#oceanofdarkness: early Friends today?

At the end of a recent blog post about Quaker structures and our future, Alistair Fuller asks an interesting question: ” if [early Friends] were forming a new and radical religious society today, what might it look like?”

I’ve no idea what it would really look like. But here are three ideas.

They would use Twitter. Early Friends were all about communicating, whether through preaching in the street or printing pamphlets. They went where people were, and gave their message. Today, that’s Twitter – not just Twitter, but the circumstances symbolised by the speedy, political, argumentative, and interactive style of that platform. This is about being recognisable, as Alistair says in his post, but also welcoming. Margaret Fell used to write to the king on a regular basis, so I think today she’d be tweeting Donald Trump several times a week. Early Friends could be upfront about their beliefs to the point of being philosophically (rather than physically) combative. Where better to take that stance today than Twitter?

They would create structures for people and for what God was really calling them to do, not try and fit people into structures. Someone else said something like this once. Early Friends were in the business of rejecting and remaking tradition, not upholding it, and they didn’t have any three hundred year old grade 1 listed meeting houses to worry about. I don’t think that renewing our Religious Society means throwing all of that out, but it does mean asking at every turn: are we doing this because we want to or because we’ve always done it? Have we chosen the time and location of our meetings to suit people – those we know and those we don’t yet know – or are we just chugging along like a train on lines built to suit a previous generation? Do we search for, nominate, and appoint a sixteen-person Committee on Thermostat Management* to the glory of God, or is it a guru’s cat?

*I think this is a joke, but please tell me if you’re serving on it!

We might not enjoy having them at Meeting. Someone taking the approach of early Friends today could easily look disruptive in a Quaker meeting as much as in the rest of the world. They wouldn’t respect the unwritten rules about the length or style of spoken ministry (or about acceptable foods for shared lunch). They might embrace new technologies and ideas in uncomfortable ways: broadcasting the discussion group via Facebook Live, using Google during worship to find the right passage in Qf&p, Instagraming the flowers on the table – or throwing them to the floor as idolatrous. (Or maybe the smashed vase would make a dramatic snap.)

They also wouldn’t have much patience with meetings who don’t put a sign outside or Friends who won’t tell their friends about Quakerism – or maybe I’m projecting here! If early Friends were forming a new and radical religious society today, would they get eldered?

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‘God, words and us’: being on the Theology Think Tank

With the publication of ‘God, words and us: Quakers in conversation about religious difference‘, the work of the Theology Think Tank (for committee detail nerds: a process run by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group on behalf of Meeting for Sufferings) is in one sense finished, and in another way starting a new phase. The group was convened to address the issue formerly known as ‘theism/nontheism’ – one of our conclusions is that we should call it something else, like ‘religious difference’ – and to see whether Britain Yearly Meeting as a whole can address it productively. The main answer to that question, as embodied by the book, is ‘yes – through honest and caring conversation’. Seeing the book as a starting place as well as a finished product, this seems like a good time to share some of my thoughts about this conversation.

It does matterSometimes when I start talking to Quakers about theology – especially if I use the word ‘theology’ or make it clear that I regard the intellectual processes as important – people try and move away from the whole idea. I can understand this in some ways, especially as a reaction to a dualistic view in which embracing the intellect means rejecting the emotional, but I also think it’s easy to go too far the other way. My thoughts are as much a part of me as my feelings, and to reject the processes by which we try to understand our experiences and create knowledge is to miss out on a huge amount. The includes whatever we can know – and the ways in which we decide that we can’t know – about God.

It never ends. There are always new things to be learned. In the field of theology, that might mean there are new spiritual experiences to be had, new ways to understand and describe our encounters with the Divine, and new insights to be gained from reflection on old texts and experiences which in turn shape our fresh reality. It can be tempting to allow the patterns we can see in cycles of discussion within a community to turn into ‘eras’ with beginnings and endings (everything from the Reformation, to the liberal turn in Quakerism, to the rise of New Atheism), but a movement always has a forerunner – and someone, somewhere, hasn’t yet had whatever debate you thought was settled. It is impossible to divide these discussions from their history and context, and the fuller a picture you have of that, the more likely it is that you will see connections across apart boundaries of time, space, denomination, and religion.

It can be fun. Discussing our spiritual experience and ideas isn’t always fun. It can be vulnerable – especially if some people are sharing more deeply and personally than others. It can be frightening – especially if it seems that in return for their honesty, some people might be rejected from a community which they hold dear. It can be boring – if one question or one person is allowed to dominate, or if the relevance of a discussion isn’t clear, or if it goes round in circles. But I hold, as a matter of faith as well as experience, that talking about the Mystery can be enjoyable. I find it enjoyable in at least three ways: it’s a way to get to know people better, it’s a workout for the parts of the brain which deal with empathy and logic, and there’s always the possibility of novelty, of a new idea arising.

