Tag Archives: Christianity

Glorious Complexity: Theological Diversity Beyond a Spectrum

Recently, I ran some Woodbrooke sessions on the old but still interesting question: are Quakers Christian? I didn’t expect to reach a yes or no answer, but it was useful to explore the possibilities. One of the things which emerged in the discussion was the idea that it is an advantage, a richness or benefit, to live in the tension of such questions. Yes and No and Maybe all at once could – if we name it and own it – be a strong place, a place of possibility and growth rather than confusion and anxiety.

In this blog post, I want to explore some of the ways in which we might be inspired to do that by advances in other fields, and how we might apply a similar strategy to questions like “do Quakers believe in God?” 

Let me start by introducing two other areas of life which have sometimes been conceptualised as a single line sliding scale, from yes to no, from more to less. The first is sexuality, where we have the Kinsey scale – a line from 0 to 6, where 0 is exclusively heterosexual, 6 is exclusively homosexual, and bisexuals like me hover somewhere around 3. But sexuality isn’t that simple, and other tools like the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid take into account different aspects of sexuality: attraction, fantasies, behaviour, social and emotional preferences, and more. Beyond that, we might create a 3D model in which the two-dimensional grid extends to show the strength of sexual feeling – where someone is on the spectrum from asexual to allosexual – as well as the direction of their attraction and the complexities of gender. The grid and 3D model help us to understand that sexuality goes well beyond a gay/straight divide.

The second is neurotype. One form of neurodiversity, the autistic spectrum, is sometimes pictured as a line, from most to least autistic, or with more or less autistic traits showing. However, it can be more useful to imagine it as a circle, like a colour wheel, with different aspects of autism around the edge (things like sensory filtering, motor skills, or language). An autistic individual’s particular pattern can be plotted onto the circle so that it shows how they have more or less difficulty with the different areas: perhaps prone to sensory overload, or perhaps not; perhaps struggling with motor skills or language, or perhaps not. As Rebecca Burgess explains in this comic, that means that different people can experience autism very differently, and the wheel-shaped spectrum helps us to picture these variations.

With those two alternatives in mind, we can go back to the question about Quaker belief in God. Sometimes this is pictured on a single line – we’d put those who confidently say Yes at one end, and those who confidently say No at the other end, and everyone else would spread out in the middle depending on how much doubt they have. The problem is that belief in God isn’t a simple on/off question. What kind of God do you believe in or reject? I think in Quaker circles there’s often an unspoken assumption that the God we’re talking about is related to the traditional Christian God – and not necessarily the immanent, guiding God Within of the Quaker tradition but often the external, order-giving, loving but distant God of many children’s versions of Bible stories. So we already have some diversity. Add some Pagan Quakers who believe in multiple Gods and Goddesses, and some Buddhist Quakers who neither belief nor reject God but simply refuse to speculate, and a lot of other approaches as well, and we need to go beyond the single line to explain this situation.

We could, for example, follow Klein and turn the line into a grid or even a 3D cube. This would give us a chance to explore the contextual and behavioural aspects of belief. It might prompt us to ask questions like: Do you believe in God? Do you want to believe in God? Have you believed in God in the past? Do you pray? Do you pray in some circumstances? Do you meditate? Do you engage in other religious practices? Do you spend time with people who believe in God, or practice prayer, or attend meeting for worship, even if you don’t do those things yourself? Is your doubt, belief, or disbelief stronger at some times than others?

We could take the colour wheel approach. Around the outside we might put aspects of a religious life – practices, experiences, beliefs, and so on. This would give us scope to explore how those things relate – or don’t. One person might have strong spiritual experiences, but understand them as illusions and have no belief in a supernatural divinity. Another might have a strong belief in an external deity, expressed through lots of engagement in religious practice, but not have many internal spiritual experiences. Yet another may change their mind regularly, or go through times of faith and times of doubt, or find that a particular practice or life experience changes their perspective. To map all of that, we might need to combine these approaches.

