Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Beliefs and Action

Many of us take for granted a picture of the relationship between our ideas and our behaviour, which looks something like this:


According to this image, beliefs are primary. We first have to decide ‘what we believe’, often in the form of statements, perhaps such as ‘There is that of God in everyone’. Our task is then to ‘put these beliefs into practice’, and our integrity is to be judged by the degree to which our actions conform to our stated beliefs.

This image is so familiar that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is just one way of making sense of our experience. It is useful for some purposes, but is not the only way to understand what is going on. It foregrounds the role of explicit belief statements, but it also obscures some things that are especially important for the Quaker way.

The early Quakers insisted that they were not offering just another set of beliefs, like all the other competing religious sects of their day. Instead, they were pointing to the possibility of a new experience of divine guidance and transformation. The way to that experience was not a different belief but a different practice, of ‘waiting in the Light’ or ‘returning within’. This was a deliberate process of silent, attentive waiting on the divine voice within; becoming sensitive to the leadings of the Inward Guide and acting on them, as individuals and as a Quaker community.

Our usual picture above of ‘putting beliefs into action’ does not serve us very well for making sense of Quaker practice. This is one reason why Friends struggle with the question ‘what do Quakers believe?’ which starts from the assumption that the Quaker way is defined by a set of beliefs rather than shared practices. In response, Friends often substitute ‘Quaker values’ for beliefs, but this usually involves keeping the same basic picture, according to which we first choose our values and then have to find ways to ‘live them out’.


Without an alternative to this simple, binary picture, we keep turning the Quaker way into just another set of arbitrary beliefs or values, words or ideas in our heads that we have to try somehow to live up to by acting them out in the world. But there are many other possibilities for picturing how our ideas relate to our actions. Just one example might be to imagine a circular process something like this:

Quaker practices include Meeting for Worship, Business Meetings, Experiment with Light, Meetings for Clearness, Worship sharing etc. These are not just forms of behaviour. Practices are an intimate combination of actions, ideas, stories and values. They embody shared expectations: for example that spoken ministry will be short, reflective, and generally avoid violent expressions of feeling. Quaker practices also refer to particular stories and traditions. Spoken ministry in a Meeting for Worship or Business will often refer to incidents from Quaker history or a particular Meeting community. These shared stories are part of the texture of Quaker practices, which contribute to their distinctive character.

Quaker practices give rise to very specific kinds of experience, including distinctive ones such as ‘quaking’ or the feeling of being ‘led’ to speak or act in a certain way. These experiences are significantly different from what happens in apparently similar practices such as Buddhist meditation. Quaker practices also shape our experience of being a particular kind of person. They help to form the things we value, what we enjoy or avoid, the kind of speech and behaviour that we cultivate. Practices such as Meeting for Worship for Business involve the regular self-discipline of letting go of fixed intentions and listening for the insights of those who differ from us. Through regular experience of disciplines such as this we are formed as people with distinctive capacities. This is one of the principal goals of Quaker practices, to help us to become changed men and women, to ‘feel the evil weakening in us and the good raised up’.

These kinds of experience, and the kind of people we become, inevitably shape the quality of our Quaker community. Quaker practices are not just individual exercises: it is central to the Quaker way that it is practised in, and builds up, a faithful community. The quality of our community relationships is crucial for the vitality of our collective Quaker practices. Where a Quaker meeting does not have strong relationships of trust and affection between its members, or where there is little practical agreement about how to worship or discern together, the quality of Quaker practice will be significantly weakened. A community in which people share their lives and experience, and where there is a high level of agreement about how to practise the Quaker way together, will enjoy a virtuous circle of deepening experience, community and practice.

This picture of practice, experience and community might also be helpful for understanding Quaker testimony as a practice rather than a list of values or principles ‘in our heads’. Quaker testimonies such as opposing war, solidarity with refugees or simplifying lifestyle are forms of purposeful, meaningful action, that form us as individuals and as a community. They are continually re-shaped by new discernment and understood in a range of different ways. Testimonies are not just acts of individual conscience, but practised as part of a community tradition, in conversation with its collective discernment.

I have presented this circular model of Quaker practice, experience and community not as ‘the truth’, but simply to illustrate one alternative to the prevailing model of ‘belief and action’, which too often tends to push people into opposing identities on the basis of differing statements of belief. All three parts of this alternative model include values, expectations, goals, ideas and stories, but it does not require us to decide or agree on theological positions. Perhaps I am drawn to this approach because explicit statements of belief play a very small role in my own life. I have always struggled to understand the meaning or purpose of abstract convictions about the nature of God or the precise mechanisms of salvation. For me, religion is not a matter of ‘beliefs’; it is concerned with what I trust in and what I do.

