Tag Archives: theology

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.

Forms of theological diversity

This month, while most people are buying presents, eating chocolate, and generally celebrating Christmas (more on that in my next post), I’m reading Chapter 27 of Quaker faith & practice, which is called ‘Unity and diversity’. There’s a good vague name if ever I heard one! Unity of what and diversity of what?

A quick browse through the chapter will reveal that the issue in question is theology – specifically, the relationship between Quakerism, Christianity, and other faiths. It doesn’t mention nontheism, which wasn’t a big issue for discussion in 1994, but if we re-wrote this chapter today I think we’d include nontheist perspectives here. I also think it would be helpful if we were able to map the territory of theological diversity in more detail.

In many settings, Quakers pose questions of theological diversity as a spectrum, or a series of spectrums. Are you more religious or more humanist? Are you more universalist or more Christian? Are you more nontheist or more God-believing? In order to form these kinds of questions, it’s sometimes necessary to invent a term. For example, many people have assumed that if someone isn’t a nontheist, they must be a theist – but the term theist isn’t one people use for themselves without that prompt, and it has connotations from its use in philosophy which Quakers don’t always accept. (The ‘three omnis’ – omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent – don’t appear in my list of aspects of God Quakers are likely to believe in.)

This also disguises all sorts of other differences. Suppose Person A thinks that God is an human construct but a useful metaphor for our experience of community and love, and Person B thinks that God is a term for a natural part of the human subconscious. Both might be called nontheists – they both reject the sorts of things nontheists typically reject, such as supernatural interventions and God as external to humanity – but they also have very different understandings of what actually is going on.  Similar differences are hidden by almost any label.

That isn’t to say that labels aren’t useful. When people claim labels for themselves, especially where it helps them to identify others with whom they have a lot in common and to articulate their understandings and experiences more accurately, labels are very helpful. What we need to do is avoid becoming stuck at the level of whatever label we’ve got – there’s more going on underneath and diversity within the group created by the label – and to make sure that labels aren’t used to polarise the community – ‘if you’re not an X, you must be a Y’, as if there were no other choices.

So, what forms of theological diversity do we have among Quakers in Britain at the moment? We have some people who clearly identify their Quaker practice as shaped by or united with insights and/or practices from another faith tradition: Buddhist Quakers, Druid Quakers, Quanglicans, etc. We have some people for whom silence says it all, and who do not feel the need to have any label beyond ‘Quaker’ (if that). We have some people who are deeply engaged with the treasures of the Christian tradition as expressed in Quakerism, and others who feel hurt by Christianity and want to avoid it, and others who think a little bit of Christianity is a good idea but wouldn’t want to spend too long on Bible study. We have some people who cannot accept certain aspects of traditional belief in God, and reject anything which sounds like the supernatural, creation ex nihilo, miracles, life after death, or similar. We have some people who cannot accept that Jesus was more important than anyone else, and people who find that the Christ event is the story at the heart of their faith (and people who would identify with both of those positions). We have some people who don’t know, and some people who think that any week in which they don’t change their mind is a boring week. None of these things are pairs of absolutes, this or that, and nor do they map neatly onto a spectrum from most to least.

We also have some people who are very worried about theological diversity, and some who are not the slightest bit bothered, and every possible attitude in between. Personally, I am fascinated by theology and hence by theological diversity, but – perhaps because I am so used to thinking about it – I’m also very relaxed about it. The ideas matter when they affect how we act, but a quick look around an average meeting will show that people with hugely divergent theological opinions can come together to participate in waiting and listening in Meeting for Worship. “Christianity is not a notion but a way” says Advices & Queries, and I agree. Quakerism isn’t something you agree with, but something you do.

Seven Gods Quakers Might Believe In

Having written some serious things recently, I thought I’d try my hand at some clickbait. Number six may surprise you!

1. a God within us

If you ask a Quaker what Quakers believe about God, this is the answer you’re most likely to get after the umming and ahhing. “There’s that of God within everyone.” Whatever else Quakers think about the Divine, they don’t think of a Divine who’s up there (and certainly not on a cloud), or even out there (although S/He might be active in the world in some way). They think of a God who is within us, with us in a deep way even when we don’t notice.

2. a God who leads

Quakers use lots of words to describe God. Nouns are handy for a list – God, the Spirit, the Light, the Whatever – but verbs are sometimes more revealing. God leads, guides, loves, prompts. This doesn’t mean that God is in front (a shephard often steers a flock from behind), but I think it does mean that God cares about where we are going, and is with us as we seek the right way forward.