You should try it. I felt incredibly blessed to be able to participate in the Theology Think Tank process. I hope this book will help everyone who wants to join in with these conversations to participate. I particularly hope that it will be a tool to help those who are carrying anxiety about belonging (“would they still like me if they knew what I really believe?”) or about community (“can we really be friends if we disagree about something so important?”) to engage with discussions about theology in a supported and productive way. The book is aimed mainly at Quakers, but I have already had one chat with someone who is interested in looking at it with their non-Quaker church community. You can hold a discussion group or invite in a facilitator or post something on social media – anything, really, as long as it creates a space for honest and caring conversation.

Vegetables and sadness

How should we feel about trying to save the planet?

A joke has been doing the rounds again on Facebook. It’s a conversation between two people: the first one says, “Wakey wakey eggs and bakey.” The second ones says, “But I’m a vegan” and the first one replies, “Wakey wakey vegetables and sadness.”

It’s a joke about how delicious bacon is, right? It’s a joke about how vegans are depriving themselves of good things because they’re… what? Sanctimonious? A lot of things like this aren’t funny unless some people think they’re true, and when I read this joke for the umpteenth time I suddenly realised that at some level it’s about this post, which I have been trying to write for a while.

When I write or talk about wanting to change my lifestyle to have a lower carbon footprint, there are people who are supportive and people who aren’t – but in both groups, I find there are some people who want to tell me how to feel.

(Hint: telling me – or probably anyone – what I should feel about anything is basically a hiding to nothing. That has, in my experience, never stopped anyone trying.)

There are the people who want me to be happy, and as a consequence suggest that I should eat eggs/bacon/whatever makes them happy. (Here’s a food which makes me happy: Linda MacCartney sausage rolls. Vegetables and sadness indeed!) There are people who want me to be happy, and as a consequence are very worried that I might be feeling guilty about something. (A bit of guilt isn’t that bad. If it’s crippling or out of proportion, that’s a problem. If it’s information for the decision-making process about the cons as well as the pros of, for example, flying across the Atlantic for a conference, then it’s just that – information.) There are the people who don’t want to do whatever I am doing or proposing to do at that moment, and consequently need me to admit that whatever it is does or would make me feel bad. (The people who couldn’t live without a car are a good example. Does being a non-driver affect my transport choices? Absolutely. Do I dislike it? Only when some ridiculous planning scheme means there’s no way to get to the cinema by public transport. You know who you are, Silly Local Council and Failure of a Bus Service.) And there are the people who want me to be happy, and consequently want me not to worry my pretty little head about the environment, and definitely not to make the difficult lifestyle changes which actually cutting one’s carbon footprint might demand.

I am experimenting with the following radical proposal: it’s okay to choose to do things which make me feel bad sometimes. As outlined above, a lot of the things which people think would be difficult actually aren’t – being a vegan does not equate directly to sadness if you eat a wide range of plant-based foods instead, and not owning a car does not equate directly to loneliness if you are able to access a good public transport system. But some things are still difficult – refusing to fly to see friends, for example, when that would be cheaper or even the only way to make it possible. And that’s okay. That’s a case where I’m clearly allowed to choose, and there comes a point at which I’d rather name and own, and respect, that sadness than have the guilt of flying when I didn’t really need to. Guilt that someone would probably tell me I shouldn’t be feeling.

Next time someone says that sort of thing to me, maybe I’ll ask them: whose feelings are you trying to control? Mine? Or yours?

Shoes

I need new shoes.

I need them to:
* fit well (on feet which are not the shape of the last they use for ‘normal women’ feet, so to achieve this I need a wide-fit option and/or to buy from the so-called ‘men’s’ range),
* have genuine arch support (so that it passes inspection by doctors and physios),
* be hard-wearing (I walk an average of perhaps two miles a day and hate shoe shopping), and
* be waterproof, and black, and smart enough to wear to work.

Ideally, I want them to be:
* ethically produced
* climate-friendly
* not involving the death of an animal.
I eat mainly vegan and people think I’m a hypocrite when they realise my shoes are leather (although I would also feel like a hypocrite if I had plastic shoes which turned out to have a higher greenhouse gas emission).

Ideally ideally, I’d also have some choice about what kind of gender markers my shoes display, but fit and comfort and ethics all tend to come first.

Usually, in order to fulfil the first list I end up at Clarks again, but obviously this doesn’t meet the requirements of the second list. At the moment I am wearing my old pairs of Clarks shoes to death, but I can see the end coming. People who are interested in the second list mainly seem to buy shoes online, but I suspect I’d spend a lot of money on return postage before I met the first list’s requirements that way. (I don’t mind spending good money for good shoes, but I’d rather spend it on shoes than on returning pairs of shoes that don’t fit!) I have needed new shoes for some time, but I hate making this kind of decision.