How do you understand Quaker practice, experience and belief?


  1. A timely reminder that I should be remembering to write up more related to my contributions at Woodbrooke! Also, something I can refer back to for some of it, when I talk about the role of conceptions (as distinct from both belief and experience).

  2. Excellent post, and helps set out the difference between witnessing to the testimonies, which is Quaker practice, and political agitation, which is for the secular realm.

    1. Interesting comment, Mark. Do Quakers distinguish between the 'secular' and the sacred?

  3. It isn't about "belief";

    but it is about what is (or isn't, do you say?) really there to be met and welcomed. The nature of that 'what', whether it has power to save us from our folly, whether it has the love and the will and the wisdom to make life Good News rather than Bad News -- matters a great deal more than anyone's model of what Proper Quaker Practice should look like.

    Early Friends discounted theological 'beliefs' per se, because they'd found that the reality these described -- like the phenomena of the physical realm -- could be tested, confirmed or disconfirmed -- by experience rather than theory. The experiences were not ends in themselves; the source of these was what they wanted to know.

    The whole edifice you seek to model is based on the reality of that Spiritual context, has no point without it. But you implicitly leave that out of the model.

    1. It's a modern Quaker myth, Friend, that the early Quakers discounted theological beliefs. They were theologians themselves as their writings and epistles clearly testify; they described only those ideas that were 'out of the Life' (i.e. the Kingdom of God) as 'notions'; good sources here, besides Fox himself are Francis Howgill (see his "A Lamentation for the Scattered Tribes", 1656) and Richard Hubberthorne (see his "The Good Old Cause Briefly Demonstrated", 1659).

    2. Hi Gerard,
      I certainly agree that early Quakers were very keen on doing creative theology, and I don't want to dismiss the role of theological thinking (which this blog itself is an example of in an amateur way). According to my reading of early Quakers though, they were not just arguing that they were right because their beliefs were the only correct ones, and that others' beliefs were just 'notions' because they were incorrect. There is nothing very novel about this point of view, which is what fundamentalists of all varieties argue.
      Instead, the test of the reality of a relationship with the Inward Christ was in experience. If someone did not know that reality in their actual experience, simply having a theoretically 'correct' belief would be no help to them. Similarly people could, and did, have different ideas about religious doctrines but share in the same reality of the inward knowledge of God.
      Not all early Friends would have agreed with this of course, because there was never a point at which all Friends held identical theological opinions.

    3. Craig, the last two sentences of your comment leave me wondering what and whom specifically you're referring to. If I understand you correctly, you're saying that not all early Friends would have agreed that although people had "different ideas about religious doctrines," they shared" in the same reality of the inward knowledge of God." Restated without the negatives, the statement would read: Some early Friends thought that people with different ideas about religious doctrines shared the same reality of the inward knowledge of God. Is this what you were inferring?

      Unity was an important early Friends' testimony to truth. As bearing witness to the truth was their primary objective, so that the truth would prosper among the inhabitants of the earth, they were particular in discerning and preaching the one thing needful: the Word of God. They were also assiduous in confronting deceit and confusion of false gospels. The following is an example of Fox's encouragement in the work, taken from Epistle 114, but still useful today:

      In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, go on, that that of God in all consciences may witness, that ye are sent of God, and are of God; and so according to that speak, to bring up all unto the head Christ, and into the life which gave forth the scriptures; for there is the unity, and out of it is the confusion.

  4. I greatly appreciate the responsible concern and the articulate, reasoned coherence of this writing, Craig. Nevertheless, there is something at stake that cannot be bypassed by careful analysis and plotting a way forward. The always new and living faith--Christ coming to teach his people himself--supersedes all religious modalities, no matter the good intent behind their formulation. The perfect is enemy of the good.

    And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet unto our fathers, Saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall se,, and not perceive: For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them (Acts 28:25-27 KJV, 1611).

    Without reaching any agreement among themselves they began to disperse, but not before Paul had said one thing more: 'How well the Holy Spirit spoke to your fathers through the prophet Isaiah when he said, "Go to this people and say: You may hear and hear, but you will never undersand; you may look and look, but you will never see. For this people's mind has become gross; their ears are dulled, and their eyes are closed. Otherwise, their eyes might see, their ears hear, and their mind understand, and then they might turn again, and I would heal them" (The New English Bible, 1971).

  5. I've written something in reaction to this on my blog, thought you (and your readers) might be interested: https://quakeropenings.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/belief-experience-conception.html


"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)