Peter Quill, Jesus, and the death of God

This post contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

It is common in stories, perhaps especially in the kind of sci-fi and fantasy which specialises in black hats and white, with the good ending happily and the bad unhappily, for heroes to take on certain aspects of Jesus. Sometimes this is at the level of character traits or plot twists – Gandalf’s self-sacrifice and return from the dead is perhaps one of the classics of that. Sometimes it’s at the level of imagery or cinematography – Man of Steel appeared to be under the impression that it was possible to make us think that Superman was a bit like Jesus by giving him halo-like light effects, if I recall correctly. (I may not. I think I fell asleep.)

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Peter Quill is compared with Jesus at the level of narrative. As a character, the self-important, cocky, and music-obsessed Peter isn’t a good candidate for this, but the plot of the movie has some features which make the comparison clear. His father is unknown, then turns out to be a god (the word he uses for himself is ‘celestial’, but when another character offers the word ‘god’, he agrees, noting that it should have a small ‘g’), immensely powerful, loving, and with a plan for the universe.  Peter, discovering this, is able to take on some of his father’s power and use it.

There the similarities with the actual Gospel narrative are at an end. However, since God has been suffering from Kirk Drift for a while now, there are a number of other similarities between Peter’s father in the film and the popular image of God: he is an older man, bearded, alone, genial at first but capable of great anger, creating planets from nothing and willing to manipulate people to fulfil his plans.

This being a comic book movie, he can also be thwarted entirely by a well-timed explosion. More significantly, the character of Peter’s father is named ‘Ego’, and his actions, even those which seem altruistic at first, all turn out to be selfish when his true motivations are revealed. On the one hand, this takes us well beyond any comparison with the God actual Christians believe in. On the other hand, this is more than Kirk Drift: I suggest that it tells us something about how the character of a god is now understood in popular culture.

I maintain the comparison to a Christian God for three reasons: the closeness of the narrative comparison between Peter Quill and Jesus in the early stages of the plot arc about Ego; the availability of Christianity as source material, subconsciously as well as consciously, to the creators and audience of this mainstream American film; and its monotheism. In some ways, the actions of Ego would not be out of place in a Greek drama about many deities – but there would be many deities. Ego’s position is distinctly one of aloneness, which in many ways he longs to but cannot really break. The relationship with Peter’s mother, and then Peter (and also Mantis, a female character who is almost never treated well by Ego, the script, or the other characters) are symptoms of this.

That being so, I read back from this film’s treatment of Ego an understanding of Christianity which is fundamentally sceptical. It is sympathetic to Jesus – that is to say, to Peter, an unwitting pawn in his father’s plans, then almost a knowing collaborator, then a fighter against the system who overcomes death and symbolic burial with the help of his friends rather than his father. It is slightly sympathetic to Mary/Meredith Quill, Peter’s mother, who is fridged in accordance with modern tradition in order to let the men have their manpain and battles. (This isn’t, I don’t think, a Biblical tradition: contrast the Pieta.) It is deeply unsympathetic to God, who is shown to be self-centred – named Ego! – and to be using his power for evil, ultimately to control the universe, and it’s hinted that this would wipe out (sentient? human? all?) life in the process. Nietzsche – at least in the mood in which he wrote that line – might have appreciated this film.

In a narrative where the ‘good guys’ steal things they are paid to protect, run away rather than owning up, play cruel pranks on one another, seek only to win, and demonstrate any love they have for one another through arguments and explosions, this is an interesting claim. I think it is only a claim we as viewers can accept without question if we have an ethical assumption something like: monopolies of control are bad, the richness and messiness of people is good – even if the people aren’t, as individuals, very moral. It might be the ethical equivalent of the Rule of Cool: actions and characters become more morally acceptable as their entertainment value increases.

Are we giving good evidence this Easter?

Prompted by discussion on Facebook – itself prompted by the arrival of Easter, Passover, and other seasonal festivities – I have been thinking about the Quaker ‘testimony’ of refusing to recognise times and seasons. I’ve written before about how this is a practice more honoured in the breach than the observance (and I plan to stop after this – it probably won’t come up again until December, anyway!). It’s common today to list testimonies in positive forms, often with the capital letter of vague importance – Peace, Truth, Equality, etc. We might not be sure what these look like, but we’re for them. Other discussions make it clear that testimonies can also be against things – against war, against injustice, against fancy clothing, against inequality, against gambling. The stuff about being against times and seasons seems to be firmly in the latter category, although it’s sometimes seen in a positive incarnation, as something like: all days are equally holy.

A testimony, however, isn’t just a practice, like wearing grey, or a position, like being anti-war, or even a value, like thinking equality is good. ‘Testimony’ comes from the same root as ‘testify’, to witness, to give evidence, and we can still use it in this sense as well. The image is of a court of law, where you can give evidence in a trial. However, in order for that evidence, your testimony, to make sense, it has to be given in the right context. You can witness to Jane’s impeccable character until you’re blue in the face, and it won’t make any difference if it’s John’s behaviour which is before the court.

