Tag Archives: P

Book review: Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, Sarah Ruden

Paul is, as Sarah Ruden rightly points out, a misunderstood, misinterpreted, and widely disliked author – and one who is generally regarded as, at least, down on women, sex, and fun. Ruden does a good job of arguing that much of this is misunderstanding, brought on chiefly by a complete lack of contact between people who study the Bible in Greek and people who study other Greek texts written at around the same time. Ruden, having started out as a Classicist reading material from the polytheistic Greeks and Romans, is in a good position to bridge this gap by bringing her knowledge of the classical languages and cultures to bear on Paul’s writings.

In fact, in this slim volume that’s most of what she does. It’s often effective, sometimes shocking, and often challenges accepted views of the Greek world as well as common views of Paul. For example, she challenges the view of the Greek world as a “gay idyll”, arguing that reading Plato but not other texts, less philosophical and perhaps closer to reality, has given a misleading picture (p58). On the one hand, I’m a bit sad to see this picture torn down, because a picture of a society in which sexuality is viewed very differently is a useful one in all kinds of ways. On the other hand, my feminism survived the destruction of the myth of a matriarchal past, and these pictures can be useful even when known to be fictional.

In quoting extensively from classical texts and trying to offer a more accurate picture of what Paul was saying, Ruden uses blunt and modern translations which do not shy away from sexually and other explicit language – which is, I’m sure, to the benefit of the translation. It’s easy to see why people might not want to read this in church – but also easy to see an argument that this is because some of them have a mistaken, overly prettified, view of what is acceptable in church. I found her section on Galatians 5, one of the rare cases in which she takes on the King James Version directly, especially interesting. She offers transliterations of the Greek words in cases where no suitable translation is available, and goes to some lengths to point out how far from that worldview we are now. (She attributes much of the change to Paul – and I’m sure he had a big influence, although I can think of some other possible candidates as well.)

One drawback I found in Ruden’s writing style was a tendency to make her point, and offer her evidence – and then move on to the next point, without wrapping up neatly and restating the conclusion. Sometimes this worked well, and at other times I found myself going back to the beginning of a section to read it again and understand properly how this evidence support that point. However, I didn’t find points which weren’t supported by anything at all – and many of the points she makes suggest that readings of Paul should change a long way from those currently accepted in the traditions of Biblical interpretation (mostly ‘ordinary’ or folkloric) which I encounter most often.

I didn’t come away from the book as converted to Paul-following as Ruden obviously is. (I think that would be difficult to achieve anyway.) I still find writing attributed to Paul, and some probably genuinely by Paul, used as ‘clobber passages’ or turning out to be ‘texts of terror’. However, Ruden is doing her bit to change misinterpretations, and filling out Paul’s context with suitable Greek and Roman material is obviously a helpful step in that direction.

P is for Pluralism

There are lots of things to which one could take a pluralism approach. Some consist only in noting the fact of plurality, and others in asserting that plurality is good or necessary in some way. Even if we narrow our focus to religion, pluralism can focus on salvation (there are a plurality of ways to be saved) or on truth (either that there are a plurality of truths or that a plurality of religions have access to the truth). Although all these positions exist, ‘pluralism’ as a term in theology is most associated with the latter – and in Christian theology, one of the best known pluralists is John Hick.

Like anyone else, John Hick changed his mind over his lifetime, but in this context his later work is the more interesting. In books such as The Rainbow of Faiths  and God Has Many Names, he argues that since all religions have similar fruits (produce good and bad people at about the same rate), and all aim towards a realignment of the self from selfishness towards an ultimate reality, all are in some way offering different but complementary pictures of what Hick calls the Real. This is, of course, a simplified explanation of the position, but I hope that for the purposes of a blog post it captures both the key features which make it attractive and those which make it difficult for some to accept. On the one hand, it supports many liberal values, such as tolerance, sincere dialogue between religions, and the equality of all people. On the other hand, it requires letting go some key claims made by some religions, especially to have exclusive access to the truth. And it makes some claims which are just a bit puzzling – Hick is a realist about the Real and rejects naturalistic interpretations out of hand (what if what all religions have in common is a feature of the human brain?), and his talk about the Real as ineffable and as accessed equally by many religions is a bit confusing – can people access the Real directly or at all, or not?

