Tag Archives: I

I is for Interaction

At the end of last week, I was at the Quakers Uniting in Publications conference for, oh, almost twenty-four hours. In that time, I presented a two different sessions – one with Gil Skidmore on the Quaker Alphabet Blog project, and one with Susan Robson about Living with Conflict (the book, the website and the Facebook page). Both sessions were lively and interactive, and the interaction was at least partly around the topic of interaction: conflict and disagreement in the broad sense require interaction (the ‘it takes two to tango’ principle), and questions about the alphabet blogs sometimes focussed specifically on the nature and purpose of the interactions taking place. Interaction is key to community, of course, and to communication, and also to many people’s learning styles.

In teaching, one of my interests is to encourage interaction with the material and with other students or participants in a course. It’s possible to take this too far – some topics need a certain amount of straightforward input, and some people are much more comfortable listening to a speaker than discussing questions in a group. That said, I think a lot of people don’t go far enough, and much of today’s media (at least, the traditional media: TV, radio, newspapers) don’t readily support interaction with the material they present.

The nature of online material often makes interaction much more possible – comments sections on news articles, message boards and blogging sites where you can share you views with other fans, and of course social media sites which are designed to facilitate interaction (and then market your desire for possible interaction as a point at which you can be shown an advert). It’s not always clear what these interactions mean and what weight they should be given. To some, a handwritten letter is more precious than an email; depending on the topic and recipient, I can spend an hour on an email and dash of a handwritten note (in ink pen on proper letter-paper) in ten minutes, so I don’t tend to share that weighting. Sometimes when people click ‘like’ on Facebook, they also comment to say what they mean (“Liked for happy ending”), but much more often we are left in the dark. Does ‘like’ mean that you’ve seen it, that it made you pause, made you smile, made you happy? All we can say for sure is that it made you click your mouse.

Sometimes, of course, there is a much more substantial interaction – in response to my post last week, Gordon Ferguson posted at Sheffield Quakers, and we continued the conversation a little in the Quaker Renewal UK Facebook group. At other times the interaction is less obvious, or not online: people coming back months or even years later. After my workshops, I try and measure ‘impact’ (an academic ‘i’ word I’m avoiding writing about!) by asking people whether they will change what they do or say. Of course, at 4pm having only met the material for the first time at 10am, they don’t really know. It’s the bits which come back later – the ministry inspired by something which was said, or the way it feeds into another project – which is the longer term and I feel more valuable form of interaction.

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I is for Irreplaceability

Are some words or phrases irreplaceable in our language, in that it is impossible to express the same sense – or convey the same picture of the world – without using that specific expression? Some Wittgensteinians have argued that it is (n.b. I’m going to talk about the idea and not the references today; broadly speaking, this stuff comes out of the student’s notes published as Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Religious Belief, and is covered in a complex and technical literature in which I regard Cora Diamond as a slightly more readable guiding light).

What kind of thing might be irreplaceable in this way? Some examples might be religious uses of language which create very clear images of the way the world is: for example, if you’re describing a sensation experienced in prayer, you might be able to say, “It felt like God was watching over me”, and thereby capture something about the experience which is not captured by other, similar phrases. The picture created, of a God who is outside you and can watch, perhaps even has eyes, need not be regarded as ‘literal’ or even ‘true’ in order to be the most vivid and accurate representation of the way you felt in that moment. In fact, we know that language in such contexts isn’t taken in the same way that the same phrase would be in another setting; if someone else is said to be watching, the grammatically acceptable conversational responses are different.

One of the reasons that irreplaceability interests me as an idea is that it runs counter to another idea I hear quite frequently, namely, that everything can be ‘said in other words’ with just a bit of effort. Especially in the realm of spiritual experience, it is often argued that people are talking about the same thing but in different ways. This usually has an underlying element of monotheism or at least an assumption of reliable access to a single reality, and a motivation to bring people together and smooth over arguments. Sometimes it even dismisses language, especially if a concept like ‘experience’ is brought in to be primary. Irreplaceability, though, suggests that it’s not always possible to just re-phrase things in another way, and perhaps that ‘translating’ between the language of one religion and another might lose something, perhaps even more than is lost in ordinary translation between one natural language and another.

