The publisher emailed to let me know that Telling the Truth about God, my book about Quakers and religious language, has sold more than a thousand copies. It’s good to see it reaching more and more readers.
In other book news, Stephen Cox recently posted Ten easy ways to help an author – his new book, Our Child of Two Worlds, will be out this March. The tips apply to just about any book you’d like to support.
I have heard concerns about the word ‘worship’ before. I haven’t written about it before because it doesn’t bother me at all… but it clearly is bothering some people, so perhaps it’s worth taking some time to explore questions about why it might or might not be an issue.
The main concern raised in the Facebook conversation is, in Matt Moore’s words, that “the general use of the word worship invokes an image of bowing down before and subservience to”. This is not, Matt and several other commenters agree, what we think is happening in meeting for worship, and so it’s not an appropriate name. Turning to other sources, we can see that this concern has been around for a while – our 1994 book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice, addresses this in various ways, including in this much-quoted passage in which ‘worship’ is understood as ‘worth-ship’:
Despite these concerns, we still have the phrase ‘meeting for worship’. Why keep it? I think one reason is the wider association of ‘worship’ with religious stuff: OS maps mark (with a small equal-armed cross, suggesting the Christian origins of this symbol) ‘places of worship’ and the phrases ‘public worship’ and ‘collective worship’ have featured in British legislation over the years. (The latter, in the requirement that ‘collective worship’ be provided in schools, is in my limited experience more of a formality than a fact; I went to look up the official situation and discovered that the main guidance document dates from 1994. )
As well as making a clear association of our public meetings with religious stuff, the phrase ‘meeting for worship’ may be appropriate, with exactly the connotations of ‘bowing down before’, in some understandings of the Divine. Here’s another passage from Quaker faith & practice, by John Punshon:
We might want to ask questions about some things in this passage (for example, why couldn’t he find out or remember her name?) but he makes the point about the rightness of submission to God very vividly. In this context of this passage, the word ‘worship’ might seem entirely appropriate. If it doesn’t, it may be our cultural assumptions about the meanings of submission, service, and subservience which need examining, and how those interact with our theology.
That said, I don’t think it’s Punshon’s point which leads to my comfort with the phrase ‘meeting for worship’. Some Christian expressions of the ideas of humility and obedience make my skin crawl (and lead to a number of verses in Christmas carols which I will not sing, for example). There is important theological work to be done there, but it isn’t having done it which makes me fine with the word ‘worship’. That’s more to do with my understanding of how language works and how we learn words.
Here’s a paragraph from one of my PhD supervisors, Mikel Burley, about some other words entirely, in which he explains how the use of words can change and why we need to look at the context.
If we apply this approach to the word ‘worship’, what do we find? The first main point has to be that ‘worship’ can be applied in a range of different situations – dictionary entries give examples including formal acts of worship such as church services, worship of a loved one or family member (“Her parents worship her”), and the use of ‘Worship’ in titles of respect for mayors and magistrates (“Thank you, Your Worship”). Putting it into a sentence makes it clear that even a small amount of contextual change can change the meaning, and if we dug deeper into specific cases – asking, for example, under what circumstances are people inclined to say that parents worship a child? what behaviours on the part of the parents and/or the child lead to that conclusion? – we would probably find many more shades of nuance as the context changed. ‘Bowing down before’ the worshipped person is not universal. There is a power relationship in many cases, as in the titles, but it’s not always straightforward – adults are more socially powerful than children, and the parents who worship their child complicate without reversing that situation.
The use of ‘worship’ in ‘meeting for worship’ is one such specific context. In English we don’t tend to stick words together by removing the spaces, but we have any number of phrases in which several words work together as a single unit. ‘Noun phrase’, for example. Some become almost completely divorced from their original components – consider the term ‘House of Commons’ for example. We can use the words ‘house’ and ‘common’ in all sorts of other contexts (‘to house people’, ‘meeting house’, ‘a walk on the common’, ‘common people’), and we can say things of the House of Commons which would not make sense to say of other houses – that it sits, for example. And we might have all sorts of problems with the House of Commons, but when I hear people complaining, it’s about the members of the house and their behaviour, not about the word ‘commons’.
