Review: The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God, Anson Hugh Laytner

(Disclaimer: I’m reviewing this book because I got a free electronic copy from The Speakeasy. What follows is my honest opinion, but I was asked to give it.)

Anton Hugh Laytner sets out to explore suffering, in ways which are in keeping with his experience – his direct experience of suffering and death, his spiritual experience of the presence of God, and his religious experience as a Jew. The book begins with an consideration of the lessons of the book of Iyov (Job), moves through descriptions of Laytner’s life experience and the horrible things which have befallen his family (so I’d give lots of content warnings: mentions of the Holocaust and the AIDS epidemic, some descriptions of illness and hospital stays, and a detailed description of someone dying and the mourning process), explores anger and protest prayer before reaching a new idea of God which is not tied to traditional pictures – Laytner releases two out three of the classic ‘omnis’ – but which is still present and can move us to fresh and loving action. Laytner calls his position “radical monotheism”: everything has its source in God, but this is not a God which intervenes, not a God which has personal characteristics, and not a God we can ever understand. Instead, this is a God we experience alongside us and one who can cope with the honest expression of our full range of emotions.

Early on in the book, as well as warning that the Bible study section at the beginning will be harder to read than the rest – which did match my experience – Laytner says that he tries “to do theology in a creative way, the ways artists and poets and authors do their work”. I think he succeeds in this. The later sections of the book in particular, as he gets more personal and more passionate, have a lyrical quality whereby the argumentation is enhanced by the writing style. There is still argumentation – the book remains firmly with the theological genre, building a case from experience and texts – but presented in a very rich way, not the dry style sometimes associated with the need to establish each point. In fact, Laytner sometimes notes that he might not be convincing the reader, and it sometimes seems like looking in at his process rather than being asking to agree with him. For something which is so entwined with personal experience, this is a helpful approach.

Who would benefit from reading this book? People who want to engage with faith and religion, perhaps who want to believe in a monotheistic God or participate in religious rituals, but who find that difficult because of the problem of suffering. It might be especially useful to people who have rejected some aspects of traditional monotheism; it isn’t quite a full-on nontheist book, but it does confidently question lots of monotheist assumptions and only keeps those ideas which Laytner can base on experience. Although Laytner only mentions Quakerism very briefly, and doesn’t explore the tradition in depth, I think his experiential approach has much in common with liberal Quaker approaches to theology. Since liberal Quakerism sometimes struggles to engage deeply with suffering and evil, Quakers who want to think about those topics would definitely benefit from reading this.

Find out more and buy it from the publisher’s website or via Google books.

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Quaker Stories

An early Quaker felt uncomfortable carrying a sword, though it was socially expected of him. He was advised to “wear it as long as you can”.

The warriors came to attack, but everyone in the meeting kept sitting in silence and nobody was hurt.

She saw that the women in prison needed help so she took them useful things and taught them to sew to support themselves.

The theme for this year’s Quaker Week is ‘Quaker Stories’. That could mean lots of things – personal stories, the history of Quakerism, the place of Quakers within the bigger stories of Protestant, mystical, and twenty-first century Christianity – but it also got me thinking about the stories Quakers tell. Well, I’m not sure how often they get told to Quaker adults; I heard these stories in children’s meeting, and now I hear them told to enquirers and people who are learning about Quakers from an outside perspective, but only some get used in spoken ministry in meeting for worship, for example. (‘Wear it as long as you can’, as Fox probably didn’t say to Penn about his conventional but distinctly un-pacifist sword, is one of the few I do hear regularly.) Some I missed and only picked up in specific discussions of Quaker stories (like Stephen Grellet, the man who probably didn’t actually preach to an empty dining room in the woods). I put some examples, summarised to their bare bones, at the top of this post.

In summarising, I found I was also making visible some of the assumptions which are buried in the way they are told. The story in which Fox tells Penn to maintain a habit which is starting to make him uncomfortable for ‘as long as you can’ speaks to modern Quaker assumptions about the need for change to come from a deeply felt inner transformation and not from mere convention. It might not be historically accurate, but it encapsulates something which was, broadly speaking, true of the first generation of Quakers (Thomas Ellwood went around keeping his hat on because he felt he had to), sometimes got lost in the generations in between (as when Quakers adopted a conventional ‘plain’ dress of their own), and was reclaimed in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first, perhaps it is being twisted or used too much: how many people are keeping on with environmentally unsustainable habits for ‘as long as they can’?

