Friday, 13 September 2019

Suffering is not a mistake

Photo: Alan Paxton
The religious path is often presented as a way to achieve inner peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering. Much popular spirituality claims that life is meant to be filled with peace and contentment; that pain and anguish are problems that can be overcome by the right attitude or technique. The promise of perfect contentment is seductive, but it can never be fulfilled, because it is based on the illusion that suffering is a mistake. 

Suffering, ageing, sickness and loss are not regrettable failures to realise our true nature. They are inherent in the nature of embodied human life and our often-incompatible needs and desires. Any spirituality, therapy or ideology that promises an escape from these limitations neglects the truth that suffering is an essential dimension of human life. Growth in spiritual maturity does not mean escaping or transcending these experiences, but becoming more able to accept and learn from them; to receive the painful gifts that they have to offer.

The Quaker way, with its emphasis on the Inward Light, is sometimes mistaken for one of these otherworldly spiritualities. But Quaker experience includes a far more realistic appreciation of the role of suffering in human life. In modern culture it is generally taken for granted that the aim of life is ‘happiness’ (understood as a positive mood or pleasant emotional states) and that our choices should be based on deciding what will bring the most happiness and the least suffering. This is in stark contrast to the actions of those Quakers throughout history who have deliberately chosen persecution, impoverishment, and costly and dangerous commitments in response to the leadings of the Inward Guide. If their goal was happiness, Quakers would never have stood up to governments and oppressive church institutions to demand religious freedom. They would not have gone to prison for conscientious objection to conscription, or like the US Quaker Tom Fox, been murdered working for peace in Iraq. For the Quaker way, it is not happiness or freedom from suffering that is the goal of life, but faithfulness to the life of the Spirit within, whatever it brings. 

Why should anyone choose to follow such a path, if it does not promise to give us happiness or spare us pain? Perhaps one answer is that there is a deeper need; for a life that is charged with meaning through relationship with the Inward Guide. Happiness cannot provide a meaning for life, because it depends on finding a meaning in something else. Pleasure, comfort and luxury rapidly give way to boredom and restlessness. Our deepest need is for a sense of the meaningfulness of our life. We can tolerate endless hardships and frustrations in enthusiastic service of a goal which is full of meaning for us. Without meaning, all our pleasures turn to ashes, and no rewards are sufficient to motivate us to action. 

Quakers and others have been willing to endure persecution and hardship in the service of the Inward Guide, because its leadings have been charged with meaning and purpose. The guidance of the Spirit has illuminated their lives with profound significance that made sacrifices worthwhile and brought the possibility of joy in the midst of suffering. The Quaker philosopher John Macmurray has described this understanding of the religious path:
“When religion is real, it throws the centre of our interest and our action right outside ourselves. It is not about myself at all, or only incidentally and for a purpose that is not my own. It is about the world I live in and the part that I must play in it. It is not to serve my need but the need of the world through me. Real religion is not something that you possess but rather a power that lays hold of you and uses you in service of a will that is greater than your own.”
(Macmurray ‘Search for a Faith’)
This is an extract from my new book 'The Guided Life', which is available now from the Quaker Bookshop.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

The Guided Life

My new book, The Guided Life, isn't officially launched until November, but it is already available to buy from the Quaker Bookshop. The book tries to describe what I see as the central practices of the Quaker way and the role they have played in my own life, as well as in the lives of some other Friends throughout our history.

It is not so much another 'introduction to Quakers for newcomers', as an exploration of how traditional Quaker spiritual practices might be useful to anyone who is struggling with the challenges and dilemmas of modern life. The common modern experiences of constant change, mobility and insecurity can present deep challenges for many of us who are searching for a meaningful path through life. The Quaker approaches to discernment, worship and communal organisation that are described here can perhaps offer some helpful insights to anyone who is looking for a deeper experience of their life's purpose.

Rex Ambler has written this review of The Guided Life:
"This book will appeal to people who want a better understanding of the Quaker way. They might have heard what Quakers stand for, what sort of things they do – much has been said and written about these things. This book explores the experience behind all that. It shows how the practice of 'waiting in the light,' for example, can gives us an insight into our life that enables us to see how better to live it. The practice does this by putting us in touch with a source of wisdom within us that we are not normally aware of, because we rely too much on words and talk, on our own attempts to work things out for ourselves. The Quaker way is a matter of allowing ourselves to be 'guided'.
'The guided life', it must be said, is not a life that will appeal to many moderns. They want to guide life themselves. But Craig Barnett shows in this thoughtful analysis that taking control of one's life in this way, though helpful up to a point, eventually limits it and frustrates it. His many examples from contemporary experience, his own as well as others', will resonate with many people and help them see the point of the spiritual practice he recommends.
This is surely one of the best descriptions of the Quaker way of life we have. It explains so clearly the human experience on which it is based, the practical exercises we can undertake to follow it, and the outcome of following it in a wholesome, joyful life that is shared with other people."
(The Guided Life - an appreciation, Rex Ambler)

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Speaking our Truth Part 2

This is the second and final part of Rex Ambler's talk to Lancashire Area Meeting in February 2019 on the theme of 'God, Words and Us'.
In the first part of his talk, Rex described the current difficulty facing British Quakers - "And yet we do not unite, as yet, on the most fundamental thing. What do we believe in or trust as Quakers? Do we trust ourselves or the great Other than ourselves? What is our truth? And how can we speak our Quaker truth to the world?"

How we are handling the difficulty

The way we are handling it at the moment could be described as a policy of toleration. That is, we agree to disagree. It is implied in that concluding section of the book God, Words and Us which says,
We agree that the Society of Friends is a community centred on the practice of waiting, listening meeting for worship, We agree that differences of understanding about what it is we listen to or worship do not prevent us from practising meeting for worship together. (p.79)
That is a fair summary of where we got to in the Theology Thinktank and it marks the important realisation that, for all our differences, we Quakers were able to unite on our distinctive practice.

Have we then resolved the issue in this way? Can we retain our unity and mission by agreeing on the practice and allowing a great variety of interpretations of the practice? A similar question arises from our final minute and epistle at last Yearly Meeting, in 2018.
Quakers in Britain are diverse in matters of belief and the language we use to describe them and that is to be celebrated. We also experience in our meetings unity and oneness in the depths of our worship together. We should be true to our own beliefs, and listen deeply to other people's experiences, as well as their words. We remember that sometimes ambiguity, and archaic phrases from former times, enable Quakers to search for the meaning for themselves and interpret it as they are led. Who are we, and who do we aspire to be? Can we also offer each other support by sharing honestly our real lived lives, including the parts we are not so proud of?
Toleration of diversity in this sense seems vital to the liberal culture we want to encourage among Friends and in society at large. Some Friends are even urging that toleration of different views is part of the meaning of Quakerism itself. It is part of what is meant by our commitment to equality and unconditional love. But we can see on reflection that this cannot be right. We do not tolerate practices that undermine our discipline or bring the Society into disrepute. We do not tolerate violent or abusive practices, or understandings of life which encourage these things. We are committed as Quakers to a certain understanding of life and how it is to be lived, which is why we have the practices we have. In particular, we have testimonies against war, oppression, poverty, untruthfulness and formal doctrine. We cannot really separate what we do as Quakers from the understanding that undergirds it and the understanding we want to convey to others by doing it. Our commitment is, and always has been, primarily to truth, that is, truth as we experience it and bear witness to it. Our understanding of the truth changes over time, of course, as the realities change. The above minute 31 also says, quoting our current Book of Discipline approvingly,
We are seeking but we are also the holders of a precious heritage of discoveries. We, like every generation, must find the Light and Life again for ourselves. Only what we have valued and truly made our own, not by assertion but by lives of faithful commitment, can be handed on to the future. Even then, we must humbly acknowledge that our vision of the truth will again and again be amended.
That is one reason we cannot fix it in a doctrine. And that is one reason that we have a Book of Discipline and revise it every generation or so. Here is our written testimony to the truth of our situation as it now is and as we now see it.

