Tag Archives: language

Fresh eyes on Multiple Religious Belonging

I’ve worked on Multiple Religious Belonging on and off for a long time now (as evidenced by my academic publications on it from 2015, 2017, and 2018, as well as previous blog posts, and perhaps the title of my blog!). Having had a break, I’m thinking about these things again as I prepare to run a Woodbrooke online course about Multiple Religious Belonging next month. There are big questions involved, of course – like what counts as belonging (who has to recognise it? does it require practice, or social connections, or belief, or all of those or none?), and what counts as a religion (do we mean ‘world religions’ or ‘traditions’ or ‘faith communities’?) Those are good questions, but rather than start with them, then rule things in or out of ‘multiple religious belonging’ on that basis, it might be as useful to start by looking at what people call ‘multiple religious belonging’ and use that to reflect on the understandings of religion and belonging which appear.

For example, being a Jewish Buddhist is common enough that there’s a Wikipedia page listing notable people who have this joint identity. The introduction to it, though, points out that this looks different for different people in the list: some might have a Jewish identity through their family (because Judaism functions in this context as both religion and ethnicity) and be mainly Buddhist in terms of religious practice, while others, like Alan Lew, actively practice both religious Judaism and Buddhist meditation. Just in describing that example, I’ve started to uncover ideas about what religion is: it can be inherited or acquired; it can be practised or ignored; both Judaism and Buddhism are seen as religions, or there wouldn’t be the same need to point out and explain people’s dual affiliations; and a specific religion can have characteristic practices, such as meditation.

Other examples might add other ideas. Sometimes people name a specific tradition within a religion (Anglican-Wiccan) but at other times they use broader terms (Christian-Pagan). That might reflect an understanding of their tradition as importantly distinct from other traditions: for example, saying ‘Quaker’ rather than ‘Christian’ because although Quakerism is historically part of the Christian family, that individual doesn’t identify as Christian, or saying ‘Anglican’ rather than ‘Christian’ as part of an understanding that combining Anglicanism with something else is different to combining Roman Catholicism with something else. This might be hard to untangle from a single use, or without asking the speaker for more information. A broader term might be employed to show solidarity or because more specific terms get misunderstand (compare the PaganDash campaign, in which Pagans tried to get greater recognition on the census results by starting their write-in answers with the same, recognisable, word).

In my own life, I tend to speak differently about different communities. I’ll say I’m a member of a Quaker meeting, usually before anything else; if it comes up, I say I’m a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD). By contrast, I usually say I have experience of or have participated in the Community of Interbeing, forms of Buddhism, or various kinds of Paganism. That partly represents my level of commitment – although I probably use a Community of Interbeing practice, reciting the Five Mindfulness Trainings, almost as often as I use a formal OBOD practice – but also how I feel about the traditions and the communities. OBOD works mainly through correspondence course, and it’s easy to feel connected without an in-person community; the Community of Interbeing works a lot through local sanghas, and I’ve never joined one; Quakers work through meetings, and I’m both part of a local Quaker meeting and (very!) involved in wider Quaker activities. In this perhaps I’m revealing my own ideas about what it means to belong to a religion – very much about participation, community acceptance, and regular activity. I didn’t mention belief at all, for example, which would be highly important in some other understandings.

How do you talk about multiple religious belonging, whether or not you practise it? What ideas about religion do you have, or have you spotted one in this post which I didn’t mention?

Advertisements

Stone Age Speech

My novel about Neolithic lesbians on Orkney, Between Boat and Shore, was published on Friday by Manifold Press – information and purchase links. In this post I want to explore one of the challenges of writing a novel set in the Neolithic period, about six or seven thousand years ago: namely, deciding what words to use. At times it felt more like writing fantasy or sci-fi – constructing a different, unknown world and working out how to translate it into our own – than writing something historical.

Warning: this post contains minor spoilers about the book, the setting and the characters, although not about any major events of the plot. 

