Tag Archives: religious language

Queer Quaker theology: abundance as resistance

“Whoever has, will be given more.” (Matthew 25:29)

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.

L is for Language

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.