Tag Archives: M

M is for Multiple Religious Belonging

Sometimes I wish I had a shorter, neater term for this concept! ‘Polyreligiosity’, perhaps. Anyway,  what I am interested in here is the situation some people find themselves in whereby they belong to more than one religion. This situation raises obvious questions. What does it mean to belong, and how does that vary between traditions? What counts as a ‘religion’ for this purpose? What are you supposed to put on forms where you are asked to tick one box and presented with a list in which you identify with two or more options?

It also raises some less obvious questions, such as: Who can assess whether ‘multiple belonging’ is really taking place? How do other members of the religions involved react? What are the potential advantages and dangers of belonging, or trying to belong, to more than one religious tradition at once? How should sociologists, theologians, and philosophers talk differently about religion if multiple religious belonging is possible? Why are some pairs of traditions apparently more common and/or claiming more scholarly attention than others? Is belonging to more than one religious tradition like speaking more than one language, or like supporting more than one political party, or like supporting more than one football club, or like enjoying both Star Trek  and Star Wars, or like being bisexual, or none of these, or something else?

One intuition some people have about these questions is that being involved in more than one religion is either confusing, or dangerous, in the sense that mixing the belief-claims or practices of two religions might destroy their cohesiveness and/or be a kind of ‘pick-and-mix’ in which only the nice bits are included and the harder parts – to do with death, sin, or changes needed to the believer’s lifestyle – are ignored. Sometimes people also feel that the situation of having more than one religious identity is different depending how you got there: that being raised in a family with more than one tradition (a Christian parent and a Jewish parent, for example) is different to trying to learn a new tradition on top of your old one as an adult. Others suggest that learning a new tradition to the level which would make it possible to experiment with multiple belonging involves a lot of scholarly work – learning a language in which to read ancient scriptures, for example, even if many people who grew up in that tradition do not have this language.

As you may be able to tell, I am at a stage with this issue where I am collecting lots of questions and not yet finding many answers! I think some of the answers might lie in the question about what religion is like – when we think about religion, what do we think are the closest comparisons? In my previous work (and blog posts) I’ve written about religion as like language, drawing on Lindbeck’s work in this direction; and others, notably Kathryn Tanner, have written about religion as like culture. However, there are also other analogies: is religion like gender, or ethnicity, or fandom, for example?

M is for… Meeting for Sufferings

I really enjoy Meeting for Sufferings, generally speaking. I make jokes about how long it is, and how tiring, and how there’s so much paperwork, but really I’m a sucker for a good big business meeting. Meeting for Sufferings is hardly the biggest business meeting in the land – Yearly Meeting trumps it easily, with perhaps ten times the number of Friends – and I wouldn’t pretend to know which is the best (perhaps there’s a tiny meeting in Somewhere-or-Other which holds the best business meetings? If you know, do tell me), but I like it.

Meeting for Sufferings, following some recent changes, now has around 100 people present at each meeting, and meets about six times a year. This is just small enough that earlier this year we were able, for the first time ever, to meet for a residential at Woodbrooke. The major advantages to this are that a) you get a whole weekend in which to socialise and get to know one another as well as to work, and b) you get to be at Woodbrooke. (I am personally biased to consider the latter wholly a good thing, for reasons which I might discuss when I reach W.) We actually spent much of that meeting on our internal matters, important but not the ones I most want to share.

Recently, the Meeting for Sufferings decision I have been asked about most is the boycott of goods from Israeli settlements. (You can read about that boycott in general here.) In April, we revisited that decision, having been asked to do so by several Area Meetings. It was a tough session – Meeting for Sufferings is usually intense, intellectually and emotionally, but this was much more so. We heard about the history of the situation – not, perhaps, in full, but those parts which seemed to be relevant. We heard the concerns of Friends, practical and political, and we heard about the many ways in which we have been in dialogue with the Jewish community over this. (Indeed, one of that places I went and found myself speaking about this was my local Quaker-Jewish dialogue group.)

Most of us arrive at the consideration of such an issue with some thoughts already in mind. In this case, some of us are thinking about our own attempts to carry out this boycott as suggested, and the difficulty of identifying settlement goods while still buying Israeli goods; others are thinking about what they have seen on visits to Israel/Palestine, others about the history of the Jewish people, others about the legal situation, others about the arguments in favour of boycotting all of Israel, others about the hurt caused by this boycott and the reasons for abandoning it, and so forth. We don’t come in to it neutral – how could you? And yet our aim is to set these personal things aside a little, bringing them in as appropriate, but trying to get a sense of the right way forward whether it is what we expected or not.

The right way forward is especially hard to find when it seems that none of the ways forward are really right. We want to maintain our friendships with people on both sides of the conflict. We aren’t really in agreement with the governments of either side, especially on the matter of armed conflict (Quakers disagree with almost every government ever about that, actually). We want to take a stance against what seems to us to be wrong, but also to speak in favour of what seems to us to be right. At the moment – as of our minute in April – Meeting for Sufferings feels that a boycott of Israeli settlements but not of Israel is the right way to hold that balance in public, however difficult it may be.

Reaching such decisions is hard. I can’t say that I enjoyed that session as such, but it felt right that we go through the process, seeing it as part of a continuing compromise. With that in mind, we will be considering the matter again in October; pray that God is with us then. In the meantime, you can read the April minute (scroll down to the fifth item, S/13/04/05) for yourself.