So when we hold to or reject a historical form of testimony, we need to ask: what question is it we are answering? Since we’re witnessing to the world and to each other, this is question which people ask, not a question God asks: it isn’t “will you come and follow me/if I but call your name?” but rather “what would the world be like if it were ruled by God/dess?” We can then talk about there being a spiritual process which leads us to an answer, but also our actions need to answer that question – and our explanations of our actions can link back to the question. For example, one answer to “what does the Divine Commonwealth look like?” might be “everyone is equal”. In order to witness to that possibility, we practice equality – rejecting titles and fancy headstones and all sorts of other things – in order to give evidence about our understanding of God’s way of living.

At the moment, I think a court assembled to take evidence from British Quaker attitudes to times and seasons might conclude that we are hypocritical, unspiritual by our own purported standards, and easily swayed by consumerism and especially sweets. Quakers talk about not recognising times and seasons when it suits them – like when they not giving anything up for Lent or want to put down Friends who engage with Pagan traditions – but pick them up again for other purposes – when they have an Easter egg hunt for the children or Christmas carol concert. Similarly, the reason given for not celebrating times and seasons is that the events of the Christian story which are tied to the festivals early Friends were rejecting is that those events can be remembered every day – but it’s not always clear that modern Quakers think about them on any day at all (or even that the community thinks they should). And the majority of British Quakers participate in seasonal rituals, at home if not at Meeting: the eating of Christmas cakes and Easter chocolates, the giving of gifts and the hunting of eggs.

Can we really maintain this form of testimony? I think it was meant to give the answer ‘in the Kingdom of God we will remember and celebrate Christ’s story every day’, but it’s starting to sound like ‘in the Kingdom of God we will do what we like, picking and choosing when to live the Spirit’s way and when to live the world’s way’. If we can have simplicity without plain dress, maybe it’s time to let this one drop away, too.

Labels: good or bad?

I was indirectly compared to a Nazi on Facebook the other day. It made me feel a bit sad, a bit nostalgic, and a bit smug. Smug because by Godwin’s Law, that’s a win. Nostalgic because since I started mostly been spending my internet time talking about Quaker stuff, it hasn’t happened often. And sad because someone in my community thinks that friends of mine are worth comparing with Nazis.

In order to discuss this properly, I want to begin with a philosopher’s move, and lay out the strongest version I can concoct of the opposing argument (‘argument’ in the philosopher’s sense, too: the case someone is putting forward). This isn’t exactly what was said, but represents what I take to be the points involved. The arguments begin with something which everyone can agree on: people these days are, as a matter of fact, using more categories than just ‘male’ and ‘female’ to describe gender. Terms such as transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer have been invented and are in use. So far so good. We also all agree that some Quaker meetings have noted this fact and decided to take steps to make sure they are inclusive of people who identify as something other than simply ‘male’ or ‘female’. Recently, a national Quaker body noted this – which was the occasion for the discussion.

For some people, the proliferation of identity labels looks like a problem. There are, I think, two subtly different forms of the case they put from here on. In the first one, labels are a problem in relationships. For example, if I am trying to get to know someone, and I have been told that they are a woman, I might be inclined to make assumptions about them: that they are likely to be smaller and weaker, that they are likely to be interested in fashion, or whatever. Probably in a real situation the examples are more subtle than this – but they are real and pervasive. The cure for this is not to create and use more labels, but to get to know people as individuals. As the saying goes, if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism – the label ‘autism’ may tell you very little.

In the second version of the argument, labels are a social problem. For example, if I am trying to describe society, and I pick out a group such as ‘immigrants’, I can then say certain things about them. I have, by the way, chosen this example as a case which seems to me to be a real, current case of the pattern which worries people who put this argument. However, I think it’s a group label used much more by people outside the group than people inside the group, and that might make a significant different to the ethics of using it at all. That, though, isn’t the line of argument which is pursued here – and proponents of it might well say that all labels can be used in similarly bad ways regardless of who applies them first. Anyway: having identified the group ‘immigrants’, I might say positive things, such as ‘immigrants make a huge contribution to the nation’s economy’, but I might just as easily say negative things, such as ‘we’d all be better off without immigrants’. This is where people like to mention Nazis. In particular, the Nazi practice of picking out individuals and forcing them to make their group membership visible – the imposition of yellow stars, pink triangles, and so on – makes the mere act of labelling, rather than saying horrible things about groups of people, seem like the problem.

I hope that these are fair representations of the positions involved. (If not, my comments section is open to you.) I think that both of these views catch something useful, but that ultimately both are mistaken about the value of terms such as ‘genderqueer’.

I can recall holding a view much like the first one myself. I remember expressing it in an online conversation with a non-white friend, who had posted to say that she was feeling a need to take her racial identity much more seriously. This made me uncomfortably aware of the ways in which my whiteness separated me from someone I liked to think I was close to, and I commented to say that I thought it didn’t matter much and we had lots of other things in common. Her reaction quickly let me know that in trying to bring us back together in this way, I’d actually made a much worse gap between us, by downplaying the significance of something which I had the privilege to ignore and she, in our racist society, had to acknowledge every day.

