Tag Archives: nontheism

Which of your books should I buy?

With the publication of my third Quaker Quicks book, Hearing the Light, I now have six published books and a few people have asked questions about what distinguishes them. It seems like a good time to share some observations about all my published books so far – especially who might want to read each of them.

The two academic books, British Quakers and Religious Language and Theology from Listening, were both published by Brill. These are mainly for people who want all the references and the details. Practically, the price restricts readership to those with deep pockets and those with access to university libraries. The first one was based on the Quaker part of my PhD thesis and looks at how British Quakers use the list format as an inclusive way of naming God. The second one details my research on the core of liberal Quaker theology, based on a wide range of books of discipline and an analysis of some key popular and academic publications.

My first novel, Between Boat and Shore, was published by Manifold. It’s a lesbian love story set in Neolithic Orkney. Unfortunately, Manifold have now closed and the ebook is now unavailable, but you can still buy paperbacks from a few places, including the Quaker Centre bookshop and direct from me.

And that brings me to my Quaker Quicks books. 

The first one, Telling the Truth about God, is about how British Quakers speak about the divine, some of the challenges involved, and how we use lists and other inclusive structures to both name and contain the diversity of theological views in the community. It’s based on my PhD research and my experience running workshops on the topic. It has two introductions, one for Quakers and one for everyone else, and might be of interest to anyone who has struggled with discussing the ineffable. For Christmas or other present-giving occasions, buy it for: Quakers who have questions about words, non-Quakers who have questions about Quaker nontheism, people who sit in worship services wondering what we could say instead of ‘Lord and Father’, anyone who reads ahead on the carol sheet and changes the words.

The second one, Quakers Do What! Why?, tries to give short and accessible answers to a wide range of commonly asked questions about liberal Quakers. It’s based on a lifetime’s experience of being asked questions about Quakers, from the ordinary to the strange, and trying to answer them quickly and clearly. It’s aimed at people who don’t yet know much about Quakers but want to know more, but it might also be useful for people who know some things already. If you’ve found this blog post by searching the internet for ‘Quakers’, and haven’t yet read much else, you could start with this book. If you’re thinking of buying for someone else, this book might be good for: that friend who doesn’t come to Quaker meeting but always asks questions about it, someone who’s come to meeting a few times and looks puzzled during the notices, people who seem like they would get ‘Quaker’ if they took an internet quiz about what religion to be.

The third and most recent one, Hearing the Light, is an attempt to describe the core of liberal Quaker theology. It argues that liberal Quakers do have a theology – one which is embodied in our practice of unprogrammed worship – and that enough of it is shared that it can be said to have a core. (Spoiler: the core is the process of watching for the Spirit moving.) It talks about how Quakers make decisions and why. It talks about how we know things, how we record and share what we know (especially through books of discipline/faith and practice), and how readers can experiment for themselves with Quaker ways of doing things. The main audience for this book is Quakers who want to explore our tradition further, but it will also be of interest to people who ask questions about why Quakers feel they can trust what they discern in meeting for worship for business. You might want to buy this book if: you have questions about the Quaker tradition and how worship and decision-making relate, you want to explore our worship process further, or you want to know more about liberal Quakers beyond your Yearly Meeting. It might make a good gift for someone getting further into the Quaker way, or someone with questions about Quaker discernment.

Of course, you can recommend all of them to your library! All three Quaker Quicks books would probably be a good fit for a local meeting library, and many other libraries will consider buying them if you ask. Similarly, asking for them at your local bookshop helps to raise the profile of the whole series and supports your local bookshop, so that’s good all round. You can also find them all on the usual online bookshops, including Amazon and Hive.

If you have other questions about these books or any of my other writing projects, please drop a comment below or come over to my Goodreads profile where you can ask questions for everyone to see.

Book review: When a Pagan Prays, Nimue Brown

When a Pagan Prays, Nimue Brown, Moon Books, 2014

When I picked up this book, I was interested in learning about Druidry with a eye to expanding my own practice  – how do other Druids, or at least one other Druid, relate to prayer? What might I use in creating a Druid prayer practice? Reading it, however, I found something with a much wider interest. Brown does speak from her own Druid perspective – indeed, one of the best aspects of the book is the way in which she shares her personal as well as research journey with the subject – but she also deals with a wide variety of possible approaches to deity. Of particular interest to me, and I suspect to other Quakers as well, is the combination she creates of space for atheist and rationalist perspectives while also addressing the possibility of religious experience including the irrational and inexplicable. For example, on page 43 she writes, “Sacredness is a condition of being that could belong to almost anything, and does not require deity.” As she explores different approaches to and forms of prayer, she always holds open the possibility that there will be no reply and that prayer may not work in the ways we hope for or want – while also demonstrating that this need not be a final block, that there are always other ways to look at things or alternative techniques to try. She not only suggests that she may be mistaken, but shows the reader in detail ways in which she changed her mind as she gained more knowledge and experience. This is a great gift, especially for those who may be experimenting in a similar way with this or another spiritual question.

