Tag Archives: religion

Quakers Do What! Why?

My second book in the Quaker Quicks series from Christian Alternative Books is coming out soon – I have some early copies to sign and sell, as pictured – so I wanted to say a bit about this book. What is it and why did I write it?

A box of copies of ‘Quakers Do What! Why?’

At the core of this book is a series of questions. I’d been collecting questions for a while – all my life, probably, because I’ve been a Quaker all along and from the time I was at school I was trying to explain what I was on about and where I went on Sundays. In this book I try to answer the most common questions, and some of the most difficult. There are questions in here which I’m practised at answering: I didn’t have much problem writing an answer to “What’s this about Quakers who don’t believe in God?” because I’ve already answered it so many times. It’s not a simple answer, but it’s not especially difficult for me at this point. Actually, the hardest answer to write was for “Do Quakers have structures like parishes?” – the initial answer is ‘yes’, but when I tried to say slightly more, I had to try and cover all the possible options, and Quakers around the world have lots of different structures. 

At the impersonal level, I thought it would be useful to have a recent and brief book which addresses these issues – partly for Quakers who might find it useful as a reference work, but mainly for people who are new to Quakers or want to find out more. There’s a chapter on Quaker weddings and funerals, for example, since that’s a time when people often encounter Quakers for the first time. There are chapters on Quaker worship and things which are sometimes mentioned (but not usually properly explained) when Quakers get into the news, like the way we make decisions. 

More personally, I started writing this book from a sense of frustration. I like answering questions, and I’ll be happy to keep repeating these answers in conversation – but there isn’t always time to give a full answer. I can and do refer people to other sources – for some of the topics in this book, specific Quaker groups have already produced good leaflets or videos or other materials – but sometimes there’s not a single good source for follow-up reading, or the best descriptions are aimed at people who already know about how Quakers do things. So I wrote this book so I have given the full answer somewhere, and if I give a brief answer I know there’s a full version easily accessible as well.

You can preorder this book from Christian Alternative Books or any other bookshop of your choice. Or if you’d like a personally signed copy, email me at rhiannon.grant@woodbrooke.org.uk with your details and I can arrange to post you one (and ask if you’d like to buy Telling the Truth about God or Between Boat and Shore at the same time). There are only 25 in the first box, so get in touch now!

Asexuality, aromanticism, and Quakers

This week it is Aromantic Spectrum Awareness week. It’s also a week when I found “quaker asexual” in the search terms – the phrases people put into an internet search before they ended up on my blog. Although asexuality and aromanticism are not the same thing, I think they’re related or at least easily confused enough that it makes sense to discuss them together. I’m not asexual or aromantic but I’ve chosen to write about this because I think it’s helpful for the whole community to be more aware of those of us who are aromantic and asexual, and how we might exclude people accidentally by making assumptions about what is ‘normal’.

Before that, though, I want to clarify how these terms are being used. ‘Asexual’ might bring to mind asexual reproduction, like single-celled organisms which just divide – a proper use in biology, but not the meaning of the word in this context! Here, we are talking about human experience, and asexuality refers to the experience of not feeling sexual attraction. There are different ways someone might be asexual – they might simply never feel sexual attraction or arousal. They might feel a small amount, sometimes or in particular circumstances, but not as much or in the ways expected by their surrounding culture. They may or may not experience other feelings often associated with sex, such as romantic feelings. The AVENwiki, produced by the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, gives more information from the point of view of people who are asexual.

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The Aromantic Pride flag, created by Cameron Whimsey and in the public domain.

Someone aromantic doesn’t experience romantic feelings. They may or may not experience sexual attraction – someone can be aromantic and asexual, or aromantic and sexual. They may have strong platonic connections with people – aromantic people aren’t automatically loners or introverts. Identifying what is and what is not a romantic feeling can be complicated and being aromantic, like being asexual, is not always clear-cut. Someone might experience very few romantic feelings, or only in very specific circumstances, and still identify as aromantic.