Nothing about that negates the need to get to know people as individuals – my friend is as different from others of her ethnicity as I am from other white people – but it does point to an uncomfortable truth. By focusing on individuals, we can miss two things. We can miss the effects of systems on them – while I focus on my friend as an individual, I might assume that her experiences of racism are somehow just about her and not examples of a system problem. And we can miss how different we really are by paying more attention to what we have in common. However much we have in common, we’ll always be different (another white middle-class cissexual woman from the south of England and I can be very different indeed, as a survey of my school friends will tell you). If in our personal relationships we try and ignore the labels which pick out our differences, we might fool ourselves into thinking we have more in common than we really do – especially because it’s a common human error to fill in the blanks with more of the same. If I don’t hear about (or listen to) how your experiences are different to mine, I’m liable to assume that your experiences are the same as mine, in the same way that as a child I assumed all families ate supper at 6pm because that’s what my family did.

I can also see the appeal of the second position. When people pick out groups they don’t belong to, they almost always at least simplify and generalise, and often make crass mistakes, or, as in the examples above, blame the group for whatever social problem worries them. However, I also think something must have gone wrong with this argument: despite the actions of the Nazis, I still see the six-pointed star outside synagogues, so putting up a label must have some uses for the Jewish community. (I also see security fences, so I’m not claiming that it doesn’t have drawbacks as well.) The gender-identity terms which were immediately under discussion are labels which people claim for themselves.

The uses of labels seem to me to fall into two forms. One is self-knowledge. Especially if the label you need wasn’t readily available to you, there can be a huge relief – and sometimes straightforward practical advantages – in finding the right one. Someone who discovers the word ‘asexual’, for example, when their partner has been calling them ‘frigid’, suddenly has a different perspective on their own desires. They also have a way to explain their preferences to others, and this is the second use of labels: to give others some idea. Any term will need extra clarification in a deeper relationship, but often a label that gets you into the right area helps to decide whether or not you want to develop the relationship further, and how to go about it if you do. The clearest cases are sexual relationships (woman to man: “No thank you, I’m a lesbian” – three labels in the space of nine words, and you’ve got the picture) and community formation (we’re here, we’re queer, we could have a Pride march). I think it applies in lots of other circumstances too, though, even if the decision isn’t so clear cut: having just met someone who identifies as a Christian, I might ask different questions to if I meet someone who identifies as a Pagan. Neither label tells me what the person believes, but both give me a nudge away from putting my foot in my mouth – and will help me explain Quakerism in terms they are likely to recognise.

Using a label will always carry risks. People will make assumptions – because that’s how labels work. People might try and attach negative ideas to your label. People might attack you because of your label. However, what I am hearing from many people who use labels like non-binary, trans*, or genderqueer is that the advantages outweigh the risks.

In particular, the risks of a new label which is correct are much easier to bear than the pains of an old or accidental label which is wrong. I’m a cissexual woman and I can laugh it off when someone calls me ‘sir’ when they ask for my train ticket – but it’s still an awkward moment for both of us. If I wasn’t cissexual, I imagine that would be a moment of real fear – am I being ‘found out’, will they be angry with me when they realise – and if I was non-binary, identifying neither as a woman or a man, it might take a lot longer to sort out. Indeed, in that kind of very short interaction, I suspect complex genders are often not understood at all. To me, that makes it even more important to name and accept them in communities where we have longer and hence more time to explain. Similarly, I am queer – I could easily let that slide, I’ve dated people of several genders and I could let you assume I was straight – but I don’t want to. Politically, I want to be visible, and personally, I don’t want you to be surprised when my in-depth analysis of The Night Manager includes a hotness rating for Olivia Colman as well as Tom Hiddleston.

The biggest risks of not using the label, though, are the gaps in knowledge. You can just about have a label and not use it, gaining the self-knowledge without sharing it, but humans are social and we want to connect with people. Authentic connection involves sharing that self-knowledge and recognising, not only what we have in common, but what is genuinely different. If we deny those differences in an attempt to create the illusion of unity, we actually slip back into another oppressive pattern: the desire for everyone to be like me.

We’re not alike. As humans, we’re immensely different, and hugely creative, and people bring new labels into being and repurpose old ones in order to communicate as well as they can. That process of communication absolutely has risks – but those risks are often worth taking. This blog post, for example, risks re-opening conversations which quickly turned unproductive – but I hope it helps us understand one another better.

What have you learnt from the process of reading Quaker faith & practice?

Being on the team who are asking everyone else this question – the ‘Reading Qf&p’ subgroup of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group – I feel like I ought to have a go at answering it myself!

I’ve learned that it is possible to get Quakers on board with this kind of project. It hasn’t involved absolutely everyone in the Yearly Meeting – it never could have done, for all sorts of reasons – but it has reached a large number of people, and many who haven’t read every chapter or who stopped or had to take a break nevertheless picked up ‘our red book’ more than they would have done otherwise. Some of them have even used and appreciated the calendar, which I was a bit dubious about when we were putting it together – but although a few pairings were awkward, and some months seemed harder to read than others, the basic idea of offering a structure so that people moved around the book rather than trying to read it from start to finish seems to have worked in many cases.

I’ve learnt that I am not at all consistent in using learned vs learnt.

