Liberal Quakers and Life after Death

At a conference last week, I got chatting with some colleagues about life after death, and various views on it. (Tasia Scrutton is organising a philosophy of religion conference on death and immortality, hence her interest.) “Quakers don’t have anything to say about that,” I said, and she replied, rightly, that an absence of interest can in itself be interesting.

It also isn’t strictly true that Quakers have never had anything to say. Previous generations of Quakers have often accepted a traditional Christian picture of the world, including life after death. Today, many Quakers outside the liberal tradition would still take that position. Even within Britain Yearly Meeting, the Quaker Fellowship for Afterlife Studies make it clear that they take a realist view of this topic. Most Quakers in Britain, though, do not seem to believe in an afterlife, and it doesn’t come up as a topic for discussion: instead, like Christian Aid, we believe in life before death.

Spending some more time with this idea, including during Meeting for Worship, I realised that I actually have a strong intuition against there being any form of life after death. Not only do I not think that any life which may or may not occur after death should affect my actions now (I don’t do things because I want to get into heaven or generate good karma for my next life, and nor do I accept eschatological verification), I actively think it’s unlikely, even impossible, that such a thing exists. Why is that? Quakers not talking about it, or a brief A-level module on all the options, seem unlikely to be enough to produce such a strong intuition.

Part of it comes from my picture of what people are: physical bodies which manifest consciousness through the interactions of cells, electricity, and chemicals. Part of it comes from my picture of what God/dess is like: loving not judging, engaged in the world’s processes not watching them from outside, expressed in manifold ways rather than pinned down to one creed or moment. And perhaps part of it comes from experience or the lack of it: although I have heard many accounts of the sense of someone ‘reappearing’ or ‘visiting’ after their death, when I have had this feeling I has always been clear that it was a psychological event or an act of my (vivid and well-exercised) imagination. I think people continue to influence us after their deaths, through our memories and through the repercussions of actions they took during their lives – but it’s also true that events influence us after they finish, so even a memory in the mind of God is not a ‘life after death’ but a life before death.

I think this position is consistent with other Quaker views I hold, but so could a lot of other views on life after death. Quakers: Do you agree with me? Do you have some other intuition, and if so can you trace where it comes from? Do you have no intuition, or only a rational answer, or one based on experience?

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Review of 2018

2018, overall, has been a good year for me. It started in my new flat, which (although it still needs some work – doesn’t everything?) suits me very well. It included meeting great people (new collaborators, new students, new partner!), and maintaining connections with old friends. I took the Eurostar to Cologne and the ferry to Belfast for the first time. I caught up with, and worked with, people all over the world, without leaving my living room. I think that epitomises my response to the wider political situation: to try, using Skype, Zoom, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other amazing tools the internet affords us, to create stronger international links without adding unnecessarily to my carbon footprint.

It’s been a good year for writing. I had a book come out (the expensive university library one), a book accepted for publication (Telling the Truth about God will be out next year at a much more reasonable price), and I have almost completed a draft novel manuscript. I haven’t blogged as much in 2018; this is only post number 20, although I’ve had almost the same number of views (almost 4000) as in 2017 and 2016. I set out to see how many poems I could get rejected from magazines, and managed 30 (and got a few published, in A New Ulster and Poethead). I had some academic journal articles appear, including one on afterwords and one on multiple religious belonging.

Other opportunities have opened up. I’ve been enjoying editing a special edition of Religions on interdisciplinary Quaker Studies (5 articles published and some more to come), and in 2019 I’m looking forward to working on The Quaker World with Wess Daniels. (Chapter proposals are open! Tell us what you’d like to write about!)

I read a lot of books (as those who follow me on Goodreads will know). That many books always includes a few duds or things which just weren’t to my taste, but it also includes so many excellent books it’s hard to pick out just a few. Some people I know personally published great books this year, so naturally I’m biased towards those (examples include: Quaker Studies: an Overview, Our Child of the Stars, Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night). Of the other fiction I read this year, I really liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (and the other two books in the series), and was passed Hag-Seed by a friend who was right that it’s a fascinating read. I also enjoyed Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, No Man of Woman Born, The Tea Master and the Detective, and Unfit to Print. In non-fiction (well, excluding work stuff… I’ll probably be writing more about that next year), favourites included Balancing on the Mechitza, Doughnut Economics, The Prodigal Tongue, Saving Alex, and So You Want To Talk About Race.