In my research on British Quakers, I compared Hick’s pluralism to Quaker universalism (which assumes that they’re different, and that Quaker universalism is a single position – neither of which is quite true, but both were close enough to make the discussion worth having). One of the key differences I identified is their starting points – Hick begins from an observation about the fruits of religion in people’s lives, while Quakers talking about these issues usually take the presence of ‘that of God’ in everyone as a foundation. This difference at the beginning of the discussion doesn’t lead into huge differences in the conclusions – although there are some: Hick is still interested, for philosophical as well as theological reasons, in there being some form of afterlife, which Quakers today usually just don’t talk about. Both conclude that all religions (or at least all major religions – both Hick and the Quakers can think of some they would reject as having valuable insights because they seem to contain or lead to evil) have some truth and are worth studying. Both also conclude – in fact the Quakers often assume – that there is a single Reality, underlying or embedded throughout the world, which religions and religious people can genuinely experience and talk about. This Reality need not be personal, or external, or supernatural, but both Hick and most Quaker universalists think that it is Real and unified (if not singular – one argument says that it is neither single nor plural because number is not a relevant category).

P is for… Practi(c/s)e

Quaker Faith and Practice.

“Discernment is a discipline; it requires time, effort, trust, and practice.” – 2013 epistle.

The internet assures me whenever I look it up (which is frequently but not quite often enough, as those who have to mark or proofread my work will tell you) that practice is a noun and practise is a verb. (In the UK. Americans get away with using C for both, which one of the reasons I’m perpetually confused about it.) In this post I want to talk about both – our practice, noun, the things we do, and how we practise, verb, and how they relate. To some extent this is a matter of walking the talk – actually getting on with it the way we’ve said we will.

We have our practice written down for us, in Faith and Practice – or so you might thing. Actually, we update Faith and Practice frequently, with small changes every year to reflect shifts in our situation, habits, and circumstances (for example, the law) and a big change every generation or so when we ask a Revision Committee to go through the whole lot and sort it out, bringing in any new material we need and taking out that which no longer speaks to our condition. Obviously, this can’t happen if we haven’t gone around practising – and experimenting and making changes to the ways in which we practise – in the meantime.

Practise makes perfect, says the proverb. (There seems to be no general online agreement on whether practice or practise makes perfect, for which I blame the Americans, but I feel like the verb makes more sense.) Are we striving to move towards perfection? I would say yes – we might be surprised by what perfection looked like if we found it, but the Kingdom of God (debate about alternate naming deferred) is what we’re aiming for. Someone said to me recently that we should let pieces of vocal ministry go, even if annoyed some people, if it wasn’t actively harmful, and I said no: we should be aiming to help all our ministers, everyone, to give the best ministry they can give. It might still annoy or upset some people, but I want to think of it as a continual effort rather than an occasional problem.

If you want to be good at something, anything, you don’t sort out a little problem and then ignore it for ages, going on playing tennis or whatever without ever taking a lesson or reading a book about it. You can play tennis for fun and if you’re not injuring yourself it doesn’t matter what you do, but if you want to win games or show your friends what you can do or get better at it, you need input – casual tips from fellow players or formal coaching from a professional. That’s part of having a well-rounded practice.

In just the same way, I think we need to keep trying to be better Quakers. I’ve been a Quaker for years, I know the basics, but I can still get better; it isn’t only newcomers who need inreach. (Inreach is the opposite of outreach – if outreach is telling other people about ourselves, inreach is sharing what we know about Quakers with other Quakers. It often turns out that we know different things.) We don’t have professional coaches for most Quaker jobs, and for some – like vocal ministry – our fellow players can be very reluctant to offer pointers.

How do you improve your practice? Do you think more explicit sharing about our ways of practising would help? And do you have a mnemonic for when you should use s or c?

P is for… Pacifism

I happened to say the other day that pacifism is one of the few things left in my life which I really feel I take as an unexamined dogma. Almost everything else I’ve examined – in a philosophy classroom, in a Quaker Meeting, in a discussion in a pub – but to quite an extent I’m a pacifist because I was raised a pacifist, because I’ve always been a pacifist, because I think some people need to be pacifists.