Terminology in this field continues to develop as people find ways to connect with others who have similar experiences – experiences which haven’t previously been validated or accepted by wider culture. These experiences are often regarded as damaged or pathological, with people assuming that an asexual must have a physical problem with sex or an aromantic just hasn’t met the right person yet. Neither of these things is necessarily true and leaping to such conclusions can be very dismissive of someone’s experience and feelings.

So, is there anything which Quakers can say about these experiences? Firstly, I think it’s important to say that the Quaker emphasis on personal experience and truth-telling means we start from a position of accepting people’s accounts of themselves. Secondly, Quakers value diversity in community and see no reason to encourage everyone to be the same – the existence of sexual and asexual, aromantic and more romantic, people of all sexual orientations and none within our community is well documented, and if we are able to create an atmosphere of trust so that everyone can be open about their experiences we will be the stronger for it.

We might be able to go further. As the Religious Society of Friends, we should be especially good at valuing friendship! Actually, I don’t know that we are any better than our surrounding culture at celebrating platonic friendship – we certainly like to make more of a fuss of weddings and traditional romantic and sexual relationships – but perhaps this is something we can work on. Being honest and accurate about people’s relationships and the importance of connection in people’s lives means not just avoiding errors (not describing a lesbian couple as ‘friends’, but also not downgrading a non-sexual friendship to ‘just friends’) but naming and celebrating them. This takes courage. Perhaps it can begin with an increased appreciation of nonsexual and nonromantic relationships in all our lives – having a romantic and/or sexual partner is not the end of a relationship game, tick, married, you’re done. I think sometimes we do okay at recognising this, in our pastoral care for one another, but it isn’t described or discussed openly as often as might be beneficial.

What would it look like if we did better at this? Being more aware of the range of human possibility, as brought to light by these and other emerging descriptions of identities and experiences, would be helpful. We could make sure that people in our local Quaker communities know that the Quaker Gender and Sexual Diversity Community includes asexual people. Treating experiences like getting married as just that, experiences, rather than inevitable life stages, would be good too, and being positive about sex but not treating it as essential. Alongside that, some assumptions we ought to be dropping anyway would have to go – no more hinting about having children, no more assuming that single people are lonely, and asking rather than guessing when we aren’t sure about the nature of a relationship. But do note the case recently reported on Twitter of two visitors at meeting who were asked “are you two friends?” and heard “are you two Friends?” Careful phrasing may be required!

Review of ‘Nephi’s Courage’

Nephi’s Courage: Story of a Bad Mormon by Rory McFarlan is about a man who is actually a good Mormon, but also gay. The story follows his life as he tries to balance the demands of his church with his real beliefs about a loving God and his own nature. There is so much here that interests me! And some things which had me questioning or made me uncomfortable.

If you are interested in religion and sexuality I recommend this book, with a few caveats. The first of those is that it might be a very distressing read – the whole plot turns on homophobia, which is extensively and realistically depicted, including the horrible consequences it can have (family conflict, psychological distress, need for mental health support, drug abuse, suicide), and there are cases of family abuse. The second is that the writing is not always great. There’s a lot of dialogue which is sometimes stilted – not bad, but slightly short on contractions and sometimes full of info which the reader might need but the characters would already have. I found I was reading some of it in Data’s voice, which is enjoyable in a different way but not I think the intention! With those things in mind, I thought it was a good example of a niche book which wouldn’t find an audience at all pre-internet, but can now be shared internationally and reach people, like me, who are interested in this specific subset of things.

There will be spoilers in this post, so if you want to read the book unspoiled please go and do that now and come back!

