Is it irresponsible to claim that spoken ministry comes from God?

At the Nontheist Friends Network conference, in the questions and discussion after my talk, a friend asked about my approach to ministry. Most of the question was about how we understand ministry in meeting for worship, but along the way he raised a very interesting point – he said (and I paraphrase here, but hope that his point is clear and made in terms he would accept) that he wouldn’t want to claim that his spoken ministry came from anywhere but himself, because so much damage is done in the world by other people who claim that their instructions come from God.

He contrasted this, correctly, with some statements I made in a recent Friends Quarterly article about afterwords and spoken ministry. (No link, sorry; it’s a publication which has yet to reach the internet age.) In exploring the difference between what should be said in afterwords and what should be offered as ministry during worship, I draw a distinction which I think is well-founded in previous Quaker writing, namely between what is inspired by God and given through us, and what comes entirely from us. My questioner at the conference doesn’t think that there is any God external to the world from which such things could come, and in my response in the moment I answered that aspect of the question by suggesting that we may be able to locate God within the community, in such a way that the collective awareness of the people met for worship together hear ‘that of God within them’ into speech. No supernatural; perhaps nothing transcendent, depending how far up/out/down you want that term to go; but a bit more here than us chickens, if you will.

There are other possible answers, but for this post I want to set aside the question about God and focus on the question about the claim I make when I give ministry.

I hope we can agree that giving spoken ministry during Quaker worship is different, socially and experientially, to other forms of public speaking. Even prepared ministry isn’t the same as giving a presentation or making an announcement. It feels different: people talk about being led to speak, finding themselves on their feet, their hands shaking. For me, a pounding heart is usually the first clue, together with a few phrases or a sentence which I keep returning to, which present themselves as needing to be said whether or not I have fully understood them and connected them to what else is going on. It’s also socially different. There are different rules (from the structural, like not speaking twice, to the content, like restrictions on political material) and the reception is different. That goes beyond ‘nobody claps’ to a sense that what is said is weighed and taken seriously.

There’s a connection here to previous conversations on this blog and around Facebook about judging ministry. If we’re taking it all that seriously, of course we want to discuss and judge it and have the best quality ministry we can have – something we often express in terms of wanting it to come from God and be supported, rather than overriden, by the minister’s personal input. What if that’s a terrible mistake? What if, by accepting and using that distinction, we are reinforcing a pattern of social acceptance for anything which is claimed to come from God, even where it runs against our morals? I take this to be the core of my questioner’s worry here.

Firstly, there’s the matter of truth and truth-telling. If I experience my ministry as given by God/dess, I should say so, even if I then need to go on to explain more about what I think that means. That’s truth-telling on my side. Then there’s truth-telling on the other side: who are all these people, out there in the world, claiming to have messages from God, and are they telling the truth about that? Well, it seems reasonable to think that some may be lying. But while I’m prepared to make the claim myself, it seems unfair to say that everyone else, or everyone who’s not a Quaker, or everyone I disagree with, is lying. (Atheists might say: you are all lying. Please allow me to assure you that I may be mistaken, but I do believe what I’m saying! I might be mistaken – fair enough, but I think my evidence, my experience, is enough to run with this hypothesis for now.)

So: I need to say that my ministry comes from God. I need to believe that at least some other people, probably including some I disagree with, are also telling the truth about their experience of this. I had abandoned this blog post around this point, stuck to resolve this, until I heard some ministry which suggested to me a third category of ministry – ministry which acknowledges God but does not come straightforwardly from God. This third kind of ministry of spoken prayer.

In the kind of ministry I was thinking about when, some time ago now, I began writing this post, the minister does not speak to God, and rarely speaks about God. Rather, the minister speaks prophetically, for God or in God’s voice – or, more modestly and more commonly, in the minister’s own voice but sharing something which God has revealed, from God through us. More “and I experienced a great feeling of love” than “God says, She loves you.” (Examples fictional but I hope plausible.) Taking God out of this kind of ministry leaves us with the puzzle outlined above, in which it’s not clear why these things are worth saying, or can’t just be said in a chat over tea, if they don’t have the authority of revelation behind them.

In spoken prayer, though, the minister does not share what God has revealed to them, but rather reveals their own understanding of God’s nature by speaking to God: the words and ideas of the prayer come from us. This is much more like my nontheist friend’s idea of ministry – except that it addresses directly a God whom my friend would take to be a metaphor or useful story. It points, however, to a way in which my initial picture of ministry was too narrow – things which are not from God can still be God-involving ministry, in a Quaker tradition which predates the word nontheist if not the concept. Spoken prayer is uncommon now in British Quakers meetings, but perhaps it can enjoy a revival of sorts if it provides a theological model for the inclusion of nontheist understandings of ministry.

