Tag Archives: religion

What is theology?

(In Welsh, it’s diwinyddiaeth.)

Theologising is one of the processes through which I try and bring my whole self to God.

Theology is an everyday activity. It has an academic branch, of highly trained specialists: but the existence of professional footballers is not taken to prevent me and you having a kickabout in the park, and the existence of academic theology does not prevent us doing our own theology whenever we like. You can also choose not to. (I choose not to play football.)

Sometimes it feels like theologising creates more barriers than it removes. I don’t find thinking about things creates a barrier between myself and Goddess – if anything, the opposite; by thinking about things prayerfully, I can bring them into the Light and work in partnership with the Spirit to act on what’s mine and hand over what’s God’s. I recognise that for others, thinking itself is a problem and they wish to reduce it as far as possible. And I do see the temptation to leave our spirituality unarticulated so as not to have to face the multiplicity of our experiences and our potential theological disagreements. If we could just leave our experience to be experience, not trying to work out what it implies for our beliefs or our lives, wouldn’t that be better?

Maybe it would give us quieter lives! I don’t think it would give us better spiritual lives, though. To me, one of the aims of religious practice is to bring my whole self together to the experience. Unlike other parts of life, where it’s often appropriate to compartmentalise a little or a lot, between me and God nothing needs to be hidden or ignored. That includes uncomfortable things – mistakes I’ve made, fears I hold – and my body and emotions and mind.

Theology is what I do when I bring my intellectual attention to God. It might mean trying to understand God directly – an exercise which, like listening to a singing bowl’s note fade into silence, doesn’t have a definite end but can usefully be begun, and begun, and begun. It might mean looking for something to say, or the right way to say nothing, in the face of pain, suffering, disaster, or death. It might mean asking searching questions about how I, or you, or we as a community understand the world, ourselves, and the Spirit.

Above all, doing theology is not an end or a finalisation of anything. It is an open space, in which I begin with the Mystery I know, work through difficult terrain in company with others who have walked this way, and end with the certainty of questioning.

A view of a small sandy beach, with flowering grass in the foreground, sand and some seaweed at the shore line, a calm sea, a headland and some distant islands just visible on the horizon, and a complex pattern of clouds above.

Beach near Scapa, Orkney.

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On doing Quaker outreach

One of this month’s chapters in our process of reading Quaker faith & practice is chapter 28, ‘Sharing the Quaker experience’. It’s a short chapter and not, in my experience, one which is often quoted. I think it’s about an important subject, though: how we talk about Quakerism beyond the confines of our community. After some thought, I’ve decided to respond to this chapter in two blog posts: this one is about outreach but aimed at Quakers, while the next one will be about Quakers and aimed at non-Quakers, i.e. will itself be outreach.

At the very end of chapter 28, a passage in italics – written, I guess, by the committee who compiled the book – reminds us that “Each meeting must find its own way of sharing the Quaker experience, each Friend remember ‘that we are each the epistle of Yearly Meeting’.” If we are each epistles, letters, from our Yearly Meeting to those who are not members of it, what we do we say?

I think I know some Quakers who might be very good epistles but the letter hasn’t been signed, or they hide the address it comes from. Are there people in your life who don’t know that you’re a Quaker? Of course, it doesn’t have to come into every interaction, but if I get to know someone more than a very little bit I usually find it does come up.

Sometimes I might be a good enough letter, but I’m not phrased in a way people can hear. I try and adapt my language to the audience, but it’s easy to make mistakes with this: I once refused to buy a raffle ticket, and although I thought I’d used quite neutral terms something in what I said made the women selling them very cross indeed! Her rant turned out to be about Methodists as much as Quakers, so perhaps I’d stepped on a hidden landmine, but it’s also possible that something I said was more inflammatory than I intended. People who turn away at the idea of organised religion or the word ‘God’ might be other examples here.

Sometimes people might see the headlines of an epistle, but miss the real content. What can be a chance to express Quaker ideas in one setting gets sweep up by unrelated assumptions in another: one waiter who is interested to hear that I choose to eat vegan because my religion inspires me to look after the environment is usually balanced by another who assumes that I’m claiming to be vegan because women are always trying to lose weight. I think that’s them, not me, or at least I don’t yet have a solution to this!

