Tag Archives: Quakerism

Do Quakers have Christian privilege?

Last week, Britain Yearly Meeting considered the theme of privilege – you can watch videos from the event, and read the minutes or the epistle. It became apparent that the newer pattern of use for the word privilege – as in white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, straight privilege, middle and upper class privilege, able-bodied privilege, neurotypical privilege, etc. – has caught on in some ways, but it’s easy for people to default back to an older pattern which may also be less emotionally and socially disruptive – as in it’s a privilege to serve, it’s a privilege to be here, it’s an honour and a privilege. When I was thinking about how to unpack this and explore it in a more nuanced way, I found myself thinking about a question we didn’t consider explicitly: do Quakers have Christian privilege, at all or to some extent?

I think the answer to this question is ‘yes and no’, but also that it’s useful to explore why. I’ll start with Christian privilege – what is it, anyway? It’s the ways in which people who are Christian benefit from the structures of societies such as the UK in which Christianity is the majority religion and/or the assumed or historical norm. Sam Killermann put together this list of 30+ examples, including “You can worship freely, without fear of violence or threats” and “Music and television programs pertaining to your religion’s holidays are readily accessible”. There are some of these which Quakers clearly have; for a long time now, Quaker worship has been acceptable and free from violence or threats. This is very much a privilege which I think Quakers would want to share with everyone – and yet Jews, Muslims, and others in the UK today do feel this fear and experience both threats and violence against their communities.

On the other hand, the Quaker relationship to Christian holidays is complicated, and specifically Quaker music, films, and so on are not part of mainstream broadcasting. Such things do exist can be found online or at specialist Quaker shops or libraries, but many people – with no internet access, not knowing what to search for, distant from London or Birmingham, and/or short of money – would find it difficult to access them. Some Quakers may include some or all Christian content as reflecting their personal faith, but others find traditional Christian language for God and liturgical practices alien or upsetting. Compared to other privileges Quakers do have, this lack seems relatively minor, but I know that it’s felt by the wave of rejoicing which crosses my social media feeds when a mainstream news source, TV programme, or radio station does mention Quakers. (A recent example: Fleabag.)

I won’t go through all 30 examples, but here are some more:

  • “A bumper sticker supporting your religion won’t likely lead to your car being vandalized.” As a Quaker, I’m sure I have that privilege (I don’t have a car, but I wear a badge which declares that I’m a Quaker and have had nothing but polite, puzzled, and/or positive responses).
  • “Politicians responsible for your governance are probably members of your faith.” Taken as percentages, probably yes: there are more Quaker MPs and MEPs than would be expected if politicians were statistically representative of the population, and fewer than expected of other non-Christian faiths.
  • “You can reasonably assume that anyone you encounter will have a decent understanding of your beliefs.” Not really. Some people have misconceptions, some only know a few basics, and many know nothing about Quakers.
  • “You are never asked to speak on behalf of all the members of your faith.” Debatable… but I use phrases like ‘I can’t speak for all Quakers, but…’ and ‘Quakers don’t all agree, but speaking personally…’ often enough that I think this expectation is sometimes an issue.
  • “Without special effort, your children will have a multitude of friends who share your faith.” It seems to me that Quaker parents often make special efforts, travelling considerable distances or planning family holidays around annual events, to make sure their children can meet other Quaker children.
  • “You can travel to any part of the country and know your religion will be accepted, safe, and you will have access to religious spaces to practice your faith.” I think Quakers do have this privilege (it helps that meeting for worship can be held anywhere). There are a few places in Britain where the nearest Quaker meeting is too far away to attend regularly, but none where I’d expect to feel unsafe as a Quaker.
  • “You can be polite, gentle, or peaceful, and not be considered an “exception” to those practicing your faith.” In bucket loads! A rude or angry Quaker is more likely to be breaking the stereotype (and so that pressure, in turn, means that some find it difficult to express themselves).