I learned a lot about the Church of Latter-Day Saints from this book. I was already reasonably well informed, I think, and had read up on feminist Mormon perspectives before. However, because Nephi is both deeply committed to the religious practices (and loves them, and so they are described from an insider and sympathetic point of view) and deeply entangled with the community and its structures (which don’t always treat him well), there’s a level of detail which I didn’t have before and an engaged and affectionate perspective which is sometimes difficult to get. For example, I was aware of the practice of performing rituals, including baptisms, for deceased family members – like many amateur historians and genealogists, I’ve benefited directly from work done to enable this, but also like many people outside the church (and as a member of a faith community which is specifically not interested in baptism) I’ve thought of this as ethically disturbing because it feels like imposing a religious ritual on someone who can’t consent. Seeing this from Nephi’s point of view, where the sense of love and desire to be close to his ancestors is strong, puts a different perspective on this.

I already knew a good deal about homophobia, and although some of the details of the depiction are interesting, what makes the story compelling is Nephi’s commitment to bringing together his faith and his sexuality – having tried living alone, he decides to try and forge a new path, one in which he keeps not just God and Jesus but the church in his life, while also dating and then marrying a man. There are some tragi-comic episodes as he experiments with the wonderful and confusing world of online dating (perhaps not handled entirely realistically, since most people would do some Google searches to find out about otters and bears and twinks… but Nephi’s decision to ask a friend instead produces some entertaining scenes, so I’m not complaining). Among other things, Nephi comes into contact with a series of people who are also in his position but making different decisions or failing to cope with the tension between the church and their lives. One character is rejected by his family and dies by a drug overdose. Another rejects the church, and some within the church fail to understand why anyone gay would want to remain.

This is the core conflict of the novel and one which is very relevant to me – and resonates with Tina Beattie’s The Good Priest which I reviewed last year. In a church where being gay makes you a bad church member, how do you strive to stay right with God? (Side note: I know you all know this, but just in case – this is not all churches and certainly not all religions, lots of people who believe in God are also gay and happy about it, so if reading about this is filling you with dread why not check out some affirming faith groups instead?) One of Nephi’s answers is to try and stay as involved with his church as that church will allow, even when they’re trying to kick him out. His consistency in this, and struggles to balance his need to attend church with other demands (like his partner’s desire that they attend a Pride parade together), is admirable even as it sometimes reaches the point of damaging stubbornness.

Another of Nephi’s answers, and a more theologically interesting one in some ways, is that he tries to work out what God’s commandments for a gay man would look like if they treated homosexual and heterosexual relationships fairly. Accepting as much as he can of the church’s rules, and taking on board – after a struggle – his own conviction that he is loved by God and worthy of human love, not called to remain entirely single or celibate, he tries to adjust the rules the smallest amount possible to make space for his own happiness. From a Quaker perspective, this story of trying to incorporate new light, fresh revelation not accepted by the hierarchy, into an existing structure is perhaps especially compelling – and frustrating, since nobody shows much sign of listening to him. For example, he knows he can only be attracted to men and decides to pursue a relationship with another man, but he commits to not having sex before getting married. (I really thought he wouldn’t succeed… but we don’t have Vegas in the UK!) Although eventually convinced, people around him find this very hard to believe – and after his marriage, he continues attending church services in a single’s ward, partly because he now has a group of friends there but also because the church don’t recognise his marriage.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and found it well worth reading. I braced myself to be horrified at several points (as well as the homophobia, there are extensive shooting and hunting sequences, which were actually fine for this relatively unsqueamish anti-gun pacifist vegan, but could have been much harder to read). I had questions sometimes (I can’t always tell what’s artistic license for the sake of the story and what’s genuinely vastly different systems in terms of the treatment of mental health, for example – there’s a massive lack of waiting lists). I recommend it to anyone interested in the overlapping issues of religion and sexuality, especially if you want to learn more about the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and I hope Rory McFarlan will continuing exploring these questions in fiction.

how to write a paper on liberal quakerism religion

The title of this blog post, “how to write a paper on liberal quakerism religion” appeared in my search terms recently. It was too good a prompt to resist. I periodically get emails from people who have decided to write an essay/paper/dissertation/similar about Quakers and want to know how to get going. Obviously this varies depending on your level of study and exact topic, but here are some starting points with links to more resources.

Be clear about which Quakers you’re going to study – when and where are they?

