Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Effing the Ineffable

All right, this is naughty of me. Ineffable means cannot be expressed, from the Latin, in- meaning not, and effor meaning to utter. The word effable – can be expressed – does exist, but is archaic. Eff doesn’t exist – at least, not in polite company.
Scientists studying primates – lemurs, monkeys, apes and humans – believe they have discovered a positive relationship between the size of the groups in which a species typically lives and the size of its brain. That is, if an animal lives in small groups, it doesn’t need a very big brain, but if it lives in bands, troops or clans, it needs a larger brain, so as to keep up with who everyone is. (This operates species by species, not individual by individual. Just because you personally have a lot of friends doesn’t mean that you personally have a large brain, just that you get out a lot.)
It seems the maximum number of humans who can know each other reasonably well, interact and cooperate with each other is about a hundred and fifty. There are some companies which, if the work force expands and reaches about two hundred, will divide into two companies of about a hundred each. I know that some people reckon their ‘friends,’ such as their Facebook contacts, in hundreds or even a thousand. They don’t have larger than average brains either, just a large hard drive. They probably need to get out more; fresh air now and again would do them good.
Suffice to say that we humans (or most of us) probably have a rather effective face-recognition app somewhere in our neural networks, which allows us to know and recognise about a hundred or a hundred and fifty acquaintances. Some people can’t do this. The very well-known and well-respected neurologist, Professor Oliver Sacks, can’t recognise faces, but can identify who someone is only when they speak to him. Professor Sacks clearly has voice-recognition software, rather than face-recognition.
I heard of a man whose face was seriously injured and scarred – I forget just how. Maybe it was a road traffic accident involving glass fragments. His face was badly damaged, but was successfully put together again by highly skilled plastic surgeons. The only problem was, he said, it was a good enough face, symmetrical and well-made, but it wasn’t his face any more. He found it very difficult and depressing to wake up each morning and have to wash and shave a face which he couldn’t recognise as his own.
Here’s the thing: you know the difference between an orchestra tuning up deedle deedle dee and an orchestra actually playing music, because the music means some-thing to you, but it is extremely difficult to put into words just what the music means. In fact, this is why orchestras exist: if the meaning of music could be conveyed in words, it would be a lot easier and cheaper to write a letter or send an e-mail than to train, fund and rehearse a whole orchestra. Professional music critics find it hard to describe music in words, and when they do, many people won’t agree with them anyway.
Likewise, it is often easy enough to recognise a face (although telling identical twins apart can be challenging) but very difficult to describe someone’s face to a third party so that the third party can identify the person. This is the problem that notoriously confronts detectives who question eye witnesses when seeking to identify someone they have seen. Classically, the police end up looking for a tall, short, bearded, clean-shaven, blond, dark-haired white man of mixed race. That’s the joke, but the police will tell you that there is truth in it.
So what distinguishes one very average, middle-of-the-range face from another? We can see it when we see it, but it seems impossible to say it. One technique is to say, “He looked a bit like [name a famous actor], but a bit [thinner].” It would be good if there was a standard bank of famous faces to use as a reference. I imagine that an experienced police artist or Identikit operator is skilled in evoking the key features of a face from eye witnesses.
What is the meaning of this, the spiritual equivalent? As a Quaker, what am I on about? It’s a case of struggling to express in words what we do not have words to say, like the meaning of music or the likeness of God. Now do you see? How to eff the ineffable. We can but try.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

What it means to be a Quaker today

This current question intrigues me.   I would love if a variety of perspectives could be put forward from within our community so that we could all gain a greater clarity as to what it means for us to be Quakers today.  I am mindful of George Fox’s words (Quaker Faith & Practice: 19.07): “Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say”?  So I dare to offer my perspective trusting that others may feel led to do likewise!
 
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From a personal point of view, being a Quaker means that I seek at all times to take heed of the promptings of love and truth in my heart – trusting them as the leadings of God - always recognising that they will show me my darkness, but bring me new life. (Advice & Queries: 1)
John Macmurray, (Swarthmore Lecture, 1965) has helped me to understand that there is no such thing as a ‘person in isolation’ but only ‘persons in relationship’. So, as part of a Quaker community I feel invited to meet regularly for worship with F/friends bringing with me this same trust.  Then in the silence of worship, I seek to open myself to the spirit of God communicating directly to my heart but also indirectly through the ministry of others. My faith (trust) as a Quaker includes my willingness to share with others, as seems appropriate, what comes to my heart & mind in worship and my willingness to listen with an open heart & mind to what F/friends are moved to share in their ministry.
 Hopefully following on from worship we all go forward with a sense of  having being enriched. Then, actively in the world, as a community,  we endeavour ‘to let our lives speak’ and in various ways contribute  towards the building of God’s kingdom.  To me this is best understood  as a universal community of friendship in which under God all persons  are equal and free.                                                                         

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Experience of God.