If on the other hand we allow or encourage quite different understandings we will get into serious difficulty. We will not be able to share our experience of unity in words. We will not be able to express our understanding of things in public for fear of upsetting others who might not agree with us or accept our language. Without a common language and understanding we will not be able to acknowledge and resolve those important differences that remain and have to be dealt with. Sooner or later differences both great and small will be swept under the carpet. Communication is therefore stifled and the life of the meeting is atrophied. We are are also then unable to tell others outside the meeting what the Quakers stand for, why we do the strange things we do in meeting for worship, or for business, or to protest publicly against some evil in the world. And finally, we cannot speak as a body of Friends nationally, either to respond to crises emerging or to communicate with other religious bodies to engage in dialogue. In these circumstances the Society of Friends begins to lose its voice, its basis for unity and its very identity. Under these conditions it surely cannot survive very long.

So the attempt to resolve our difficulty about language by adopting a liberal policy of toleration will not help very much. It is helpful in politics, of course, and necessary, when there are conflicts in beliefs and ideas which cannot be resolved, so long as there is a modicum of respect for the law and the democratic process. But it does not help a faith community where disagreements on the faith itself need to be resolved. A policy of toleration may indeed make matters worse.

How we might get out of the difficulty
This impasse, however, might itself help us to find a way through. This conflict is about words, language, beliefs, things that can be written down on a piece of paper. Put this way, it reminds us that Quaker faith is not based on these things, on ideas or 'notions,' but on experience - specifically our experience of the realities that concern us most.

This was a discovery of the Thinktank. If we have a puzzling variety of beliefs and ideas, we realized, we must recognize that they are at best interpretations of our experience. So if the variety is troubling in some way we should return to the experiences from which these beliefs arose and check them out. And let us hear from one another how our different ways of thinking or speaking arose. The last thing we must do is to fix those interpretations and polarize them into opposite camps. We must rather look carefully at the variety we have and come to understand what it means and how it has arisen. This way we can see our differences more clearly, honestly and positively. One good image that emerged from the consultation was Rachel Muers' 'caravan in the desert'. It was summarised in the conclusion of the book (God, Words and Us, p.79)
We have used the image of a caravan travelling together through the desert – some in the centre, carrying luggage and supplies; others scouting the way or exploring nearby routes; all visibly travelling as part of the same body.
It gave expression to the experience we had in the group when we had listened carefully and patiently to what everyone had said, appreciated the experience and thought out of which it came, and were then able to discern the underlying unity in our experience. We knew, not theoretically but experientially, that we were 'travelling as part of the same body.'

This reminded us of what often happens in a business meeting (as in Quaker Faith and Practice 3:01-07). The important truth we need to know is beyond what we might each initially have thought. When we have a difficult decision to make, we discipline ourselves to listen to what everyone has to say, without passing judgement. What we are looking for is not the best opinion or the winning argument, but the truth that we can all discern to be right, but which needs all of us to get there. I have reflected much on this since, because it indicates to me how we can get through the difficulty of our clashing beliefs. We don't normally apply our business method to such profound matters as our basis for living, but this is surely a time to do so, or at least an opportunity to see if we could do so. Let me quote from the Book of Discipline at some length, and I think you will recognize how relevant it is to the matter we are discussing here.
The right conduct of our meetings for church affairs depends upon all coming to them in an active, seeking spirit, not with minds already made up on a particular course of action, determined to push this through at all costs. But open minds are not empty minds, nor uncritically receptive: the service of the meeting calls for knowledge of facts, often painstakingly acquired, and the ability to estimate their relevance and importance. This demands that we shall be ready to listen to others carefully, without antagonism if they express opinions which are unpleasing to us, but trying always to discern the truth in what they have to offer. It calls, above all, for spiritual sensitivity. If our meetings fail, the failure may well be in those who are ill-prepared to use the method rather than in the inadequacy of the method itself.

It is always to be recognized that, coming together with a variety of temperaments, of backgrounds, education and experience, we shall have differing contributions to make to any deliberation. It is no part of Friends' concern for truth that any should be expected to water down a strong conviction or be silent merely for the sake of easy agreement. Nevertheless we are called to honour our testimony that to every one is given a measure of the light, and that it is in the sharing of knowledge, experience and concern that the way towards unity will be found....
The unity we seek depends on the willingness of us all to seek the truth in each other's utterances; on our being open to persuasion; and in the last resort on a willingness to recognize and accept the sense of the meeting as recorded in the minute, knowing that our dissenting views have been heard and considered....
In a meeting rightly held a new way may be discovered which none present had alone perceived and which transcends the differences of the opinions expressed. This is an experience of creative insight, leading to a sense of the meeting which a clerk is often led in as remarkable way to record. Those who have shared this experience will not doubt its reality and the certainty it brings of the immediate rightness of the way for the meeting to take. 
(Quaker Faith and Practice, 3.05-06.)
You notice that what a meeting is primarily concerned about, even in its discussion of practical affairs, is finding the truth of the situation they are concerned about. It is not about finding a course of action they can all agree on, or a compromise between different views, and certainly not a majority opinion. It is simply and bravely about the actual truth of the matter. And that truth might take us beyond what any of us might have previously thought. But when we see it, we know it's right and that we can commit to it.

When we come to the profounder matters of our faith and life as Quakers it might not be so easy to practise this discipline. How, for example, do we let go our individual viewpoints? We have a lot invested in them. So we will have to be more restrained and patient, and rely more on our practice of silent waiting and listening. We will have to become more aware, not only of our present beliefs and attitudes, but also of the experience of life that led us to them, perhaps over many years. This personal learning may then make us more ready and able to listen to the different ideas and experiences of others until we really do understand where we all come from. This discipline may be tough and challenging, but it surely bears fruit.

We found this in the Thinktank. When we talked about Meeting for Worship, for example, it sounded at first as if we were describing different experiences. Some understood they were worshipping God, others said they had no idea of God at all and were merely exploring the issues of their life. With more sharing, however, it became clear that they were not so far apart. Those who 'worshipped God' did not in fact have an idea of God in their minds; they were rather opening themselves to the reality beyond themselves which they dimly sensed to be the source of their life and made some sort of claim on them. Those who 'merely' explored the issues of their life said they were also, in a way, opening themselves to life itself, something ultimately mysterious and beyond their grasp. They didn't want to call it 'God', because that word indicated for them the idea of a being outside the world who somehow controlled it – that is, the idea of theism. But those who did want to describe it as God made it clear they had no such idea in mind. They used the word God to point to something which they could not understand but somehow nevertheless 'sensed' or 'felt', and wanted to acknowledge. In the group I was in I could sense this extraordinary coming together, which didn't mean that we now said the same thing about this ultimate reality, but that we recognized the genuineness of our different experiences – firstly – but also - secondly – the unity in our actual experience of worship.

Could we then describe this unity? Yes, but not in terms of the object of worship as something 'out there' or even as the source of it as something 'in here', like Spirit. We could express it by describing the experience itself, which in some way took us outside ourselves. This has something to do with the practice of silent waiting, which enables us to let go of our everyday concerns and become more aware of the world around us, the greater life that makes our life possible, that nurtures us but also demands a generous response from us. We even agreed that what we most valued in worship was the sense of belonging to this greater whole, the sense of awe at what was ultimately beyond our grasp, but which we could nevertheless trust and love. When I heard us saying this I felt there was nothing more that needed to be said, and very little more that could be said. We had touched the sacred, not least in one another, and our task was now to live in the light of it.

