Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A Testimony to Carbon Reduction?

These are just a few thoughts in response to Simon Heywood's recent posts about Quaker responses to climate change.

I recently heard about the 10:10 campaign, which is collecting pledges to cut individuals' and organisations' carbon emissions by 10% in 2010.

It is intended to convince policymakers of widespread public support for an immediate strategy of carbon reduction. The UK is the first country in the world to have passed a 'Climate Change Law' which requires an 80% cut in national greenhouse emissions by 2050, but we need to start now, as delays in implementing carbon reduction targets mean more greenhouse gases ultimately ending up in the atmosphere and greater impacts from higher global temperatures.

At first sight, I didn't consider the 10:10 campaign that relevant to me. We have been trying to reduce our household's energy use for some time, and assumed that we've already done about as much as we can. On reflection, though, it seems to me that all of us are going to have to continue adjusting to an ever-reducing energy usage for the conceivable future. My family's current lifestyle is not sustainable and will probably not be possible in ten years. Carbon reduction is something that will require a constant adjustment for the foreseeable future.

For British Quakers as a whole, the 10:10 campaign could offer a stimulus to a new corporate commitment to steadily reducing our collective carbon emissions. This would obviously need to be threshed and discerned throughout our local and area meetings, as with the decision on same-sex marriages. But we do not have 25 years to mull it over. Carbon reduction is a matter of critical urgency, as the actions all of us are taking now will determine the climate of our planet for millenia to come.

Simon Heywood has written on this blog about his vision of a new Quaker 'Age of Simplicity'. What if British Quakers were able to seize this challenge and make a collective commitment to year-on-year reductions of 10% of carbon emissions – not just in Meeting Houses and 'Quaker' activities, but in all aspects of our lives? Then our Testimony to Simplicity would have the authority of personal and collective action. Not just a general statement of intention to live more sustainably, but a concrete and measurable target, that we would be responsible for supporting each other to reach? By making it a collective as well as personal commitment, we would be motivated to create a collective framework for mutual support to help each other to be faithful.

Some people may fear a concrete target such as this leading to legalism or compulsion, but there is no need for any kind of pressure or imposed authority. Just as in the early years of the Quaker movement, it was a voluntary commitment to use 'plain speech', refuse 'hat honour' and oath-taking. But freely adopting these costly testimonies was an outward sign of personal commitment to be faithful to what was discerned as God's purposes. So freely choosing to adopt the corporate Quaker commitment to carbon reduction targets would be a concrete manifestation of faithfulness to God's purposes for our time, when we are being challenged to 'choose life' in an era of global eco-cide and mass extinction that threatens the lives of billions.

There would be no place for blame or criticism of anyone's failure to meet their own freely-chosen targets. Might we write a new 'Advice & Query' to help us with this testimony?

“We all need the loving support and encouragement of our Quaker community to help us in the transition to a sustainable and life-enhancing society. Are you faithful to our commitment to reducing greenhouse emissions each year, both in our personal and collective activities?”

Friday, 25 September 2009

Escaping the tyranny of the ego

“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”
(Matthew 16:25)

The comments on my last post on 'Spiritual Journey – where to?', where I was concerned about how certain metaphors can inadvertently encourage individualism and/or egotism, at the expense of fellowship, sharing and humility, have prompted me to look further.

Bill Samuel talked of being part of a community, on a shared journey. This indeed can prevent the 'journey' metaphor being tainted by egoism, and it put me in mind of the Quaker discipline of Concern: We take our individual concern to the Meeting for discernment and clearness, and the Meeting takes the concern to itself. This has greater benefits than just taming the ego, for even if the work on the concern is carried out by the individual who originally brought it, which in my experience is usually the case, there is no 'burn out' under pressure to succeed, and no feeling of guilt in the face of failure, for the concern belongs to the Meeting, and the Meeting provides support and comfort - “if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19)

Bill talks about the central metaphor of 'in Christ'. Paul says “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). I was taught this and other similar bible verses, but I know now that this was not my experience. The Quaker discipline against notions - “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?” - has taught me that I mouthed the words whilst nursing my ego. And worse, I was plagued with doubt as I rehearsed the confession: would my sins consign me to hell? Was I really one of the Elect?

