We have come to assume that the only way we can communicate at all is by trying to ‘translate’ each others’ words into some other terms that are meaningful for us. This may work when our experiences are similar enough that we are ‘just using different words to talk about the same thing’. But it doesn’t help us to hear and to take seriously Friends whose experience is significantly different to our own. By translating their words into our own preferred language, we sidestep the reality of difference, instead of allowing ourselves to be challenged and enriched by it.
The absence of a shared language can also be an obstacle when we want to produce collective statements, such as minutes or outreach materials. If we try to include only words that no one will object to, we are left with an increasingly restricted vocabulary that is ever more dominated by the bureaucratic language of the wider culture.
There is an alternative. We could choose to cultivate a contemporary Quaker language that is rich enough to express the full diversity of our varied experiences. There is an extraordinarily creative spiritual vocabulary to draw upon in the writings of Quakers throughout our history. A contemporary language would also be continually open to whatever images, words and symbols arise from our current experience of Quaker practices.
A shared Quaker language would include multiple images and metaphors that reflect the multifaceted nature of spiritual reality. Quaker practices open us to the possibility of encounter with a reality that may be experienced as personal and impersonal, masculine, feminine, immanent, transcendent or otherwise. So words and symbols such as ‘God’, ‘the Guide’ or ‘Inward Christ’ might be recognised as valid ways of expressing the personal nature of some of our experiences - such as a sense of loving presence and guidance. At the same time, and without contradiction, such a language would also include impersonal images such as ‘Light’, ‘Energy’, or ‘Oneness’, which can point to experiences of illumination, empowerment and inter-relationship.
A shared language would involve accepting all of these images as valid, but none of them as sufficient in themselves. It would be rich enough to enable everyone to express the depth and variety of our personal experiences. At the same time its diversity would point towards the inexpressible nature of spiritual reality, which is always beyond our capacity to fully name, identify or control. By acknowledging the validity of numerous ways of encountering spiritual reality, it would also create space for change and growth in our religious understanding, so we might be less inclined to rely on narrow theologically-defined identities.
Instead of defending our own concepts and images, and trying to exclude those used by other Friends, we might recognise a wide range of experiences, images and symbols as equally important for expressing the full range of Quaker experience.
Many of us also draw insight and inspiration from other religious traditions, and would continue to make use of other spiritual languages as well. But a sufficiently rich Quaker language would not depend on importing concepts from other traditions. It would be broad and subtle enough to communicate the breadth and depth of Quaker experience with each other and with the wider world – including the varied insights and commitments that arise from our shared Quaker practices, and their practical expression in our lives.
What words, images and symbols help to communicate your experience of Quaker practice?