Tag Archives: Bible

Search terms: “rhiannon grant jesus”

What I love about this search term is that it’s suggestive, but ambiguous. What did the searcher actually want to know when they put “rhiannon grant jesus” into the search engine of their choice? They could have been implying that I am Jesus, but that seems unlikely. (Not impossible – the Quaker idea that Christ is within us all can come to something similar – but unlikely.) Perhaps they wanted to know about a course I’m teaching soon, with my colleague Mark Russ, called “Who is Jesus?” Or perhaps they wanted to know what I think of Jesus. What do I think of Jesus? That’s a simple question to pose and a complex one to answer.

Sometimes I think of Jesus as a character who appears in the Gospels and other stories in the New Testament. I think of him as a character when I’m thinking about things like how he compares to other characters – how he is like and unlike Adam or Moses, like and unlike Osiris or Odin. I also think about him as a character when I think about the symbolise of the actions he takes – about what performing a healing might mean as a metaphor, for example, rather than a story about physical health conditions. 

Sometimes I think about Jesus as a historical figure. I usually bounce of this pretty quickly, though, partly because I’m pessimistic about how much historical fact is included in the records we have, and partly because that’s not the question about Jesus which interests me most.

Sometimes I think about Jesus as an example which tells us something about a broader situation. I can think about Jesus and the stories about him as an example of the kinds of things the Spirit would do if the Spirit had a body. I think this is the closest I get to understanding what is meant by ‘incarnation’ and I might call this a view of Jesus as Christ – Jesus not as an individual but as part of a story about how God works, one particular version of a story which had happened before and continues to happen as the Spirit or Light of Christ speaks to people and supports us to act in God’s ways.

Sometimes I find Jesus profoundly annoying. Some versions of the story make him seem smug and know-it-all. Some of his followers hate my body and sexuality and are convinced Jesus would hate me too, which doesn’t make him seem friendly. Sometimes the Spirit asks me to do things I really do not want to do, and it can be tempting to blame that on Jesus. Sometimes he really is shown, in the stories we have, doing things which are either profoundly challenging (that is, doing things I should do but don’t want to) or profoundly disturbing (I don’t want to do that kind of thing and can’t understand why Christ would either). Of course, the story also says he got put to death by the Roman authorities, so perhaps this annoyance is a way into understanding the situation – and noticing what I cannot understand about his actions and why I sometimes find them baffling as well as annoying may be important to applying the lessons of this story to modern situations.

One way I don’t usually think about Jesus is as a saviour or redeemer. Those versions of the story are very important to some Christians, but I can’t make them fit with my other understandings of the world and God. 

Overall, thinking about Jesus always makes me think about what I don’t understand, both emotionally and intellectually. I have never experienced the personal closeness with some people feel with Jesus. I’ve had experiences I think are similar in some ways – a sense of the movement of the Spirit in my life, visions of and direct encounters with Brigid and Hecate and other goddesses – but the Jesus story doesn’t speak to me that way. Similarly, I’ve studied theology at various levels and although I can follow the philosophical moves well enough, the metaphysics around incarnation, redemption, and resurrection continue to feel weird to me. I’ve been reading up on Hebrews recently and one of the commentaries I looked at noted that the ideas often seem alien to modern readers. Perhaps they should: paradox and mystery are always part of the theological process.

Ethics and other people’s words: Quakers, ‘Living our Beliefs’, and appropriation

When is quoting from someone else a good thing – acknowledging your sources, learning from different people – and when is it problematic – risking stealing ideas or co-opting content without enough attention to its original context? In this post I want to consider a specific case which seems to me to raise a number of complex ethical questions about what is sometimes called cultural appropriation.

In 2016, a group of young British Quakers, supported by Graham Ralph, produced a volume called Living our Beliefs: An exploration of the faith and practice of Quakers. Overall, I think it’s a great project. Much of it is clear and well-written. It uses a wide range of engaging short extracts to present multiple perspectives alongside brief explanations in plainer language than often used in documents aimed at adults. It supplements and expands on Britain Yearly Meeting’s book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice. It’s well-produced with good quality paper, printing and design. It’s potentially really useful for the Quaker community, and the way it was created and the fact that it exists are signs that we are taking the contributions of young Quakers seriously. All good.

