Tag Archives: R

R is for Religion

What is religion anyway? Well, I don’t think it is anything in particular, in the sense that it doesn’t have a single essence to which one can refer. Historically, things as mostly described as religions if they are relevantly similar to Christianity – Christianity was the first religion to be described as such, and other religions are only later included in the category. To this day, some things which I might think of as ‘religions’ are only dubiously in that category because they are generally considered insufficiently similar to the other ‘world religions’ – several of which need to be described in particular, not necessarily accurate, ways in order to show up their similarity with Christianity and hence their place within the category of ‘religion’.

Anything you say about religion can usually be given a counter-example: religion is about God, except Buddhism, which isn’t; religion is about the next life, religion is about worship, religion is about morality… The concept of ‘religion’ does show some cohesion – two things called religions will have some things in common, but not automatically the same list of things every time.

To get around this a little bit, I often talk instead about ‘religious traditions’. Where most people use the term ‘religion’ to talk about the ‘big six’ (or big five, or seven – it’s not clear, and often depends which school curriculum you were offered rather than any facts about the religions themselves), the term ‘religious tradition’ can cover smaller communities. ‘Hinduism’ might be a religion (or not; it’s one of the most artificial, least-recognised-from-inside entries on the Big Six list), but a group like the Hare Krishnas (ISKCON) can be called a ‘religious tradition’ without trying to decide what counts as ‘a religion’ (and without importing potentially prejudiced or Christian terminology, like ‘sect’ or ‘denomination’, which can otherwise be tempting especially in conversation).

You might notice, though, that in the description above I did make an assumption about religions – that they are about groups of people, and consist in communities. Some views of religion would rather think of ‘a religion’ as a set of beliefs, or a collection of claims, but I think this isn’t very helpful – it might be useful as a base for doing analytic philosophy of religion,  but it doesn’t help us to understand actual religions which are practiced by people. ‘Religion is social’ doesn’t tell us very much about religion – it doesn’t distinguish it from, for example, language, football, or culture – but it does give us a starting point.

Overall, religion might be thought of as a family resemblance concept – each having some points of similarity with other members of the family, but no two alike. Another approach, good enough for many conversations, is simply to note that we know religion when we see it: we can apply the word to, for example, a collection of subjects for study, without needing to be specific about the boundaries of what is out and what is in. For many purposes, this will be enough – and for those cases where it isn’t, using another term as well as or instead of ‘religion’ will help to clarify the use which is current in a particular context.

R is for Reading

Reading is on my mind as I prepare to teach a new group of undergraduates – in only a month! – including writing lecture slides of tips for succeeding at university. One of the things I remember being told when I began to study philosophy was that there was a lot to be gained from reading a text more than once – reading the whole way through to get the shape of the argument, and then again for bits I didn’t get the first time, and perhaps again for details after that. This goes against all my instincts, which are to read things once and then assume that – absent a long gap or a particular new slant – I don’t need to read anything again. That’s good enough for novels (although there are a handful which I have read more than once, or intend to read again one day). It works well enough for some philosophical texts – especially if I took good notes on the first pass, or if it turns out not to be as useful for the current project as I hoped it would be – but the advice to read again is sometimes sound. In particular, denser texts often benefit from two passes – one for shape and one for detail. It can be easy to get distracted by the detail and miss the shape if you don’t read this way.

Have you ever been to a big museum, or somewhere like a Sealife centre, where there are loads of fascinating things to look at but the overall pattern is hidden by the wealth of detail? I have a cousin who, especially in childhood, liked to hurry through such places on a first pass, getting the overall picture, and would then request to be taken back to specific exhibits which had been deemed worthy of further attention. This approach gives you a view which many people never get – I’ve been to the London Aquarium, but I looked at fish; I couldn’t draw you a map of the place, even though I gradually became aware that sometimes I was looking at the same fish again from a different angle.