And sometimes I try and leave the whole thing at home, hoping not to have to provide any explanations – with varying degrees of success. Sometimes I can go a whole evening without thinking about it (top tip: if your D&D character is firebombing a hospital, people will probably be too distracted by that to quiz you about your religion). Other times, setting it aside doesn’t work. I remember going for a job interview for Christian but not Quaker employers. I tried quite hard to leave Quakerism out of it, knowing that it was highly likely to be a disadvantage, but people kept asking me questions about my own faith and ideas. Afterwards, as well as deciding not to employ me, the interviewer did note that the whole panel had learned a lot about Quakerism. I wasn’t very impressed at the time – I wanted the job! – but perhaps in the long run it illustrates that, whatever my thoughts on the matter, I am indeed an epistle from the Yearly Meeting.

Reading Qf&p 26: God for me is…

This morning, our local Reading Quaker faith & practice group tried exercise 2B from this month’s Being Friends Together materials, which offers people the beginning of a sentence from chapter 26, Reflections and asks them to try and finish it in their own words. I chose ‘God for me is’, from the start of 26.38. As I was doing this, it occurred to me that I did something similar not long ago – in January last year, I expressed many of the same ideas in a poem I wrote to share with the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group. Rather than writing an analysis of this chapter (I have things to say about the structure created by the subheadings, but I’m not sure they’re all that interesting), it seems appropriate to share both of these pieces with you now.

God for me is… (July 2016)

Goddess for me is within us, alongside us, dancing in the depths of all things.

God for me is reaching out, helping hands, laughing, growing, sharing.

Goddess for me is positively feminine and masculine and nongendered.

God for me is found by imaginative contact with the inner world: lights, trees, seeds, ways.

Goddess for me is a nonexistent undeniable impossible reality.

How do I currently experience the Mystery? (January 2015)

Gone.

God got washed away by waves
of blistering Freudian fire
or crept out while I was reading
leaving me silence and this stone.

Hiding.

I turn the stone over.
Nothing there.
I turn the stone over.
Nothing there.
but something there
as my fingers glide like the sea
over and over the stone.

The Cailleach is the hills from Callanish.
You can’t find Her
by searching them.

Us.

The sweating crowds of us, settling
floating in a warm river
finding the mill-pond and the weir
and I am carried,
seeing here and there
a sweet wise hazel nut among us.

Flowing.

A moment of poetry or ministry
every cell shaking
with raw, electric leading
I call out “Goddess!” like a celandine
surprised by sunlight.

Here.

The soft-lipped pony, Epona, at my shoulder.
The dark-eyed Jesus who always sits
beside me, never opposite.
Hecate with Her three faces is here
on a railway bridge
when I am at a crossroads.

Not.

You turn because I’ve stopped walking
I now can’t see
the things I see
the story with truth
that’s not a true story.

I try to stand
still as a tree.

Reading Qf&p: chapter 2

This blog post is later than I intended. Please address any complaints to The Common Cold, Rhiannon’s Sinuses, Probably On A Train, UK.

Chapter 2 is called “Approaches to God  worship and prayer”. It has the curious feature that while it focusses on experience and people’s personal practices, it deals with topics in which there is inherently a certain amount of theology – speculation, assumption, belief, or even (rarely in Quaker documents!) argument about the nature of that which we are approaching. This is not an explicit theme in this chapter, but it has come up more than once in discussions around it. For example, in this Facebook comment Craig identified the lesser-spotted ontological argument in 2.09.

A first question about this might be: does it matter? Are these ideas about the nature of ‘God’ significant, or should we be focussing on the experience? A second, following on from that, might be: can we separate them? Would it be possible to write about this topic, “approaches to God” without saying anything about the nature of God (or the Spirit, or the Light, or whatever you call it)?

