Tag Archives: Quaker theology

Reading theology as a spiritual adventure

People sometimes talk about theological research as if it is, of necessity, dry, boring, narrowly intellectual, and completely devoid of feelings. In my experience, it isn’t like that at all – okay, it can be boring, like any other work, but actually that’s a feeling! – so in this blog post, written while I’m in the middle of a period of study leave and doing theological research very intensively, I thought I’d try and give some examples of the ways in which my whole self gets involved in the work. When I was a undergraduate studying philosophy, I used to say that it was a dull week if I hadn’t changed my mind about some core aspect of existence, and this process is a bit like that – a spiritual adventure.

Challenge to the imagination – reading about the dark night

One of the books I read recently was Sandra Cronk’s Dark Night Journey. This provided me with a challenge to my imagination, because the kind of experience she describes, the sense of the absence of God, isn’t really one I’ve had – certainly not to the extent that is being discussed here. I’ve had very difficult times but often had the opposite experience: when everything is against me and I’ve had a run of bad luck and my usual comforts don’t cheer up, a sense of the Presence (sometimes a very strong sense, sometimes so strong that the language of vision and visitation seems appropriate) can appear in Meeting for Worship, or silent prayer at home – or more likely, in a park or garden. (Here I feel like I might hear a voice, the cynic remarking that obviously my religion is just a crutch, a form of psychological illusion to deal with things I can’t cope with properly. Okay, cynic, so what? At least it seems to work.)

Reading about other people’s experiences of ‘dark nights’ challenges me to reflect on my own experience, identify the differences, be grateful for the ways in which my experience seems easier, and find things which do connect. It also feels like this might be a way to pick up tools for the journey – just because something hasn’t happened to me yet, doesn’t mean that it won’t, and the approaches she recommends might be applicable to other forms of spiritual dryness, too, like the drought of doubt and the boredom which comes from habit. Cronk talks about the apophatic tradition as one tool, a way of thinking not about the positive things we might think we know about God but the mystery and lack of knowledge we have, perhaps expressed in negatives. She says (p55), “The apophatic traditions does not try to rescue a person from the darkness, but rather looks for a way to live in the darkness with trust.”

If I were to try and summarise this part of the spiritual adventure in a verbal prayer, it might go something like this: “Goddess, I don’t always feel it or remember it but I’m grateful for your Presence, for your small still voice within me and in the world around me. In your connectedness, our interbeing, you help me to extend my empathy as far as it will go – and recognise it and not doubt people when they have experiences I can’t empathise with.”

a book cover - the top part has a picture of a stylised landscape in four colours, blue sky, white clouds, pink sun, and red and black mountains; underneath the title reads "Dark Night Journey: Inward Re-patterning Toward a Life Centered in God" and the author's name at the bottom is Sandra Cronk.

 

Challenge to the sense of connection – reading which makes me feel excluded

Another book I read was Becoming fully human: Writings on Quakers and Christian thought by Michael Langford. I knew this book would be challenging when I chose to read it, but it wasn’t difficult in the way I thought it would be. I have my own doubts about the Christian tradition (most of them are basically just a dislike of having a man tell me what to do), but I’m accustomed to reading Christian books and comfortable with that language. This book also includes pieces which are more universalist and more open to nontheist ideas than I might have guessed – Langford quotes Cupitt approving in several places alongside his deep engagement with Biblical and early Quaker material. What it did do was really annoy me, press a button, about something almost completely irrelevant to the book’s main themes.

Over educated. That’s the phrase. Langford’s hardly the only Quaker to use this term in describing British Quakers today. Perhaps it’s especially noticeable because he links it to what he calls a ‘literal-mindedness’ among Quakers as well as the rest of modern society which leads to a difficulty in understanding the rich layers of psychological and metaphorical meaning which can be present in religious language and especially Biblical texts. On the one hand, it’s probably ironic that this annoys me, because to be educated – even ‘over’ educated – in theology and related disciplines is more likely to cure than cause the problem he’s worried about. On the other hand, I spent almost all my time at school being bullied and socially excluded, probably for many reasons but often allegedly for being too clever and doing too well in class, so I have a major sore spot around claims that education or being intellectual is a bad thing and should be opposed – and a bit of a sore spot about anything which sounds like I might be excluded from a community which is important to me.

This is, as I said, a minor issue in the book. The comments could have been deleted without significantly affecting the author’s points. But because of my personal history and consequent emotional reactions – perhaps over-reactions, since they’re out of all proportion to the content – to them, there’s a spiritual challenge in both honouring my feelings and setting them aside. My prayer for this spiritual adventure is something like: “Dear God, I know this isn’t badly meant – I know this isn’t a personal attack – help me tend my own wounds, which are reopened but not really caused by this text – and take the author’s words as a whole and on their own merits.”

a book cover, with a picture of a field of ripe wheat and trees in the distance. At the top, on the blue sky, black text reads: "Becoming fully human Writings on Quakers and Christian thought Michael Langford Friends of the Light"

 

Tradition and memory – reading something almost-but-not-quite familiar

Both the books above brought out ways in which my personal experiences and memories were interconnected with the work I am doing now. My last example is a bit different in that it concerns not just my memories but the collective memory (I might say the tradition) of Quakers as a community. The book is The Book of Discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative) from 1992. (This an old one, but you can find their 2018 edition on their website.) There’s something tactile about this particular printing and binding, with its soft plain grey cover. Inside, there are also lots of phrases and ideas which I recognise from my own book of discipline – not just a book I’ve studied, although I have, but a book which shapes my religious life, cites the sources for much of my spiritual language, is discussed and disagreed with and depended upon and departed from in the religious community where I both pray and work. A book we’ve agreed to revise, which probably means it’s even more on my mind.