My conclusion from this experience and my reflection on it since is that we have the answers to the problem already in our Quaker way. We only need the courage to pursue it. Let me try to summarize that distinctive way of ours as it affects the way we speak our truth:

1. We do not put our trust in words about God that have been passed down to us from others, as in traditional Christianity. Nor on the other hand in words we ourselves have thought up to describe the world objectively and rationally. We finally let go of all words and open ourselves inwardly in silence to the reality of life as it presents itself to us. We discover that this reality is so elusive, though, as we open ourselves to it, that, however real we find it to be, we cannot form an idea of it or get a mental grip on it.

2. So the question is how we can speak our truth. We cannot describe it literally. It is not a factual truth about the world out there. It is not in this respect like science. So it is not only doubtful to speak about God as a being out there somewhere; it is a betrayal of our faith and vision. To be faithful to the truth we have discerned in silent waiting we need to speak in such a way as to express the insight that has come to us out of our experience of life and to evoke that awareness in others. We use stories, for example, poetry, advice, proverbs. Above all, we will speak from our personal experience. And for that reason we will all speak differently, even while speaking of a similar experience, because we ourselves are different. But these different testimonies to experience will enrich and enlarge us, if we recognise where they come from and and what it is in us that they resonate with Our own testimony will then become fuller and more inclusive.

3. To understand things more fully and deeply, we listen to one another with an open heart, not judging or criticising, and we look for the truth that we can all recognize and embrace. And the language that emerges as we talk openly with one another will be the language we can effectually use to communicate our truth to others in the world out there. We do not have to create this language with our own mental effort or imagination, or take it from some document we regard as authoritative. It is given to us in the conversation we have together about our experience – often in dialogue with friends past and present who have similar insights.

4. If we speak from our common and shared experience as a Society of Friends we will speak with one voice about the truth as we now discern it together. 

Helen Rowlands, ed., God, Words and Us, Quaker Books, 2017.
Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker Faith and Practice, Quaker Books, 1995.
Craig Barnett, Quaker Renewal, The Friend Publications, 2017.
Rhiannon Grant, Telling the Truth about God, Quaker Quicks, The Christian Alternative, 2019.
Rex Ambler, The Quaker Way, The Christian Alternative, 2013, especially chapter 2 on 'Looking for God.'
Rex Ambler, Resolving Difference – in our ways of speaking about God or the ultimate reality, Quaker Universalist Group Pamphlets, 2016.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Speaking our Truth

This is the first part of a guest post by Rex Ambler, based on a talk he gave to Lancashire Area Meeting in February 2019 on the theme of 'God, Words and Us'.

We are going to reflect today on something we Quakers have found it difficult to talk about: the basis of our life as Quakers, the faith that grounds our life and guides us through it, holding us together with all our difference, and giving us hope when times get rough. We may be confident in ourselves about this faith, but not so much about how we describe it. The problem is that we have different ways of talking and some of us sometimes get upset by these differences. Can we speak about 'God', for example, or 'Christ' or 'Spirit'? Some Friends who are not happy with these words have got together to find ways of describing their faith in different words. They call themselves 'non-theistic Friends,' meaning they do not accept the traditional belief in God as a being beyond the world. (I'll come back to the meaning of 'theism' later. That is another word liable to misunderstanding.)

The difficulty we are in
Meetings which are aware of this difficulty find themselves reluctant to say what they really want to say. They are stymied on how to give ministry, for example, or how to write a minute. The fear of upsetting someone in the meeting and the discomfort of not being able to speak freely in the meeting have a stifling effect.

Matters have come to a head at the national level since Yearly Meeting decided to proceed, despite this difficulty, with the revision of the Book of Discipline. That decision was made last year. Before that, though, anticipating the revision, Yearly Meeting set up a body to look at these issues with religious language and advise on how we could approach them. You can see that at the national level we have a problem that may not have to be faced locally. When we speak as a Yearly Meeting we speak with one voice. In the Book of Discipline especially we speak on behalf of all Friends, or rather, we speak as one Society of Friends. Even if we have different voices in the text, deliberately to express our variety, we have a presiding voice which speaks on behalf of Yearly Meeting as a whole. And, of course, the point and purpose of our Book of Discipline is to give expression to our common faith and how it works out in practice. So we have a real problem here and we have to resolve it.

The group set up to look at this issue was called the Theology Thinktank, somewhat tongue in cheek, I think, because we Quakers don't focus on theology and don't try to solve our basic problems by 'thinking' about them. But some thinking was required here, or at least some thoughtful attention which could be undertaken in a Quaker way.

It was a very good exercise – I was part of it, as was Craig Barnett, who is speaking later. We made some progress in our understanding, though the 23 of us involved represented the wide spectrum of ideas and attitudes in the Society as a whole. And what we found most helpful was the process we underwent to come to that understanding. This was reported in the small book, published in 2017, God, Words and Us, and Craig and I are drawing on this report to present this workshop today. In fact, the report recommends that to bring the whole of the Yearly Meeting to a better understanding we should all go through this process in our various meetings.

So we shall do some participatory work here, later, but now I want to offer my own insights on how we got into this difficulty and how we might get out of it. And I shall be drawing not only on the recent book, but also on my life-long preoccupation with these issues, and in particular my discovery of the remarkable Quaker way through them, which led me to join the Society some 35 years ago.

How we got into this difficulty
The difficulty we have in speaking about God is not just our problem, and it is not just a problem with words. It is a problem we have in thinking about life in general, about the world in general, and it has been with us since at least the Renaissance and the Reformation some 500 years ago. Everyone back then thought of the world as revolving around God, who created everything and designed it for a purpose. The task of every human being was to discover that purpose for themselves and carry it out, otherwise they would lose all meaning in their lives and all hope. This was a tall order because God was so elusive, beyond human reach. But the church, which dominated society at the time, and had done for some one thousand years, was claiming that this God had revealed himself in Christ, and that Christ had passed on his authority to the church. The church therefore constructed an elaborate system of thought and practice, which explained how everything was made and how we were all to fit in, at our different levels of society.

However, this system was proving to be burdensome in the 16th century. The society was changing as people got wealthier, built cities, gained knowledge and invented new technologies. The church however was fixed, established by God apparently and so not open to negotiation. Indeed, it was not in principle open to change. What the church said and did, it had always said and done, and would do to the end of the world. So with new demands for change, it was coming to be felt as inflexible, insensitive, even dishonest. Also, people found the church's claim to authority now open to question. They began to realize that if they were to know how things really were in the world, or in their own personal lives, they would have to find out for themselves. Indeed, in many areas of life they would have to take matters into their own hands, even if this meant a clash with the church. Perhaps this was the only way to get the church to reform. So people began to assert themselves in every sphere of life, in religion, politics, trade and learning. Hence the Reformation which relied on personal faith in God, the new experimental philosophy which we came to know as modern science, the new experiment in politics which we came to recognize as democracy – and surprisingly, a new experiment in religion which we came to know as the Society of Friends.