I have also heard it praised because, unlike Quaker faith & practice, it includes extracts which are not by Quakers. I’m very much in favour of learning from other people. But I think reprinting their words in a book which aims to explain Quakerism potentially goes beyond learning from other people – there’s a sense in which it involves making their words part of our own tradition, and as I said at the start of the post, this raises complex ethical questions. If we are going to include material from outside the Quaker tradition, we need to think carefully about what that is and whether we have the right to use it. (I mean here the moral right – the legal issues, about copyright etc., are separate.)

I think there will be cases where something written by someone who was not Quaker is genuinely part of our tradition. For example, although Quaker faith & practice‘s general policy is only to include quotes by Quakers, there are a few exceptions. One major one is Biblical quotations. The authors of the Bible were not Quakers, and couldn’t have been – although early Quakers sometimes argued that they were returning to the position of the early Church, as much as creating something new, Quakerism just didn’t exist as such until the seventeenth century. But it came into being with (English translations of) the Bible at its core, and the Bible remains a significant part of Quaker tradition. Quoting from the letters of Paul, for example, seems more like acknowledging our roots and showing the sources of our ideas than like taking something from another tradition. I’m not sure, though, that most of the cases in Living our Beliefs are like this. 

To consider this in more detail, I went through the whole book and looked at the authorship of the quoted passages. I identified 34 passages in Living our Beliefs which are, as far as I can tell, written by non-Quaker authors.

Three notes about my process for this: 1) I made a complete list of these passages in the course of preparing this post, but don’t discuss every single one of them here – if you want the details, comment or email me and I can share the list. 2) Some modern authors could have a Quaker affiliation which isn’t reflected in their public internet presence. 3) It’s possible that not all those individuals quoted anonymously as “participant in” a Quaker event identify as Quakers, but under the suggestion I made about thinking about Quaker belonging in terms of participating in religion-games, participating in a Quaker event seems like a reasonable level of participation in the Quaker community and I therefore count those as Quaker sources. 

Of the 34 passages which appear to be have been written by people who are not Quakers, I identified some broad groups. 

There are quotes from the Christian or broader European tradition, which although not Quaker in origin do not involve a power imbalance between quoted and quoter. For example, there’s a quote from the Gospel of Matthew (p21), which is in the same position as Biblical quotes in Quaker faith & practice, discussed above. John Donne (p72), William Shakespeare (p28), and William Wordsworth (p75) are all staples of the ‘dead white men’ canon – and that might be a reason not to use them (boring, done before, reinforcing power structures which value those voices above others), but might also make them seem like reasonable sources to include (they, their communities and their reputations aren’t going to suffer from their words being used by Quakers). Closer to the edge but still in this category might be Elvis Presley (p28), although we might want to note the issues around musical appropriation, and Aristotle (p74), who although not Christian is still widely read as a foundational author in the philosophical canon, influential in many European and Islamic cultures. I also think that public documents, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (p55), are in this kind of situation – it’s more like the Quaker community are endorsing than stealing a statement intended to be widely (indeed, universally) applicable.

There are also quotes from named individuals who were not Quakers and may or may not have been sympathetic towards Quakers. For example, on page 13 there’s a quote from Moses Shongo, who is described as “a Seneca elder, 1800s”. I haven’t been able to find the original source for this quote – Google searches for it only turn up recent Quaker contexts – but I did find out a little more about Moses Shongo. He was opposed to white colonial settlement, but fought in the British army during the revolution. Given his complex relationship with the British, would he want to appear in a book produced by British Quakers? On what grounds do we take his words and print them in a work of our own? We undoubtedly have things to learn from his perspective, but does a quotation given without his life story and context enable us to do that in the most rewarding way?

There are two quotes from Gandhi, or allegedly from Gandhi (p22, 28). This is a complex one – Gandhi knew about Quakers, was friends with Quakers, and visited Woodbrooke. On the one hand, this makes it easy for Quakers to feel a friendship with him, and there was some form of relationship. On the other hand, Gandhi didn’t become a Quaker despite being well aware of the option, and he was definitely against British colonial action. In reprinting his words, where is the line between learning from him and bringing him into a community which he did not join?

