Not a notion but a way

Henry S. Thompson
9 January 2018

1. Introduction

God, words and us [Rowlands 2017] is a good thing to have done, thoughtful, worth reading but, for me, ultimately disappointing, an opportunity missed. Maybe focussing on the language that divides us was necessary, and the light this book shines on the nature of that division, what is and isn't important about it, is valuable. But it feels to me that it got trapped by its own success and never got past a fundamental assumption which guaranteed its eventual limitations.

The key, mistaken, assumption is that what we need to talk about as Quakers is what we believe (or don't believe). There are a few oblique mentions of alternatives in the book, but it's almost all about belief. That's not the right way to look for what unites us as Quakers. After all, we've all heard it said, indeed many of us have said ourselves, that the single thing we can confidently say unites the membership of Britain Yearly Meeting is that when we can we go to Meeting for Worship. Our identity is not determined by what we believe, but by what we do.

If you only look at the language of belief, you miss a whole different way of looking at religious identity. Choices with respect to the language of belief are what distinguish many, even most, Christian denominations, but that's something Quakers have stood aside from: we don't do creeds. And, importantly, we're not the only religion that isn't best understood in terms of belief. Acknowledging this points us towards a better way to distinguish ourselves, by shifting the focus from belief to practice, from orthodoxy to orthopraxy.

I don't claim originality in suggesting this: John Punshon [Punshon 1987] pretty much writes exactly this, and I think it's at the heart of what Ben Pink Dandelion has been writing and saying for some time.

2. We already know this

Some well-known phrases illustrate the point:

And an old family story:

Are you a Christian?
[pause] You'll have to ask my neighbour

This emphasis on what we do as Quakers puts us, according to Karen Armstrong, in line with the origins of the great monotheist religions:

"Religion as defined by the great sages of India, China, and the Middle East was not a notional activity but a practical one; it did not require belief in a set of doctrines but rather hard, disciplined work..."

[Armstrong 2000]

Armstrong suggests that contemporary Judaism and Islam have retained their original self-definitions centred on orthopraxy ("uniformity of religious practice"), whereas Christian denominations in the main have shifted much more towards defining themselves in terms of orthodoxy ("correct belief").

It's not surprising that, surrounded as we are by churches for whom orthodoxy is fundamental, as well as strident parodies of all religious people as little better (indeed more dangerous) than flat-earthers, we should have fallen into adopting their language for our own internal discourse. But once we're aware of that, we can choose to step away.

3. "And this [we know] experimentally"

But, what does that have to do with us, you may well ask? All that old language may be all very well, and give us a warm feeling of in-group-ness when we hear it, but what does it actually amount to here and now? It may be interesting in an intellectual sense to hear that historical Christianity and contemporary Judaism were/are founded on practice, but we're not about water baptism or attending Mass or circumcision or keeping kosher. What's so special about Meeting for Worship that it can sustain us in unity, preserve the effectiveness of our business method and allow our disagreements about belief language to be recognised without fear?

It's simple, really. In Meeting for Worship, on a good day, we experience two things: a presence and a possibility. That's why we keep coming back, because at some level we know we need to keep having that experience.

What presence? The technical term for it is 'transcendence'. We're not very good at talking about it. We refer to a "gathered" meeting. We say "Meeting for Worship is not just meditation". We know it when it happens. It's elusive, and if we try to pin it down we lose it, that feeling that we are joined with one another into something more than just our physical co-location. Accepting that it is "not just me" isn't easy in the resolutely individualistic culture we live in today, but if there is one item of faith we must confess, at least to one another, it is the truth of that experience, joining with and encouraged by 350 years of history and hundreds of Meetings around the world today.

What possibility? The technical term for it is 'immanence'. We see and hear it in the witness of those around us: the possibility of living an inspired life. We recognise it most vividly in Meeting for Worship, when we hear authentic ministry, 'authentic' because it comes from someone we know is speaking as they live. It cannot be be faked, it is unmistakable, terrifying and uplifting in equal measure. It calls us to what we aspire to. It is at once daunting (how can I possibly do what they do) and reassuring (it is possible). These are not historical figures, not contemporary celebrities, not distant missionaries: they are each one of us.

Whole books have been written about both of these, I have barely scratched the surface. The point is simply that this is what we need most to be talking about, and we don't need to agree about the words in order to get started, we just have to acknowledge that there is a shared experience that matters, deeply, to us, and that its reality and its significance are not compromised by our unsatisfactory attempts to talk about it.

4. There's nothing wrong with talking about belief

It's natural to want to dig in to why we do what we do, and belief language inevitably creeps in to this, precisely because we're not sure of ourselves. And it's not surprising that we struggle to come up with agreed answers. The key point to hold on to is that doesn't undermine the validity of the doings. Or, rather, it only undermines our faith if we let it. If we restricted ourselves to only doing things if we understood why they worked, we'd have very little left. And, as the previous section tried to explain, we know that what we do does work for us. So sure, keep trying to figure out why. But meantime, keep cheerfully practicing.

5. References

[Armstrong 2000]

Armstrong, Karen, The Case for God. Knopf, New York, 2000.

[Punshon 1987]

Punshon, John, Encounters with silence: reflections from the Quaker tradition, pp. 44–45. Quaker Home Service, London, 1987. Also Friends United Press, Richmond Indiana, 2006. As quoted in Quaker Faith and Practice, The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 1995. Available online at QF&P 20.18

[Rowlands 2017]

Rowlands, Helen ed. God, words and us. Quaker Books, London, 2017.