In fact, this view is so pervasive that I gave up asking Quakers which language they thought was irreplaceable, because when working at the intellectual level they insisted that it was all dispensable. However, I do from time to time – coming at the issue by a roundabout route – hear Quakers confess that there are certain key phrases without which they cannot explain Quakerism to others, for example. One of them is “that of God within” – usually followed by a disclaimer that the word ‘God’ could be replaced by some other noun, such as ‘good’, although as far as I can tell this is almost never done in conversation and the grammar of the phrase is very stable indeed.

For myself, I can pick out a few other phrases or words which I would regard as irreplaceable in my own spiritual vocabulary. I like to use terms which feel ‘plain’ to me in my writing – “God”, even when I’m aware that some readers will carry supernaturalist baggage with that word, and “the Light” as a picture of how God’s presence feels to me. Within the gendered structures of today’s society, the word “Goddess” – complete with a little bit of shock value in some settings – is vital to my understanding of the Divine. The image of the Spirit moving or flowing through a situation, and the idea of the Spirit guiding a community, seem to me to capture something which is part of my experience and not expressed in other phrases.

Are there terms which seem to you to be irreplaceable, to express something which cannot be put in other words?

I is for… Internet

I think it comes as no surprise that most religious communities, like most communities, have now embraced the internet to some extent. Obviously, Pagans – often isolated but interested in each other – have one very distinctive pattern of internet use, but it is also the case that Quakers are developing patterns. For example, Quaker uses of Facebook and Twitter are growing: mostly, we never knew how Meeting for Worship went in other places, unless we happened to be visiting, before we started sharing about it on Facebook.

Recently, this has been on my mind because I’ve been trying to envision how a Quaker committee can do its work by email. Using email as a supplement to in-person meetings is obvious: circulate agendas, papers, and minutes quickly and easily. Moving enough for the Meeting for Worship for Business into cyberspace that you can actually make decisions there, though, is much more difficult. At the moment, I’m working with some ground rules, and trying to spot what else might need to be said.

My first ground rule for Quaker business by email is that in order to mark the difference between seated silence (used for assent in ordinary business meetings) and absence, muttered responses like ‘I hope so’ or even ‘that Friend speaks my mind’ should be much more acceptable.

My second thought is that giving people guidelines on reasonable times for responses is useful – the email equivalent of telling people when the clerk will be looking up from the minute-book. For example, if everyone knows that from the date of email A, in which a proposal is set out, they have five days to respond before the clerk will try a minute, they can both take time to think about it and answer in a timely way – and the clerk, especially if there are few responses, won’t have to sit around after those days wondering whether to wait and see if anyone else replies!

The capacity for shared documents – at the moment I use Google Drive – also gives a chance for the meeting to collectively maintain records. With some groups, I would even consider trying this for minutes: write and share a draft, and then allow group members to edit the document directly (perhaps with some encouragement to track their changes and  comment on their reasons).

There’s much to be learnt, though, about how to conduct email meetings in right ordering. Have you tried it? How did you get on?

I is for… Interfaith

Quakers are well-represented and active in the world of interfaith work in Britain – indeed, sometimes we are represented beyond our numbers! Quakers are perhaps especially well placed to do some things in interfaith contexts. Although we can and do upset other faith communities sometimes (same-sex marriage or the boycott of Israeli settlement goods, anyone?), we are generally open to dialogue around these issues and others. Sometimes Quaker Meeting Houses can provide relatively neutral spaces within which to hold interfaith meetings, and sometimes they enable the development of other religious communities – I have heard Buddhists say that the British Buddhist community wouldn’t be as strong as it now is without the hospitality of the Quakers. I’m inclined to think that this is a positive thing, and not just because nine out of every ten Quaker Universalists is a Buddhist of some kind*.

As a community which is in itself in some ways ‘multifaith’ – in the sense that we have a common practice and much diversity of belief – I think we find interfaith work especially useful and satisfying. It isn’t a direct relationship, and we need to continue to work on discussing things more openly within Quakerism, but perhaps there is a sense in which, for example, listening to Muslims at an interfaith meeting on Thursday night makes it easier to listening to Sufi-inspired ministry on Sunday morning.

