Tag Archives: Academic

Study leave progress

I’m coming to the end of a six-week block of study leave – I have twelve to take throughout 2019, and I took three weeks in March and will take three more in October, so this is a significant part of the whole. I’ve been working on my next book for the Brill Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series – the last one was British Quakers and Religious Language, a middle stage between my PhD thesis and my Quaker Quicks book, Telling the Truth about God. This one is currently called Theology from Listening: an overview of liberal Quaker theology in the long twentieth┬ácentury. It looks at Quaker documents which have embedded theology – a selection of books of discipline and books of faith and practice, samples of material by individuals and small groups, and work by Quakers with academic training in theology – to form an impression of the core theology of liberal Quakers.

The main argument of the book is that there is such a thing – Quakers do have theology, and while it might not be systemic, it’s clearly recognisable and fairly consistent – and that although it changed through the twentieth century (I use the phrase ‘long twentieth century’ because liberal Quakerism started a little before 1900 and I’m including some examples from after 2000), the changes were slow and did not affect all the core claims. Yes, I include nontheism in that assessment. And evangelical or Christocentric movements within liberal Quakerism – my definition of liberal Yearly Meetings is a broad one, based on history and practice rather than theology. That both prevents my argument from being circular (if I assessed the theological content of material I’d only chosen for specific theological features, I wouldn’t show anything at all except that I can read), and means that my stock of source material includes items which make a lot of liberal Quakers raise their eyebrows and ask whether that’s really liberal. Well, yes, and if I can include it and still show that there are core theological ideas shared between all this material, I’m really saying something.

No, I’m not going to share with you what those core theological ideas actually are! Mainly not yet, because I’m still writing and I might change my mind or want to rephrase some of them. And a little bit because I have to sell books. ­čÖé (I do know almost nobody can afford Brill books, and have already put in a proposal to Christian Alternative to write a Quaker Quicks book based on this material – even if they accept and I get on as fast as possible, it won’t have a publication date before 2021, though.)

What I do want to talk about in the process I’m using in writing. The method I’m adopting needs to give a very wide sweep – liberal Quakerism is a broad movement, historically, geographically, and in terms of material: liberal Quakers love to write books and magazine articles and journals and blogs and make videos and podcasts and all kinds of stuff. It also needs to give context to examples, so that the changes over time and between different cultural contexts can be tracked, and pay close attention to what might apparently be small variations. And when I talk about those small variations, it’s not enough to describe them, I need to give evidence of them. So what I’m doing is taking examples – lots of them, it feels like, but actually only a very small percentage of the possible examples – and working them through in detail, with context and a close reading of the parts which seem to me to be most significant. That’s the part which makes me most anxious. Although I think carefully about what’s significant, try to explain why, and give full references so a reader can look it up for themself and see they agree, basically most readers just have to trust me that I’m choosing the parts which are important to focus my discussion.

The advantage of this method once I get into it is that it does give both depth, via the detailed work on examples, and breadth, via a series of comparisons which I can build as I work through a series of examples in a chapter. It wouldn’t work for every topic, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for others, but it does provide good evidence for the kind of argument I’m trying to construct. It lets me look in detail at a specific writer and their theological ideas within the context in which they’re working – so, for example, today I’ve been writing about Rufus Jones and his book Social Law in the Spiritual World. I can take the time to tell the reader a bit about Jones and to describe the overall argument he is making in his book – I’m not just dropping in a quotation to support some wider point and hoping that the reader knows who is he and what he thinks, risking something being misunderstood because it was too far out of its original context – before digging into some of the specific things he says and comparing them with the work of other, later liberal Quaker writers. If you do know who Jones is, it won’t be a surprise that many of the ideas which appear in later liberal Quaker writers are also in Jones, since he was one of the most influential early liberal Quaker writers. But by dealing just with the one book, and not trying to include all of his writing or compare him in detail with many contemporaries, I’m able to look at his specific claims and how he puts himself into the broader picture by referencing psychologists and other scholars active at the time.

