Tag Archives: god

Seeking and answering spiritual questions

In her work on spiritual autobiographies, Gil Skidmore has identified stages which writers typically describe. One of these is a stage in which the spiritual search coalesces around a particular question.

Gil and I recently ran a course together in which we looked at spiritual autobiographies, blogging, and other ways of sharing. As a writing exercise, I asked people to consider writing a tweet (or some other short statement!) in which they compared themselves to one of the historical writers Gil had described, or fitted their own spiritual life into the stages she identified. For one of my answers, I wrote:

My spiritual seeking centred on two questions. Firstly, why is it so hard to talk about God? Secondly, if it’s so hard to talk about God, how does everyone know he’s a He?

Writing out the questions like this made me realise that, although it’s taken me perhaps fifteen or twenty years, I have now answered them. The answer to the second question I would summarise with the single word ‘kyriarchy‘. The answer to the first question I explored at full length in my book, Telling the Truth about God. There are definitely more things to say about both of these questions, and many related issues, but over the past few years I’ve become gradually more and more relaxed about them. I’m still interested, still happy to have these conversations, but the urgent drive I once felt to start those conversations has faded.

I also realised recently that an answer I’ve had for a long time, ‘I’m a writer’, has finally met the right questions. It’s no longer the answer to future-focussed questions like, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ or ‘what do you aspire to be?’; no longer the answer to counter-factual questions like ‘what would you do if you weren’t doing this job?’ or ‘if you had a million dollars how would you spend your time?’; no longer the answer to inner-world questions like ‘what is your favourite hobby?’ or ‘what is your vocation?’ Instead, it’s a real answer to here-and-now question, ‘what do you do?’ and I have the ISBNs and Goodreads profile to prove it.

This does lead to the question: what next? I have some ideas – actually, I have a list of 17 ideas for things I want to write, including more novels, more books about Quakers, more academic articles about how multiple religious belonging works, and more poetry. I also know what some of the next questions are going to be, although I don’t know which ones will end up being the next stage of my spiritual journey. Some which are in the air for me include:

  • How will my own journey of multiple religious involvement develop? Will I drop or come back to Buddhism, especially the Community of Interbeing? Will my connection with Druidy, especially OBOD, weaken or strengthen as I approach the end of my Ovate work? Are there other things I want to explore? How will my relationship with Quakerism develop as I spend more time teaching and writing about it? (And now working on the revision of my community’s core text?)
  • How will my commitments to social justice, climate justice, and resisting climate collapse develop? At the moment these are areas where I read and retweet and think and sometimes discuss or facilitate discussion but rarely write or teach in my own voice. (Unless writing a novel full of LGBTQ+ characters counts.) For a little while I thought I might end up being much more politically active – but then I moved and still haven’t found my place in local campaigning. I also haven’t found a specific topic or piece of work where I feel there’s both leading to act and space to make a difference, but I am looking for that. I feel like I’m tuned in and waiting for a signal to find out what I need to do.
  • What are my questions? In a meta way perhaps this is the biggest question!

What questions, if any, have guided different stages of your spiritual life? Do you have any questions for me? (Would you like to ask them on has-existed-for-years-but-suddenly-reached-my-social-networks social media site Curious Cat?)

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Qui-Gon Jinn, most Quakerly Jedi?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had also never felt this close to the Force.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading theology as a spiritual adventure

People sometimes talk about theological research as if it is, of necessity, dry, boring, narrowly intellectual, and completely devoid of feelings. In my experience, it isn’t like that at all – okay, it can be boring, like any other work, but actually that’s a feeling! – so in this blog post, written while I’m in the middle of a period of study leave and doing theological research very intensively, I thought I’d try and give some examples of the ways in which my whole self gets involved in the work. When I was a undergraduate studying philosophy, I used to say that it was a dull week if I hadn’t changed my mind about some core aspect of existence, and this process is a bit like that – a spiritual adventure.

Challenge to the imagination – reading about the dark night

One of the books I read recently was Sandra Cronk’s Dark Night Journey. This provided me with a challenge to my imagination, because the kind of experience she describes, the sense of the absence of God, isn’t really one I’ve had – certainly not to the extent that is being discussed here. I’ve had very difficult times but often had the opposite experience: when everything is against me and I’ve had a run of bad luck and my usual comforts don’t cheer up, a sense of the Presence (sometimes a very strong sense, sometimes so strong that the language of vision and visitation seems appropriate) can appear in Meeting for Worship, or silent prayer at home – or more likely, in a park or garden. (Here I feel like I might hear a voice, the cynic remarking that obviously my religion is just a crutch, a form of psychological illusion to deal with things I can’t cope with properly. Okay, cynic, so what? At least it seems to work.)

