Tag Archives: meeting for worship for business

God, red in tooth and claw?

(Welsh word of the post: ‘red’, ‘coch’ – as in ‘draig goch’, ‘red dragon’, who seems appropriate.)

I’m reading Warren L. Treuer’s Reflections of a Quaker: A Blank Slate Theology. I’m only a few chapters in and there’s much of interest, but one passage caught my eye. In a chapter on ‘What is God like?’ Treuer offers lots of possible sources of information, and one of them is ‘nature’. In summary, he argues that nature teaches us that God is beautiful. Every season of the year, every living thing, offers wonderful loveliness to enjoy, and that tells us something about God. One thing I noticed was that his next source of information about God is science, which might also be said to tell us more about nature. Another thing, which I want to explore in this post, is that his picture of what nature is, and hence what it tells us, is a bit one-sided.

Now, I’m not here to argue that nature isn’t beautiful. I love flowers, trees, birds, bees, squirrels, seals, rainbows, beaches, endless seasonal transformations, sunsets, etc. I do think that this aspect of nature tells us something about God. Some of my favourite religious images are Goddess paintings which express just this approach to the Divine.

However, I think anyone who pays attention to nature knows that not all of it is, to the human eye, beautiful – or kind, or fair, or anything else ‘good’. Recently, I reported on Facebook an incident which began with a cat catching a mouse, and it gave rise to a lot of debate, including about the true nature of cats, what humans should accept or tolerate in domestic animals, and whether we should keep pets. Similarly, keeping an allotment raises all sorts of questions – should I kill slugs, move them, tolerate them, or think of it as sharing? How far do I go in watering plants or protecting them from snow? When is a bramble a weed and when is it a blackberry plant? (Does that relate to how much blood it’s drawn?)

This is a version of the old problem of evil. What kind of God creates slugs, mosquitoes, parasites, earthquakes, etc.? What kind of believers – or deniers of reality – do we have to be to affirm that everything in nature is somehow good?

Lots of people have worked on this problem (and none of them have solved it; draw your own conclusions!). Two approaches which I think are especially interesting from a Quaker perspective are a ‘God’s eyes see differently’ move, and a ‘going with the flow’ move.

To say that God’s eyes see the situation differently – that if we could see the situation from God’s perspective, we would agree that everything in nature is good – can easily sound pat and patronising, especially if it is said by someone relatively privileged to someone who is suffering very deeply. As a suggestion about individual faith, though, people do sometimes find it useful. It has the advantage of letting God be God, not seeking to make the Divine too human or close the gap between us too quickly. It can encourage patience and holding a situation without trying to solve it. We might compare this to the Quaker practice of sitting in silent waiting. Sometimes people add to this ‘God’s eyes’ approach, trying to explain what God’s view is actually like (the ‘vale of soul-making’ idea comes out like this sometimes), but this can weaken it when holding the mystery is actually a strength.

To suggest that these complexities in nature, that it contains good and bad and indifferent, are ‘going with the flow’ is not to try and change our perspective, rather than seeing the gap between our view and God’s. Where that image implies a God who is very different from us – perhaps separate, certainly seeing nature from a different angle or in a different timescale – the image of God, and nature, and us all as a single river brings us closer together. After all, human beings (however much we like to distinguish ourselves) are animals, are part of nature, evolved alongside everything else. I’m different from, say, a crow – but a crow is different from everything else, too, so even the unique habits of humanity don’t set us that far apart. And what could be more natural than God? We could add here the idea that God and nature are one, or that nature exists not from God or because of God but in God. If that’s so (for example, if we took an idea like that of process theology, that God is fully involved in temporal processes such as all that messy natural stuff around living and dying) we could see this situation as just part of the flow of the river. There are rocks – we try and avoid them – we get knocked or we don’t – so it goes. So it Gods, because everything which happens is part of the process of God doing God’s thing.