One of these passages also raises another issue about the accuracy of citations, because “Be the change you want to see in the world”, didn’t originate with Gandhi in this form. This is a complex case but we should perhaps be crediting Arleen Lorrance instead.

There are a number of quotations which are attributed to groups rather than individuals. For example, on page 23 there’s something cited as a “Sufi teaching”, but I have been unable to find out where it’s really from. It’s cited in several places online as a Sufi saying, and something similar appears in a song by Matthew West – but it’s cited in Christian and Jewish contexts, not Sufi ones, so it may be that it is attributed to but not actually from the Sufi community. That being so, I have doubts about whether in this case we are succeeding in learning from the Sufi community (with which, it has been suggested, Quakers have much in common). 

Also in this category, there’s a “Kikuyu Proverb” on page 55, a quote from “Ubuntu philosophy” on page 72, and a “Cherokee legend” on page 34. Quoting something so general, rather than a named person, seems dehumanising when almost everything else is attributed to an individual. Is there a writer from that culture whose specific expression of this idea could be cited? For example, Nelson Mandela is cited by name (p56) as is Kenyan activist Wangaria Maathai (p56), so could Desmond Tutu, whose ‘ubuntu theology’ did much to popularise ubuntu ideas outside South Africa, be quoted directly on this idea? 

That said, cited individuals directly is not a complete cure for the problems of appropriation and misuse. The pattern of quotation of black leaders by white people who take words out of context, choose extracts which appear to support the status quo, or behave as if quoting a black leader is enough to end racism, has been written about by others in relation to Martin Luther King Jr (who is cited on pages 35 and 41). British Quakers are not an entirely white community, but at the moment we are a majority white community, and because we are proudly pacifist we may be especially prone to taking out of context quotes which support nonviolence and ignoring the parts of someone’s larger body of work which reflect on the difficulties of the struggle and the injustices faced by oppressed communities. King could be one example – Gandhi and Mandela, mentioned above, are also open to mistreatment in this way. 

I could go on. It’s not clear to me, for example, whether the quotations from Buddha (p27) and Confucius (p48) follow one of the patterns above, or form a distinct pattern of the use of other religious writings – which might include the “Sufi teaching”, if it is in fact Sufi in origin, and perhaps also a quote from Joseph Bracket (p48), who was a Shaker rather than a Quaker. However, I feel like I’ve raised more than enough complex questions for one blog post! 

Having considered these examples, what can we say about the book as a whole, and what implications does this have for future projects? I don’t want to hold any individuals blame-worthy here – a project like this is a vast undertaking, and the kind of detailed cross-checking and referencing-hunting which I have chosen to engage in for a few cases where I already suspected there might be problems is a huge amount of work. (This blog post has taken me perhaps eight or ten hours, and these are among my professional skills – and you might think it unfair to subject a work mainly by young people and produced by and for a faith community to the same standards of checking which are required for a PhD thesis.) However, the various specific problems raised by the examples discussed above are worth understanding and taking forward into future projects. They include issues of attribution, of generalisation over some populations and not others (there are such things as European proverbs, but they don’t appear, or perhaps don’t get cited in that way, in this collection), and the problems of different power relationships and often power imbalances between colonisers and colonised or differently racialised communities

As in Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment we are currently revising our book of discipline, and I think we need to give careful attention to these questions, especially as we consider big issues like whether to include quotations only from Quakers, or from a wider range of authors. How do we provide appropriate context to help people understand what is being quoted and why, and the different relationships between the sources and the context in which their words appear? How do we express respect and admiration, and acknowledge the people we have learned from, without ignoring the complexities of the situations involved or crossing the often contested boundary between accepting gifts and taking without consent? 

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.

Qui-Gon Jinn, most Quakerly Jedi?

I’ve been saying for years that I think Qui-Gon Jinn, as well as being the most important character in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and probably the most likeable character in the prequel trilogy, is the most Quakerly Jedi in the Star Wars universe. I’ve just read Claudia Gray’s new novel, Master & Apprentice, and I think it proves me right.