Reading about other people’s experiences of ‘dark nights’ challenges me to reflect on my own experience, identify the differences, be grateful for the ways in which my experience seems easier, and find things which do connect. It also feels like this might be a way to pick up tools for the journey – just because something hasn’t happened to me yet, doesn’t mean that it won’t, and the approaches she recommends might be applicable to other forms of spiritual dryness, too, like the drought of doubt and the boredom which comes from habit. Cronk talks about the apophatic tradition as one tool, a way of thinking not about the positive things we might think we know about God but the mystery and lack of knowledge we have, perhaps expressed in negatives. She says (p55), “The apophatic traditions does not try to rescue a person from the darkness, but rather looks for a way to live in the darkness with trust.”

If I were to try and summarise this part of the spiritual adventure in a verbal prayer, it might go something like this: “Goddess, I don’t always feel it or remember it but I’m grateful for your Presence, for your small still voice within me and in the world around me. In your connectedness, our interbeing, you help me to extend my empathy as far as it will go – and recognise it and not doubt people when they have experiences I can’t empathise with.”

a book cover - the top part has a picture of a stylised landscape in four colours, blue sky, white clouds, pink sun, and red and black mountains; underneath the title reads "Dark Night Journey: Inward Re-patterning Toward a Life Centered in God" and the author's name at the bottom is Sandra Cronk.

 

Challenge to the sense of connection – reading which makes me feel excluded

Another book I read was Becoming fully human: Writings on Quakers and Christian thought by Michael Langford. I knew this book would be challenging when I chose to read it, but it wasn’t difficult in the way I thought it would be. I have my own doubts about the Christian tradition (most of them are basically just a dislike of having a man tell me what to do), but I’m accustomed to reading Christian books and comfortable with that language. This book also includes pieces which are more universalist and more open to nontheist ideas than I might have guessed – Langford quotes Cupitt approving in several places alongside his deep engagement with Biblical and early Quaker material. What it did do was really annoy me, press a button, about something almost completely irrelevant to the book’s main themes.

Over educated. That’s the phrase. Langford’s hardly the only Quaker to use this term in describing British Quakers today. Perhaps it’s especially noticeable because he links it to what he calls a ‘literal-mindedness’ among Quakers as well as the rest of modern society which leads to a difficulty in understanding the rich layers of psychological and metaphorical meaning which can be present in religious language and especially Biblical texts. On the one hand, it’s probably ironic that this annoys me, because to be educated – even ‘over’ educated – in theology and related disciplines is more likely to cure than cause the problem he’s worried about. On the other hand, I spent almost all my time at school being bullied and socially excluded, probably for many reasons but often allegedly for being too clever and doing too well in class, so I have a major sore spot around claims that education or being intellectual is a bad thing and should be opposed – and a bit of a sore spot about anything which sounds like I might be excluded from a community which is important to me.

This is, as I said, a minor issue in the book. The comments could have been deleted without significantly affecting the author’s points. But because of my personal history and consequent emotional reactions – perhaps over-reactions, since they’re out of all proportion to the content – to them, there’s a spiritual challenge in both honouring my feelings and setting them aside. My prayer for this spiritual adventure is something like: “Dear God, I know this isn’t badly meant – I know this isn’t a personal attack – help me tend my own wounds, which are reopened but not really caused by this text – and take the author’s words as a whole and on their own merits.”

a book cover, with a picture of a field of ripe wheat and trees in the distance. At the top, on the blue sky, black text reads: "Becoming fully human Writings on Quakers and Christian thought Michael Langford Friends of the Light"

 

Tradition and memory – reading something almost-but-not-quite familiar

Both the books above brought out ways in which my personal experiences and memories were interconnected with the work I am doing now. My last example is a bit different in that it concerns not just my memories but the collective memory (I might say the tradition) of Quakers as a community. The book is The Book of Discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative) from 1992. (This an old one, but you can find their 2018 edition on their website.) There’s something tactile about this particular printing and binding, with its soft plain grey cover. Inside, there are also lots of phrases and ideas which I recognise from my own book of discipline – not just a book I’ve studied, although I have, but a book which shapes my religious life, cites the sources for much of my spiritual language, is discussed and disagreed with and depended upon and departed from in the religious community where I both pray and work. A book we’ve agreed to revise, which probably means it’s even more on my mind.