However we go about thinking about it, it’s clear that Yes and No aren’t going to be nuanced enough for a question like “do Quakers believe in God?” or even in many cases for an individual Quaker answering, “do you believe in God?” We need both, and a wide range of multi-dimensional Maybes. That will be a challenge at times. I think it can also be beautiful.

Readers of this blog may also be interested in my new article in Friends Journal, Not Quite Ministry, which explores the practice of ‘afterwords’ and how it might relate to spoken ministry in unprogrammed Quaker meetings.

Christmas: cancelled, inevitable, every day, and/or stolen?

I gave this as a conference paper at the Multiple Religious Belonging conference, run jointly by the Centre for Research in Quaker Studies and the Hyphen Project and held online September-October 2020. I don’t always publish conference papers as such – they get recycled in various ways, as book chapters or sections of other projects – but this one is so specific to time and place, as well as hopefully having wider implications, that it seems appropriate to share it as a blog post. If you’re interested in Multiple Religious Belonging, a group from that conference are going to continue to meet every couple of months for the next year, and we’d welcome other people working on related topics to join us – contact me at rhiannon.grant@woodbrooke.org.uk or Grace Milton directly for details.

Today, I’d like to use discussions about Christmas as an example of a complex religious situation, and look at the issues which arise from Christian, Quaker, Neo-Pagan, and wider social perspectives. It might not be immediately obvious that this complex religious situation involves multiple religious belonging. It does for me – I belong to all four of the communities, or perhaps layers of community, which I’ll be discussing in this paper, but I should start by outlining how I’m treating these four groups.

In this paper, I talk about Quakers – probably the best defined of the four groups, with some internal mechanisms for recording who belongs to a Quaker community or attends Quaker worship, and clearly described in a body of historical and sociological literature. I also talk about Christians, by which I mean people who, more or less loosely, belong to Christian churches – people with an active involvement in Christian practice, including those who might be ‘lapsed’ or otherwise regard it as a matter of culture rather than belief. I talk about Neo-Pagans, a broad term which – like ‘Christian’ – covers a lot of different groups, including Wiccans, Druids, eclectic Pagans, resconstructionists of various kinds, and so on. And I talk about the ‘wider society’ in which we live, the vaguest of the four groups but a significant one in this case – British society can be seen as Christian or secular, depending how you look at it, but I am thinking of people who are participating in British society who, Christian or not, have an involvement in Christmas practices because of their ubiquity. Almost everyone who buys food in British shops is going to see Christmas trees and mince pies, for example. A few people can be members of all four groups. A few more may be members of three – identifying as both Christian and Quaker, or Quaker and Pagan, or Christian and Pagan – and a lot will be both actively Christian or Quaker or Neo-Pagan and a member of wider British society.

I have been prompted in my consideration of Christmas as a complex religious situation initially by three discussions. The first is some recent social media discussions about whether Christmas is ‘cancelled’ or not – as things stand with coronavirus in the UK at the moment, it seems that the usual parties, visits to family homes, and other events traditional around Christmas are likely to be impossible or look very different, while church services are able to carry on in at least some form. For people for whom the social events are the main part of Christmas, it feels like it will be cancelled. For those who want to highlight the role of traditional Christian worship in Christmas, it’s important to say that it’s not cancelled.

The second is a longer-term discussion about the Quaker relationship to Christmas. For those who aren’t familiar with the Quaker tradition, in the early part of the movement – in the seventeenth century, beginning in the north of England and spreading fairly rapidly throughout the country and then internationally – Quakers rejected many things about the Christian church as they knew it at the time. They rejected set liturgy in favour of an open, silent waiting to be moved to preach. They rejected outward, physical rituals of baptism and communion, preferring to focus on inward experiences of the Holy Spirit. And they rejected the Christian liturgical year, saying that Christmas day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday were days like any other. They had a passionate faith in Jesus, but what mattered to them was Jesus present within people, here and now – every day is Christmas day, and every day is Easter day, in this understanding.

