Tag Archives: religion

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!

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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.

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.