Tag Archives: Christianity

Five Reasons Quakers Can Celebrate Christmas

In Quaker faith & practice, passage 27.42 says:

A… testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ‘times and seasons’. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

This is a testimony which seems to be dying of neglect. Many Friends, involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas; in some meetings, Easter and its meaning is neglected, not only at the calendar time but throughout the year. What I would hope for is neither that we let the testimony die, nor that we keep it mechanically. I hope for a rediscovery of its truth, that we should remember and celebrate the work of God in us and for us whenever God by the Spirit calls us to this remembrance and this joy.

Janet Scott, 1994

With all due respect to my friend and sometime co-tutor Janet Scott, I want to put forward some reasons why we should not just let this testimony go, but actively get rid of it. I think we will do better at keeping what Janet describes as its truth – will do better at remembering and celebrating the work of God whenever the Spirit calls us to do so – if we set aside some times to do so consciously, not mechanically but regularly. puts on ‘devil’s advocate for God’ hat

1. We already do.

Meetings hold Christmas celebrations. They have special meals, sing carols, and let the kids do a play. They cancel study groups and committee meetings, and expect that people will spend time with their families. This year, December 25th falls on a Sunday, so this will be invisible – but when it doesn’t, meetings all over Britain hold special Christmas Meetings for Worship. Fewer meetings – but some – also hold extra Meetings for Worship on Good Friday (some serve hot cross buns as well). I once challenged this and was told that it was because people were free on the bank holiday, and indeed Yearly Meeting uses the May bank holidays for some two years of its three yearly cycle, but it’s very rare for local meetings to use other bank holidays, and not on anything like the same regular basis. There’s no special end of August Meeting for Worship, so there’s something about Christmas and Easter. If we are to be honest, we need to stop pretending that we don’t celebrate these festivals.

2. We’re Christians.

Okay, some of us aren’t. I’m not, actually – from time to time I think I might be starting to get on not-so-badly with this Jesus guy, and then I meet some Christian Christians, you know the type, the sort who think I’m doing it wrong if I agree with Jesus rather than singing slightly erotic songs about him, or who think I’ll go to hell for dating women, or who are sure that if I’d really read the New Testament I’d be going to their church. And when that happens, I decide that I’ll stay not-quite-a-Christian, thank you very much. As a Quaker, though, I am a member of a Christian church, and I shouldn’t be allowed to hide from that. Even stronger: I should be routinely offered the chance to engage with all that is helpful and enriching and spiritually fulfilling in Christianity in case I want to take the plunge and open up the maybe-I’m-Christian-even-if-I’m-not-one-of-those-Christians space. Celebrating Christmas is a chance for us to do that.

3. Christmas – and Easter – hold key theological messages.

“In some meetings,” Janet wrote in 1994, “Easter and its meaning is neglected.” Although I do know a few meetings where it is celebrated, the theological meanings of Easter – the Good News about the Resurrection, for example – aren’t the sort of thing we hear about very often in a typical Quaker meeting. Although Christmas is a bigger feature, how many Friends actually contemplate the implications of God being born in a human body, rather than enjoying a few good tunes and a mince pie? If we opened up and said, yes, we are going to celebrate these things, we could look more directly at how we celebrate them and whether we are getting the most spiritual benefit from the process. In time, this might extend beyond Christmas and Easter to Pentecost and other stories which are embedded in the Christian liturgical calendar.

4. Seasonal cycles support our commitment to sustainability.

When we regard nature as alien and winter weather as an obstacle, it’s much harder for us to buy into arguments about why we should save the planet. The seasons change all the time, but Christmas is a point at which it’s socially more acceptable to admire evergreen trees, reflect on the days starting to lengthen, and appreciate the beauty of snow. This can be a starting point for a process of connecting more deeply to the natural world – animals, plants, weather, and climate. The understanding we gain through that process can shore up our determination to make lifestyle changes and campaign for larger social changes in order to protect our environment.

5. It’s fun.

Which is sometimes enough reason all on its own.

