour are essential conditions of relationships in which we can trust that someone will say what they mean, and do as they say. Without this background of social trust, we are condemned to live in a ‘post-truth’ world, in which we don’t even expect people to speak honestly, or to take our own statements seriously. Instead, speech is regarded simply as an instrument for manipulating each other in the service of our own interests.

I am sure that lying is sometimes necessary to prevent greater harm, especially by those in positions of political power or great responsibility. There is almost certainly an unavoidable clash between the demands of personal integrity and public responsibility. But the fact that deception is sometimes necessary does not mean that it is not in itself an evil, to be avoided wherever possible. The existence of some ‘hard cases’, where it is unclear how lying can be avoided without causing greater harm, does not make truthfulness irrelevant. On the contrary, it should emphasise the importance of cultivating habitual truthfulness in our daily life, in order to develop the capacity to discern those occasions when lying is actually unavoidable.

By raising this subject, I am not trying to make false claims about my own truthfulness. I find truth-telling difficult, especially in social and work situations where I am often unsure how to avoid lying without creating unnecessary difficulties. I am also sometimes unclear about where the boundaries of truthfulness are. Is it dishonest to say ‘sorry, I can’t make it’ to a social invitation, or simply a form of speech, and what alternatives might there be? Questions such as this could be useful subjects for discussion, but these conversations only make sense where we have a shared intention to take truthfulness seriously enough to test our own motives and behaviour according to its standard.

What does the Quaker testimony of truthfulness mean to you? How do you deal with the challenges of trying to speak truthfully in daily life?

Friday, 5 May 2017

The Practice of Sanctuary

"As a faith practice, sanctuary brings back into focus our community’s covenant to serve the Peaceable Kingdom." 
(Jim Corbett, The Sanctuary Church, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 270)
The practice of sanctuary has deep roots in Christian and other religious traditions. Sanctuary has often been associated with a particular sacred place, which offered a space of safety for people fleeing violent persecution. In modern times, the idea of sanctuary has broadened to include the many ways that local communities offer welcome and protection to people displaced by war, oppression, poverty and climate change.

British Quakers have been supporting people seeking sanctuary since the 17th Century, when they welcomed Hugeonot refugees escaping religious persecution in France. Before the second world war, Friends played a crucial role in the Kindertransport, which rescued thousands of Jewish children from Nazi Germany. Today, many British Quakers are welcoming people seeking sanctuary into their homes and their lives, and supporting them as befrienders, advocates, teachers and campaigners.

Quakers have a long-standing corporate testimony to opposing war. Those Friends who welcome people seeking sanctuary are offering their testimony against the modern state's 'war on refugees'. Over recent decades, despite numerous changes of government, the UK has increasingly resorted to dehumanising and violent methods for the enforcement of national borders. Arbitrary and indefinite detention, enforced destitution and forcible deportations have become instruments of policy, deliberately designed to create a ‘hostile environment’ to deter potential migrants. These are policies that make trauma and abuse inevitable, and that have led directly to the deaths of people seeking sanctuary in the UK by suicide and unlawful killing.

In the 18th Century, Quaker abolitionists such as John Woolman struggled against the "spirit of oppression" that made some human beings into slaves for the wealth and comfort of others. The same spirit is at work today in our treatment of people seeking sanctuary. They are our own society’s ‘non-persons’; victims of violence and abuse, detained without trial, or made destitute without the right to work. By steadily removing people seeking sanctuary from the basic services and legal protection of the rest of society, and making them into a target for violence and persecution, we have created a new underclass of systematically violated people. The immigration system is a visible sign of the disunity of the human family, a reflection and a consequence of our alienation from the Divine Guide. The practice of sanctuary confronts an immigration system that is designed to exclude and deter, that is grounded in the deliberate refusal of human community.

