Saturday, 17 May 2008

Quaker Identity and the heart of our faith

Quaker Life annual conference 2008

‘Perhaps the defining feature of Quakerism is that it cannot be defined’, was Barbara Windle’s opening comment on the subject of this conference, which is part of a process of re-examining the identity of British Quakerism for our time initiated by Quaker Life.

Just what our identity as Friends consists of seems to be a continuous problem, and in the weekend’s first session Alex Wildwood gave a convincing presentation of how this has come about. He described the development of British Quakerism from a distinctive and universalist understanding of Christianity in the 17th Century, to the very broad movement of today. This includes both liberal Christianity and what he calls the ‘new spiritualities’, ranging from eastern religions and growth psychology, to pagan, ‘New Age’, feminist and Green movements.

Alex urged us to embrace our unique position as a ‘bridge’ between traditional Christianity and the new spiritualities, and to recognise it as a ‘Spirit-led’ process in which all the aspects of contemporary Quakerism are essential. ‘For us to cut ourselves off from our Christian roots would be catastrophic,’ he argued. But equally he calls for us to recognise and welcome the growth in consciousness that is expressed in the new spiritualities. Alex also offered his own contribution to expressing ‘the heart of our Quaker faith’ as ‘a life lived under guidance’.

Our own attempts in discussion groups to express the distinctive identity of British Quakers were predictably inconclusive. There was the usual list of ‘Quakerly’ characteristics: acceptance of diversity, being comfortable with uncertainty, being ‘seekers’ who recognise the inadequacy of words to define our experience. There was an assertion of the rootedness of our faith in personal experience and the indivisibility of faith and practice, which still begs the question of what our ‘faith’ consists of.

For me, the most challenging aspect of this discussion was the contribution of David Boulton, a well-known and much-published ‘non-theist’ Friend. He gave an articulate and persuasive account of his ‘religious humanist’ convictions, which exclude a belief in any spiritual reality. For him religious language is poetry that expresses purely human values, and belief in a spiritual realm ‘even when smuggled in under the guise of transcendence or mysticism’ is akin to believing in ‘goblins, ghosts and Gandalf’s magic staff’.

I don’t think I was alone in finding this expression of Quaker diversity stretching the limits of any conceivable shared faith or identity. While I understand and recognise the force of David’s arguments for an entirely rationalist and materialist world-view, there is a fundamental difference not just in our language and symbolism but in the nature of our experience. This doesn’t make me ‘right’ and him ‘wrong’, but it does challenge the existence of any shared faith or identity for a Religious Society that can include such radically incompatible experiences of reality.

On the final day there was a dramatic shift in gear, with a presentation by Rex Ambler on ‘the prophetic message of early Friends, and its relevance for the 21st Century’. Rex began with a close reading of some rather obscure early Quaker writings. As an academic historian he is clearly in his element interpreting the texts and contexts of 17th Century Friends. He is also a speaker with a gift for Ministry, which could be felt throughout the room as he summarised his understanding of the original Quaker message:

“The early Quakers did not teach a belief. They did not urge people to believe the statement that there is ‘that of God in everyone’. Instead they directed people to look within themselves, to the Truth of their own experience as revealed by the Light in their consciences.”

They turned people away from outward authorities and rituals, to a practice of ‘waiting in the Light’, which enabled them to gain ‘a sight of themselves’; to wake up to who they really were. This enabled them to see the world without illusion, deceit or pretence, and to recognise the presence of the Light within each person. The ‘Unity in the Light’ which results from this shared experience of awakening is not a ‘unity of opinion’, but a sense of communion based on acceptance of themselves and of other people as they are.

In the final session Beth Allen responded to some disquiet from Friends about our seeming inability to find common statements of faith with the reminder that ‘we are not a People of the Book’. We do not put our confidence in structures and statements, but in a shared practice – ‘a way of worship that teaches and transforms us’. Alex Wildwood also drew our attention to the contribution that Quaker spirituality has to offer in the rapidly escalating ecological and economic crisis that we are beginning to live through, if we can rediscover its prophetic power to reshape lives and communities.

One of the strongest messages from many contributors to the conference was the need for Friends to talk more openly about our beliefs and our experiences; not to sidestep our differences in the convenient silence of Quaker worship. Quaker Life is planning to help with this process by producing a study pack for use by Local Meetings to use in exploring our Quaker identity.


cath said...

