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As the Christian story has been gradually abandoned by liberal Quakers, it has been replaced by ‘Quaker values’ such as equality, social justice, simplicity and sustainability, which are now often regarded as the defining features of the Quaker way.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?

5 comments:

  1. You have asked what does the Christian story mean to me? In order to answer that question I must draw the following distinction. In his essay on The Religionless Christianity of George Fox, Lewis Benson defines religion in the words of Edmund Perry who says religion is "the generic term comprehending the universal phenomenon of men individually and collectively being led away from God in manifold ways by divers claims and systems." Benson contrasts revelation over against religion by quoting Hendrick Kraemer saying, "The character of revelation being what it is, it cannot be subsumed under a general concept of religion. Revelation....is God acting and speaking. That is not religion at all and never could be; for religion signifies: the various ways which men have of believing, together with their consequent activities." (See The Truth is Christ, by Lewis Benson, New Foundation publications no. 5, pp 32-47)

    So I must distinguish between Christianity, the religion, represented by Catholocism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism on the one hand; and Christianity, the revelation, represented by the apostles and the early Quakers on the other hand. I have experienced both. Life and power to live a life pleasing to God are only available under revelation, not religion. The "Quaker text" (John 1:1-18) lays out the abstract of the Gospel. When I was under religion, I read the stories of the prophets, the apostles, the early Quakers. These stories were like fossils found in rock: records of something that once was, but is no more. And my heart cried out, "Can these old bones live?" Religion was content to enumerate and retell the stories, but it was revelation that spoke to me and said, "Not those old bones, but yours must live today." Thus with George Fox, I can testify to the power of the revelation that said, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition." So, in the beginning of my life, as in the beginning of all, was the Word. In him was life and the life was my light, as it is the light of everyone born into the world. This light shone in my darkness and my darkness could neither overcome nor comprehend the light, even as it shines in the wickedness, misery and death of the whole world. When I came to believe in this light that comes from the life that is in the Word, then was I given power to become a child of God. This was true for George Fox and the early Quakers as well as for me and many others. Thus does the Word become flesh and tabernacle within us, full of grace and truth.

    The question, then, is neither "do I have the truth?" nor "do I have more truth than you?" Rather it is "Does the truth have me?" If I am to live under revelation, then I must stand upon what has been revealed trusting that Christ, the revealer of the Father (John 1:18), will correct me if I am mistaken. This has been my experience of living under Christ, the truth. My trust has not been misplaced.

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    1. "Does the truth have me?" sounds like an excellent query for all of us, thank you.

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  2. The tolerance that you call for in this essay is a value, just like any other testimony/value Liberal Quakers center their faith upon; it may be that "tolerance" is the value that is most assiduously held, as it suggests a social contract that limits critical scrutiny of belief and thereby enables "community," often idolized.

    It's not that tolerance is wrong and intolerance is right; it's that tolerance, as all the other values/testimonies/guidelines are products of human will, whereas we're called to a faith that is not a religion contrived by humanity (which first Friends called "will worship") but revealed, as the previous comment pointed out: called into a relationship with God that makes our human will silent and ourselves subservient to Divine Will.

    All the advantages you list of seeing "real differences in the traditions" and recognizing "unique contribution of each particular story" are simply calling for human perspectives to be enlarged by exposure to data: an intellectual aggrandizement, which brings no one closer to becoming one of "the nothing-ones [of] his fulness"(Penington, II, 351). This piece seems to call for voluntary humility but, in presenting as a worthy aspiration that which is simply the human power of comprehension, is yet of that fallen nature that would see ourselves as gods.

    "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Mt. 6:33). All the virtues/values will be added to us, once the fountain of virtue is known within. Likewise the stories of Scripture will be understood if and when they are read in the same Spirit in which they were written.

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    1. Dear Pat,
      Thanks for these thoughts. Tolerance is certainly a valuable liberal virtue, but it is not what I am intending to call for in this post. I don't see the value of religious traditions as primarily data for intellectual aggrandizement, but as profound vocabularies for making sense of our experience.
      It seems somewhat self-serving to rely on the Quaker Christian story ourselves, while dismissing every other community's story as humanly contrived 'will worship'.
      In Friendship, Craig

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    2. My point, Craig, was not that "the value of religious traditions [is] primarily data for intellectual aggrandizement," rather my point was that the comparing and contrasting religious traditions (an intellectual activity) was primarily data for intellectual aggrandizement.

      First Friends did not "dismiss every other community's story as humanly contrived 'will worship,'" and neither does our biblical tradition.(See Paul's reference to the Athenian poets in Acts 17:28.) They all did distinguish, however, wisdom from fleshly (intellectual) knowledge; Spirit from mind; heavenly from earthly; the pure from the vile; right order from confusion; truth from error; and, of course, the right hand from the left hand.

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"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)