Quaker faith & practice chapter 25 is short chapter, at only 15 passages. I’ve read it a couple of times before – but always to find out ‘what Quakers say about’, and not for personal inspiration. Reading it now, a few questions occur to me.
What do I make of this language about ‘creation’? I don’t have the strong ‘nope! wrong!’ reaction to the term ‘creation’ which I know some people have, but I do see that talking about ‘creation’ implies a ‘creator’ – and although that can be a God/dess whose creative energy flows alongside that of the material universe (or even is the creative energy of the material universe; panentheist, pantheist, pannontheist anybody?), there is little discussion of creation among Quakers and so the standard use of the term tends to be set by seven-day creationists. I think that very few Quakers in Britain today think the world was created in seven days. Some have ways of interpreting the story to make it true in a mythological way, capturing some essence about the way people are – such as the fear of chaos. More probably rare think about it, or don’t consider it relevant to their religious lives. (I don’t have any evidence for this, so please feel free to comment with your thoughts. I wouldn’t like to assume that understandings of the term ‘creation’ mapped neatly onto approaches to ‘God’, but obviously they might be related – how?)
What did Quakers think about these issues between 1772 and 1957? There’s only one early Quaker passage in this chapter – William Penn writing in 1669 – and two from John Woolman in 1772. All the rest are twentieth century. Did those great Quaker industrialists never write about right use of resources? Perhaps they didn’t, or perhaps we disagree with them, or perhaps I am not alone in being ignorant about their ideas.
What would we say now? The passages also stop in 1994, when the chapter was composed. In the last twenty years, scientific knowledge, public opinion, and Quaker understandings of sustainability have all shifted considerably. The 2011 Canterbury Commitment is a landmark in that change, but a lot else has happened as well. Becoming a low-carbon, sustainable community has for some Quakers, myself including, become a significant part of our testimony to the action of God in our lives – or, if I can slip between different patterns of use of the word ‘testimony’, a Sustainability or Earthcare Testimony has been added to many people’s ideas about what it means to be a Quaker today.
My own leading to witness in this area wavers, and helpful suggestions often butt up against the limits of my financial and emotional capacity. I have just written and deleted a paragraph here in which I defended my inability to do X, Y, and Z, which would all lower my carbon footprint but are not feasible at the moment. I recognise the leap to defense from the other side as well – it’s the leap people make when I say ‘I mainly eat vegan’ and they say ‘oh, I could never be vegan because…’. Only months before I moved from vegetarian to vegan, I was saying exactly the same things. I think that at the time I said them, they were true. I certainly believe people who say them to me now. My experience was of a shift – a gift of grace from the Goddess – which enabled me to see that this was a change which I could make.
It was also important to me to see that this change was worthwhile even if it wasn’t complete. When what love requires is a paneer korma, I seek to enjoy it for what it is – and look for a vegan option again at my next meal. (And again this position might sound defensive: sometimes it really does feel like letting go of guilt, and other times I suspect it’s just a suppression of guilt as I fail to face my own failures.)
How does a commitment to caring for the environment connect to other aspects of Quaker testimony? Chapter 25 makes some of these connections – to simplicity, to economics, to peace – but I sense some other areas which could be explored. How do environmental concerns connect to our changing ways of working, especially our exploration of ways of using technology well? How does sustainability connect to our way of worship, especially if I am right that our understanding of ‘creation’ is now somewhat vague? (I’m glad to see my friend and colleague Stuart Masters engaging with other modern Christian thinkers around these issues.) Can traditional Quaker insights about the possibility of transformation in this life, turning away from sinful things when we have worn them as long as we can, and the need to stick close to our Guide help us to get through those tangles of defensiveness, guilt, desire to change and the fear of change which so often knot us up in inaction on issues around sustainability?