3. a God who is all genders and none

Some Quakers use masculine language for God – He, Lord, Father. A few Quakers, myself included, also use feminine language for Goddess – She, Mother, Maiden. More will tell you that they avoid using gendered language – preferring Light, Love, or Goodness, for example. A few use explicitly nongendered terms, such as GODDE. None of us seem to think that God actually has gender as a human would: whatever God is, God is either beyond gender or encompasses all genders and none. Anthropomorphising, talking as if God is like a person, is just a handy way to get the ideas across.

4. a God who is natural

From time to time, people tell me that what they can’t accept about God is the ‘supernatural element’. It’s difficult to find evidence that any Quakers think there’s a supernatural element to the God we believe in, though: classic things which point in that direction, like miracles or going heaven after death, are either completely missing or very rarely discussed. Elements of the Meeting for Worship for Business sometimes sound supernatural when described quickly – e.g. “we listen for what God is telling us to do” – but when they are part of your ordinary experience, it’s hard to think of them as anything but natural.

5. a God of love

In exploring what Quakers are willing to say about God, I found that they draw the line at a God who asks for violence or hatred. This isn’t usually done explicitly – although I did find some writing by a Quaker who explained that they could include most religions as true ways to God, but not ones which asked for human sacrifice – but it’s clearly there, implicitly. Quakers usually assume, without often saying so, that someone who feels ‘led’ to do something which runs against the long-standing trend of Quaker discernment, such as something violent, isn’t really listening to God but perhaps to something selfish or a charismatic human leader.

6. a God which exists

You’ll note that I didn’t say “who exists” – existing in the way a person exists isn’t the point here. The point is that Quakers talk about a God which is part of their experience. This is a God which can lead, can love, can be within us, and which therefore is real because meaningful.

7. a God who lets us work it out for ourselves

A few years ago, Quakers ran a poster which said “THOU SHALT… decide for yourself.” Quakers don’t believe in a God who is cross with you for believing the wrong thing – but rather in a God who is happy that you’re thinking independently and trying to work out what’s going on based on your experience. That’s why you can still be a Quaker even if you disagreed with me about all the previous six points.

Afterwords: a labyrinth of ideas

I’m now at the stage in my research where I’ve read the survey data, everything else about afterwords I can find, and begun to look at related things – other patterns of change in the way Meeting for Worship is held, for example, and writing about worship and vocal ministry generally. It’s difficult to summarise where I’m at because I feel like I’m walking around in a maze: I decide to turn left, only to walk for ten minutes and find myself back at a point I passed half an hour ago. That being so, I thought I’d offer you, not a coherent account of anything, but sketches of some of the places where I’ve tied some string. If you recognise any of these spots, do let me know.

Afterwords isn’t the only thing about Meeting for Worship which has changed over the past century. Two examples of other changes which have interested me are the shift from just a pair of Elders shaking hands to everyone shaking hands, and the introduction of social time after meeting. Both of these changes must have come in slowly – there are reports of Friends who held out against them, and there remains some variety in the practices – but both could be related to one of the key purposes given for afterwords, namely community building. Shaking hands with each other gives a point of formal greeting between the end of worship – the Elders shaking hands – and the notices. For some meetings, afterword appears in this slot and is reported to help people get to know one another. Adding refreshments and thereby encouraging people to stay for social time, the classic tea and coffee, also gives people more time in the meeting house to get to know one another and encourages informal conversation. Again, for some meetings, afterwords can extend this process, giving an extra space for more or less formal sharing before or alongside the social time.

The way we talk about afterwords can reveal our ideas about other things, especially our views of Meeting for Worship. For example, lots of people told me in the survey that they thought that spoken contributions sometimes got misplaced one way or the other: either that things which weren’t really ‘true ministry’ got said during Meeting for Worship, where they didn’t belong, or that things which were ‘true ministry’ got said during afterwords, when they would have been better said in worship. At the very simple level, this reveals that the people answering my survey have a picture of the differences between ‘true ministry’ and ‘nearly ministry’ and ‘not ministry’ which goes beyond whether something is said in worship, afterwords, or elsewhere. At a more complex level, as people begin to describe these differences, they are revealing their ideas about true ministry and where it comes from – in others words, their theology.

Afterwords is part of a wider picture of the end of Meeting for Worship, and what people want is a smooth transition into the next thing. What that smooth transition actually looks like is another matter, but descriptions of problematic processes – the introduction of an unwanted afterword, or a lack of afterword before a disliked notices – tend to stress suddenness or a bump or jolt in ‘coming up from the depths’ of worship. On the other hand, when people like a process, they describe it in terms of an easy, smooth, unjolted transition – whether that’s from worship into social time without being bumped into a too-heady wordy space by afterwords, or from worship into afterwords with space to reflect on the experience of Meeting without being forced to make social chit-chat too soon. This doesn’t solve the problem of whether you should have afterwords, but it points towards some of the right questions to ask about why people like it or don’t.

