Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Quakerism as a Second Language

Religions are often caricatured as a set of competing 'belief systems', whose incompatible claims to knowledge about the universe are based on irrational faith rather than reason and evidence.

In a recent post on Brigid, Fox, and Buddha, Rhiannon Grant has explored an alternative way of understanding religions, as being similar in many ways to languages. She writes that “knowing your religion really well, or being really competent in it, is like being fluent in a language.” She also points to the possibility that “without enough fluent users, religion might change beyond recognition, just as a language dies without speakers.”

This is a very fruitful way of understanding a religious tradition such as the Quaker way. It is obvious that a shared language doesn't require identical beliefs, (although different languages may inflect our perceptions in various ways), but it does provide a shared vocabulary for communication. Less obviously, this is also true of many religious traditions, including Quakerism. Religious traditions offer shared words, images, stories and practices that enable a community to communicate their experiences and engage in common projects. Any religion that is broader than a fundamentalist sect provides space for a wide range of beliefs and interpretations to be expressed through a shared vocabulary, just as different language communities do. The point of a religious tradition such as the Quaker way is not to provide a pre-packaged set of beliefs about the universe. Instead, it embodies a set of teachings and practices whose purpose is to enable us to become changed men and women, growing into our calling to contribute to the healing of the world.

For most of us in Britain, even those who have grown up in Quaker families, our first language is much more likely to be some form of secular liberalism than anything else. In addition, many of us have come to Quakers after, or alongside, exploring one or more other religious traditions, which we may have learned with varying degrees of fluency. So Quakerism is most often a second, third or fourth language rather than our 'mother tongue'.

Given that most of us are not 'native speakers' of the Quaker way, just as with any new language it takes some effort to become fluent in it. We will certainly not acquire fluency simply 'by immersion', as has often been assumed in the past, as we are most likely to be in meetings with Friends whose grasp of the Quaker way is at least as patchy and broken as our own.

For many decades Quaker communities have neglected to actively teach the 'language' of the Quaker way to newcomers. The assumption has often been that people will 'pick it up as they go along'. Instead,what has increasingly happened is that the Quaker way has been largely replaced by the secular and individualist language of the dominant culture, leaving only an impoverished remnant of the original rich grammar and vocabulary of Quaker thought and practice. We have retained just a few token phrases, often misinterpreted and out of context – 'that of God in everyone', 'walk cheerfully over the world', 'the inner Light', divorced from the richness of imagery, stories and concepts that makes up the full 'language' of the Quaker way. The Book of Discipline that we have discerned together as a Religious Society - our 'Quaker grammar', is widely ignored or dismissed as 'just for guidance', rather than the foundation of 'Gospel Order'.

Fluency in a language is required to practice it fully. Even a few words and phrases of a foreign language can be useful or thought-provoking, but without at least one language in which we are reasonably fluent our options for expression and relationship will be severely limited. Similarly, a degree of practised knowledge of the Quaker way is essential if we are to allow ourselves to be formed and changed by it. Without this fluency, we will miss its full potential to change us, to build us up into authentic communities, and to be agents of healing and transformation for the world.

It is one of the ironies of contemporary Quaker culture that many Friends are more familiar with the spiritual teachings and practices of Buddhism, Sufism or Paganism than those of the Quaker way itself. For many of these Friends, Quakerism is simply the absence of any distinctive spiritual teaching, a place where everyone is free to bring their own beliefs and preferences into the accepting 'Quaker Space', rather than a religious tradition with its own wisdom and insights that are at least as valuable as those of other traditions.

Those of us with a concern to revive the practice of a distinctive Quaker spirituality have similarities with movements to preserve minority languages threatened by over-dominant neighbours, such as Gaelic and Welsh. Just as modern speakers of these minority languages are engaged in creatively developing their vocabulary to keep it useful for contemporary life, our aim is not to freeze the Quaker tradition at some point in history, but to keep it alive and engaged with current concerns.

Fortunately, one of the hopeful signs of renewal among contemporary Quakers is the flourishing of opportunities for learning the riches of the Quaker way. These include accessible and contemporary books such as Patricia Loring's 'Listening Spirituality' and Rex Ambler's 'The Quaker Way', recent Swarthmore Lectures and Pendle Hill pamphlets, Quaker blogs and videos, Woodbrooke courses, and the new online collection of learning resources from Woodbrooke and Quaker Life called 'Being Friends Together'.

How are you learning to 'speak the language' of the Quaker way? What resources or teachers have helped you to appreciate the richness of our unique spiritual tradition?


  1. A really interesting and valuable post! I'll probably add some more thoughts in today's blog post, but in answer to your question, I have found that eventually, it is necessary to try speaking and be corrected. This does require getting to know other reasonably fluent speakers and being open to a mutual process of correcting and debating possible corrections, and it requires a degree of vulnerability which I certainly would never achieve in a modern language classroom, but I do think it's important - especially to get beyond what 'static' forms like books and videos can teach.