It seems like Quakers have more Christian privilege than some, and less than others. These are just some preliminary thoughts and I welcome extensions, additions, and alternative perspectives in the comments. Perhaps it’s a profitable case for Quakers to discuss among ourselves because we are likely to have much of it in common with one another, we can’t learn about the Quaker situation by listening to other people, and the situation of having and not having simultaneously encourages a more nuanced understanding of what is actually going on with privilege in general. In the process we might uncover ways in which we can both be better allies to our interfaith friends, and pose better challenges to dominant structures which may be restricting everyone’s freedom of religion and expression.

Advertisements

Qui-Gon Jinn, most Quakerly Jedi?

I’ve been saying for years that I think Qui-Gon Jinn, as well as being the most important character in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and probably the most likeable character in the prequel trilogy, is the most Quakerly Jedi in the Star Wars universe. I’ve just read Claudia Gray’s new novel, Master & Apprentice, and I think it proves me right.

Before I go any further, let me clarify the limitations of my claim. I’m not arguing that the Jedi are Quakers, or that Qui-Gon Jinn is a Quaker. Jediism, both as a fictional faith and a real one, has both significant commonalities and differences with Quakerism: Jedi and Quakers both like being calm and aware of their connectedness with the world; fictional Jedi often use violence while Quakers usually reject it; real Jedi usually adopt that faith as adults, like most Quakers today; Quakers have at least a historical connection to Christianity and often a role for Jesus in their spirituality, while Jedi don’t (counter-arguments involving members of the Skywalker family on a postcard, please); and there are more nuanced cases – in some other post perhaps I’ll compare the minister/elder system used by the Valiant Sixty with the master/apprentice structure.

The Jedi are not Quakers. Some of the Jedi are deeply unQuakerly – and not just the ones who become Sith, but also those who accept the status quo, use violence before other methods, and support their political leaders in immoral courses of action.

That said, there are general similarities between some aspects of the Jedi way and some parts of the modern Quaker way, and in Claudia Gray’s novel Qui-Gon Jinn becomes a spokesperson for them. I’ve picked out three short passages which will illustrate what I mean. There are minor spoilers in what follows, so if that’ll bother you, go and read it first. (It is worth reading: it’s an excellent example of what Star Wars extended universe writing does well with a great mix of mission-focused plot and character exploration).

In the first passage which caught my attention, Qui-Gon Jinn is talking to Rael Averross, a fellow Jedi (and fellow student of Dooku’s, cue ominous music). Rael has gone a bit off the rails before and during a long stay on the distant planet Pijal, and seems to be going further. Here (p124), he and Qui-Gon discuss the Jedi code.

It had been a long time since Rael Averross felt the need to justify himself to anyone on Pijal, but as he walked Qui-Goon to the door, he found himself saying, “You know, there’ve always been a few Jedi – let’s be honest, more than a few – who see celibacy as an ideal, not a rule.”

“I’m coming to believe that we must all interpret the Code for ourselves,” Qui-Gon said, “or it ceases to be a living pact and becomes nothing but a prison cell.” Which sounded nice and all, but was a long way from letting Averross off the hook.

Point one is another difference: Quakers have had different codes of sexual ethics over time, but have never embraced celibacy as a path for the majority, let alone something enforced! Point two, though, is a similarity about the relationship expressed here between the rule, the Jedi Code, and the way it is lived out. Rael suggests a difference between an ideal (presumably a good idea but not a realistic one) and a rule. Qui-Gon suggests that what matters is not so much the rule itself or the way the Jedi act, but the relationship between people and Code.

What’s Quaker about that? Well, it could be compared both to a traditional Quaker approach to the Bible, and to the relationship Quakers have with their own tradition. The first of these could be illustrated with an old but still much quoted passage from first-generation Quaker Margaret Fell, who became a Quaker when she realised that she and her existing church had not made the Bible into a ‘living pact’: “we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves” (link to longer quote with context). As a movement, Quakers have acknowledged the need for each generation to make the tradition its own. This is sometimes explicit, as in these words from Young Friends in 1926: “each generation of young Friends by its experiments must discover for itself the truths on which the Society is built if it is to use those truths and to continue and enlarge the work of the Society”. Sometimes it’s built into the practice, as in the ongoing process of revising the very book from which those quotations are taken. Like the Jedi Code which Qui-Gon follows, it contains rules – but it is meant to represent a “living pact” not a “prison cell”.