Besides writing and reading – although, frankly, those are my favourite activities – I’ve also done some other things. I co-taught a course on Friends with Dual Religious Identities which led to some really productive conversations, and ran a small course at Swarthmoor Hall on Afterwords which also went well. I enjoyed a family holiday on Orkney (which inspired some aspects of the draft novel…) and a course on Writing Our Roots (which lead to some good poem drafts)… okay, correction, I don’t really do anything which isn’t about reading or writing in some way. 😀 Even Britain Yearly Meeting was this year much concerned with books – deciding whether to revise our book of discipline. It was a big event for me personally, too, because of my service on the Revision Preparation Group, a committee who became real friends during our work.

In 2019 I’m planning new challenges – new courses to teach, conferences to attend, books to write, study leave to take (and use as well as possible!), and of course lots to read. And my first book launch. Watch this space for details!

Paddling hard or going with the flow?

This morning I walked to Meeting for Worship through the park. My route takes me next to a stream for much of the way, and at one place I saw a duck. This is a pretty common occurrence, but I noticed this duck because it was in the stream, well out from the sides, but seemed to be still. At first I thought the stream must be shallower than it looked, and the duck standing on the bottom. Then I realised that the duck was puddling upstream at exactly the same speed as the water was flowing downstream, so that it was working hard to stay in one place.

a tarmac path winds through autumn woodland, with trees on both sides

I didn’t manage to photograph the duck, so this is just a picture of a path in the same general area.

I took that image into meeting, where I was contemplating, as I often do, Advices & Queries 28: “undertake or relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt”. Sometimes it seems like however many things I stop doing, I’m still just as busy! Of course, that’s because new things start, or existing things expand, and I notice the ‘no’s more than the ‘yes’es especially when it’s a struggle or my decision needs a lot of explaining.

As I settle into my new flat – I’ve been in it for a year, but it still seems new! – and my new city – I’ve been here for two and a half years, but it still seems new! – and my new relationship – less than six months, that genuinely is new 🙂 – I’m finding myself needing more space and unscheduled time, or perhaps being more accepting of my need for space and unscheduled time. When you’re hunting for a job, everyone expects to be able to see your feet paddling as hard as possible, even if – like the duck in the park – you’re only going fast enough to stay still. Stopping, turning round and going with the flow, seems inconceivable.

“A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength,” says another passage in Advices & Queries (41). I find it’s much easier to ‘choose’ a ‘simple’ lifestyle if you already have certain things which are not simple at all, or easy to obtain. I can say no to paid work much more easily when I already have enough paid work to cover my bills, and I can say no to voluntary work much more easily when nobody is demanding to see my CV or asking me what I’m doing to develop my skills or build my professional networks. Is that really a choice, or an expression of the privileges which come with being middle class, white, educated and employed?

Remembrance and Resigning

(Welsh word of the post: tân, fire, as in ‘Tân yn Llyn‘.)

Poppy season is here again. As usual, I’m wearing a white poppy and have pinned one on my Guider’s uniform for the last time. It’s the last time because I’m resigning from my role as a Brownie leader – because Girlguiding have gone into a partnership with the British Army. (If you agree with me that this is a bad idea, sign the petition here or write to Amanda Medler, the Chief Guide, at Girlguiding, 17-19 Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1W 0PT.)

On a blue fleece garment, a white poppy has been pinned over a cloth tab with three badges on it: a Guide Promise badge, a camps and holidays licence badge, and a 10-year long service award.

White poppy over my badge tab.

There’s been a lot of discussion about white poppies this year (and bumper sales). There always is, but because of the nice round number – 100 years since 1918 – I seem to be hearing more than usual ‘thank you’ and ‘what a splendid sacrifice’ and less than usual ‘war is terrible’ and ‘never again’. On Twitter I said that my white poppy is indeed attention seeking, as accused by Johnny Mercer:

It isn’t because I don’t know what happened, despite periodic accusations against young people. It’s because I know what happened, and I stand with those who tried to prevent it and never want it to be repeated.

Against a background of increasing militarism, it seems especially important to wear a white poppy as one kind of public protest, and to leave Girlguiding in another kind of protest against the normalisation of military involvement with youth groups. Whatever ‘leadership opportunities’ the army might be offering, they don’t, in the words of a Quaker document also written in 1918, constitute “the opportunity of full development“.

