Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Imaginary Theist

In a Quaker committee meeting recently, a group of us were asked to place ourselves in a line, with one end marked ‘theist’ and the other ‘non-theist’. Along with one other Friend, I felt unable to participate in this exercise, because of my discomfort with both of those terms.

My sense is that the way in which our discussion about Quaker religious language has been framed in recent years is extremely unhelpful. If we genuinely want to understand each other’s experience, and to discern and worship together, we will not be served by thinking of our differences in terms of a debate between theists and non-theists. 

I am convinced that this is, in fact, a completely false distinction. It seems to be based on the assumption that anyone who uses the word ‘God’ is something called a ‘theist’, who holds a specific set of theological beliefs. Once this is assumed, it seems to follow that anyone who doesn’t hold those beliefs must be a ‘non-theist’. This leads directly into attempts to classify ourselves and others, and even to a competitive spirit, in which we line up on opposing sides. At the moment any use of the word ‘God’ in Quaker minutes and publications has become controversial, because it seems to privilege ‘theists’ and exclude ‘non-theists’. In the very worst tradition of religious factionalism, we have fallen into mutual suspicion over a word. 

Theism is an academic concept used in the comparative study of religion. According to the Oxford dictionary, it means ‘belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe.’ Crucially, theism is a label used to classify certain beliefs and teachings; it is not a word that people usually apply to themselves. In other words, the idea of 'theist Quakers' is a myth. It is a label applied to others, which almost always misrepresents their own experience and self-understanding.

Most Quakers who use the word God are not speaking of an ‘old man in the clouds’, or the omnipotent and omniscient supernatural God of the philosophers. Liberal Quakerism has inherited from the wider mystical religious tradition an understanding of spiritual reality as ultimately mysterious and unnameable. This tradition typically uses the word ‘God’, not as the name of an external ‘being’, but as a signpost that points towards our experience of spiritual reality. 

Religious language in this tradition is not used to make dogmatic intellectual propositions; it is much more like poetry. The poetic, allusive language of faith has plenty of room for flexible and diverse interpretations. Some Friends use the word ‘God’ to describe their personal experience of spiritual encounter, or being guided or accompanied. For others it points to their sense of awe at the mysteriousness of existence, of the interconnection of all of life, or the depth and holiness of personal relationships. Other Friends might have similar kinds of experience while using very different language to describe it.

For many people the word God has so many unpleasant associations with authoritarian or dogmatic religion that it is definitely unhelpful for them. For others, it is the most natural word to express their own experience and its continuity with traditional Quaker spirituality or with other religious paths. There is no right answer here; it is simply a matter of our personal histories and sensibilities, which may also change over time in response to different experiences.

My own thinking about spiritual reality has been influenced by people from many different traditions who have lived with compassion, selflessness and courage. Many of them have called the source of life within them ‘God’, and I am happy to use the same word for the inward dimension of reality that I recognise in my own experience. Does this make me something called a ‘theist’, as if I subscribed to a list of abstract intellectual propositions that are in reality completely meaningless to me?

The (extremely unorthodox) Christian mystic Simone Weil wrote that God has both 'personal and impersonal aspects', and 'an atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God.' (Letter to a Priest, 1951). This suggests that there may be different ‘faces’ of spiritual reality, which are more apparent to different people, at different times, and emphasised by different traditions. This understanding does not require us to divide ourselves into camps, according to whether we believe in the existence of a personal God or not. Just as physicists have learned to accept that light is neither a wave nor a particle, but exhibits wave-like or particle-like behaviour depending on how it is observed; there is no reason to expect that spiritual reality should be more straightforward than matter and energy.

Surely we can use a range of religious language to communicate with each other and the wider world, without trying to eliminate or insist on the use of any particular word. Instead of labelling others, or ourselves, as ‘theists’ or ’nontheists’, couldn’t we listen to each other’s actual experience? Instead of assuming that any use of the word 'God' in Quaker literature presupposes a particular set of theological beliefs, could we accept it as simply one word, among others, that is used by Friends in a range of ways and with diverse interpretations?