The next passage is from much later on in the story (p217). Qui-Gon has had a vision of the future, and has decided that although he will act on it, he won’t share it with his superiors, the Jedi Council.

Qui-Gon had not yet shared his vision with the Council, nor did he intend to. They would spend all their time bickering about the viability of the hyperspace corridor. They were too bound to Coruscant. Too bound to the chancellor. Too far from the living Force.

They were no longer the sort of Jedi who could trust in a pure vision.

It shocked him that he was that Jedi. That he could still find it in him to believe so profoundly, so unshakably, in pure mysticism. Qui-Gon had so often felt out of step with the Order as a whole, but never to this degree.

He had also never felt this close to the Force.

There are more differences here, of course. Although I know some Quakers who study and interpret dreams or Tarot cards, having visions of the future isn’t part of Quaker tradition generally. However, I think Quakers could easily come down on either side of the hyperspace corridor debate (it has political elements familiar from closer to home: questions about economic justice, access to transport, political representation, slavery, and the power of large corporations are all involved). And there is a deeply Quakerly element in Qui-Gon’s rejection of authority in favour of trusting his own connection to the Divine. For him that Divine is the Force, and it might be known as God or Spirit in traditional Quaker understandings – but Quakers use many, many words to talk about God and some of them are remarkably similar. I’ve heard terms like Energy, Universe, and even the Force used in workshops! However they understand it, Quakers seek to contact the Divine directly, not needing any particular person or practice to mediate their knowledge of the Divine. They can use a group process but also listen for leadings from the Divine – much as Qui-Gon does in this passage.

My final passage also comes from a discussion between Rael and Qui-Gon. (Another similarity with Quakers? Jedi in this book seem to discuss their beliefs mainly with each other, and mainly when they disagree, never explaining to non-Jedi characters!) Rael starts by putting a case that if the light and dark, good and evil, sides of the Force should be in balance, their actions are irrelevant (p259):

“…the darkness would be just as strong as the light. So it doesn’t matter what we do, because in the end, hey, it’s a tie! It doesn’t matter which side we choose.”

… “It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch – it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.

One point here is that the language of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ is very popular with Quakers, even though it can be racist – and I think the Star Wars use, where light and dark map directly to good and evil, is also problematic in that way.

If we replaced ‘light’ with ‘good’, here, though, there would still be another similarity to Quakers: something which might be called idealism or working from principles rather than pragmatism. In a piece of research which involved interviewing Quakers about social justice work, I found they often mentioned the way in which a long-term, ideals-focused approach won respect from other campaigners. These campaigns are not run in order to win (although, as described in that link, there have been successes along the way). Rather, campaigns against war and for equality are based on a Quaker faith in the importance of doing what is good and what God asks.

Would Qui-Gon Jinn be accepted for membership if he applied to a British Quaker area meeting today? I’m not sure – at the very least, there would have to be a serious conversation about lightsabers and maybe a chat about gambling. But based on the evidence I’ve gathered in this post, I think that theologically he might fit right in.

Firm or forgiving: what is your ideal Quaker community like?

Let me start with a shout out to everyone already objecting to the construction of a false binary in my title. The word you’re looking for is ‘clickbait’.

When someone finds Quakers, they are usually told early on that Quakers are pacifist. Obviously there are different ideas about what this means – but it’s easy to assume, and I can see why someone would think – that this must include being peaceful within the Quaker community as well as promoting it outside. That can make it extra hard when it turns out that actually, there is a fight of some kind going on in a Quaker meeting. These Quakers aren’t so peaceable after all! As it used to say on Susan Robson’s Living with Conflict website (now available via the Internet Archive):

“Quakers in my sample found that the commitment to public peace in their organization held them back when they came to arguing and disputing. They thought their tradition told them they should live in a peaceable kingdom, like the animals in the Edward Hicks painting appearing on the front page, and therefore not have any hostile feelings. So when they discovered angry feelings they saw this as a failure, and were ashamed.”