Other assumptions are less welcome. The story of ‘Fierce Feathers‘ as I first heard it in childhood was steeped in unexamined ideas about Native American people – in particular, it tends to be told in a way which positions the Quakers as the knowledgeable experts who are on God’s side, and the people whose space they are invading as suddenly seeing the truth when exposed to Quaker practice. This is in keeping with the Christian understanding of the time, and can be told in a way which suits modern liberal Quakerism’s emphasis on silent meeting for worship alone as a sufficient vehicle for transformation, but is also in tension with other things liberal Quakers want to teach: the equality of all people, the potential for divine truth in all religions. (And the children’s craft which feels like an obvious fit for the story, making a paper ‘Indian headdress’, is likely to be a terrible idea: read about why at the Native Appropriations blog.)

Similarly, stories about Quaker ‘good works’ sometimes focus on the giving of charity and not on the recipients, with the effect that social structures such as class are reinforced – rather than the creation of justice, for example. I picked the Elizabeth Fry story to summarise very briefly at the top of my post, but other Quaker stories have the same core structure. Now I live in Bournville, I hear that story a lot: rich man is kind to his workers. He treats them well, but not the same way he treats his family, and he is kind to his workers who live locally, not everyone who is poor or even everyone in his supply chain. I’m not disputing either the facts or getting into the moral rightness of the actions of George Cadbury or Elizabeth Fry or anyone else – my questions here are: when we retell these stories, what do we expand on and what do we diminish, who do we lift up and who do we ignore, which social structures do we accept and which do we challenge?

I hope that in future, asking these kinds of questions will help us to use our huge stock of Quaker stories in positive ways. Perhaps we will also find different stories from our history and tell those in illuminating ways – as in Kathleen Bell’s work on when Quakers got it wrong. We use stories to make sense of the world around us, and as Quakers in Britain continue our considerations of power and privilege we will need to tell new stories and re-tell old ones in ways which help us to explore those themes.

Climate Strike

In support of the Global Climate Strike, I am not engaging in paid work today. I’ll also be posting about the climate crisis on social media, writing to my MP and local councillors, and joining a local protest.Why strike? Because we cannot continue as if everything is normal. Because our house is on fire.

I have been trying, for over a decade, to lower my personal carbon footprint and to be aware of the environmental impact of the choices I make – but the political system and the infrastructure of my society has not changed far enough or fast enough to support me in this. I can buy green energy at home, but when I go into a public building I have to assume it is running on fossil fuels. I can wash out and save up my recycling, but I don’t have kerbside collections and I have to ask a friend with a car to help me take it to the household waste centre. I can limit the amount of flying I do, but 15% of people in the UK are taking 70% of the flights.  I can work hard to avoid using fossil fuels personally, but we still haven’t banned fracking.

What am I asking for? For society, structurally, to take this seriously. For our society to commit to a transition to much greater economic equality (‘make wealth history’  as the Earthbound Report used to be called) and much less emphasis on paid work as the bar to entry in the community. For government to commit to ending fossil fuel use. For every organisation to ask whether they are part of the solution or part of the problem – and to have the courage to say: no. This work – extracting fossil fuels, travelling regularly, producing luxury goods, making unrecyclable items, making items with planned obsolescence – is part of the problem and therefore we will stop. For everyone to start thinking and talking in terms of doughnut economics.

I can’t install a Digital Climate Strike widget because I don’t pay WordPress anything to run this blog. But I will refuse to talk about anything else today.

Review of ‘The Good Priest’

Tina Beattie’s novel, The Good Priest, is a gripping read with an engaging central character – John, the eponymous good priest – and an intriguing premise. In this review there will be some spoilers, although I’ll try and steer clear of the main plot. I won’t be discussing the murders, which are a significant feature of the novel, but I will talk about sex and sexual abuse.