Some things were actually easier. I think if I were writing a novel set a hundred years ago, I might be tempted to spend ages consulting timelines of slang and other resources, and write at least some of the dialogue in the language of the time. For the early Neolithic, this just isn’t possible – not even because it would need translating, but because we have very little idea what language was spoken anywhere in the world at that time. In Europe, it was probably whatever language became Proto-Indo-European, a language we don’t have in full but linguists can reconstruct in parts from the commonalities between later languages. I used Proto-Indo-European and its wide geographic spread in two ways: firstly, as a justification for characters who had travelled some distance around the coast of Europe being able to basically understand those in the new community where they had arrived; secondly, as inspiration for the names of characters. I applied a liberal amount of poetic license to adjust for ease of pronunciation etc., but almost every character in the book has a name based on a word calculated to have existed in Proto-Indo-European. For example, Trebbi is named from the root treb-, dwelling or settlement, which survived in the Celtic languages and will be familiar to map-readers in Cornwall and Wales as the prefix Tre-.

The low remains/reconstructions of a house built from wide, flat stones. In the front of the picture an entrance way is visible; in the middle there are the thick outer walls and single-stone inner walls of the house, including two hearth spaces; and in the background there's water, both the near and far shores of a loch. The sky above is grey and cloudy.

A house at Barnhouse Neolithic Settlement on Orkney, one of the inspirations for the novel.

Apart from that, I used casual, modern British English, including a set of neopronouns. Of the many options available for nonbinary pronouns, I tried to choose a set which would suit my characters, be clear enough not to need explicit discussion in the text, and also not introduce confusion. With that in mind, I used ey/em/eir. The parallel with the sort-of patterns of he/him/his, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs seems close enough that readers won’t need it explaining, or have to re-read sentences to clear up confusion about plural/singular, and the sounds work with the sounds of the names I used. (It doesn’t work with Proto-Indo-European, which apparently didn’t have third person pronouns at all… I briefly considered taking that on as a writing challenge, but couldn’t face ‘this one’ and ‘that one’ for a whole novel!)

I also gave some thought to the question of swearing – what does a Neolithic person say when they want to be rude? I found N. K. Jemison’s blog post on Fantastic Swearing very helpful here, and essentially ran with her observation that scatological language is crude almost everywhere. I also adopted her position that there was no reason for my characters to treat sexual language as swearing – and extended that to not included swear words in my sex scenes. The descriptions there use plain but specific language: ‘vulva’ rather than ‘cunt’. (The Proto-Indo-European word was something like pisda or pisdeh, by the way.)

Other choices about language followed in a similar vein. They talk about doctors rather than healers, for example, choosing modern terms rather than trying create a ‘primitive’ atmosphere. Some of the choices about language for religion were shaped by my Quaker sources of inspiration, although I tried to steer clear of technical terms. The village has a leader rather than a priest or a king, and alert readers will recognise the functions of clerk and elder in the decision-making meetings of this pre-literate society. They have ideas about the ancestors, something implied by the way people of that time and place built tombs (I invented this specific village, but their tomb is real and archaeologists do think megalithic tombs went with territory and communities). They also talk about Goddess; not the Goddess, as it would usually be put in modern English, but Goddess as a fact of life the way some people are able to talk about God.

Another question which didn’t appear until I’d finished writing the novel is how to describe the characters and their relationships. The main story line is about two women who start a romantic and sexual relationship, but is it really a lesbian romance when the story is set three thousand years before Sappho was born? On reflection I think it is. There are sensible arguments against putting modern labels on historical figures (e.g. if you call Alexander the Great bisexual, you might be describing some things about him but missing a lot about how he and his contemporaries understood sexuality). However, I don’t think those apply in the same way to fictional characters, who are at least as much a product of my culture and imagination as of the Neolithic, and probably more. My characters can be lesbians (or bisexual or nonbinary or whatever) if both I and my readers are happy to say so.

See how these choices work out in a novel by reading Between Boat and Shore now. 🙂

Many thanks to Martel Reynolds who discussed these topics with me throughout the writing process. 

God, language, and reality – some questions explored (none answered!)

Since the publication of my book, Telling the Truth about God, some readers have been in touch with me to share their thoughts. One, Gordon Steel, emailed me some interesting questions. These are issues not fully covered in the book, and although they are explored a little in my PhD thesis that’s not very accessible – so with Gordon’s permission I’m taking the opportunity here to consider them in more detail and plainer language.