Susan has written more about anger elsewhere, such as in this blog post, “F is for ‘so fucking angry’“. My theme today is more about our picture of that peaceable kingdom. How is peace achieved in it? In conversation with some Friends recently, we identified two different approaches. One is characterised by firmness, and is interested in structures, discipline, right ordering, and boundaries. (If it were dealing with animals, it would focus on training them.) The other is characterised by forgiveness, and is interested in relationships, inclusion, flexibility, and acceptance. (If it were dealing with animals, it would focus on finding ways to let them all behave naturally.) In humans we can recognise both sides: the ability to learn and to choose our own disciplines to keep, and the need to be loved as we are and extend the same love to others.

Of course a community cannot live by bread alone, and any group dealing with any conflict will need to balance these – what’s a habit we can change, and what’s a boundary we need to enforce? what’s something we come to accept, and what’s really objectionable? Imagine for example how rude or domineering behaviour can be tolerated and tolerated, especially if it develops slowly, until well past the point where someone who has just arrived in the situation immediately sees it as bullying. But what should the response be? Care for everyone involved, bullied and bully, is obviously indicated, but so are some boundaries, because harm is being caused and it needs to be stopped.

What are we led to do in this type of situation? “What loves requires” is a good attitude to an answer, but it sets intentions rather than consequences. In doing so, it can tend to shield a bully, who “didn’t mean to hurt you”. “What the book of discipline says” might also seem like a good answer, but depending what you need help with, it might seem short on answers or to reinforce the problem of peaceableness identified at the start of this post. Being able to do conflict resolution work in another community may not involve the same skill set as holding your own pain when something goes wrong at home!

Instead, perhaps we sometimes fall back on an unconscious picture of what a Quaker community or even an ideal Quaker individual should be like. For some of us, that ideal picture is of a Quaker community which is safe because it is structured, ordered, follows rules and enforces them, and has a discipline which we accept when we join it. For some of us, that ideal picture is of a Quaker community which is safe because it is open, accepting, takes all those who come and does not reject, and teaches freedom and inclusion. Everyone wants to be safe. It’s legitimate to disagree about how to make our community safer. But when disagreeing itself isn’t safe – for anyone, because it both breaks the rule about peaceableness and involves rejecting some views – it’s very hard to have a real conversation about the best way forward.

It’s possible that the ‘unconscious pictures’ described in this post are different manifestations of the strict father/nurturant parent images identified in politics by George Lakoff – although I’m not suggesting they map to political positions! Do you recognise them in yourself or your community?

Reading the Psalms in Meeting for Worship

In conversation with a f/Friend yesterday, I happened to recall a curious episode in my life as a Quaker which I don’t think I’ve written about before. Enough time has now passed for me to think of this as a finished pattern – what I’m about to describe took place roughly between three and four years ago. I haven’t entirely stopped reading Biblical passages in Meeting for Worship occasionally (I was led to read a section of the Sermon on the Mount a few weeks ago, with a few comments about why), but it feels like a more normal part of a mixed pattern of different kinds of spoken ministry, including many meetings when I don’t speak, times when I speak entirely from personal experience, and reading from Quaker faith & practice

For a while, though, I felt strongly and repeatedly (I’d guess this happened perhaps four times over the course of several months) led to read whole psalms in Meeting for Worship. I read them plain, without commentary or even giving the Biblical reference. I read them as well as I could within the skills I have – for example, I have a loud voice, and I tend to speak clearly and expressively, even dramatically. I didn’t always read the whole Psalm, but I usually did. I sometimes changed a pronoun, so that I alternated between masculine and feminine words for God, but I don’t remember changing any other words (although of course I could have mis-spoken or something). Some of the Psalms I was led to read were challenging, especially ones which use violent language not usually heard in Quaker meetings.

