Tag Archives: E

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

E is for… Entertainment

This week, I would like to share with you some of the many uniquely Quaker forms of entertainment – and to put to rest one myth. This is just a small sample, comprising one role-playing card game, one observation game, one deception game, and one joke.

The myth is that Ratchet Screwdriver is a game popular among Young Friends. It is of course actually a cocktail popular among Young Friends.

Unwilling, Unable is a card game, produced by some Young Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting, which mimics as closely as possible the real process of nominations. It is a role playing game, in the sense that each person selects a character and takes on that identity for the duration of play. It is both horrible, in the sense that it encourages you to be as nasty as possible to the people around you in the way which is rather delicious when done with dear friends and rather awkward when attempted with near strangers, and hilarious, in the sense of being hilarious. I blame it entirely for the fact that at least one person who looked at my ‘I’m a Quaker, ask me why’ pin-badge and obediently did so received the reply, ‘I’m afraid I haven’t yet got enough points to write an angry letter to The Friend and resign’.

The Longest Continuous Line of Non-Grey Heads in a Business Session of Yearly Meeting is a self-explanatory game of observation. Bonus points can be obtained if you can spot a complete row. Those playing especially hard may find that the Spirit grants them a prize, usually their first grey hair.

Porridge for Breakfast is an alternative name for Lies to Tell Your Non-Quaker Friends. The finest examples are crafted from the questions most frequently asked by people who have just found out that you are a Quaker, but aren’t quite sure what that has to do with oats, or the Amish, or Shakers, and are delivered dead-pan. For best effect they must also now be hard to disprove using Wikipedia. This blog post contains two.

My favourite Quaker joke is as follows:

E is for… Environment

We tend, actually, to group our environmental concerns under the term ‘sustainability’, but I didn’t want to wait until then to write about them. (I note, too, that when I wrote about Environment last year I meant it in quite a difference way.) In my mind, my environmental position has four aspects, one for each of the four most commonly cited Testimonies: Truth, Equality, Peace, and Simplicity.

The first step on a journey to sustainability is to care about, find out about, and support further research into the Truth about the situation. This is composed of the many truths which scientists establish by observation and experiment. If you’re not familiar with this body of work, I recommend starting with NASA’s page of evidence. In a world in which some people have not yet faced up to this evidence, are in denial about it, or just not sure what to think (or think that a snow storm in Yorkshire in January is somehow evidence that the polar ice caps can’t be shrinking or the globe getting warmer overall), it’s important to be clear about the facts: climate change is happening and human beings bear responsibility.

In responding to climate change, some people’s first instinct is to look after themselves. I’ve seen Transition Towns groups (generally a good idea) who wanted to only include the middle-class part of town. I’ve heard it said that because climate change will cause starvation in other parts of the world, we should tighten up our asylum laws and make sure we don’t accept too many refugees. I’ve heard a lot of people propose what the rest of the world should do about climate change (‘it’s no good unless the Chinese shut down their factories’, ‘we need to educate Africans so they don’t have so many children’).

I think, however, that in we need to hold on to our ideal of Equality – front and centre, even when facing the potential disaster that is climate change. We need to look at what we can do, as individuals and as communities: whole communities, for preference. We are actually all interdependent, and we need people to stack our shelves and people to study geology (to pick two jobs recently in the news). We need hairdressers and telephone sanitizers. We need politicians, too. I find it sometimes helps to hold my elected representatives in the Light while I write to them.

I’ve already hinted, I think, at how a commitment to sustainability will need us also to be committed to Peace. We will need to create peace in our communities if we are to work together, and the conditions created by climate change may lead to outright war over resources if we are not careful. Using those resources wisely, and being seen to share them fairly, will help, but it may need more than that. It worries me that even my Quaker community struggles with conflict (I’m not worried about us having conflict, there are always going to be misunderstandings and personality clashes, but that we struggle to handle it constructively). No wonder the wider community can’t cope!

Finally, Simplicity is perhaps the Testimony which people most readily connect with our Sustainability Testimony. Living a simple life goes along with trying to live in a more environmentally friendly way… except when it doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I think that often it does. Downsizing can be a move towards sustainable living (but remember, speaking, as we were a few paragraph ago, of equality, that not everyone can downsize and some people urgently need to upsize). Being focussed on what is important in life can lead to more sustainable living. Refusing to buy things to keep up with the Jones family next door can lead to keeping your life within a more reasonable carbon footprint. Going vegan or ordering an organic vegetable box (oh, the middle-class privilege!) can make life simpler and also be in line with environmental commitments.

