Tag Archives: theology

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.

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Things I might say on TV

If you’ve found this blog by searching the internet for ‘Rhiannon Grant’ and ‘Quakers’ because you’ve just seen me on BBC1’s The Big Questions, welcome. (If I didn’t actually make it onto TV, this post might disappear soon!) Here are some things I might say if I get the chance, in a post written in advance and scheduled to publish while the programme is going out.

Can you be Christian without God?

Yes, you can participate in a Christian community without believing in God. Actually, not all Quakers are Christians – even those of us who believe in God might not call ourselves Christians – and not all Quakers believe in God. What’s important to us is that we all join in with our communities, joining in with our silent worship, our work to help other people, and trying to tell the truth about our experiences.

Why are Quakers getting rid of God?

We’re not. If there is something out there which fits a traditional picture of God – all knowing, all powerful, all loving – it’s way beyond us to get rid of God! And even if there isn’t, we value God language as part of our history and as a poetic, beautiful, moving way of expressing things which are hard to say any other way.

So what are you doing?

We’re revising Quaker faith & practice, which is a book (now also published as a website) that we write to tell us how to be the best Quakers we can be. We make little changes to it every year and rewrite the whole thing once a generation or so – we started the last revision in 1985, so it’s about time. We’re revising the book to bring it up to date and include things which have changed (at the moment it doesn’t mention the internet, for example). I think it’s likely that we’ll include both very traditional ways of talking about God – Jesus, love, the Holy Spirit – and new and creative expressions, maybe drawing on science and other religions.

And do Quakers believe in God?

Some of us do, and some of us would explain our spiritual experiences in other ways.

Do you believe in God?

Yes, in my experience there’s something I can be in touch with, through silent worship and the natural world and relationships with people, which is more than just myself and which is a good thing – loving, hopeful, beautiful.

That doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible.

Depends which bit of the Bible you read! No, it’s a long way from many other people’s pictures of God. My God isn’t a man, my God isn’t supernatural, my God isn’t laying down lots of rules – except “love one another”.

What do Quakers think about the Bible?

Quakers think the Bible is a useful and interesting record of people’s religious experiences. We know it was written and edited by human beings, and not every story in it is historically true. That doesn’t stop it containing lots of emotional and spiritual truths, some of which are very beautiful.

Is Quaker faith & practice the Quaker Bible?

Not really – the Bible is the Quaker Bible! Quaker faith & practice is a collection of rules, guidelines, suggestions, and other Quakers’ experiences, which helps us to work out what to do. It tells you how to have a Quaker wedding and why Quakers don’t swear oaths. It tells you what it’s like to refuse to serve in the army, and how previous Quakers have responded to difficult decisions, like whether or not to have an abortion. It also offers questions and advice which are often read during our worship. Some parts of it, like the bits about marriages and data protection, need updating often. Other parts, like what we say about sustainability and the environment, last longer but we have new things to say as our understanding develops.

What do Quakers believe?

In one of our old phrases, we believe that everyone has that of God within them. That means everyone should be treated fairly, and everyone can have spiritual experiences for themselves. Because of that belief, we fight for peace and justice, and we worship in a way that gives everyone the same chance to join in.

You’ve mentioned Quaker worship a couple of times – what’s it like?

Quaker worship is based in silence. It’s about getting yourself into stillness – Quakers often say ‘centred down’ – and being open. We sit around in a circle or a square, with everyone equal, and wait to see what happens. Sometimes people pray for other people, or the world. Sometimes someone there will be given a message, either an insight into something in their own life or something which they want to share with the whole group. We call that spoken ministry. You can try Quaker worship on your own but in my experience it works best with other people.

What are Quakers best known for?

I guess we’re best known for being pacifists and more recently for our commitment to equal marriage. Both of those are very closely linked to seeing that of God in everyone and, because of that, wanting to treat everyone equally.

Didn’t the early Quakers believe in God?

I’m sure they did. They also believed that people should work from their own experiences, and put a huge value on telling the truth, so I think they’d understand that today, those of us who have different experiences need to use different language to express that. My experience fits with something I call God, so I use that word; other Quakers have different experiences and use different words, but all of us are working from the same principles.

Brwydro: battle, fight, combat, struggle

I remember sitting in the common room with a fellow Quaker Pagan theology PhD student. (I say ‘a’, perhaps ‘the other’!) Anyway, we were discussing theology, as you do when you’re a theology PhD student, and we were discussing whether Pagan and Quaker theologies can be compatible, as you do when you’re a Quaker Pagan theology student. Specially, my friend raised the question of whether it would be acceptable for a Quaker Pagan to worship Odin, given that Quakers are pacifists and Odin is, among other things, God of War.