This isn’t an argument for extra buying, extra plastic, or doing anything you don’t want to do. It is an argument for enjoying the process of giving a few well-chosen presents and spending time with people you love. It is an argument for sharing and discussing traditional stories, stories which can have a truth beyond the facts. It is an argument for thinking about how your Christmas celebrations can be simple, truthful, sustainable, peaceful. It is an argument for not apologising: if you’re going to put up decorations, sing carols, and eat with family, don’t feel you have to add “even though it’s not Quakerly”.We can use it as part of our Quaker path.

Forms of theological diversity

This month, while most people are buying presents, eating chocolate, and generally celebrating Christmas (more on that in my next post), I’m reading Chapter 27 of Quaker faith & practice, which is called ‘Unity and diversity’. There’s a good vague name if ever I heard one! Unity of what and diversity of what?

A quick browse through the chapter will reveal that the issue in question is theology – specifically, the relationship between Quakerism, Christianity, and other faiths. It doesn’t mention nontheism, which wasn’t a big issue for discussion in 1994, but if we re-wrote this chapter today I think we’d include nontheist perspectives here. I also think it would be helpful if we were able to map the territory of theological diversity in more detail.

In many settings, Quakers pose questions of theological diversity as a spectrum, or a series of spectrums. Are you more religious or more humanist? Are you more universalist or more Christian? Are you more nontheist or more God-believing? In order to form these kinds of questions, it’s sometimes necessary to invent a term. For example, many people have assumed that if someone isn’t a nontheist, they must be a theist – but the term theist isn’t one people use for themselves without that prompt, and it has connotations from its use in philosophy which Quakers don’t always accept. (The ‘three omnis’ – omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent – don’t appear in my list of aspects of God Quakers are likely to believe in.)

This also disguises all sorts of other differences. Suppose Person A thinks that God is an human construct but a useful metaphor for our experience of community and love, and Person B thinks that God is a term for a natural part of the human subconscious. Both might be called nontheists – they both reject the sorts of things nontheists typically reject, such as supernatural interventions and God as external to humanity – but they also have very different understandings of what actually is going on.  Similar differences are hidden by almost any label.

That isn’t to say that labels aren’t useful. When people claim labels for themselves, especially where it helps them to identify others with whom they have a lot in common and to articulate their understandings and experiences more accurately, labels are very helpful. What we need to do is avoid becoming stuck at the level of whatever label we’ve got – there’s more going on underneath and diversity within the group created by the label – and to make sure that labels aren’t used to polarise the community – ‘if you’re not an X, you must be a Y’, as if there were no other choices.

So, what forms of theological diversity do we have among Quakers in Britain at the moment? We have some people who clearly identify their Quaker practice as shaped by or united with insights and/or practices from another faith tradition: Buddhist Quakers, Druid Quakers, Quanglicans, etc. We have some people for whom silence says it all, and who do not feel the need to have any label beyond ‘Quaker’ (if that). We have some people who are deeply engaged with the treasures of the Christian tradition as expressed in Quakerism, and others who feel hurt by Christianity and want to avoid it, and others who think a little bit of Christianity is a good idea but wouldn’t want to spend too long on Bible study. We have some people who cannot accept certain aspects of traditional belief in God, and reject anything which sounds like the supernatural, creation ex nihilo, miracles, life after death, or similar. We have some people who cannot accept that Jesus was more important than anyone else, and people who find that the Christ event is the story at the heart of their faith (and people who would identify with both of those positions). We have some people who don’t know, and some people who think that any week in which they don’t change their mind is a boring week. None of these things are pairs of absolutes, this or that, and nor do they map neatly onto a spectrum from most to least.

We also have some people who are very worried about theological diversity, and some who are not the slightest bit bothered, and every possible attitude in between. Personally, I am fascinated by theology and hence by theological diversity, but – perhaps because I am so used to thinking about it – I’m also very relaxed about it. The ideas matter when they affect how we act, but a quick look around an average meeting will show that people with hugely divergent theological opinions can come together to participate in waiting and listening in Meeting for Worship. “Christianity is not a notion but a way” says Advices & Queries, and I agree. Quakerism isn’t something you agree with, but something you do.