33 comments:

  1. Yes, we've obviously been thinking along very similar lines! A number of Quaker authors make it explicit that they use 'God' as shorthand or because they personally find it easy to use - invitations to translate it into your preferred term are fairly common, and I'd guess that they'll get more common unless/until this understanding becomes so widespread that it no longer needs to be stated.

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  2. Thank you for this, Craig. You have helped me to clarify why I feel uncomfortable about the theist/non-theist polarity. I know that some people find it helpful to call themselves non-theists, and that feels fine to me, as long as others are not forced to line up on the polarity. I can't comfortably or accurately adopt either label to describe myself. I think that sometimes behind these labels is quite a lot of hurt and fear, which can fuel discussions, and perhaps if those fears were addressed more directly, these labels wouldn't hold such a charge.

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  3. Very glad to see such a clear statement here. I found a time when I would open my mouth and actually be physically unable to say 'I am an atheist' or 'I am a theist'. Both were deeply wrong. This was not an intellectual position, it was just my sense of myself. However it has been troubling, because it has been difficult for me to feel I am being really honest with both Friends and freinds when talking, unless I have time to give a very convoluted and paradoxical account of what I am. (So I do try to remember that this is probably true of everyone - very few people are captured in a simple label).
    However to take the area of discussion further. I find in the deepest sharing with some people ( I am thinking of a Catholic friend) that it is the issue of intervention that is the sticking point. Can/does this 'Umm' (as Alice Walker calls it in 'The Temple of my Familiar') intervene as an agent in the world directly, rather than through human will? And can it be somehow influenced by human action? Belief in such a force is not limited to certain styles of Christian, Muslim or other traditional belief, but is common in new-age and pagan thinking too.

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  4. This seems to implicitly indict those who choose to use non-theist to describe their own experience for creating some sort of false division; it is a distinction, but need not be a division.

    Difference and distinction are not inherently divisive, and are not to be feared. Labels are not inherently bad, but can be used in bad ways. It does not follow that any use of them is bad. Should we decry all use of knives?

    The exercise you describe sounds relatively well-constructed, and though denying the premise of the question for oneself is a valid response, to criticise anyone who does find it helpful is not. The reason it's relatively well-constructed is that it recognises the question as being one for which the answer is on a spectrum, not a binary.

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  5. Thanks for this, Craig. I feel very similarly to you regarding what I talk about when I talk about God, not least in discussions with non-Quakers and many of my friends who identify as atheist. When I first started attending Quaker meetings, some of my friends' reactions were as though I had taken leave of my senses, which I gradually came to understand was because they lacked a conception of religious language as passed down through the tradition of mysticism. It took some time to convince them that I was not part of a cult and that I was no more or less 'reasonable' a person (whatever that means!) than before. I think one of the main things that Quakers have to offer the world is that we have evolved a set of practices and traditions that, properly used, have been quite effective at making the insights of mysticism practically applicable, rather than simply being a withdrawal from the world into a purely contemplative life.

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    1. Thanks Ben, this is a very useful insight, that Quaker practices have the potential to make mystical spirituality practically applicable in daily life.

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  6. If you can't own the actual reality of the Spirit, as more than 'warm fuzzies in my heart', then it doesn't matter what you call yourself. There's something vital you don't have yet.

    'Having' it doesn't make you 'better' than anyone who doesn't. It does attune you to the way things actually work, which certainly will affect how and how well you achieve your undoubtedly good intentions.

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    1. It can be more than "warm fuzzies" without being theistic.

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  7. Well, I'm all for avoiding divisive labels and false distinctions, but I'm a little disconcerted to read that "Most Quakers who use the word God are not speaking of ...the omnipotent and omniscient supernatural God of pre-modern theology". Personally, that's exacly who I mean when I use the word "God" and that's precisely the God I believe in, trust, worship, and try to listen to. I suppose that makes me a "theist" after all. And if I'm to dialogue with other Friends with different beliefs I'm not sure how it will help us to avoid the use of that term.

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    1. To make my point a little more directly: It seems to me that this post is a well-intentioned effort to give us a more civilized way to speak with one another. Unfortunately, it does so by defining Friends who believe as I do as "Imaginary", which I don't believe we are.