Actually, I had written most of this post when, a few days ago, my current shoes seemed particularly worn and I happened to be passing a Clarks shop. I found a pair which looked about right, tried them on, tried them on a wide fit – and said to the person who was serving me, “They still seem a bit narrow,” expecting that I wouldn’t be buying any shoes. But this salesperson said, “We have them in a extra wide fitting.” Extra wide fitting! Wonder of wonders! Shoes which are wide enough and not too long and comfortable and black and even slightly femme! And made of leather and plastic. And from a brand which is reliable and hard-wearing. Needless to say, I bought them, which has staved off this problem for another few years while I wear them out.

I’m not sure whether this was the decision making itself for me in a positive way (shopping always seems to me to contain a fair amount of luck/intuition/space for Spirit), or me defaulting to a bad habit because I haven’t the commitment or imagination to escape, but there it is. Invective about how I hate animals and the planet (and support sexist shoe design and all sorts of other terrible things I’d know about if I subscribed to Ethical Consumer) on a postcard please.

Single use plastics

A week ago, I started out with an empty bin. Today, I spread out on the kitchen floor all the things I’ve put it during the week, and photographed them. I haven’t included my recyclables, just the ones which will go straight to landfill.

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This has become a fairly standard exercise in some environmental activist circles, and I knew what to expect. The aim is to motivate giving up single-use plastics. The problem, as a quick inspection of this photograph will reveal, is that to give up single-use plastics pretty much means giving up eating.

In the photograph there are sixteen individual plastic items. Fourteen of them are food wrappers – including the Lockets packet, which is bordering on medicinal. One is the blister pack from some painkillers. One is a train ticket – mostly cardboard but with a plastic/magnetic strip on the back.

Some things I’ve already swapped. The three apple stickers in the picture came from organic apples bought in a paper bag, so that’s less plastic than it might have been.

Three of these items are bread, and if you are about to say that I could have baked it myself using flour from a paper bag (and yeast from a plastic bag, but at least it would be less plastic) you are right. However, I am also a lazy so-and-so whose past attempts to eat only homemade bread have resulted in just not eating bread.

Not shown here are some packets which last for a while – this happened to be the week when I finished a bag of frozen sweetcorn. That usually lasts me over a month and is much more efficient in terms of food waste than buying fresh veg for one person with a moderately unpredictable schedule. I also ate pasta and rice and all sorts of other things also stored in plastic bags.

Also not shown here is the growing pile of damson stones which I will probably end up putting in landfill because there’s no way they’ll compost in my little bin. Since the damson tree is providing a large amount of plastic-free fruit, though, this might be a trade-off of some kind.

This post does not have a happy ending. It has a pit of despair – how will I ever help to save the planet if I can’t feed myself while I’m doing it? – and some questions. To what extent is this my fault, as an individual, and to what extent is it a structural failing in the system within which I live? How much am I cheating by not including recyclables? How far can I get outside this system, and how far can I work to change it while I’m also supporting it by buying these products? How long can one live on nothing but organic sweet potato?

Personal and social transformation: should we share more of our struggles?

What am I going to do about it? This is a recurring question when people bring up this big issues of the day – and I suppose I mainly have climate change and climate justice in mind here, although other forms of social justice will be close behind. Coming away from Yearly Meeting Gathering, a week in which I have heard many people urging the community to act and act quickly, many people talking in more or less abstract terms about movement building, and, as someone put it in conversation, many “impassioned pleas for something”, it seems like an important question.

My instinct is to look for something clear and preferably dramatic to which I can commit in my own life. Change made, rules nice and simple, done. That’s what I did in 2011, when my Quaker community made our original commitment to being a sustainable community and I went vegan as a result. Of course, being vegan isn’t actually a single change, and the rules are neither clear nor simple, and it’s never done. There will always be a time when there’s no vegan option, and an argument about why it would be more environmentally friendly/socially just to eat local venison/sheep’s milk/misshapen avocados/nothing but water, and the eternal shoe problem, and someone on Facebook who thinks I’m the scum of the earth for eating Lockets with honey, and compromises to make even within plant-based food (like this: organic soy milk and a vitamin tablet, or fortified but non-organic soy milk?). For just as long, I’ve wished I could commit to going plastic-free. Wouldn’t it be clean, and simple, and give off the impression of being morally good, to not have anything to send to landfill?