Are you interested in the formation of the movement in the seventeenth century? Do you want to look at how Quakers spread from Britain to America and Africa? Do you want to look at Quakers local to where you are or internationally? Sometimes you’ll be able to generalise about all Quakers, but usually it will be better to focus on some – or perhaps pick two or three groups to compare, if there’s room for that in your project. If you’re not sure or you don’t know what your options are, you might want to start with an overview textbook and narrow it down later.

Think about whether you are looking for material from inside the Quaker community, or about it.

This isn’t always a clear distinction – some authors, like me, write both for the community we belong to and about the community for other people to read, as well as for both general and academic audiences – but the intended audience of a piece of writing will affect how you approach it. For example, if the Quakers write a history of their movement and it sounds like they only ever did good things, is that because Quakers are always good or because Quakers wrote the history? If you can, compare multiple sources.

Work out why you want to write about Quakers.

Is it because you are a Quaker, or because you know someone who is a Quaker? Is it because you think the Quakers are interesting, or a good example of a point you want to make, or because Quakers are different or similar to another group you know about? All of these are good reasons to want to do some research and write about a community, but your reasons for writing about Quakers might affect what you need to do. If you already know a lot about Quakers, you might need to find evidence and sources for things which seem obvious to you – or challenge your assumptions and try to find out where you can improve your knowledge. If you’ve picked Quakers because of something you’ve been told about the community, you might need to start by thinking about that source. Is it reliable? Could someone (like this journalist) have been exaggerating or have misunderstood the situation?

There’s been lots of work in the academic field of Quaker studies recently, and some of it is free online.

Some of it isn’t – consult your library about the Brill Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series – but the journal, Quaker Studies, is now entirely open access and you can search it online (the archive and more recent editions). There are multiple handbooks which will give you introductions to important topics. Some older books can be accessed for free via Project Gutenberg, or if you want to look at originals check if your library has access to Early English Books Online. For what Quakers say about themselves, you might want to look at the websites of their organisations (here’s Quakers in Britain, for example), watch some videos from QuakerSpeak, or check out the Quaker.org directory for more links. In some places, you might be able to consult a specialist library (for example, if you can get to London or Birmingham in the UK, Pennsylvania or Indiana in the USA, or Kaimosi in Kenya). If you’ve heard of a book and want to know which libraries keep it, you can try WorldCat.

…plus all the normal advice about good research and writing.

Check the bibliography of everything you read. What sources were used and might they be useful to you? Can you and should you double-check what you’re read?

Consider your assumptions. You might turn out to be right, but it’s best to know why you’re right!

Answer the question your school/college/university actually asked you, the one you’re being marked/graded on. (Unless you’re not being assessed, in which case, have at it and try to answer whatever question you want to know the answer to!)

Think about what matters and what doesn’t. Does your reader need lots of details, or just enough of the evidence to move on, and a citation so they can follow up for themselves?

Show how your argument progresses. What is your starting point? Where will your reader start? What are the connections between the things you want to say?

Remember to leave it for a little while and proofread to find your typos. Good luck!

Converting to Christianity

Converting to Christianity has been on my mind lately – not for me personally; I’m culturally Christian and happy in a complex and theologically inclusive faith community – but because I’m writing a story set in a time and place when we don’t know how many people had or hadn’t converted. Conversion in historical settings is often described as if it were of a whole community at once – and perhaps sometimes it is. Conversion in historical settings is also often measured by the recorded actions of the ruling class. This has two problems. One is that the people doing the recording, later on, were themselves almost always Christians. The other is that just because the leader of your community has converted, it doesn’t mean that everyone has. (Even if the leader has converted in terms of actions, there’s still the issue of what they actually believe, but we have even less access to that.)