This advice – read carefully, read twice – is coupled with another co-intuitive piece of advice which makes good sense in some contexts: don’t read too much. It’s tempting to try and read everything you can find on a subject when you’ve been asked to write an essay about it, but this doesn’t actually make good essays. Exactly how much you need to read does vary between topics – are you looking at facts, or opinions, or arguments, or theory, or a mixture? – but in general, something you’ve skim-read and referenced doesn’t add as much to an essay as something which you’ve read and thought about carefully. Going back to the aquarium metaphor, the more carefully you’ve looked at the fish in a particular tank and the longer you’ve spent with them, the more you’ll be able to tell me about them. You need to look at enough other tanks to be able to compare the fish and point out what is special about them, but after a certain point, looking at more tanks of sharks won’t improve your essay on seahorses.

tl;dr: reading is an important skill, and quality can be more important than quantity.

R is for… Revelation

This is the bit, I think, which makes Quakers sound maddest when we talk to the outside world – especially the secular world. It’s all very well to say that Quakers believe in a continuing revelation, it’s got a good long word in and is a bit vague, but what we really mean by this is that we not only think that God did talk to people in the past (revelation, whether Biblical or not), but that God is still talking to us now.

If you go around saying things like ‘God told me so’ in polite company, at a dinner party or the doctor’s, you’re likely to get at least a funny look and maybe a referral to a mental health service. Now, I fully believe that you can have mental health needs and have God talk to you, but I don’t think that participating in continuing revelation – especially in a community context – is necessarily a symptom. This is the claim that I take Quakers to be making, though; when we have threshed and tested and considered a concern, we say, ‘X, because God told us so.’ ‘We should treat all marriages equally, regardless of the sex of the participants, because God told us to, and marriages are God’s work.” “I’m trying to reduce my carbon footprint because God told me to.”

Sure, some of us are worried about the word God – I personally find I can’t do without it, but that I’m not committed to there being an external, a Something you could point to and say, ‘there, that’s God’. This might be because I read too much Don Cupitt a few months ago.

The Quaker method of doing business, though, relies on messages arising in the silence which guide the Meeting towards a conclusion, and our experience is that this does in fact happen. We feel led. We listen, and there’s something to hear. We don’t always agree – indeed, you can unite with a minute if you agree that it’s the way the group is being led; you don’t have to agree that it’s sensible or that it’s the logical way forward or that it’s what you’d have wanted. From time to time we defer a decision because we just can’t get a read on it, but generally we get something that actively takes us in one direction or another. That thing, wherever it comes from, is what I call continuing revelation, or God talking to us.

There is a worry – and I can quite see this – that if you encourage people to trust ‘what God tells them’, they might get and trust messages which don’t seem to be good or ‘Godly’. ‘God told me to kill them’, that kind of thing. I agree that it’s a danger, and one which is not unique to this approach (trusting your intuitions has similar risks, for example). The Quaker safeguard against this problem is ‘testing’, bringing what you’ve received to the community. We’re good at this for big, obviously community-affecting problems, like climate change or end of life care. We can do it in a very informal way for small things, like when you ask a friend about whether you should do Quaker paperwork or visit your family this weekend. We also have a more formal method for larger but still personal things; the Meeting for Clearness is widely in use before weddings, but can be used for all sorts of questions – should I take this job? shall I have this operation?

It’s not perfect, of course, like any system operated by humans. I expect we do still end up doing the wrong thing sometimes; but I don’t think that’s the same as doing something which looks weird to the rest of the world. If we’ve been called to look ‘mad’, maybe that’s part of our continuing revelation. It wouldn’t be the first time – the ‘young prophet’ of 2 Kings 9 gets called a maniac.

R is for… Resurrection

This is a tricky one. I find myself not really wanting to write this post, and knowing – because of that – that this topic is an important one. Quakers don’t talk about resurrection very much (not any more). Resurrection – the resurrection – is at the heart of Christianity, and it pushes us to look at hard questions which risk bringing disagreements into the open. Because showing disagreement is often treated as if it’s the same as creating disagreement, people are unwilling to do that.

What are we to make, now, of this claim that a man, Jesus, was killed and then, on the third day, resurrected?