I would say I tested the leadings fairly thoroughly. I tend to be more confident about being led to read from Qf&p or the Bible than about being led to speak in my own words – texts have the advantages of being tested already, by time and other people, and it’s harder to go wrong. (Not impossible; I remember being relatively new to a meeting, reading from Qf&p in worship, and being told afterwards that it ‘would have sounded different to people who’d been in the meeting for a long time’; I never did really work out why.) I think I was more hesitant the second time it happened – I remember someone commenting on one of these occasions that she knew I was struggling with whether to speak or not because I kept picking up the Bible, looking at it, putting it down again on the seat next to me with the page open, waiting a while, and picking it up again. By the third time the calling was clearer and I was quicker to obey. And maybe that was the point, or some other message got through, because it didn’t happen much more.

It got mixed reactions. Often people asked me afterwards which Psalm it was, which I was able to tell them at the time although I can’t remember now. Some of them wished I’d announced that before reading – which I sort of did, too, because it would have felt much safer and more comfortable. It also wasn’t what I was being asked to do. Some noticed the style in which I read (one person described it as ‘fire and brimstone preaching’ style, which might have been an exaggeration for comic effect). Some in the meeting were, I think, discomforted by the language of enemies and war which is native to some Psalms; as I read, I was typically discovering meanings which related more the the metaphorical Lamb’s War than an outward war – but of course texts have many meanings, and I was not guided to share those interpretations in ministry (although I did discuss some of them in conversations after meeting). One effect of giving this ministry for me – not, I’m sure the main one, but worth noting – was that tea-and-coffee times which were sometimes filled with awkward questions about my job search and un/employment situation were changed into much more fulfilling conversations which included theology.

Writing this, I am imagining some Friends worrying about whether it is right of me to frame so much of this in the Quaker passive (‘I was led to…’ – I did it, someone else is to blame, and readers are expected to infer the elided deity). Should I take more responsibility for my actions? For example, if someone had been deeply upset by the words I read, should I own that as the consequences of my choice, rather than claiming that it was God’s choice and I was only an agent? I’m willing to take some responsibility because I did choose to follow my Guide: I don’t have the experience that I have to speak, only that I should and am led to do so. I trust God to give me words which are needed and which those present can cope with, even if it’s difficult. And perhaps that’s why I don’t want to accept the full responsibility. If I’m not picking up something from my co-creators of the meeting for worship, from Goddess and everyone else present, how can I have faith that such apparently random utterances are helpful?


 

Writing this, I’m also aware that I’ve been thinking more about how I shape the narratives of my spiritual life recently because I’m preparing to run a course on it. There are still places to come and talk about Spiritual Blogging with me and Gil Skidmore, 7th-9th May, if you’re interested.

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!

God, language, and reality – some questions explored (none answered!)

Since the publication of my book, Telling the Truth about God, some readers have been in touch with me to share their thoughts. One, Gordon Steel, emailed me some interesting questions. These are issues not fully covered in the book, and although they are explored a little in my PhD thesis that’s not very accessible – so with Gordon’s permission I’m taking the opportunity here to consider them in more detail and plainer language.

Gordon:

There is much in your book that I have appreciated… What I wanted to raise with you is what seems to me to be something missing.

My whole attitude to religious thought was transformed years ago by the realisation that all that we say about God or religion is human – following Don Cupitt.

It seems to me that this notion transforms discussion about God. It changes it from ‘What is God like?’ to ‘What is my (or your) image of God?’

The humanness of religious language seems patently obvious to me.

So I am surprised not to have found reference to this in your book (or have I missed it?)

At this stage I replied, briefly, and Gordon looked at the abstract of my thesis and came back with some more questions:

Language arises from human experience. Is this experience internal to us, or is it experience of an external reality?

‘Meaning as use in context’ – I have not read Wittgenstein but does this see meaning as ‘how we use it’ rather than in reference to some ‘reality’?

‘…ways in which religious language is used rather than truth-value…’   Does this mean that the value is in the language rather than the reality that some Friends might suppose it to have?