Before I go any further, let me clarify the limitations of my claim. I’m not arguing that the Jedi are Quakers, or that Qui-Gon Jinn is a Quaker. Jediism, both as a fictional faith and a real one, has both significant commonalities and differences with Quakerism: Jedi and Quakers both like being calm and aware of their connectedness with the world; fictional Jedi often use violence while Quakers usually reject it; real Jedi usually adopt that faith as adults, like most Quakers today; Quakers have at least a historical connection to Christianity and often a role for Jesus in their spirituality, while Jedi don’t (counter-arguments involving members of the Skywalker family on a postcard, please); and there are more nuanced cases – in some other post perhaps I’ll compare the minister/elder system used by the Valiant Sixty with the master/apprentice structure.

The Jedi are not Quakers. Some of the Jedi are deeply unQuakerly – and not just the ones who become Sith, but also those who accept the status quo, use violence before other methods, and support their political leaders in immoral courses of action.

That said, there are general similarities between some aspects of the Jedi way and some parts of the modern Quaker way, and in Claudia Gray’s novel Qui-Gon Jinn becomes a spokesperson for them. I’ve picked out three short passages which will illustrate what I mean. There are minor spoilers in what follows, so if that’ll bother you, go and read it first. (It is worth reading: it’s an excellent example of what Star Wars extended universe writing does well with a great mix of mission-focused plot and character exploration).

In the first passage which caught my attention, Qui-Gon Jinn is talking to Rael Averross, a fellow Jedi (and fellow student of Dooku’s, cue ominous music). Rael has gone a bit off the rails before and during a long stay on the distant planet Pijal, and seems to be going further. Here (p124), he and Qui-Gon discuss the Jedi code.

It had been a long time since Rael Averross felt the need to justify himself to anyone on Pijal, but as he walked Qui-Goon to the door, he found himself saying, “You know, there’ve always been a few Jedi – let’s be honest, more than a few – who see celibacy as an ideal, not a rule.”

“I’m coming to believe that we must all interpret the Code for ourselves,” Qui-Gon said, “or it ceases to be a living pact and becomes nothing but a prison cell.” Which sounded nice and all, but was a long way from letting Averross off the hook.

Point one is another difference: Quakers have had different codes of sexual ethics over time, but have never embraced celibacy as a path for the majority, let alone something enforced! Point two, though, is a similarity about the relationship expressed here between the rule, the Jedi Code, and the way it is lived out. Rael suggests a difference between an ideal (presumably a good idea but not a realistic one) and a rule. Qui-Gon suggests that what matters is not so much the rule itself or the way the Jedi act, but the relationship between people and Code.

What’s Quaker about that? Well, it could be compared both to a traditional Quaker approach to the Bible, and to the relationship Quakers have with their own tradition. The first of these could be illustrated with an old but still much quoted passage from first-generation Quaker Margaret Fell, who became a Quaker when she realised that she and her existing church had not made the Bible into a ‘living pact’: “we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves” (link to longer quote with context). As a movement, Quakers have acknowledged the need for each generation to make the tradition its own. This is sometimes explicit, as in these words from Young Friends in 1926: “each generation of young Friends by its experiments must discover for itself the truths on which the Society is built if it is to use those truths and to continue and enlarge the work of the Society”. Sometimes it’s built into the practice, as in the ongoing process of revising the very book from which those quotations are taken. Like the Jedi Code which Qui-Gon follows, it contains rules – but it is meant to represent a “living pact” not a “prison cell”.

The next passage is from much later on in the story (p217). Qui-Gon has had a vision of the future, and has decided that although he will act on it, he won’t share it with his superiors, the Jedi Council.

Qui-Gon had not yet shared his vision with the Council, nor did he intend to. They would spend all their time bickering about the viability of the hyperspace corridor. They were too bound to Coruscant. Too bound to the chancellor. Too far from the living Force.

They were no longer the sort of Jedi who could trust in a pure vision.

It shocked him that he was that Jedi. That he could still find it in him to believe so profoundly, so unshakably, in pure mysticism. Qui-Gon had so often felt out of step with the Order as a whole, but never to this degree.

He had also never felt this close to the Force.

