Sunday, 9 September 2018
The broad differences in belief among modern Quakers do not seem to conform to this pattern. For some, this is a welcome distinction between the Quaker way, which values individual freedom and diversity, and traditional religious traditions, which require conformity of belief. For others, the loss of shared Quaker beliefs is a source of disquiet, held responsible for growing incoherence and loss of spiritual depth.
But this understanding of religion as a set of shared beliefs is based on a mistake. There is no religious community in which everyone has identical beliefs. Every religious believer has their own ideas, opinions, values and interpretations, which will be different in some respects from everyone else’s. Even in fundamentalist sects that require strict conformity there are always some members who harbour secret reservations and alternative personal interpretations. For each individual, the meaning of any statement of belief, such as the existence of God or the possibility of enlightenment, will inevitably be different, according to their differing life experiences, temperament, education or cultural background. So what members of religious communities have in common is not whatever is going on inside their heads.
What religious communities do share is their collections of sacred stories. It is these stories that give a collective meaning to statements of religious belief. If someone tells us that they believe in God, we cannot know what they mean unless we know the stories that they are using to describe who and what God is. Are they referring to the God of the Bible, who spoke to Abraham and Moses, or the philosophers’ abstract God of pure Being, or of some other tradition altogether?
Religions don’t typically start from a set of beliefs. They grow from stories; about the creation of the world, the actions of ancestors and legendary heroes, the lives and sayings of prophets and teachers. Over time, these stories are passed on, elaborated, re-enacted in ritual, sometimes written down, institutionalised and fought over. As part of this process, statements of belief are sometimes codified as official doctrines or creeds, as Christianity in particular has tended to do. But this process of defining official statements of belief is far from universal, and is absent from many major traditions such as Hinduism, Taoism, Shinto etc.
Religious beliefs, which are usually considered the primary features of all religions, might be better understood as entirely secondary - derived from the original stories told in folklore, plays, pictures, poems and scriptures. Most of the belief statements in the Apostle’s Creed for instance, are simply a summary of the key ‘plot points’ of the Christian stories:
"I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead."
Sacred stories such as the life and sayings of Jesus, Muhammad or Buddha, can be understood and interpreted in many different ways by each individual, but they provide a community with a common vocabulary and a shared repertoire of images, symbols and characters. Every religious tradition has its own shared collection of sacred stories, which enables members with very different understandings and experiences to practise their faith together, communicate their experiences, and engage in dialogue, by referring to familiar ideas and images.
In a Catholic Mass, worshippers with very different theological ideas can take part together, say the same words and share the bread and wine as one community, because the Eucharist receives its meaning, not from their diverse opinions, but from the symbolism of the Biblical stories of the Last Supper, the Passover, and the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
Stories such as this give meaning to the community’s practices of worship and service, they justify and explain how and why the community functions as it does. They teach and remind community members of the disciplines and values that are important to the community, and they also provide resources for challenging established ways of doing things.
As well as the ‘official’ versions of stories recorded in sacred scriptures, most religious traditions also develop diverse collections of apocryphal stories. Local communities continually adapt, embellish and re-interpret their sacred stories, creating multiple alternative versions and diverse local traditions. Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have vast popular literatures and oral traditions about popular saints, mystics and miracle-workers. Poets and prophets frequently re-work and invent new stories, adapting familiar characters and situations to express their own insights, such as this story by the Sufi poet Rumi:
One night a man was crying,
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
"So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?"
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
"Why did you stop praising?"
"Because I've never heard anything back."
you express is the return message.
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.”
Sacred stories in every culture are distinguished from ‘ordinary’ narratives by their claim to reveal the meaning of the world. What is most important about a sacred story is not how literally it records actual events, but how truthfully it discloses the meaning of reality. It may be regarded as a record of historical events, a parable or a poetic fiction, but its factual status is secondary to the meaning it reveals. A sacred story such as the creation of the world might be interpreted as a literal description, a poetic rendering of psychological processes, a metaphysical analysis of the human condition, an instructive children’s story, or in many other ways, which may all reveal something about the meaning of human life in the world. The truth of a sacred story is not ‘did it literally happen like that?’ but ‘does it tell us something true about the world?’
Believing in a sacred story is very different to belief in the truths of logic or evidence. Religious belief does not depend on logical argument or the collection of evidence. It means understanding our own experience in terms of particular sacred stories, ordering our lives according to them, allowing them to orient our priorities and values, following practices that embody them, sharing them with others and trusting in their consequences in our own lives.
A sacred story is not necessarily explicitly religious. It might be the story of a personal experience, a historical event, a parable or myth. What makes it ‘sacred’ is that it is taken to disclose, to make visible, some aspect of the meaning of the world that exists independently of our own wishes, opinions and choices. This points to a fundamental distinction in possible attitudes towards the world - do we receive meaning from the world, or impose our own meaning on it?
Modern western thought claims that there is no pre-existing meaning to the world. Both scientific thinking and the main schools of western philosophy are united in insisting that facts are utterly separate from values, that the world is value-neutral, without inherent meaningfulness. Ideas of meaning, purpose or value are purely human creations that we project onto the objective universe according to our subjective motives or superstitions. According to this world-view, it is up to us to create our own values through our choices. This might involve a rational project of following ethical arguments to their conclusions, or an existential choice among arbitrary life-goals. In either case, the only meaning we will ever find in the world is what we bring to it. Human stories about the world can invent meanings and values, but they can never reveal them, because there are no meanings inherent in the world to be revealed. Stories can be entertaining or superstitious, useful or harmful, but they cannot be sacred.
This world-view is in striking contrast to that of all religious traditions, and so far as we can tell, all human cultures in the history of the world apart from a handful of modern societies. For most human beings who have ever lived, the world is not a blank screen for the reception of our arbitrary wishes and fantasies. The universe is inherently meaningful. There is a purpose to human life, and perhaps even a unique purpose for each human being. We are not free to invent our own values, because there is a moral universe to which we have to learn to conform, or face the consequences. This does not necessarily imply a supernatural mechanism of rewards and punishments, as illustrated by this Buddhist sacred story about a Zen master:
A big, tough samurai once went to see a little monk. “Monk,” he said, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience, “teach me about heaven and hell!”
The monk looked up at this mighty warrior and replied with utter disdain, “Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn’t teach you anything. You’re dirty. You smell. Your blade is rusty. You’re a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight, I can’t stand you.”
The samurai was furious. He shook, got all red in the face, was speechless with rage. He pulled out his sword and raised it above him, preparing to slay the monk.
“That’s hell,” said the monk softly.
The samurai was overwhelmed. The compassion and surrender of this little man who had offered his life to give this teaching to show him hell! He slowly put down his sword, filled with gratitude, and suddenly peaceful.
“And that’s heaven,” said the monk softly.
If there is anything to this understanding of the central importance of sacred stories for religious traditions, what does this mean for Quakers? This question will be the subject of next month’s post.
Posted by Craig Barnett