I’m not sure, though, that fitting solar panels is simpler. It’s probably a good idea if you own a suitable roof, and it’s a very visible green statement. It’s complicated, though – researching the options and deciding what to do, the science and construction of the panels themselves, studies of shade and light to see how well your roof will do. Once you’ve got them, the electricity bills get more complex, too. Actually, a lot of things in this example can be generalised: it’s complicated to work out how to eat in the most sustainable way possible (fairtrade or organic? local supermarket, deliveries, home grown? Tetrapak or plastic bottle?), let alone buy anything else (new book already in this country or a second hand copy posted from the USA? DVD or cinema ticket? will my granny cope with my idea of a green present?). The things we buy are themselves complicated (parts made in many places, and usually travelled all over the country if not the world).

I’ve sometimes wondered whether the simplest things will last longest – setting aside foodstuffs, tools with fewer moving parts are easier to repair and maintain. The problem is that some complicated things are really useful. But if simplicity is ‘not having anything extraneous to your purpose’ rather than ‘the absence of complexity’, we might be allowed to keep our laptops and our solar panels while we are using them and source them responsibly.

E is for… Environment

Some people think that you can only worship in a sacred space – a consecrated building, for example.

Some people think that nowhere is sacred – that you can worship anywhere (or that worship doesn’t work and you can’t really do it anywhere at all).

I’ve heard it argued that the concept of sacred space doesn’t help us protect the environment. If we focus on saving the bits we call ‘special’, we’ll miss out lots of other important parts.

I think everywhere is sacred.

There are some spiritual practices which involved being thankful for, or accepting of, everything around you, even when it might be a problem. If you can get caught out without an umbrella, and say, “Thank heavens for rain”, or feel pain and still say, “I accept my body fully as it is”, that’s amazingly powerful. (Note: I said it was powerful, and I called it a practice. I didn’t say it was easy, or that I manage to do it.)

Everywhere is sacred.

Forests are sacred.

Gardens are sacred.

Cracks in the pavement with dandelions growing in them are sacred.

Houses are sacred.

Community centres are sacred.

Church halls are sacred.

Mosques, churches, synagogues, temples, and all places built for worship are sacred.

Recycling points are sacred.

Car parks are sacred.

Landfills are sacred.

And by the time I’ve typed all that, the word ‘sacred’ no longer looks like a word at all. I don’t know what it means anymore – but this is what it means to me now: an object or place which should be valued for its inherent nature, taking into account its function, its place in the life of the community of all beings, and treated with respect.

For example: I wish we didn’t need so many landfills, but they are important to the life of the community in which I find myself. Like death, they tend to be hidden and taboo; like death, we might learn a lot from looking them in the eye. I try to treat my local landfill with respect, sending her only what really needs to go to her.

For example: I don’t live near a forest anymore, but I visit and support and love the woodlands I can reach. (Some are best supported if I stay away; rainforests must be beautiful and amazing, but flying to see one is counterproductive.) I find it easy to call a forest sacred, and hard to call a building sacred, and very hard to call a rubbish tip sacred, and yet it seems to me that this is what we need to do.

E is for… Experience

“And this I knew experimentally.”
George Fox

To me, experience is the most important thing in religion. The traditions I belong to treat it differently, but all value it: Quakerism focuses on ‘mystical’ experience, direct access to the Divine, while Druidry celebrates sensual experience as well as the experiences of ritual and emotion, and Buddhism – especially Zen Buddhism – is most interested in the experience of being here and now, fully present to the world and the beings within it. To someone with pantheist leanings, these tend to fold into one another. To be mindful and fully present enables you to enjoy rituals and the sensuality of life as a whole which in turn brings you closer to that of God in everyone (including yourself).

Rather than discuss this in an abstracted way, though, I’d like to share with you some of the experiences I have had, which might help you understand where I’m coming from as I talk about religious and spiritual matters.