I’ve learned that there is always something new to be found on re-reading a chapter of Qf&p. I could have told you this before, but I’ve learnt and re-learnt it every month for the past eighteen months, so it bears repeating. This is a hugely rich and nourishing book, and – especially now that I know it that much better – I’m sure it will always have a place on my bookshelves. Every month I’ve found something new to treasure (and sometimes I’ve noticed that I skimmed right past previous favourites). I’ve even found something to blog about every month, another thing I doubted when I began!

I’ve learnt that while there is much in Qf&p which resonates with me, there are also things which do not feel useful or relevant any more, and aspects of life which are significant to my Quaker journey which are absent or only scarcely represented. For me personally, the brief sections on environmental matters seem inadequate to represent the depth of commitment which I now take the Yearly Meeting to have. Individuals and meetings express it in many ways, but a huge amount of work is going on, and has gone on since 1994, to express this commitment, and it often involves very visible choices. Being vegan is one of the most obvious aspects of my witness to the glory of the Goddess, and the one which I explain to strangers perhaps more often than anything else, but if they heard that being vegan was somehow linked to being a Quaker and came to Qf&p to see if other Quakers did likewise, they’d have to do a lot of work to see how what I was doing related to this other stuff!

I’ve also confirmed a previous hypothesis, namely that there’s nothing that’s good for the visitor statistics of a Quaker blog like having Paul Parker link to it from his Facebook page. (Thanks, Paul!) More seriously, and more generally, I’ve learned that I really enjoy discussing Quaker matters, and that online discussions can be a good way to make that happen. These may or may not focus around Qf&p – some good ones have, others have come from other sources – but I’ve always appreciated the thoughts others have chosen to share in blog posts, Facebook comments, and sometimes Tweets or other formats. During the calendar I worked and had job interviews all over the country, moved house, and moved my membership, but I was able to continue to interact online without geography becoming a barrier. I was able to offer responses to each month’s reading in my preferred way – writing – and hear from others. I hope we can maintain and build on this interactivity and the community which has gathered around this project.

In the meantime, I’ll be taking suggestions for topics for future blog posts! It suited me well to have a chapter or two a month to discuss, but I don’t think I’ll go back to the beginning and start again because it might get repetitious.


Spring blossom on the probably-a-damson tree on my allotment. Nothing to do with this post but it’s pretty.

Putting Quaker faith & practice in context

This is the last month of the project to as Quakers to read Quaker faith & practice together. Many groups won’t finish yet, some people are just starting, and I hope we’ll all go on engaging with the book in different ways. If you’ve been reading and you’d like to give some feedback, you can do that through this one-question survey. The material suggested by the calendar for this month, though, falls nearly-but-not-quite outside Qf&p itself: the ‘Introduction’ at the beginning, and the ‘Notes on the history of the text’ at the end (no link because it’s not, currently, in the online version: I’ve made enquires about that). Layout nerds will note that while most parts of Qf&p have paragraph numbers (chapter number, dot, paragraph number, like this: 13.02), both these sections have page numbers.


The first page of the Introduction, showing page number rather than paragraph numbers.

Both sections also have the function of putting Qf&p into a broader context. The Introduction describes some of the history of the text and also talks in some detail about the composition of this text, noting concerns of the Revision Committee: “special attention has been given to the inclusion of a wider range of contributions from women”, for example. It ends with this comment: “In the Religious Society of Friends we commit ourselves not to words but to a way.” This isn’t, as I read it, intended to diminish the value of the book, but rather to point to the purpose of the book. A book of discipline, of which Quaker faith & practice is an example, aims to steer the reader towards the right way of living. In some cases it will be very specific about that (about the right ordering of meetings for worship for business, for example). In other cases it will offer the prayerful reflections of some who have faced the same or similar challenges before, and leave the reader to discern their own way forward.

For me, the value of reading these sections right at the end is that they help to make sure we understand what Quaker faith & practice thinks it is, and how it came to be. The ‘Notes on the history of the text’ are especially useful in clarifying that Qf&p is one stage in a process, a process which has been changing with technology (books of extracts were circulating in manuscript form before a printed volume was produced in 1783) and with the needs of the Society (people often tell me it should be produced in two volumes, but in the late nineteenth century our book of discipline was printed in three volumes). I don’t know where that process will take us next, but I hope and pray that knowing this text – and some of its history – will help us make good decisions in due course.

If you haven’t started reading yet, there’s still time: at the moment it looks like the question of whether this is the right time for the next revision of our book of discipline will come to Yearly Meeting in May 2018.

Talk: God or whatever you call it

This talk was given at the Nontheist Friends Network conference at Woodbrooke, 24-26th March 2017. 

This is a talk with two halves. In the first half I want to talk about talking about God, and in the second half I want to talk about God. In the first half I’m going to ask: can we say anything about God, and if we can, what are we doing when we say things about God? In the second half I’m going to ask: what kinds of things do Quakers typically say about God, and what should we, as a community, do about talking about God.

Before I start, I want to say two things about the way I’m going to talk. Firstly, I’m going to use the word God a lot. I’m going to use the word God because it’s in the title of my talk, but also because it’s a handy, short word. I’m also going to use the word God even more because I’m not going to give God any pronouns – no he, no she – and that means I’ll have to repeat ‘God’ a lot! The grammatically eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that my title refers to God as ‘it’, and I run with Quaker convention on that. Following English convention, I also use God as a noun, but that doesn’t automatically mean that I think God is a thing or even a person.