It would also have the consolation of being extremely difficult, taking up a lot of time and energy and attention and thought, and being easy to explain to people and show off about. It would be satisfying because it would be entirely within my control – and its effects would be very minor, because it would involve going to considerable lengths for results which only affect my life. It is, if not a selfish answer, then at least an introverted one. Like other ways of shaving a tiny little bit off one’s own environmental impact, it lends itself to lots of research (and a certain amount of arguing on social media) and not to reaching out or making common cause with others.

(This might, of course, be just another excuse for not doing it, because it’s difficult and tiresome. But I think it can be an excuse AND genuinely onto something about why it appeals.)

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Allotment produce. Easy to brag about on social media, difficult to live on.

When I think about trying to break out of this way of thinking – moving the focus away from controlling the effects of my own life and towards working with others to change the world – I don’t really know what I’m aiming for. I am rather inclined to tell myself, for example, that I don’t really know any people, or that I don’t know the right people, or that I can’t do anything because most of the people I know don’t live in the same city. These things have a grain of truth – but I also have nearly 600 Facebook friends and my blog posts often have fifty to a hundred readers, so my sense of shouting into the void is mainly an illusion.

One of the things which creates this illusion is the choices I make about what to share and what to keep private. Sometimes I think this is right – my online presence is, among other things, a professional one, and some things about my life should be left out of that (everyone moans about work sometimes… except me, obviously, this is still a public space!). Sometimes it’s just a personal choice – I could tell you about the train wreck which passes for dating in my world, or my invisible illnesses, but I don’t think either of us would gain by it. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to post things which are good for my ego – look, I did this and that; look, I got published; look, still vegan; look, no hands! – and keep the moral dilemmas and hard work which underlie these things all to myself. A first step to building a movement around something has to be to talk about it, or I (and you?) will keep imagining being alone with the issue.

That being so, perhaps my next series of blog posts will be about my open questions, the problems I haven’t solved yet in trying to live a sustainable and just life, and the cases where there may be no single right answer. Would you read them? Will you share your own struggles, in writing or in person or somewhere else? (Is it too clear and simple? Too me-focused?)

A place for nerds in the Society of Friends?

One of the questions asked in this year’s Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting is:

  • Do you consider yourself to be ‘spiritual’, or an activist? Do you find the distinction helpful in considering your own journey and experiences?

My answer to this is: neither, and therefore, no.

When I picture an activist, I think of people who do things for which I don’t have the time, energy, or social skills. I do little bits of activism – the kind of things which get mocked in internet articles – like signing petitions, discussing politics with friends, and donating a bit of money now and again. I very rarely go to demonstrations, I almost never hand out leaflets, I’ve never been arrested, and the ways in which I’ve changed my life to bring it into accordance with my principles are mainly invisible. I’m often practical, but I’m by no means an activist.

When I picture someone who is spiritual, I think of people whose spiritual life works in a way which mine doesn’t. I’ve been going to meeting for worship my whole life and I’ve never really been able to ‘centre down’. I don’t have a prayer life to speak of, I’m immune to whatever people get out of sacred music, I like to look at religious art but rarely get beyond looking, and when I read scripture I come away with more questions than answers. I do sometimes have experiences which I can only describe as ‘spiritual’, and I value being in an organised religion because some of our structures help me feel spiritually connected, but whatever ‘being spiritual’ involves, I feel outside the category.

So, what I am? I’m a nerd, a swot, a geek, an over-educated over-thinker. This is, as that link suggests, common among Quakers – but it also, often, unwelcome. In a time when rationality has been staked out as the realm of atheism, there seems to be a trend among the religious towards rejecting thought and rigour. I’ve considered it carefully, and concluded that this could be a terrible mistake. However, because I’ve ‘considered’ and ‘concluded’, I suspect my ideas are liable to be thrown out without being heard, on methodological grounds.

When I call myself a geek or a nerd, people sometimes tell me off for putting myself down. This tells me that these words still have a power which can be reclaimed. After years of bullying and social exclusion for being ‘weird’ and ‘clever’, for being articulate enough to give right answers in class and bothering to do so, for enjoying learning and working hard at it, I’m not going to start pretending not to think. I admit it: I think about things at home, I think at work, I even think in Meeting for Worship.

I’m not suggesting that you should do this too (unless you want to). For me, though, prayer and philosophy are closely connected. To think something through, to consider it from all angles, to ask questions like “what do I really know about this?” or “what assumptions underlie the way I am approaching this?” is a way of holding an issue in the Light. Sometimes this leads to activity: “if I hold this view, and this view, then I ought to…” Sometimes this lead to spiritual perspectives: if God loves me as I am, then She’ll love me even if I ask the hard questions.

I am neither spiritual, nor an activist, but approach the world through questioning, thought, and wondering. My Quaker journey is strongly shaped by that even – especially? – when it seems unpopular.