I think that we probably cannot separate them. Certainly, I couldn’t write about my experience of worship without revealing some of the ideas and assumptions I have about that which I seek or respond to in worship. Even the ways I choose to describe the worship I prefer tell you something about those ideas: terms like “waiting”, “listening”, “silent” and “open” all hint at what kind of Divine I think or feel there might be, or what I think might happen. They might suggest attributes: present, quiet, speaking, unpredictable…

I also think there are levels at which this does matter. It seems to me to be important to acknowledge both that we might be wrong about the assumptions that we make, and that we do in fact have those assumptions and underlying ideas. We can’t get rid of them – sometimes, they’re embedded in the structure of our language (if you doubt this, try actually using the word ‘God’ as a verb for a significant period of time – it’s very difficult indeed to break out of the usual noun pattern). At other times, they’re embedded in our culture and history, and even if we can speak differently, we want to retain them.

In short, talking about our experience is very valuable, but the claim sometimes made by Friends that we can focus on spiritual experience and thereby not have to deal with ‘theology’ – with ideas about what underlies that experience – seems to me to be misleading.

Reading Quaker faith & practice: Chapter 21

Personal journey: reading Qf&p on the train

Personal journey: reading Qf&p on the train

Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting have been invited, by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group of which I am a member, to read and get to know our current Book of Discipline – Quaker faith & practice – before deciding whether or not it is time to revise it.

We are beginning with Chapter 21, Personal journey. This chapter contains selections of extracts about youth, age, living a full life, creativity, and death; these are partly arranged in a chronological way, with youth first and death towards the end, and partly not – some could be part of life at any age, and by ending the chapter with ‘Suffering and healing’, rather than death, reading it as a whole is not as bleak as it could be.

One thing that struck me about the chapter as a whole is the metaphor of journey for life. This is a familiar and much used one – we talk about spiritual journeys often, for example, and the image of travel underlies talk about finding Quakerism being like coming home. However, it isn’t always a helpful image. Many of us only set out to travel physically when we have an aim n mind, and the spiritual search does not always or even often work like that. Many of us find travel uncomfortable, something to be endured until we can arrive, and but this is not at all the attitude to life I find in these extracts. It’s all very well to say that the journey is more important than the destination, but that’s very rarely been my experience of actual travel. (In the picture at the top of this post, I’m travelling to work; I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be going if the destination weren’t important to me.)

Doubts about the title asides, this chapter contains some of my favourite passages. I can’t possibly pick out every one, so here are three which I find myself especially treasuring at the moment.

21.01. This passage by Rufus Jones speaks about how he came to learn Quakerism in a Quaker household. He talks, not of being taught, although words were involved, but of being shown, of the religion of his family being something they did together. It’s clear that there was teaching – including Bible reading every day – but that, in memory at least, it was also centrally about experience.

21.19. Dorothy Nimmo’s story is, as she says in the passage, a classic one, and it’s a classic for a reason. This passage reminds me of a debate I sometimes have with my friends about whether I am a  Slytherin. (I am.) It also describes an experience I have had, and I’m sure many others have had, of coming to Meeting with nothing to offer except a need. “Whatever you have.” As someone who has been reprimanded in other settings for being too needy and demanding, I find the idea that I can come to Meeting with nothing but a need very freeing.

21.68. This passage by Iain Law speaks about suffering and death, and how the particular circumstances of Andrew’s death made it difficult to talk about among Friends. The specifics of this passage arise from a historical moment which deserves to be remembered as such; but it also speaks to a broader issues, to the problems which can arise when we are fearful of the reactions of Friends and hold back in ministry. I’ve done this myself – or at other times, not held back, and been met with confused, upset, confusing and upsetting responses.

Before finishing this post, I want to take a moment to address two questions that are asked in the introduction to the Reading Qf&p project: one about the history and development of Quakerism, and one about the authority of the text.

One big issue in the development of Quaker thought is discussed in this chapter – attitudes to creativity and especially to music. This chapter is clear that although early Friends were opposed to music, Friends today are not – indeed, we are broadly in favour of the arts even as we choose to use them not at all or only very sparingly in our worship. There are hints, however, of another shift – Quakers may not officially celebrate Christmas but in 21.25 we can pray for spiritual gifts to be in our Christmas stockings.

