Forms of theological diversity

This month, while most people are buying presents, eating chocolate, and generally celebrating Christmas (more on that in my next post), I’m reading Chapter 27 of Quaker faith & practice, which is called ‘Unity and diversity’. There’s a good vague name if ever I heard one! Unity of what and diversity of what?

A quick browse through the chapter will reveal that the issue in question is theology – specifically, the relationship between Quakerism, Christianity, and other faiths. It doesn’t mention nontheism, which wasn’t a big issue for discussion in 1994, but if we re-wrote this chapter today I think we’d include nontheist perspectives here. I also think it would be helpful if we were able to map the territory of theological diversity in more detail.

In many settings, Quakers pose questions of theological diversity as a spectrum, or a series of spectrums. Are you more religious or more humanist? Are you more universalist or more Christian? Are you more nontheist or more God-believing? In order to form these kinds of questions, it’s sometimes necessary to invent a term. For example, many people have assumed that if someone isn’t a nontheist, they must be a theist – but the term theist isn’t one people use for themselves without that prompt, and it has connotations from its use in philosophy which Quakers don’t always accept. (The ‘three omnis’ – omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent – don’t appear in my list of aspects of God Quakers are likely to believe in.)

This also disguises all sorts of other differences. Suppose Person A thinks that God is an human construct but a useful metaphor for our experience of community and love, and Person B thinks that God is a term for a natural part of the human subconscious. Both might be called nontheists – they both reject the sorts of things nontheists typically reject, such as supernatural interventions and God as external to humanity – but they also have very different understandings of what actually is going on.  Similar differences are hidden by almost any label.

That isn’t to say that labels aren’t useful. When people claim labels for themselves, especially where it helps them to identify others with whom they have a lot in common and to articulate their understandings and experiences more accurately, labels are very helpful. What we need to do is avoid becoming stuck at the level of whatever label we’ve got – there’s more going on underneath and diversity within the group created by the label – and to make sure that labels aren’t used to polarise the community – ‘if you’re not an X, you must be a Y’, as if there were no other choices.

So, what forms of theological diversity do we have among Quakers in Britain at the moment? We have some people who clearly identify their Quaker practice as shaped by or united with insights and/or practices from another faith tradition: Buddhist Quakers, Druid Quakers, Quanglicans, etc. We have some people for whom silence says it all, and who do not feel the need to have any label beyond ‘Quaker’ (if that). We have some people who are deeply engaged with the treasures of the Christian tradition as expressed in Quakerism, and others who feel hurt by Christianity and want to avoid it, and others who think a little bit of Christianity is a good idea but wouldn’t want to spend too long on Bible study. We have some people who cannot accept certain aspects of traditional belief in God, and reject anything which sounds like the supernatural, creation ex nihilo, miracles, life after death, or similar. We have some people who cannot accept that Jesus was more important than anyone else, and people who find that the Christ event is the story at the heart of their faith (and people who would identify with both of those positions). We have some people who don’t know, and some people who think that any week in which they don’t change their mind is a boring week. None of these things are pairs of absolutes, this or that, and nor do they map neatly onto a spectrum from most to least.

We also have some people who are very worried about theological diversity, and some who are not the slightest bit bothered, and every possible attitude in between. Personally, I am fascinated by theology and hence by theological diversity, but – perhaps because I am so used to thinking about it – I’m also very relaxed about it. The ideas matter when they affect how we act, but a quick look around an average meeting will show that people with hugely divergent theological opinions can come together to participate in waiting and listening in Meeting for Worship. “Christianity is not a notion but a way” says Advices & Queries, and I agree. Quakerism isn’t something you agree with, but something you do.

Seven Gods Quakers Might Believe In

Having written some serious things recently, I thought I’d try my hand at some clickbait. Number six may surprise you!

1. a God within us

If you ask a Quaker what Quakers believe about God, this is the answer you’re most likely to get after the umming and ahhing. “There’s that of God within everyone.” Whatever else Quakers think about the Divine, they don’t think of a Divine who’s up there (and certainly not on a cloud), or even out there (although S/He might be active in the world in some way). They think of a God who is within us, with us in a deep way even when we don’t notice.

2. a God who leads

Quakers use lots of words to describe God. Nouns are handy for a list – God, the Spirit, the Light, the Whatever – but verbs are sometimes more revealing. God leads, guides, loves, prompts. This doesn’t mean that God is in front (a shephard often steers a flock from behind), but I think it does mean that God cares about where we are going, and is with us as we seek the right way forward.