Here’s a line from Ohio’s book which I read several times and had to write down.

“Use vigilant care, dear Friends, not to overlook those prompting of love and truth which you may feel in your hearts…”

This is striking because it’s so close, and the sense has hardly changed, but the words of ‘my’ version are so familiar:

“Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts…”

Later in my research, I might track down earlier versions of both and see if I can see how and where these traditions have differed and yet kept something which is clearly the same. Or I might not – my main project is theological and not historical. For now what matters is my reaction, which is a bit like revisiting a place I once knew well but haven’t been to for years. It’s recognisable but changed. I can see that it’s the same, perhaps there’s a sense of comfort, but also some dislocation because it’s not the place I really know. Sometimes other sections made me want to take them away because they might enrich my own tradition – improvements on the place I knew! I wrote down this one, for example: “The right conduct of our business meetings, even in matters of routine, is important to our spiritual life; for, in so far as Friends are concerned in promoting the Kingdom of God, we should rightly feel that its business is a service for Him.”

For this part of my spiritual adventure, I pray: “Inner Light, I can see you shining in lots of places, even where there are also things which challenge me or don’t reflect my experience of Light. Help us all to be as clear as we can be and let our measure of the Light come into the world unobstructed.”

a plain grey book cover with black text which reads "The book of discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative), 1992 Barnesville Ohio".

These kinds of spiritual adventures are hardly restricted to theological research, of course. First-person videos games might lead to explorations of empathy like my first book prompted and passing remarks on Twitter often create reactions like the ones I had to the second book. Where do you take your spiritual adventures? Do you have a spiritual equivalent of a theme park?

With special thanks to the library at Woodbrooke for all these books and more!

Understanding Upholding

A while ago, a course participant asked about ‘upholding’ – in the dictionary, it means to confirm, support, or maintain, but among Quakers is often used in a spiritual sense. Sometimes upholding in this sense is very informal, private, invisible; sometimes it’s made visible by focus, as someone holds themself out of discussion or activities in order to give their full attention to upholding the group; sometimes almost everyone present is involved, as when those participating in a meeting for worship for business uphold their clerk.

At the time when the question was asked, I wrote this journal entry as an attempt at an answer.

What does it mean to uphold people? To pray for them – but what is that? To hold them in the Light – perhaps by visualising, or feeling warmth, or connectedness. To love them. To be patient and trust their their connection with the Spirit will work, so I need do nothing, just be there. To have faith in them. To have faith in God. To have faith in them and God together so that they will find their own way to the Source from which I drink.

What is theology?

(In Welsh, it’s diwinyddiaeth.)

Theologising is one of the processes through which I try and bring my whole self to God.

Theology is an everyday activity. It has an academic branch, of highly trained specialists: but the existence of professional footballers is not taken to prevent me and you having a kickabout in the park, and the existence of academic theology does not prevent us doing our own theology whenever we like. You can also choose not to. (I choose not to play football.)

Sometimes it feels like theologising creates more barriers than it removes. I don’t find thinking about things creates a barrier between myself and Goddess – if anything, the opposite; by thinking about things prayerfully, I can bring them into the Light and work in partnership with the Spirit to act on what’s mine and hand over what’s God’s. I recognise that for others, thinking itself is a problem and they wish to reduce it as far as possible. And I do see the temptation to leave our spirituality unarticulated so as not to have to face the multiplicity of our experiences and our potential theological disagreements. If we could just leave our experience to be experience, not trying to work out what it implies for our beliefs or our lives, wouldn’t that be better?

Maybe it would give us quieter lives! I don’t think it would give us better spiritual lives, though. To me, one of the aims of religious practice is to bring my whole self together to the experience. Unlike other parts of life, where it’s often appropriate to compartmentalise a little or a lot, between me and God nothing needs to be hidden or ignored. That includes uncomfortable things – mistakes I’ve made, fears I hold – and my body and emotions and mind.

Theology is what I do when I bring my intellectual attention to God. It might mean trying to understand God directly – an exercise which, like listening to a singing bowl’s note fade into silence, doesn’t have a definite end but can usefully be begun, and begun, and begun. It might mean looking for something to say, or the right way to say nothing, in the face of pain, suffering, disaster, or death. It might mean asking searching questions about how I, or you, or we as a community understand the world, ourselves, and the Spirit.