Three books at three stages

(Llfyr, book. Long before any of these stages comes learning a language!)

When I was young, I was once asked – so my mother tells the story – by a teacher: what do you want to do when you grow up? I told her that I wanted to be a bookmaker. Cue much adult laughter, especially in our anti-gambling Quaker household.

Later, an English teacher who for whatever reason had us in a computer lab for a class once set us an exercise: for this whole hour’s lesson, just type. Start a story and simply write as many words as you can. At the end of the lesson, he said to the class: there, wasn’t that difficult? Aren’t you glad you’re not a writer who has to do that all day, every day?

No, I said. Sounds like a good way to live to me.

Now, I haven’t quite achieved that goal. (And I suspect the picture he painted of a writer’s life wasn’t 100% accurate anyway!) But I have arranged my life so that I can spend a considerable proportion of it working on books in one form or another, and at the moment I have book projects in three stages. To pick three different metaphors, I’ll call them the seed, larva, and hibernation stages.

Hibernation is a process some mammals use to get through the winter. I have a book which is a real book, but waiting to come out, and it’s sleeping like that: it takes nine months for information to propagate through the arcane reaches of the publishing and distribution industries, so although there are copies of “Telling the Truth about God” in existence, and you can pre-order it from your favourite more or less reputable bookseller,  it will be five more months before it is officially ‘published’.

A larva is an active but immature form, like a caterpillar. At the moment I have a novel manuscript which is at this stage. A few months ago I had an egg, which hatched and turned out not to be exactly what I thought it would be – but similar – and now the caterpillar is growing and growing, like Cecil. (You know that song, right?) Every day, it needs to be fed cabbage leaves – I’m aim to give it about a thousand words of cabbage a day, whenever I can – and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I think I know what it might grow up to be – but it’s hard to be sure. At one time I thought it was going to be about university lecturers and researchers who were also witches, but now it’s about neolithic traders and farmers who are also sort-of Quakers. On the other hand, it’s still a romance novel about two women who meet under slightly unlikely circumstances and have to work out whether it’s possible to build a life together.

I also have a book which is just a seed. I’ve got the seed – a very solid form of seed by my usual standards, in that I have a contract for this book – and now I’m preparing all the ground and the space and the things it will need to grow. It will be a book about liberal Quaker theology, so I’m doing lots of reading of Quaker theology, old and new, British and international, things which are mentioned by things I read, to get the material ready. I’ve made some space (in particular, Woodbrooke have agreed to give me study leave for twelve weeks next year, which will help a lot). I’m also planning to blog about the process as I think through the issues involved, so watch this space.

Enough for now

Life has run away with me. The seasons have turned, autumn is here, and I almost let September go by without writing a blog post.

an old storage heater has been opened - the red bricks are visible inside a beige case next to my blue sofa

Out with the old, in with the warmth

I like autumn. I like the sense of new beginnings, probably because I associate it with school years starting. I like picking up conkers. This year, I’ve had new heaters installed in my flat (the dramatic part, pictured above, was removed the old ones).

eight jars of various sizes, all with different coloured lids and filled with brown chutney, stand on a corner of a kitchen counter

Green tomato chutney.

I’ve had a horrible cold – the kind of thing we used to call ‘fresher’s flu’ – and have been obscurely glad that the growing season is coming to an end. Visits to the allotment down to once a week from twice a week; green tomatoes gathered in and made into chutney; soon the time of armchair gardening, when it rains and you stay at home and read seed catalogues, will be here.

a collection of objects on a shelf: a grey feather, a multi-coloured autumn leaf, four small conkers, a white stone, a green/terracotta clay Goddess image, a white and silver candle in a green saucer, in front of a black speaker

Nature table

In the midst of all this, I’ve found myself going back to one of the practices of my childhood: the nature table. It would be easy to big this up with long words (it’s mindful! it’s spiritual! it’s about connection with nature and gratitude and seasonal awareness!) but it for me it isn’t really motivated by any of those things. It’s an instinct: something interesting fell off a tree (or a bird, or came out the ground) so I’m going to take it home and look at it.

Enough for now.

God, red in tooth and claw?

(Welsh word of the post: ‘red’, ‘coch’ – as in ‘draig goch’, ‘red dragon’, who seems appropriate.)