At this point, a lot of Quakers would also invite you to swap the word God for something you like better – you can do that if you like, but I’m going to come back and discuss this habit of ‘translating’ the word God in the second half of my talk.

Secondly, I’m going to try and say what I want to say very plainly and boldly. That means that if there’s a qualification or a hedging, that’s a genuine thing and not just politeness. It also means, hopefully, that if something is controversial or you disagree with me, you’ll know that quickly and easily. I hope you’ll make a note of whatever it is and let me know in the discussion after the talk what you disagree about and why. These are my honest views as I hold them at the moment, but I’ve held other views in the past, I’ll probably hold other views in the future, and I won’t be offended if you don’t share my opinions.

Okay, so onto the first main part of the talk: can we say anything about God? Well, some of you might be thinking that we can’t say anything – or can’t say anything true, or can’t say anything meaningful – about God, because God doesn’t exist. God may or may not exist – I’ll come back to that in the second part of this paper – but I don’t think that stops us talking about God. We can say things – even true and meaningful things – about fictional people, and since we have a word for God we can grant God at least that minimal level of existence. So if I can say something true about Sherlock Holmes – “Sherlock Holmes is very good at solving crimes” – and something false about Sherlock Holmes – “Sherlock Holmes usually wears a bobble-hat” – I should be able to do at least the same when I’m talking about God.

One thing to note here is that people only know that what I’m saying about Sherlock Holmes is true because they have already heard about Sherlock Holmes from other sources. In the culture I live in, Sherlock Holmes has a very high level of what we might call ‘brand recognition’ – which is why I’m confident enough that you’ll all have heard of him, to use him for my example. In another culture, separated from this one by language, distance, or time, those remarks might be nothing but meaningless babble. Again, we’ll come back to this idea of the context and the community being very important later in this talk.

Among people who’ve thought that God had enough reality to be worth talking about, two approaches to talking about God have been popular: a negative view and a positive view. (If you’ve read a theology textbook, you might have come across these under the names apophatic and kataphatic, but let’s not get caught up with technical terms here.) The negative view says that the only things we can say about God and have them be true are negative things: God isn’t this, isn’t that, isn’t the other. The positive view, on the other hand, thinks we might be able to say some things which God is.

The negative view stresses how different God is from us and everything else. God isn’t human. God isn’t a tree. God isn’t even like us. God’s love isn’t like human love. Even God’s existence isn’t like other kinds of existence. Ordinary people-words, which are fine for talking about ordinary people-things, are just so far removed from whatever God might be that they’re never going to cut it. It might not even be possible to put anything about God into words at all. One way to take the negative view to extremes is just not to speak. I like this view: for obvious reasons, the idea of being silent about God has appeals to me as a Quaker!

The other, positive view might go the whole way and say that words we use about people and things can be used about God in exactly the same way: if we say, ‘God loves us’, God’s love is to be understood as just like our love for other people. A gentler version of the positive view might say that the words we use for ordinary things can be applied to God by analogy: if we say, ‘God loves us’, God’s love is to be thought of as a bit like human love – enough that we can start to imagine it – but not exactly like human love, so that we will never be able to really understand it. I like this view too: being able to say some things about God appeals to me as a theologian – and as a Quaker who thinks that there is something worth talking about in this whole religion thing.

So, what are we doing when we say things about God? We’re aware that whatever we say is probably a bit short of what’s really going on – but that’s the case for lots of ordinary situations, like when someone asks you what colour such and such a beautiful stained glass window is, and you can only say ‘it’s blue’. Not being able to say everything doesn’t stop us saying anything. We’re aware of the value of sometimes saying nothing – but we also know that we sometimes need to say things. Sitting in silence together is great, but leaving all the pages of a book blank wouldn’t have the same effect!

We also know that anything we say will be heard differently by different people and in different situations. Consider for a moment the word ‘mouse’. If I say that there’s a mouse in my kitchen, you’ll probably think of a small brown furry thing. If I say that the wire on my mouse is damaged, you’ll probably think of a computer accessory. The way you interpret the word ‘mouse’ is changed by the context in which you hear it. The same happens with lots of other words, including religious ones. When I hear the word God in a sentence like ‘God the Father gave His only son’, I think of quite a different God to the God in a sentence like ‘Thor, God of Thunder, we invoke you’. It’s a more complex case, though: there are only a few things we refer to using the word ‘mouse’, but people use the word ‘God’ in all sorts of ways.

Some people respond to this by demanding that those using the word ‘God’ give a definition – my God is this and not that, and so on. There are two troubles with such definitions. The minor, practical one is that people often don’t know all that off hand, and their ‘definitions’ rule out things they do actually think about God and rule in things they don’t think. The bigger one is that this isn’t how language works. We don’t usually learn a new word by memorising a dictionary definition and then practising using it. Instead, we hear someone using it, usually several people using it, and pick up from the situation how to use it ourselves. Dictionary writers then listen to this and write down how we use it, often with some examples, as a reminder and a shortcut to this process.