I also enjoy it. I like the business of writing anyway – research and reading, taking notes, shaping material into arguments, looking for the thread which will structure my book, and then actually writing it – and I’ve been having a good time on my study leave. I’m going to miss it when I go back into the office on Monday, and I’ll have to give myself a firm pep-talk about how I also enjoy teaching, working with colleagues, having meetings, and all that stuff!

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When do the rules of writing matter?

“All teachers are English teachers.” This phrase was, as I remember it, one of many irritating things said to my father by his managers during his career as a secondary school science teacher. As I understood it as a teenager, it was used to justify asked him to mark not just the scientific content of homework, but also to comment on the spelling and grammar of every answer.

I thought of it today because I was peer-reviewing a journal article, and had just finished reading and annotating a draft PhD thesis, and was thinking about jokes I might make on Twitter about what Quakers might put in our new Book of Discipline. Generally, this is an area in which I am very lucky – the patterns of speech and writing which are characteristic of my background are also regarded as very close to ‘standard English’, at least in Britain. If I just write whatever occurs to me, most people will regard me as ‘correct’ (and my girlfriend will tease me about sending what she regards as overly-correct text messages). I also enjoy writing, and I think about it and practise a lot, all of which helps me to improve. Even so, there are some mistakes I still can’t avoid making, or things I can’t be sure about – practice or practise? I’d have to look it up. Again.

Knowing that, I aim to be open to other people’s writing styles, and to get the right one for the situation. Blogging is not Twitter is not messenger is not a journal article is not a conference paper and so on, and txt spk is just a form of communication, not a harbinger of the death of the English language. I aim not to form excessively negative (or positive!) judgements about people just because of the way they write. I still find that it leaves an impression, though – when I found an apostrophe (confession: I needed spell-check for the word ‘apostrophe’… but) when I found one in a non-standard place in the first line of an article, it did make me wonder about the rest. I don’t┬áthink it affected my final opinion on the whole piece – but then I would think that, wouldn’t I? Maybe it did. I’d certainly encourage the author to ‘correct’ it before publication.

Another confession: blog posts are a genre of writing in which I often set out without knowing where I’m going to end up. This post could end with a recommendation – make sure you are communicating in a clear and contextually appropriate way, kids! But it could end with questions – which rules should apply where? is someone about to remind me about their rules against starting sentences with ‘but’ or in favour of capitalisation after a question mark, even mid-sentence? is it time for academia, and perhaps other places, to be less picky about issues (like the grocer’s apostrophe) which don’t affect communication? if groups want to be more inclusive (like the Quakers and the new book), should we accept, or even actively seek out, things which are written in less-traditional styles?

I like questions. Let’s go with that.

Afterwords: a labyrinth of ideas

I’m now at the stage in my research where I’ve read the survey data, everything else about afterwords I can find, and begun to look at related things – other patterns of change in the way Meeting for Worship is held, for example, and writing about worship and vocal ministry generally. It’s difficult to summarise where I’m at because I feel like I’m walking around in a maze: I decide to turn left, only to walk for ten minutes and find myself back at a point I passed half an hour ago. That being so, I thought I’d offer you, not a coherent account of anything, but sketches of some of the places where I’ve tied some string. If you recognise any of these spots, do let me know.

Afterwords isn’t the only thing about Meeting for Worship which has changed over the past century. Two examples of other changes which have interested me are the shift from just a pair of Elders shaking hands to everyone shaking hands, and the introduction of social time after meeting. Both of these changes must have come in slowly – there are reports of Friends who held out against them, and there remains some variety in the practices – but both could be related to one of the key purposes given for afterwords, namely community building. Shaking hands with each other gives a point of formal greeting between the end of worship – the Elders shaking hands – and the notices. For some meetings, afterword appears in this slot and is reported to help people get to know one another. Adding refreshments and thereby encouraging people to stay for social time, the classic tea and coffee, also gives people more time in the meeting house to get to know one another and encourages informal conversation. Again, for some meetings, afterwords can extend this process, giving an extra space for more or less formal sharing before or alongside the social time.