I've been longing for someone to say eloquently what I've found difficult to express. My thanks to Rex Ambler.

Here in the US, it's sometimes difficult to see beyond surface differences and recognize our common roots.

I wish I'd been at the conference.


jez said...

There is a difference in your and David's experience, but that is was what Rex is drawing our attention to – experience. It's not: that of God in everyone, it's experience.

Then as Beth says, it is shared practice, ie our worship that binds us.

I look forward to the study pack.

Simon Heywood said...

I'd like to respond to these ideas properly but at the moment I'm flabberghasted, so it's probably not the time.

Still, I might as well offer a few notes pending a more dispassionate discussion later on. In my understanding, Quakers are the polar opposite of religious, and the polar opposite of humanist. Also, Quaker language and thought is the polar opposite of poetic in its end and its means alike. I mean, I like poetry, but a look through BYM's QF&P shows that this is a consistent feature of Quaker commentary from the earliest times to the present. Poetry is about going deep into language, and Quakerism is about going beyond language.

I'm not even sure that Quakers are by definition all that comfortable with uncertainty. They face uncertainty head on, but as for being comfortable with it ... well, that's a different matter.

Sorry friends if I'm speaking out of turn, but I am kind of a bit flabberghasted. It's the mood I'm in at the moment and I hope to come back to this and qualify it later on. Bear with me for the moment ...

Simon Heywood said...

Also I don't think we're a bridge between anything and anything else. We don't build bridges between existing positions, we undermine them in order to exacavate the foundations where the common ground is to be found, if it's to be found anywhere.

OK, OK, I really am having one of those moments. That's me done for the moment. Honest!!

Ray said...

"One of the strongest messages from many contributors to the conference was the need for Friends to talk more openly about our beliefs and our experiences; not to sidestep our differences in the convenient silence of Quaker worship."

I like how Beth Allen talks of the benefits if each person was to prepare a "travelling document" - a summary for "each of us individually of our own understanding of god at this time. She encourages people to share provisional beliefs and help one another explore.

Calling them "travelling documents" preserves the sense of the provisionality and reminds people that they continue to develop their discipleship as they journey deeper into their experience and understanding of their faith.

She is keen to distinguish them from credal statements

"These personal provisional statements are the foundations, the building blocks, of our concept of God. We can borrow them from each other, or we can reject other people's words and draft our own. As we mature in faith, our language changes, and the foundations we need also change. I find as I get older that I believe more and more in less and less. I find the essentials get stronger and more important - and for me the central thing is the love of God: that's what I put my faith in. But we each have to work it out for ourselves. "

I like the idea of the study pack for exploring Quaker identity - have you done anything similar before as a Sheffield group?

Craig Barnett said...

Hi Ray,
There is a very helpful programme for exploring Quaker faith and practice in small groups called 'Hearts and Minds Prepared', which is run fairly regularly. I don't know if there are plans to run another of these groups in the near future, but the best thing is to let someone from 'Meeting for Learning Planning Group' know if you are interested. (You can find out how to contact them from the Meeting House office).
I did the 'Hearts and Minds' programme a couple of years ago and got a lot out of it.
I guess the 'Quaker Identity'study pac will have a different emphasis - it will be interesting to see what they come up with.

Simon Heywood said...