However, by 1994 Janet Scott could write that this idea was “dying of neglect”: she observed that many Quakers in Britain, who are “involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas” and a lot ignore the message of Easter even as they keep some of the customs involved. (27.42) This is very much the case today, with British Quaker meetings commonly holding extra worship services on Christmas day, Christmas socials, and related activities. This gives rise to a continual tension in Quaker groups: many Quakers are aware that we officially don’t celebrate these things – and some of them will say so whenever Quaker-founded company Cadbury’s run an advertising campaign based on Easter chocolate, which is to say, every year – while at the same time, actually celebrating themselves in ways which are broadly in line with the behaviour of wider British society.

The third is another longer-term discussion, sometimes conducted in a scholarly way but more often the preserve of the light-hearted newspaper article or social media post, about the relationship between Christmas customs as we have them now in Britain and both ancient and modern Pagan customs. In December, I often see social media posts about, for example, the relationship between the astronomical event of the winter solstice, the Roman Pagan celebration of Mithras, and the date of Christmas. You may have seen these yourself and I don’t intend to debate the factual accuracy of any of these claims here. For one thing, there are too many – as well as the date of Christmas, the potential Pagan origins of the Christmas tree, of Santa Claus, and numerous other traditions are frequently discussed. What I’m interested in today is not whether these claims are historically true but the relationship created by the framing of the question – the way in which merely asking “is a Christmas tree really a Pagan tradition?” firstly sets up a relationship between two religions, understood as ‘Christianity’ and ‘Paganism’, and secondly suggests that a practice – cutting evergreen plant material to use as a decoration – ‘really’ belongs to only one.

The problem in the first part of the claim, as you probably spotted, is that Christianity and Paganism are not at all unified traditions. Christians of different branches of the church celebrate Christmas differently, not even all on the same date, and Paganism is a complex collection of surviving, revived, and newly invented religious traditions not all of which even mark the solstice. Obviously, the claim that tree-cutting ‘belongs’ to one or other of these complex communities is massively over-simplified.

But a puzzle remains – why does ordinary language about religion allow this sort of claim which is quickly shown to be inaccurate? are there better ways of discussing the moral questions which can be raised by this sort of claim? By the way, I actually don’t think the moral issues are very pressing in the case of Christians and Pagans in Britain today, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen this example for abstract discussion, over others where the harm is larger, the power relationships much more unequal, and colonial and other damaging histories much more recent. In order to think about how we might talk about these issues better, let me take a brief diversion into questions of analogy. I’ll then return to work back through my three situations with some new terminology in hand.

When people try to understand something complex, we often turn to analogy – think about how we talk about electricity moving through a wire as if it were like water flowing through a pipe, for example. It isn’t exactly how electricity works, but it’s close enough for many everyday conversations. In the same way, we’ve already thought during this conference about some of the ways we talk about religion. ‘Belonging’, ‘spiritual fluidity’, social identities. Sometimes people collapse religion with another category, like race or ethnicity – in Britain, we’ve seen this very clearly in popular understandings of Islam over the last decade or so. Religious communities are compared to other groups, which helps make sense of the ways in which they could ‘own’ something: the Christmas tree debate can sound a bit like two football clubs trading a player – as if the trees used to play for Pagans but signed up with Christians a while ago. 

I think a more productive approach might be to compare religious practices to the philosopher Wittgenstein’s idea of language-games. A language-game isn’t a whole natural language, like English or Welsh; in fact, the examples Wittgenstein gives tend to be very restricted. ‘Telling a joke’ is a language-game, for example, or giving directions using landmarks, or a system in which builders ask for and receive bricks and slabs. If we zoomed in on religious practices to the same level, we might well pick out ‘using evergreen plants for decoration’ or ‘gift giving’ and so on. I’ll call the results of this kind of analysis ‘religion-games’ – not to imply that they are fun or trivial, but to suggest they have many of the same features as language-games. They are rule-guided – we can do the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ depending on whether we follow relevant rules established by our communities. And they are contextual – that is to say, the meaning of the plants or the gifts can vary depending on the religious and social setting, in the same way that telling a joke is a language-game which can perform multiple social functions depending on the context in which it’s done.