Because the same thing happens with religious words, where and how we learn a word can deeply influence how we feel about it. I grew up in a Quaker family, so I learned to use the word ‘Light’ for God, even though people at school wouldn’t have understood. I learned the word ‘baptism’ for something we didn’t do, and was very uncomfortable with it when I encountered it at the church parade my Brownie pack went to. Today, I know some people for whom it has very positive connotations, and I can use my imagination to enter that world a bit and understand why – but it’s still not a word I’d use in relation to my own spiritual life. I see some people having similar reactions to words I’m fine with – I’ve seen people who are now Quakers break down in tears over terms like ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’ because those words brought with them intensely negative emotions.

Where does all that leave us? We can say things about God, even if God is a story, and we might want to use positive or negative statements. We can remain silent about God – but there are advantages to speaking sometimes. We learn words about God from the community around us, and every word carries an emotional weight. When we move from one religious community to another – as the majority of people who are now Quakers in Britain have done – we bring those words, and the feelings which go with them, along with us.

Okay – deep breath – second part. What do Quakers typically say about God? If we learned to speak about God only by listening to Quakers, what kind of things would we learn to say?

I’ve got two sources for what I’m about to say. For a picture of the core things twentieth-century Quakers has been able to agree about, I’m going to use the 1994 version of Advices & Queries as my example. It’s a good example for three reasons: it was approved by Britain Yearly Meeting, it contains more talk about God per paragraph than many other Quaker publications, and it’s still widely used and familiar. For a picture of how things have developed since 1994 and what individual Quakers say, I’m going to pick out a few examples from a pattern I identified in the course of my PhD research. I’ll come on to that after I’ve discussed Advices & Queries.

Here are some things Advices & Queries says God has or gives us: leadings, a spirit, healing power, love, guidance, ways, promptings, a presence, a word, forgiveness, gifts, light, purposes, will, children, help. And here are some things Advices & Queries says God does: shows, cherishes, works, guides.

By way of contrast, here are some things philosophy textbooks typically say the God of monotheism is: all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving. Doesn’t that sound different? There’s some overlap of content – both include the words ‘love’ and ‘power’, although a mention of ‘healing power’ and ‘that life and power which takes away the occasion of all wars’ are pretty different to the claim that God is all-powerful. Wouldn’t an all-powerful God stop wars, rather than take away their occasion when people live in God’s way? Beyond that, though, I think the main difference is positioning. The God of Advices & Queries is nearby, even alongside us, to be felt and experienced: it asks us to be open to the healing power of God’s love, to ask for guidance and respond to promptings, in short to be in relationship with God. There’s an emphasis on doing: it doesn’t quite treat God as a verb, but some parts would be amenable to viewing God as a process, for example. The philosophy textbook, by contrast, positions God firmly outside us, even outside the universe. If you read Advices & Queries assuming that Quakers believe in the God of the philosophy textbook, there’s nothing there which directly says it isn’t so – but there’s also nothing which says it is so.

Now I want to talk about lists. Who doesn’t like a good list? Shopping list, to-do list… and, it turns out, a creative Quaker response to some of the problems involved in naming God. When Quakers start talking about God – whether they’re talking to a non-Quaker, or they’re in a Quaker discussion group, or they’re writing a book about something Quakery – a lot of them say something like this: in meeting for worship, we try and listen to God, or the Spirit, or the Light, or Love, or whatever you call it. If they don’t give a list, they often say something like “please translate the word ‘God’ into another word” – which wouldn’t be possible if there wasn’t, at least hypothetically, a list of possible reasonable alternatives. Not only can you hear Quakers doing this regularly once you start noticing it, but it’s commonly done in print as well – look at Peter Parr’s Kindlers book or Ben Pink Dandelion’s Celebrating the Quaker Way for some really clear examples. This pattern isn’t completely new, but I reckon it’s become much more common in the last twenty to thirty years and has been put to new uses.

So what are the uses of the list of terms for God?

Lists can help clarify what we mean by the first term we use. Almost all Quaker lists of terms for God make it clear that there is one thing, one Divine, one God, which we can name and describe in a multitude of ways. They do this by putting one word first and then ‘translating’ it or offering synonyms, like this: “We have many names for the Divine – Spirit, God, Heavenly Father, Universe, Papa, Mother, Light…” (quote from the editors’ introduction to Spirit Rising)

In a world where a word like ‘God’ can be understood in lots of different ways – and there’s a good chance that the person you’re talking too doesn’t think of Quaker uses first, but perhaps a philosophy textbook use or a church use or someone swearing “Oh God, not again!” at them – it’s really helpful to be able to expand on our understanding of a word. Using a word like God or Divine at the header of the list puts us in the right area – opens the gate to the religious semantic field, so to speak – but once we’re there, it’s important to show how our understanding of God differs from other understandings. A clear example of this is lists which include terms like ‘Ground of Being’, an image which gets us a long way away from any man-on-a-cloud pictures people might be harbouring.