Here’s a line from Ohio’s book which I read several times and had to write down.

“Use vigilant care, dear Friends, not to overlook those prompting of love and truth which you may feel in your hearts…”

This is striking because it’s so close, and the sense has hardly changed, but the words of ‘my’ version are so familiar:

“Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts…”

Later in my research, I might track down earlier versions of both and see if I can see how and where these traditions have differed and yet kept something which is clearly the same. Or I might not – my main project is theological and not historical. For now what matters is my reaction, which is a bit like revisiting a place I once knew well but haven’t been to for years. It’s recognisable but changed. I can see that it’s the same, perhaps there’s a sense of comfort, but also some dislocation because it’s not the place I really know. Sometimes other sections made me want to take them away because they might enrich my own tradition – improvements on the place I knew! I wrote down this one, for example: “The right conduct of our business meetings, even in matters of routine, is important to our spiritual life; for, in so far as Friends are concerned in promoting the Kingdom of God, we should rightly feel that its business is a service for Him.”

For this part of my spiritual adventure, I pray: “Inner Light, I can see you shining in lots of places, even where there are also things which challenge me or don’t reflect my experience of Light. Help us all to be as clear as we can be and let our measure of the Light come into the world unobstructed.”

a plain grey book cover with black text which reads "The book of discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative), 1992 Barnesville Ohio".

These kinds of spiritual adventures are hardly restricted to theological research, of course. First-person videos games might lead to explorations of empathy like my first book prompted and passing remarks on Twitter often create reactions like the ones I had to the second book. Where do you take your spiritual adventures? Do you have a spiritual equivalent of a theme park?

With special thanks to the library at Woodbrooke for all these books and more!

Archaeology and nearby possible worlds

I very nearly trained as an archaeologist. I wouldn’t actually have got into an archaeology course at university (you need a science A-level, usually chemistry preferred, and my circumstances did not include this). But I have been reading about archaeology since I was a teenager, was a member of a young archaeologist’s club, lived with archaeology students and occasionally crept into their lectures, borrow from the archaeology section of my university library, etc. This isn’t a way to get a rounded education, since one inevitably focuses on what is readily available (I have read more popular books which debunk the term ‘Celtic’ than any one person ever needs) and on some particular interests (stone circles are where I started, and although I’ve branched out I’ve never really got far from British prehistory). However, I have learned enough that the questions, the methods, and the approaches tend to shape my ways of thinking about other things, and enough to feel able to write fiction set in some periods of British prehistory.

I once tried to explain this, in a sentence, to a group who were mostly historians, and not at all philosophers. I wanted to say, “in a nearby possible world I became an archaeologist” – possible worlds are, so to speak, different legs of the trousers of time, worlds in which things happened which didn’t happen or came out differently in this, our actual world, and the nearer they are the more likely they are to have happened (except that, as it actually happened, they didn’t). I tried to translate that into more ordinary language in something of a hurry, and it came out as “in another life I was an archaeologist”, which I think mislead people into thinking that I had really worked in archaeology at some point. I didn’t – but I can cope with a bit of historian-talk about primary and secondary sources and that sort of thing, which was what I think I was really being asked.

Archaeology has its own related discipline of nearby possible worlds: archaeological reconstruction. Actual archaeology can only reveal what was left behind, and interpret it as far as possible. Depending on the conditions, there tend to be more hard things – lots of stones, some bones, pottery, burnt things – and fewer or no soft things – very little wood, not much flesh, almost no fabric. Especially before writing, but even after that, there are also only clues to the intangible: a statue of a deity but not a religion; a tomb, but no account of the meaning of death; jewels in this grave and weapons in that but no way of knowing how they related to gender, status, or anything else. An archaeological reconstruction, then, has to go beyond some of the facts into conjecture. Some people have build replica houses from the Iron Age, for example – what an Iron Age house might have looked like in a nearby possible world. It smells of straw and smoke and it evokes an aching feeling of genuine connection with the ancient past, but all it really tells you is what some people now managed to build when they tried to build a house the way it was done in the Iron Age. Clues: nobody sleeps there and there’s a safety rope around the hearth.

As well as finishing a novel which is set in neolithic Orkney, my very own attempt at house building in a long ago but nearby possible world, I am setting out on a new project to write about Quaker theology. Perhaps that’s less like real archaeology and more like digging for a treasure which people keep telling me doesn’t exist – or maybe some of them suspect it’s cursed! My worry isn’t so much about ending up in another world as the dangers of bringing to light, making explicit and visible, something which functions best or is best preserved when it’s left well alone. If you lift a piece of Bronze Age wood from Flag Fen, you need to be ready to preserve it by another method before it dries out and crumbles to dust. If I lift out theological ideas and worldviews from little scraps and throwaway remarks and writing which was meant to be about something else, how do I make sure that I look after them faithfully and don’t twist them out of shape?