Rhiannon:

In short: I think that experience arises from the interaction of our awareness with reality, and language is a human creation which both reflects and shapes our experience.

In long:

Let’s start with language. Natural languages are communal creations, which we adjust when we need to (for example, inventing new words when we create new technology – like email – and when we recognise previously unnamed situations – like mansplaining). There are two things to note here. Firstly, language is social and no individual person changes language on their own (anyone can make a different sound, but it’s not a word until someone else understands and uses it). Secondly, people and therefore our languages are constantly interacting with the world around us.

(Okay, sceptics, what we take to be the world around us – but if we turn out to be in the Matrix, my argument will still run because a Matrix-table is still experienced as a table by all the speakers who label it as a table, so I’m going to move on without considering this in detail. If you’re worried about this you can read about Putnam instead.)

On the balance of probability, I do think there’s a real world around us, and when I refer to that traditional object of philosophical contemplation, the table, I do think there’s some actual wood (well, mainly Formica) in front of me. I can see it, I can feel it, I can put my mug down on it – and more the point, when I have a visitor over it they can, too. The things which make it a table, though, are things determined by people. For one thing, by upbringing and habit I speak English, but I could, if less confidently, say bwrdd or โต๊ะ. For another, the category of ‘tables’ is a socially constructed one; the rather low coffee table I happen to be looking at could just as easily be a stool, while in other places in the house some strong storage boxes have been pressed into service as ‘tables’. It’s really an object, but it’s our communal agreement on the word ‘table’ which makes it into that rather than something else.

So far so good, at least as far as readily visible, tangible objects go. It’s fairly easy to see how we extend this to some other, less tangible but observable things – for example, money is socially created, and it has reality while both sides in the transaction are willing to accept the same currency and broadly speaking the same assumptions. The transaction itself makes the money real, enough to measure and put on a graph and ask questions like ‘is GDP falling or rising?’. For some other things, we have socially accepted ways of expressing them which are related to our experiences – Wittgenstein’s examples are often about pain, and the ways we learn to speak and channel a wordless howl of pain into descriptions and images. These aren’t always obvious uses of language: a stabbing pain is not the same as the pain of being stabbed. Nor are these directly comparable with other people (I can invite a visitor to view my table; I can’t invite a visitor to experience my pain). In one sense, pain is an internal experience, but I don’t think I want to say that it’s fully internal if that means that it is only a product of my mind – my body has a big role to play in the experience of pain, and often something which is not my body is involved too. (For example: I stub my toe on the aforementioned table. I consider my pain to be caused by the interaction of my body with another object, and the pain itself to be a real internal experience.)

This gives us ‘meaning as use in context’ – in our society, we have a way of using the word ‘table’ within the English language which enables us to talk about tables in a meaningful way, both generally (“they’re a table-making company”) and specifically (“I bought this table from the British Heart Foundation charity shop”). Context is most visible when it gives away the fact that there are also other potential meanings (“I put the data from the survey into a table so it’s easy to read”).

Where does that leave us with God? On this picture, language about God is always going to be human. Religious experiences – like pain, like love, like that feeling of satisfaction you get when you type a Tweet and it’s exactly on the character count – are internal experiences. That doesn’t mean that they don’t involve interaction with external reality, however. Now, please don’t jump ahead here and take that to be an assertion of the reality of whatever you think God is (or think God isn’t and want to accuse me of thinking God is). All of those experiences involve interaction with a reality which is external to me, but very much internal to the world in which I live.

When I stub my toe on the table, the table is external to me but internal to the world. When I express love for my partner, both she and my expression of love (like buying a present or speaking out loud) are in the world, things of which I have direct experience but not internal to me. The feeling of satisfaction is all mine but Twitter is a feature of the physical, external world. It’s also the case that the language I have available shapes my understanding of the world – I can eat an apple without having the word ‘apple’, but knowing it adds nuance to my experience and helps me to communicate about it. (Other relevant examples: the invention of the term ‘sexual harassment’; the difference between walking in the woods alone and walking in the woods with an expert birdwatcher who can add a name to every flutter).