The dominant response to authority, however, was not the Quaker turn to the light within, 'that of God in everyone.' It was the assertion of the known human powers of reason, creativity and physical force. It came to expression in the so-called Enlightenment, which sought to understand everything and control everything by the human 'light of reason.' This huge cultural change did not dispense with the idea of God or the authority that might come with God's self-revelation. But it did insist that the whole of faith and religion should be based on reason. So even the reality of God couldn't be taken for granted. It had to be investigated, and if found to be true, set out in arguments that any rational person could appreciate and accept. So arguments were put forward to show that God had to exist because the world wouldn't make sense rationally without God existing. This idea became known as theism. The idea that God's existence could not be shown by argument and therefore had to be rejected became known as atheism. We need to understand these rival ideas because they have shaped the way we think today. And we need to understand the underlying conflict which produced them, after the Reformation and the wars of religion: the conflict between faith in God as a being above and beyond the world and faith in ourselves as humans. This brought with it a change in the understanding of what God is. If the idea of God was to explain rationally how the world is or how we ourselves are, we have to understand clearly what God is, what is meant by this idea. God must be an 'intelligible being,' like a human being, perhaps, but on an infinite scale. It wouldn't do to say God was essentially a mystery, because that could not be demonstrated and it wouldn't explain anything. The idea that God could be known through experience, or 'sensed,' and only known this way was generally dismissed by the intellectuals as 'enthusiasm' or 'mysticism.' So the Quakers, along with other mystical or romantic groups, got sidelined in this new modern world as irrelevant.

In this struggle of our western society it is clear that human self-confidence has been steadily gaining ground, especially through its success in science and technology. We seem to have reached a turning point in our own life time. Only last year a survey found that for the first time more people in the UK described themselves as secular rather than religious – and 'religious' meant believing in God in a traditional way.

This week a BBC poll learned that its viewers had chosen, as 'the greatest person of the 20th century,' one Alan Turing, the scientist who cracked the Enigma Code and invented the computer. He came ahead of figures like Mandela, Luther King, Picasso, even Einstein. This tells us something of what people in Britain now value most.

Science in particular has gripped people's imagination, especially at a time when political and religious leaders are losing credibility. Science is thought of as our attempt to master the world with our own conscious resources. And it tends to set the agenda when it comes to questions of truth. Questions of value we non-scientists can decide, because the world disclosed by science appears to have no meaning or value or purpose in itself. It is up to us to provide meaning and establish what is worthwhile. In such a world there is no room for God or spirit or anything eternal. We are basically on our own.

Or is there something missing here? Is there another dimension to life? Is there perhaps some overall meaning or purpose which we cannot discern with our scientific glasses on?

That is the tussle in our modern society and within individuals themselves. And Friends have been caught up in it – as indeed we should be, since we're part of society. But this tussle is particularly real for those who have come to Friends from other faith traditions, including, if I may call it that, the humanist faith or the rationalist faith – the 'faith' of these non-religious people derives from the fact that they have to believe in humans or reason to make sense of their world and know how to live in it. Those who come to Quakers from this kind of background tend to see the Quaker way either as another and better way of being secular or humanist or as another and better way of being Christian, – or possibly Buddhist or Muslim. The Quaker way is very hospitable, and since it has no dogma or final, objective authority like the Bible it welcomes people from all directions, including those who once accepted an authority and have now renounced it, or only partially so, or are still fighting against it!

This hospitality is remarkable, and one of the most wonderful things about the Society of Friends today. What richness, what dynamism we have in this extraordinary mix of people, who nevertheless seem to get on well together, and unite on so many things.

And yet we do not unite, as yet, on the most fundamental thing. What do we believe in or trust as Quakers? Do we trust ourselves or the great Other than ourselves? What is our truth? And how can we speak our Quaker truth to the world? There's the rub. Has our hospitality come at a price? Have we gained it too easily, too cheaply? This question was raised in our Yearly Meeting in 2018, minute 25, part 4: 'Our religious diversity is a richness, but it comes at a cost: a social cost as we risk our sense of community, a time cost and an emotional cost.' It could have added 'a spiritual cost,' as we struggle to say what our Quaker faith is. And what in any case do we do now?

The concluding part of Rex's talk is here.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

What is Renewal?

A number of Friends have been writing and talking about Quaker renewal for several years, sometimes with very different ideas of what it means. Is ‘renewal’ primarily about reversing the decline in membership, or becoming more socially diverse, or more experimental in our approaches to worship and community?

For me, the essential starting point for the renewal of our Quaker communities is to rediscover the promise of the Quaker way. This is the promise that the source of our purpose, healing and transformation is within, and it can be encountered and followed through collective Quaker practices of worship, discernment and testimony.

The point of this message is not to make abstract claims about what we should believe, or values we should try to live up to. It is practical advice about the direction in which we need to look for guidance and transformation in our lives and communities. The source of our life, of direction, purpose and healing is not somewhere outside, in external authorities, teachers or doctrines; it is within:

"Return home to within, sweep your houses all, the groat is there, the little leaven is there, the grain of mustard-seed you will see, which the Kingdom of God is like; … and here you will see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present when you are upon your beds and about your labour, convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging and giving peace to all that love and follow Him."
(Francis Howgill, 1656, Quaker faith & practice, 26.71)
Most of us have a tendency to search for answers, meaning and purpose from external authorities, groups and leaders. It is tempting to look to others to tell us how to live, what to think, and who we should be. In every sphere of life, we seem to want to find someone or something to give us the security of authoritative answers to the dilemmas and uncertainty of our own experience. In politics this results in the dangerous appeal of populist demagogues; in popular culture, the worship of celebrities; and in religion, a dogmatic reliance on the authority of scriptures, doctrines, leaders or institutions.

Instead, the Quaker way offers a path to encountering the source and guiding power of our life within our own experience; “to know the Spirit of Truth in the inward parts, and to be led thereby.” (George Fox, Journal, 1648)

It is possible to understand this source of inward guidance in many different ways. The first generations of Quakers deliberately used very diverse language to describe it, including both personal and impersonal metaphors such as the Seed, the Light, the Guide, the Inward Christ, the Principle of Life and the Inward Teacher.

This original Quaker message can be difficult for many modern Friends to hear because of its Christian imagery. References to God and Christ lead many to dismiss it as outdated or irrelevant to those who don’t consider themselves Christians. But what early Friends were doing involved a radical reinterpretation of Christian stories and symbolism, which can offer us a way to reclaim valuable elements of Christian and other religious traditions.

Many of those today who reject the idea of God are rightly objecting to the concept of a God ‘out there’, above and outside us in some heavenly realm. In fact, this is exactly the misleading idea of God that the original Quakers turned away from, recognising that the true God was not above the sky but within their own experience:

“They said [God] was above the skies, calling it Heaven, but I felt the hand of the Lord within me…”
(William Dewsbury, The discovery of the great enmity of the serpent, 1655)
Increasingly, Christian stories and images are also being supplemented by insights from other religious cultures. What is valuable and important about Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, Sufi and other stories and traditions is not labels of identity, but the ways that they testify to the presence and activity of the same illuminating and guiding Spirit within the lives of people in every culture throughout history.

The Quaker way offers us a key to recognising what is authentic within any religious tradition, including Christianity, and distinguishing it from the distortions of power, privilege, literalism and dogmatism that tend to corrupt every human enterprise. Whatever stories and images display the guiding power of the Inward Light, in any tradition, can help to reveal the life of the Spirit and encourage us to encounter it for ourselves.

Partly as a result of growing tensions over religious language and identity in recent years, we have tended to confuse the Quaker way with yet another system of beliefs and values. The Quaker way is often presented as the belief that there is that of God (or Good) in everyone, or as a set of ‘values’ such as simplicity, truth, equality, peace and sustainability. But this obscures the revolutionary insight of the original Quaker movement: the Quaker way is not a set of beliefs or values to adopt. It is a way of spiritual practice that enables us to become more sensitive and responsive to the presence and activity of the seed of Life within.