Where does that leave ‘meeting for worship’? It’s not as absolutely set as a phrase as ‘House of Commons’, so you may think that example misleading. Some words will always have a negative feel for individuals, even when they learn new phrases and contexts for them. However, I think this is something we can recognise and work with.
When I join a new community, start a new hobby, or begin a new project, I expect to learn some new vocabulary for it. Often this is words which I already knew, but which have a technical purpose. When I started learning to drive, my instructor explained that although the pedal is technically called the accelerator, and the stuff it delivers is called petrol in British English, we would call that pedal the gas pedal for short. (This was a good choice because it’s shorter and she had to say it a lot.) When I meet a new group of people, I encounter new names – sometimes entirely new names, but often names I already know applied to a different person. I can easily think of multiple people called Ben, Peter, or Emma – and a few others called Rhiannon. Both of these situations have the potential for confusion, but usually we manage to sort it out. Like my driving instructor, we can give an explicit clarification. With names, we might choose to add a surname or nickname when it’s needed.
Both of those examples are relatively minor. What about bigger changes? It can be hard to learn a new term which goes against your expectations or where you have had negative experiences. That might be because you have a core meaning for the word which isn’t held by other users – as when I have to double-check pants/trousers with American English speakers because I expect ‘pants’ to mean underwear and then it sometimes doesn’t. It can also be about bad memories. For example, there’s a perfectly nice person who posts interesting content on Twitter who I don’t follow because they have exactly the same name as someone who bullied me, and if I see one of their posts I think about how much the bullying hurt rather than what the post actually said. Still, these bigger issues are ordinary parts of communication and we have lots of ways to handle them – to ask, to say to ourselves ‘no, this is Nice Person’, to keep listening to others and ourselves until we can make sense of the situation.
What do these examples mean for the words we choose to use when we describe Quakerism to ourselves and others? I think it means that we should start from the expectation that people can and will learn the words and phrases we use, and how we use them, if we take the time to explain and make space for questions. We will also need to sort out some of the ways in which the negative associations an individual might have are different to population-wide connotations. The person on Twitter doesn’t have to change their name because I was bullied by someone with the same name – that’s my individual association. Quakers in Britain did change the name of Monthly Meetings (to Area Meetings) because they no longer met every month – that was a clearly accepted general meaning which was no longer accurate.
Does the word ‘worship’ cause widespread confusion or hurt? People who are new to the Quaker community often have questions about what is involved in meeting for worship – just as people new to other religious communities will have questions about what is involved in communion, meditation, davening, salat, and other practices. Unless we could get a single phrase which summarised all the rich experiences of meeting for worship – of listening and waiting and silence and speech and stillness and fidgeting and resting and dozing and shaking and standing and rooms and software and memories and prayer and emotions and Spirit and everything – changing the name wouldn’t help with that. The phrase ‘meeting for worship’ is a name for our practice, not a guide to what happens during our practice. (My name is Rhiannon Grant, and knowing that won’t tell you what’s on my CV; I have an IKEA bookcase called Billy, but I also need the instructions to assemble it.) The word ‘worship’ has negative associations for some individuals, who might prefer to avoid it, or need to remind themselves that this is the Nice One, or swap it for a different term. That isn’t the same as having a population-wide problem. The associations of ‘worship’ – with religion, with a deliberate act of a spiritual nature, among other things – have advantages as well as disadvantages.
In short, I think ‘meeting for worship’ is an adequate name for the practice of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. If we changed it, not only would all we all have to remember the change, but we would spend just as much time explaining what we meant by the new name. We would have set ourselves further apart from Quakers internationally and our friends in other religious communities. If we want to be clear about how our practice is different, it would be better to be specific and explain further.
Meeting for worship: questions welcome.
Meeting for worship: space to listen.
Meeting for worship: meet reality however you understand it.
Meeting for worship: together, we attend to what is worthwhile.