Christopher Parker rightly points to the fact that not everything called 'community' is 'for my sake'. Many communitarians see 'community' as a means of imposing social control. Many communities are exclusivist. Others turn their backs on the world. However, our Quaker discipline against creeds ensures that our Meetings are entirely inclusive – those who turn away from us exclude themselves, for whatever reasons. The Quaker business discipline ensures that everyone in the community participates fully, “lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults” (2 Corinthians 12:20). Our discipline against hired ministers ensures that no one can usurp control – know matter how dutifully we follow a leader we are merely “unprofitable servants” (Luke 17:10). Jesus himself refused to lead his disciples - “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” (John 15:15). A community 'for my sake' is founded on the absolute mutuality of loving friendship, which is only possible where there is total equality and freedom.

Is 'living adventurously' only for 'rugged individualists'? It is my experience, after the dull conformity of the church liturgy prescribed by the prayer book, that when you let go of the ego and become part of a community of true individuals, rather than just like-minded people, where there is no certainty of creed or worldly authority, then adventure beckons, new discoveries await, and we know life in all its abundance.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Looking to the future

Just read this excellent piece, forwarded to me by Gordon.

For reasons stated in my earlier posts on this blog, I feel I personally need to take some action on simplicity(/global warming) and I think it's worth suggesting that Quakers collectively need to crank up the volume of their witness on this. I'd be really interested to hear from Friends who feel more or less the same, and either (a) get more involved in what's already happening and/or (b) add something fresh to the mix. I don't want to reinvent any wheels but I do think that I/we need to be in there doing something and making a (specifically Quaker) noise. What do Friends think?

Spiritual Journey - where to?

Yesterday (Sunday 20th September) we did the first session of set 2 of the "Creating Community" workpack on this year's Yearly Meeting Gathering theme. This is called "Spiritual Journeying" (Session 8).

I felt quite a bit of unease when thinking through this, and realised that I have now more or less abandoned the metaphor of 'Journey' for talking about my spirituality and experiences. This is because I find that the metaphor is not only no longer useful, but detrimental. It encourages linear thinking and the idea of some sort of progress to some goal - the end of the journey. This in turns leads to an over emphasis on self at the expense of community and belonging - so given the context of 'Creating Community' I was doubly uneasy.

However, I was not about to stand apart from the group using the materials, since being in community is more important than personal foibles, so I went through the exercise. My first remembered spiritual experience remains central - I have not journeyed from it but rather allowed that experience to continue to speak to me. At the time, surrounded by evangelical Christians, and my understanding of Christianity shaped by such thinking, I thought of what happened as a 'conversion' from which I would grow into maturity on some sort of journey. I now see this interpretation as inadequate - what I experienced was community or fellowship, and I have experienced it many times since. But I am no longer a disassociated self looking at life objectively, but I am in community and in fellowship – I love and I am loved.

Rather than being on a journey, it feels to me that a better metaphor is being rooted in community, and feeling those roots get deeper and stronger. The metaphor could not be more different – trees only move in fairy stories. In a culture utterly obsessed with the self and individualism, to the extent that we become completely disconnected from not only the world and those around us, but even from our own bodies, it is too dangerous to use metaphors that surreptitiously encourage such thinking.

As for my own life in time, necessarily linear, the need is to get out of time, to experience the “timeless moment. Is England and nowhere. Never and always.” (TS Eliot Little Gidding)

There, where there is no 'there', is and not is “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Some issues never go away

I don't know if anyone else knew about this:

Friday, 4 September 2009

The Trouble with 'The Trouble With God'

Some while ago a Friend lent me a copy of David Boulton's book 'The Trouble With God.' I read it and reacted with anger. I wasn't angry that someone should put forward an argument like the argument in the book. I read this sort of thing all the time with an even temper. It's more that an argument such as this should be presented from within the Quaker movement as a Quaker viewpoint, when it seems to be to be a parody and undermining of everything that drew me to Quakers and keeps me among them.

Now people who are that personally angry about something are generally in above-average danger of making errors of judgement about it, so when I ended up writing a fairly long piece stating the grounds of my objection to 'The Trouble with God,' I assumed it might be flawed for this reason, so I filed it and forgot about it, thinking it possible I might be mistaken. Looking at this piece again after a while, I find it's not as bad as I feared, so I've decided to take the calculated risk of putting it out, warts and all. I'd appreciate Friends' comments. I'd like to stress that I've no beef with any individual Friend, least of all David Boulton (I've never met him and know very little about him). If I'm going after anything, it's the book. But the book, in my judgment, is an absolute turkey.