The Thought For The Week in The Friend of 6th February is titled 'The Idea Of God'. Here is the Quaker philosopher, John Macmurray, on the subject of 'Belief In God', from “Creative Society, A Study of The Relation of Christianity to Communism”, 1935, pp 16-29:

“Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom.”

“[T]here is a sharp distinction between believing in God and believing in the idea of God. .. One cannot believe in God and at the same time believe that any idea men(sic) have framed … can be adequate to express the nature of that in which we believe. .. If I can insist that my idea of God must be maintained, how can I have the humility to recognize the existence of a Being in the light of whose infinite understanding all my knowledge must be the ignorant fantasy of a child?

“Belief in God is not an intellectual matter. .. [T]he bare statement that God exists has no meaning by itself. We cannot point to God, as we could to any finite object, and say 'that exists.' We can only assert the existence of something corresponding to our conception.

“Intellectual atheism … is equally meaningless until we know what is the conception of God which is denied. Atheism may have a relative truth. It may be a way of rejecting a conception of God which is false. .. An honest and courageous atheist is surely more pleasing to God than a dishonest and cowardly theist.

“Belief in God is properly an attitude to life which expresses itself in our ways of behaving. .. Perhaps the fundamental component of a belief in God is the expression in action of an attitude of faith or trust. .. It involves the recognition that the control and the determination of all that happens in the world lies in a power that is irresistible and yet friendly .. it is the capacity to live as it this were so. .. The opposite attitude, which is the core of real atheism, expresses itself in that individualism which makes a man feel alone and isolated in a world against which he must defend himself. .. This is to disbelieve in God. For belief in God, whatever else it might involve, at least includes the capacity to live as part of the whole of things in a world which is unified.

“Marx said [paraphrased] 'Let us turn from ideas to reality, let us look not at people's theories but at their actions. It is by seeing how societies and their institutions work in practice and not by accepting their own ideal accounts of what they are after that we shall understand their real faith.'

“Now that core of belief in God which is present in a large measure in Communism, and which is difficult to discover in organised Christianity as we know it now, is the only possible basis for a belief in God which is not a mere idea. .. There [is] nothing paradoxical [here] – It would be no more than a commentary upon the saying of Jesus to the religious leaders of his day, 'Verily I say unto you that the publicans and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you.'”

Friends: let go of your ideas and your disputes about the idea of God, "these different and strongly held opinions" as the author of 'The Idea of God' puts it, and look instead to the light within:

“But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. .. Thus when God doth work, who shall let [hinder] it? and this I knew experimentally [through experience]”. George Fox, Journal, 1647, quoted in Quaker Faith and Practice, 19.02.
Don’t Look Now

It is possible to communicate with God or the Spirit. By this, I mean not just that we can pray or worship, but I would say on rather rare occasions, we can hear or sense God or the Spirit communicating back to us. This – let’s call it a revelation or a burst of spiritual awareness – is of course wonderful and mystical. It can change lives. It is rare, special and immensely precious.
So how can we get more of it to happen? Ah! They say you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. I don’t imagine that we can bring the Spirit to us but not make it communicate. No, it’s the other way round. I suspect that we are the horse: we can take ourselves towards God, but in my experience, we can’t very often make ourselves communicate with him, or hear him communicating with us.
Winnie-the-Pooh says, “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.” Pooh is not famous as a theologian, and he is talking about Poetry and Hums, rather than awareness of God, but apart from that, he’s spot-on.
OK, so how do we put ourselves in the right place so that God can find us? It may be more a case of, How do we put ourselves in the right place so that we can allow ourselves to let God find us? As you know, someone who tries too hard to achieve something, especially if that something is a horse-to-water phenomenon, can make it less likely to happen, rather than more likely. If I am desperate to get you to love me, so desperate that I fawn and cling and plead and agonise (or if I hit on you too obviously, or even stalk you) I may put you right off. Not more love, but less than ever.
Pooh and Piglet are walking in the forest, when they spot Tigger seriously stuck up a pine tree and mistake him for a Jagular. “. . . The Jagular called out to them. ‘Help! Help!’ it called. ‘That’s what Jagulars always do,’ said Pooh, much interested. ‘They call, “Help! Help!” and then when you look up, they drop on you.’ ‘I’m looking down,’ cried Piglet loudly, so as the Jagular shouldn’t do the wrong thing by accident.”
Sometimes, we need to not strive, if what we desire can’t be achieved by striving. They say, “God knows where you are. He will come and find you, when you least expect it.” “OK,” I say, “Lord, I’m not expecting you, right? See, I’m actually looking in the opposite direction. Now come and find me . . . Lord?” Piglet carefully looks down, so as to avoid the disaster of being dropped on by a Jagular. I don’t look too hard for God, so as to avoid the disaster of his not contacting me. Neither seems to work.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Book of Life