It is a deeply Catholic book, as one might expect from the title and the author (Beattie is a well known Roman Catholic theologian), but I’m not a Catholic and it isn’t for me to assess the quality or impact of her description of the church. I did look to see whether others had already covered this in reviews, but didn’t find anything with a deep level of engagement – and some obvious venues, such as The Tablet, have yet to review it. It seems to me as an outside that it is deeply loving and equally critical – but perhaps this is an effect of her excellent writing rather than the content. I also think it might turn out to be a novel of the moment; in the same way that some twentieth-century writing is identifiable as ‘post Vatican II‘ or similar, in a few decade’s time this book might seem ‘post sex abuse scandal’. This doesn’t detract from it; indeed, it might make it all the more important to read it now. However, rather than going into this aspect in detail, I want to focus on what it might have to say to two audiences to which I do belong: Quaker readers and queer readers.

Queer readers, I think, may find it compelling, comforting, and disturbing, in various ways. The good priest of the title, John, is gay. He’s clear and straightforward about this even when it comes as a surprise to others – towards the end of the book, he says so plainly in public, on the street, and another character responses with a startled, “You’re wot?” She knows what he means, may even already have known this about him, but is not expecting a Catholic priest to be calm and open about this aspect of his personality. In this, she might serve as a stand-in for the reader, because the calmness and acceptance with which most characters throughout the book, including John himself, treat this fact is noticeable. Sometimes it is highlighted by the narrative, as when a dying parishioner makes a point of mentioning it, but often it is simply there. This is the comfort.

It is interwoven with other aspects of the narrative, though, inextricably so: I read a comment from someone on Twitter who wished Beattie hadn’t ‘made him gay’ – not an option, it is vital to this character’s interaction with the world and especially the church within which he lives and has his livelihood. This is, for me, one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. Sexuality is not bolted on, but nor is it the main focus. Things would go equally badly wrong if he were straight and subject to similar temptations and stresses, but the details of what happens are intimately related to his sexuality (and to his intimate relationships, platonic as well as erotic). It is also related to the gendered structure of the social world within which he lives: both priests and the most ardent atheists are men, while women occupy a host of positions but are disempowered by their society, even though they often have agency within the narrative. In the same way, although a review in the Church Times suggests that the focus on sex is “verging on prurience”, I didn’t find this so at all. The sex is dealt with in mainly a factual way, and a way which brings out the conflicts, sometimes the horrors, associated with it. The only non-abusive, fully consensual sex is fade-to-black, so much so that I almost wondered whether it had actually taken place.

It is those horrors, faced directly and from both perspectives, which make the book disturbing, but are also one of the important parts of the narrative. John realises during the course of the novel that he has both abused and been abused, another example of the moral complexity which makes the novel compelling. Of course, by writing a gay character in this position, Beattie runs the risk of further associating homosexuality with abuse and continuing a pattern of false charges against the gay community as a whole. However, it could also work the other way: John’s horrified reactions to realising that he unknowingly had sex with a child, and his subsequent compassionate responses and adult, if difficult, relationship, subvert that frequently told story about the role of homosexuality in social life.

And what about reading from a Quaker perspective? Perhaps there is a temptation at first to feel smug about how much more equally Quakers treat LGBTQ+ members of our communities, even while acknowledging that we can always do more to be welcoming and to make sure everyone is treated justly. But Beattie is a Catholic and it is clear that she has a great deal of compassion for the situation John is in, and is critiquing the ways in which his church makes life more difficult for him. For those Quakers with little knowledge of the Roman Catholic tradition, too, the focus on the rituals of Lent and Holy Week – and especially confession, which is pivotal to the plot – may be difficult and alienating. However, I found that the way John’s perspective leads the reader into the rituals and their spiritual meanings was easier to deal with than much teaching on these topics. It didn’t make me want to go to confession, but I think it did help me see why some people might find it helpful. (And the novel doesn’t shy away from the practical and theological problems it creates, either.) It might be worth reading for that interfaith understanding.

It might also be worth Quakers reading for the reminder than there is significant disagreement within the Catholic church – not just on social questions, but also on theology. In the course of the novel, characters who doubt and lose their faith, characters whose faith takes on new forms, and characters who disagree about interpretations of theological questions are all treated as fully part of John’s community. I am told frequently by Quakers that it must all be easier in churches where they have creeds and everyone believes the same thing and there aren’t any doubters… but having a written creed, and all agreeing with it, and nobody doubting are three very different things. In this story, as in real churches, disagreement and lapsing flourish alongside co-operation and multiple patterns of engagement.

In conclusion, if you are interested in murder mysteries, novels with religious characters, and/or books which grapple with moral complexity, I highly recommend this book.