There are more differences here, of course. Although I know some Quakers who study and interpret dreams or Tarot cards, having visions of the future isn’t part of Quaker tradition generally. However, I think Quakers could easily come down on either side of the hyperspace corridor debate (it has political elements familiar from closer to home: questions about economic justice, access to transport, political representation, slavery, and the power of large corporations are all involved). And there is a deeply Quakerly element in Qui-Gon’s rejection of authority in favour of trusting his own connection to the Divine. For him that Divine is the Force, and it might be known as God or Spirit in traditional Quaker understandings – but Quakers use many, many words to talk about God and some of them are remarkably similar. I’ve heard terms like Energy, Universe, and even the Force used in workshops! However they understand it, Quakers seek to contact the Divine directly, not needing any particular person or practice to mediate their knowledge of the Divine. They can use a group process but also listen for leadings from the Divine – much as Qui-Gon does in this passage.

My final passage also comes from a discussion between Rael and Qui-Gon. (Another similarity with Quakers? Jedi in this book seem to discuss their beliefs mainly with each other, and mainly when they disagree, never explaining to non-Jedi characters!) Rael starts by putting a case that if the light and dark, good and evil, sides of the Force should be in balance, their actions are irrelevant (p259):

“…the darkness would be just as strong as the light. So it doesn’t matter what we do, because in the end, hey, it’s a tie! It doesn’t matter which side we choose.”

… “It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch – it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.

One point here is that the language of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ is very popular with Quakers, even though it can be racist – and I think the Star Wars use, where light and dark map directly to good and evil, is also problematic in that way.

If we replaced ‘light’ with ‘good’, here, though, there would still be another similarity to Quakers: something which might be called idealism or working from principles rather than pragmatism. In a piece of research which involved interviewing Quakers about social justice work, I found they often mentioned the way in which a long-term, ideals-focused approach won respect from other campaigners. These campaigns are not run in order to win (although, as described in that link, there have been successes along the way). Rather, campaigns against war and for equality are based on a Quaker faith in the importance of doing what is good and what God asks.

Would Qui-Gon Jinn be accepted for membership if he applied to a British Quaker area meeting today? I’m not sure – at the very least, there would have to be a serious conversation about lightsabers and maybe a chat about gambling. But based on the evidence I’ve gathered in this post, I think that theologically he might fit right in.

Reading the Psalms in Meeting for Worship

In conversation with a f/Friend yesterday, I happened to recall a curious episode in my life as a Quaker which I don’t think I’ve written about before. Enough time has now passed for me to think of this as a finished pattern – what I’m about to describe took place roughly between three and four years ago. I haven’t entirely stopped reading Biblical passages in Meeting for Worship occasionally (I was led to read a section of the Sermon on the Mount a few weeks ago, with a few comments about why), but it feels like a more normal part of a mixed pattern of different kinds of spoken ministry, including many meetings when I don’t speak, times when I speak entirely from personal experience, and reading from Quaker faith & practice

For a while, though, I felt strongly and repeatedly (I’d guess this happened perhaps four times over the course of several months) led to read whole psalms in Meeting for Worship. I read them plain, without commentary or even giving the Biblical reference. I read them as well as I could within the skills I have – for example, I have a loud voice, and I tend to speak clearly and expressively, even dramatically. I didn’t always read the whole Psalm, but I usually did. I sometimes changed a pronoun, so that I alternated between masculine and feminine words for God, but I don’t remember changing any other words (although of course I could have mis-spoken or something). Some of the Psalms I was led to read were challenging, especially ones which use violent language not usually heard in Quaker meetings.

I would say I tested the leadings fairly thoroughly. I tend to be more confident about being led to read from Qf&p or the Bible than about being led to speak in my own words – texts have the advantages of being tested already, by time and other people, and it’s harder to go wrong. (Not impossible; I remember being relatively new to a meeting, reading from Qf&p in worship, and being told afterwards that it ‘would have sounded different to people who’d been in the meeting for a long time’; I never did really work out why.) I think I was more hesitant the second time it happened – I remember someone commenting on one of these occasions that she knew I was struggling with whether to speak or not because I kept picking up the Bible, looking at it, putting it down again on the seat next to me with the page open, waiting a while, and picking it up again. By the third time the calling was clearer and I was quicker to obey. And maybe that was the point, or some other message got through, because it didn’t happen much more.