Above all, doing theology is not an end or a finalisation of anything. It is an open space, in which I begin with the Mystery I know, work through difficult terrain in company with others who have walked this way, and end with the certainty of questioning.

A view of a small sandy beach, with flowering grass in the foreground, sand and some seaweed at the shore line, a calm sea, a headland and some distant islands just visible on the horizon, and a complex pattern of clouds above.

Beach near Scapa, Orkney.

‘God, words and us’: being on the Theology Think Tank

With the publication of ‘God, words and us: Quakers in conversation about religious difference‘, the work of the Theology Think Tank (for committee detail nerds: a process run by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group on behalf of Meeting for Sufferings) is in one sense finished, and in another way starting a new phase. The group was convened to address the issue formerly known as ‘theism/nontheism’ – one of our conclusions is that we should call it something else, like ‘religious difference’ – and to see whether Britain Yearly Meeting as a whole can address it productively. The main answer to that question, as embodied by the book, is ‘yes – through honest and caring conversation’. Seeing the book as a starting place as well as a finished product, this seems like a good time to share some of my thoughts about this conversation.

It does matterSometimes when I start talking to Quakers about theology – especially if I use the word ‘theology’ or make it clear that I regard the intellectual processes as important – people try and move away from the whole idea. I can understand this in some ways, especially as a reaction to a dualistic view in which embracing the intellect means rejecting the emotional, but I also think it’s easy to go too far the other way. My thoughts are as much a part of me as my feelings, and to reject the processes by which we try to understand our experiences and create knowledge is to miss out on a huge amount. The includes whatever we can know – and the ways in which we decide that we can’t know – about God.

It never ends. There are always new things to be learned. In the field of theology, that might mean there are new spiritual experiences to be had, new ways to understand and describe our encounters with the Divine, and new insights to be gained from reflection on old texts and experiences which in turn shape our fresh reality. It can be tempting to allow the patterns we can see in cycles of discussion within a community to turn into ‘eras’ with beginnings and endings (everything from the Reformation, to the liberal turn in Quakerism, to the rise of New Atheism), but a movement always has a forerunner – and someone, somewhere, hasn’t yet had whatever debate you thought was settled. It is impossible to divide these discussions from their history and context, and the fuller a picture you have of that, the more likely it is that you will see connections across apart boundaries of time, space, denomination, and religion.

It can be fun. Discussing our spiritual experience and ideas isn’t always fun. It can be vulnerable – especially if some people are sharing more deeply and personally than others. It can be frightening – especially if it seems that in return for their honesty, some people might be rejected from a community which they hold dear. It can be boring – if one question or one person is allowed to dominate, or if the relevance of a discussion isn’t clear, or if it goes round in circles. But I hold, as a matter of faith as well as experience, that talking about the Mystery can be enjoyable. I find it enjoyable in at least three ways: it’s a way to get to know people better, it’s a workout for the parts of the brain which deal with empathy and logic, and there’s always the possibility of novelty, of a new idea arising.

You should try it. I felt incredibly blessed to be able to participate in the Theology Think Tank process. I hope this book will help everyone who wants to join in with these conversations to participate. I particularly hope that it will be a tool to help those who are carrying anxiety about belonging (“would they still like me if they knew what I really believe?”) or about community (“can we really be friends if we disagree about something so important?”) to engage with discussions about theology in a supported and productive way. The book is aimed mainly at Quakers, but I have already had one chat with someone who is interested in looking at it with their non-Quaker church community. You can hold a discussion group or invite in a facilitator or post something on social media – anything, really, as long as it creates a space for honest and caring conversation.

Talk: God or whatever you call it

This talk was given at the Nontheist Friends Network conference at Woodbrooke, 24-26th March 2017. 

This is a talk with two halves. In the first half I want to talk about talking about God, and in the second half I want to talk about God. In the first half I’m going to ask: can we say anything about God, and if we can, what are we doing when we say things about God? In the second half I’m going to ask: what kinds of things do Quakers typically say about God, and what should we, as a community, do about talking about God.

Before I start, I want to say two things about the way I’m going to talk. Firstly, I’m going to use the word God a lot. I’m going to use the word God because it’s in the title of my talk, but also because it’s a handy, short word. I’m also going to use the word God even more because I’m not going to give God any pronouns – no he, no she – and that means I’ll have to repeat ‘God’ a lot! The grammatically eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that my title refers to God as ‘it’, and I run with Quaker convention on that. Following English convention, I also use God as a noun, but that doesn’t automatically mean that I think God is a thing or even a person.