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    2. People who don't realize that God lives... naturally don't think that 'this sort of issue' matters.

      They also get pretty uptight and dismissive about anyone wanting to tell them how it be.

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    3. Rich, my apologies for appearing to ignore the experience of people with a more orthodox (not sure if that is the right term) theological perspective. I should clarify that I am writing here about liberal Quaker culture in the UK, rather than Friends wordlwide, and perhaps should have made that clear in my post.

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  8. Words can be misleading but we do need to discuss using words. We need to make distinctions using words. That needs to be balanced with the realization that such categorizations don't tell the whole story, and when different people are using the same terms to mean different things (which is fairly common) you can wind up with an exercise in non-communication.

    My inclination is to see a theist as one who believes that there is some power/force/spirit out there greater than ourselves. But I realize that some Friends with such a belief describe themselves as non-theists.

    Some people who try to put God in a restrictive box put a lot of emphasis on believing in God. Others who do so put a lot of emphasis on not believing in, or at least being agnostic about, God. So people at apparently very different points on the theist - non-theist spectrum may have the same problem - a too limited and restrictive view of God.

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    1. My use of theist/non-theist follow how I was taught to understand the term 'theist' (in school Religious Studies lessons; I had an odd RS teacher). That is, a belief in god or gods that are willing and able to interfere with the world. Non-theism can then vary between many positions, including believing in supernatural beings that interfere in the world but are not gods (which is being a bit technical about it, to my mind, but each to their own), a creator god, who may even judge us after death and determine what happens, but who does not interfere with the world we experience in this life, or no transmundane entities or phenomena at all.

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  9. One way I look at the difference between 'theists' and 'non-theists' is how they relate to Quaker history, to our past. (Full disclosure: I am comfortable with the label theist.) My impression from reading and interacting with non-theists is that they want to alter and control how Quakers speak. You mentioned this in your post when you note that the use of the word 'God' in some Quaker groups is now controversial because non-theists might find it offensive; as if their feelings of being offended should control our manner of speaking. I find this strategy manipulative.

    The result of such a tactic is to sever our relationship to our past. How could we discuss the writings and lives of centuries of Quakers without using words like 'God', 'Christ', 'Light of the Lord', and numerous other such expressions? I don't think we can. The non-theist movement among Quakers is ideologically driven and one tactic of the ideologue is to control what is acceptable speech in the interest of limiting what can even be considered.

    On the other hand, I think your view that religious language is more like 'poetry' (I like to say it is like music) is valuable. I don't have a problem with multiple ways of expressing the divine or the sense of awe in a presence that is elusive. But my experience is that non-theists are not open to these kinds of multiple expressions. There is a drive on their part to eject certain expressions from the realm of acceptable speech; expressions such as 'God', 'Jesus', etc. I think it would be a great loss if this were to happen.

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    1. Sometimes it seems that people who wish to avoid offending non-theists want to restrict language far more than non-theists do (speaking as a non-theist).

      I would never want to see any language 'outlawed', and I've never personally spoken to a non-theist Friend who did. Merely that some things be changed to avoid any apparent presumption of theism. I agree it would be a terrible loss to lose theistic language, but would rather see a diversity of language, from a range of theistic and non-theistic traditions.

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    2. Sam, I would be interested to know what current use of language you see as an apparent presumption of theism?

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    3. Craig, very little in widespread use, certainly. A&Q uses a nice range of different language. To my mind, there is no widespread problem of overly theistic language.

      I've come across the occasional corporate statement (can't recall any right now) that was problematic to me, but not severely.

      The main category that I've come across myself has been in organised group activities, where the activity is introduced in purely theistic terms, or terms that are principally used in a theistic context (be they general, like prayer, or more specific like God or Christ). That leaves me feeling "oh, is this activity not something I'm welcome to participate in?". People should speak their own truth, but when telling people what's about to happen in an organised activity, and what the activity involves, it's appropriate to put those elements in the most inclusive language feasible.

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    4. Sam, your comment illustrates the real problem. Even though Quakerism is historically based on the living Christ (understood as being the same as the historical Jesus) speaking to each of us and being the head of the meeting for worship, you seem to want to exclude describing Quaker activities in those terms.