3. a God who is all genders and none

Some Quakers use masculine language for God – He, Lord, Father. A few Quakers, myself included, also use feminine language for Goddess – She, Mother, Maiden. More will tell you that they avoid using gendered language – preferring Light, Love, or Goodness, for example. A few use explicitly nongendered terms, such as GODDE. None of us seem to think that God actually has gender as a human would: whatever God is, God is either beyond gender or encompasses all genders and none. Anthropomorphising, talking as if God is like a person, is just a handy way to get the ideas across.

4. a God who is natural

From time to time, people tell me that what they can’t accept about God is the ‘supernatural element’. It’s difficult to find evidence that any Quakers think there’s a supernatural element to the God we believe in, though: classic things which point in that direction, like miracles or going heaven after death, are either completely missing or very rarely discussed. Elements of the Meeting for Worship for Business sometimes sound supernatural when described quickly – e.g. “we listen for what God is telling us to do” – but when they are part of your ordinary experience, it’s hard to think of them as anything but natural.

5. a God of love

In exploring what Quakers are willing to say about God, I found that they draw the line at a God who asks for violence or hatred. This isn’t usually done explicitly – although I did find some writing by a Quaker who explained that they could include most religions as true ways to God, but not ones which asked for human sacrifice – but it’s clearly there, implicitly. Quakers usually assume, without often saying so, that someone who feels ‘led’ to do something which runs against the long-standing trend of Quaker discernment, such as something violent, isn’t really listening to God but perhaps to something selfish or a charismatic human leader.

6. a God which exists

You’ll note that I didn’t say “who exists” – existing in the way a person exists isn’t the point here. The point is that Quakers talk about a God which is part of their experience. This is a God which can lead, can love, can be within us, and which therefore is real because meaningful.

7. a God who lets us work it out for ourselves

A few years ago, Quakers ran a poster which said “THOU SHALT… decide for yourself.” Quakers don’t believe in a God who is cross with you for believing the wrong thing – but rather in a God who is happy that you’re thinking independently and trying to work out what’s going on based on your experience. That’s why you can still be a Quaker even if you disagreed with me about all the previous six points.

My Peace Testimony in a time of terrorism

Repeatedly over the last decade, there have been attacks in which one or a few people take weapons into a public places and kill as many other people as possible, often dying themselves in the process. This has happened throughout the world, but periodically it has been happening in Europe, circumstances under which the British media spends more time bringing it to the attention of people I know.

When this happens, it is sad and distressing, and the closer to home it seems, the more frightening it is. When it happens, there’s often a lot of talk about it – sometimes running in advance of the evidence, or at least of the release of real evidence to the public. When it happens, I often hear people say, including in spoken ministry during Meeting for Worship, that these attacks are mindless or random and that they cannot be understood.

I cannot believe that. The more I read about such attacks, the more I pray about such attacks, the more I come to believe that everyone involved has motives for their actions. What they do is not mindless, or random, or careless, and so – however difficult I might find it to understand their reasons – I have to accept that they do have reasons. Based on what they know and their experiences, they think they are acting for good. To me, this is part of accepting that everyone, however much I disagree with them and am disturbed by their actions, is a full person and has that of God within them.

This isn’t to say that such violence is always rational. Both violence and nonviolence are often, in the moment, irrational. If, under the same circumstances, you would punch someone and I wouldn’t, that isn’t necessarily because we have laid out logical arguments for our different positions. It’s as likely to be about our personalities, habits, training, and emotions – or to put it another way, the kinds of virtues we cultivate in our whole lives, not just our thoughts.

Accepting that the people who choose to carry out terrorist attacks have reasons for their actions does not mean agreeing with or condoning them – but my government also carries out many actions with which I do not agree, and I don’t have to call them mindless or random. (People I know do sometimes call them stupid, which falls into much the same trap.) It does commit me to a different model of responding to this sort of violence: rejecting ‘we must fight fire with fire’ and ‘ignore them and they’ll go away’ in favour of seeking to understand the circumstances which give people reasons to act in this way.

I have been thinking about this today, November 11th, because this view also alters my approach to remembrance. When I was at school we were taught about the First World War, and what I remember learning (rather than what they thought they were teaching!) was that it had something to do with an assassination, and that we had to memorise the diagram of how to build a trench. Similarly, I learned the outlines of the Second World War without feeling that I really knew why, at the time, people had acted in the ways they did. In my late teens, I first heard the idea that Germany’s actions, especially Hitler’s rise to power, could be explained by economics – today, I think that’s too simplistic, but I also think it’s a valuable insight to see that many evil situations aside from systems, not individuals.