Having had a few days to calm down and mull it all over, I pretty much stand by my earlier comments, with the very substantial qualification that I don't know anything about the whole conversation beyond what I've read in Craig's post. But for what it's worth, I think my problem is as much with the tone as the content of the language Craig is summarising. I am entirely in unity with the fact that there are Quakers who identify themselves authoritatively as atheists. I myself probably don't believe in the God they don't believe in. But I just don't think it's acceptable for anyone within the Quaker community to blithely equate the mystical or transcendent with ghosts, goblins and Gandalf, or any other such Dawkins-style schoolboy-level abuse. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, and least importantly, Dawkins-style abuse is by any measure a pretty rubbish way to think about anything, and it does atheism a much greater disservice than ever it does any kind of theist faith. More importantly, I for one wouldn't be a Quaker if I didn't understand the Quaker way as fundamentally centred on the mystical or transcendent or something like it - not least in its very acceptance of atheist understandings. The whole project of opening up the Quaker space to atheist language is itself, exactly, a transcendent project. It's absolutely not rational. That is to say, it's not an attempt to create a dialogue between a diversity of views with the ultimate aim of agreement or consensus. Rather, it's an attempt to allow the permanent tension between rationally inconsistent understandings to open up a fundamental space, where language, reason and commonsense understanding are alike confounded, and shown to be inadequate. The aim is to allow an inexpressible Spirit to speak all the more clearly and directly in the space between the words and thoughts. Equating this Spirit with "goblins" frankly doesn't help. It's just a way of closing down the fundamental space between the thoughts, along with the Spirit that is manifested in this space. It's a basic abuse and misunderstanding of what "Liberal Quakerism," for want of a better label, is trying to enable. And it's dismissing the whole purpose of the atheist voice within the Quaker conversation. It's a mistake of a similar quality to suggesting voting in business meetings, but much, much more fundamental and much worse. I just don't think it's on.

Similarly, I don't think it's on to equate the strengths of Quaker or religious language with the poetic. This is another attempt to deny its quality of straining towards transcendence. Poetry uses formal complexity of language and thought to explore and find meaning in the human condition, more or less as it is. Those who speak in the spirit, whether Quaker or anything else, use any old thought or language that comes to hand, without systematic consideration of its formal qualities, in order to escape the human condition, or at least to transform it from what it is into something better. One could question this distinction, but there's no mistaking the difference between Fox and Nayler on the one hand, and Milton on the other, any more than it's possible to confuse Diana Francis and Carol Ann Duffy, or Jesus and Vergil, or Isaiah and Homer.

But I suppose I'd best do some homework before I say any more ...

Simon Heywood said...

Well, I googled David Boulton (I'm at work and it's a bit boring at the minute). He wrote a nice piece about Quakerism for the Guardian (crikey, now I think about it, it's pinned to the noticeboard in the MH). He's also a fan of Philip Pullman's idea, expounded at the climax of His Dark Materials, of the Republic of Heaven.

Here, perhaps predictably, I find another area of disagreement. For one thing, I don't get Pullman, at least not His Dark Materials. Northern Lights starts out as a hymn to childlike wonder and the human imagination, and delivers a severe telling-off to all those nasty priests for crushing the creativity of the child-protagonists. Then, somehow, by the end of The Amber Spyglass, Lyra ends up marooned almost alone in Oxford on the verge of adolescence; she's lost both Will and her own intuitive mastery of the alethiometer; and she's apparently facing a relatively bleak and limited future - and this is all narrated more or less as if it's good news.


Overall, the moral of the trilogy seems to be that life's no fun really, no matter what you pesky kids may think, and the best you can hope for is to join the privileged minority who manage to blag their way into Oxford University. This, to put it mildly, seems a rather incongruous, downbeat and right-wing conclusion to a writer who claims Blake as a major inspiration. Generally HDM strikes me as the sort of thing Gradgrind (out of Dickens' Hard Times) might write if he set himself up as a children's author.

But back specifically to the Republic of Heaven, the idea of which is (something like) you can attain heaven without acknowledging a God as its King.

It's always struck me that this isn't really saying anything. Heaven, if you like, is a symbol of perfection. The whole point about perfection is that it's infinite, and it confounds measurement just as thoroughly as any other form of infinity. For example, if you imagine heaven as a kingdom, the kingdom has a perfect king ruling over perfect subjects. If you imagine heaven as a republic, it's a perfect assembly of perfect citizens. The upshot of all that perfection is that there'd be no practical difference between a kingdom and republic of heaven. The perfect king would issue perfect commands, and the perfect subjects would obey them loyally, not out of fear or self-interest, but because the commands themselves were perfection. A perfect assembly of perfect citizens would freely decide on the same perfection by a kind of perfect consensus. You wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a king's command and a free citizen's choice because, in heaven, everyone would know the right thing to do and want to do it anyway. There would be no areas of doubt or division within which status or power imbalances could become operative. When everyone's in perfect agreement, everyone's perfectly equal and each person is also simultaneously completely in control.