The Quaker experience is that friendship with excluded people is sacramental. It brings us into contact with the pain of our fellow human beings, but also with the hope and possibility of a world transformed by the presence and guidance of God. Offering sanctuary is an act of faith; a statement of hope in the possibilities of human solidarity. Through friendship with people seeking sanctuary, Quakers have discovered a view of society from the perspective of those who do not count, those who are rejected and dehumanised by official policy. These relationships of solidarity bring light to the hidden places where the violence of the immigration system is usually concealed, in detention centres, hostels and immigration courts. By illuminating the darkest corners of our society, and opening up new possibilities of unity and friendship, the practice of sanctuary expresses the transformative power of the divine Light, which "shows us our darkness and brings us to new life" (Advices and queries 1).

By defending the humanity and dignity of people seeking sanctuary, Friends keep alive the vision of a society that is open to friendship across barriers of race, culture, wealth and nationality. By refusing to accept the division of humanity by nationality and immigration status, the practice of sanctuary reveals and celebrates the divine ground and potential of human community. Like the practice of Quaker worship, the practice of sanctuary is "a celebration of the continual resurrection within us of the springs of hope and love; a sense that each of us is, if we will, a channel for a power that is both within us and beyond us." (Lorna M Marsden, Quaker faith & practice 20.16)

Relationships with people who are violated and excluded challenge us to discern how to respond with our own lives. By sharing their lives and stories with us, people seeking sanctuary remind us that they are not statistics or problems, but unique and precious human beings, each with their own hopes, anxieties and divine potential. By opening our eyes to this fundamental reality they ‘answer that of God’ in us. They awaken us to the Spirit of God at work in them and in us to overcome the violent divisions that we have imposed on the human family. Through them, the Inward Teacher is speaking to us, to challenge our own comfort with a social system that needs to brutalise and humiliate vulnerable people to protect our own standard of living.

Friendship with people seeking sanctuary is a reflection of our vocation to be a community that serves the Peaceable Kingdom, that keeps alive the vision of a world where human divisions are overcome in friendship and sharing. The practice of sanctuary reminds us that the heart of the Quaker way is a spirituality of hospitality. The Quaker practices of worship and discernment develop our capacity to welcome the life and activity of the divine Guide in our lives, to make a home for the "promptings of love and truth", even when they are unfamiliar or challenging. The practice of the Quaker way enables us to become people who are willing to open ourselves to the unsettling presence and unexpected gifts of the Other.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Weeds and flowers in spoken ministry

There are many ways of understanding Quaker spoken ministry. For some Friends, it is a spontaneous expression of the Spirit, for which the individual Friend serves as a channel. The aim of ministry should be to get our own views, feelings and judgements out of the way in order to let the Spirit speak through us. In this case, there can be no humanly-made rules or guidelines for spoken ministry, and no-one can presume to judge, advise or correct a ministering Friend, since the authority for ministry is solely divine. All spoken ministry is, by definition, of and from the Spirit.

Another commonly-held view of spoken ministry is that it is how Friends share their thoughts, feelings and experiences with each in other, in the context of an inclusive community. Ministry is one way that we can support, encourage and get to know each other. It does not require any special ‘spiritual’ experiences or promptings, and the aim should be to accept and welcome every person’s contribution without judgement, as a way of recognising everyone’s equal worth and value to the community. Some ministry may speak to me more than others, but there can be no question of any ministry being ‘deeper’ or more ‘authentic’ than any other. All ministry is simply and equally the truthful expression of the individual Friend’s own experience. In this view, it would also be wrong ever to question the content or motivation of any spoken ministry, which would amount to criticising that Friend’s presence in the community.

According to both of these views, there is little wisdom in the Quaker traditions of weighing and discerning spoken ministry, of regular ministers’ responsibility for study and spiritual development, or of elders’ duty to encourage authentic ministry and discourage what is unhelpful. These traditional aspects of Quaker practice are often discounted as out-dated or irrelevant, because they do not fit with the understandings of ministry currently held by many Friends. But these traditions make much more sense if spoken ministry is understood as having much in common with other, everyday skilled practices such as gardening, cooking or carpentry.

This approach shares the understanding that Quaker practices such as spoken ministry cannot be reduced to a set of rules, but this does not mean that there are no standards by which they can be judged and appreciated. The Quaker practices of worship, discernment and testimony require skill and good judgement both to practise well and to appreciate in others. Just as we don't become a skilled gardener or cook overnight, we also have to grow into the exercise and appreciation of Quaker practices, through continual learning and patient effort.