At this point, a lot of Quakers would also invite you to swap the word God for something you like better – you can do that if you like, but I’m going to come back and discuss this habit of ‘translating’ the word God in the second half of my talk.

Secondly, I’m going to try and say what I want to say very plainly and boldly. That means that if there’s a qualification or a hedging, that’s a genuine thing and not just politeness. It also means, hopefully, that if something is controversial or you disagree with me, you’ll know that quickly and easily. I hope you’ll make a note of whatever it is and let me know in the discussion after the talk what you disagree about and why. These are my honest views as I hold them at the moment, but I’ve held other views in the past, I’ll probably hold other views in the future, and I won’t be offended if you don’t share my opinions.

Okay, so onto the first main part of the talk: can we say anything about God? Well, some of you might be thinking that we can’t say anything – or can’t say anything true, or can’t say anything meaningful – about God, because God doesn’t exist. God may or may not exist – I’ll come back to that in the second part of this paper – but I don’t think that stops us talking about God. We can say things – even true and meaningful things – about fictional people, and since we have a word for God we can grant God at least that minimal level of existence. So if I can say something true about Sherlock Holmes – “Sherlock Holmes is very good at solving crimes” – and something false about Sherlock Holmes – “Sherlock Holmes usually wears a bobble-hat” – I should be able to do at least the same when I’m talking about God.

One thing to note here is that people only know that what I’m saying about Sherlock Holmes is true because they have already heard about Sherlock Holmes from other sources. In the culture I live in, Sherlock Holmes has a very high level of what we might call ‘brand recognition’ – which is why I’m confident enough that you’ll all have heard of him, to use him for my example. In another culture, separated from this one by language, distance, or time, those remarks might be nothing but meaningless babble. Again, we’ll come back to this idea of the context and the community being very important later in this talk.

Among people who’ve thought that God had enough reality to be worth talking about, two approaches to talking about God have been popular: a negative view and a positive view. (If you’ve read a theology textbook, you might have come across these under the names apophatic and kataphatic, but let’s not get caught up with technical terms here.) The negative view says that the only things we can say about God and have them be true are negative things: God isn’t this, isn’t that, isn’t the other. The positive view, on the other hand, thinks we might be able to say some things which God is.

The negative view stresses how different God is from us and everything else. God isn’t human. God isn’t a tree. God isn’t even like us. God’s love isn’t like human love. Even God’s existence isn’t like other kinds of existence. Ordinary people-words, which are fine for talking about ordinary people-things, are just so far removed from whatever God might be that they’re never going to cut it. It might not even be possible to put anything about God into words at all. One way to take the negative view to extremes is just not to speak. I like this view: for obvious reasons, the idea of being silent about God has appeals to me as a Quaker!

The other, positive view might go the whole way and say that words we use about people and things can be used about God in exactly the same way: if we say, ‘God loves us’, God’s love is to be understood as just like our love for other people. A gentler version of the positive view might say that the words we use for ordinary things can be applied to God by analogy: if we say, ‘God loves us’, God’s love is to be thought of as a bit like human love – enough that we can start to imagine it – but not exactly like human love, so that we will never be able to really understand it. I like this view too: being able to say some things about God appeals to me as a theologian – and as a Quaker who thinks that there is something worth talking about in this whole religion thing.

So, what are we doing when we say things about God? We’re aware that whatever we say is probably a bit short of what’s really going on – but that’s the case for lots of ordinary situations, like when someone asks you what colour such and such a beautiful stained glass window is, and you can only say ‘it’s blue’. Not being able to say everything doesn’t stop us saying anything. We’re aware of the value of sometimes saying nothing – but we also know that we sometimes need to say things. Sitting in silence together is great, but leaving all the pages of a book blank wouldn’t have the same effect!

We also know that anything we say will be heard differently by different people and in different situations. Consider for a moment the word ‘mouse’. If I say that there’s a mouse in my kitchen, you’ll probably think of a small brown furry thing. If I say that the wire on my mouse is damaged, you’ll probably think of a computer accessory. The way you interpret the word ‘mouse’ is changed by the context in which you hear it. The same happens with lots of other words, including religious ones. When I hear the word God in a sentence like ‘God the Father gave His only son’, I think of quite a different God to the God in a sentence like ‘Thor, God of Thunder, we invoke you’. It’s a more complex case, though: there are only a few things we refer to using the word ‘mouse’, but people use the word ‘God’ in all sorts of ways.