What authority does this text have? It inspires and suggests. This chapter doesn’t give instructions but recounts personal responses to situations which we may recognise echoed in our own lives. This chapter can’t have the authority f command because of the subject matter it deals with – too personal, too emotional – but perhaps it can have an authority of guidance: when you are in situations like these, here are some recommendations, some suggestions, some previous experiences to reflect on and, at least, know that you are not alone.

T is for theəlogy

This, for completely terrible reasons, is one of my favourite technical terms – I think everyone has a soft spot for a word they’ve invented, whether or not it turns out to be as useful as imagined at the moment of invention. The term theəlogy is intended to solve a difficulty about what to write when wanting to consider a wide range of worldviews – too broad to be contained within the term theology, or at least potentially so, but wanting to relate to the tradition of doing theology as a discipline.

Feminist theologians have sometimes referred to their work as being ‘thealogy’, talking about a feminine divine. Non-believers who engage in this kind of thought sometimes use the term ‘atheology’ for their process. Within the Quaker community about which I often write, there are a wide range of views – Christian (and Jewish and Muslim and some other) views clearly coming under the tradition of term ‘theology’; feminist, Pagan, and other views which might be represented by ‘thealogy’; and humanist, Buddhist, fictionalist, and other views which could be described as ‘atheologies’.  It would be possible to write ‘a/thea/ology’ or ‘(a)the(a/o)logy’ to roll all these possibilities into one word – but it’s very clunky.

Instead, I chose to use the schwa vowel, represented by the upside-down e (ə), to stand for an ‘err’ sound. (Linguists cringing about stressed and unstressed syllables, sorry.) The idea is that this roles all the questions – doubt about the gender of the divine, doubt about the existence of the divine, and so forth – into the one word, while still allowing us to talk about people having opinions, views, and feelings about these issues in a succinct way.

In particular, I wanted to be able to talk about things – usually things people say or write – as ‘multi-theəlogy’, containing multiple and perhaps conflicting ideas about the Divine. I don’t, as it turns out, use this term as much as I thought I might, but I still have a soft spot for it.

T is for Truth

At a recent workshop, someone challenged me for using the word ‘truth’ differently in describing two different positions. I was comparing the two, so although these might sometimes constitute different contexts, they’d come very close together on this occasion – and it’s a fair point. The word ‘truth’ does have a lot of different uses.

The truth. The Truth. My truth. Your truth. Objective truth. Emotional truth. Telling the truth. The Quaker Truth Testimony.

In particular, we can recognise a complex category of things which are true but not true: stories which contain truth without being true stories. In explaining this concept, we’ve got the concept of truth as emotional or mythical truth (in the sense that novels and plays can be described as ‘truthful’ even when they are completely fictional), and also the concept of true as fact, the way the world actually is, which is the opposite of fiction.

My workshop was looking at possible religious understandings of the world. We were considering a possible position which we might call pluralist, in which many different religions exist in the world but none of them are completely right or completely wrong – they all contain some element of truth, of pointing to the way things really are. For want of a better term, let’s say that this is a position in which all religions have some measure of Truth.

I contrasted that with a position which we might call fictionalist, in which many different religions exist in the world and none of them are completely right or completely wrong – they all tell stories which don’t contain facts or what might be regarded as ‘scientific’ truth, but which do contain emotional, psychological, or otherwise mythical truths. Again lacking a better term, this is a position in which all religions have some measure of ‘truth’.

I hope from these outlines that it’s clear both why these positions are closely related – they make a number of very similar claims and might lead people to behave in very similar ways – but also that they are different and that it will be useful to distinguish them. Both positions are concerned with the truth of religion: one claiming that religions do, or can, point to Reality or Truth, and the other claiming that religions contain truth of the kind also found in fiction. In speaking about these things, it’s easy to slip between the two uses of the word truth – especially because the kind of Truth spoken of by the pluralist position isn’t necessarily objective or factual truth, of the kind which might be verified by scientific investigation of some kind. (And if objective truth exists at all without the colouring of the subjective position of the people who generated the knowledge… a debate for another day.)

I also run into this problem when people ask for my opinion of something like the Bible. Is it true? Well, some bits of it might be historically true, but I’ve got doubts about a lot of it. Is it truthful? Well, it contains a lot of stories which are full of emotional truth and recognisable situations. Is it True? God knows.