On a more practical level, Quaker practices of listening and holding space for people to speak can be powerful in interfaith discussion settings. Our understanding that all people are equal and our disinclination to proselytise can also contribute to positive interfaith interactions. That’s not to say that we always get it right – any interfaith work runs into bumpy roads sometimes, and Quaker involvement doesn’t change that in the slightest. I think our involvement is worth celebrating, though, at local and national levels, and in less-than-obvious places as well as more traditional ones.

* 100% invented statistic.

I is for… Independence and Interbeing

I really value my independence. I like being self-motivated, self-organised, self-reliant; and for many years, I have clung to this image of myself as positively independent to cover for the many ways in which I am unable to connect with people and struggle to trust them.

Of course, I am not really independent. I am – like all beings – part of the web of interbeing. Even as I write this, alone in my room, I am reliant on the previous and future work of other humans: who created the internet and my laptop, programmed wordpress and ubuntu, made keyboards and beds and pillows and all the other things in my room, who grew the food I ate last night and the breakfast I will make soon. I will ‘make my own’ breakfast, but I didn’t grow the rhubarb or the oats or the grapes or the soya or the nuts; I didn’t make the museli or the soy milk; I didn’t even, for the most part, carry things home from the shop, due to the wonders of internet ordering.

Beyond the human, I rely on plants and animals – even as a vegan, I am aware that animals die in the production of my food. I rely on the rain and the sun, the soil of the earth and the magic of photosynthesis.

My illusion of independence is important to me, though. I don’t mind my interbeing with ‘nature’ so much, and I am not worried about relying on God/Gaia/goodness. I object to having to trust humans, though! My housemate has been cooking for us – we’ve have this system for almost two years now, and you’d think I’d be used to it. But I need to eat at the right times, and I still find it stressful, physically and mentally, when I’m not sure what’s happening, when I don’t know when the food will arrive, and when the food doesn’t meet my needs – often in ways too petty to discuss, and yet noticeable over the long term. I try and work with it, and I am genuinely grateful for it, both because it is better to share meals (cheaper, more efficient, etc.) and because sometimes (hello there CFS) I can’t cook for myself, but actually I am looking forward to living as only one human in a one-person flat.

I feel like I will regain a measure of control which I have lost, a level of ‘independence’. At the very least, the illusion of independence offers me a temporary break from comparisons with others, a space in which my sleeping patterns, eating habits, lack of energy, and other physical and social oddities can be ignored because they’re ‘just how I am’ and not hurdles to be overcome in order to participate in normal life.

I is for… Images

In pagan practice, the use of images is common, recommended, sometimes even mandatory. It’s a big difference from my Quaker background – in which there are no images used in worship, and often very few in the whole Meeting House. In Buddhism, the images vary between the traditions; in Tibetan traditions, there are usually many, while the Zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn (with whom I spent a retreat recently) uses very few – they are allowed, but not needed.

Images, though, especially images of Goddesses, are one of the things which drew me to Paganism. (Not to Druidry – where they are allowed but do not especially abound – but to Wiccan and Celtic Neo-Paganism more generally.) Goddess worship usually uses either an image or a symbol for the Goddess, and I find that very attractive. I can, now, visualise my Goddesses when I wish to, but when I started out, symbols were very important to me.

I began with images which simply represented the deities in whom I was interested – a horse for Epona, a seal for Sedna. I began to collect more specific images – cheap reproductions of Bast were most easily found, and now I own several. Eventually I began to be able to afford modern, well-made, purpose-made images – I vividly remember the day in Glastonbury when I bought a Dryad Design Seated Goddess. She is on my altar still.

Why images, though? Flat images are beautiful, attract the eye, and help me to switch out of the wordy, thinky mode in which I usually work. Statues are all that and more; they add a sensual aspect, something which can be touched and held, something which can be lovingly dusted or washed, arranged on an altar and presented with offerings. Of course, I can also wash my dishes as if I’m bathing a baby Buddha – and in many ways, I think the two have the same spiritual virtues – but sometimes you need something shiny to attract the monkey mind and encourage you to enjoy your practice (a key part of actually getting on and practicing said practice!). For me, images of Goddesses and Gods are an important part of that.