Lists of lots of words can overwhelm our need to talk and move us back towards silence. There’s a sense in which the more you say, the less you are saying.    …

Lists can signal our inclusivity. There are a very small number of people who are both Quaker and Muslim, and also a small number of Quakers who grew up as Arabic-speaking Christians – I don’t know exactly how many, but don’t think either of these groups is visible enough among Quakers in Britain to explain how often the list of words for God includes ‘Allah’. My alternative hypothesis is that the list is very handy for signalling a desire to be inclusive of all faith perspectives. Advices & Queries 6 asks us to “enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith” and I think this is visible in the choice some Quaker writers have made to add ‘Allah’ to the list of terms for God. Seeing a lot of discussion of Islam in the media, especially Islamophobic views, and wanting to counter that, they add a term which will be understood as of Islamic origin to their lists of acceptable terms for God, thereby making it clear that they think that at least some Islamic theology is acceptable and can be compatible with Quaker views. Something similar applies to the desire to include a range of other groups through the use of their terms in the list: add Christ to include Christocentrics, add Goddess to include the Pagans, add Buddha and Universal Energy and Light and… and eventually you might make everyone happy.

Or not. Lists can disguise our disagreements. Some people hold views about, for example, a completely this-worldly and non-supernatural Earth Goddess which are genuinely at odds with some other people’s views about a miracle-working outside-space-and-time Christ, and all those real differences are hidden by shoving everything together in a list.

It’s worth dwelling for a moment on the issues of disagreeing with people, offending people, and stepping on emotional landmines. When I was offering workshops to meetings around the country on this topic, quite often someone would say to me something like: “I’m so glad you’re coming, Rhiannon – I’m a nontheist in a really Christocentric meeting and it’s ever so hard to talk about God language openly!” Just as often, someone would say to me something like: “I’m so glad you’re coming, Rhiannon – I’m a Christian in a mostly nontheist meeting and it’s ever so hard to talk about the issues openly!” From time to time, I’d hear both of those things about the same meeting. When I actually ran the workshop, which includes asking people to share which words they do and don’t use for God, I got very similar answers everywhere I went: Quakers reject most obviously hierarchical language, many rejected obviously gendered language, they want the good bits of Jesus Christ and not the weird bits, and their individual choices are heavily shaped by childhood experience and the audience they think they’re speaking to.

I came to the conclusion that although meetings do vary, there aren’t really some Christian ones and some nontheist ones but a widespread fear of upsetting people. Advices & Queries 5 tells us not to be afraid to say what we have found on our spiritual journeys – and it needs to, because a lot of us are afraid to talk about these things. I only have guesses here, but my best guess is that there are two things that happen sometimes and reinforce this. One thing that happens sometimes is that one of us says something, which accidentally upsets someone, and we both go away determined never to discuss it again. It’s not always easy to distinguish one person in a meeting being upset by something from the whole meeting not wanting to hear that thing. For example, if I read from the Bible in ministry, someone who’s been hurt by a church with a big emphasis on the Bible and has consequently – sensibly! – rejected that perspective, might come up to me afterwards and say, “What were you doing, reading from that irrelevant old book?” If they say it strongly enough – and especially if I suspect they’ve sort of got a point, and I’m struggling with my own relationship with Biblical texts and loving some parts and hating others, and also if we don’t have time and space for a real conversation about why I did read from the Bible and why they felt strongly about it – I might take this as evidence that so-and-so was dreadfully offended and I shouldn’t read from the Bible in that meeting. But if my leading to read was a true one and I followed it faithfully, maybe others needed to hear it – maybe even the Friend who was upset by it. There’s no rule that says we have to like what God has to say to us!

The other thing that sometimes happens is that we just never discuss our understandings of God at all. In some meetings God only comes up in spoken ministry – and in some meetings not even there. Maybe it’s seen as too personal or private – Quakers often only discuss their spiritual experiences in carefully facilitated confidential workshops. Maybe it’s not socially appropriate over tea and biscuits – although we could change that social rule if we wanted to. Maybe there’s not time, and we don’t know one another well enough in our meetings to be prepared to share at this deep level. Or maybe we’re afraid of upsetting someone, as just discussed.

If we never discuss things, we are unlikely to know what the disagreements involved actually are. We read some Quaker literature, and perhaps hear dropped hints without open discussion, and make our best guesses about what people feel and believe – and we can gather all those guesses together in a handy list, “God or the Light or the Spirit or the Universe or the inner Buddha-nature or whatever you call it.”

So here’s the last thing which lists enable us to do. They let us hold together opposing desires in a single grammatical structure. The list embodies our desire to be inclusive – it literally includes a range of terms, and hints that many more possible ones are acceptable. It embodies our desire to say something about God but not to go too deeply into theology or get caught up in ‘notions’ – I found the lists most often in the introductions to Quaker publications, where people deal with the God thing before moving on to whatever they really wanted to say. It embodies our desire to be together and unified – we can all be in the one list, using different terms for the one whatever-it-is. Lists have their flaws, but they are also a powerful and dynamic tool for holding tensions together creatively. Inclusion and diversity and speaking and silence are all held together in the list like a struggling kitten wrapped in a blanket.

So where does all this leave us? I’ve got three main conclusions here, which for short I call: gotta try, gotta cry, gotta clarify.