You can extend this idle musing very far indeed. You could have a totalitarian dictatorship of heaven, and it would still be OK, because a heavenly totalitarian dictator would still only order everyone to do what they'd choose to do anyway. You could also have an anarcho-syndicalist commune of heaven and the same perfection would result for the same reasons. You could have a parliamentary liberal democracy of heaven, or a military junta of heaven, or a committee-for-deciding-everything-by-flipping-a-coin of heaven, and they would all look exactly the same as each other in every meaningful sense. The end result in all cases is absolute perfection, clearly visible and readily attainable, and freely chosen by everyone, in perfect wisdom, for the highest motives. Because it's heaven.

The difference only emerges if you stop thinking of heaven in terms of absolute, transcendent perfection, and start thinking of it in more limited, boring and everyday terms. Which I supect is why the idea has caught on, and why it's been expressed most explicitly in a work of imaginative literature whose ending is such a let-down. Assuming there's a difference between a kingdom and republic of heaven is a coded, indirect way of disabling the whole symbolism of heaven, which is itself a way of denying the reality of transcendence.

Which, of course, anyone has the right to do, but having disabled the whole idea of heaven, it makes no sense to pinch the idea back and try to rehabilitate it in more cosily humanist terms.

Craig, if you're moderating this, let me know if I'm straying off topic! I am uncomfortably aware that your post has clearly, um, opened some of my own personal floodgates a bit.

Craig Barnett said...

Hi Simon,
No problem - feel free to go as 'off topic' as you like...

My own conclusion from the encounter with David Boulton is that there seem to be at least two kinds of 'non-theist'. There are those who recognise the reality of spiritual experience, but for whom the language of a personal Divine Being is not meaningful or helpful.

Then there is David's kind, for whom there simply is no spiritual reality, presumably because they have not experienced it.

It seems to me quite possible to be a 'non-theist' Quaker in the first sense. Simone Weil writes somewhere about God having both personal and impersonal aspects, which different people and traditions experience and emphasise differently.

The idea of a 'Quakerism' which denies the reality of spiritual experience though seems to me impossible. Spiritual experience is at the heart of the Quaker Way. Without it we could have an 'ethical society' of some sort but it would have no real connection with Quakerism.

Simon Heywood said...


Ray said...


thanks for the comment about "Hearts and Minds prepared" - I shall follow that up as suggested.


funnily enough I have just finished David Boulton's autobiography "Taking leave of God" - I'd come across his writing at the Sea of Faith network web site. "Religious humanism" doesn't resonate with me but its good to read stuff that challenges you.

The first third in particular is worth reading - gives a good account of his life from being brought up within the Plymouth Brethren, and later his experience as an investigative reporter with Granada TV. Funny too.

The middle third is a sort of Karen Armstrong's "History of God" -Lite. Its okay if you not read around this before.

His "Republic of Heaven" idea ends the book. Now if my wife was reading this then there would be pistols-at-dawn to anyone who saying a word against Pullman (but i've never read more than 20 pages so I'll duck out of it)

Its the least satisfying part of the book for me. The phrase "Tell me about the God you don't believe in...." that you cited earlier actually came to mind whilst I was reading it.

clearly he is a non-theist Friend... he denies a supernatural world but I'm not sure he necessarily denies a spiritual realm as such. At least, my impression is that i imagine he has a number of humanist friends who roll their eyes when he talks of Quakerism and of being a religious humanist, wanting him to sever the links with religion totally. And my impression is that he can't quite do that but his explanations as to why don't quite convince.

That said, he has articulated his own "travelling document" (as referred to in my last comment) and for that i am grateful because it helps me think where i may disagree with him and how i might want to voice my own understandings, provisional as they may be.

Any way, worth a read. (you are welcome to borrow it, I'll bring it along on sunday)

Simon Heywood said...