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.

P is for Pluralism

There are lots of things to which one could take a pluralism approach. Some consist only in noting the fact of plurality, and others in asserting that plurality is good or necessary in some way. Even if we narrow our focus to religion, pluralism can focus on salvation (there are a plurality of ways to be saved) or on truth (either that there are a plurality of truths or that a plurality of religions have access to the truth). Although all these positions exist, ‘pluralism’ as a term in theology is most associated with the latter – and in Christian theology, one of the best known pluralists is John Hick.

Like anyone else, John Hick changed his mind over his lifetime, but in this context his later work is the more interesting. In books such as The Rainbow of Faiths  and God Has Many Names, he argues that since all religions have similar fruits (produce good and bad people at about the same rate), and all aim towards a realignment of the self from selfishness towards an ultimate reality, all are in some way offering different but complementary pictures of what Hick calls the Real. This is, of course, a simplified explanation of the position, but I hope that for the purposes of a blog post it captures both the key features which make it attractive and those which make it difficult for some to accept. On the one hand, it supports many liberal values, such as tolerance, sincere dialogue between religions, and the equality of all people. On the other hand, it requires letting go some key claims made by some religions, especially to have exclusive access to the truth. And it makes some claims which are just a bit puzzling – Hick is a realist about the Real and rejects naturalistic interpretations out of hand (what if what all religions have in common is a feature of the human brain?), and his talk about the Real as ineffable and as accessed equally by many religions is a bit confusing – can people access the Real directly or at all, or not?

In my research on British Quakers, I compared Hick’s pluralism to Quaker universalism (which assumes that they’re different, and that Quaker universalism is a single position – neither of which is quite true, but both were close enough to make the discussion worth having). One of the key differences I identified is their starting points – Hick begins from an observation about the fruits of religion in people’s lives, while Quakers talking about these issues usually take the presence of ‘that of God’ in everyone as a foundation. This difference at the beginning of the discussion doesn’t lead into huge differences in the conclusions – although there are some: Hick is still interested, for philosophical as well as theological reasons, in there being some form of afterlife, which Quakers today usually just don’t talk about. Both conclude that all religions (or at least all major religions – both Hick and the Quakers can think of some they would reject as having valuable insights because they seem to contain or lead to evil) have some truth and are worth studying. Both also conclude – in fact the Quakers often assume – that there is a single Reality, underlying or embedded throughout the world, which religions and religious people can genuinely experience and talk about. This Reality need not be personal, or external, or supernatural, but both Hick and most Quaker universalists think that it is Real and unified (if not singular – one argument says that it is neither single nor plural because number is not a relevant category).

F is for Fluency

One of the ideas I like to play with is an analogy, borrowed originally from George Lindbeck: religion as language. If a religion is like a language – if learning to speak Christian is like learning to speak English – all kinds of interesting possibilities appear about how we might understand religion. One of them is that knowing your religion really well, or being really competent in it, is like being fluent in a language.

Fluency has all kinds of aspects, as anyone who has ever tried to learn a language will know. (And I don’t really, although at various times I’ve tried quite hard – I’m terrible at languages.) There’s vocabulary. There’s grammar. There’s the surrounding culture – knowing when to speak at all, for example. There are the adjustments in vocabulary and grammar for different situations, and often different ways of looking at the world. If you speak a language which distinguishes between formal and informal pronouns, for example, you have build a mental filter which sorts situations with reference to which is appropriate.

Compare someone learning a new language to someone learning a new religion. Some people will be happy with a few words picked up for fun, or enough to get by as a tourist – going to a wedding in a tradition not your own might be an occasion when you need a little of another religion in this way, for example. Some will learn a language in detail without ever really using it; it’s possible, if unusual, to study the Bible and know Christianity well without ever participating in a Christian community. It’s more common to have some grounding in a religion and then change later on (in this analogy ‘atheist’ or ‘secular’ can also be thought of as a language). As I have discussed in a previous post about belonging, it’s also possible to belong to more than one religion at once – and the image of religion as a language gives us an obvious analogy for this, being bilingual, something which is not provided by many other ways of discussing religion.