Gordon:

There is much in your book that I have appreciated… What I wanted to raise with you is what seems to me to be something missing.

My whole attitude to religious thought was transformed years ago by the realisation that all that we say about God or religion is human – following Don Cupitt.

It seems to me that this notion transforms discussion about God. It changes it from ‘What is God like?’ to ‘What is my (or your) image of God?’

The humanness of religious language seems patently obvious to me.

So I am surprised not to have found reference to this in your book (or have I missed it?)

At this stage I replied, briefly, and Gordon looked at the abstract of my thesis and came back with some more questions:

Language arises from human experience. Is this experience internal to us, or is it experience of an external reality?

‘Meaning as use in context’ – I have not read Wittgenstein but does this see meaning as ‘how we use it’ rather than in reference to some ‘reality’?

‘…ways in which religious language is used rather than truth-value…’   Does this mean that the value is in the language rather than the reality that some Friends might suppose it to have?

Rhiannon:

In short: I think that experience arises from the interaction of our awareness with reality, and language is a human creation which both reflects and shapes our experience.

In long:

Let’s start with language. Natural languages are communal creations, which we adjust when we need to (for example, inventing new words when we create new technology – like email – and when we recognise previously unnamed situations – like mansplaining). There are two things to note here. Firstly, language is social and no individual person changes language on their own (anyone can make a different sound, but it’s not a word until someone else understands and uses it). Secondly, people and therefore our languages are constantly interacting with the world around us.

(Okay, sceptics, what we take to be the world around us – but if we turn out to be in the Matrix, my argument will still run because a Matrix-table is still experienced as a table by all the speakers who label it as a table, so I’m going to move on without considering this in detail. If you’re worried about this you can read about Putnam instead.)

On the balance of probability, I do think there’s a real world around us, and when I refer to that traditional object of philosophical contemplation, the table, I do think there’s some actual wood (well, mainly Formica) in front of me. I can see it, I can feel it, I can put my mug down on it – and more the point, when I have a visitor over it they can, too. The things which make it a table, though, are things determined by people. For one thing, by upbringing and habit I speak English, but I could, if less confidently, say bwrdd or โต๊ะ. For another, the category of ‘tables’ is a socially constructed one; the rather low coffee table I happen to be looking at could just as easily be a stool, while in other places in the house some strong storage boxes have been pressed into service as ‘tables’. It’s really an object, but it’s our communal agreement on the word ‘table’ which makes it into that rather than something else.

So far so good, at least as far as readily visible, tangible objects go. It’s fairly easy to see how we extend this to some other, less tangible but observable things – for example, money is socially created, and it has reality while both sides in the transaction are willing to accept the same currency and broadly speaking the same assumptions. The transaction itself makes the money real, enough to measure and put on a graph and ask questions like ‘is GDP falling or rising?’. For some other things, we have socially accepted ways of expressing them which are related to our experiences – Wittgenstein’s examples are often about pain, and the ways we learn to speak and channel a wordless howl of pain into descriptions and images. These aren’t always obvious uses of language: a stabbing pain is not the same as the pain of being stabbed. Nor are these directly comparable with other people (I can invite a visitor to view my table; I can’t invite a visitor to experience my pain). In one sense, pain is an internal experience, but I don’t think I want to say that it’s fully internal if that means that it is only a product of my mind – my body has a big role to play in the experience of pain, and often something which is not my body is involved too. (For example: I stub my toe on the aforementioned table. I consider my pain to be caused by the interaction of my body with another object, and the pain itself to be a real internal experience.)

This gives us ‘meaning as use in context’ – in our society, we have a way of using the word ‘table’ within the English language which enables us to talk about tables in a meaningful way, both generally (“they’re a table-making company”) and specifically (“I bought this table from the British Heart Foundation charity shop”). Context is most visible when it gives away the fact that there are also other potential meanings (“I put the data from the survey into a table so it’s easy to read”).

Where does that leave us with God? On this picture, language about God is always going to be human. Religious experiences – like pain, like love, like that feeling of satisfaction you get when you type a Tweet and it’s exactly on the character count – are internal experiences. That doesn’t mean that they don’t involve interaction with external reality, however. Now, please don’t jump ahead here and take that to be an assertion of the reality of whatever you think God is (or think God isn’t and want to accuse me of thinking God is). All of those experiences involve interaction with a reality which is external to me, but very much internal to the world in which I live.

