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?