Hello again. I haven't blogged for a while, but I'm back. The Book of Life Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is shaped like a pizza, and it works not according to the laws of physics, but the laws of magic. The only character who appears in all of the Discworld novels is Death, a seven-foot skeleton in a black robe holding a scythe, as is traditional. His house is like a Tardis, bigger on the inside than on the outside. In Death’s library are literally mile upon mile of shelves, which house the Book of Life of every individual, alive or dead. The Book of each dead person is complete, but the Book of every living person writes itself continuously, the words quietly scritching themselves onto the page. If you stand in Death’s library, the sound of the Books writing themselves is like the sound of a waterfall. I’m wondering what the Book finds to write, what happens in most people’s lives that is worth writing down? The key to this puzzle is probably that the Book writes itself. You don’t write your own Book, and no one else decides that your life is so interesting that it should be chronicled. It writes itself, of its own accord. Many people, if they wrote a diary every day, most days it would be, “Got up; had breakfast; went to work; came home; went to bed.” So what does the Book write about you? A lot more than that. Arthur Koestler said that most of us spend most of our time on the trivial level of life, the ‘What’s for tea?’ or ‘What’s on the telly?’ level, although we are capable of visiting the deeper level, which he calls the tragic level, for short periods. The Book finds a lot to write about your life that is on a deeper level than you know yourself. Again, not for the first time, I get the feeling that we live mainly on the outer surface of what we are, on the skin of the apple, so to speak. I think that it would not be right to worship the skin of the apple, no matter how attractive it looks; nor the flesh of the apple, nor even the core, although it is the core of ourselves. I’m guessing that there is something in the core, the seeds perhaps, that enables us to contact the One whom we can worship. On a good day, that is.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Staying in the light

Our society considers scientific rationalism to be the highest ideal. To be able to be detached from the vagaries of the world and observe it carefully and work out ideas and beliefs from what we see. We call this the light of reason.

But this is not the light within. We are mistaken if we, on reaching the light within, immediately start to analyse what we see, to be observers of the light such that we end up looking for what the light is telling us, rather than what the light is showing us.

We must stay with the light and engage with the light. The first thing that will happen is that we will feel the presence of the light: this feeling may be troubling or uplifting to our heart; our bellies may tighten in anger or sag in despair; we may feel passionate or impotent: we must stay engaged with the what the light is showing us, with all of our body, immersed in the light and waiting to see the action required of us. We must learn not to become detached and start observing as though from a distance. This is a discipline: it take time and effort, especially as we have been trained by our society that the best way to find out what we must do is to be detached and rational in our minds.

Ideas and beliefs, values and principles, do not change the world. People do. And people need to be motivated to act. If we let our values and principle inform our motives, we will be burdened with guilt and inadequacy and as likely as not to miss-apply our motives and destroy where we thought we were creating. Ideas and beliefs arise from previous action in the world – we need to discover the action required of us today, and have the appropriate motives to carry it through.

The light within will show us the motives we need to effect change in the world. Creativity comes from the light, not from ourselves. So when the light shows us the world as it is, no matter how disturbing, we need to stay with the emotional response the light gives us, and remember how this feels, for it is this response that will truly motivate us, not by force of will, but by engagement in action.

And having engaged in action, we can then reflect on what we have been shown, and share with others how it went for us, and see how are ideas and beliefs are changed; how are values and principle have been informed. But because we have been motivated to action from within, this sharing will not take the form of debate and argument, but instead we will tell stories, and we will hear the stories of others, and so we will testify to the world.

Yet our Quaker testimony will be upheld - though it may be expressed differently – for the light within shows us the one and eternal truth that some call God and others the divine, and others the Christ, and others Nirvana, whilst others will not name it at all, for fear of thinking about it as an object to be observed rather than the basis of our whole being.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Living without `thinking'

In response to Gordon (7th Jan) I would say that living is a complex rich personal experience that becomes a rich social experience when we share our lives and live in each others presence. Human language and thought evolved to facilitate this not in order to travel independantly through the ether conjuring truth from its own structure and by sticking to anything else it could find and then dragging it around. Talk, writing and thought are out of hand. Lets bring them back to sharing experiences between friends and otherwise living our interdependance.

Surprisingly the difference between novice and experienced nursery children is that the novice children see no difference between social conventions such as `not putting the crayons away' and taking what another child is playing with. Experienced children are acutely aware of the difference between social convention and morality ( not taking from someone else, not physically man handling them etc). Studies show that they do not learn the difference from the behaviour, emotional responses and talk of the responsible adults. The adults behave, even subtly, in the same way for both (this is also true of the home environment). They learn from the way their peers react. Their peers could not care less about the crayons, except when they are frightened of being told off by the adults, but show distress, aggression etc when something is taken or they are manhandled. Moral principles come directly from our relationship with one another mediated by nothing else!! By the way the adults in nusery settings believe that they teach the children moral principles and so to do their parents. Why do they believe this? Because they have told them. The light does not come from, through or by words. As children get older talk about moral principles does involve parents and teachers but your friends still drive the whole business. You are as good as the company you keep.

There are a whole lot of things we can draw from this finding. All of them about the dangers of denaturing human experience. Perhaps even we have been reduced to only being able to talk about living.