The Centrality of Story: can Quakers go back to Christianity via nontheism?

My friend Ben Wood, among others, likes to talk about the centrality of narrative to theology, and especially the importance of the Christian story. I was thinking about this recently, partly reflecting on some ideas from Mark Russ‘s MA dissertation which I’m sure he’ll share in due course, and partly reflecting on recent discussions in The Friend about nontheism and meeting for worship for business (in Neil Morgan’s article and my own). One way to think about meeting for worship for business is to consider where it places us within the Christian story – Where are we in the plot? What characters are on the stage and who is speaking? The main players are basically two. One is the Quaker community, a group not always speaking together but trying to come into sync with each other (perhaps like a Greek chorus who, because the play is improvised, are constantly trying to catch up with each other). The other is God, a character who can appear in multiple guises (Jesus, the Spirit, that of God within, the Still Small Voice, the Light, Love, conscience, impersonal energy…) but who is understood to be a single speaking voice to which the community is trying to listen.

In terms of the plot, I think meeting for worship for business is a middle of the story event. It’s not the beginning – not a creation, not a birth, not a first awareness – and not an ending – after the meeting, we need to act on the minutes, come back to items later, and so on. The past and the future are both needed for it to be meaningful (previous minutes, preparation and arrangements, later meetings, things which will be affected by the decisions) but the process itself, through which the community seeks the path of Love, is also itself a step along that path. It allows us to access something of Eternity – the biggest picture possible – in the Now, without committing us to a single already shown picture (getting stuck in the past) or withholding information we need now until later (trapped by the future) or asking us to forget everything but this moment (with only the present). If this is mapped onto the Christian story, the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that seems to me like part of an Incarnation phase – a part where God is manifest on earth in a new way. The community (not the individual, before someone reminds me about James Naylor) takes the role of Jesus and seeks to listen to and follow God’s instructions.

If you’re anything like me, and I think a significant number of British Quakers today probably are, this is a point at which you might stop. You might say something like: But I don’t believe in the Christian story, surely it didn’t really happen that way. Or: That’s all very nice, but I can’t take Jesus with all those miracles. This is where nontheism comes in. Specifically, not just Quaker but Christian nontheism. I’ve sometimes thought that it might be easier to be a Christian nontheist in another denomination, with a really clear story to be fictionalist about, than to be a specifically Quaker nontheist. The firmly Christian nontheist can say – and writers like Don Cupitt do say things like this – the Jesus story is just a story, but wow, what a story. (Of course, ‘Wow, what a story’ is also a reaction people might reasonably have when they do believe it happened like that, too.)

If that’s right, then we as Quakers might be able to use the Jesus story, or perhaps the wider Biblical story, in a new way, a way which reinvigorates our language for describing our processes and the spiritual experiences we have when using those processes, while reducing some of the difficulties we currently experience around using religious language and metaphors. Some people will still feel uncomfortable with making Jesus central to their spirituality, and I suggest we keep open possibilities for using other stories to explore the experience of meeting for worship for business (if it’s like Jesus hearing and following instructions from his father, then is it also like the community gathered at Sinai, like Arjuna in dialogue with Krishna, like a coven hearing a priestess reciting the Charge of the Goddess?). The story method, though, has two demands: firstly that we get to know these stories, and secondly that we discuss them openly and honestly with each other. Even if we end up not taking this approach, the side-effects – a better knowledge of the Bible and perhaps the stories of other faiths, and a better understanding of our other and how we think about our processes – seem unlikely to be damaging.

“Quakers Do What! Why?” – coming next year

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The cover of ‘Quakers Do What! Why?’ – as well as the title and my name, it has a picture of someone shrugging with a big question mark over her head.

I now have a publication date for my next Quaker Quicks book – 31st July 2020.

My previous entry in this series, Telling the Truth about God, has quite a narrow focus, looking at how Quakers try and say the unsayable by using techniques such as lists of apparent synonyms for God, the Divine, the Spirit, the Light, Love, the Universe, Energy, the Inner Buddha Nature… you get the idea.