The latter is particularly interesting from a Quaker perspective because it reflects our experience of Meeting for Worship for Business. As we make decisions, trying to follow God’s will, sometimes we find that’s changed (what was completely unclear a month ago is obvious or much easier now – did we change, or God, or both?). Sometimes we find two groups using the same method about the same question disagree. Is that them, or God? In the ‘flow of the river’, perhaps it can be both. A swirl or eddy is still part of the same river.

The cat, the cat’s desire to eat the mouse, the mouse, the mouse’s desire to escape, our judgements about what is a pet and what is vermin, my decision not to eat mice (even though I caught one)… all within one vast, complex, changing God?

Advertisements

Area Meetings and Local Meetings: chapter 4 of Quaker faith & practice

The first thing which occurs to me when I open chapter 4 is that it begins with a remark which, although true, is liable to be completely mystifying to many. It is the case that “Until 2007 area meetings were known as monthly meetings”, but this doesn’t really tell you anything unless you were already familiar with the term ‘monthly meeting’. Although there will probably always be a few readers of our book of discipline who need the comparison – especially those from other yearly meetings where the term ‘monthly meeting’ is still in widespread use, albeit often somewhat differently from our old use of the phrase – the number of people in Britain who knew what a monthly meeting was, but don’t know what an area meeting is, should hopefully be shrinking every year.

After the history, though, we get into the real stuff: 4.02 explains the responsibilities and importance of the area meeting. It’s where we do much of our business, where we look after all sorts of things which affect us as a church community, and where we hold spiritual, financial, and other forms of responsibility. A group of local meetings make up an area meeting – and it’s at area meeting level that a lot of authority is held.

It’s an area meeting who admit, or don’t admit, people to membership. It’s an area meeting who appoint elders and overseers. It’s an area meeting which is represented at Meeting for Sufferings. Ideally, this hierarchy, in which the area meeting has authority over local meetings, should also go with a widening of participation – if you’re a member of the area meeting, you’re entitled to go to it and participate in the business process, even have a responsibility to do so.

I think it can be easy to forget this, or not realise it. I personally have often struggled to get to area meeting – believing that it’s important to participate does not magically make public transport appear on Sunday afternoons, alas. Sometimes I have put other things first – Brownies who need an adult at church parade, catching a train to go to work, some urgent sleeping I needed to get done. Sometimes it has just come down to the incorrect assumption that I, or someone else in my meeting, would drive a car. When I’ve been unable to attend, I’ve come to value the practice of circulating minutes and reports by email afterwards. Not just those minutes with my name in, either, please! Seeing the whole picture of the area meeting’s business can help me feel part of the wider community even when I can’t be there in person.

When I have been able to attend area meetings, I have often found them interesting and fulfilling. It’s good to see Friends from other local meetings, and to worship with others. Although I have problems with the common practice (thankfully not universal) of holding area meeting on a Sunday afternoon, it does (buses permitting) encourage me to worship with a different local meeting. That in itself can be very enriching. The worship of the area meeting, before, during and after the business, can be very deep, and the area meeting is often a time when people are able to eat together and get to know one another better. The routine business, such as reports from Meeting for Sufferings and charitable trusts the area meeting supports, can be both informative and inspiring. A special area meeting called to write a minute on a particular issue is one of the most gathered and careful business meetings I can remember attending.

I can see glimpses of this when I read chapter 4, but I think I’d struggle to find it if I was trying to get from the text to the experience, rather than reading the experience back into the text. I also find clues that the text has been edited, bit by bit, over the years: compare the technology levels implied in 4.44 with those in 4.45. It’s also technical and detailed – long lists of points, such as in 4.10, are clear in some ways, but can also be daunting and seem disparate, because the connections between the very spiritual (“the right and regular holding of meetings for worship”) and the very practical (“the proper custody of its records”) aren’t immediately obvious.

Sometimes I have felt that we do area meetings a disservice by talking about them as if they are always boring – I’m not denying that they are sometimes boring, since they meet to do work, but they can also be moving, involving, heartening. When a notice or report about area meeting is given in your local meeting, is it merely factual, or off-hand, or does it share with those who hear it something of the power and appeal of a well-held meeting for worship for church affairs?