'The Trouble with "The Trouble with God"'

There is an inner integrity in us all which rejects all programmes of As If. ... This inner integrity demands the real.

Thomas Kelly, Reality of the Spiritual World, 1944

There's no cosy way of saying this. David Boulton, the "humanist and Quaker" author of The Trouble with God: Building the Republic of Heaven, has written an anti-Quaker book. The Trouble with God is not a work of Quaker universalism; it's not Quaker humanism; it's not Quaker atheism or Quaker non-theism or Quaker agnosticism. It's not Quaker anything. It's anti-Quaker. It's against any and all sorts of Quaker testimony or subdivisional -ism.

At first glance, this assertion itself seems unQuakerly in its intolerance. But it isn't, for two reasons. Firstly, it isn't intolerant. David's entitled to put his view forward, and maybe he's right. It's just that if he's right, Quakers of every stripe are all equally wrong. Secondly, and more fundamentally, it's Quakerly to propose clarity. An anti-Quaker understanding of truth is, by definition, not in unity with a Quaker understanding of it. For the moment, then, I'm postponing any full assessment of the truth of David's thinking, simply as such. All I'm now seeking is clarity about what he says, and how this stands in relation to the essentials of Quaker faith and practice, no matter who's right or wrong.

Quakers don't, and shouldn't, think in terms of creeds. David doesn't suggest a specific creed, but his thought is deeply credal, in the sense that it acknowledges no reality beyond what the conscious, rational human mind can grasp, and what human words can achieve. It comes from the same spiritual place that creeds come from. This is not the point of origin for any genuinely Quaker witness.

David terms his thinking radical religious humanism. Unlike conventionally religious credal thinking, it's based on the secular theory that the human consciousness is quite unable to experience absolute truth or reality in any significant sense. All we can experience is, in a sense, our own talking or thinking. So goes the theory. Applying this theory to God or the Spirit, David concludes that we can't, and don't ever, have any direct experience of it. He infers that human words such as God and Spirit can't refer to anything real; they're fictions, and this is the basis on which hardcore atheists demand that we stop using the terms altogether. But David takes a different line. He believes that, if we accept that God is simply an idea, we are free to have what he calls a "make-believe" relationship with an idea as if it were a reality, and that this is worth doing because such make-believe is life-enriching and ethically fortifying, even if it's ultimately only a form of imaginative play.

In my judgment all this is demonstrably untrue, from the basic theory onwards, but that's not currently my point. My point is, firstly, that spiritual life in David's understanding depends entirely on human thought and language, in a way which would make it a credal process. Creeds about a make-believe God are still creeds. So here, tentatively and under correction, I shall compare religious humanism with the current state of my own discernment of what Quakers are.

Quakers have always maintained that there is a truth beyond language which we can experience. Their point has usually been that we don't experience it very often, or very easily, or very fully. We can't understand it, or talk directly about it, because our conscious capacities for thought and language won't allow us to. When we do really begin to experience this reality, we experience it ecstatically, both in the general sense that it is a heady experience, and in the literal sense that it makes us 'stand outside' our normal selves. It strikes us with such overwhelming power and presence that we are compelled to call it a spiritual reality. It can change us utterly. It can disrupt our conscious mind and will, and our habits of behaviour and communication, often traumatically. For some, like me, it can only be understood as actual godhead, or God, a presence rooted in a reality which is more real than the one we move through every day. For other Friends, the same spiritual truth is the reality we always experience, viewed through cleansed and enlarged human perceptions, more or less as William Blake taught. Without papering over the cracks between these formal understandings, they aren't really germane to the point currently at issue, because all such views share a basic sense that the truth we call spiritual, whatever else it may be, is, at any rate, real. It is not solely the creation of human thought and language. Quaker understandings are less about cultivating linguistic fiction than they are about clearing it out of the way in order to get at the reality beyond.