My next one, Quakers Do What! Why?, is much more general. It uses a question-and-answer format to explain different aspects of Quaker practice in a light-hearted and accessible way. It covers questions like how Quakers worship, how Quakers make decisions, how people can be Quakers without believing in God, and why Quakers don’t use water baptism. I hope it will be useful for people who have just discovered or remembered Quakers and want to fill in some gaps, and maybe for people who’ve known a little bit about Quakers for a long time but have more questions.

I know this announcement is well ahead of the actual event – watch this space for more information as publication day gets closer, and in the meantime, feel free to ask me questions in the comments or on CuriousCat.

Ancient Orkney places: locations in Between Boat and Shore

One of the things I enjoyed about writing Between Boat and Shore was getting to imagine my way into a world which I had already almost visited. Many of the places described are real, and the others are based on buildings from the same period or reconstructions. Here’s a quick run-down with pictures and links for readers who might be interested (some minor spoilers but nothing major, so you should be safe to read this if you haven’t read/finished the book yet).

The island on which Trebbi lives is South Ronaldsay, and the nearest modern village is Burwick. Look round that Google map and you’ll find Liddel Loch, and just south of that, a small sheltered bay. Although sea levels have been fairly stable for the last 6000 years, there has been local change and I allowed a bit for erosion and gave myself some poetic license in the details of the shoreline. As far as I can tell there’s no evidence for a village on the site I described – but the people who built Banks Chambered Tomb, also known as the Tomb of the Otters, needed to live somewhere, so I invented Otter Village.

It seems that on at least some of the Orkney islands during the Neolithic, every community has its own tomb. On Rousay, so many of them survive that archaeologists have been able to guess where the boundaries between community areas might have been – in Hedges’ (very useful) book The Tomb of the Eagles he provides a possible map for this (p106). Studying an OS map of South Ronaldsay, I felt pretty close to drawing my own, each ‘slice’ of the island with a tomb, access to the sea, fresh water, and access to the higher land as well. (The small size of the island helps with working this out, but it also gave it an advantage for real neolithic people as well as authors – at just under 50 km², it’s too small to support a breeding community of large predators: even with plentiful food, that’s a home range for just one or two brown bears, i.e, not a breeding population.)

The tombs themselves are interesting. There are at least two distinct styles found on Orkney – some divided into chambers with upright stones, and others with chambers built into the walls. The Tomb of the Eagles is an example of the first kind, but the structure is easier to see in this picture of Midhowe tomb on Rousay.

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Below a white gantry and wooden walkway in the top and right of the picture, a stone structure has a green floor, very thick side walls with a stone facing and rubble core, and thin, upright ‘flagstones’ sticking out in the central space, where the floor is mainly green.

Maes Howe, probably the most famous of the Orkney neolithic tombs, is an example of the second kind with chambers built into the walls; so is the Tomb of the Otters, although (as you can see in the diagram on this page) much smaller. Ordinary people aren’t allowed to take pictures inside Maes Howe, so here’s a picture from Charles Tait’s professional photography website.

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The block walls of Maes Howe showing how the side chambers are built into the thick walls.

The houses in the novel are based on those at Barnhouse and Skara Brae, on the mainland of Orkney. In this picture, which I took at Skara Brae, you can see the dresser – Trebbi keeps her cooking pots on one of these – and the small stone-slab box on the floor, which may (as in the novel) have been used for keeping seafood alive until it was wanted.

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A Neolithic house at Skara Brea, similar to those I describe in Otter Village. The hearth in the centre of the house is on the lower left; there’s a large dresser and at the base of it a box which may have been filled with seawater and used to keep seafood alive; and on the right, a box bed. The sea is just visible at the top of the picture.

Also mentioned in the book are the stone circles, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness – plus a completely fictional location which is more like Seahenge, even though I know that’s later. Here’s a picture of mine showing the Stones of Stenness.

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(some of) the Stones of Stenness – three huge uprights with sharply angled, ‘scalpel like’ tops, on a grassy area, with water and distant hills behind.

And it’s the Ring of Brodgar which appears on the cover of the book itself, picture by E. James and the cover design by Fiona Pickles at Manifold Press.

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‘Between Boat and Shore’, a lesbian romance set in Neolithic Orkney, was published in 2019 by Manifold Press. It can be purchased from https://manifoldpress.co.uk/book/between-boat-and-shore/.

Paperback copies of Between Boat and Shore are now available – buy from Amazon (UK or US), or get in touch with me directly if you’d like a signed copy.