When I stub my toe on the table, the table is external to me but internal to the world. When I express love for my partner, both she and my expression of love (like buying a present or speaking out loud) are in the world, things of which I have direct experience but not internal to me. The feeling of satisfaction is all mine but Twitter is a feature of the physical, external world. It’s also the case that the language I have available shapes my understanding of the world – I can eat an apple without having the word ‘apple’, but knowing it adds nuance to my experience and helps me to communicate about it. (Other relevant examples: the invention of the term ‘sexual harassment’; the difference between walking in the woods alone and walking in the woods with an expert birdwatcher who can add a name to every flutter).

Within this understanding of language, I think there are (at least) three things you could coherently say about God:

  • the idea of God is a purely social construct, like money, which exists only for as long as someone is using it
  • religious experience tells us that talk about God is a way of expressing something that we feel, like saying ‘ow’ when in pain
  • God is something we interact with, perhaps more like someone else’s mind than a table but part of the world (and, being God, might also be beyond the world)

It’s possible that all of these are right – our idea of God, our talk about God, and actual God might be quite distinct. I think Don Cupitt would go with the first option. I think Wittgenstein probably never made up his mind (hence the difficulty later readers have had in working out what he really thought on this one). I think some excellent Wittgensteinian thinkers have hovered in a creative space between the first two – D. Z. Phillips, for example. I think this view of language tends to discourage putting too much weight on talk about transcendence and going beyond this world (or indeed all sorts of other metaphysical ideas, like mathematical realism): words in this area develop their communal meanings in ways which seem less connected to direct experience and more connected to social needs.

That said, people sometimes expect me to be worried about this stuff. For myself, I think any one of the possibilities above is enough to justify going forward with my own religious practices, of attending Quaker Meeting for Worship and so forth. I find it helpful to think these things through and be pointed back towards the Mystery, seeing that I don’t and can’t prove God but rather sense God experientially and within a faith community, which provides language and practices, which shape that experience.

That being so, “What is God?” is a question which is worth asking – one which can have many useful, interesting, temporary, attempted answers but where ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ might never add up to ‘the whole truth’. “What is my (or your) image of God?” is an equally good question, which acknowledges the impossibility of the first but opens up space for us to express our ideas, feelings, experiences, etc. I would add another question, which addresses issues touched on in this post: “Which sources has your image of God come from?”

Arbennig: special, distinct, peculiar

Mae gen i ffrind arbennig. I have a special friend.

This is a common enough phrase that you can even buy it on a card. In English, I’m more used to people talking about a best friend (and by people, I mostly mean Brownies – it’s very very important when you’re a nine-year-old girl, and although I enjoy spending time with them I don’t mind that I’m not one any more!). I’m in two minds about whether this claim, Mae gen i ffrind arbennig, is true for me – of my friends, I wouldn’t be able to pick the ‘best’ one, but obviously all of them are special.

I probably wouldn’t call them that to their faces, though. When I was at school, the use of the phrase ‘special needs’ was ingrained enough to have reached the playground, where it rapidly took on many of the connotations of the offensive words it replaced: idiot, retard, and so on. “You’re so special” was distinctly an insult during my childhood. I haven’t been able to find out whether ‘arbennig’ has taken on that meaning in Welsh – although I was able to confirm that it’s used in phrases like anghenion addysgol arbennig, special educational needs. (Language learners gotta love these government websites with a button in the top right to flick back and forth between languages, by the way. I think it makes it easier for me to explore Welsh in a way which would be very difficult, especially alone, with another language.)

In order to find that out, though, I had to wade through several pages of Google results about a restaurant in Cardiff called Arbennig, though. I’ve no idea whether their food is any good but they have made themselves special in terms of page ranking dominance!

Once I got past, though, I was also pleased to discover some other uses of ‘arbennig’: Casgliadau Arbennigspecial collections, often the best part of any library, and Safleoedd o Ddiddordeb Gwyddonol Arbennigsites of special scientific interest. I especially (do you see what I did there?) like the last one because ‘diddordeb‘ looks like it is related to ‘diddorol’ – ‘interesting’ – one of my favourite Welsh words because it’s both fun to say and can be deployed as an answer to so many possible comments!