It got mixed reactions. Often people asked me afterwards which Psalm it was, which I was able to tell them at the time although I can’t remember now. Some of them wished I’d announced that before reading – which I sort of did, too, because it would have felt much safer and more comfortable. It also wasn’t what I was being asked to do. Some noticed the style in which I read (one person described it as ‘fire and brimstone preaching’ style, which might have been an exaggeration for comic effect). Some in the meeting were, I think, discomforted by the language of enemies and war which is native to some Psalms; as I read, I was typically discovering meanings which related more the the metaphorical Lamb’s War than an outward war – but of course texts have many meanings, and I was not guided to share those interpretations in ministry (although I did discuss some of them in conversations after meeting). One effect of giving this ministry for me – not, I’m sure the main one, but worth noting – was that tea-and-coffee times which were sometimes filled with awkward questions about my job search and un/employment situation were changed into much more fulfilling conversations which included theology.

Writing this, I am imagining some Friends worrying about whether it is right of me to frame so much of this in the Quaker passive (‘I was led to…’ – I did it, someone else is to blame, and readers are expected to infer the elided deity). Should I take more responsibility for my actions? For example, if someone had been deeply upset by the words I read, should I own that as the consequences of my choice, rather than claiming that it was God’s choice and I was only an agent? I’m willing to take some responsibility because I did choose to follow my Guide: I don’t have the experience that I have to speak, only that I should and am led to do so. I trust God to give me words which are needed and which those present can cope with, even if it’s difficult. And perhaps that’s why I don’t want to accept the full responsibility. If I’m not picking up something from my co-creators of the meeting for worship, from Goddess and everyone else present, how can I have faith that such apparently random utterances are helpful?


 

Writing this, I’m also aware that I’ve been thinking more about how I shape the narratives of my spiritual life recently because I’m preparing to run a course on it. There are still places to come and talk about Spiritual Blogging with me and Gil Skidmore, 7th-9th May, if you’re interested.

Aros: to stay, to wait – and an introduction to this year’s blog project

Dw i’n aros yn Llanuwchllyn. 

Roedd hi’n aros a’r bws.

I’m a big fan of getting two jobs done at once – killing two birds with one stone, as the non-vegan non-pacifist proverb has it. So when I was thinking about my goals for 2018, I looked for ways to put more than one together. ‘Go back to working on family history’ and ‘do more creative writing’ added together very neatly when I found a course called Writing Your Roots. Another two items on my list are ‘write blog posts regularly’ and ‘keep learning Welsh’: so I’ve added them together, and my plan is to write alphabetical blog posts as I’ve done before, but this time, using Welsh words. It won’t fit quite as neatly into the year because Welsh has some extra letters, but I’m sure I’ll work it out somehow. 🙂

I did think about blogging entirely in Welsh, but it would be too much of a stretch for a) my language skills and b) my readership! As it is, I hope it’ll prove interesting for you and educational for me. If nothing else, it’ll give me plenty of chances to fail better. (Ac os dych chi’n siarad Cymraeg, cywiro fy gramadeg, os gwelwch yn dda!)

The word I’ve chosen to start with is ‘aros‘. As you can see from that dictionary link, it has a wide variety of meanings. It was the first Welsh word I learned ‘in the wild’ – by having a conversation in Welsh and being told a new word, rather than from a teaching source like an app or a learner’s text. In that case, I was looking for the word to describe ‘staying’, as in a holiday cottage. Dw i’n aros yn Llanuwchllyn, I am staying in Llanuwchllyn, not to be confused – as I did in that conversation – with Dw i’n byw yn Llanuwchllyn, I live in Llanuwchllyn.

Among other things, though, it can also mean ‘to wait’, as in my second example sentence: Roedd hi’n aros a’r bws, she was waiting for the bus. Thinking around this – trying to find the connections which help me commit this sort of thing to memory – I was reminded of two Taize chants which I often get mixed up: Wait for the Lord and Stay Here with Me. The latter is based on the command Jesus gives outside the garden of Gethsemane: stay here and keep watch. Imagine how pleased I was to turn to my Welsh Bible and be able to find the verb there as well, now in the command form: arhoswch yma, a gwyliwch.

My mind thrives on connections like these – I’ve never been good at learning lists, because I always want to know how things are related to one another. Hopefully I’ll be able to find many more in the rest of 2018.

Happy new year and thanks for reading – blwydden newydd dda a diolch am ddarllen!

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.