“I quite like Odin,” I reflected. “Wisdom, words, fetching the runes, that kind of thing.”

“Indeed,” my friend agreed. “He scores a fair number of Jesus Points, too, what with the hanging on the tree bit.” (‘Jesus Points’ are awarded to a character based on how much they resemble Jesus. Other high scorers include Superman and Gandalf.) “But how do you deal with him being God of War, too?”

“I suppose I’ve always thought of it as a metaphorical war,” I said. “Like jihad – the inner struggle.”

I was reminded of this conversation when I read the dictionary entry for the Welsh word brwydro – the first three English words offered (battle, fight, combat) all admit of metaphorical meanings but can easily refer to physical violence, while the fourth (struggle) is much more likely to mean non-physical, or at least non-violent, endeavours.

I’m not entirely convinced by my own argument, by the way. There’s not a lot in Norse myth to suggest that anything expect actual real violence is intended by the discussions of war. But perhaps the acts of cross-cultural borrowing involved in creating this reading of Odin as a pacifist God of Jihad are illuminating for the modern world – or at least my interfaith-aware way of doing theology.

‘God, words and us’: being on the Theology Think Tank

With the publication of ‘God, words and us: Quakers in conversation about religious difference‘, the work of the Theology Think Tank (for committee detail nerds: a process run by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group on behalf of Meeting for Sufferings) is in one sense finished, and in another way starting a new phase. The group was convened to address the issue formerly known as ‘theism/nontheism’ – one of our conclusions is that we should call it something else, like ‘religious difference’ – and to see whether Britain Yearly Meeting as a whole can address it productively. The main answer to that question, as embodied by the book, is ‘yes – through honest and caring conversation’. Seeing the book as a starting place as well as a finished product, this seems like a good time to share some of my thoughts about this conversation.

It does matterSometimes when I start talking to Quakers about theology – especially if I use the word ‘theology’ or make it clear that I regard the intellectual processes as important – people try and move away from the whole idea. I can understand this in some ways, especially as a reaction to a dualistic view in which embracing the intellect means rejecting the emotional, but I also think it’s easy to go too far the other way. My thoughts are as much a part of me as my feelings, and to reject the processes by which we try to understand our experiences and create knowledge is to miss out on a huge amount. The includes whatever we can know – and the ways in which we decide that we can’t know – about God.

It never ends. There are always new things to be learned. In the field of theology, that might mean there are new spiritual experiences to be had, new ways to understand and describe our encounters with the Divine, and new insights to be gained from reflection on old texts and experiences which in turn shape our fresh reality. It can be tempting to allow the patterns we can see in cycles of discussion within a community to turn into ‘eras’ with beginnings and endings (everything from the Reformation, to the liberal turn in Quakerism, to the rise of New Atheism), but a movement always has a forerunner – and someone, somewhere, hasn’t yet had whatever debate you thought was settled. It is impossible to divide these discussions from their history and context, and the fuller a picture you have of that, the more likely it is that you will see connections across apart boundaries of time, space, denomination, and religion.

It can be fun. Discussing our spiritual experience and ideas isn’t always fun. It can be vulnerable – especially if some people are sharing more deeply and personally than others. It can be frightening – especially if it seems that in return for their honesty, some people might be rejected from a community which they hold dear. It can be boring – if one question or one person is allowed to dominate, or if the relevance of a discussion isn’t clear, or if it goes round in circles. But I hold, as a matter of faith as well as experience, that talking about the Mystery can be enjoyable. I find it enjoyable in at least three ways: it’s a way to get to know people better, it’s a workout for the parts of the brain which deal with empathy and logic, and there’s always the possibility of novelty, of a new idea arising.

You should try it. I felt incredibly blessed to be able to participate in the Theology Think Tank process. I hope this book will help everyone who wants to join in with these conversations to participate. I particularly hope that it will be a tool to help those who are carrying anxiety about belonging (“would they still like me if they knew what I really believe?”) or about community (“can we really be friends if we disagree about something so important?”) to engage with discussions about theology in a supported and productive way. The book is aimed mainly at Quakers, but I have already had one chat with someone who is interested in looking at it with their non-Quaker church community. You can hold a discussion group or invite in a facilitator or post something on social media – anything, really, as long as it creates a space for honest and caring conversation.

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.