Ellipsis and elision are processes of missing things out. The ellipsis, often signalled by three dots, ‘…’, is something left unsaid – perhaps for brevity (you can use an ellipsis to cut down a long quotation), perhaps tailing off because you aren’t sure what the options are (a text message: “do you want to go for dinner or…?”), or perhaps leaving something unsaid because you think it’s obvious or want the other person to draw their own conclusions (for example, ending with, “hence…”).
In the Quaker eldership & oversight handbook Quality and Depth of Worship and Ministry, there’s a list of words for the divine – for things we might be “seeking to worship” – which ends, “God…” One of the things that suggests, I think, is that readers are expected to be able to add other items to the list. People in Quaker discussion groups, for whom this document was written, are welcome to use lots of language for the divine: to see the list as welcoming and the ellipsis as a space into which they can speak, putting in their own preferred terms. Another things this suggests, especially in the Quaker context, is that the list can never be complete and at the end it trails off into silence. After we have put in all the things we can think of to say about God, there will still be more to say and we won’t know what that is. We can respond with silence.
That single ellipsis, then, is a gap in which, in my research, I found both a community process – people contributing – and a theological approach. Other things are also commonly left out in Quaker speech and writing. Elision in linguistics is the process of missing out sounds and bringing words together, as when “I am” becomes “I’m”. It can also be used more abstractly to describe the ways in which multiple complex matters can be brought together and confused – think of a politician who, in arguing for their particular policy, focuses on a few positive outcomes and glosses over numerous other possible effects and interactions. Sometimes this a problem (if you oppose the politician’s idea and think they’re missing or hiding something which would means everyone opposing their policy, it’s a very important problem). At other times it’s a technique for getting things done without having to settle questions which are at a tangent to the core issue at hand.
Consider a common Quaker phrase, “led to”, as in “I was led to oppose this policy” or “We were led to make a statement”. The main business of these statements is the action to which someone was led, and in the process they elide another issue – who or what did the leading? (At this point some readers may be thinking of the phrase “passive voice” – please read this Wikipedia paragraphwhich I think explains that it’s not the issue here.) The one leading us is God, or the Light, or the Spirit, or that of God within us, or the Ground of Being, or the Universe, or Love, or… – or something of which we cannot fully speak, someone whose Being is incomprehensible to us human beings and hence ineffable. Hence the need for elision.
Since the publication of my book, Telling the Truth about God, some readers have been in touch with me to share their thoughts. One, Gordon Steel, emailed me some interesting questions. These are issues not fully covered in the book, and although they are explored a little in my PhD thesis that’s not very accessible – so with Gordon’s permission I’m taking the opportunity here to consider them in more detail and plainer language.
There is much in your book that I have appreciated… What I wanted to raise with you is what seems to me to be something missing.
My whole attitude to religious thought was transformed years ago by the realisation that all that we say about God or religion is human – following Don Cupitt.
It seems to me that this notion transforms discussion about God. It changes it from ‘What is God like?’ to ‘What is my (or your) image of God?’
The humanness of religious language seems patently obvious to me.
So I am surprised not to have found reference to this in your book (or have I missed it?)
At this stage I replied, briefly, and Gordon looked at the abstract of my thesis and came back with some more questions:
Language arises from human experience. Is this experience internal to us, or is it experience of an external reality?
‘Meaning as use in context’ – I have not read Wittgenstein but does this see meaning as ‘how we use it’ rather than in reference to some ‘reality’?
‘…ways in which religious language is used rather than truth-value…’ Does this mean that the value is in the language rather than the reality that some Friends might suppose it to have?
In short: I think that experience arises from the interaction of our awareness with reality, and language is a human creation which both reflects and shapes our experience.
Let’s start with language. Natural languages are communal creations, which we adjust when we need to (for example, inventing new words when we create new technology – like email – and when we recognise previously unnamed situations – like mansplaining). There are two things to note here. Firstly, language is social and no individual person changes language on their own (anyone can make a different sound, but it’s not a word until someone else understands and uses it). Secondly, people and therefore our languages are constantly interacting with the world around us.