      It's one thing to be open to people participating regardless of their own personal understanding of spirituality, but it's quite another to then insist that the meeting phrase everything within your frame of reference.

      Historically, one could attend irregardless, but membership was based upon being in unity with Quaker principles (including the centrality of the Living Christ) and only members participated in decision making. This allowed keeping the basic principles without excluding others from participating in worship and many other activities. But IMHO it is very problematic when we open up the decision making to people who don't agree on the basic principles.

      I'm part of a very explicitly Christian Quaker community. We have a participant who is Jewish (and not messianic Jewish). She feels drawn to participate, and we find her participation valuable. We don't force our understandings down her throat, and she understands that it is not appropriate for her to try to change the way we express ourselves (individually and corporately) and that she should not seek full membership as long as she is not in unity with the Christian basis of our faith community. We also have had non-theists and those just uncertain about Jesus Christ participate, and they are fully welcome. This IMHO is the proper balance between being open and welcoming to people with diverse perspectives while maintaining a clear norm in our corporate understanding.

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    5. I appreciate the responses here. Sam, I can only go by what I have observed; I don't have statistics regarding a push to limit language usage. But consider that an American Quaker, who identifies as both Pagan and Non-Theist, has argued that 'Christian identified' Quakers need to be very cautious when referencing the Bible. Or consider that in at least one Liberal Yearly Meeting those who have an explicitly Christian commitment have felt it necessary to have their own gathering so that they can at least talk to each other without generating feelings of irritation. And there is a large Monthly Meeting I know of that split in two because of the friction that explicit Christian language seemed to generate. (No doubt there were other reasons as well; I was not personally involved so my information is second hand.) A story here, a report there; it all adds up.

      I do not find your response reassuring on this point. You argue for the use of 'inclusive language'; but I would suggest that the 'inclusive language' is actually a specific language, that it is no more inclusive, or wide-ranging, than Christian usage. The langage of non-theism emerges out of a specific world view and has its own bases and presuppositions. I have no problem with that, just as I have no problem with Buddhist language or Pagan language. But Buddhist language is tradition specific and when used in a Quaker context does not, for that reason, give rise to much friction. The friction from non-theism is the claim that they are not offering a specific view. That would be like Buddhists claiming that the word 'Bodhisattva' is universal and not Buddhism specific. Non-theists get to have their view, of course. But, from my perspective, it is a specific view and is not more encompassing than any other. It is for this reason that I find myself frustrated when people want to refrain from using the word 'God' on the grounds that non-theistic language is inclusive. I don't think non-theistic language is more inclusive; it's usage, in my opinion, contains within it both metaphysical and religious views that are specific and, to my mind, narrow. I think it is a misunderstanding to think of this usage as 'inclusive'.

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    7. I love all the types of language used in our liberal Quaker meeting by the Friends there, and I am fairly certain most others in my meeting feel similarly. We are all free to use the terms most meaningful to us. It just seems ridiculous to me to become obsessed with terminology in a spiritual community.

      The same Light that graced Jesus also graces a vast array of traditions (both religious and secular). And if you look for it (no matter what terminology it is framed in), you will see it and experience it everywhere. It is indeed a beautiful community that is living in spiritual unity, when each is free to express their experience with that Light in terms that are meaningful to them.

      To censor forms of 'speech' (even an implied censoring) or to use it as a way to judge another's worthiness to become a member is the ultimate establishment of a petty doctrine based on human words.

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  10. I agree that we tend to focus too much on the labels rather than on experience, but experience does lead to differences that are not irrelevant or imaginary. If your experience is of Jesus Christ and that experience corresponds to the story we find in Christian scripture, then "God" is God the father of Jesus Christ, and God the Father is a discreet, sentient spiritual entity with putatively absolute attributes who does act in history, is capable of relationship in ways that are much more concrete that any relationship with our ubiquitous liberal Quaker "Spirit" could be. He (and he is a he) created the world, watches it, judges it and sends his son to it for a purpose. In other words, a person whose religious life is centered in Christ is by definition a theist.