It can give us insights into the ways in which religion changes and yet is preserved – this is the focus of Lindbeck’s use of the analogy. He thinks of a language in a Wittgensteinian model, seeing that meaning is use, and focuses on the community which preserves the language or the religion. Just as English can change over time and in response to new circumstances and inventions (consider, among others, ‘mouse’, ‘gay’, and, for a religiously themed example, ‘icon’), so Christianity can change. Just as in English, fluent speakers have an instinct for what is grammatical and what is new, even in new uses of words (a new verb is still a verb), fluent Christians will know what is an acceptable development and what is not. In fact, Lindbeck is worried that without enough fluent users, religion might change beyond recognition, just as a language dies without speakers. If we share that worry, it would be worth asking: how do we train people to be fluent in our religion, whether that’s Christianity or another tradition? Can the language analogy help us to find better ways of teaching religion, as well as helping us to understand it better?

E is for Eschatology

Eschatology – the question of what happens after the end (eschatos in Greek) – is one of those topics in theology which doesn’t really interest me. Even in the work of philosophers and theologians to whom I am generally sympathetic (John Hick comes to mind as an example), I find reference to eschatological issues, such as eschatological evidence, a rather weak move. I don’t know what will happen, and furthermore, I’m inclined to think that I can’t know. Speculating might be a fun half-hour once in a while, but I find it hard to take it seriously. Even talk of a realised eschatology, a Kingdom of Heaven here and now, doesn’t seem all that inspiring to me unless it comes with an account of how we would know. What symptoms does a realised eschatology produce? What difference does it make in the world?

That said, questions about eschatology can provide an interesting example – in his Lectures on Religious Belief, Wittgenstein used the example of belief in a Last Judgement as a key example in his exploration. At least, that’s the impression we get; the records of these lectures consist of edited notes taken by students during the sessions, so any claims about what Wittgenstein said in them should be taken with a pinch of salt. So: Wittgenstein is recorded as saying, early on in the lectures,

Suppose that someone believed in the Last Judgement, and I don’t, does this mean that I believe the opposite to him, just that there won’t be such a thing? I would say: “not at all, or not always.” (p53)

If you are asking yourself: what does that even mean? you are in good company. A lot of the literature devoted to this topic is trying to work out what this means. It seems from material later on in the lectures that Wittgenstein isn’t denying the possibility of the opposing position – believing that there will be no Last Judgement is perfectly possible – but rather trying to carve out another possible position, one in which the concept of a Last Judgement is irrelevant or incomprehensible (something stronger than merely not understood).

Why shouldn’t one form of life culminate in an utterance of belief in a Last Judgement? But I couldn’t either say “Yes” or “No” to that statement that there will be such a thing. Nor “Perhaps,” nor “I’m not sure.”

It is a statement which may not allow of any such answer. (p58)

Why is this? Interwoven with these claims in the lecture notes are comments about reason and the role of reason. In as much as there is an argument – Wittgenstein’s writing style, especially in later life, doesn’t go in much for traditional philosophical argument so much as lines of thought, and the fragmentary nature of lecture notes tends to increase these – the argument might be: a key mistake about religious beliefs, like those about the Last Judgement, is trying to make them subject to reason. They arise from the way people are and the way they live – their form of life – and not from thought or philosophy.

What we call believing in a Judgement Day or not believing in a Judgement Day – The expression of belief may play an absolutely minor role. … I haven’t got these thoughts or anything that hangs together with them. (p55)

If this is so, then I’m making a mistake in my opening paragraph when I talk about knowing or ask about evidence for the belief. Indeed, all those questions arise from trying to reason about this topic, and that’s the wrong approach; I need to be looking at the context of these ideas and the forms of life from which they arise. In Wittgenstein’s perspective, belief in the Last Judgement isn’t about reason, and he’s just as critical of believers who make the issue about reason as of non-believers who make the same mistake. Ultimately,

Not only is it not reasonable, but it doesn’t pretend to be. (p58)

Quotations from Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited by Cyril Barrett, University of California Press, 1966