Tag Archives: T

T is for theəlogy

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

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

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

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

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T is for Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

T is for… Testimonies

A testimony is a witness, a statement about the way things are. Quaker Testimonies could be considered as claims about the way things really are, a way which is disguised or made less than obvious by the world in which we live, but which is nevertheless true. They are sometimes presented as a list of abstract concepts, things we ‘believe in’:

Peace
Truth
Equality
Simplicity

You can add Integrity, Community, Sustainability, and others. I know some Friends who, confronted with such lists, say things like ‘well, this all a very modern formulation of Quaker principles…’. To which I am inclined to response: when does that matter and to whom? To historians, certainly. To those who wish to resist the oversimplification of Quakerism, perhaps. To people trying to explain Quakerism in one minute or less and in competition with professionally made advertising, not one jot. (One person may, of course, be any or all of these at various times.)

They’re principles or aspirations, not dogmas. Each and every one is up for debate – not (usually) ‘is x a good thing?’ but ‘how do we best manifest x in the world?’ To that there are often no easy answers, as I have written in my posts about Pacifism, Simplicity, Sustainability, and Truth.

It’s sometimes said about the Five Mindfulness Trainings that although you can technically take one and not the others, you’re likely to find that you have to face up to them all in the end because they are deeply intertwined. I think that the testimonies, however we list or number them or don’t, are also like that; if you want peace it’ll help to speak truthfully and to treat people equally, and if you want to live simply you’ll need peace in your community and your life as well as to acknowledge the truth about what you need and want, and if you are trying to be truthful you will need to acknowledge an essential equality (not sameness) between people… and so on.

Ultimately, the testimonies however phrased are collective normative principles of the Religious Society of Friends, arising from our patient and ongoing practice of waiting worship. They have been inspired in silence and tested by the community many times, and the authority which they bear rests in this process rather than in the formulations of the resulting ideas.

T is for… Truth

Truth testimony, promptings of love and truth, truth and Truth… Quakers use this word a lot. We aim to let our yea be yea and our nay be nay (Matthew 5:37), and on the grounds that we always speak truthfully will, for example, refuse to take an oath in court, preferring to affirm. It’s not always easy to tell this kind of daily truth in the world – if the truth is embarrassing, or involves something taboo, or would upset someone, etc. – but it’s usually clear to us what it is, and whether we know something or not. Religious truth is a bit harder.

Sometimes we contrast small-t truth, the everyday kind, with capital-T Truth, the ultimate or transcendent kind. The universalists among us are inclined to say, for example, that all religions contain some truth but none have a monopoly on the Truth. (I think this is a quotation from somewhere, although maybe I’m misremembering it; Google isn’t finding it and I can’t think where I read it.) The first generation of Friends are sometimes called the First Publishers of Truth. William Penn wrote to the first generation of ‘cradle Quakers’, children born to those first convinced Friends, that they would “be possessors as well as professors of the truth, embracing it, not only by education, but judgment and conviction; from a sense begotten in your souls, through the operation of the eternal Spirit and power of God in your hearts … that, as I said before, a generation you may be to God, holding up the profession of the blessed truth in the life and power of it.”

His words resonate today because the key questions – how do we come into the possession of truth, and once we’ve got it, how do we profess it? – are still standing. His suggestions, namely that education, judgement, and conviction all matter and that the Spirit is also at work in such bringing us into the Truth, all seem relevant today, too.

(I’m a bit more dubious about some of the rest of that quotation from Penn – I know that if I looked to the rock of my father, it would include a lot of scepticism around language like “there is no other God but him, no other Light but his, no other grace but his, nor Spirit but his, to convince you, quicken, and comfort you; to lead, guide, and preserve you to God’s everlasting kingdom” – although I agree that it does not suffice for us “that you are the children of the people of the Lord”. Anyway, that’s gone off-topic quite a long way.)

It seems to me that learning the Truth is, by necessity, an ongoing project in any person’s life. It’s not the kind of truth which can be learnt as a list of facts, like the periodic table or the dates of kings and queens. It might be like making a map, which you can draw at different scales and refine and change after a flood, but perhaps it’s also like knowing a garden, not just a matter of remembering which seeds went in where but also about going out regularly and looking at what grew where and what got eaten and noting the weeds and the volunteers. Like cooking, it doesn’t always lend itself to precise measurements but needs to be adapted to what’s in your fridge. Just possibly, it’s like a strange metaphor, encouraging you to look at things in new ways and tending to shift and change if you think about it too hard.

(I didn’t remember until after I wrote this that I did ‘T is for Truth‘ last year as well. It came out quite differently, though.)

T is for… Truth

When I talk about Truth, I’m usually thinking of deep truths. I don’t want to discount the importance of telling everyday truths, but I also think that there are bigger Truths which are sometimes best told through means not strictly ‘true’ in the everyday sense. For example, a myth might be the best way to explain a relationship, from the mundane to the spiritual: I have a not-strictly-true-in-all-the-details anecdote which I used to explain why I don’t drink alcohol, and I love the story about Merlin making friends with a wolf as a way to think about our relationship with nature, without even considering the possibility that those events ever happened as described.

Deep Truths need not be the whole truth, either. They arise from your perspective, and can sometimes be captured in a single image which leaves out much about the context. “When I was ill as a teenager, my brother came home one day and reported that on the school bus I was known to be dead, pregnant, and a lesbian.” I don’t expect it happened quite like that; my memories of the time are fuzzy anyway, but this must be built up from a series of reports over days or weeks, and my brother had probably done some of the work of turning it into a ‘good line’ before it reached me. It captures, though, something about how little my illness was understood by my peers, and how school rumour mills work.

Because of this, Deep Truths may be expressed in poetry (or other art forms, like lyrics, or stand-up comedy, or photography) – not in spite of the fact that the poet leaves out some details and adds others, or tells it from a perspective not their own, but because of it, because those slight changes are made to render the Deep Truth more visible.

Generally, I try not to tell lies. I will, however, tell stories, when I think the context makes it clear that I am doing so; and I will sing a lot of things, requiring no more truth of ‘Away In A Manger’ than of ‘Scarborough Fair’.

T is for… Trees

It should come as no surprise that trees are important to Druids.
Enough said, really.