Shared standards of judgement and appreciation are part of what defines a community of practice. Gardeners differ widely in their tastes and styles, but part of what it means to be a gardener is to have developed the capacity to recognise good gardening when you see it – even in styles that are quite different to one's own. Cooks, carpenters, plumbers and beekeepers have a multitude of different approaches and traditions, but they all involve acceptance of collective standards for the successful exercise of their craft. The standards accepted by organic or permaculture growers differ in significant ways from those of mainstream gardeners, and it is largely the differences in these standards that give these communities their identity; but to reject any collective standard would put the practitioner outside of any community of practice. If someone adopts their own, purely personal standard; saying 'I like my garden full of bindweed and my compost heap anaerobic and slimy', they are simply pleasing themselves rather than participating in any existing community of gardeners.

Spoken ministry in a Quaker meeting for worship is also a communal practice, and it involves collective standards for appreciating good and helpful ministry and avoiding what is unhelpful. There is a role for ‘rules’ or guidelines for good practice; such as avoiding speaking more than once during a meeting, addressing another Friend or contradicting another's ministry. But as with other kinds of skilled practice, rules can only help us to avoid the most glaring errors, and might even be legitimately broken in unusual situations. By themselves, rules cannot guide our appreciation of a good meeting or good ministry. For this we need a shared understanding of the goals of worship and ministry.

Just as with the appreciation of gardens, cooking or poetry, it is inevitable and healthy that we won't always be in full agreement about our appreciation of good ministry, which depends to a considerable degree on our individual needs and conditions. But it is possible to appreciate the quality of spoken ministry from a shared understanding of what the practice of worship is for, rather than just our individual preferences. Just as gardening has goals that are internal to the practice, such as beautiful, thriving and wildlife-rich environments, spoken ministry has its own goals that are inherent in the practice of worship. Authentic ministry is not simply self-expression, it has a purpose that is part of God's purposes for us as a community of faith.

The aim of ministry is to speak from and to the depths of hearts and minds; to raise in its hearers a desire to live more closely to the Inward Guide, more ready to leave behind comfort, security and certainty in the service of a larger, more courageous life of faithfulness to the divine Life within. Ministry such as this is not solely a product of our own efforts; it is a gift of the Spirit, beyond our deliberate contriving. But we have the responsibility to practise becoming more attentive to the Spirit's leadings. It is easy for all of us to confuse divine promptings with the sometimes subtle claims of our own needs for self-assertion or reassurance. It may take a lifetime of practice to become fully sensitive to the leadings that are offered to us, and capable of distinguishing the weeds from the flowers in our ministry. These are the skills of Quaker practice that we need to learn from each other, to enable us to be more faithful in our ministry and more discerning and appreciative of the ministry of others. This deliberate turning of our whole being towards the Inward Light is the work of a lifetime; it takes patience, perseverence, courage and humility that must be learned through continued wholehearted attempts and partial successes and failures. In the words of A. Naeve Brayshaw:
"the knowledge of the harm that we may be doing and of the help that we might be giving turns our faces in the direction of the work, giving us encouragement to it and power to come over the fear that would hold us back."

(Christian faith and practice, 1959, 289)
How do you understand the practice of spoken ministry? How has your practice or appreciation developed with experience?   

Friday, 17 February 2017

Stories and Values

Liberal Quakers pride ourselves on being universalists. At its best, universalism means recognising the value of many different religions and cultures – that no one tradition has a monopoly on spiritual truth or insight. This is certainly a vast improvement on the ‘exclusivist’ claim that there is only one ‘true religion’, and that all other churches, sects, religions or cultures are in error. This kind of thinking, which has contributed so much to discrediting Christianity and religion as a whole, was widespread in most Christian churches until the 1960s, and is still a characteristic feature of fundamentalist sects.