Well, maybe he was only mostly dead (which is, as Miracle Max would tell you, slightly alive), or maybe they put the wrong man on the cross, or maybe the man seen alive afterwards was a lookalike, or his brother, or a mass hallucination. As far as I can tell, any of these things could be historically true – but I think they negate, as sometimes they are intended to, the emotional truth of the story.

Maybe the story is a metaphor about the cycle of life, or a reworking of an older tale about another deity, or an attempt to turn a defeat into a victory by adding a miraculous coda. It seems to me that all of these things are true – the story does have metaphorical levels and some things in common with other stories, and it does turn a seeming defeat into a victory – but I think it would be a mistake to assume that the story of the resurrection can be reduced to just any one of these things.

So what is this bigger deeper truth that the story might hold? On some tellings, it comes out sounding like it’s God Can Do Miraculous Shit or God the Father is a Zombie Master. Sometimes it comes out like Don’t Be Afraid of Romans, or Don’t Be Scared of Death, both of which seem a bit more useful but still not quite there. For me, I think the big one is more like: You Don’t Know Where You’re Being Led.

In the story, I think we’re clear that Jesus is, in Quaker terms, being led. He prays: “not as I will, but as you will”, and then goes ahead and does what, we take it, he’s been asked to do. The Gospels don’t give us Jesus’s first person perspective, so we don’t know how much he knew about what was going to happen (I could argue it both ways…) – but if we come at them pretending to be a first-time reader or an ordinary follower at the time, the disappearance/reappearance on the third day comes as a surprise. Some of that surprise does appear in the story.

That’s the bit which I can relate to – a bit I’d put under question 3, Truth, if we were doing Friendly Bible Study with a relevant extract. Resurrection is a genuine surprise, so surprising that it’s beyond belief, and it needs to be because anything less strange would be a relatively predictable twist to the tale. Because it’s something I know I wouldn’t have expected, it reminds me not to try and predict or second-guess the results when I feel that I’m being led – although I confess I still expect events today to be within the realms of the physically possible!

R is for… Rest

Sometimes it helps to push on through sticky patches. Sometimes it doesn’t; even in spiritual practices, there is a time not to try to hard – to show up but not worry about what happens, or to show up somewhere else, or to show up late because you needed the time, or indeed not to show up at all. It’s okay to give it a rest.

R is for… Ritual

I use the term ‘ritual’ in two ways: to describe things I do often, in a set way (the ritual of cleaning my teeth), and as a name for a kind of religious practice – something close to ‘ceremony’, but with slightly different connotations. It’s the latter I want to talk about here.

To me, a ritual can be a lot of things. Here are some things it’s not: I don’t call Meeting for Worship a ritual in this sense, although I do practise it often and it has an agreed form or a liturgy; it doesn’t have to be the same every time, even though the first meaning discussed above suggests that; and it isn’t just meditation, although meditation or silent worship might form part of the ritual.

Here are some things it can be: solitary or for a group of any size, short or long, planned in detail or only in outline, scripted or improvised, appropriate for people of many theo/alogies or only one, indoors or outside, simple or complex, sad or joyful, playful and thoughtful and beautiful and more.

At some times, I have done ritual every day. (It usually needs to be short to be manageable in this way; fifteen minutes is about my maximum.) At other times, every six weeks for seasonal celebrations has seemed like a lot.

I like my rituals like I like my essays: with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Usually I cast a circle somehow (with a knife or a wand if I feel Wiccan, with a finger, water and smoke if I feel Druidic), and acknowledge the directions (forms of words vary, or I improvise). Usually I pray to Deity – to many named Deities or one called Goddess. Sometimes I pray for specific things, perhaps using some object to symbolise this (you might call this magic), or practice a visualisation, or bless and share food and/or drink, or simply sit.

To end, I normally thank all the beings who have participated in the ritual. If I lit a candle (which is very often the case!), I blow it out and send the light with that action to – who or wherever I think is in need of it that day. I close any circle I opened, and get on with my day.