The renewal of our own lives and our Quaker communities depends on rediscovering a shared sense of the purpose of Quaker practices; to enable us to continually deepen and renew our experience of the inward life of the Spirit. A deeper and more transformative experience of Quaker worship will lead to more vibrant communities that are attractive to more diverse kinds of people. A renewed practice of discernment will make our leadings clearer and more compelling, enabling us to take risks with confidence in the empowerment and accompaniment of the Inward Guide. This will result in a renewed commitment to Quaker testimony, and a more powerful impact and visibility in the wider world.

This renewal depends on each of us. It is easy to blame our feelings of frustration or lack of spiritual vitality on our Meetings, or on other Friends with whom we disagree. But everything that we need for spiritual renewal is already here. It doesn’t depend on organisational reforms or waiting for others to change. As Ursula O'Shea pointed out over 25 years ago, "r
enewal of the Society waits for the choice of each Friend":
"Transformation of a group can begin nowhere else but within each person… The spiritual vitality of our meetings depends on each of us being faithful to the inward guide.”
(Living the Way: Quaker Spirituality and Community, 1993)
 We are all in need of renewal. We are continually shrouding ourselves in habits of dullness and self-defeating compulsions, resigning ourselves to situations that need to be challenged and neglecting the subtle voice of the Spirit within. Institutions and communities also need regular renewal, as they become caught up in the demands of their own administration and accommodations with the status quo. Spiritual renewal cannot be engineered by organisational changes, but if we practise seeking and following the guidance of the Spirit in our communities, we will be enabled to simplify our organisations to reflect our new priorities and purposes. Instead of sacrificing so much of our time and energy to the maintenance of Quaker structures, we would recognise that all of our organisations exist only to support our Quaker practice, and anything that distracts or interferes with the purpose of finding and following the Inward Guide can be replaced or abandoned.

Renewal is not repetition. The Quaker way of the 21st Century will not use the same words or adopt all the same attitudes as those of the 17th. To be renewed is to become ‘new again’; to encounter the original source of inspiration and vitality that is still continually available within our own experience. It is the discovery of "new thoughts, new desires, new affections, new love, new friendship, new society, new kindred, new faith; and new hope, even that living hope that is founded upon true experience..."
(William Penn, 1677, Christian faith & practice 37).

What does renewal mean to you? Have you experienced the promise of the Quaker way?

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

The Shape of the World

The stories that are embedded in the institutions of our society are immensely powerful. Ideas that were once scandalous can become so much part of our everyday lives that they seem completely self-evident. One of these stories emerged at the end of the 19th Century, as such a subversive idea that one of its main exponents described himself as ‘the Antichrist’. It is the idea that:

“Nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present — and it was we who gave and bestowed it.”
(Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science 1882)

The story that the world is inherently meaningless; that we are free to invent our own values, and project them onto the blank screen of an indifferent universe, was once a deliberate attack on western civilisation. In less than a century, the claim that ethical values are purely subjective preferences has become so embedded in the modern world that anything which contradicts it appears implausible. As Don Cupitt describes it:

“Modern people increasingly demand autonomy, the power of legislating for oneself… they want to live their own lives, which means making one’s own rules, steering a course through life of one’s own choice, thinking for oneself, freely expressing oneself and choosing one’s own destiny.” 
(Taking Leave of God)
Perhaps this is the principal reason for the continuing decline of religious interpretations of life in western societies. Religions differ in many ways, but one of the characteristic features that leads us to consider a tradition as ‘religious’ is that it is rooted in a collection of stories that make definite claims about the meaning and purpose of human life. Religious traditions do not typically encourage people to ‘make their own rules’ and ‘choose their own destiny’, because their religious stories and practices aim to enable people to realise the possibilities of human life in a world that is already alive with meaning and that includes real spiritual consequences.

For the Quaker way too, as practised for its first three centuries, life has a definite purpose; to become completely responsive to the leadings of the Inward Guide. This means allowing ourselves to be led, loosening our grip on the reins of our life and consenting to the life that wants to be lived in us. The goal of the Quaker way is not autonomy and independence, but the ‘guided life’, an experience of life that is surrendered to the healing and transforming power of the Spirit within.

Of course, this does not mean submitting to external rules or arbitrary authority, but it is far from claiming the right to choose one’s own values. Quaker practices are ways of becoming responsive to a spiritual reality which is not in our power to choose or control. We can no more ‘make our own rules’ than we can choose our own laws of physics.

Some British Friends may be surprised by this description of the Quaker way, because they have been told that the distinctive character of Quakerism is that it offers the freedom to choose one’s own beliefs and identity. In fact this reinterpretation of the Quaker way as a neutral space for private individual searching is a very recent development. Quakers since the late 1960s have tended to re-cast their tradition in the mould of the wider culture. As we have gradually abandoned a shared alternative story about the meaning of human life, we have inevitably absorbed the background assumptions of our society, which exclude any possibility of a public and objective standard of truth. We have increasingly come to take for granted that all claims about moral and spiritual values are equally arbitrary and subjective. There can be no spiritual truth that makes claims on us apart from our own choices, only our own ‘personal truths’. Inevitably, this leads to a compulsive focus on individual beliefs and identity, as it is assumed that the only place where spiritual values can exist is in the privacy of our own minds.

By contrast, the sacred stories of religious traditions point to the reality of meaning ‘out there’ in the world. As the Quaker philosopher John Macmurray has described:

“When religion is real, it throws the centre of our interest and our action right outside ourselves. It is not about myself at all, or only incidentally and for a purpose that is not my own. It is about the world I live in and the part that I must play in it. It is not to serve my need but the need of the world through me. Real religion is not something that you possess but rather a power that lays hold of you and uses you in service of a will that is greater than your own.”  
(Search for a Faith)
The sacred stories and practices of religious traditions are part of our common life, not private mental objects like ‘beliefs’. In fact, for most of those who follow a religious path, religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, but a way of living in the world.

For most religious traditions, including the Quaker way, sacred stories and practices are more central than any list of beliefs. The regular practice of the disciplines of Quaker Meetings for Worship and for Business help to form our dispositions; our habitual attitudes and tendencies to act. The sacred stories that inform our tradition, and the practices of collective Quaker worship, discernment and testimony, gradually tend to orient us in a particular stance towards the world; hopeful, trusting, confident, grateful and compassionate.

Sacred stories do not describe the world, so much as shape us in relation to it. The function of religious stories and practices is to transform human consciousness and intention; our habitual ways of seeing and acting. Religious stories typically use symbolic, mythological language and imagery to dramatise the existential realities of human life in the world. They are not principally claims about historical facts (although this is one among many ways of interpreting them), but stories that point towards a way of seeing and being in the world.

The dispositions that are formed by particular stories can fit us for the world or unfit us for it, because the meaning of our lives is not arbitrary or infinitely malleable. The world has a shape; it pushes back. There are inherent consequences to our transgressions of moral and spiritual reality. 

Dostoevsky’s novel ‘Crime and Punishment’ was written just as the modern myth of a meaningless world was making its appearance. The central character Raskolnikov, an impoverished student, murders and robs an old woman. He explains that he decided to kill by asking himself whether Napolean would have scrupled to commit the murder. Raskolnikov decides that:

“it would not have given him the least pang… he would not have seen that there was anything in it to pause over, and that, if he had had no other way, he would have strangled her in a minute without thinking about it! Well, I too … left off thinking about it … murdered her, following his example.”
Raskolnikov imagined himself in the place of a ‘great man’ to whom everything is permitted, who is free to make his own values and decide for himself the meaning of good and evil. But after the murder he finds himself crushed by the spiritual reality of his crime. He discovers the fantasy of believing he could choose his own values. Instead he finds that through the action he had tried to justify as his free choice, “I murdered myself, not her! I crushed myself once for all, for ever.…”

The spiritual reality of the world can be narrated by many different stories, but it is not arbitrary. The consequences of our failure to respect the real limits of human life are severe and inescapable. We don’t get to choose our own ethical values, we have to learn the shape of the world.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Quaker Stories

There is a lot of concern at the moment about differences of belief among Quakers. Some Friends are afraid that their beliefs may not be acceptable to others in their Meeting. Many are uncertain about what kind of language it is acceptable to use in ministry, or in collective statements such as minutes and outreach materials. Since Quakers now seem to have very few beliefs in common, what can we say collectively that truthfully reflects our views and that doesn’t make some feel excluded?