Queer Quaker theology: abundance as resistance

“Whoever has, will be given more.” (Matthew 25:29)

A little while ago I wrote a post about labels. Afterwards, I thought: how does this affirmation of the need for more and richer labels for all sorts of genders and sexualities fit with the queer theory I use in some of my academic work? The very use of the label ‘queer’ implies a resistance to narrowing down, definition, or precise identification.

In this blog post, I want to argue that the abundance of labels can lead us to a place which is deeply queer. To argue that, I’m going to compare the situation of multiplying gender and sexuality labels with a situation I’ve already written about – the multiplication of names for God among liberal Quakers. Just as having more and more words for the Divine seems to bring Quaker writing back to the same place as Quaker practice – a place of silence and the acknowledgement of mystery – so having more and more words for sexuality and gender might bring our society round to a deeply queer place, a place of resistance to the oppression of pre-determined categories.

The two situations which form the background to this discussion can be quickly summarised as follows, in the form of two observations.

Observation 1: the English language is quickly developing, especially on the internet, a wide range of terms for sexualities and genders which were previously unnamed and hence invisible. Examples include terms like ‘non-binary’, ‘asexual’, ‘cisgendered’, and ‘gray-a’. At first glance, this appears to run completely counter to a previous movement which aimed to unite all sorts of alternative sexualities, and maybe genders, under the term ‘queer’ – queer is not just lesbian, not just gay, not just bi, not just kinky, not just pegging, etc.

Observation 2: modern British Quaker publications about Quakerism often include a disclaimer about the use of the word ‘God’, either offering a list of alternatives or inviting the reader to swap the word for another of their choosing (which presupposes a list of possible acceptable alternatives). These lists typically include words like ‘light’, ‘love’, ‘God’, ‘Spirit’, ‘Divine’, ‘Christ’, ‘Allah’, and ‘Being’. At first glance, this appears to be both the complete opposite of silence, and hopelessly confused, especially when the words are not used as synonyms in other contexts.

In many situations, including their worship, liberal Quakers prefer silence, or the specific forms of speech which create vocal ministry during worship: words which are held in the context of silence. When the situation forces the use of ordinary words – as when someone sits down to write a book about Quakerism, so that they can neither remain silent (by leaving the page blank?) nor assume that the words will be read in the context of silence – the use of a list, whether stated or assumed, allows the author to say something without being bound to connotations of a word, like ‘God’, which can be radically different for those outside the community. (To start thinking about the ways a word’s connotations are affected by its context and use, consider this: the ‘God’ discussed in New Atheist publications has very little in common with the ‘God’ described by Quaker publications.) It often seems that the very act of making a list, of using lots of words, draws attention to the fact that no one word will do. The abundance of words becomes a resistance to words, or to put it another way: in saying too much, Quaker authors are able to come back round to their starting point, not wanting to say anything.

This is not to say that the words are not important, or that we could do without them. They are absolutely vital. You can’t get a reader past their other ideas about ‘God’ without some form of extra words showing how their use of the word is different to yours. This is not a development process in which we can hope one day to skip a step and do without the words, but a way of using language as a tool to point beyond language.

In the case of the development of lots of words for genders and sexualities, we are talking about people rather than God (although perhaps all of the words can also be applied to the Divine!). Any given person will have some which are true for them and some which are false for them, and perhaps also some which are nonsensical to them. Taken as a group, however, the collection of words seems to me to be forming an ever richer picture of humanity as a whole. By adding concepts like ‘demi-sexual’ and ‘homoromantic’ to our vocabulary, we nuance or break down previous categories. (If someone is homosocial and heteroromantic but asexual, are they gay or not?) Just as the list of terms for God breaks down previous assumptions about what God must be like, the development of more terms for people breaks down previous assumptions about the categories people must fit into. In the process, we see one another more clearly: what was previously hidden under the curtain of a single word is revealed as a shining diversity. The abundance of words, even – no, especially – to the point of confusion brings us to the same place of accepting complexity and multiplicity which was previously captured under the ever-broadening umbrella ‘queer’.