I’m reading Warren L. Treuer’s Reflections of a Quaker: A Blank Slate Theology. I’m only a few chapters in and there’s much of interest, but one passage caught my eye. In a chapter on ‘What is God like?’ Treuer offers lots of possible sources of information, and one of them is ‘nature’. In summary, he argues that nature teaches us that God is beautiful. Every season of the year, every living thing, offers wonderful loveliness to enjoy, and that tells us something about God. One thing I noticed was that his next source of information about God is science, which might also be said to tell us more about nature. Another thing, which I want to explore in this post, is that his picture of what nature is, and hence what it tells us, is a bit one-sided.

Now, I’m not here to argue that nature isn’t beautiful. I love flowers, trees, birds, bees, squirrels, seals, rainbows, beaches, endless seasonal transformations, sunsets, etc. I do think that this aspect of nature tells us something about God. Some of my favourite religious images are Goddess paintings which express just this approach to the Divine.

However, I think anyone who pays attention to nature knows that not all of it is, to the human eye, beautiful – or kind, or fair, or anything else ‘good’. Recently, I reported on Facebook an incident which began with a cat catching a mouse, and it gave rise to a lot of debate, including about the true nature of cats, what humans should accept or tolerate in domestic animals, and whether we should keep pets. Similarly, keeping an allotment raises all sorts of questions – should I kill slugs, move them, tolerate them, or think of it as sharing? How far do I go in watering plants or protecting them from snow? When is a bramble a weed and when is it a blackberry plant? (Does that relate to how much blood it’s drawn?)

This is a version of the old problem of evil. What kind of God creates slugs, mosquitoes, parasites, earthquakes, etc.? What kind of believers – or deniers of reality – do we have to be to affirm that everything in nature is somehow good?

Lots of people have worked on this problem (and none of them have solved it; draw your own conclusions!). Two approaches which I think are especially interesting from a Quaker perspective are a ‘God’s eyes see differently’ move, and a ‘going with the flow’ move.

To say that God’s eyes see the situation differently – that if we could see the situation from God’s perspective, we would agree that everything in nature is good – can easily sound pat and patronising, especially if it is said by someone relatively privileged to someone who is suffering very deeply. As a suggestion about individual faith, though, people do sometimes find it useful. It has the advantage of letting God be God, not seeking to make the Divine too human or close the gap between us too quickly. It can encourage patience and holding a situation without trying to solve it. We might compare this to the Quaker practice of sitting in silent waiting. Sometimes people add to this ‘God’s eyes’ approach, trying to explain what God’s view is actually like (the ‘vale of soul-making’ idea comes out like this sometimes), but this can weaken it when holding the mystery is actually a strength.

To suggest that these complexities in nature, that it contains good and bad and indifferent, are ‘going with the flow’ is not to try and change our perspective, rather than seeing the gap between our view and God’s. Where that image implies a God who is very different from us – perhaps separate, certainly seeing nature from a different angle or in a different timescale – the image of God, and nature, and us all as a single river brings us closer together. After all, human beings (however much we like to distinguish ourselves) are animals, are part of nature, evolved alongside everything else. I’m different from, say, a crow – but a crow is different from everything else, too, so even the unique habits of humanity don’t set us that far apart. And what could be more natural than God? We could add here the idea that God and nature are one, or that nature exists not from God or because of God but in God. If that’s so (for example, if we took an idea like that of process theology, that God is fully involved in temporal processes such as all that messy natural stuff around living and dying) we could see this situation as just part of the flow of the river. There are rocks – we try and avoid them – we get knocked or we don’t – so it goes. So it Gods, because everything which happens is part of the process of God doing God’s thing.

The latter is particularly interesting from a Quaker perspective because it reflects our experience of Meeting for Worship for Business. As we make decisions, trying to follow God’s will, sometimes we find that’s changed (what was completely unclear a month ago is obvious or much easier now – did we change, or God, or both?). Sometimes we find two groups using the same method about the same question disagree. Is that them, or God? In the ‘flow of the river’, perhaps it can be both. A swirl or eddy is still part of the same river.

The cat, the cat’s desire to eat the mouse, the mouse, the mouse’s desire to escape, our judgements about what is a pet and what is vermin, my decision not to eat mice (even though I caught one)… all within one vast, complex, changing God?