(Okay, sceptics, what we take to be the world around us – but if we turn out to be in the Matrix, my argument will still run because a Matrix-table is still experienced as a table by all the speakers who label it as a table, so I’m going to move on without considering this in detail. If you’re worried about this you can read about Putnam instead.)
On the balance of probability, I do think there’s a real world around us, and when I refer to that traditional object of philosophical contemplation, the table, I do think there’s some actual wood (well, mainly Formica) in front of me. I can see it, I can feel it, I can put my mug down on it – and more the point, when I have a visitor over it they can, too. The things which make it a table, though, are things determined by people. For one thing, by upbringing and habit I speak English, but I could, if less confidently, say bwrdd or โต๊ะ. For another, the category of ‘tables’ is a socially constructed one; the rather low coffee table I happen to be looking at could just as easily be a stool, while in other places in the house some strong storage boxes have been pressed into service as ‘tables’. It’s really an object, but it’s our communal agreement on the word ‘table’ which makes it into that rather than something else.
So far so good, at least as far as readily visible, tangible objects go. It’s fairly easy to see how we extend this to some other, less tangible but observable things – for example, money is socially created, and it has reality while both sides in the transaction are willing to accept the same currency and broadly speaking the same assumptions. The transaction itself makes the money real, enough to measure and put on a graph and ask questions like ‘is GDP falling or rising?’. For some other things, we have socially accepted ways of expressing them which are related to our experiences – Wittgenstein’s examples are often about pain, and the ways we learn to speak and channel a wordless howl of pain into descriptions and images. These aren’t always obvious uses of language: a stabbing pain is not the same as the pain of being stabbed. Nor are these directly comparable with other people (I can invite a visitor to view my table; I can’t invite a visitor to experience my pain). In one sense, pain is an internal experience, but I don’t think I want to say that it’s fully internal if that means that it is only a product of my mind – my body has a big role to play in the experience of pain, and often something which is not my body is involved too. (For example: I stub my toe on the aforementioned table. I consider my pain to be caused by the interaction of my body with another object, and the pain itself to be a real internal experience.)
This gives us ‘meaning as use in context’ – in our society, we have a way of using the word ‘table’ within the English language which enables us to talk about tables in a meaningful way, both generally (“they’re a table-making company”) and specifically (“I bought this table from the British Heart Foundation charity shop”). Context is most visible when it gives away the fact that there are also other potential meanings (“I put the data from the survey into a table so it’s easy to read”).
Where does that leave us with God? On this picture, language about God is always going to be human. Religious experiences – like pain, like love, like that feeling of satisfaction you get when you type a Tweet and it’s exactly on the character count – are internal experiences. That doesn’t mean that they don’t involve interaction with external reality, however. Now, please don’t jump ahead here and take that to be an assertion of the reality of whatever you think God is (or think God isn’t and want to accuse me of thinking God is). All of those experiences involve interaction with a reality which is external to me, but very much internal to the world in which I live.
When I stub my toe on the table, the table is external to me but internal to the world. When I express love for my partner, both she and my expression of love (like buying a present or speaking out loud) are in the world, things of which I have direct experience but not internal to me. The feeling of satisfaction is all mine but Twitter is a feature of the physical, external world. It’s also the case that the language I have available shapes my understanding of the world – I can eat an apple without having the word ‘apple’, but knowing it adds nuance to my experience and helps me to communicate about it. (Other relevant examples: the invention of the term ‘sexual harassment’; the difference between walking in the woods alone and walking in the woods with an expert birdwatcher who can add a name to every flutter).
Within this understanding of language, I think there are (at least) three things you could coherently say about God:
the idea of God is a purely social construct, like money, which exists only for as long as someone is using it
religious experience tells us that talk about God is a way of expressing something that we feel, like saying ‘ow’ when in pain
God is something we interact with, perhaps more like someone else’s mind than a table but part of the world (and, being God, might also be beyond the world)
It’s possible that all of these are right – our idea of God, our talk about God, and actual God might be quite distinct. I think Don Cupitt would go with the first option. I think Wittgenstein probably never made up his mind (hence the difficulty later readers have had in working out what he really thought on this one). I think some excellent Wittgensteinian thinkers have hovered in a creative space between the first two – D. Z. Phillips, for example. I think this view of language tends to discourage putting too much weight on talk about transcendence and going beyond this world (or indeed all sorts of other metaphysical ideas, like mathematical realism): words in this area develop their communal meanings in ways which seem less connected to direct experience and more connected to social needs.