The proliferation of terms can be anxiety-inducing. It’s common to worry that all these lists of not-quite-the-same words for God reveal not a theology but a vagueness. It’s also common to be concerned that all these words for subtly different groups of people mean that we can’t unite around anything. However, I am arguing that both are much more productive than this implies. The Quaker use of an abundance of words to return to a place of mystery and the queer use of freshly created words to resist overly broad categories are both revealing and creative. Rather than allowing a few loud voices in society to tell us what ‘God’ must be (and why we shouldn’t believe in ‘Him’) or what gender and sexuality ‘really’ are (and why we should go on behaving in accordance with their rules), we can use new words and plenty of them to overturn these claims.

Labels: good or bad?

I was indirectly compared to a Nazi on Facebook the other day. It made me feel a bit sad, a bit nostalgic, and a bit smug. Smug because by Godwin’s Law, that’s a win. Nostalgic because since I started mostly been spending my internet time talking about Quaker stuff, it hasn’t happened often. And sad because someone in my community thinks that friends of mine are worth comparing with Nazis.

In order to discuss this properly, I want to begin with a philosopher’s move, and lay out the strongest version I can concoct of the opposing argument (‘argument’ in the philosopher’s sense, too: the case someone is putting forward). This isn’t exactly what was said, but represents what I take to be the points involved. The arguments begin with something which everyone can agree on: people these days are, as a matter of fact, using more categories than just ‘male’ and ‘female’ to describe gender. Terms such as transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer have been invented and are in use. So far so good. We also all agree that some Quaker meetings have noted this fact and decided to take steps to make sure they are inclusive of people who identify as something other than simply ‘male’ or ‘female’. Recently, a national Quaker body noted this – which was the occasion for the discussion.

For some people, the proliferation of identity labels looks like a problem. There are, I think, two subtly different forms of the case they put from here on. In the first one, labels are a problem in relationships. For example, if I am trying to get to know someone, and I have been told that they are a woman, I might be inclined to make assumptions about them: that they are likely to be smaller and weaker, that they are likely to be interested in fashion, or whatever. Probably in a real situation the examples are more subtle than this – but they are real and pervasive. The cure for this is not to create and use more labels, but to get to know people as individuals. As the saying goes, if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism – the label ‘autism’ may tell you very little.

In the second version of the argument, labels are a social problem. For example, if I am trying to describe society, and I pick out a group such as ‘immigrants’, I can then say certain things about them. I have, by the way, chosen this example as a case which seems to me to be a real, current case of the pattern which worries people who put this argument. However, I think it’s a group label used much more by people outside the group than people inside the group, and that might make a significant different to the ethics of using it at all. That, though, isn’t the line of argument which is pursued here – and proponents of it might well say that all labels can be used in similarly bad ways regardless of who applies them first. Anyway: having identified the group ‘immigrants’, I might say positive things, such as ‘immigrants make a huge contribution to the nation’s economy’, but I might just as easily say negative things, such as ‘we’d all be better off without immigrants’. This is where people like to mention Nazis. In particular, the Nazi practice of picking out individuals and forcing them to make their group membership visible – the imposition of yellow stars, pink triangles, and so on – makes the mere act of labelling, rather than saying horrible things about groups of people, seem like the problem.

I hope that these are fair representations of the positions involved. (If not, my comments section is open to you.) I think that both of these views catch something useful, but that ultimately both are mistaken about the value of terms such as ‘genderqueer’.

I can recall holding a view much like the first one myself. I remember expressing it in an online conversation with a non-white friend, who had posted to say that she was feeling a need to take her racial identity much more seriously. This made me uncomfortably aware of the ways in which my whiteness separated me from someone I liked to think I was close to, and I commented to say that I thought it didn’t matter much and we had lots of other things in common. Her reaction quickly let me know that in trying to bring us back together in this way, I’d actually made a much worse gap between us, by downplaying the significance of something which I had the privilege to ignore and she, in our racist society, had to acknowledge every day.

