Sunday, 30 November 2014

A common tongue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. I find this post very helpful. We can enjoy the language and insights of different traditions without homogenising them! It is perfectly possible, and definitely fruitful, to do this. It can sometimes be uncomfortable, when two traditions don't resolve easily together, but I have found that sitting with this dissonance can be productive of new and deeper insights. In my experience, if people complain in a Buddhist context that they feel uncomfortable about language differences, or just new language, they are asked to be patient and to trust for a while that there may be value in something that they don't yet understand. Perhaps to recognise that there may be things they don't understand that they could learn, with more effort. If we don't tolerate discomfort, how can we learn?

    1. Thanks Mary, that Buddhist advice could be very helpfully employed in our Meetings too.

  2. We can have a common language without it being theologically specific - and indeed, my experience has been that a great many Friends with a great range of theological understandings do use a common range of language - and then other language that is not common as well. Leadings, openings, ministry, testimony, these are all terms that I've never witnessed disagreement with.

    Nor do I think it's helpful to dismiss those uncomfortable with the term 'worship' as rationalist intellectuals (and I say 'dismiss' as that seems to be the tone of the writing at that point). I sympathise with discomfort at that term, and would prefer another one, though I am entirely reconciled to using it, as I find it difficult to conceive of something being worshipped as a non-theist.

    We have a rich variety of language we can celebrate, and a shared understanding and vocabulary, both at the same time. I've never witnessed any actual problems arising from this, and I've only heard about such problems in a very vague and, it seems to me, often sensationalist way.

    Every non-theist Quaker I've ever had contact with has wanted acceptance and inclusion, not to root out all theism from the Society. The only thing I've seen that could reasonably be mistaken for that is the wish to remove the presumption of theism. That's part of inclusion, of course.

    1. Hi Sam, I agree entirely that we can have a common language 'without it being theologically specific' - which I take to mean requiring or implying identical theological beliefs. One of the virtues of a poetically rich religious language, as I see it, is that it provides plenty of 'wiggle room' for our intellectual positions to differ from each other and also to change over time.
      I think it is a misunderstanding of the way that religious language is used, though, to label anyone who uses words such as 'God' or 'worship' as something called a 'theist'. In practice, these words are used by people with a very wide range of beliefs. Particularly among Quakers (and those of other mystical traditions), the word 'God' is most often used as a pointer to an underlying spiritual reality or dimension of existence, rather than as the 'name' of an omnipotent supernatural being.
      I'd also wish to remove 'the presumption of theism', but not in the sense of trying to eliminate religious words from our common Quaker language. I would hope that we can cease to make assumptions about others' beliefs, based purely on the language that they find meaningful and powerful. The concept of 'theism' seems to me to be a kind of caricature of faith, often used in a polemical way to label others, rather than an identity that people generally claim for themselves. I certainly don't know anyone who describes themselves as a 'theist', unless it is to try to distinguish themselves from 'non-theists' (which seems an equally unfruitful exercise).
      In Friendship and with thanks for your thoughtful response,

  3. Worship, to my mind, is about the person who worships: it's a kind of wonder, opennesss and reverence to that which is beyond us, and doesn't need a supreme being as object. How do people feel reverence awe, humility and their own smallness if they are not able to perceive anything greater than themselves? Or if they are afraid to worship?

  4. It's my observation that Quaker language use today is still very creative. For example, in my work I explore the ways in which Quakers today use lists of theological terms to indicate their inclusivity, their diversity, and their theology. When a Quaker says something like, "In Meeting we try and listen to the Light, the Spirit, God, the Inner Teacher, the Inner Buddha Nature, or whatever you call it," they assert that there is something worth listening to, but that we cannot really know or say anything about it (negative or apophatic theology), while at the same time creating and reinforcing the diversity and inclusivity of the community. (This is a made-up example but Quakers do say and write things like this, list of references available on request.)
    Is the 'something' internal or external or both? Is it 'natural' or 'supernatural' or both or neither? We don't know, it's almost certainly more complicated than these (probably false) dichotomies imply, and I think that many Quakers quite reasonably don't really care - it is the fact that the practice of listening succeeds in 'hearing to speech' whatever that something is which matters. I don't know that the common tongue needs reviving; my research suggests that our common tongue exists and continues to evolve.

    1. Many thanks for this helpful and thought-provoking response. I do recognise (and share) liberal Quakers' understanding of the arbitrariness and inadequacy of our language for naming spiritual reality.
      However, I find the fact that we so often resort to 'lists' of alternative terms, rather than having a shared religious vocabulary, to be potentially a problem. Certainly when I first met Quakers I found it very wearisome that they seemed unable to say anything without hedging it around with 'or whatever you call it' kind of qualifications.
      To me, this often indicates a kind of apologetic embarrassment about speaking of spiritual reality at all. I think it can also function in a socially excusive way, as a form of 'in-group' speech that is particularly alienating to anyone who doesn't share middle-class culture.
      Personally, I would much rather we considered working together to find a shared religious vocabulary that we could use straightforwardly and unapologetically, while still acknowledging its ultimate inadequacy to capture the reality of God.

  5. old message I have shared with Friends;

    I have started reading Brent Bill "Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality. What a classic! I have read and re-read this book a zillion times, and even now I'm having a really hard time trying to put my thoughts into words.By a stroke of genius Brent Bill was able to articulate the ethos of Quakerism in simple and plain words. Communion with holy spirit in worship is the core of the Quaker experience.Friend Brent draws a parallel to the Roman Catholic practice and centrality of the Eucharist during the Mass. Just as the Eucharist mediates the presence of Christ to the believer—according to Catholic theology the host becomes the body and blood of Christ—so holy silence mediates the actual presence of holy spirit and is the focal point of Quaker worship. Mother Teresa says"Silence gives us a new outlook on everything. We need silence to be able to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say but what God says to us and through us.Jesus is always waiting for us in silence. In that silence, He will listen to us; there He will speak to our soul, and there we will hear His voice.Many years ago I revised one of my favourite prayer from the Catholic liturgy. "In worship you feed your people and strengthen them in holiness, so that the family of humankind may come to walk in the light of one faith, in one communion of love. We come then to the worship to be fed at your table and grow into the likeness of your Spirit. "

    As I and many other Friends have shared many times the sin of racism and classism, in our Quaker Meetings has impede many friends from coming into the fullness of this sacramental experience. The table has not always been welcoming.We have much work to do in preparing and creating a space at the table for ALL God's children.

    I believe the holy spirit is working in you (and in me) in ways that we do not yet understand. As we continue to listen, worship, pray, love and serve, it will gradually become clearer to us. I believe the same is true for me and for any person of faith. Words are just that. What is more important is the reality behind the words.


"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)