The way we talk about afterwords can reveal our ideas about other things, especially our views of Meeting for Worship. For example, lots of people told me in the survey that they thought that spoken contributions sometimes got misplaced one way or the other: either that things which weren’t really ‘true ministry’ got said during Meeting for Worship, where they didn’t belong, or that things which were ‘true ministry’ got said during afterwords, when they would have been better said in worship. At the very simple level, this reveals that the people answering my survey have a picture of the differences between ‘true ministry’ and ‘nearly ministry’ and ‘not ministry’ which goes beyond whether something is said in worship, afterwords, or elsewhere. At a more complex level, as people begin to describe these differences, they are revealing their ideas about true ministry and where it comes from – in others words, their theology.

Afterwords is part of a wider picture of the end of Meeting for Worship, and what people want is a smooth transition into the next thing. What that smooth transition actually looks like is another matter, but descriptions of problematic processes – the introduction of an unwanted afterword, or a lack of afterword before a disliked notices – tend to stress suddenness or a bump or jolt in ‘coming up from the depths’ of worship. On the other hand, when people like a process, they describe it in terms of an easy, smooth, unjolted transition – whether that’s from worship into social time without being bumped into a too-heady wordy space by afterwords, or from worship into afterwords with space to reflect on the experience of Meeting without being forced to make social chit-chat too soon. This doesn’t solve the problem of whether you should have afterwords, but it points towards some of the right questions to ask about why people like it or don’t.

V is for Vacillating

Vacillating is one of my favourite words and also describes how I have been with the topic of this post. There are plenty of good words beginning with V – vision, violence, vocation, etc. – but I haven’t felt quite strongly enough about any of them to actually put words to pixels.

This probably hasn’t been helped by working two jobs, nearly at opposite ends of the country, and only stopping in between for other bits of voluntary and occasional paid work. I enjoy it all but sometimes I wish it was closer to home!

V, then, is also for Vacation – in this case, a brief break from blogging, although I hope to write something about Quaker faith & practice┬áChapter 23 soon.

U is for Use

In Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, the idea of use of very important: he says that for most of the ways in which we use the word “meaning”, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Philosophical Investigations section 43). How are we to understand this claim? His examples, both explicit and embedded in his method, suggest that when we are looking at a speciic word or phrase and asking ourselves “what does this mean?” we need to turn, not to a dictionary or a definition provided by a single person, but to the ways in which fluent speakers of the language actually use the term. This might include ourselves, and Wittgenstein sometimes invites us to think about the ways in which we ourselves would use a term. Because natural language is complex and multilayered, these patterns of use usually turn out to be complex and multilayered, and a single word can have a variety of uses – and, hence, meanings.

(For example, think about the word ‘mouse’. What are the ways in which you use this word? “I saw a mouse in the kitchen.” “Do you remember that red rollerball mouse that came with our first computr?” Sometimes it won’t be instantly clear whether we’re talking about a rodent or a digital input device, but it will almost always become clear if we take into account the whole context of what is being said. This points us back to the importance of context, discussed in a previous post.)

“Meaning is use” is, in a way, very clear, and some scholars are opposed to extending or explaining it too much. However, it doesn’t, unfortunately, fit in with a very common use of the word “meaning”, which often conjures a picture of something like a halo around a word or something above and behind it which gives force to it. To get over this, I often start non-academic discussions by asking people how they think a word gets its meaning (most actually arrive at a Wittgensteinian view without a lot of effort, talking about learning from others and community agreement – this saves a lot of time if we don’t need to debunk ideas about stating definitions first!). Meaning consists in regular and comunally agreed uses. Mistaken uses are possible, but can become part of the meaning if repeated; a mistaken use can eventually become accepted, at which point it is no longer mistaken (“10 items or less”).

I also extend the analysis of use beyond words and phrases to look at structures within language – lists are my big example, but we could also look at the use of nouns and verbs, or metaphors, in much the same way. The question here is always: how does this community use this structure? The community – the context within which the linguistic structure is being used – is always as important to this analysis as the use itself. Meaning is use, which is always within a context.