1: Gotta try. We’ve got to try and communicate our experiences and understandings. While accepting the limitations of language and of human understanding, we’re going to have to say something – so we might as well say what we’ve got to say as well as we can. It’s tempting to back out. Theology is too difficult (but it’s not – we all do theology every time we come to meeting for worship, every time we are bereaved, every time we try and work out whether to buy Fairtrade or organic bananas). It’s all notions and theories and we should ignore it – but we can’t, because how we understand ourselves, our world, and our spirituality affects every decision we make, even if we decide not to talk about it. My experience is that our communities are stronger when we try to communicate – so we’ve got to try.

2. Gotta cry. Human communication isn’t easy. Ever had a bitter row with a dear friend or loved one about the washing up? Yeah, me too. The washing up is right there to see, but the question of whether it’s my turn to do it brings up all sorts of questions about what kind of person I am: am I a good housemate? Am I helpful? Am I tidy? Am I too stubborn or do I give in too easily? The same will be true of our religious questions, and we are going to upset other people and be upset ourselves sometimes if we engage deeply and genuinely. There will be times when we’re not up for that, for all sorts of reasons – but we can also be ready to support ourselves and others through the process by acknowledging that emotions are part of the discussion, not a problem to be avoided.

3. Gotta clarify. This is actually a suggestion about the process. Clarification can take many forms. You might add the ‘because’ – ‘When I heard the Bible read in ministry, I was upset because…’ You might tell the story behind something – ‘When I was at Sunday School, I was taught to use that word differently…’ You might make your motives explicit – ‘I’m going to use a list of terms for God now in order to…’ You might add some ordinary words to explain a technical term – ‘My understanding is that God is transcendent, so exists outside the physical universe…’ You might ask for clarification – ‘That’s interested, can you expand?’ Clarification is an ongoing process. We won’t reach complete clarity – but as we try, we can come to know one another better in the things which are eternal, and through that, come to a greater awareness of that of God in everyone. Whatever that is!

In discussion afterwards, a number of people were interested in my thesis, which can be downloaded from the White Rose eTheses collection. Others were interested in my work with meetings: these day workshops can now be booked through Woodbrooke on the Road, or more information about the project as a whole can be found on its own website, Or Whatever You Call It.

Finding out what I already know

There’s a chant, circle dance, song – one of those things that’s just Around, and even Google doesn’t seem to know where it’s from – which goes: We are angels, we have forgotten these things/Trailing clouds of glory, we are remembering.

At one level, I don’t get on with this at all. I’m deeply suspicious of most of the metaphysical propositions people put forward to try and make this kind of thing ‘make sense’ – if you can even do this which such a brief and evasive text.

At another level, I have been sitting with these evocative words recently and finding that they reflect some of my experience beautifully. This isn’t a matter of ‘not thinking about it’ as sometimes advocated when people feel like mysticism and intellectualism are opposed – I have thought very carefully about what I’m about to write – but thinking about it in a metaphorical, exploratory way rather than asking, for example, what angels really are.

One of the pleasures I have had in the first few months in my new job as Tutor for Quaker Roles at Woodbrooke is the opportunity to assist with, and hence sit in on, some events for people who are taking on roles which I’ve heard of, but never been directly involved with. Almost nobody else comes to learn about being a trustee, for example, unless they already are or soon will be a trustee themselves. (You’re welcome to if you like – but it’s unusual.) I have gone into these events assuming, and assuring everyone else, that I knew nothing about the topics at hand.

There are, as I expected, all sorts of things I didn’t know about these roles. I’d never thought before about the problem of lone working in relation to meeting house wardens, although I’ve known several wardens well over the years and am aware of issues about lone working in other contexts. There was a lot I didn’t know and couldn’t have guessed in  presentation the trustees conference were given about employment. There were things I became aware of but couldn’t learn directly – the feeling of responsibility which goes with being a trustee, for example, I can imagine but have never experienced.

What surprised me was how much I did know – not the details, but the principles; not the answers, but the methods suggested for working them out or looking them up; not how to do the jobs, but how to learn how to do the jobs. I’d forgotten this, but I think I had a similar experience when I became an elder. I needed to spend time thinking about, for example, how to help people have a better experience of Meeting for Worship, and I was glad to be able to read about my duties in chapter 12, but I’d have been able to guess at most of them (although I’d have put a few I don’t like doing on the overseers list!). There were things to learn, but also a deep sense of when things were ‘in right ordering’ and when they were ‘off’. It’s a bit like knowing whether a sentence is grammatical, without being able to explain why!

If when we take on these roles, whether we are nominated or offer them as unpaid ministry or take on paid Quaker work, we are becoming angels – God’s messengers, give or take whatever struggles you have with the word ‘God’ – then, as in the song, we will remember what we need to know, even if we never knew it before. We’ll still have to look things up (whose responsibility is such-and-such? does employment law really say so-and-so?), but the underlying principles don’t have to be a struggle. Putting them into practice sometimes will be, especially when they run counter to the prevailing culture (try insisting on the correct use of ‘fewer’ while standing in a supermarket’s ‘ten items or less’ lane!), but we’ll know – perhaps by the clouds of glory! – where we should be going.

(Could you benefit from finding out what you already know, and maybe learning some other stuff as well? Search Woodbrooke’s courses online.)