In the case of Europe – my story is set in Wales – we can put down some markers for the groups of people surrounding the right time and place. We know a fair amount about the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, with Constantine accepting it in 312 and Theodosius 1 making (Nicene) Christianity the state religion in 380. We know a little bit about missions to the British Isles, with Ireland converted around 430 and the first Christian king of the English, Ethelbert, converting in 597. What isn’t clear is to what extent the British people in Wales had converted to Christianity, and what their beliefs were in the gap between the Romans leaving (around 383) and the Saxons arriving (from 446, but starting on the eastern side of England). Some of them would have been Christian (and those who were would mainly have been Pelagians – followers of the ideas of Pelegius, who was excommunicated in 418). Some would have followed the Roman religion, especially if they arrived through the extensive movement of Roman soldiers around the empire. And some might still be following a local religion, now mixed with Roman elements but also retaining Celtic ones.

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A stone Celtic cross, a symbol which emerged from this period of religious complexity. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

This ambiguity is attractive to me as a writer, because it gives me space to explore. I’m able to take a range of elements from the evidence – things which might have survived from the Roman period and things which might have begun by this time and be recorded later – to create a fictional society in which these multiple religious currents are meeting and mixing. Of course, historical fiction is always only partly about the past, and quite a lot about now. Finding a time in the past when multiple religions which interest me today where interacting in ways which were obviously complex and aren’t fully know also opens up a space for me to pose, in the past, the questions which I’m thinking about now.

For example, I’m interested in multiple religious belonging – why and how an individual might be part of more than one faith community – and in what it takes to be identified as part of a religion. When it is something the individual can identify for themselves, simply by stating it? When does it require community involvement, and what form does that take? Some religions have clear prescriptions about this, at least for some cases, but there are typically also cases of uncertainty as well. What are the actions which are considered characteristic of a faith in a particular time and place, and when does performing them mean you have joined or at least become associated with that religion? In this early period, baptism hadn’t yet taken up the role which it is given by later Christian communities, of acting as an entry ritual, determining who is and who is not part of the community. In exploring this complexity in fiction, characters can move in and out of different categories, with those around them – and perhaps even the characters themselves – unsure about where they fit.

Converting a person – and so even more a group of people – to Christianity can never have been simple. I’m not going to pass judgement on whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to convert Britain to Christianity. There are later cases where it seems to me to be clearly bad, especially where Christianity was forced on people, used as an excuse to suppress local culture, and put to work to maintain oppressive social structures. There are other cases where people convert because they have found their right spiritual path, and that is, in general, obviously good. And there are lots of situations in between – where people convert because they think it will give them a better life, or because everyone around is converting, or because they are not so much moving from one faith to another as adding something to their religious lives. The extent to which pre-Christian British religion survived in Christianised forms is up for debate, but I think there’s enough evidence to say on the one hand that some pre-Christian British practises were adapted into Christian ones, and that this didn’t result in a long-standing, multi-generational Pagan tradition running alongside the public Christian religion.

One of the reasons I think the conversion of Britain isn’t directly comparable to some more recent cases of countries being converted is that Christianity didn’t arrive in Britain with an oppressive ruling class. It arrived through the Romans – who had invaded long ago by time they adopted Christianity, and who gave up trying to rule Britain soon afterwards. And it may also have arrived through independent routes; if Christianity came to some parts of Scotland, Wales, and England via Ireland, for example, that separates it from Roman involvement. It did pick up some Roman ways of structuring administration, and we have some evidence of bishops in Britain in the 300s (if Restitutus was indeed Bishop of London, for example). Instead, it seems that, in this period when few records were produced, that there would have been multiple religious traditions all common in the community, and people perhaps moving between them, combining them, and trying to work out what the relationships between them should be.

Fun times for writers who want also want to explore those things!

Review of ‘The Good Priest’

Tina Beattie’s novel, The Good Priest, is a gripping read with an engaging central character – John, the eponymous good priest – and an intriguing premise. In this review there will be some spoilers, although I’ll try and steer clear of the main plot. I won’t be discussing the murders, which are a significant feature of the novel, but I will talk about sex and sexual abuse.