What would this approach say about each of my three situations? When we think about religion-games, it doesn’t seem so surprising if more than one religious tradition has the same or similar practices. We have the language-game of joke-telling in lots of different natural languages, and we can have a religion-game like decorating with evergreen plants in lots of different religions. We also have multiple communities which are making and agreeing – and often renegotiating – their rules for participating in religion-games. Actually, I think the rules for Christmas tree decoration aren’t now governed by any of the church groups, and they certainly aren’t governed by Pagans, even if they have a strong claim to tree-themed acts of worship; rather, they are embedded in and negotiated by a historically and culturally Christian society which sees itself mainly as secular. A narrow view of what religion is, often associated with Christianity, in which religion-games involving belief are emphasised at the expense of those which are more obviously about practice, enables this misunderstanding. So about the Christians and the Pagans, I can say: religion-games are sometimes shared between or move between religious traditions. Depending on other factors, such as the power relations between the two traditions, this may or may not be ethically problematic.

What about the Quakers who are trying to both play some religion-games associated with Christmas while also refraining from playing the religion-game of celebrating Christmas? I have two suggestions here. One is that we can build on the previous point – not only are some religion-games shared between traditions, but some individuals can play religion-games from more than one tradition. A thoughtful choosing of which Christmas traditions to engage in may be in line with the Quaker aim, of having your outward behaviour reflect your inward experience rather than letting society determine your actions, without reaching the totally anti-Christmas conclusion of the early Quakers. 

My second suggestion is that some ways of ‘not doing Christmas’ may be a move within the ‘celebrating Christmas’ religion-game. Let me give you a more specific example which makes this clearer. You might be aware of the tradition of ‘Christmas jumper day’. On Christmas jumper day in a workplace or other community, everyone wears their ugly or funny or otherwise Christmas-themed jumper. When my workplace held one, I considered my options and decided that one possible Quaker choice in the circumstances was to wear a plain grey jumper. At one level, I was participating – I specifically chose grey, because Quaker grey as a form of plain dress has a long history. Although I wear my grey jumper to work throughout the year, I also wear blue and black and other colours – I didn’t pick one at random on Christmas jumper day. I knew the rules and looked for a way to subvert them. The move of ‘not taking a move’ is known in other games, too – skipping a turn, not playing any cards, switching your Scrabble tiles rather than placing a word. A studied refusal to participate in something, whether it’s wearing grey on Christmas jumper day or not sending any Christmas cards or having a strict limit on the cost of presents, requires just as much awareness of the rules of the game as ordinary participation.

And finally, what about the claims that Christmas is cancelled? Some of the practices we associate with Christmas in Britain are certainly going to be heavily limited this year – pubs shut at 10pm and groups limited to six people, and so on. Worship services can continue with some modifications, but for many in what a recent Prime Minister called “a Christian country”, church services are not the most important of the religion-games. Gift-giving, tree-decorating, jumper-wearing, school nativity plays, and similar practices are the religion-games which form the heart of the British Christmas tradition today – and they are not simply associated with one religious tradition: derived from Christianity, influenced by or with the potential to become neo-Pagan, often crossing over into secular and consumerist spaces. An analysis of these practices as religion-games opens new vocabulary to discuss that complexity, but might also help us adjust them to the realities of pandemic life. By focusing on core elements and changing things which are circumstantial, the rules of games can be adjusted to suit different situations – think about wheelchair basketball, co-operative Scrabble, the Great British Bake Off filmed in a self-isolating bubble – and the same is true for our religion-games. 

Different Moves in the Meeting Game?

Sometimes I use the idea of ‘religion-games’ to help me understand what is happening in complex religious situations – I’ve written before about how this might help to explain what is happening when people belong to more than one religious tradition, and how this might inspire new approaches to Quaker membership, and recently I gave a conference paper in which I talked about how this might apply to bringing a practice from one tradition (my example was Quaker worship) into interreligious settings such as joint worship services. After that paper, Rose Drew asked a really good question: what does this say about cases where someone uses practices from another tradition, like a Buddhist breathing mediation, in Quaker worship? Rose gives a real example like this in her excellent book, Buddhist and Christian?: someone who is both a Buddhist and a Quaker says (page 174) that she “uses Buddhist meditation techniques (focusing on the breath, for example) to assist her at the beginning of each Meeting in the process known as ‘centring down’, in which one quietens ones’ mind in preparation for the silence and openness of the Meeting.” In the religion-games picture, what is happening here?