Where would this move leave the question of responsibility? I and my nontheist friend retain equal responsibilities to the truth, to name as best we can the sources of our words. Both of us, and the minister who offers spoken prayer, have a responsibility to our Quaker tradition to speak faithfully as we are led – accepting that we are led by we know not what! The minister who, as I sometimes do, speaks as much on God’s behalf as my own, has a responsibility to acknowledge that other people get apparently contradictory messages from the same source. Beyond that acknowledgement, perhaps I also have a responsibility to engage seriously and positively with the implications of that conflict: to try, for example, to bring other evidence of the holy source of my words. (There’s a whole other post about the fruits of the Spirit in there – especially if I think I can point to them as well or better in the life of my nontheist friend than my own!) The form of spoken prayer, though, points to a way I might engage with that responsibility: by bringing my needs, questions, and struggles before God and the community – or God-within-community if you will – for testing and support or challenge. In that way, I am no longer a lone voice crying in the wilderness, with a message which may be from anywhere, but part of a group who pool their measures of Inward Light, their wisdom and experience, and access to whatever is more or less metaphorically Divine, and can claim to know what God wants us to do.

Finally, note ‘us’. I have observed that in my own experience, my Goddess does not tell me what other people should do, but how I and my community should behave. Although sometimes frustrating, perhaps this is a blessing in the form of a limitation of responsibility for true prophetic calls.

9 responses to “Is it irresponsible to claim that spoken ministry comes from God?

  1. Interesting food for thought. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I can’t help my mind spending some time on the question of the validity of “coming from God” to a nontheist. Of course, we’re a diverse bunch, us nontheist Quakers, as to what it is that we (hopefully) make contact with in worship. I’m what you might call an agnostic atheist – I’m fairly resolute in my belief that there is no theistic God/god/gods (masculine or feminine), but I do not feel able to say much about the characteristics of what-you-will than that. The image I am most comfortable with is that the Divine is something in us and of us, but that it interconnects with the Divine in others, especially when we actively ask it to in worship. Thus it is to some extent transcendent, but not “other”.

    Getting back, then, to the actual subject of your piece (rather than its preamble), which I now can because my personal terms of reference are clear, on whether ministry comes “from God”. Clearly, from my perspective, everything comes from us. But the distinction between ministry, along with prophetic callings, concerns, etc, is that it comes from that divine, interconnected part of us. If one were to insist on considering in terms of the Freudian model of the psyche, I would say that the Divine – or, if you prefer “that of God” – is a fourth component, separate from the id, ego, and super-ego. It is separate from the intellect and reason, and also separate from our emotional selves, and separate from our base desires. Yet it is also connected to, and – if we allow it to be – present in each of them.

    True ministry – and it is so hard to judge what is true ministry from others (usually), but we can challenge ourselves on that – comes from, or with the assistance of, that divine, interconnected part of ourselves. It will also make use of other aspects of our being, but that is what marks true ministry. That is what I always ask myself before I stand in worship, including business, and before I set pen to paper (or, more often, fingers to keyboard) in written ministry.

  2. I like the image given us by Paul of Tarsus, interpreted by CH Dodd: in prayer, the God within us speaks to the God beyond us. Romans 8.26,27

  3. Thank you for these stimulating reflections, which also remind me of the Jewish tradition of arguing, complaining and bargaining with God. These perhaps widen the connotations of the idea of ‘prayer’ to include all the ways that a person or a community might wrestle in ministry with the inner meaning and divine purpose of their experiences.

  4. As the Friend at the Nontheist Friends Network conference you refer to in your opening paragraph, Rhiannon, thank you for inviting me back into the conversation.

    Of course I recognise that Quaker ministry is different in flavour and content from “afterwords” and from the many ways in which we communicate outside the particular discipline of what we call “meeting for worship”. You neatly summarise the differences, adding that the way we offer ministry is “not supernatural, perhaps nothing transcendent”. Music to my ears! OK, you add “but a bit more here than us chickens” – but more than us humans? Where, how and what can “more” mean in this context?

    You write “I need to say my ministry comes from God”. I need to say that mine comes from my human experience, frail, fallible, and (for good or ill) entirely my responsibility. I dare not make the claim that God speaks through me or that I speak “on God’s behalf”. And I’m afraid it troubles me that others – priests, born-again Christians and traditional Quakers among them – feel able to assert such a claim with equanimity.

    Where it becomes most dangerous is when those who “need to say my ministry comes from God” are prepared to say to those who do not see things that way “Well perhaps you should not offer ministry”. Your reflections on this blog, and much of your writing elsewhere, suggest a more open and inclusive view. But that is what you told me in open session at the NFN conference. Maybe, within this continuing conversation, you could clarify the point?

    • Thanks for continuing the conversation, David. I have responses now to some of your points, and will need to let others lie for later consideration.

      I think it’s important to acknowledge that in offering what you kindly call “a more open and inclusive view”, I am trying to avoid a conclusion which, on the bare premises, looks inescapable. If I may be permitted the philosophical crudity of a syllogism, I think the argument goes something like:
      Premise 1: True ministry comes from God.
      Premise 2: David says his ministry is not from God.
      Conclusion: David’s ministry is not true ministry.
      That’s a problem for the whole community if we are interested in the quality of ministry given during worship. If I don’t acknowledge that this is the logical conclusion of the position I’m apparently putting forward, I look like I’m ignoring something deeply obvious – and it was this obvious implication which I decided to bite the bullet and name when you posed this problem to me at the conference, before attempting more nuanced answer.

