Rhiannon, why are you offering workshops and why are they called ‘Or Whatever You Call It’? What’s this all about? Does it have something to do with your PhD?
Yes, it does relate to my PhD – it’s a way of presenting my research. What’s that research all about, you ask?
Well, when I was quite young I remember asking what people do during Meeting for Worship. Someone told me that adults “think about God” in Meeting. At the time I was puzzled by this. God seemed too big to think about, and the things people offered in vocal ministry didn’t seem to be the result of an ordinary, logical thinking-things-through process, and when adults actually spoke about God, they used lots of different words: the Light, the Spirit, Christ.
As an adult, I have tried to retain this sense of puzzlement and questioning. I heard myself as well as others talking about “God, or the Light, or the Inner Buddha Nature, or Sophia, or whatever you call it…” I wondered what I was on about. I wondered what they were on about. I wondered why this way of talking had become so widely accepted among Quakers – some other people do it, but some people give you funny looks. (I think it’s that. Sometimes people give you funny looks for just mentioning God, so it might be that as well.)
When I sat down to pick a research project, a big three-year something that I could really get into, knowing that it had to be a question which already interested me but which not many other people were talking about, I remembered this question and began to look for examples of this way of speaking in the Quaker literature. The first big discovery I made was that there’s a lot of Quaker literature. Do you know how much British Quakers have published in the last ten years, let alone the last fifty? If you do, let me know, because I don’t and I’ve been hunting it out specifically for some time now. Even when you narrow it down to material which deals directly with religious language and experience, there’s a lot. Interestingly, what I haven’t found is anything which reflects explicitly and at length on how Quakers today talk about God – lots of authors get on and talk about God, often with a disclaimer that says you can use another word if you prefer, and some authors try and encourage people to speak their own truth about religious experience, but reflection on language itself is thin on the ground, even as people acknowledge that it has powerful emotional effects and that words have different connotations in different contexts.
The second thing I realised was that in order to make sense of it, I was going to need a non-Quaker framework through which to view it. I have stayed Quaker throughout, and I draw on my inside knowledge of Quakerism and Quaker ways of living and speaking in order to explain them in the course of my thesis, but I also ask lots of questions about the Quaker way of doing things and try to see where and why it has arisen. To help me with this, I draw on the philosophy of Wittgenstein, the theologies of George Lindbeck and John Hick, and sociological work about multiple religious belonging. Overall I find that we need to attend to the context and the form of what someone says about well as its content. Asking ‘what do you mean by God?’ may not be as useful as looking to see when and how the word ‘God’ is used.
I’m in the process of writing up my thesis now, having done the bulk of the research, and I’ve been lucky enough to be offered some money from both the Gerald Hodgett Award and the University of Leeds Postgraduate Impact Fellowship to share what I’ve been working on with other Quakers. I’ve decided to do this by offering day workshops which explore the issues – sharing rather than lecturing, in a context of worship rather than debate – and hopefully leave us understanding ourselves better.
If you and others in your meeting are interested in these questions – what do we call that which we worship? if we are invited to translate the word ‘God’ into our terms, which terms do we choose and why? which words are comfortable, which do we include in a list of options, and why do we feel the need to offer a list in the first place? – please visit Or Whatever You Call It to find out more about booking a workshop.