S is for Spirit

Spirit is a word Quakers use a lot – but it also has a lot of non-Quaker uses. Here are some examples:

  • “When the Spirit moves you to speak, remember to stand.”
  • “She’s a spirited child.”
  • “The Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove.”
  • “Beers, wines and spirits sold here.”
  • “The Light might also be called God, the Spirit, the Tao, etc.”
  • “The sculpture captures the spirit of the place.”

Quaker use is a long way from “beers, wines, and spirits”, and perhaps most closely related to “the Holy Spirit” – and yet Quakers do not, as a group, have the kind of clear Trinitarian picture of God which helps to make sense of the Holy Spirit (if sense can be made of the mystery of the Trinity!) in some other contexts. The term ‘holy’ has usually been dropped, to make it just ‘the Spirit’ – although the capitalisation is usually kept, partly as part of a general trend to capitalise most if not all of the ‘terms for God or whatever you call it’, and partly, I think, to maintain the distinction between the Quaker and secular uses of ‘spirit’.

What is the Spirit? In some Christian theology, the Holy Spirit is one person of the Trinity, where God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ, are the other two persons. Older use among Quaker did retain ‘Holy Spirit’, although not in every case. Modern Quakers, furthermore, are often happy to include ‘the Spirit’ in a list along with ‘Christ’ and ‘God’ or to talk about the Spirit of Christ or the Spirit of God – for example, “this Spirit, or Light, or God” (Janet Scott, accepted by the community by inclusion in Quaker faith and practice), and Advices and Queries 2 refers to ‘the spirit of Christ’. The Spirit is often spoken of as something one can be in, or can follow: a meeting might be “held in the Spirit“, or be “in loving dependence upon the spirit of God“.

The Spirit is often described as something that an individual or meeting might follow, and as a source of guidance. This puts the concept of the Spirit at the heart of a number of other key Quaker ideas. Thus, a true concern is a leading of God’s Spirit, and testimonies are the formalisation of shared leadings of the Spirit.

One aspect of this way of speaking which bothers some Friends is that the Spirit is described as an external force or thing. Some, of course, do think of the Spirit, and indeed of God, as external to themselves and the world. Others find this unacceptable – because not true to their experience, impossible to comprehend, or unscientific. With this in mind, I have often heard Friends connecting the Spirit to another common Quaker phrase, ‘that of God in everyone’. That key word here is ‘in’ – the phrase produces a picture in which God is internal, not just to the world but to each person in it.

Very occasionally, Friends connect back to the Biblical roots of the idea of the Holy Spirit: for those from a Christian background the key text is usually the story of Pentecost, although phrases like “the Spirit of God” are also found throughout the Hebrew Bible (more in some translations than in others). Overall, though, the concept of ‘the Spirit’ is a general one, more defined by the Spirit’s actions in the Quaker community than by older stories or abstract theology. The Spirit guides, leads, and is followed.

Book review: Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, Sarah Ruden

Paul is, as Sarah Ruden rightly points out, a misunderstood, misinterpreted, and widely disliked author – and one who is generally regarded as, at least, down on women, sex, and fun. Ruden does a good job of arguing that much of this is misunderstanding, brought on chiefly by a complete lack of contact between people who study the Bible in Greek and people who study other Greek texts written at around the same time. Ruden, having started out as a Classicist reading material from the polytheistic Greeks and Romans, is in a good position to bridge this gap by bringing her knowledge of the classical languages and cultures to bear on Paul’s writings.

In fact, in this slim volume that’s most of what she does. It’s often effective, sometimes shocking, and often challenges accepted views of the Greek world as well as common views of Paul. For example, she challenges the view of the Greek world as a “gay idyll”, arguing that reading Plato but not other texts, less philosophical and perhaps closer to reality, has given a misleading picture (p58). On the one hand, I’m a bit sad to see this picture torn down, because a picture of a society in which sexuality is viewed very differently is a useful one in all kinds of ways. On the other hand, my feminism survived the destruction of the myth of a matriarchal past, and these pictures can be useful even when known to be fictional.