Sometimes people challenge pacifists and those of us who say that there is that of God in everyone by naming people they think are evil: Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden have featured heavily in those conversations in my experience. For me, a stepping stone between ‘yes, people do truly evil things’ and ‘yes, everyone still has that of God in them’ is this: everyone has reasons for their actions, and they do what they think is best with the tools they see they have. I can disagree about what’s best. I can try and point out other tools, other ways of solving the problems. But I have to start by acknowledging that they are people, who have feelings and needs and motives. I might not know what those motives are in any particular case, but I’m committed to holding open a space, a question mark, which assumes that they exist.

If you are interested in exploring the roots of today’s terrorism, I recommend Riaz Hassan’s short book ‘Suicide Bombings‘ as a clear and approachable introduction to recent research on the topic.

Area Meetings and Local Meetings: chapter 4 of Quaker faith & practice

The first thing which occurs to me when I open chapter 4 is that it begins with a remark which, although true, is liable to be completely mystifying to many. It is the case that “Until 2007 area meetings were known as monthly meetings”, but this doesn’t really tell you anything unless you were already familiar with the term ‘monthly meeting’. Although there will probably always be a few readers of our book of discipline who need the comparison – especially those from other yearly meetings where the term ‘monthly meeting’ is still in widespread use, albeit often somewhat differently from our old use of the phrase – the number of people in Britain who knew what a monthly meeting was, but don’t know what an area meeting is, should hopefully be shrinking every year.

After the history, though, we get into the real stuff: 4.02 explains the responsibilities and importance of the area meeting. It’s where we do much of our business, where we look after all sorts of things which affect us as a church community, and where we hold spiritual, financial, and other forms of responsibility. A group of local meetings make up an area meeting – and it’s at area meeting level that a lot of authority is held.

It’s an area meeting who admit, or don’t admit, people to membership. It’s an area meeting who appoint elders and overseers. It’s an area meeting which is represented at Meeting for Sufferings. Ideally, this hierarchy, in which the area meeting has authority over local meetings, should also go with a widening of participation – if you’re a member of the area meeting, you’re entitled to go to it and participate in the business process, even have a responsibility to do so.

I think it can be easy to forget this, or not realise it. I personally have often struggled to get to area meeting – believing that it’s important to participate does not magically make public transport appear on Sunday afternoons, alas. Sometimes I have put other things first – Brownies who need an adult at church parade, catching a train to go to work, some urgent sleeping I needed to get done. Sometimes it has just come down to the incorrect assumption that I, or someone else in my meeting, would drive a car. When I’ve been unable to attend, I’ve come to value the practice of circulating minutes and reports by email afterwards. Not just those minutes with my name in, either, please! Seeing the whole picture of the area meeting’s business can help me feel part of the wider community even when I can’t be there in person.

When I have been able to attend area meetings, I have often found them interesting and fulfilling. It’s good to see Friends from other local meetings, and to worship with others. Although I have problems with the common practice (thankfully not universal) of holding area meeting on a Sunday afternoon, it does (buses permitting) encourage me to worship with a different local meeting. That in itself can be very enriching. The worship of the area meeting, before, during and after the business, can be very deep, and the area meeting is often a time when people are able to eat together and get to know one another better. The routine business, such as reports from Meeting for Sufferings and charitable trusts the area meeting supports, can be both informative and inspiring. A special area meeting called to write a minute on a particular issue is one of the most gathered and careful business meetings I can remember attending.

I can see glimpses of this when I read chapter 4, but I think I’d struggle to find it if I was trying to get from the text to the experience, rather than reading the experience back into the text. I also find clues that the text has been edited, bit by bit, over the years: compare the technology levels implied in 4.44 with those in 4.45. It’s also technical and detailed – long lists of points, such as in 4.10, are clear in some ways, but can also be daunting and seem disparate, because the connections between the very spiritual (“the right and regular holding of meetings for worship”) and the very practical (“the proper custody of its records”) aren’t immediately obvious.

Sometimes I have felt that we do area meetings a disservice by talking about them as if they are always boring – I’m not denying that they are sometimes boring, since they meet to do work, but they can also be moving, involving, heartening. When a notice or report about area meeting is given in your local meeting, is it merely factual, or off-hand, or does it share with those who hear it something of the power and appeal of a well-held meeting for worship for church affairs?