Some people respond to this by demanding that those using the word ‘God’ give a definition – my God is this and not that, and so on. There are two troubles with such definitions. The minor, practical one is that people often don’t know all that off hand, and their ‘definitions’ rule out things they do actually think about God and rule in things they don’t think. The bigger one is that this isn’t how language works. We don’t usually learn a new word by memorising a dictionary definition and then practising using it. Instead, we hear someone using it, usually several people using it, and pick up from the situation how to use it ourselves. Dictionary writers then listen to this and write down how we use it, often with some examples, as a reminder and a shortcut to this process.

Because the same thing happens with religious words, where and how we learn a word can deeply influence how we feel about it. I grew up in a Quaker family, so I learned to use the word ‘Light’ for God, even though people at school wouldn’t have understood. I learned the word ‘baptism’ for something we didn’t do, and was very uncomfortable with it when I encountered it at the church parade my Brownie pack went to. Today, I know some people for whom it has very positive connotations, and I can use my imagination to enter that world a bit and understand why – but it’s still not a word I’d use in relation to my own spiritual life. I see some people having similar reactions to words I’m fine with – I’ve seen people who are now Quakers break down in tears over terms like ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’ because those words brought with them intensely negative emotions.

Where does all that leave us? We can say things about God, even if God is a story, and we might want to use positive or negative statements. We can remain silent about God – but there are advantages to speaking sometimes. We learn words about God from the community around us, and every word carries an emotional weight. When we move from one religious community to another – as the majority of people who are now Quakers in Britain have done – we bring those words, and the feelings which go with them, along with us.

Okay – deep breath – second part. What do Quakers typically say about God? If we learned to speak about God only by listening to Quakers, what kind of things would we learn to say?

I’ve got two sources for what I’m about to say. For a picture of the core things twentieth-century Quakers has been able to agree about, I’m going to use the 1994 version of Advices & Queries as my example. It’s a good example for three reasons: it was approved by Britain Yearly Meeting, it contains more talk about God per paragraph than many other Quaker publications, and it’s still widely used and familiar. For a picture of how things have developed since 1994 and what individual Quakers say, I’m going to pick out a few examples from a pattern I identified in the course of my PhD research. I’ll come on to that after I’ve discussed Advices & Queries.

Here are some things Advices & Queries says God has or gives us: leadings, a spirit, healing power, love, guidance, ways, promptings, a presence, a word, forgiveness, gifts, light, purposes, will, children, help. And here are some things Advices & Queries says God does: shows, cherishes, works, guides.

By way of contrast, here are some things philosophy textbooks typically say the God of monotheism is: all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving. Doesn’t that sound different? There’s some overlap of content – both include the words ‘love’ and ‘power’, although a mention of ‘healing power’ and ‘that life and power which takes away the occasion of all wars’ are pretty different to the claim that God is all-powerful. Wouldn’t an all-powerful God stop wars, rather than take away their occasion when people live in God’s way? Beyond that, though, I think the main difference is positioning. The God of Advices & Queries is nearby, even alongside us, to be felt and experienced: it asks us to be open to the healing power of God’s love, to ask for guidance and respond to promptings, in short to be in relationship with God. There’s an emphasis on doing: it doesn’t quite treat God as a verb, but some parts would be amenable to viewing God as a process, for example. The philosophy textbook, by contrast, positions God firmly outside us, even outside the universe. If you read Advices & Queries assuming that Quakers believe in the God of the philosophy textbook, there’s nothing there which directly says it isn’t so – but there’s also nothing which says it is so.

Now I want to talk about lists. Who doesn’t like a good list? Shopping list, to-do list… and, it turns out, a creative Quaker response to some of the problems involved in naming God. When Quakers start talking about God – whether they’re talking to a non-Quaker, or they’re in a Quaker discussion group, or they’re writing a book about something Quakery – a lot of them say something like this: in meeting for worship, we try and listen to God, or the Spirit, or the Light, or Love, or whatever you call it. If they don’t give a list, they often say something like “please translate the word ‘God’ into another word” – which wouldn’t be possible if there wasn’t, at least hypothetically, a list of possible reasonable alternatives. Not only can you hear Quakers doing this regularly once you start noticing it, but it’s commonly done in print as well – look at Peter Parr’s Kindlers book or Ben Pink Dandelion’s Celebrating the Quaker Way for some really clear examples. This pattern isn’t completely new, but I reckon it’s become much more common in the last twenty to thirty years and has been put to new uses.