That said, people sometimes expect me to be worried about this stuff. For myself, I think any one of the possibilities above is enough to justify going forward with my own religious practices, of attending Quaker Meeting for Worship and so forth. I find it helpful to think these things through and be pointed back towards the Mystery, seeing that I don’t and can’t prove God but rather sense God experientially and within a faith community, which provides language and practices, which shape that experience.
That being so, “What is God?” is a question which is worth asking – one which can have many useful, interesting, temporary, attempted answers but where ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ might never add up to ‘the whole truth’. “What is my (or your) image of God?” is an equally good question, which acknowledges the impossibility of the first but opens up space for us to express our ideas, feelings, experiences, etc. I would add another question, which addresses issues touched on in this post: “Which sources has your image of God come from?”
A little while ago I wrote a post about labels. Afterwards, I thought: how does this affirmation of the need for more and richer labels for all sorts of genders and sexualities fit with the queer theory I use in some of my academic work? The very use of the label ‘queer’ implies a resistance to narrowing down, definition, or precise identification.
In this blog post, I want to argue that the abundance of labels can lead us to a place which is deeply queer. To argue that, I’m going to compare the situation of multiplying gender and sexuality labels with a situation I’ve already written about – the multiplication of names for God among liberal Quakers. Just as having more and more words for the Divine seems to bring Quaker writing back to the same place as Quaker practice – a place of silence and the acknowledgement of mystery – so having more and more words for sexuality and gender might bring our society round to a deeply queer place, a place of resistance to the oppression of pre-determined categories.
The two situations which form the background to this discussion can be quickly summarised as follows, in the form of two observations.
Observation 1: the English language is quickly developing, especially on the internet, a wide range of terms for sexualities and genders which were previously unnamed and hence invisible. Examples include terms like ‘non-binary’, ‘asexual’, ‘cisgendered’, and ‘gray-a’. At first glance, this appears to run completely counter to a previous movement which aimed to unite all sorts of alternative sexualities, and maybe genders, under the term ‘queer’ – queer is not just lesbian, not just gay, not just bi, not just kinky, not just pegging, etc.
Observation 2: modern British Quaker publications about Quakerism often include a disclaimer about the use of the word ‘God’, either offering a list of alternatives or inviting the reader to swap the word for another of their choosing (which presupposes a list of possible acceptable alternatives). These lists typically include words like ‘light’, ‘love’, ‘God’, ‘Spirit’, ‘Divine’, ‘Christ’, ‘Allah’, and ‘Being’. At first glance, this appears to be both the complete opposite of silence, and hopelessly confused, especially when the words are not used as synonyms in other contexts.
In many situations, including their worship, liberal Quakers prefer silence, or the specific forms of speech which create vocal ministry during worship: words which are held in the context of silence. When the situation forces the use of ordinary words – as when someone sits down to write a book about Quakerism, so that they can neither remain silent (by leaving the page blank?) nor assume that the words will be read in the context of silence – the use of a list, whether stated or assumed, allows the author to say something without being bound to connotations of a word, like ‘God’, which can be radically different for those outside the community. (To start thinking about the ways a word’s connotations are affected by its context and use, consider this: the ‘God’ discussed in New Atheist publications has very little in common with the ‘God’ described by Quaker publications.) It often seems that the very act of making a list, of using lots of words, draws attention to the fact that no one word will do. The abundance of words becomes a resistance to words, or to put it another way: in saying too much, Quaker authors are able to come back round to their starting point, not wanting to say anything.
This is not to say that the words are not important, or that we could do without them. They are absolutely vital. You can’t get a reader past their other ideas about ‘God’ without some form of extra words showing how their use of the word is different to yours. This is not a development process in which we can hope one day to skip a step and do without the words, but a way of using language as a tool to point beyond language.