Reflections on the Foundations

Quakers have always tried to express our spiritual understandings through our actions. Famously, this includes refusing to fight, because the real problems aren’t solved by outward actions, and treating everyone as equals – whether that’s through refusing to doff hats or refraining from the use of titles. It’s not always clear, though, how particular spiritual insights should be worked through into practical actions. Does the equality of all before God mean that nobody should be allowed to be wealthy, or that those who are wealthy should treat others well, or that some people being wealthy is okay if everyone has their minimum needs met? In 1918, with the Russian Revolution and the First World War in progress, Quakers in Britain approved a statement, now known as the Foundations of a True Social Order, which laid out their picture of the way things should be. This year, Rachel Muers and I have been conducting some research about the context and legacy of this document. What follows are some of my personal reflections arising from this work.

The Foundations addresses questions about how society should be ordered, although it was criticised at the time for not being practical and specific enough. Reading it today, I can see why – both why people want something more detailed, and why it would be impossible to write such a thing and have it approved by the many and diverse Quakers who make up the Yearly Meeting. Take the last point, for example, which addresses my question about wealth most directly. “The ownership of material things, such as land and capital, should be so regulated as best to minister to the need and development of man.” Well, yes. For sure. But what does that regulation look like in the real world?

Someone said to me over the summer that they thought the project of liberal Quakerism, laid out in texts like these, could now be said to have failed. We haven’t, this argument says, created a world anything like that which is described in the Foundations. We haven’t attracted lots of people to be Quakers, we haven’t created a fair and just society, etc. On one level, this is obviously true. Anyone reading British political or economic news at the moment knows that there are many ways in which society at the moment is moving towards entrenching or even creating inequalities. At another level, I wonder whether this is the right question. It might not be right to frame the issue in terms of success and failure at all – and someone looking for progress could point to evidence that the world has changed both for better and for worse during that time.

(I once tried this argument out on some Jehovah’s Witnesses who knocked on my door to tell me that I should stop putting up posters about local politics and join their church instead. They argued that God is the true King and that participating in human government distracts us from this. I argued that we are trying to manifest God’s Kingdom on earth, and as evidence that this sometimes works, I pointed to the recent introduction of same-sex marriage. Needless to say, they declined to agree with me, but I do think we have made progress towards equality in some areas – including some areas which the Yearly Meeting at the time of the Foundations might not even have been aware of as problems.)

I also wonder what underlying theological picture is involved in this judgement. Is there a God who looks down from above, comparing the world we are building to a grand blueprint? It might be tempting to reading the Foundations as laying out just such a blueprint. I don’t think, though, that this is theologically realistic or true to the long-term and developing nature of Quaker witness. Perhaps something closer to what Bruce Epperly describes as process theology – which, he says, “affirms an open source, adventurous, and constantly evolving universe in which God and creatures are constantly doing new things” (Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, 2011, p44) – can help us to think about ourselves as work with, alongside, or even in God to explore multiple possible futures, rather than being bound to achieve or fail against a single measure.

Finally, one of the things which emerged when I was interviewing Quakers today about the ideas in the Foundations was that the work is long-term, and that the Quaker perspective can help us stick to that rather than being blown about by the winds of fashion and the demands of the 24-hour news cycle or the 5-year election cycle. Even among Quakers, we still don’t agree about the best way to regulate the ownership of material things – or many other similar questions. We are, however, building up a body of reflection on these questions. Our prayerful decision making process is able to take on board new evidence when it arrives, such as about sustainability, and relate that to commitments we already had, such as our opposition to outward violence.

The people who wrote the Foundations rejected more detailed proposals from other churches because they wanted not the minimum, but a vision. Standing in a long tradition, can we keep looking to this ideal, trying to put it into practice while knowing that we will fall short of that, and not be discouraged by apparent judgements of ‘failure’? For me, I think this will be a lifelong challenge.

I’m a Quaker – ask me why

For several years now, I have – on and off, depending on weather, reliability of pins, mood, etc. – worn a badge which says, “I’m a Quaker – ask me why”. Since there’s a chance that some readers of this blog might want to take up that invitation, here are some sample answers. In reality, of course, I reply in the moment and what I actually say might not be anything like what I’ve written here. However, I’ve tried to reflect the real situations in which people have seen the badge and actually asked. Some of my responses leave considerable room for improvement; your comments and further questions are welcome below!

Barista in a coffee shop: “Go on, then, why?”

Me: “I enjoy the silent worship and it’s good to have a community who support my ethical choices.”

Typical response: “Ah, great, here’s your soy chai latte.”

Slightly less common response: “Ah, my great-aunt was a Quaker but I never knew much about them.”

Man on a London Underground escalator: “Quakers, they have a place in Euston, don’t they?”