So what are the uses of the list of terms for God?

Lists can help clarify what we mean by the first term we use. Almost all Quaker lists of terms for God make it clear that there is one thing, one Divine, one God, which we can name and describe in a multitude of ways. They do this by putting one word first and then ‘translating’ it or offering synonyms, like this: “We have many names for the Divine – Spirit, God, Heavenly Father, Universe, Papa, Mother, Light…” (quote from the editors’ introduction to Spirit Rising)

In a world where a word like ‘God’ can be understood in lots of different ways – and there’s a good chance that the person you’re talking too doesn’t think of Quaker uses first, but perhaps a philosophy textbook use or a church use or someone swearing “Oh God, not again!” at them – it’s really helpful to be able to expand on our understanding of a word. Using a word like God or Divine at the header of the list puts us in the right area – opens the gate to the religious semantic field, so to speak – but once we’re there, it’s important to show how our understanding of God differs from other understandings. A clear example of this is lists which include terms like ‘Ground of Being’, an image which gets us a long way away from any man-on-a-cloud pictures people might be harbouring.

Lists of lots of words can overwhelm our need to talk and move us back towards silence. There’s a sense in which the more you say, the less you are saying.    …

Lists can signal our inclusivity. There are a very small number of people who are both Quaker and Muslim, and also a small number of Quakers who grew up as Arabic-speaking Christians – I don’t know exactly how many, but don’t think either of these groups is visible enough among Quakers in Britain to explain how often the list of words for God includes ‘Allah’. My alternative hypothesis is that the list is very handy for signalling a desire to be inclusive of all faith perspectives. Advices & Queries 6 asks us to “enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith” and I think this is visible in the choice some Quaker writers have made to add ‘Allah’ to the list of terms for God. Seeing a lot of discussion of Islam in the media, especially Islamophobic views, and wanting to counter that, they add a term which will be understood as of Islamic origin to their lists of acceptable terms for God, thereby making it clear that they think that at least some Islamic theology is acceptable and can be compatible with Quaker views. Something similar applies to the desire to include a range of other groups through the use of their terms in the list: add Christ to include Christocentrics, add Goddess to include the Pagans, add Buddha and Universal Energy and Light and… and eventually you might make everyone happy.

Or not. Lists can disguise our disagreements. Some people hold views about, for example, a completely this-worldly and non-supernatural Earth Goddess which are genuinely at odds with some other people’s views about a miracle-working outside-space-and-time Christ, and all those real differences are hidden by shoving everything together in a list.

It’s worth dwelling for a moment on the issues of disagreeing with people, offending people, and stepping on emotional landmines. When I was offering workshops to meetings around the country on this topic, quite often someone would say to me something like: “I’m so glad you’re coming, Rhiannon – I’m a nontheist in a really Christocentric meeting and it’s ever so hard to talk about God language openly!” Just as often, someone would say to me something like: “I’m so glad you’re coming, Rhiannon – I’m a Christian in a mostly nontheist meeting and it’s ever so hard to talk about the issues openly!” From time to time, I’d hear both of those things about the same meeting. When I actually ran the workshop, which includes asking people to share which words they do and don’t use for God, I got very similar answers everywhere I went: Quakers reject most obviously hierarchical language, many rejected obviously gendered language, they want the good bits of Jesus Christ and not the weird bits, and their individual choices are heavily shaped by childhood experience and the audience they think they’re speaking to.

I came to the conclusion that although meetings do vary, there aren’t really some Christian ones and some nontheist ones but a widespread fear of upsetting people. Advices & Queries 5 tells us not to be afraid to say what we have found on our spiritual journeys – and it needs to, because a lot of us are afraid to talk about these things. I only have guesses here, but my best guess is that there are two things that happen sometimes and reinforce this. One thing that happens sometimes is that one of us says something, which accidentally upsets someone, and we both go away determined never to discuss it again. It’s not always easy to distinguish one person in a meeting being upset by something from the whole meeting not wanting to hear that thing. For example, if I read from the Bible in ministry, someone who’s been hurt by a church with a big emphasis on the Bible and has consequently – sensibly! – rejected that perspective, might come up to me afterwards and say, “What were you doing, reading from that irrelevant old book?” If they say it strongly enough – and especially if I suspect they’ve sort of got a point, and I’m struggling with my own relationship with Biblical texts and loving some parts and hating others, and also if we don’t have time and space for a real conversation about why I did read from the Bible and why they felt strongly about it – I might take this as evidence that so-and-so was dreadfully offended and I shouldn’t read from the Bible in that meeting. But if my leading to read was a true one and I followed it faithfully, maybe others needed to hear it – maybe even the Friend who was upset by it. There’s no rule that says we have to like what God has to say to us!