Liberal Quakers and Life after Death

At a conference last week, I got chatting with some colleagues about life after death, and various views on it. (Tasia Scrutton is organising a philosophy of religion conference on death and immortality, hence her interest.) “Quakers don’t have anything to say about that,” I said, and she replied, rightly, that an absence of interest can in itself be interesting.

It also isn’t strictly true that Quakers have never had anything to say. Previous generations of Quakers have often accepted a traditional Christian picture of the world, including life after death. Today, many Quakers outside the liberal tradition would still take that position. Even within Britain Yearly Meeting, the Quaker Fellowship for Afterlife Studies make it clear that they take a realist view of this topic. Most Quakers in Britain, though, do not seem to believe in an afterlife, and it doesn’t come up as a topic for discussion: instead, like Christian Aid, we believe in life before death.

Spending some more time with this idea, including during Meeting for Worship, I realised that I actually have a strong intuition against there being any form of life after death. Not only do I not think that any life which may or may not occur after death should affect my actions now (I don’t do things because I want to get into heaven or generate good karma for my next life, and nor do I accept eschatological verification), I actively think it’s unlikely, even impossible, that such a thing exists. Why is that? Quakers not talking about it, or a brief A-level module on all the options, seem unlikely to be enough to produce such a strong intuition.

Part of it comes from my picture of what people are: physical bodies which manifest consciousness through the interactions of cells, electricity, and chemicals. Part of it comes from my picture of what God/dess is like: loving not judging, engaged in the world’s processes not watching them from outside, expressed in manifold ways rather than pinned down to one creed or moment. And perhaps part of it comes from experience or the lack of it: although I have heard many accounts of the sense of someone ‘reappearing’ or ‘visiting’ after their death, when I have had this feeling I has always been clear that it was a psychological event or an act of my (vivid and well-exercised) imagination. I think people continue to influence us after their deaths, through our memories and through the repercussions of actions they took during their lives – but it’s also true that events influence us after they finish, so even a memory in the mind of God is not a ‘life after death’ but a life before death.

I think this position is consistent with other Quaker views I hold, but so could a lot of other views on life after death. Quakers: Do you agree with me? Do you have some other intuition, and if so can you trace where it comes from? Do you have no intuition, or only a rational answer, or one based on experience?

Three books at three stages

(Llfyr, book. Long before any of these stages comes learning a language!)

When I was young, I was once asked – so my mother tells the story – by a teacher: what do you want to do when you grow up? I told her that I wanted to be a bookmaker. Cue much adult laughter, especially in our anti-gambling Quaker household.

Later, an English teacher who for whatever reason had us in a computer lab for a class once set us an exercise: for this whole hour’s lesson, just type. Start a story and simply write as many words as you can. At the end of the lesson, he said to the class: there, wasn’t that difficult? Aren’t you glad you’re not a writer who has to do that all day, every day?

No, I said. Sounds like a good way to live to me.

Now, I haven’t quite achieved that goal. (And I suspect the picture he painted of a writer’s life wasn’t 100% accurate anyway!) But I have arranged my life so that I can spend a considerable proportion of it working on books in one form or another, and at the moment I have book projects in three stages. To pick three different metaphors, I’ll call them the seed, larva, and hibernation stages.

Hibernation is a process some mammals use to get through the winter. I have a book which is a real book, but waiting to come out, and it’s sleeping like that: it takes nine months for information to propagate through the arcane reaches of the publishing and distribution industries, so although there are copies of “Telling the Truth about God” in existence, and you can pre-order it from your favourite more or less reputable bookseller,  it will be five more months before it is officially ‘published’.

A larva is an active but immature form, like a caterpillar. At the moment I have a novel manuscript which is at this stage. A few months ago I had an egg, which hatched and turned out not to be exactly what I thought it would be – but similar – and now the caterpillar is growing and growing, like Cecil. (You know that song, right?) Every day, it needs to be fed cabbage leaves – I’m aim to give it about a thousand words of cabbage a day, whenever I can – and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I think I know what it might grow up to be – but it’s hard to be sure. At one time I thought it was going to be about university lecturers and researchers who were also witches, but now it’s about neolithic traders and farmers who are also sort-of Quakers. On the other hand, it’s still a romance novel about two women who meet under slightly unlikely circumstances and have to work out whether it’s possible to build a life together.

I also have a book which is just a seed. I’ve got the seed – a very solid form of seed by my usual standards, in that I have a contract for this book – and now I’m preparing all the ground and the space and the things it will need to grow. It will be a book about liberal Quaker theology, so I’m doing lots of reading of Quaker theology, old and new, British and international, things which are mentioned by things I read, to get the material ready. I’ve made some space (in particular, Woodbrooke have agreed to give me study leave for twelve weeks next year, which will help a lot). I’m also planning to blog about the process as I think through the issues involved, so watch this space.

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?