It is a deeply Catholic book, as one might expect from the title and the author (Beattie is a well known Roman Catholic theologian), but I’m not a Catholic and it isn’t for me to assess the quality or impact of her description of the church. I did look to see whether others had already covered this in reviews, but didn’t find anything with a deep level of engagement – and some obvious venues, such as The Tablet, have yet to review it. It seems to me as an outside that it is deeply loving and equally critical – but perhaps this is an effect of her excellent writing rather than the content. I also think it might turn out to be a novel of the moment; in the same way that some twentieth-century writing is identifiable as ‘post Vatican II‘ or similar, in a few decade’s time this book might seem ‘post sex abuse scandal’. This doesn’t detract from it; indeed, it might make it all the more important to read it now. However, rather than going into this aspect in detail, I want to focus on what it might have to say to two audiences to which I do belong: Quaker readers and queer readers.

Queer readers, I think, may find it compelling, comforting, and disturbing, in various ways. The good priest of the title, John, is gay. He’s clear and straightforward about this even when it comes as a surprise to others – towards the end of the book, he says so plainly in public, on the street, and another character responses with a startled, “You’re wot?” She knows what he means, may even already have known this about him, but is not expecting a Catholic priest to be calm and open about this aspect of his personality. In this, she might serve as a stand-in for the reader, because the calmness and acceptance with which most characters throughout the book, including John himself, treat this fact is noticeable. Sometimes it is highlighted by the narrative, as when a dying parishioner makes a point of mentioning it, but often it is simply there. This is the comfort.

It is interwoven with other aspects of the narrative, though, inextricably so: I read a comment from someone on Twitter who wished Beattie hadn’t ‘made him gay’ – not an option, it is vital to this character’s interaction with the world and especially the church within which he lives and has his livelihood. This is, for me, one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. Sexuality is not bolted on, but nor is it the main focus. Things would go equally badly wrong if he were straight and subject to similar temptations and stresses, but the details of what happens are intimately related to his sexuality (and to his intimate relationships, platonic as well as erotic). It is also related to the gendered structure of the social world within which he lives: both priests and the most ardent atheists are men, while women occupy a host of positions but are disempowered by their society, even though they often have agency within the narrative. In the same way, although a review in the Church Times suggests that the focus on sex is “verging on prurience”, I didn’t find this so at all. The sex is dealt with in mainly a factual way, and a way which brings out the conflicts, sometimes the horrors, associated with it. The only non-abusive, fully consensual sex is fade-to-black, so much so that I almost wondered whether it had actually taken place.

It is those horrors, faced directly and from both perspectives, which make the book disturbing, but are also one of the important parts of the narrative. John realises during the course of the novel that he has both abused and been abused, another example of the moral complexity which makes the novel compelling. Of course, by writing a gay character in this position, Beattie runs the risk of further associating homosexuality with abuse and continuing a pattern of false charges against the gay community as a whole. However, it could also work the other way: John’s horrified reactions to realising that he unknowingly had sex with a child, and his subsequent compassionate responses and adult, if difficult, relationship, subvert that frequently told story about the role of homosexuality in social life.

And what about reading from a Quaker perspective? Perhaps there is a temptation at first to feel smug about how much more equally Quakers treat LGBTQ+ members of our communities, even while acknowledging that we can always do more to be welcoming and to make sure everyone is treated justly. But Beattie is a Catholic and it is clear that she has a great deal of compassion for the situation John is in, and is critiquing the ways in which his church makes life more difficult for him. For those Quakers with little knowledge of the Roman Catholic tradition, too, the focus on the rituals of Lent and Holy Week – and especially confession, which is pivotal to the plot – may be difficult and alienating. However, I found that the way John’s perspective leads the reader into the rituals and their spiritual meanings was easier to deal with than much teaching on these topics. It didn’t make me want to go to confession, but I think it did help me see why some people might find it helpful. (And the novel doesn’t shy away from the practical and theological problems it creates, either.) It might be worth reading for that interfaith understanding.