One of the points about most games is that you can’t play more than one at once – you are either playing football or rugby, either cricket or tennis, either Scrabble or Monopoly, and putting a seven-letter word down on a chess board won’t get you a triple word score or two hundred pounds, just a lot of confused looks from other players! There are cases, perhaps, when you can be playing two games at once if they are of very different kinds or if you have changed your mind about the objectives. For example, when I was a child who was required to participate in PE lessons, I might officially be playing rugby – in the sense of being on a rugby field – but I would set myself other goals, like ‘how long can I go without moving my feet at all?’ In that case, actually, it’s not clear that I’m really playing rugby at all; I’m mostly playing with the boundary between apparent compliance (enough not to get punished) and actual disobedience (because I loathe PE and have no intention of trying to do the things I’m being told to do). If I went into meeting for worship and – even while sitting in silence – ignored the rules about listening and being open to spoken ministry, and instead determinedly did a visualisation throughout, perhaps it would be like this. Unlike my childhood PE lessons, though, meeting for worship is entirely optional in most circumstances, and people who don’t want to even try out Quaker rules usually quickly work out that they’re in the wrong place.

But I can imagine a case where someone was genuinely playing rugby, wants to play rugby, but also played another game at the same time, perhaps ‘count how often the PE teacher says ‘try harder!”. If your PE teacher has a distracting verbal habit like using the same phrase over and over, you could be playing rugby and phrase-counting games at the same time. This could be what’s happening when someone uses a Buddhist meditation technique in a Quaker meeting for worship – they are playing two religion-games at once. However, I don’t think this fits all the facts in this case. In particular, counting how often your PE teacher yells “try harder!” isn’t likely to make you play better rugby, and it might have the opposite effect. But when Quakers who find a breathing meditation technique useful in general bring it into meeting for worship with them, at least some of them find that it is actively helpful: that it helps them settle into the silence, focus on worship, and so on. In that case, they aren’t just playing two games at once – the two games are interacting in some way, despite having different rules.

There are also cases with ordinary games where you can cross-train – where being good at one games tends to help you with another game. Long ago comedian Tony Hawks challenged the members of a football team to games of tennis. As I remember it, one of his findings was that, even if they never usually play tennis, practice at playing football makes footballers into better tennis players than he had expected. I think this might be closer to what is happening with the meditating meeting attendees. Practising one game – mediation – outside meeting for worship helps them to develop skills which are relevant, even if not directly, to participating well in meeting for worship. 

When we look at things from this point of view, we can also see some other practices which are well-established as ‘things people sometimes do in Quaker meeting’ as also separable, capable of being played as games on their own. For example, reading a passage from the Bible is an acceptable move within the meeting for worship game, and reading Biblical passages is also something we can do outside meeting for worship – indeed, reading and studying the Bible in different ways probably makes up several different games (some more religious, like devotional reading; some more secular, like academic study). In this account, bringing into a particular practice skills and techniques – and knowledge and experience and feelings and lots of other aspects of life – from elsewhere doesn’t stop you playing by the rules relevant to the current practice: the footballers play tennis according to the rules of tennis. It might, done with sensitivity to the origins of the practice you are borrowing from and the ethics of transporting ideas and practices across cultural and religious boundaries, be actively helpful.

Converting to Christianity

Converting to Christianity has been on my mind lately – not for me personally; I’m culturally Christian and happy in a complex and theologically inclusive faith community – but because I’m writing a story set in a time and place when we don’t know how many people had or hadn’t converted. Conversion in historical settings is often described as if it were of a whole community at once – and perhaps sometimes it is. Conversion in historical settings is also often measured by the recorded actions of the ruling class. This has two problems. One is that the people doing the recording, later on, were themselves almost always Christians. The other is that just because the leader of your community has converted, it doesn’t mean that everyone has. (Even if the leader has converted in terms of actions, there’s still the issue of what they actually believe, but we have even less access to that.)