    Nobody has the right to redefine that experience of such "an external ‘being’ to be just a "signpost that points towards our experience of spiritual reality". And this kind of "theism" is not an academic exercise; it is a description of the most compelling personal religious truth.

    Therefore, to speak of theism versus non-theism is to speak of the most profound difference between our religious experiences. It's not divisive to speak that way until someone gets their back up. On the other hand, it does honestly name a difference that already exists.

    Thus I feel that our Christian Friends naturally and quite rightly feel beleaguered when we liberal Friends try to recast such experience as somehow missing a deeper mystical unity behind all experience, when we deny that Friends have been "theists" for at least 300 years—in fact, the vast majority still are. I also feel that those of us (I include myself) who have not experienced Jesus as the Christ in or own lives and therefore have no experience of the Father just have not connected with the "Spirit" that gathered us into a peculiar people in the first place back in the 1650s. "Theism" is the home ground for Quakerism and non-theists should respect that in the spirit of our testimony on integrity, at the very least.

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    1. Dear Steven, thanks for this thought-provoking response. You write that "a person whose religious life is centered in Christ is by definition a theist." I find that I can't agree with this, largely because I am someone whose faith is centred on Christ. For me the experience of relationship with God in Christ is distinct from any particular theological view of God's nature and attributes.
      Whatever your theology, 'God the Father' is a metaphor for something, which can be unpacked in diverse ways. The experience of faith can include feelings of adoration, trust and dependence without believing in any particular list of divine attributes, or a definite view of God as a 'supernatural sentient entity'.
      I certainly agree that most Friends throughout our history have had a theological view of God which would today be categorised as 'theist'. I don't think this means that people with different theological views cannot have an experience of Jesus as Christ, or a connection with the same Spirit that gathered early Friends. I came to Quakers because I recognised my own experience in the writings of early Friends, despite differences in our theological views about God's nature and mode of action in the world.
      In Friendship (and with thanks for your excellent blog), Craig

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    2. There are indeed non-theists who identify as Christian and consider Christ their primary teacher - but they do not believe in God as a theistic God (and that can be in various points of shading of grey between 'pure' theist and non-theist). I imagine that that can sometimes be frustrating, as the use of the terms 'Christian' and 'Christ' tends to lead listeners to making assumptions about their meanings).

      The use of carefully chosen terminology can help to reduce incorrect assumptions, but can never eliminate them; and poorly chosen terminology can increase their incidence.

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  11. As anyone who knows me knows, I don't like labels. This is because for most of us "labels" tend to divide rather than unite. Using a "label" to describe ourselves or someone else is a quick shorthand to judge someone in totality. Is it not better to come to know someone over time through deep conversation and/or experience, rather than asking them what their "label" is?

    I was once at a Quaker retreat many years ago when I was randomly paired with a professed atheist who was a member of the same meeting I was a member of. The "assignment" at the retreat was to take a two mile walk on a path through some deep woods and just talk. As we talked alone in the middle of the forest for 45 minutes, my partner described her spiritual experience and how she saw all of existence. When it was my turn to share, I said, "I label myself a "theist" and you do not - but I see and experience everything just as you have described." And I pondered to myself, "How is it that we use different labels to describe ourselves; yet, we see things the same?"

    From that day forward I have avoided labels because I find them to be destructive and all too convenient. I refuse to call myself much of anything these days, because I think if someone wants to know about me, they should take the time to get to know me.

    I've been asked why I don't call myself a Christian even though I admire and strive to follow the teachings of Jesus. My answer is, "If Jesus never called himself a Christian - that's good enough for me." I think Jesus was such a universalist - striving to take his message of love, forgiveness, compassion, spiritual awakening, and inherent self-worth to everyone he met. There is no denying that he came from a Judaic culture steeped in its own terms, history, and religious imagery. It is also evident that he was speaking outside this confine to the whole world. Why ruin his wonderful message by adding to it so many "notions" unrelated to his simple universal message that would change the world.

    And I think that especially liberal Quakerism is in a good position to take this message of Jesus to all without attaching anything to it - no requirement to be 'this or that'. We just need to 'get over it', and not act as the world does. We need to rise above human exclusivity and the inherent human need to make constant judgments/assessments of others based on our own "notions".