Me: “Yes, we do.”

Him: “I keep meaning to go and find out about them.”

Me: “I’m sure you’d be welcome – or at any of the other meeting houses around London.”

Him: “There are more?”

Me: “Several.” *trips over as we reach the top*

Him: “Quakers sound peaceful.”

Me: “We try to be!”

Awkward date trying to make conversation: “So, ah, you have a badge about Quakers.”

Me: “Yeah, err, I do. Um, have you heard of Quakers before?”

Her: “Err, my GCSE RS textbook said they were, like, pacifists or something?”

Me: “Yeah, yeah, that’s right.”

Her: “So, err, the weather’s been nice.”

Undergraduate realising I have a clear position on the just war argument: “Is that because you’re a Quaker?”

Me: “Yes, my religious belief and my ethical reasoning are clearly linked here. Of course, it’s also possible to support a pacifist stance with atheist principles.”

Another undergraduate: “Will you mark us down if we say we’re in favour of war in our essays?”

Me: “Not if you provide an argument in support of what you say.”

Another Quaker looking at the badge: “I don’t think I could wear one of those.”

Me: “It’s not always easy, but it’s not that hard, either.”

Me asking myself in the safe confines of a blog post: “So, why are you a Quaker?”

I enjoy silent, waiting worship. I appreciate the equality and the openness of the situation it creates. Modern British Quakerism allows me to value tradition, such as Quaker history and ancient mythology, while at the same time exploring new riches, such as fictionalist perspectives and fresh Biblical criticism, and weighing all these against my own experience.

I’m a Quaker because the Quaker community provides a combination of spiritual depth, social support, and freedom to seek which I haven’t encountered anywhere else. I was born and raised a Quaker but I stayed for the worship, the community, and the discussions.

On doing Quaker outreach

One of this month’s chapters in our process of reading Quaker faith & practice is chapter 28, ‘Sharing the Quaker experience’. It’s a short chapter and not, in my experience, one which is often quoted. I think it’s about an important subject, though: how we talk about Quakerism beyond the confines of our community. After some thought, I’ve decided to respond to this chapter in two blog posts: this one is about outreach but aimed at Quakers, while the next one will be about Quakers and aimed at non-Quakers, i.e. will itself be outreach.

At the very end of chapter 28, a passage in italics – written, I guess, by the committee who compiled the book – reminds us that “Each meeting must find its own way of sharing the Quaker experience, each Friend remember ‘that we are each the epistle of Yearly Meeting’.” If we are each epistles, letters, from our Yearly Meeting to those who are not members of it, what we do we say?

I think I know some Quakers who might be very good epistles but the letter hasn’t been signed, or they hide the address it comes from. Are there people in your life who don’t know that you’re a Quaker? Of course, it doesn’t have to come into every interaction, but if I get to know someone more than a very little bit I usually find it does come up.

Sometimes I might be a good enough letter, but I’m not phrased in a way people can hear. I try and adapt my language to the audience, but it’s easy to make mistakes with this: I once refused to buy a raffle ticket, and although I thought I’d used quite neutral terms something in what I said made the women selling them very cross indeed! Her rant turned out to be about Methodists as much as Quakers, so perhaps I’d stepped on a hidden landmine, but it’s also possible that something I said was more inflammatory than I intended. People who turn away at the idea of organised religion or the word ‘God’ might be other examples here.

Sometimes people might see the headlines of an epistle, but miss the real content. What can be a chance to express Quaker ideas in one setting gets sweep up by unrelated assumptions in another: one waiter who is interested to hear that I choose to eat vegan because my religion inspires me to look after the environment is usually balanced by another who assumes that I’m claiming to be vegan because women are always trying to lose weight. I think that’s them, not me, or at least I don’t yet have a solution to this!

And sometimes I try and leave the whole thing at home, hoping not to have to provide any explanations – with varying degrees of success. Sometimes I can go a whole evening without thinking about it (top tip: if your D&D character is firebombing a hospital, people will probably be too distracted by that to quiz you about your religion). Other times, setting it aside doesn’t work. I remember going for a job interview for Christian but not Quaker employers. I tried quite hard to leave Quakerism out of it, knowing that it was highly likely to be a disadvantage, but people kept asking me questions about my own faith and ideas. Afterwards, as well as deciding not to employ me, the interviewer did note that the whole panel had learned a lot about Quakerism. I wasn’t very impressed at the time – I wanted the job! – but perhaps in the long run it illustrates that, whatever my thoughts on the matter, I am indeed an epistle from the Yearly Meeting.