That last one comes closest to being a reason. I’m a pacifist – a position I’ll freely admit is idealistic – because I think that some people need to hold on to ideals. There are ideals which others hold which would hurt me too much to contemplate (I can’t even try and imagine a world in which everyone has a job and is paid a living wage for it, because to think that such a thing is possible and also know that you are only time away from the disgrace of being on JobSeeker’s is too much to bear). I let living wage and citizen’s wage campaigners hold that vision for me. Meanwhile, I can imagine a world in which co-operation is more common, competition less valued, and physical violence a genuine last resort, used reluctantly in love. Furthermore, I can imagine a world in which we take the path of unilateral disarmament. I can’t quite imagine how we’ll get there, but I can hold onto the vision that it is possible.

When you say you’re a pacifist, people who aren’t tend to try and ask you hard questions, like ‘but wasn’t it right to fight the Nazis?’ and ‘what would you do if someone was attacking your sister/daughter?’ I do not have simple answers to these questions. In relation to the second one, I don’t have a sister or a daughter, and somewhat resent the implication that my father or brother should be stirred to violence in order to protect me. Why is this question always gendered that way? (Oh, hello there, patriarchy.) I read recently that Howard Marten, a Conscientious Objector in the First World War, replied to a question of this kind that like anyone else, he didn’t know what he would do in such a circumstance until it arose. All I can say is that on those occasions when I have been attacked or robbed, or felt that I was likely to be, I have tended to stay calm and quiet and try and keep moving out of the area. I’m not sure whether this is cowardice, common sense, or feminine socialisation, or a little of all three.

I tend to reject the historical premises of the first question. Why assume that Nazis were inevitable and we have to choose whether to fight or let them act as they will? My limited understanding of the historical situation is that Nazism arose from ancient roots which happened to flourish in the economic and political circumstances which were created by the previous war – which in turn was not inevitable but created by previous circumstances. Perhaps that kind of hatred is like knot weed, able to survive as a tiny piece or deep underground, and then regrowing from that piece when the conditions are right. Like knot weed, it should be cut down – but a political view is not a person, and physical violence may not be the way forward. In any case, I cannot know what I would have done if I’d be alive then, and I’m more interested in asking what we can do new.

At this juncture it’s traditional to tell the story about the boxer who was a CO. He’s in prison, and some of the other guys are asking him why he’s a pacifist, since he’s clearly not afraid of fighting. He asks them why they think war will work, and one of them says, “Sometimes you can only change someone’s mind with violence.”

“Okay,” says the boxer, and swings for him, landing a punch square on his jaw. The other guy comes back at him immediately, but the boxer catches his fist and says, “Hang on a minute. Tell me, did that change your mind?”

(I believe this is a true-ish story, but I don’t know where it’s from and I have retold a retelling from memory with attention to story rather than fact.)

I can tell that this post is rambling now – I have written the next paragraph two or three times, each time with totally different material, none of it really about pacifism. I can’t really find anything else to say. Why am I a pacifist? Because I think that war is wrong.

P is for… Poetry

I’ve always explored my spirituality through words, and especially through poetry. To show how paganism and inspiration by prehistoric monuments flow through my work, here are two poems – one from 2001, hidden for many years in my first handwritten folder of collected poetry, and one from this year, eleven years later.

West Penwith

Land of my dreams,
Home to generations since prehistory,
Covered in beautiful Cornish names:
Carn Euny, Chysauster, Goldsithney.

The circles of granite at Boleigh,
On the moors high over Men-an-tol,
In the bracken at Boscanwen-Un,
And all three at Tregeaseal.

Here, seated on the grass by Tregiffion,
Or in the doorway of the fogou at Pendeen,
I can see through clear salty air,
Long tall hedges and the far horizon.

It is all in my mind.
I stare at the pictures too long
Trying to get away from my mind
And for you I write this song.



earth – earth – stone – sky
reaching out, up
earth – stone – stone – sky
here mapping there
earth – stone – sky – sky
thus connecting
sky – stone – earth – us

P is for… Pagan

Too obvious, you might think. And yet there are many types of pagan, and much to say about paganism – or it wouldn’t need a blog project. Here, for starters, are some of the type-of-pagan labels I have applied to myself over the decade since I became interested in paganism.

hedge witch
ritual writer
right-hand path
fluffy bunny

They’re mostly a little true and a little untrue, each one: for example, I am generally solitary, in paganism as in life, but as much practically as philosophically, and I can be a novice who knows many things and an expert who tries to keep beginner’s-mind, depending what I’m doing at the time.