In the case of Europe – my story is set in Wales – we can put down some markers for the groups of people surrounding the right time and place. We know a fair amount about the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, with Constantine accepting it in 312 and Theodosius 1 making (Nicene) Christianity the state religion in 380. We know a little bit about missions to the British Isles, with Ireland converted around 430 and the first Christian king of the English, Ethelbert, converting in 597. What isn’t clear is to what extent the British people in Wales had converted to Christianity, and what their beliefs were in the gap between the Romans leaving (around 383) and the Saxons arriving (from 446, but starting on the eastern side of England). Some of them would have been Christian (and those who were would mainly have been Pelagians – followers of the ideas of Pelegius, who was excommunicated in 418). Some would have followed the Roman religion, especially if they arrived through the extensive movement of Roman soldiers around the empire. And some might still be following a local religion, now mixed with Roman elements but also retaining Celtic ones.

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A stone Celtic cross, a symbol which emerged from this period of religious complexity. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

This ambiguity is attractive to me as a writer, because it gives me space to explore. I’m able to take a range of elements from the evidence – things which might have survived from the Roman period and things which might have begun by this time and be recorded later – to create a fictional society in which these multiple religious currents are meeting and mixing. Of course, historical fiction is always only partly about the past, and quite a lot about now. Finding a time in the past when multiple religions which interest me today where interacting in ways which were obviously complex and aren’t fully know also opens up a space for me to pose, in the past, the questions which I’m thinking about now.

For example, I’m interested in multiple religious belonging – why and how an individual might be part of more than one faith community – and in what it takes to be identified as part of a religion. When it is something the individual can identify for themselves, simply by stating it? When does it require community involvement, and what form does that take? Some religions have clear prescriptions about this, at least for some cases, but there are typically also cases of uncertainty as well. What are the actions which are considered characteristic of a faith in a particular time and place, and when does performing them mean you have joined or at least become associated with that religion? In this early period, baptism hadn’t yet taken up the role which it is given by later Christian communities, of acting as an entry ritual, determining who is and who is not part of the community. In exploring this complexity in fiction, characters can move in and out of different categories, with those around them – and perhaps even the characters themselves – unsure about where they fit.

Converting a person – and so even more a group of people – to Christianity can never have been simple. I’m not going to pass judgement on whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to convert Britain to Christianity. There are later cases where it seems to me to be clearly bad, especially where Christianity was forced on people, used as an excuse to suppress local culture, and put to work to maintain oppressive social structures. There are other cases where people convert because they have found their right spiritual path, and that is, in general, obviously good. And there are lots of situations in between – where people convert because they think it will give them a better life, or because everyone around is converting, or because they are not so much moving from one faith to another as adding something to their religious lives. The extent to which pre-Christian British religion survived in Christianised forms is up for debate, but I think there’s enough evidence to say on the one hand that some pre-Christian British practises were adapted into Christian ones, and that this didn’t result in a long-standing, multi-generational Pagan tradition running alongside the public Christian religion.

One of the reasons I think the conversion of Britain isn’t directly comparable to some more recent cases of countries being converted is that Christianity didn’t arrive in Britain with an oppressive ruling class. It arrived through the Romans – who had invaded long ago by time they adopted Christianity, and who gave up trying to rule Britain soon afterwards. And it may also have arrived through independent routes; if Christianity came to some parts of Scotland, Wales, and England via Ireland, for example, that separates it from Roman involvement. It did pick up some Roman ways of structuring administration, and we have some evidence of bishops in Britain in the 300s (if Restitutus was indeed Bishop of London, for example). Instead, it seems that, in this period when few records were produced, that there would have been multiple religious traditions all common in the community, and people perhaps moving between them, combining them, and trying to work out what the relationships between them should be.

Fun times for writers who want also want to explore those things!