  2. I recommend immersing oneself in the corpus of religious autobiography which was so important for transmitting the faith in times past. I am talking specifically about ministers' journals, though some such volumes were written by Friends other than ministers. These autobiographies vary in value, so it helps to get recommendations about which ones to start with. Many of them are now available as reprints. One can sample some of them through the Digital Quaker Collection of the Earlham School of Religion. See: http://esr.earlham.edu/dqc/

  3. Interesting ideas; the one that struck me immediately when reading this was

    "that the Quaker way has been largely replaced by the secular and individualist language of the dominant culture"

    It made me wonder if Quakerism might be a dialect rather than a language?

    It happens I was at a Buddhist meeting last night where we were talking about how certain key ideas get picked up and used out of context in popular culture. I would suggest this may also be true of Quaker language to some degree, although I confess that this may be my own ignorance. It seems to me that I come across certain phrases, such as "speak truth to power", "that of God in everyone" and "Inner Light" in non-Quaker contexts. I am not clear to what extent some of these phrases were created by Quakers and picked up by the world, or vice versa.

    In the event it is a dialect - well, people use one dialect at work and another at home all the time for example. So where does that leave Quaker language in my life outside the meeting?

  4. This is a great article; thank you. Since high school, I tried to learn about different religions and was a seeker since middle school; with atheist parents). When I first came to understand the principles of Quakers, I was serving in the Peace Corps/Nepal. I was immersed in the Nepali language and talking with Buddhist and Hindu women everyday.

    While in Nepal, I decided to live by the principles of Quakers--without having actually met one. I met real live Quakers about four years later. I came to the faith fairly free of any other confusing religious information (though I did spend a few years in United Methodist confirmation classes but they were not really very educationally helpful; everything was really watered down so that nothing was concrete).

    Since then, I have said to many people that the Nepali language is a great language for religious discussions--any religion. I feel like all the vocabulary for my faith and practice seems very available in Nepali. Just like speaking about snow in the Innuit language offers a wide variety of words for snow, the Nepali vocabulary offers thousands and thousands of words, phrases, and concepts for discussing faith and practice. English seems as convenient for my faith and practice as Cro-magnon vocabulary.

    I've been either an attender or a member of my Meeting for 12 years (plus those solo four years). I had to start from scratch. I learned by taking the Quaker 101 program, reading a lot of Pendle Hill pamphlets, participating in Spiritual Formation nine-month programming, attending retreats (including all family retreats as well as women's silent retreats), and sitting in silence in many sized meetings.

    Brigidfoxandbuddha speaks to my condition. I think vulnerability and just giving it a try are great ingredients for learning the Quaker language. I've learned Russian, Nepali, Norwegian and French languages in formal classrooms--with varying success. I've most held on to Nepali because I found fluent "seasoned" speakers who met me where I was at. They gave me their time generously. They appreciated me even when I spoke very clumsy sentences because they saw my authenticity and enthusiasm.

    From the other side of that coin, I encourage Friends to give their time to seekers and visitors. No one needs to proselytize; just be available to talk with people. Welcome the clumsy and confused; welcome everyone.

  5. This post speaks to my condition. It speaks so hard I have recommended it to the editors of our Meeting's newsletter.

    I have been reading Sheeran's "Beyond Majority Rule" and he describes the two splits he sees in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1983 - an intellectual split between the Christocentric and universalist Friends, and an experiential split between those who experience a "gathered meeting" and those who do not. Sheeran constantly uses language as an analogy - the different languages/myths of the Christocentric Friends, universalist Friends, social justice Friends and democratic Friends and how terms and entire dialects seem to shift from Friend to Friend or even from Sunday to Sunday.

    LingonberryJam speaks wisely (also, thank you for your service! My fiancee and I are planning to honeymoon in the Corps) - I would add that we (as mostly unprogrammed Friends) need to risk reaching out and letting people know who we are and what we're about. My wife is Jewish, and a quote from her Siddur sticks with me - "If you study the Torah and help others to study, if you are fair in your business dealings, if you perform mitzvot, others will point and say 'look how one behaves who studies the Torah!'" Languages die because they are not taught to newcomers or the next generation - one need only look to the greying and dying languages of Africa to see that. I feel that we must be not only helpful in teaching our language to others, but openly inviting.

  6. Yes, the Quaker language can be an obstacle to communication with newcomers and even members who are transferring from other Yearly Meetings. One way to help them was to add a glossary to our "Guide to our Faith and Practice". (Guide)

    Many Yearly Meetings also have glossaries as part of the Guides and we consulted them and created a "mashup" (not a Quaker term!) of those as well as modifying them so that our Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting's way of living the word is what we present.

    Each YM has it's own "dialect" and why not? They are different and that is good to see. Check ours out at www.syama.org where you can find the Guilde in PDF format. And enjoy the diverse and ever evolving language of Quakers as we allow revelation to continue.


"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)