It is often claimed that even if we have different beliefs we all have the same underlying experiences in common. Listening to Friends who are willing to talk about their spiritual experience, though, it doesn’t take long to discover that this isn’t the case. Some Quakers have had profound experiences of oneness with the natural world, others encounter the sacred in other people, some experience the presence and guidance of a personal God, others have described visions and encounters with personal spiritual beings of other kinds, some find their deepest source of meaning in ethical principles or values, and so on.

Both beliefs and experience differ widely among Quakers, but this is not, in itself, either unusual or problematic. There is no religious community in which everyone has identical beliefs. Every person's own understanding of faith will depend on their differing experiences, temperament and education. In the Quaker movement, diversity of religious understanding, opinion and experience has been a particularly marked feature throughout most of our history.

What has changed in recent decades is that until the late 1960s the Quaker community as a whole shared a collection of sacred stories. They knew and used the stories of the Bible, including the life and sayings of Jesus, the creation story, the history of Israel, and the writings of the prophets and apostles, to explain the meaning and purpose of their community and its practices.

The first generation of Quakers called their movement ‘Primitive Christianity revived’; identifying themselves with the story of the early Church. George Fox drew on the Gospel stories in which Jesus promised to return at the end of history to claim that ‘Christ has come to teach his people himself’, in the form of the ‘Inward Christ’, within the lives and bodies of the ‘Children of the Light’. This made sense of Quaker worship as the way that the gathered community encounters the presence of Christ and expects to receive inspired ministry and guidance. The distinctively Quaker versions of the Christian stories explained their Meetings for Church Affairs as discerning God’s purposes for the community. Quaker testimony was shaped by the Sermon on the Mount, which prohibits oaths, violence, empty ritual and religious hierarchy. Early Friends understood their testimony as the way that God was revealing the Divine intentions for the world through the Quaker community.

Because Quakers had these stories in common, they shared a language for describing their experience. Quaker writings until about 50 years ago are filled with references to Biblical characters, parables, myths and symbols, which all carried shared meaning because of their resonance with familiar stories. Quakers used these stories and symbols in distinctive ways, which were often sharply at odds with official versions of Christianity. They were also given creative new interpretations, according to individual Friends’ differing perspectives and spiritual experiences. The use of these shared stories was not a sign that Quakers all had the same beliefs, but that they had a common vocabulary for expressing and interpreting their differences.

Since the late 1960s, as British society has become more plural and more secular, British Quakers have also become much more diverse in the stories we use to make sense of the world. We do not now share a common vocabulary of Biblical stories. Some Quakers are very familiar with the Bible, many others are more familiar with Buddhist, pagan, humanist or other traditions of thought. Many of us use stories and ideas from many different sources to try to make sense of what we do, and to understand and describe our experiences. Because we don’t share a common language that we can expect to be accessible to all, we rely on others trying to ‘translate’ whatever language we use into their own terms to understand what we are saying. But since we don’t know what concepts or stories others are using to ‘translate’ our words, it is difficult to know what, if anything, we have managed to communicate.

In the absence of shared stories about what we are doing in worship, in discernment and in our testimony, we don’t have a collective way to explain or justify how we practise them. Without any shared explanation for spoken ministry in Meeting for Worship, or why we agree minutes in a Business Meeting, these practices become increasingly difficult to learn and to pass on to others. Simply saying ‘that’s how Quakers do things’ is not enough to convince people who are new to Quakers or who have got used to doing things another way. As a result, many Quaker committees and even some Local Meetings have abandoned the Quaker business method, as it seems to be more convenient to have meetings that follow the conventions of modern workplaces. For a long time we have been able to rely on a collective tradition of ‘how we do things’, without being able to justify or explain them to newcomers or each other, but this tradition is being steadily eroded as we increasingly tend to conform to the norms of the wider culture, in the absence of any convincing reasons for maintaining distinctive Quaker practices.

This is not, at root, a problem of individual differences of belief; it is the loss of a shared communal resource. Just as a group can’t sing together unless they all know the same songs, we cannot practise the Quaker way together unless we are familiar with the same stories. Knowing the same stories does not mean having the same beliefs. Religious stories can be approached in many different ways - as historical accounts, mythological allegories, poetry, psychological truths, philosophical statements, moral teachings etc. Our way of interpreting sacred stories will usually change over time. As adults we are unlikely to understand a parable such as ‘the Good Samaritan’ in just the same way we did as a child. Stories are, by their nature, open-ended and flexible; open to endless possibilities of personal reflection, re-working and creative imagination. Sacred stories work by engaging the imagination and emotions as well as our rationality. At the same time, they provide the shared resources of symbols, characters and narratives that enable a community to have a collective conversation, instead of each person being isolated within their own personal language.

When Britain Yearly Meeting made the decision recently to rewrite our Book of Discipline (currently Quaker Faith & Practice), we set ourselves the challenging task of explaining why we carry out our practices for church government as we do. Having an explanation for the Quaker business method or Quaker forms of organisation relies on having shared stories to tell about the meaning and purpose of these practices. At the moment we don’t have these shared stories, but perhaps it is possible for us to find them.

I do not think it is possible for us to go back to relying on Christian stories alone for our shared language. We live in a culturally and spiritually diverse society, and our community includes people from many different backgrounds, with all sort of religious influences. Like many others, I first started to explore spirituality through practising Buddhism. There are many different stories and traditions that are important sources of insight for Friends, including some that are not explicitly religious, such as the psychological approaches of Jung and Carl Rogers for instance.

For these different influences to become part of a shared Quaker story, rather than just private preferences, we would need to do something that we have tended to avoid. We would have to share them. This means talking to each other about the stories that give us insight into the meaning of our experience, and that help us to interpret our Quaker practice. If we have learned something important from Buddhism, or from Jung or Starhawk or Rumi, that helps us to understand what happens in Quaker worship or business meeting, or that informs how we live as Quakers, we could share with each other the stories that have helped us, so that other Friends can also find out what we have learned from them.

There’s a reason we don’t usually do this. It makes us vulnerable to open ourselves up to others. We might feel anxious that our experiences will be dismissed, that our stories will be judged and rejected. We risk exposing ourselves to challenge; perhaps having to think about the stories we are using and how we interpret them. How do they fit with other people’s stories? Are they complementary or incompatible? If I find another Friend’s stories strange or disturbing, where does my reaction come from? We have too often tended to rely on censoring ourselves and each other, to avoid using controversial words because some Friends have strong reactions to them. Instead, we might adopt a more questioning approach. If there is a word or symbol or religious tradition that I find distasteful I can choose to ask myself, ‘what is going on here? What is this reaction telling me about my own history with this word? Is there something in this tradition that I am missing because of my partial experience?'