Within this understanding of language, I think there are (at least) three things you could coherently say about God:

  • the idea of God is a purely social construct, like money, which exists only for as long as someone is using it
  • religious experience tells us that talk about God is a way of expressing something that we feel, like saying ‘ow’ when in pain
  • God is something we interact with, perhaps more like someone else’s mind than a table but part of the world (and, being God, might also be beyond the world)

It’s possible that all of these are right – our idea of God, our talk about God, and actual God might be quite distinct. I think Don Cupitt would go with the first option. I think Wittgenstein probably never made up his mind (hence the difficulty later readers have had in working out what he really thought on this one). I think some excellent Wittgensteinian thinkers have hovered in a creative space between the first two – D. Z. Phillips, for example. I think this view of language tends to discourage putting too much weight on talk about transcendence and going beyond this world (or indeed all sorts of other metaphysical ideas, like mathematical realism): words in this area develop their communal meanings in ways which seem less connected to direct experience and more connected to social needs.

That said, people sometimes expect me to be worried about this stuff. For myself, I think any one of the possibilities above is enough to justify going forward with my own religious practices, of attending Quaker Meeting for Worship and so forth. I find it helpful to think these things through and be pointed back towards the Mystery, seeing that I don’t and can’t prove God but rather sense God experientially and within a faith community, which provides language and practices, which shape that experience.

That being so, “What is God?” is a question which is worth asking – one which can have many useful, interesting, temporary, attempted answers but where ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ might never add up to ‘the whole truth’. “What is my (or your) image of God?” is an equally good question, which acknowledges the impossibility of the first but opens up space for us to express our ideas, feelings, experiences, etc. I would add another question, which addresses issues touched on in this post: “Which sources has your image of God come from?”

When do the rules of writing matter?

“All teachers are English teachers.” This phrase was, as I remember it, one of many irritating things said to my father by his managers during his career as a secondary school science teacher. As I understood it as a teenager, it was used to justify asked him to mark not just the scientific content of homework, but also to comment on the spelling and grammar of every answer.

I thought of it today because I was peer-reviewing a journal article, and had just finished reading and annotating a draft PhD thesis, and was thinking about jokes I might make on Twitter about what Quakers might put in our new Book of Discipline. Generally, this is an area in which I am very lucky – the patterns of speech and writing which are characteristic of my background are also regarded as very close to ‘standard English’, at least in Britain. If I just write whatever occurs to me, most people will regard me as ‘correct’ (and my girlfriend will tease me about sending what she regards as overly-correct text messages). I also enjoy writing, and I think about it and practise a lot, all of which helps me to improve. Even so, there are some mistakes I still can’t avoid making, or things I can’t be sure about – practice or practise? I’d have to look it up. Again.

Knowing that, I aim to be open to other people’s writing styles, and to get the right one for the situation. Blogging is not Twitter is not messenger is not a journal article is not a conference paper and so on, and txt spk is just a form of communication, not a harbinger of the death of the English language. I aim not to form excessively negative (or positive!) judgements about people just because of the way they write. I still find that it leaves an impression, though – when I found an apostrophe (confession: I needed spell-check for the word ‘apostrophe’… but) when I found one in a non-standard place in the first line of an article, it did make me wonder about the rest. I don’t think it affected my final opinion on the whole piece – but then I would think that, wouldn’t I? Maybe it did. I’d certainly encourage the author to ‘correct’ it before publication.

Another confession: blog posts are a genre of writing in which I often set out without knowing where I’m going to end up. This post could end with a recommendation – make sure you are communicating in a clear and contextually appropriate way, kids! But it could end with questions – which rules should apply where? is someone about to remind me about their rules against starting sentences with ‘but’ or in favour of capitalisation after a question mark, even mid-sentence? is it time for academia, and perhaps other places, to be less picky about issues (like the grocer’s apostrophe) which don’t affect communication? if groups want to be more inclusive (like the Quakers and the new book), should we accept, or even actively seek out, things which are written in less-traditional styles?

I like questions. Let’s go with that.