The form that universalism usually takes among Quakers is the elevation of universal values over particular religious stories. According to this approach, what is true or valuable in different religious traditions is not the culture-specific details of their stories, myths, images and characters, which are limited to particular times and places, and which all contradict each other. Instead, it is only the universal values they have in common which express anything of real significance. This appears to be the idea expressed, for example, by Karen Armstrong’s claim that compassion is the single, fundamental value at the core of all religions.

This attitude often leads modern Quakers to dismiss the Christian origins of the Quaker way as accidental and irrelevant to contemporary Quaker practice. According to this view, the Quaker movement happened to arise in the context of an exclusively Christian culture, which is why early Friends used Christian language, as the only vocabulary available to them at the time. In the modern context of a plural and increasingly secular culture, this language is no longer relevant for British Quakers as a whole. At most, it is a minority interest of a particular special interest group, those known as ‘Christian Quakers’.

As the Christian story has been gradually abandoned by liberal Quakers, it has been replaced by ‘Quaker values’ such as equality, social justice, simplicity and sustainability, which are now often regarded as the defining features of the Quaker way. By the ‘Christian story’ I do not mean abstract theological doctrines, but the Biblical narratives, characters and images which offer symbolic resources for illuminating human experience. These include parables and stories such as the good Samaritan and prodigal son, and Jesus’ birth, miraculous healings and betrayal in the garden of Gethsemane.  The Christian story also draws on the exuberant richness of imagery, myth and symbolism of the Hebrew scriptures – streams of living water, hills that shout for joy, and divine lovers with ‘eyes like doves’ and ‘kisses like the best wine’ (Song of Solomon 5:8, 7:9).

Stories like these can be read and interpreted from vastly different perspectives, as is evident from the enormous diversity of Christian theology and spirituality. The value of religious stories does not lie in literal belief, as if the Bible were just a set of factual propositions. In fact, the literal, fundamentalist approach to the Bible is a surprisingly recent modern invention. For most of Christian history, the Bible has been read as a source of guiding images, of symbolic glimpses into divine reality, rather than a collection of empirical facts. Instead of a literalist reading that is alien to the culture of the Bible itself, the Christian story can be understood as a collection of ‘true myths’ that continually generate new possibilities of meaning because they are anchored in experiential realities of the soul.

Religious stories, myths and images are not irrelevant details; they constitute an emotionally charged imaginative world. The stories of the Christian tradition enable an emotional identification with specific people, places and events that is often lacking from an intellectual commitment to abstract values. In the same way, the poetry of the Koran and the acts of Muhammad, or the life and teaching of Buddha, are irreplaceably precious to Muslims and Buddhists. These particular stories, words and images are not secondary to a real core of ‘fundamental values’; they are indispensable to the meaning of any religious tradition.

The kind of universalism that seeks to replace particular religious stories with universal values assumes a false position of objectivity, which presumes to judge and re-interpret every religious tradition according to its own assumptions. This is actually another form of ‘exclusivism’, which sees universalism itself as the only truly objective standpoint, and every storied religious tradition as merely a limited, culture-bound vehicle for the universal values that are discernible by the more enlightened universalist.

In mainstream British culture the Christian story has been hugely, and perhaps fatally, discredited by the historical crimes and failings of institutional Christianity. But until very recently Quakers have had a distinctive understanding of Christianity that rejects authoritarianism, dogma and collusion with violence, and uses the Bible to illuminate our own experience of spiritual reality. This Quaker Christian tradition is our unique contribution to the religious cultures of the world. By abandoning our own story in favour of abstract ethical principles we reduce the beauty and diversity of spiritual resources available to all people.

Commitment to a particular religious story does not mean dismissing all others. It is not uncommon to have emotional and spiritual roots in multiple religious stories, as Rhiannon Grant has recently explored in her work on ‘multiple religious belonging’ (article available to download here). By taking the diversity of religious stories seriously, we might allow ourselves to be challenged by the real differences between traditions, rather than insisting that they all conform to one set of values. This is a form of universalism that is genuinely open to a diversity of spiritual insights and experiences, and that recognises the unique contribution of each particular story, including our own unique Quaker Christian tradition.

What does the Christian story mean to you? Are particular religious stories or universal values more important for your Quaker practice?