Reading Qf&p: chapter 2

This blog post is later than I intended. Please address any complaints to The Common Cold, Rhiannon’s Sinuses, Probably On A Train, UK.

Chapter 2 is called “Approaches to God  worship and prayer”. It has the curious feature that while it focusses on experience and people’s personal practices, it deals with topics in which there is inherently a certain amount of theology – speculation, assumption, belief, or even (rarely in Quaker documents!) argument about the nature of that which we are approaching. This is not an explicit theme in this chapter, but it has come up more than once in discussions around it. For example, in this Facebook comment Craig identified the lesser-spotted ontological argument in 2.09.

A first question about this might be: does it matter? Are these ideas about the nature of ‘God’ significant, or should we be focussing on the experience? A second, following on from that, might be: can we separate them? Would it be possible to write about this topic, “approaches to God” without saying anything about the nature of God (or the Spirit, or the Light, or whatever you call it)?

I think that we probably cannot separate them. Certainly, I couldn’t write about my experience of worship without revealing some of the ideas and assumptions I have about that which I seek or respond to in worship. Even the ways I choose to describe the worship I prefer tell you something about those ideas: terms like “waiting”, “listening”, “silent” and “open” all hint at what kind of Divine I think or feel there might be, or what I think might happen. They might suggest attributes: present, quiet, speaking, unpredictable…

I also think there are levels at which this does matter. It seems to me to be important to acknowledge both that we might be wrong about the assumptions that we make, and that we do in fact have those assumptions and underlying ideas. We can’t get rid of them – sometimes, they’re embedded in the structure of our language (if you doubt this, try actually using the word ‘God’ as a verb for a significant period of time – it’s very difficult indeed to break out of the usual noun pattern). At other times, they’re embedded in our culture and history, and even if we can speak differently, we want to retain them.

In short, talking about our experience is very valuable, but the claim sometimes made by Friends that we can focus on spiritual experience and thereby not have to deal with ‘theology’ – with ideas about what underlies that experience – seems to me to be misleading.

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.

R is for Religion

What is religion anyway? Well, I don’t think it is anything in particular, in the sense that it doesn’t have a single essence to which one can refer. Historically, things as mostly described as religions if they are relevantly similar to Christianity – Christianity was the first religion to be described as such, and other religions are only later included in the category. To this day, some things which I might think of as ‘religions’ are only dubiously in that category because they are generally considered insufficiently similar to the other ‘world religions’ – several of which need to be described in particular, not necessarily accurate, ways in order to show up their similarity with Christianity and hence their place within the category of ‘religion’.

Anything you say about religion can usually be given a counter-example: religion is about God, except Buddhism, which isn’t; religion is about the next life, religion is about worship, religion is about morality… The concept of ‘religion’ does show some cohesion – two things called religions will have some things in common, but not automatically the same list of things every time.

To get around this a little bit, I often talk instead about ‘religious traditions’. Where most people use the term ‘religion’ to talk about the ‘big six’ (or big five, or seven – it’s not clear, and often depends which school curriculum you were offered rather than any facts about the religions themselves), the term ‘religious tradition’ can cover smaller communities. ‘Hinduism’ might be a religion (or not; it’s one of the most artificial, least-recognised-from-inside entries on the Big Six list), but a group like the Hare Krishnas (ISKCON) can be called a ‘religious tradition’ without trying to decide what counts as ‘a religion’ (and without importing potentially prejudiced or Christian terminology, like ‘sect’ or ‘denomination’, which can otherwise be tempting especially in conversation).

You might notice, though, that in the description above I did make an assumption about religions – that they are about groups of people, and consist in communities. Some views of religion would rather think of ‘a religion’ as a set of beliefs, or a collection of claims, but I think this isn’t very helpful – it might be useful as a base for doing analytic philosophy of religion,  but it doesn’t help us to understand actual religions which are practiced by people. ‘Religion is social’ doesn’t tell us very much about religion – it doesn’t distinguish it from, for example, language, football, or culture – but it does give us a starting point.

Overall, religion might be thought of as a family resemblance concept – each having some points of similarity with other members of the family, but no two alike. Another approach, good enough for many conversations, is simply to note that we know religion when we see it: we can apply the word to, for example, a collection of subjects for study, without needing to be specific about the boundaries of what is out and what is in. For many purposes, this will be enough – and for those cases where it isn’t, using another term as well as or instead of ‘religion’ will help to clarify the use which is current in a particular context.