At home after school, age eleven.
The Gideons have given us little Bibles – a New Testament with Psalms in a red plastic cover. They asked us to consider reading them every day. Most of my classmates threw theirs away, or kicked them around the playground, or didn’t accept them in the first place (and why would you, if you have a perfectly good Quran at home?)  I kept mine, and read it. Not everyday, and not for that long, but I read all the recommended readings for beginners. None of them were new to me, and none of them made sense. I concluded, with the clarity that only eleven year olds can achieve, that they were nice stories but they couldn’t be true.

Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, age seventeen or so.
I am not a healthy teenager – by this time I’ve had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for perhaps two years. I’ve never been to Woodbrooke before. I am not with my parents, unusually for a Quaker event; this time, a couple of other members of the meeting have agreed to act as my guardians. Children and teenagers aren’t technically allowed, so I am being treated as an adult. It’s a pleasant change. I have a freedom I’ve never known before – to use the art room when I wake up early and can’t sleep, to walk around the garden, to use the library whenever I like, to choose when and how to join the community in worship. I remember two things clearly: the sense of freedom and excitement, and the way that discussions of Quaker history led into discussions of Quaker futures. This was to become the core of my concern for ‘outreach’ – an insatiable desire to discuss the spiritual life with anyone who shows an interest.

Charney Manor, another Quaker study centre, about the same time.
Another weekend away with Quakers. This time, I’m with my mother, and I already know most of the others. One morning, I don’t feel like going to sit in Meeting when it’s so beautiful outside – so I go and sit outside, among the silver birch trees in the garden. I wait, as I would do in Meeting, and listen. I pray for comfort, as I often do; my teenage loneliness is acute and increased by bullying and illness. I have a vision – an experience – a tactile, audible, sensual, visual moment – of the Goddess Bast. She is strong, comforting, womanly. I remember very few details, but I still have the silver birch leaf and twig I collected to remind me of that day.

Many library days during my teenage years.
I had always been fascinated with stone circles and dolmens, known to me from family holidays in Cornwall. As a young teenager, this blossomed into an interest in archaeology and all things prehistoric, especially Celtic prehistory. I think anyone who reads widely and without direction or assistant in the fields of prehistory and stone circles will find themselves reading some New Age and neo-pagan material; I certainly did. I found the Goddess Brigid in a dusty library book, which mentioned her triple aspect – smithcraft, healing, and poetry – and not much else. It took me a long time, but I worked my way around to paganism in the end.

The hall of the MacLeod Centre, Iona, when the guests are out on pilgrimage.
We’ve having a staff break while the guests are out. I’m stressed – the kitchen work is heavy, there’s no privacy, there’s no mobile phone signal, the community is close-knit but ever-changing, the church services are beautiful and although I feel included (I take communion, unable to feel that I can bake the bread but not eat it) there’s more and more I feel I can’t say, and a guest yelled at me that morning because I couldn’t help her. I burst into tears over my herbal tea and biscuit. Suddenly, rather than being reviled, I am hugged, sung to, held. I didn’t name it at the time, but I could call it community, communion, love, God.

A little local Meeting in my university town.
The first week at university, I decided to rebel. I needed to have a break from Quakers, I said to myself, I would try out the other options. The other option in hall on a Sunday morning was the Christian Union, so the first week I bit the bullet and went to church with them. I nearly stood on my chair and yelled at the preacher. The next week, I went down to breakfast. The CU people said they were going to church in a football stadium, and did I want to come? I said I was going to Quaker Meeting, and did they want to come? They said enjoy yourself. So I did. I went to Meeting, and gave ministry – a rare thing for me, and as it turned out, an even rarer thing in that Meeting. I used the word ‘God’, and was gently told off for that afterwards! (Whereupon I offered my list of footnotes on the subject. They were apparently acceptable as about a year later this Meeting supported and welcomed me into membership.)

A little urban park in Leeds, sometime last year.
I can’t remember whether I set out to do Zen Buddhist walking mediation, or an OBOD exercise, but either way, in a moment of madness I stood at the corner of the grass and took off my shoes. It was mad because it was cold and wet and muddy, and someone might see me, or want to play cricket. Nevertheless, I wanted to walk barefoot on the grass, so I did. (One year I walked barefoot along the Avebury Avenue with my father, when there was actually frost on the ground, and since then I am much less worried about cold – so long as I can dry and warm my feet afterwards!) With each step, I felt the cold fire of the earth entering my bones, energy flowing up into me. I closed my eyes, and breathed, and walked, and was at one with everything.