Tag Archives: H

H is for Hick

John Hick (1922-2012) was a philosopher of religion and theologian. Like many of us, he found that his views grew and changed over time, but he is probably best known for a perspective on religions which is often called pluralism. It’s closely related to the position which Quakers know as universalism. It’s core idea is that all religions are equal: that they have equal access to the Divine or the Real or that they all contain some truth if not the Truth.

(Common and reasonable responses at this point include: “well, obviously”, “equal access to the Divine and containing some truth about the Divine are not the same thing”, “hang about, are the Divine and the Real the same thing?” and “equal access? hah! there isn’t anything to access”.)

Hick himself chooses to talk about the Real to cover all the names used by the many religions of the world. He writes:

Can we really equate the personal Yahweh with the non-personal Brahman, Shiva with the Tao, the Holy Trinity with the Buddhist Trikāya, and all with one another?… Let us then both avoid particular names used within the particular traditions and yet use a term which is consonant with the faith of each of them – Ultimate Reality, or the Real. (Problems of Religious Pluralism, 1985, p39)

It isn’t always clear how much access he thinks we have to the Real – this is a place where Quaker  Universalists, who affirm the possibility of direct access through the practice of waiting, listening worship, might want to disagree with Hick or go further than he does, especially in the earlier academic writing. (Please season that remark about Quaker Universalists with your choice of caveats: for example, they’re a diverse group, they might not all express it that way, etc.)

What really interests me about Hick as a person, rather than a philosopher, is the way that his work is distinctly developed in dialogue with his life and the places he lived. The motivation for developing a pluralist approach to religions is not a dry claim that everyone is equal, although some of the stuff about there being the same number of saints in all religions can sound like that, but rather his experience of living and working in Birmingham, and especially of being involved in interfaith and anti-racist work there. In that context, the need for a philosophy of religion which accepts members of all religions and counters distrust and hatred is alive and obvious. It might not be done perfectly – there are a number of places where Hick’s work is incomplete and others are starting to extend it here and fill gaps there – but the motivation strikes me as one worth respecting.

If you want to know more about Hick, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an introduction, and Hick’s own work is often academic but not dense or especially difficult to follow.

H is for… Hymns

(As a humourless feminist, I feel duty bound to begin this post with a joke about Hers, the quality of which will tell you why I am considered humourless.)

Quakers, especially those of us in the silent or unprogrammed worship traditions, are for obvious reasons not noted for our hymn singing. For one thing, you have to be both confident of your voice and deeply stirred by the Spirit to stand a sing alone and into silence (which is not to say that nobody does, only that it is rare). In the programmed worship traditions, though, they even publish a hymnal, and many of us in all traditions have favourite songs, whether or not we expect to use them in worship. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, here are a few of my favourites – not all technically hymns, although some are.

Enemy of Apathy, John Bell’s celebration of the Spirit.

Isaiah 55:12 – no surprise that I enjoy nature imagery!

Simple Gifts, a much-used tune with many alternative versions – another one can be found in Sing in the Spirit.

H is for… Habit

“A traditional Quaker; thou comest to meeting as thou went from it, and goes from it as thou came to it but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?”

Thus ministered Anne Wilson, with her finger pointed at Samuel Bownas – a second generation Friend who had, by his own account, been sleeping through most of Meeting for Worship. (Read the full story in Quaker Faith and Practice.) Apparently her words spoke most directly to his condition.

Sometimes I suspect that I’m rather like Samuel Bownas, not much changed by meeting, attending mostly from habit and for the social aspects, and without much of a leg to stand on in ‘the end’ (debates about the nature of that deferred for another day). I don’t think that necessarily all wrong, either; many Friends have found value in meeting even when “angry, depressed, tired or spiritually cold“, and if it is something other than the waiting worship which supports you in those times, that’s no reason to reject whatever supports you.

Doing Quaker service out of habit bothers me more, actually. It’s one thing to, say, run a Brownie meeting purely habitually, once in a while – you’ve done a lot of it before, it benefits from familiarity and continuity, and it doesn’t do any harm to run more or less on autopilot (so long as you can snap out of it when the unexpected, inevitably, happens). And Quaker jobs do, like any jobs, take a while to settle into; you get the hang of them eventually. We limit the terms of most of them, though, for good reasons: to share the work around, to have new perspectives on any given job, and to help prevent groups falling into bad habits and becoming unresponsive to changing needs and circumstances.

H is for… History

Here’s a controversial opinion: I don’t think history is very important to my pagan practice.

It isn’t that I don’t think that historical research is important. If you’re going to make historical claims, it’s vital, and I use the treatment of history in works about paganism as a marker of their carefulness and reliability: wild, unsourced claims about history are going to make me wary of your work, just like absent or erroneous references to other works. I’m not a reconstructionist but I enjoy and appreciate the rigorous work which has been done on the Celtic Reconstructionist FAQ and other similar sources.

History is important. But it isn’t all-important. I use historical sources, but I am not governed by them. In the end, history – as a guide to practice, belief, morality, and other aspects of pagan religion – is trumped by experience, common sense, and my other prior commitments.

The biggest thing this affects, I think, is the consumable items I use in ritual. Meat, milk, and alcohol are all traditional – but I am committed to non-violence, to lowering my carbon footprint, and to retaining a clear mind (as far as possible!), so I refrain from all of these. That doesn’t mean I can’t use food in ritual, just that my cakes and ale are probably oatcakes and apple juice.

It also shapes, though, my approach to syncretism and other philosophical questions. Syncretism itself, of course, is fairly well historical grounded if you are drawing on Roman sources or sources influenced by the Roman empire (see, for example, Sulis Minerva), but the reasoning behind many such ‘double deities’ is lost; and we often do not know whether two names attested in two places are two deities with similar or related names, or one deity with a variant name (are Brigid and Brigantia one goddess or two?). So when the historical sources run out, or are unclear, or there simply are no extant sources on the question I am considering, I ask other questions: does it make sense? does it conform to my experience? and is it philosophically and ethically acceptable to me?

H is for… Heathen

At the Guardian, Julian Baggini has posted his Heathen’s Progress in which he uses the term ‘heathen’ as a positive version of atheism. Now, I like positive atheism, or positive non-theism, and I have a lot of sympathy for that position – for, as the Non-Theist Friends network said in their epistle: “wrestling with the paradox of “nontheism” as a negative term signifying a positive commitment to wholly human values”.

I even understand why they might not want to use some of the available alternatives – humanism might be a good word, but maybe it sounds selfish or isn’t non-religious enough, and secularism has more than one sense which might make it confusing.

I don’t think you should take the word heathen for that position, though. Although there are atheist pagans, and probably atheist heathens, most heathens are polytheists, practicing a pre-Christian religion. Odin is a God. Thor is a God. Frigg is a Goddess. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Julian Baggini is after.

I’d like to invite atheists who want a positive word for their beliefs to actually describe their beliefs. Are you a humanist, a secularist, a naturalist, a materialist, a truth-teller, a scientist, a rationalist? Of course, those things can go with being a Pagan or a Christian or a Jew or a wide range of other religious identities, so if what you want to say is ‘I’m not a Christian’ or ‘I’m not a theist’, then you’ll have to say that as well. So what? We don’t have to reduce ourselves to a single label, and we always lose something when we try to do so.

I’m a Quaker Pagan Buddhist naturalist (but not usually a naturist). What are you?