      In order to get out of the conclusion, I have to change one or both of the premises. One option would be to claim that your ministry actually is from God and you’re just mistaken, but that feels deeply disrespectful of you and your experience. Another would be to claim that no ministry comes from God. I don’t like that choice because it leaves me unable to explain my own experience, unable to explain how ministry is different from other speech (I’d be pleased to hear more about what you think the difference is), and it feels disrespectful to a Quaker tradition which has previously included God-language. I think a third, and more fruitful way, is to make our understanding of what God is and how ministry arises more nuanced, until such a point that we can agree that your true ministry and mine comes from the same place – and I hope this blog post is a contribution to a continuing development of such an understanding. (I also note Sam’s helpful comment, above, which seems to be moving in this direction as well.) In the meantime, I think the community benefits most if we both going on giving the best ministry we can and wrestling, as Craig suggests, with the implications.

      I can’t speak for priests or born-again Christians, but if I am a relatively traditional Quaker in this sense, I want to say that I don’t make this claim with any sense of equanimity! As a philosopher, perhaps I’m fairly relaxed about making and defending bizarre claims, but in general, I say that my ministry comes from God with the same feeling that I have when I am given ministry to share: fear and trembling. I’m not convinced that this should make the claim any less troubling to you (perhaps it depends where you see the danger of it), but I think that emotions are just as important as logic in this discussion and want to express mine clearly.

      • Thanks, Rhiannon, for this gentle reply. Yes, “a more fruitful way is to make our understanding of what God is and how ministry arises more nuanced.” Maybe we can both find a Friendly and fruitful way of doing just that – even if we still find our nuanced ways of being true to our felt experience still leaves us with different ways of being Quaker.

  5. You say in your June 27 posting you’d be pleased to hear in what ways I think ministry is different from afterwords and general communication. I can’t do better than cite your own description in your earlier posting (June 18), But I don’t think that ministry, as you and I may agree to describe it, is divinely initiated. I see it as a particular cultural phenomenon, slowly matured by three and a half centuries of communal Quaker “worship” (Yes, another word we could usefully interrogate!). We sit together in silence, allow ourselves some time to let our individual egos fade and our sense of togetherness come to the fore, then listen or speak as compelled, consciously following a set of rules that we ourselves have made, reflecting the shared experience of our community.

    So back to the question of where our ministry comes from. I read recently something novelist Hilary Mantel wrote about what happens when she’s in full writing flow: “I have no idea what I’ve written till I read it back”. It’s a common experience among creative writers, artists and musicians, who find they can’t easily articulate the source of their inspiration. In a Guardian article (November 28 2016) Ian Jack reflected on the origins of the international peace symbol created by an old friend of mine Gerald Holtom for the first Aldermaston march in 1958. Jack dismissed various speculations (including Gerald’s own) as “after the fact and too literal”, suggesting that “drawings, like sentences, can come out of an unknowable elsewhere”.

    An “unknowable elsewhere” seems less than almighty God, and more than just little me. But the symbol was Gerald Holtom’s creation, and Wolf Hall was Hilary Mantel’s responsibility. I’ll accept that my ministry may come from an “unknowable elsewhere” but it is my responsibility. And yours, I believe, is yours.

    • Thanks for this helpful extension to our conversation. I can work with the idea of an ‘unknowable elsewhere’ and recognise the experience of writing something and not knowing where it has come from (although I also sometimes find writing to be like dragging every word kicking and screaming out of a thorn bush!). However, I’m not sure about the analogy between spoken ministry in Meeting for Worship and novels like Wolf Hall. I’ve heard that Wolf Hall is a good book, but I’ve felt no pull to read it and I don’t think there’s any particular reason why I should. When someone gives ministry during a meeting I’m in, in contrast, I do think I have a responsibility to listen and try and hear it properly – I might say that it has an authority which goes beyond the respect I have for the individual speaker. Similarly, if I give ministry I expect people to listen to it and take it seriously, and I account for that otherwise unreasonable demand by saying that it comes from something beyond me, which I call Goddess. That doesn’t mean that I don’t bear any responsibility for it (if I outrun my Guide, if I speak inappropriately, people will, I hope, tell me, and I’ll take responsibility for that mistake), but it does mean that I don’t hold all the responsibility. In particular, if there’s something useful in it, I don’t try to take the credit for that. In cases where I do hold all the responsibility, I don’t expect people to give my words the same authority – I’m writing a book at the moment but I don’t expect anyone to read it, let alone try and live by it!

  6. Pingback: Discussion by Rhiannon Grant, David Boulton and others on Ministry etc. | Non-theist Friends Network

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.