In the case of the development of lots of words for genders and sexualities, we are talking about people rather than God (although perhaps all of the words can also be applied to the Divine!). Any given person will have some which are true for them and some which are false for them, and perhaps also some which are nonsensical to them. Taken as a group, however, the collection of words seems to me to be forming an ever richer picture of humanity as a whole. By adding concepts like ‘demi-sexual’ and ‘homoromantic’ to our vocabulary, we nuance or break down previous categories. (If someone is homosocial and heteroromantic but asexual, are they gay or not?) Just as the list of terms for God breaks down previous assumptions about what God must be like, the development of more terms for people breaks down previous assumptions about the categories people must fit into. In the process, we see one another more clearly: what was previously hidden under the curtain of a single word is revealed as a shining diversity. The abundance of words, even – no, especially – to the point of confusion brings us to the same place of accepting complexity and multiplicity which was previously captured under the ever-broadening umbrella ‘queer’.
The proliferation of terms can be anxiety-inducing. It’s common to worry that all these lists of not-quite-the-same words for God reveal not a theology but a vagueness. It’s also common to be concerned that all these words for subtly different groups of people mean that we can’t unite around anything. However, I am arguing that both are much more productive than this implies. The Quaker use of an abundance of words to return to a place of mystery and the queer use of freshly created words to resist overly broad categories are both revealing and creative. Rather than allowing a few loud voices in society to tell us what ‘God’ must be (and why we shouldn’t believe in ‘Him’) or what gender and sexuality ‘really’ are (and why we should go on behaving in accordance with their rules), we can use new words and plenty of them to overturn these claims.
Language is, in some ways, central to everything I do. Writing a blog uses language, for starters (especially as, unlike some bloggers whose work I see regularly, I don’t usually post photographs or videos). Writing articles, giving conference papers, and running workshops all uses language. Even my hobbies – poetry, sci-fi and fantasy, watching TV – tend to use language. Some parts which apparently don’t – the images in a film or TV show – often do use levels of symbolism which can be analysed using the tools of textual analysis.
When people hear the word ‘language’, I think they usually imagine words first, perhaps body language second, and other forms of language, such as signs and diagrams, later on. That doesn’t change the fact that you have to be able to ‘speak’ ‘diagram’ in order to make sense of the ‘intuitive’, but profoundly non-naturalistic, London Underground map, let alone a circuit diagram. In a broad understanding of language, I think these skills should be included.
This has important implications for my consideration of religious language. ‘Religious language’ as a category can include many things:
Any language which people use in religious contexts – all of a sermon, the whole of a hymn, even (perhaps) the things we say over tea and biscuits after a service or during a church-related house group. This might include the jargon of the religion – the abbreviations referring to parts of the organisation’s structure, for example.
Language about specifically religious topics: about any Deity or Divinity, for example, or about heaven, hell, salvation, enlightenment, cosmology, and other topics regarded as the sole, or main, preserve of religion.
Religion as a language – as in ‘learning to speak Christian’ or ‘speaking fluent Quaker’. This is a quite different view, and one which opens up non-verbal parts of the religion to be seen as part of the ‘religious language’: the movements used during prayer, the visual imagery, the narratives which are enacted as well as told.
At one time, I tried to use ‘religious language’ as a synonym for ‘language about God/Spirit/the Divine’ because I was trying to avoid settling on any single term in that list, or offering a list myself. It didn’t really work, because people tended to default to broader interpretations – they expected me to talk about the language of liturgy and prayer, of Meetings for Worship for Business and discussions about current issues. All of those things are fascinating, and some of my work has attended to them, but ‘talking or not talking about God or whatever you call it‘ is actually a much more specific activity. It might even be its own language-game, depending how tightly you want to use that phrase. (Needless to say, Wittgenstein had a couple of different uses and later scholars have developed more, usually tending to broaden it.) Among Quakers, ‘writing about God’ is certainly a language-game in the sense that it has identifiable, if usually unspoken, rules which are followed in all but exceptional circumstances.