Tag Archives: truth

Five Reasons Quakers Can Celebrate Christmas

In Quaker faith & practice, passage 27.42 says:

A… testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ‘times and seasons’. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

This is a testimony which seems to be dying of neglect. Many Friends, involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas; in some meetings, Easter and its meaning is neglected, not only at the calendar time but throughout the year. What I would hope for is neither that we let the testimony die, nor that we keep it mechanically. I hope for a rediscovery of its truth, that we should remember and celebrate the work of God in us and for us whenever God by the Spirit calls us to this remembrance and this joy.

Janet Scott, 1994

With all due respect to my friend and sometime co-tutor Janet Scott, I want to put forward some reasons why we should not just let this testimony go, but actively get rid of it. I think we will do better at keeping what Janet describes as its truth – will do better at remembering and celebrating the work of God whenever the Spirit calls us to do so – if we set aside some times to do so consciously, not mechanically but regularly. puts on ‘devil’s advocate for God’ hat

1. We already do.

Meetings hold Christmas celebrations. They have special meals, sing carols, and let the kids do a play. They cancel study groups and committee meetings, and expect that people will spend time with their families. This year, December 25th falls on a Sunday, so this will be invisible – but when it doesn’t, meetings all over Britain hold special Christmas Meetings for Worship. Fewer meetings – but some – also hold extra Meetings for Worship on Good Friday (some serve hot cross buns as well). I once challenged this and was told that it was because people were free on the bank holiday, and indeed Yearly Meeting uses the May bank holidays for some two years of its three yearly cycle, but it’s very rare for local meetings to use other bank holidays, and not on anything like the same regular basis. There’s no special end of August Meeting for Worship, so there’s something about Christmas and Easter. If we are to be honest, we need to stop pretending that we don’t celebrate these festivals.

2. We’re Christians.

Okay, some of us aren’t. I’m not, actually – from time to time I think I might be starting to get on not-so-badly with this Jesus guy, and then I meet some Christian Christians, you know the type, the sort who think I’m doing it wrong if I agree with Jesus rather than singing slightly erotic songs about him, or who think I’ll go to hell for dating women, or who are sure that if I’d really read the New Testament I’d be going to their church. And when that happens, I decide that I’ll stay not-quite-a-Christian, thank you very much. As a Quaker, though, I am a member of a Christian church, and I shouldn’t be allowed to hide from that. Even stronger: I should be routinely offered the chance to engage with all that is helpful and enriching and spiritually fulfilling in Christianity in case I want to take the plunge and open up the maybe-I’m-Christian-even-if-I’m-not-one-of-those-Christians space. Celebrating Christmas is a chance for us to do that.

3. Christmas – and Easter – hold key theological messages.

“In some meetings,” Janet wrote in 1994, “Easter and its meaning is neglected.” Although I do know a few meetings where it is celebrated, the theological meanings of Easter – the Good News about the Resurrection, for example – aren’t the sort of thing we hear about very often in a typical Quaker meeting. Although Christmas is a bigger feature, how many Friends actually contemplate the implications of God being born in a human body, rather than enjoying a few good tunes and a mince pie? If we opened up and said, yes, we are going to celebrate these things, we could look more directly at how we celebrate them and whether we are getting the most spiritual benefit from the process. In time, this might extend beyond Christmas and Easter to Pentecost and other stories which are embedded in the Christian liturgical calendar.

4. Seasonal cycles support our commitment to sustainability.

When we regard nature as alien and winter weather as an obstacle, it’s much harder for us to buy into arguments about why we should save the planet. The seasons change all the time, but Christmas is a point at which it’s socially more acceptable to admire evergreen trees, reflect on the days starting to lengthen, and appreciate the beauty of snow. This can be a starting point for a process of connecting more deeply to the natural world – animals, plants, weather, and climate. The understanding we gain through that process can shore up our determination to make lifestyle changes and campaign for larger social changes in order to protect our environment.

5. It’s fun.

Which is sometimes enough reason all on its own.

This isn’t an argument for extra buying, extra plastic, or doing anything you don’t want to do. It is an argument for enjoying the process of giving a few well-chosen presents and spending time with people you love. It is an argument for sharing and discussing traditional stories, stories which can have a truth beyond the facts. It is an argument for thinking about how your Christmas celebrations can be simple, truthful, sustainable, peaceful. It is an argument for not apologising: if you’re going to put up decorations, sing carols, and eat with family, don’t feel you have to add “even though it’s not Quakerly”.We can use it as part of our Quaker path.

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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.