Brown is also refreshingly upfront about the risks of prayer – what happens if your prayer is answered? This includes unintended consequences but also, less commonly addressed in religious literature, the social and personal aspects. If you say ‘hello’ to God (or Gods, or Goddess, or spirits – Brown’s Druidry is not committed on this) and something says ‘hello’ back, what are you going to make of it? Brown acknowledges that “few things would be more terrifying” (p37) but also addresses the many ways in which those responses might appear. Hearing a voice which says ‘hello’ is not the most common experience, although not entirely unknown. The Pagan communities which Brown is discussing don’t have the Quaker idea of listening together to have a shared experience of being spoken to or led to a specific action, and perhaps the book is slightly poorer, philosophically, for leaving out that possibility. On the other hand, Brown does come to three conclusions which are closely aligned with the Quaker perspective. One is about the importance of listening itself and the difficulty of that process: “the hardest thing to do in prayer is to sit in true silence and listen.” (p140) Another is about the ways in which, rather than changing the world, prayer and related practices can change us. She is direct about the need for the person prayer to be open to transformation: “If you aren’t willing to change then don’t pray. If you aren’t willing to be confused, frightened, overwhelmed or intimidated sometimes, don’t pray.” (p109)

The other way in which Brown reaches a Quaker-like conclusion is her focus on experiment and personal experience. Of her research method for the book, she says that as well as reading a lot and having conversations with other Druids on these topics: “If I wanted to understand, I was going to have to experiment, and pray, every day.” (p181) And when she talks about the ways in which the process has changed her, it is clear that she has had an experience of being helped and changed by prayer. For me, the most telling line in that discussion was on page 114, when she talks about the way her relationship to her work has changed: “I feel that I’m doing the work I need to be doing, bit by bit, and that certainty changes a lot of things for me.”

Of course, the similarities to my own perspective are only one aspect of the book’s usefulness. Although there are a few places where Brown comes close to describing something like Quaker worship – like this comment about improvisation in ritual: “In truly inspired improvisation, it can be hard to decide whether the prayer even comes from the person who voices it” (p136) – for the most part, her focus is on other forms. She explores Pagan ritual, intercessory prayer, and linguistic issues such as the tone in which we address our deities as well as philosophical and theological issues about to whom prayer is directed (and how we pray when we don’t have solid answers to this question) and the social and ethical aspects of prayer. And in the later sections, I also found some answers to my original questions – how do other Druids pray? Brown offers an extended discussion of two Druid prayer texts which are in common use in Britain, the Druid’s Vow or Druid’s Oath and the Druid’s Prayer or Gorsedd Prayer. As in much modern Druidry, her emphasis is on the reader developing skills to create their own relationship with, understanding of, and perhaps version of, these classic texts, rather than apologetics or finding ways to defend the existing tradition. 

I would recommend When a Pagan Prays to anyone wanting to think about the complexities of prayer, not just Pagans but those in any tradition considering their prayer life and wanting to develop it independently.

The Centrality of Story: can Quakers go back to Christianity via nontheism?

My friend Ben Wood, among others, likes to talk about the centrality of narrative to theology, and especially the importance of the Christian story. I was thinking about this recently, partly reflecting on some ideas from Mark Russ‘s MA dissertation which I’m sure he’ll share in due course, and partly reflecting on recent discussions in The Friend about nontheism and meeting for worship for business (in Neil Morgan’s article and my own). One way to think about meeting for worship for business is to consider where it places us within the Christian story – Where are we in the plot? What characters are on the stage and who is speaking? The main players are basically two. One is the Quaker community, a group not always speaking together but trying to come into sync with each other (perhaps like a Greek chorus who, because the play is improvised, are constantly trying to catch up with each other). The other is God, a character who can appear in multiple guises (Jesus, the Spirit, that of God within, the Still Small Voice, the Light, Love, conscience, impersonal energy…) but who is understood to be a single speaking voice to which the community is trying to listen.

In terms of the plot, I think meeting for worship for business is a middle of the story event. It’s not the beginning – not a creation, not a birth, not a first awareness – and not an ending – after the meeting, we need to act on the minutes, come back to items later, and so on. The past and the future are both needed for it to be meaningful (previous minutes, preparation and arrangements, later meetings, things which will be affected by the decisions) but the process itself, through which the community seeks the path of Love, is also itself a step along that path. It allows us to access something of Eternity – the biggest picture possible – in the Now, without committing us to a single already shown picture (getting stuck in the past) or withholding information we need now until later (trapped by the future) or asking us to forget everything but this moment (with only the present). If this is mapped onto the Christian story, the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that seems to me like part of an Incarnation phase – a part where God is manifest on earth in a new way. The community (not the individual, before someone reminds me about James Naylor) takes the role of Jesus and seeks to listen to and follow God’s instructions.