In quoting extensively from classical texts and trying to offer a more accurate picture of what Paul was saying, Ruden uses blunt and modern translations which do not shy away from sexually and other explicit language – which is, I’m sure, to the benefit of the translation. It’s easy to see why people might not want to read this in church – but also easy to see an argument that this is because some of them have a mistaken, overly prettified, view of what is acceptable in church. I found her section on Galatians 5, one of the rare cases in which she takes on the King James Version directly, especially interesting. She offers transliterations of the Greek words in cases where no suitable translation is available, and goes to some lengths to point out how far from that worldview we are now. (She attributes much of the change to Paul – and I’m sure he had a big influence, although I can think of some other possible candidates as well.)

One drawback I found in Ruden’s writing style was a tendency to make her point, and offer her evidence – and then move on to the next point, without wrapping up neatly and restating the conclusion. Sometimes this worked well, and at other times I found myself going back to the beginning of a section to read it again and understand properly how this evidence support that point. However, I didn’t find points which weren’t supported by anything at all – and many of the points she makes suggest that readings of Paul should change a long way from those currently accepted in the traditions of Biblical interpretation (mostly ‘ordinary’ or folkloric) which I encounter most often.

I didn’t come away from the book as converted to Paul-following as Ruden obviously is. (I think that would be difficult to achieve anyway.) I still find writing attributed to Paul, and some probably genuinely by Paul, used as ‘clobber passages’ or turning out to be ‘texts of terror’. However, Ruden is doing her bit to change misinterpretations, and filling out Paul’s context with suitable Greek and Roman material is obviously a helpful step in that direction.

D is for Divine

I spent a while trying to work out which letter to put this under. G. S. D. L. W. In my recent academic work I’ve talked a lot about the ‘or whatever you call it’ style of talking about God (or the Light, or the Spirit, or… you get the idea). I’ve written about this both here and for other sites before; recently I used it as an example of disagreement success. I think it’s fair enough, though, to ask: what actually is this it which we might name in many ways?

Well, I’m not even sure that it is an it in the sense of being an object, for example. I sometimes get the feeling that we are lumping more than one thing together under the same label: Stasa wrote a post after one of my workshops in which she explored the possibility that this is the case. I also think it’s possible that the Divine is multiple at one level and single at another level, maybe even multiple in different ways at different levels or from different perspectives. I absolutely would not want to say that one of those levels was ‘better’ or ‘more enlightened’ than another – do you know Douglas Hoffstadter’s analogy about the ant hill? (It’s about minds, not God, but never mind that for now.) The levels from the single ant to the whole system are all real, and all worth studying, and none of them can be called ‘wrong’.

As a Quaker, I do have a personal position on what the Divine is like. Some of it is actually about what I know God isn’t like: along with Giles Fraser, I don’t believe in the God Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in. I don’t believe in the omni-this, omni-that Deity whom we might call the God of the philosophers. I find some religious stories helpful, and others not so much; my reasoning mind revolts at miracles and I have to work quite hard to see the narrative power of them. That said, some of the stories I do find helpful come either from the Pagan traditions or from the Bible. After many years of thinking about language in this context, I’m quite relaxed about it – it’s hard to shock me with a new word or bore me with an old word, partly because in both cases I’m less interested in the word itself than the ways in which it is used. I do believe – in fact I’d say that I know from experience – that there is some kind of Divine will with which a person or a group can be aligned (or not aligned). This is the ‘will of God’ which Quakers seek in Meeting for Worship for Business; it’s always a bit provisional, it’s ‘what we who are here should do now’, rather than a command to others or for all time. I believe, but I don’t know, that if we do faithfully what we are asked to do we will be taking tiny steps, one after another, towards the Kingdom of Heaven (or the Divine Commonwealth, or the realisation of our true natures, if you prefer).

I also think that our experiences of the Divine – whatever They might really be like – are heavily influenced by our imaginations, our bodies, our world, and our societies. I know that my experience of the Goddess Brigid is very shaped by the reading of Pagan books which I did as a teenager, that my experience of God’s will is very shaped by my participation in the Quaker community and Quaker practice, and that my choice to label some of my experience ‘religious’ (but not ‘Christian’) is very shaped by my encounters with those terms in all sorts of, sometimes irrelevant, contexts. I assume that, whether they like it or not, this is broadly true for other people and act accordingly, trying to understand what the influences are in a particular case before trying to tease out where our understandings might agree or disagree.