Nothing about that negates the need to get to know people as individuals – my friend is as different from others of her ethnicity as I am from other white people – but it does point to an uncomfortable truth. By focusing on individuals, we can miss two things. We can miss the effects of systems on them – while I focus on my friend as an individual, I might assume that her experiences of racism are somehow just about her and not examples of a system problem. And we can miss how different we really are by paying more attention to what we have in common. However much we have in common, we’ll always be different (another white middle-class cissexual woman from the south of England and I can be very different indeed, as a survey of my school friends will tell you). If in our personal relationships we try and ignore the labels which pick out our differences, we might fool ourselves into thinking we have more in common than we really do – especially because it’s a common human error to fill in the blanks with more of the same. If I don’t hear about (or listen to) how your experiences are different to mine, I’m liable to assume that your experiences are the same as mine, in the same way that as a child I assumed all families ate supper at 6pm because that’s what my family did.

I can also see the appeal of the second position. When people pick out groups they don’t belong to, they almost always at least simplify and generalise, and often make crass mistakes, or, as in the examples above, blame the group for whatever social problem worries them. However, I also think something must have gone wrong with this argument: despite the actions of the Nazis, I still see the six-pointed star outside synagogues, so putting up a label must have some uses for the Jewish community. (I also see security fences, so I’m not claiming that it doesn’t have drawbacks as well.) The gender-identity terms which were immediately under discussion are labels which people claim for themselves.

The uses of labels seem to me to fall into two forms. One is self-knowledge. Especially if the label you need wasn’t readily available to you, there can be a huge relief – and sometimes straightforward practical advantages – in finding the right one. Someone who discovers the word ‘asexual’, for example, when their partner has been calling them ‘frigid’, suddenly has a different perspective on their own desires. They also have a way to explain their preferences to others, and this is the second use of labels: to give others some idea. Any term will need extra clarification in a deeper relationship, but often a label that gets you into the right area helps to decide whether or not you want to develop the relationship further, and how to go about it if you do. The clearest cases are sexual relationships (woman to man: “No thank you, I’m a lesbian” – three labels in the space of nine words, and you’ve got the picture) and community formation (we’re here, we’re queer, we could have a Pride march). I think it applies in lots of other circumstances too, though, even if the decision isn’t so clear cut: having just met someone who identifies as a Christian, I might ask different questions to if I meet someone who identifies as a Pagan. Neither label tells me what the person believes, but both give me a nudge away from putting my foot in my mouth – and will help me explain Quakerism in terms they are likely to recognise.

Using a label will always carry risks. People will make assumptions – because that’s how labels work. People might try and attach negative ideas to your label. People might attack you because of your label. However, what I am hearing from many people who use labels like non-binary, trans*, or genderqueer is that the advantages outweigh the risks.

In particular, the risks of a new label which is correct are much easier to bear than the pains of an old or accidental label which is wrong. I’m a cissexual woman and I can laugh it off when someone calls me ‘sir’ when they ask for my train ticket – but it’s still an awkward moment for both of us. If I wasn’t cissexual, I imagine that would be a moment of real fear – am I being ‘found out’, will they be angry with me when they realise – and if I was non-binary, identifying neither as a woman or a man, it might take a lot longer to sort out. Indeed, in that kind of very short interaction, I suspect complex genders are often not understood at all. To me, that makes it even more important to name and accept them in communities where we have longer and hence more time to explain. Similarly, I am queer – I could easily let that slide, I’ve dated people of several genders and I could let you assume I was straight – but I don’t want to. Politically, I want to be visible, and personally, I don’t want you to be surprised when my in-depth analysis of The Night Manager includes a hotness rating for Olivia Colman as well as Tom Hiddleston.

The biggest risks of not using the label, though, are the gaps in knowledge. You can just about have a label and not use it, gaining the self-knowledge without sharing it, but humans are social and we want to connect with people. Authentic connection involves sharing that self-knowledge and recognising, not only what we have in common, but what is genuinely different. If we deny those differences in an attempt to create the illusion of unity, we actually slip back into another oppressive pattern: the desire for everyone to be like me.

We’re not alike. As humans, we’re immensely different, and hugely creative, and people bring new labels into being and repurpose old ones in order to communicate as well as they can. That process of communication absolutely has risks – but those risks are often worth taking. This blog post, for example, risks re-opening conversations which quickly turned unproductive – but I hope it helps us understand one another better.

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.