This approach is certainly not easy. It is much easier for us to carry on as we are, avoiding the risk of giving offence by self-censorship and never really getting to know each other in ‘that which is eternal’. The risk with continuing in this way is that we will steadily lose any shared tradition of religious practice. Without shared stories that describe the significance of core Quaker practices such as worship, discernment and testimony, the Quaker way cannot survive. The dominant culture has a powerful story about the way the world is. It is a meaningless, indifferent universe, in which we can arbitrarily choose our own values but never find any inherent purpose or value. There is no truth to be discovered, only ‘personal truths’ to be asserted and projected onto the blank screen of the world. No purpose to our life beyond our own preferences, no guidance to be found, and nothing to heal or transform the world through us.

In the absence of any alternative shared stories of our own, British Quakers are inevitably being shaped in the image of this story; the modern myth of a meaningless universe. The result is our steady drift towards becoming a neutral space for private journeys of self-discovery; a well-meaning, left-leaning ethical society, instead of a religious community with a spirituality and a practice that is powerful enough to change the world.

What are the stories that have shaped your understanding of your life as a Quaker? Do some apparently conflicting stories offer complementary perspectives on Quaker practice, and can we distinguish them from stories that are incompatible with Quaker experience and testimony?

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Sacred Stories

When we think about religious traditions, including the Quaker way, it is usual to focus on people’s beliefs. People who belong to a particular religious community are usually thought to believe the same things. In my children’s Religious Education lessons for example, they have been taught things like “Hindus believe in reincarnation”, “Jews believe they are God’s chosen people”, “Christians believe that God created the world in six days” etc.

The broad differences in belief among modern Quakers do not seem to conform to this pattern. For some, this is a welcome distinction between the Quaker way, which values individual freedom and diversity, and traditional religious traditions, which require conformity of belief. For others, the loss of shared Quaker beliefs is a source of disquiet, held responsible for growing incoherence and loss of spiritual depth.

But this understanding of religion as a set of shared beliefs is based on a mistake. There is no religious community in which everyone has identical beliefs. Every religious believer has their own ideas, opinions, values and interpretations, which will be different in some respects from everyone else’s. Even in fundamentalist sects that require strict conformity there are always some members who harbour secret reservations and alternative personal interpretations. For each individual, the meaning of any statement of belief, such as the existence of God or the possibility of enlightenment, will inevitably be different, according to their differing life experiences, temperament, education or cultural background. So what members of religious communities have in common is not whatever is going on inside their heads.

What religious communities do share is their collections of sacred stories. It is these stories that give a collective meaning to statements of religious belief. If someone tells us that they believe in God, we cannot know what they mean unless we know the stories that they are using to describe who and what God is. Are they referring to the God of the Bible, who spoke to Abraham and Moses, or the philosophers’ abstract God of pure Being, or of some other tradition altogether?

Religions don’t typically start from a set of beliefs. They grow from stories; about the creation of the world, the actions of ancestors and legendary heroes, the lives and sayings of prophets and teachers. Over time, these stories are passed on, elaborated, re-enacted in ritual, sometimes written down, institutionalised and fought over. As part of this process, statements of belief are sometimes codified as official doctrines or creeds, as Christianity in particular has tended to do. But this process of defining official statements of belief is far from universal, and is absent from many major traditions such as Hinduism, Taoism, Shinto etc.

Religious beliefs, which are usually considered the primary features of all religions, might be better understood as entirely secondary - derived from the original stories told in folklore, plays, pictures, poems and scriptures. Most of the belief statements in the Apostle’s Creed for instance, are simply a summary of the key ‘plot points’ of the Christian stories:

"I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead."

Sacred stories such as the life and sayings of Jesus, Muhammad or Buddha, can be understood and interpreted in many different ways by each individual, but they provide a community with a common vocabulary and a shared repertoire of images, symbols and characters. Every religious tradition has its own shared collection of sacred stories, which enables members with very different understandings and experiences to practise their faith together, communicate their experiences, and engage in dialogue, by referring to familiar ideas and images.

In a Catholic Mass, worshippers with very different theological ideas can take part together, say the same words and share the bread and wine as one community, because the Eucharist receives its meaning, not from their diverse opinions, but from the symbolism of the Biblical stories of the Last Supper, the Passover, and the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

Stories such as this give meaning to the community’s practices of worship and service, they justify and explain how and why the community functions as it does. They teach and remind community members of the disciplines and values that are important to the community, and they also provide resources for challenging established ways of doing things.

As well as the ‘official’ versions of stories recorded in sacred scriptures, most religious traditions also develop diverse collections of apocryphal stories. Local communities continually adapt, embellish and re-interpret their sacred stories, creating multiple alternative versions and diverse local traditions. Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have vast popular literatures and oral traditions about popular saints, mystics and miracle-workers. Poets and prophets frequently re-work and invent new stories, adapting familiar characters and situations to express their own insights, such as this story by the Sufi poet Rumi:

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
"So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?"
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
"Why did you stop praising?"
"Because I've never heard anything back."
"This longing
you express is the return message.
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.”

Sacred stories in every culture are distinguished from ‘ordinary’ narratives by their claim to reveal the meaning of the world. What is most important about a sacred story is not how literally it records actual events, but how truthfully it discloses the meaning of reality. It may be regarded as a record of historical events, a parable or a poetic fiction, but its factual status is secondary to the meaning it reveals. A sacred story such as the creation of the world might be interpreted as a literal description, a poetic rendering of psychological processes, a metaphysical analysis of the human condition, an instructive children’s story, or in many other ways, which may all reveal something about the meaning of human life in the world. The truth of a sacred story is not ‘did it literally happen like that?’ but ‘does it tell us something true about the world?’

Believing in a sacred story is very different to belief in the truths of logic or evidence. Religious belief does not depend on logical argument or the collection of evidence. It means understanding our own experience in terms of particular sacred stories, ordering our lives according to them, allowing them to orient our priorities and values, following practices that embody them, sharing them with others and trusting in their consequences in our own lives.

A sacred story is not necessarily explicitly religious. It might be the story of a personal experience, a historical event, a parable or myth. What makes it ‘sacred’ is that it is taken to disclose, to make visible, some aspect of the meaning of the world that exists independently of our own wishes, opinions and choices. This points to a fundamental distinction in possible attitudes towards the world - do we receive meaning from the world, or impose our own meaning on it?

Modern western thought claims that there is no pre-existing meaning to the world. Both scientific thinking and the main schools of western philosophy are united in insisting that facts are utterly separate from values, that the world is value-neutral, without inherent meaningfulness. Ideas of meaning, purpose or value are purely human creations that we project onto the objective universe according to our subjective motives or superstitions. According to this world-view, it is up to us to create our own values through our choices. This might involve a rational project of following ethical arguments to their conclusions, or an existential choice among arbitrary life-goals. In either case, the only meaning we will ever find in the world is what we bring to it. Human stories about the world can invent meanings and values, but they can never reveal them, because there are no meanings inherent in the world to be revealed. Stories can be entertaining or superstitious, useful or harmful, but they cannot be sacred.

This world-view is in striking contrast to that of all religious traditions, and so far as we can tell, all human cultures in the history of the world apart from a handful of modern societies. For most human beings who have ever lived, the world is not a blank screen for the reception of our arbitrary wishes and fantasies. The universe is inherently meaningful. There is a purpose to human life, and perhaps even a unique purpose for each human being. We are not free to invent our own values, because there is a moral universe to which we have to learn to conform, or face the consequences. This does not necessarily imply a supernatural mechanism of rewards and punishments, as illustrated by this Buddhist sacred story about a Zen master:

A big, tough samurai once went to see a little monk. “Monk,” he said, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience, “teach me about heaven and hell!”
The monk looked up at this mighty warrior and replied with utter disdain, “Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn’t teach you anything. You’re dirty. You smell. Your blade is rusty. You’re a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight, I can’t stand you.”
The samurai was furious. He shook, got all red in the face, was speechless with rage. He pulled out his sword and raised it above him, preparing to slay the monk.
“That’s hell,” said the monk softly.
The samurai was overwhelmed. The compassion and surrender of this little man who had offered his life to give this teaching to show him hell! He slowly put down his sword, filled with gratitude, and suddenly peaceful.
“And that’s heaven,” said the monk softly.