It might also be worth Quakers reading for the reminder than there is significant disagreement within the Catholic church – not just on social questions, but also on theology. In the course of the novel, characters who doubt and lose their faith, characters whose faith takes on new forms, and characters who disagree about interpretations of theological questions are all treated as fully part of John’s community. I am told frequently by Quakers that it must all be easier in churches where they have creeds and everyone believes the same thing and there aren’t any doubters… but having a written creed, and all agreeing with it, and nobody doubting are three very different things. In this story, as in real churches, disagreement and lapsing flourish alongside co-operation and multiple patterns of engagement.

In conclusion, if you are interested in murder mysteries, novels with religious characters, and/or books which grapple with moral complexity, I highly recommend this book.

Fresh eyes on Multiple Religious Belonging

I’ve worked on Multiple Religious Belonging on and off for a long time now (as evidenced by my academic publications on it from 2015, 2017, and 2018, as well as previous blog posts, and perhaps the title of my blog!). Having had a break, I’m thinking about these things again as I prepare to run a Woodbrooke online course about Multiple Religious Belonging next month. There are big questions involved, of course – like what counts as belonging (who has to recognise it? does it require practice, or social connections, or belief, or all of those or none?), and what counts as a religion (do we mean ‘world religions’ or ‘traditions’ or ‘faith communities’?) Those are good questions, but rather than start with them, then rule things in or out of ‘multiple religious belonging’ on that basis, it might be as useful to start by looking at what people call ‘multiple religious belonging’ and use that to reflect on the understandings of religion and belonging which appear.

For example, being a Jewish Buddhist is common enough that there’s a Wikipedia page listing notable people who have this joint identity. The introduction to it, though, points out that this looks different for different people in the list: some might have a Jewish identity through their family (because Judaism functions in this context as both religion and ethnicity) and be mainly Buddhist in terms of religious practice, while others, like Alan Lew, actively practice both religious Judaism and Buddhist meditation. Just in describing that example, I’ve started to uncover ideas about what religion is: it can be inherited or acquired; it can be practised or ignored; both Judaism and Buddhism are seen as religions, or there wouldn’t be the same need to point out and explain people’s dual affiliations; and a specific religion can have characteristic practices, such as meditation.

Other examples might add other ideas. Sometimes people name a specific tradition within a religion (Anglican-Wiccan) but at other times they use broader terms (Christian-Pagan). That might reflect an understanding of their tradition as importantly distinct from other traditions: for example, saying ‘Quaker’ rather than ‘Christian’ because although Quakerism is historically part of the Christian family, that individual doesn’t identify as Christian, or saying ‘Anglican’ rather than ‘Christian’ as part of an understanding that combining Anglicanism with something else is different to combining Roman Catholicism with something else. This might be hard to untangle from a single use, or without asking the speaker for more information. A broader term might be employed to show solidarity or because more specific terms get misunderstand (compare the PaganDash campaign, in which Pagans tried to get greater recognition on the census results by starting their write-in answers with the same, recognisable, word).

In my own life, I tend to speak differently about different communities. I’ll say I’m a member of a Quaker meeting, usually before anything else; if it comes up, I say I’m a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD). By contrast, I usually say I have experience of or have participated in the Community of Interbeing, forms of Buddhism, or various kinds of Paganism. That partly represents my level of commitment – although I probably use a Community of Interbeing practice, reciting the Five Mindfulness Trainings, almost as often as I use a formal OBOD practice – but also how I feel about the traditions and the communities. OBOD works mainly through correspondence course, and it’s easy to feel connected without an in-person community; the Community of Interbeing works a lot through local sanghas, and I’ve never joined one; Quakers work through meetings, and I’m both part of a local Quaker meeting and (very!) involved in wider Quaker activities. In this perhaps I’m revealing my own ideas about what it means to belong to a religion – very much about participation, community acceptance, and regular activity. I didn’t mention belief at all, for example, which would be highly important in some other understandings.

How do you talk about multiple religious belonging, whether or not you practise it? What ideas about religion do you have, or have you spotted one in this post which I didn’t mention?

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.

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!

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.