If you’re anything like me, and I think a significant number of British Quakers today probably are, this is a point at which you might stop. You might say something like: But I don’t believe in the Christian story, surely it didn’t really happen that way. Or: That’s all very nice, but I can’t take Jesus with all those miracles. This is where nontheism comes in. Specifically, not just Quaker but Christian nontheism. I’ve sometimes thought that it might be easier to be a Christian nontheist in another denomination, with a really clear story to be fictionalist about, than to be a specifically Quaker nontheist. The firmly Christian nontheist can say – and writers like Don Cupitt do say things like this – the Jesus story is just a story, but wow, what a story. (Of course, ‘Wow, what a story’ is also a reaction people might reasonably have when they do believe it happened like that, too.)

If that’s right, then we as Quakers might be able to use the Jesus story, or perhaps the wider Biblical story, in a new way, a way which reinvigorates our language for describing our processes and the spiritual experiences we have when using those processes, while reducing some of the difficulties we currently experience around using religious language and metaphors. Some people will still feel uncomfortable with making Jesus central to their spirituality, and I suggest we keep open possibilities for using other stories to explore the experience of meeting for worship for business (if it’s like Jesus hearing and following instructions from his father, then is it also like the community gathered at Sinai, like Arjuna in dialogue with Krishna, like a coven hearing a priestess reciting the Charge of the Goddess?). The story method, though, has two demands: firstly that we get to know these stories, and secondly that we discuss them openly and honestly with each other. Even if we end up not taking this approach, the side-effects – a better knowledge of the Bible and perhaps the stories of other faiths, and a better understanding of our other and how we think about our processes – seem unlikely to be damaging.

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.

Forms of theological diversity

This month, while most people are buying presents, eating chocolate, and generally celebrating Christmas (more on that in my next post), I’m reading Chapter 27 of Quaker faith & practice, which is called ‘Unity and diversity’. There’s a good vague name if ever I heard one! Unity of what and diversity of what?

A quick browse through the chapter will reveal that the issue in question is theology – specifically, the relationship between Quakerism, Christianity, and other faiths. It doesn’t mention nontheism, which wasn’t a big issue for discussion in 1994, but if we re-wrote this chapter today I think we’d include nontheist perspectives here. I also think it would be helpful if we were able to map the territory of theological diversity in more detail.

In many settings, Quakers pose questions of theological diversity as a spectrum, or a series of spectrums. Are you more religious or more humanist? Are you more universalist or more Christian? Are you more nontheist or more God-believing? In order to form these kinds of questions, it’s sometimes necessary to invent a term. For example, many people have assumed that if someone isn’t a nontheist, they must be a theist – but the term theist isn’t one people use for themselves without that prompt, and it has connotations from its use in philosophy which Quakers don’t always accept. (The ‘three omnis’ – omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent – don’t appear in my list of aspects of God Quakers are likely to believe in.)

This also disguises all sorts of other differences. Suppose Person A thinks that God is an human construct but a useful metaphor for our experience of community and love, and Person B thinks that God is a term for a natural part of the human subconscious. Both might be called nontheists – they both reject the sorts of things nontheists typically reject, such as supernatural interventions and God as external to humanity – but they also have very different understandings of what actually is going on.  Similar differences are hidden by almost any label.

That isn’t to say that labels aren’t useful. When people claim labels for themselves, especially where it helps them to identify others with whom they have a lot in common and to articulate their understandings and experiences more accurately, labels are very helpful. What we need to do is avoid becoming stuck at the level of whatever label we’ve got – there’s more going on underneath and diversity within the group created by the label – and to make sure that labels aren’t used to polarise the community – ‘if you’re not an X, you must be a Y’, as if there were no other choices.

So, what forms of theological diversity do we have among Quakers in Britain at the moment? We have some people who clearly identify their Quaker practice as shaped by or united with insights and/or practices from another faith tradition: Buddhist Quakers, Druid Quakers, Quanglicans, etc. We have some people for whom silence says it all, and who do not feel the need to have any label beyond ‘Quaker’ (if that). We have some people who are deeply engaged with the treasures of the Christian tradition as expressed in Quakerism, and others who feel hurt by Christianity and want to avoid it, and others who think a little bit of Christianity is a good idea but wouldn’t want to spend too long on Bible study. We have some people who cannot accept certain aspects of traditional belief in God, and reject anything which sounds like the supernatural, creation ex nihilo, miracles, life after death, or similar. We have some people who cannot accept that Jesus was more important than anyone else, and people who find that the Christ event is the story at the heart of their faith (and people who would identify with both of those positions). We have some people who don’t know, and some people who think that any week in which they don’t change their mind is a boring week. None of these things are pairs of absolutes, this or that, and nor do they map neatly onto a spectrum from most to least.

We also have some people who are very worried about theological diversity, and some who are not the slightest bit bothered, and every possible attitude in between. Personally, I am fascinated by theology and hence by theological diversity, but – perhaps because I am so used to thinking about it – I’m also very relaxed about it. The ideas matter when they affect how we act, but a quick look around an average meeting will show that people with hugely divergent theological opinions can come together to participate in waiting and listening in Meeting for Worship. “Christianity is not a notion but a way” says Advices & Queries, and I agree. Quakerism isn’t something you agree with, but something you do.