Things I might say on TV

If you’ve found this blog by searching the internet for ‘Rhiannon Grant’ and ‘Quakers’ because you’ve just seen me on BBC1’s The Big Questions, welcome. (If I didn’t actually make it onto TV, this post might disappear soon!) Here are some things I might say if I get the chance, in a post written in advance and scheduled to publish while the programme is going out.

Can you be Christian without God?

Yes, you can participate in a Christian community without believing in God. Actually, not all Quakers are Christians – even those of us who believe in God might not call ourselves Christians – and not all Quakers believe in God. What’s important to us is that we all join in with our communities, joining in with our silent worship, our work to help other people, and trying to tell the truth about our experiences.

Why are Quakers getting rid of God?

We’re not. If there is something out there which fits a traditional picture of God – all knowing, all powerful, all loving – it’s way beyond us to get rid of God! And even if there isn’t, we value God language as part of our history and as a poetic, beautiful, moving way of expressing things which are hard to say any other way.

So what are you doing?

We’re revising Quaker faith & practice, which is a book (now also published as a website) that we write to tell us how to be the best Quakers we can be. We make little changes to it every year and rewrite the whole thing once a generation or so – we started the last revision in 1985, so it’s about time. We’re revising the book to bring it up to date and include things which have changed (at the moment it doesn’t mention the internet, for example). I think it’s likely that we’ll include both very traditional ways of talking about God – Jesus, love, the Holy Spirit – and new and creative expressions, maybe drawing on science and other religions.

And do Quakers believe in God?

Some of us do, and some of us would explain our spiritual experiences in other ways.

Do you believe in God?

Yes, in my experience there’s something I can be in touch with, through silent worship and the natural world and relationships with people, which is more than just myself and which is a good thing – loving, hopeful, beautiful.

That doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible.

Depends which bit of the Bible you read! No, it’s a long way from many other people’s pictures of God. My God isn’t a man, my God isn’t supernatural, my God isn’t laying down lots of rules – except “love one another”.

What do Quakers think about the Bible?

Quakers think the Bible is a useful and interesting record of people’s religious experiences. We know it was written and edited by human beings, and not every story in it is historically true. That doesn’t stop it containing lots of emotional and spiritual truths, some of which are very beautiful.

Is Quaker faith & practice the Quaker Bible?

Not really – the Bible is the Quaker Bible! Quaker faith & practice is a collection of rules, guidelines, suggestions, and other Quakers’ experiences, which helps us to work out what to do. It tells you how to have a Quaker wedding and why Quakers don’t swear oaths. It tells you what it’s like to refuse to serve in the army, and how previous Quakers have responded to difficult decisions, like whether or not to have an abortion. It also offers questions and advice which are often read during our worship. Some parts of it, like the bits about marriages and data protection, need updating often. Other parts, like what we say about sustainability and the environment, last longer but we have new things to say as our understanding develops.

What do Quakers believe?

In one of our old phrases, we believe that everyone has that of God within them. That means everyone should be treated fairly, and everyone can have spiritual experiences for themselves. Because of that belief, we fight for peace and justice, and we worship in a way that gives everyone the same chance to join in.

You’ve mentioned Quaker worship a couple of times – what’s it like?

Quaker worship is based in silence. It’s about getting yourself into stillness – Quakers often say ‘centred down’ – and being open. We sit around in a circle or a square, with everyone equal, and wait to see what happens. Sometimes people pray for other people, or the world. Sometimes someone there will be given a message, either an insight into something in their own life or something which they want to share with the whole group. We call that spoken ministry. You can try Quaker worship on your own but in my experience it works best with other people.

What are Quakers best known for?

I guess we’re best known for being pacifists and more recently for our commitment to equal marriage. Both of those are very closely linked to seeing that of God in everyone and, because of that, wanting to treat everyone equally.

Didn’t the early Quakers believe in God?

I’m sure they did. They also believed that people should work from their own experiences, and put a huge value on telling the truth, so I think they’d understand that today, those of us who have different experiences need to use different language to express that. My experience fits with something I call God, so I use that word; other Quakers have different experiences and use different words, but all of us are working from the same principles.

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).