Cheers Ray. I would love to have a look at it. Sea of Faith is Don Cupitt, isn't it? I first came across the basic idea getting on for 30 years ago. It didn't exactly thrill me to bits then, and it doesn't now. To be honest I think rational humanism of the Dawkins variety is a self-evident load of old cahoonies, and I can't for the life of me understand why anyone takes it seriously, but that's what you come to expect from secularism. The reason why I get all wobbly about it when it crops up within Quakers is because this strikes me as trying to have your cake and eat it, in a way which kind of poops the party for me. I mean, it's just getting in the way of those of us who are quite convinced by the idea of a transcendent spirit, and are already having enough trouble and anxiety keeping pace with what we experience. I find it all too easy to see compelling reasons to accept the reality of a spiritual realm. My problem is living up to the reality. The last thing I need right now is some well-to-do guy from Oxbridge coming along and trying to stake a claim to all the hard-won consolations of faith - which often seem pretty meagre anyway quite frankly - while proudly proclaiming his determination to make none of the inward sacrifices involved. As if this was good news. There's an old proverb invoking the obligation to choose between performing a certain basic bodily function and getting off the pot. It feels like someone advising me to end a troubled relationship when I know that what I need to do is repair it. It's tempting but it's too easy to listen to this sort of thing.

Funnily enough, perhaps, I don't get similarly antsy about Karen Armstrong or the Jesus Seminar people: in fact I think they're great. I'm not entirely able to state what I think the difference is, although I think Craig has caught it pretty well in his post above. There's a big difference between denying a boundary between the spiritual and material realms, and denying the spiritual realm altogether. This difference is discerned more clearly in the feel of a person's approach than in the logic of what they say. Karen Armstrong doesn't shy away from uncertainty, but you can tell from the way she writes that she still has a lot of real reverence for her subject matter. Don Cupitt doesn't write like this, and nor does Philip Pullman. Karen A seems to regard the spiritual as a mystery to be approached, whereas the others seem to see it more or less as a third-world country to be invaded and licked into shape. It reminds me of a saying of George Fox to the effect that the self must be overcome before the Light can be really experienced, and being as I am at a crossroads on that whole issue, I find it troubling to encounter people claiming to speak as the beneficiaries of Fox's tradition of belief when they don't even seem to bother to acknowledge this central problem. This, admittedly, is a fairly unenlightened stance for me to take (Lk 15:25ff., Mt 20:12-14), and it says at least as much about me as it does about anyone else, but that's where I am with this one.

I suppose it was bound to come up sooner or later. That's what you get when you hang around with mystics. There's a reasonably good definition of the modern Quaker: someone who hangs around with mystics.

Not knowing more than a single (if jarringly inapposite) phrase of David Boulton's, I'll have to reserve judgement on him, but that, tentatively speaking, is probably the yardstick by which I'd measure him, or anyone else.

Gordon Ferguson said...

There was never mystery,
But ’tis figured in the flowers;
Was never discreet history,
But birds tell it in the bowers.

Either everything is mystery or nothing is.

Either everything good is sacred or nothing is.

The supernatural is not something different, but merely the natural seen as it ought to be.

We choose to trap ourselves in this life or be transcended by it (NOT out of it). This is what Philip Pullman tells us in the Amber Spyglass, where Lyra and Will lead the ghosts, including Will's father and Lyra's friends Roger and Lee Scoresby, out of the hell of attachment. This is nothing new - you can see the scene here
as envisaged by Fra Angelico around 1442, which we saw shortly after reading the book for the first time. For me the end of the Amber Spyglass is a spiritual tour-de-force. Spirituality rooted in the world we are in. Lyra does not need a machine, she has found her true self, freed from Authority to follow it’s own true path, and she knows that love can transcend worlds.

For me, poets say it best. Try this: They play with words, to teach us that words are but signs, and we must look where they point.

Or, as the ghosts implore Mary Malone: "Tell them stories. That's what we didn't know. All this time, and we never knew! But they need the truth. That's what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything. Just tell them stories."

If you live in your mind, the only conclusion you can reach is atheism. Maybe this is where David Boulton is, I don't know him. I fell in with some Sea Of Faith people once, and they were all in their heads, and I grew tired of it.

The mind knows only -isms, including Quakerism. God is too big to fit in the mind so you cannot find her there. Rex Ambler says it well: "The early Quakers did not teach a belief". We find God when we get rid of our skins. But we moderns have been infected with rationalism, and hold on tight to our skins. The early Quakers got in just before the infection spread - the so-called enlightenment. The early Quakers were in that golden time between medieval scholasticism and modern rationalism and romanticism. We cannot go back there, but we can rediscover the true life by getting out of our heads and into our hearts, bellies and groins. And God will be waiting there to welcome us home.

We accept the graceful falling of mountain cherry blossoms, but it is much harder for us to fall away from our own attachment to the world.