If there is anything to this understanding of the central importance of sacred stories for religious traditions, what does this mean for Quakers? This question will be the subject of next month’s post.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Silence and Presence

This is an edited transcript of a recent interview I did for BBC Radio Sheffield on the Rony Robinson show, for a day of programming on the theme of "silence":

RR: Silence is something that Quakers practice - their worship involves silence. Have you already been silent today?

Yes, I try to make a practice every day of having a time of silent prayer or meditation at home. I just find it’s really important for me to keep my balance through the day.

When you’re in silence as a Quaker what are you listening for? or are you thinking about God or what’s going on?

I think the main thing is to be getting away from thinking. So much of the day we’re up in our heads. It’s a very refreshing, restful experience to be just breathing, sitting, feeling the air on your skin instead.

When you go to Quaker meeting is it just silence all the time? 

No, we sit and we are still, but the silence in Quaker worship, it’s not silence for its own sake. The idea of it is that we’re all seeking God, meaning, purpose, and where are we going to find that? We’re only going to find it if we listen for it, because it’s within. We’re not going to find that outside, by looking for teachers or writings or something that’s out there. We have to find it in our own experience. So the idea of silent worship is that we sit, we become still, we listen for what’s there, and that can mean very extended times of silence as we’re sitting and becoming aware, becoming present. But in Quaker worship it could also be that anyone who feels moved to, who feels that they’ve encountered something in the silence which is to be shared with other people, they can stand and speak. And then you’re listening to what’s come from that other person’s experience of the silence as well. And it’s completely open, anyone can speak on the same basis, we don’t have it restricted just to certain groups of people.

Are you allowed to know you’re going to speak before you speak?

We’re supposed to come prepared to be silent, or prepared to speak if we’re led to speak. The idea of Quaker worship is aiming to make a connection with the Spirit that’s within us, in our own experience. So if that Spirit leads us to speak then we have to be faithful to it and if it leads us to be silent then we’re silent.

So what actually happens? Isn't that hour intolerably long?

Well, we sit in a circle and it emphasises the equality of the meeting. The thing about meeting together is there’s something very supportive about it. If I was going to sit for an hour on my own at home, even though I’ve had a practice of silent prayer for many years, I would find that too much. But with a group, somehow it’s extremely different. There’s a sense in which the fact that others are there and they’re all seeking the same thing supports you. When your mind wanders, as of course your mind wanders all the time, it just comes back, and then you become still again, and then it wanders again, and then it comes back, but you don’t have that kind of anxious, frustrated feeling that you imagine you might do. And sometimes, you can have a whole hour go by in complete silence, it’s quite rare in a large meeting, and sometimes that’s absolutely wonderful.
It can be quite an extraordinary experience to sit with people, and sometimes there’s a sense that the silence just sort of deepens, and it becomes almost like a palpable presence, a very, very powerful experience.

The silence itself becomes a presence?

Yes, it has a very different quality.

Quakers don’t even have to believe in God these days do they?

For Quakers, religion is not about belief. I think this is the thing that’s often most confusing to people. They say ‘Well, what do Quakers believe?’ and I always say ‘Quakers believe that religion is not about belief.’ Religion is about what we experience and what we do. And we’re not going to find God or find meaning or purpose for our lives through beliefs or ideas, we’re going to find it through what we discover in our own experience.

Is God there, going to speak to you in that silence? Do you hear him in your silence?

Well, I don’t hear a kind of physical voice, but I definitely have experience of a presence, and that’s the presence I call God. And I understand that’s what people in different religions and in different times have also encountered and they’ve called that God, and that’s where that idea comes from. It comes from the experience and it’s only meaningful if it can speak to our experience.

What’s the quietest place you’ve ever been?

The deepest silence I’ve ever known is in a Quaker meeting which becomes, we call it gathered, ‘a gathered meeting’, that becomes really still and centred in that way. And where everyone is experiencing it together, and it’s something very, very special.

(With thanks to Rosie Carnall for transcription and editing.)

Friday, 18 May 2018

Grief and Beauty

“Beauty will save the world”
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot)

In the practice of Meeting for Worship, we are challenged to ‘stand still in the Light’. In place of our habitual strategies of preoccupied busyness, we are confronted with what is. For many of us, that eventually means having to sit with our grief.

If we ‘stand still’ and allow this grief to reveal itself, we will feel the pain of our own losses and regrets, but also, perhaps, a deep grieving for the destruction of the beauty and diversity of life in the world. This grief, which is the natural response to our awareness of violence and ecological destruction, is usually unacknowledged and unspoken. When grief is denied it is driven underground, to become part of our society’s spiritual malaise; a widespread, uneasy sense of meaninglessness, sickness and despair.

Only those who are willing to acknowledge the reality of loss have the opportunity to grieve. It is common for people who awaken to the destructive frenzy of industrial civilisation to get stuck in one of the familiar moments of the grieving process; anger, depression or frantic bargaining - ‘if I just go to one more demonstration or meeting, somehow I can still avoid climate change, species extinction or war’. By contrast, the phase of grief that is often called 'acceptance' is not indifference or complacency, but finally allowing ourselves to feel the pain of loss. As anyone who has lost a close relative, friend or partner knows, loss is irreparable. The process of grieving means coming to accept our feelings of pain and loss, so that we can go on living with them.

Destruction is quick and easy compared to the laborious and fragile processes of growth and creation. In just a few decades industrial economies have devastated flourishing ecosystems that evolved through thousands of years. And yet, despite our civilisation’s unprecedented destructiveness, it cannot eliminate new life. When all that is left as evidence of our current society is a thin geological layer of compacted plastic and radioactive waste, the inexorable power of natural selection will have abundantly repopulated every possible ecological niche with an exuberant diversity of flourishing new species.

Compared to the brutal rapidity of bombing, fracking and pollution, the rebirth of beauty seems impossibly precarious and gradual. Every act of cruelty, violence and destruction is an irreparable loss, but nature is patient; the pressure of life is continuous and insistent. However much ugliness, waste and poison our self-destructive industrial growth produces, it can never outlive the enduring natural powers of regeneration and evolution. Industrial growth is inherently self-limiting, because it relies on accelerating exploitation of limited resources. But the power of creation is drawn from the endlessly renewed cycles of photosynthesis, birth and growth, the continual and irresistible cycling of carbon, water and energy. In our culture’s futile matricidal struggle to conquer nature, there can only ever be one winner.

This knowledge does nothing to diminish the pain of loss of the beauty and richness of the world as it is now, but it should remind us to stay open to the world's inherent capacities for rebirth. When we are tempted to despair, we can remain open to the continual possibility, the inevitability of new life. Hope acknowledges the reality and pain of loss, and is ready to welcome and celebrate new life wherever it appears. The creative powers of art, community, inquiry and spirituality are continual sources of potential for bringing new forms of beauty, caring, understanding and flourishing into the world. Let us sit with our grief and our hope. On the other side of every act of destruction is beauty.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Experiment with Light

This is a short video of an interview with Rex Ambler that was recorded for the Experiment with Light network. Rex talks about how he developed the practice of Experiment with Light, what he has learned from it in his own life, and how it has influenced the Meetings that have used it, and the Quaker movement more widely.

Experiment with Light from Charlie Blackfield on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Evolutionary Quakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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