P is for Pluralism

There are lots of things to which one could take a pluralism approach. Some consist only in noting the fact of plurality, and others in asserting that plurality is good or necessary in some way. Even if we narrow our focus to religion, pluralism can focus on salvation (there are a plurality of ways to be saved) or on truth (either that there are a plurality of truths or that a plurality of religions have access to the truth). Although all these positions exist, ‘pluralism’ as a term in theology is most associated with the latter – and in Christian theology, one of the best known pluralists is John Hick.

Like anyone else, John Hick changed his mind over his lifetime, but in this context his later work is the more interesting. In books such as The Rainbow of Faiths  and God Has Many Names, he argues that since all religions have similar fruits (produce good and bad people at about the same rate), and all aim towards a realignment of the self from selfishness towards an ultimate reality, all are in some way offering different but complementary pictures of what Hick calls the Real. This is, of course, a simplified explanation of the position, but I hope that for the purposes of a blog post it captures both the key features which make it attractive and those which make it difficult for some to accept. On the one hand, it supports many liberal values, such as tolerance, sincere dialogue between religions, and the equality of all people. On the other hand, it requires letting go some key claims made by some religions, especially to have exclusive access to the truth. And it makes some claims which are just a bit puzzling – Hick is a realist about the Real and rejects naturalistic interpretations out of hand (what if what all religions have in common is a feature of the human brain?), and his talk about the Real as ineffable and as accessed equally by many religions is a bit confusing – can people access the Real directly or at all, or not?

In my research on British Quakers, I compared Hick’s pluralism to Quaker universalism (which assumes that they’re different, and that Quaker universalism is a single position – neither of which is quite true, but both were close enough to make the discussion worth having). One of the key differences I identified is their starting points – Hick begins from an observation about the fruits of religion in people’s lives, while Quakers talking about these issues usually take the presence of ‘that of God’ in everyone as a foundation. This difference at the beginning of the discussion doesn’t lead into huge differences in the conclusions – although there are some: Hick is still interested, for philosophical as well as theological reasons, in there being some form of afterlife, which Quakers today usually just don’t talk about. Both conclude that all religions (or at least all major religions – both Hick and the Quakers can think of some they would reject as having valuable insights because they seem to contain or lead to evil) have some truth and are worth studying. Both also conclude – in fact the Quakers often assume – that there is a single Reality, underlying or embedded throughout the world, which religions and religious people can genuinely experience and talk about. This Reality need not be personal, or external, or supernatural, but both Hick and most Quaker universalists think that it is Real and unified (if not singular – one argument says that it is neither single nor plural because number is not a relevant category).

Faith and social media

Michael Booth recently wrote a piece for Living with Conflict, a website which I help to edit, about Email, Social Media and Conflict in the Church. It’s a very interesting report and it came at just the same time as some discussion in the Quaker Renewal Facebook group about the possibility of revising our Book of Discipline, currently called Quaker Faith and Practice – a discussion partly prompted by Oliver Robertson’s post on Nayler about the subject. The combination reminded me of some discussions in a study group about QF&P which I ran in 2013; we looked at ten chapters from the book over ten weeks, looking for our favourite passages, most useful passages, and for gaps. One of the gaps we detected, and which has come up in other conversations since then, was a lack of material about online activities – understandable in a book approved in 1994, long before Facebook had been invented, but an obvious omission to our ways of living in Britain now.

One of the exercises I set the study group was to try writing a new ‘Advices and Queries‘ passage, engaging with the concerns we had identified as absent from the current book. I chose to write something about internet use, and produced the following:

Sharing online can be an important part of our lives as social beings. Does your internet presence reflect you as a whole person? Strive for a right balance between electronic and analogue communications, and remember that working asynchronously can provide extra time for thought and prayer. Do you consume news and other information in ways which support your freedom and positive engagement with the world?

Looking back on it after almost two years, it still reflects many of the issues I am considering. I might add some of Michael’s points about who we represent online, not just ourselves but our organisations; and in a book of discipline generally, I would now also want to add something about the use of phones and tablets in worship or Meeting for Worship for Business. (Not, I should clarify, to ban them, but to encourage thoughtful and appropriate use, and patience and charity from those who do not understand what they are being used for.) On the other hand, the question about whether your online persona represents your life came up again over Christmas, when some people posted on Facebook about it being particular hard at that time of year to see everyone’s happy-family-together pictures and posts, and others responded to say that this was only a part of their experience. How honest are we going to be online? I know there are things I avoid posting in some spaces – I have my reasons for this and they feel like good reasons to me – but do those omissions lead people to an untruthful, or at least one-sided, picture of me?

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’.