Our business method, with its disregard of personal preference, its striving after unity, and its abhorrence of the vote, is the practical expression of this essential Quaker recognition of the reality of the real. It is, apparently, the one feature of Quaker practice which is more or less globally invariant. I believe (subject to correction) that all Quaker meetings, whatever their faith tradition, whether programmed or unprogrammed, maintain the observance of the business method. The method's historical origins lie in a literal belief in the direct inspiration of God, discerned specifically in distinction from individual or collective human opinion or rational calculation. In Britain, the method is not always now practised in this conscious understanding. Its workings may or may not be seen (as I see them) as potentially transcendent in the supernatural sense, but they are always, in fact or aspiration, ecstatic in the literal sense, inasmuch as, through the method, we continue to seek, and act on, an understanding of truth, as distinct from preference. In practice, Quakers may fail to follow the method into its fullness. But, to date, we have not redefined the basic aspiration. Nor should we.

This aspiration is not compatible with religious humanism. Its whole point is to seek after the reality we have no choice about. The practical difference therefore arises over the issue of choice, and its relation to truth. In the final analysis, as David argues through his favoured symbol of the 'republic of heaven,' the religious humanist goal will always be to realise and express human choice. This is what compels David's humanism to reconfigure the sacred as a form of make-believe. The risk is that, if we once admit that the sacred is real, in a way our own thoughts and words aren't, then something beyond us suddenly seems to threaten to impede, or at least authoritatively guide, our choices. The thing about Quakers is that this guidance - including, if necessary, a disregard for our own preferences - is exactly what we look for. We define ourselves as Quakers by our intention to live in the truth - that is, face up to reality. We don't look for freedom. We seek to take responsibility.

Modern British Quakers are purposefully and extraordinarily vague in their verbal descriptions of Spirit to which they feel responsible. It is possible to be seduced by this into the assumption that we are, or should be, equally vague in our experienced understanding of it. This is not my view. Quaker words and ideas about the Spirit are vague. But Quaker experience and understanding of the Spirit is precise and specific. And to me at least, we appear far from vague about what the Spirit is not. It is not us. Whatever it is that we do or don't worship in meetings for worship, it is clear that we are not worshipping our own selves. The Spirit is not us, though it may be discerned within us. It's something greater than us, something in some sense apart from what we currently or habitually are. And, above all, as the mere existence of the truth testimony ought to remind us, it is not construed as a game of make-believe. Right or wrong, the Quaker method of life is the opposite of religious humanism. Quakers teach that, because reality is accessible, we had best stop playing around with creeds. Religious humanism teaches that, because reality is inaccessible, we may as well play around with creeds to our hearts' content. This view, if acted on, would turn Quaker unity into its opposite: an anthology of make-believe creeds whose only unifying feature would be that none of them would really be Quaker, arguably because they'd all be lies, but chiefly because they'd all be creeds. Saying this sets no constraints on our paradoxical unity-in-diversity. It re-affirms the essential ground of its being. Religious humanism and the Quaker way are like chalk and cheese. There are infinite varieties of cheese. But chalk isn't one of them.

The ingrained Quaker refusal to impose outward uniformity of creed or doctrine has fostered the vast, liberal, and spiritually healthy unity-in-diversity of which British Quakers are rightly protective. This unity now consists (partly) in incorporating, within our common witness, expressions of belief and understanding which are logically and rationally opposite to one another. As a result, the aggregate of liberal British Quaker witness now centres on a vast, formally inexpressible paradox, which radiates an apparently boundless plurality of belief and expression of thought and life. At its shallowest, this plurality bogs us down and renders us impotent. At its highest and deepest, it arises from a harmonious unity of witness to authentically revitalised human lives. Radical religious humanism (besides appearing far too comfy to be really radical - but that's another discussion) is not a new tactic or style of play in this great liberal Quaker game of contact with reality. It is an attempt to stop the game by dispensing with the reality. If only for clarity's sake, we should stop calling it Quaker.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Quaker Quest

Nether Edge Quakers are offering five Wednesday evening sessions of Quaker Quest in September and October.

@ Shirley House (next to St. Andrew's church), 31 Psalter Lane, Sheffield, S11

23 September Quakers and Worship
30 September Quakers, God and Christianity
7 October Quakers and Faith in Action
14 October Quakers, Peace and Justice
21 October Quakers and Living Simply

Each session will start at 7.30pm. Doors open from 7.15pm.

Light refreshments will be provided.

Sessions are free, and you are welcome to attend any individual session/s or all five.

If you require further information prior to the sessions please ring 0114 275 7390.