T is for the╔Ölogy

This, for completely terrible reasons, is one of my favourite technical terms – I think everyone has a soft spot for a word they’ve invented, whether or not it turns out to be as useful as imagined at the moment of invention. The term the╔Ölogy is intended to solve a difficulty about what to write when wanting to consider a wide range of worldviews – too broad to be contained within the term theology, or at least potentially so, but wanting to relate to the tradition of doing theology as a discipline.

Feminist theologians have sometimes referred to their work as being ‘thealogy’, talking about a feminine divine. Non-believers who engage in this kind of thought sometimes use the term ‘atheology’ for their process. Within the Quaker community about which I often write, there are a wide range of views – Christian (and Jewish and Muslim and some other) views clearly coming under the tradition of term ‘theology’; feminist, Pagan, and other views which might be represented by ‘thealogy’; and humanist, Buddhist, fictionalist, and other views which could be described as ‘atheologies’. ┬áIt would be possible to write ‘a/thea/ology’ or ‘(a)the(a/o)logy’ to roll all these possibilities into one word – but it’s very clunky.

Instead, I chose to use the schwa vowel, represented by the upside-down e (╔Ö), to stand for an ‘err’ sound. (Linguists cringing about stressed and unstressed syllables, sorry.) The idea is that this roles all the questions – doubt about the gender of the divine, doubt about the existence of the divine, and so forth – into the one word, while still allowing us to talk about people having opinions, views, and feelings about these issues in a succinct way.

In particular, I wanted to be able to talk about things – usually things people say or write – as ‘multi-the╔Ölogy’, containing multiple and perhaps conflicting ideas about the Divine. I don’t, as it turns out, use this term as much as I thought I might, but I still have a soft spot for it.

T is for Truth

At a recent workshop, someone challenged me for using the word ‘truth’ differently in describing two different positions. I was comparing the two, so although these might sometimes constitute different contexts, they’d come very close together on this occasion – and it’s a fair point. The word ‘truth’ does have a lot of different uses.

The truth. The Truth. My truth. Your truth. Objective truth. Emotional truth. Telling the truth. The Quaker Truth Testimony.

In particular, we can recognise a complex category of things which are true but not true: stories which contain truth without being true stories. In explaining this concept, we’ve got the concept of truth as emotional or mythical truth (in the sense that novels and plays can be described as ‘truthful’ even when they are completely fictional), and also the concept of true as fact, the way the world actually is, which is the opposite of fiction.

My workshop was looking at possible religious understandings of the world. We were considering a possible position which we might call pluralist, in which many different religions exist in the world but none of them are completely right or completely wrong – they all contain some element of truth, of pointing to the way things really are. For want of a better term, let’s say that this is a position in which all religions have some measure of Truth.

I contrasted that with a position which we might call fictionalist, in which many different religions exist in the world and none of them are completely right or completely wrong – they all tell stories which don’t contain facts or what might be regarded as ‘scientific’ truth, but which do contain emotional, psychological, or otherwise mythical truths. Again lacking a better term, this is a position in which all religions have some measure of ‘truth’.

I hope from these outlines that it’s clear both why these positions are closely related – they make a number of very similar claims and might lead people to behave in very similar ways – but also that they are different and that it will be useful to distinguish them. Both positions are concerned with the truth of religion: one claiming that religions do, or can, point to Reality or Truth, and the other claiming that religions contain truth of the kind also found in fiction. In speaking about these things, it’s easy to slip between the two uses of the word truth – especially because the kind of Truth spoken of by the pluralist position isn’t necessarily objective or factual truth, of the kind which might be verified by scientific investigation of some kind. (And if objective truth exists at all without the colouring of the subjective position of the people who generated the knowledge… a debate for another day.)

I also run into this problem when people ask for my opinion of something like the Bible. Is it true? Well, some bits of it might be historically true, but I’ve got doubts about a lot of it. Is it truthful? Well, it contains a lot of stories which are full of emotional truth and recognisable situations. Is it True? God knows.