The other thing that sometimes happens is that we just never discuss our understandings of God at all. In some meetings God only comes up in spoken ministry – and in some meetings not even there. Maybe it’s seen as too personal or private – Quakers often only discuss their spiritual experiences in carefully facilitated confidential workshops. Maybe it’s not socially appropriate over tea and biscuits – although we could change that social rule if we wanted to. Maybe there’s not time, and we don’t know one another well enough in our meetings to be prepared to share at this deep level. Or maybe we’re afraid of upsetting someone, as just discussed.

If we never discuss things, we are unlikely to know what the disagreements involved actually are. We read some Quaker literature, and perhaps hear dropped hints without open discussion, and make our best guesses about what people feel and believe – and we can gather all those guesses together in a handy list, “God or the Light or the Spirit or the Universe or the inner Buddha-nature or whatever you call it.”

So here’s the last thing which lists enable us to do. They let us hold together opposing desires in a single grammatical structure. The list embodies our desire to be inclusive – it literally includes a range of terms, and hints that many more possible ones are acceptable. It embodies our desire to say something about God but not to go too deeply into theology or get caught up in ‘notions’ – I found the lists most often in the introductions to Quaker publications, where people deal with the God thing before moving on to whatever they really wanted to say. It embodies our desire to be together and unified – we can all be in the one list, using different terms for the one whatever-it-is. Lists have their flaws, but they are also a powerful and dynamic tool for holding tensions together creatively. Inclusion and diversity and speaking and silence are all held together in the list like a struggling kitten wrapped in a blanket.

So where does all this leave us? I’ve got three main conclusions here, which for short I call: gotta try, gotta cry, gotta clarify.

1: Gotta try. We’ve got to try and communicate our experiences and understandings. While accepting the limitations of language and of human understanding, we’re going to have to say something – so we might as well say what we’ve got to say as well as we can. It’s tempting to back out. Theology is too difficult (but it’s not – we all do theology every time we come to meeting for worship, every time we are bereaved, every time we try and work out whether to buy Fairtrade or organic bananas). It’s all notions and theories and we should ignore it – but we can’t, because how we understand ourselves, our world, and our spirituality affects every decision we make, even if we decide not to talk about it. My experience is that our communities are stronger when we try to communicate – so we’ve got to try.

2. Gotta cry. Human communication isn’t easy. Ever had a bitter row with a dear friend or loved one about the washing up? Yeah, me too. The washing up is right there to see, but the question of whether it’s my turn to do it brings up all sorts of questions about what kind of person I am: am I a good housemate? Am I helpful? Am I tidy? Am I too stubborn or do I give in too easily? The same will be true of our religious questions, and we are going to upset other people and be upset ourselves sometimes if we engage deeply and genuinely. There will be times when we’re not up for that, for all sorts of reasons – but we can also be ready to support ourselves and others through the process by acknowledging that emotions are part of the discussion, not a problem to be avoided.

3. Gotta clarify. This is actually a suggestion about the process. Clarification can take many forms. You might add the ‘because’ – ‘When I heard the Bible read in ministry, I was upset because…’ You might tell the story behind something – ‘When I was at Sunday School, I was taught to use that word differently…’ You might make your motives explicit – ‘I’m going to use a list of terms for God now in order to…’ You might add some ordinary words to explain a technical term – ‘My understanding is that God is transcendent, so exists outside the physical universe…’ You might ask for clarification – ‘That’s interested, can you expand?’ Clarification is an ongoing process. We won’t reach complete clarity – but as we try, we can come to know one another better in the things which are eternal, and through that, come to a greater awareness of that of God in everyone. Whatever that is!

In discussion afterwards, a number of people were interested in my thesis, which can be downloaded from the White Rose eTheses collection. Others were interested in my work with meetings: these day workshops can now be booked through Woodbrooke on the Road, or more information about the project as a whole can be found on its own website, Or Whatever You Call It.