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    1. Thank you for this Howard, which is beatifully expressed.

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  12. Craig, Thanks for writing a blog on this. It's definitely an important discussion as more and more Quakers define themselves as "nontheist."

    Unfortunately, those Friends who define themselves as "nontheist" mean denotatively just that.

    They think there is no ultimate meaning to the cosmos, think there is no eternal Truth, etc.

    And lastly, while it's true that many liberal Quakers state "an understanding of spiritual reality as ultimately mysterious and unnameable," this was never the position of nearly all Friends until the late 20th century.

    George Fox's famous statement and many other Friends through history is that God (the Divine, Ultimate Reality,etc.) is love, God is truth, God is goodness, God is like the man Jesus who loves his enemies.

    Nontheists Quakers emphasize they think there is no eternal truth at all, none.
    Many of them are as nontheistic as Richard Dawkins and other secular nontheists.

    Why define yourself as "no-God" Quaker, when allegedly the very word Quaker was originally a reference to God and when the center of Quakerism is "worship"?

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    1. While I don't agree with everything Craig has said, I take his point as being ultimately inclusive. Your point, Daniel, seems to be quite the opposite.

      I find it interesting that you feel able to speak in broad generalities about us (nontheist Quakers). What study have to undertaken or referenced to know so much about us and our beliefs?

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    2. Sam, thanks for responding and sharing your view. I would be interested in your perspective, if you explain and define nontheism differently.

      I'm an inclusivist actually. It would be wonderful if everyone came to worship seeking God, everyone!

      For many years, my wife and I were members of the Sierra Club. We wanted to get the word out about saving the environment, bring people into that way of living.

      But would anyone in the Sierra Club have wanted people to join who defined themselves as "non-evironmentalist" who wanted "non-evironmentalism"?

      I think not. All interested people were welcome, but it wouldn't make sense for nonenvironmentalists to come into the Sierra Club and emphasize "nonenvironmentalism."

      I don't presume to know why every Friend claims there is "no god" or why they would want to define themselves by such a term.

      I've spoken and dialogged with nontheist Quakers from Britain, from the East Coast of the U.S., the Midwest, read many Quaker blogs, including what used to be called the Quaker Atheist. Etc. Furthermore, my last meeting had nontheist members including leaders who I interacted with for a long time.

      But I don't know of any formal study that has been done. I think it would be beneficial.

      When I've asked nontheist Friends why they come to worship if there is no one to worship, they explain that they don't worship!

      If the study, dialogues, personal interaction with, sitting in worship with, etc., weren't enough,
      the term itself is defining (as nontheist Friends have never tired of emphasizing),"no god."

      It would be intriguing to also do a book length history on when nontheism came into the Society and why.

      The only early Quaker I know of and have read who (as I recall) said he wasn't a theist was Henry Cadbury. But he didn't declare he was a nontheist, I don't think.

      When I did my C-O service near Philly in 1967, and used to ride the El into Philly, I met a Buddhist Quaker. But I don't recall anyone being nontheist.

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  13. The Russian translation of the text can be found here - http://quakers.ru/%D0%BC%D0%BD%D0%B8%D0%BC%D1%8B%D0%B9-%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%B8%D1%81%D1%82/

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  14. I find the seemingly interminable discussions of Friends involved in theologically mixed meetings rather hard to appreciate. I would tether my Quaker faith to the witness of the Bible, and not worry about terminological details! As far as i am concerned, Friends who find Biblical faith unacceptable are entitled to their own views, but I would not be willing to meet with them on a regular basis. How could one worship with someone who does not believe in God??? For me, this would be pointless.

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  15. I was drawn back to this piece, so long after it was written, by someone posting the link on r/quakers. I thought you, Craig, might be interested in the story I related in my comment there, being as it does (sort of) involve you...

    "I recently presented at a course at Woodbrooke, as did the author of the piece in question. One point made on that course was that "theist" was a description that wasn't used as a self-label. Interestingly, when I spoke to Friends in my Meeting after that course, several of them took issue with the idea that "theist" isn't a label people apply to themselves - because *they* did so. Some people like to use it to indicate a belief in a theistic God without being specific about *which* god."

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