M is for… Meeting(s)

Quakers talk about Meetings a lot. We have…
Meeting for Worship
Meeting for Worship for Business
Meeting for Sufferings
Yearly Meeting
Area Meeting
Local Meeting
Committee meetings
Meeting Houses
vibrant Meetings
We like to meet each other, you can tell! Conventional Quaker thought has it that we also, in all these contexts, meet with the Holy Spirit. (Unconventional Quaker thought tends, from what I have seen, to agree for the most part but worries about words and external realities and things like that.)

At the core of all these Meetings is Meeting for Worship. Our business meetings are built on Meeting for Worship; our meeting houses only exist because it’s handy to have somewhere to hold Meeting for Worship (you can hold it anywhere, and sometimes we do – worship in the street, worship in the park, worship in people’s houses or hospitals or wherever). We generalise the word ‘meeting’ as you do with ‘church’ – a church is a place but also a community, and a meeting is a practice which brings a community together.

So what is Meeting for Worship? Like most things, you can describe it at many levels. It’s some people sitting in a room. It’s a practice of waiting and listening for the Spirit. It’s a way to connect at the deepest level, with other people, God, and yourself. It’s an hour (half an hour, fifteen minutes, two hours) of silence (semi-silence, unprogrammed time, readings and hymns and silence) on a Sunday (Wednesday, Thursday) morning (afternoon, evening) in a meeting house (house, rented room, park). It doesn’t have a plan or an agenda (except when it does – we try and let people know about that in advance). It can be for anything – for you, for your breathing, for your soul, for a wedding, for a memorial, for business, for learning, for fun.

If you’re not sure what to do in Meeting for Worship, that’s okay. At one time I thought I ought to be more disciplined and organised about it, and think about X for ten minutes at the start and then Y for ten minutes, and so on, but I can’t work like that – and it doesn’t sit well with the spontaneous nature of the activity and the spoken ministry it produces, either. The discipline is in showing up and sitting there. (The old slogan: don’t just do something, sit there.) You have to show up, but there’s no way of knowing what will happen. Sometimes it’s peaceful, relaxing. Sometimes it’s testing, when your thoughts or some ministry challenge you. Sometimes I shake or cry. Sometimes I’m not sure whether I’m shaking with anger, fear, or the Spirit – the time someone opened his ministry with a quotation from the Daily Mail, and proceeded to agree with it and say how terrible are young people today – that was one of those. In the end I decided it was the Spirit, and said what was in my heart; I’m still not really sure, but people thanked me for my ministry afterwards so maybe I was right.

I don’t think, really, that Meeting for Worship can be adequately described in a blog post. If you’re in England, Scotland, or Wales, you can find one here and consider trying it out. Elsewhere in the world, try QuakerFinder or the listings in the Friends Journal. Be aware that all meetings are different and they may not be anything like my Meeting for Worship!

M is for… Mess

My rituals, like my beliefs and my rooms, tend to be a bit messy. There’s often an underlying structure, whether it’s the beginning, middle and end format of any good ritual or story, or the clothes here/books there plan of a room – but when you use things, they get muddled up.

Solitary rituals in particular don’t always suffer by being less than perfectly planned. They need a plan, but I prefer not to pre-script every word. I’ll use a mix of memorised formulations – especially in openings, as I settle into a ritual mindset, and in closings, where they seem comforting – and improvisation. I try and plan enough to have all the things I need to hand (remember the matches!), but if I find that I’ve forgotten something, I have no qualms about cutting a door in the circle and going to fetch it. (Unless it’ll take me ages, like if I need to go into town and buy it… then I’ll generally improvise using something else or a visualisation, or put that ritual action off for next time.)

In my academic work I am often concerned about whether people’s beliefs, including my own, really make sense when they’re thought through properly. In ritual and in religious communities, I try and set that aside (even when the scholarly voice at the back of my mind is muttering, ‘but it doesn’t follow… how can that all be the case at once… isn’t that a trifle presumptive?’). Generally I succeed, with the exception of cases where the implication of set of beliefs is personally offensive to me.

Mess has been a theme in my life this week because I’m packing and cleaning in preparation of moving house. I haven’t had much time, or energy, or kit for Pagan doings; and yet this is still as much a sacred part of life as any other.

Oh Goddess of Hearth and Home, please bless this mess!

M is for… Magic

I don’t believe in it.

I sort of believe in it.

Sometimes I practice it, but I lean strongly towards psychological explanations, and that affects the kinds of magic which I do.

I once heard a story about a women who advertised their local pagan group with the catchphrase “get rich, get laid, get back, join [us]”.

Perhaps it’s just that I know I don’t really want any of those things (well, I wouldn’t mind getting laid, but I’d rather be loved), but I don’t think that’s what magic is for. Later, when I heard that woman talk about her ethics, I decided never to speak to her again. I don’t need that kind of attitude in my life.

To me, magical workings are the outwards forms of things which are happening anyway, inwardly. Just as formal membership of the Religious Society of Friends is simply the outward acknowledgement of a fact which would be otherwise invisible but no less factual – I am a Quaker – so a ritual act of magic uses symbols, drama, and outward action to ‘demonstrate’ what is happening spiritually. In my first semester at university, I collected a conker every Thursday morning on my way to lectures. The first week it was just a whim, because I walked past the tree and saw one there, shining. By the end of term, when they were lined up on my windowsill as I sat revising, they were a tangible symbol of the knowledge I had gathered, and I found their presence very supportive.

I think that a lot of the best magic happens, like that, by accident.