No shortcut to the Kingdom: Reflections from Britain Yearly Meeting 2019

From 24-27 May, Quakers in Britain met to consider issues of privilege, diversity and inclusion and climate justice. You can read the Epistle here.

Friends who were hoping for clear decisions to made, or actions to be agreed upon, may be disappointed. Some may worry that the gathering constituted a lot of ‘naval gazing’. To those Friends I would say that it was an important weekend of learning where we are as a Yearly Meeting on these issues. It became clear to me on the first day that everyone was in a different place, and that one weekend would not be enough to unite us on a way forward. There is still a lot of internal work to do, and I feel clearer about what that entails.

‘Privilege’ – a blessing or curse?

A key piece of learning, reflected in the Epistle, is that we are not in agreement about how to use the word ‘privilege’. In common parlance, privilege is a positive thing. In the more specific political use of the term, privilege is a negative thing. We are not yet clear about which definition to use corporately. I don’t think the conversation can move forward until we can arrive at a shared understanding of this word. Here are some thoughts that may be helpful.

Some Friends spoke of the ‘privileges’ they enjoyed such as growing up in a loving family, being part of the Quaker community, or simply being alive. It may be best to speak of these as gifts or blessings. Love and life are good. They flow from and are rooted in God and so they are available to us in abundance! Of gifts and blessings there is enough for everyone. When God’s abundant life is heaped upon us, no one else loses out. These are the things that are eternal. These are the things of the Kingdom of God.

Other Friends spoke of privilege as domination of one group over another. They spoke of having ‘white privilege’, or ‘straight privilege’. This sort of privilege is not good. It may confer certain, often unseen, benefits on one group of people, but always at another group of people’s expense. Whereas gifts and blessings are rooted in God, this sort of privilege flows from our lust for power, from our will to dominate. Privilege of this sort can never be shared equally. It does not come from God, so can never be used for good. The right use of privilege is to give it up, or to dismantle it as far as possible. These are the things that will pass away. There is no place for them in the Kingdom of God. In relation to climate justice, an oil-fuelled affluent Western lifestyle could be considered such a privilege – it is not something that can be shared equally with everyone, and it can only exist at others’ expense. It must be dismantled and given up.

If we are to make progress as a faith community on this topic, it is this second use of ‘privilege’ that we must adopt as the norm.

THE LAMB IN THE MIDST OF THE ELDERS, and THE OPENING OF THE BOOK, two miniatures on either side of a cutting from the Burckhardt-Wildt Apocalypse, ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT ON VELLUM Lorraine, late 13th century. Sourced from Wikimedia.

A community of the Lamb

As well as a lack of clarity over terminology, we may also be hampered by a concern with our own goodness. Over the weekend I heard Quakers relate experiences of being judged, derided and shunned by fellow Quakers. Friends listening to these stories were shocked. Why are we surprised when Quakers are racist or homophobic? Is it because we think Quakers are ‘good people’? Similarly, why do people keep saying to me ‘I’m not good enough to be a Quaker’? I think it has something to do with the overly positive story we tell about ourselves. We are used to being admired, to ‘punching above our weight’, to having the moral high ground. We use the word ‘Quakerly’ to mean ‘good’, but ‘Quakerly’ is what Quakers do, and Quakers do things both good and bad.

A concern for our own goodness both prevents people from joining our community, and prevents us from seeing ourselves as we really are. Jesus said ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’ [Mk 10:18]. I used to think this was false modesty on Jesus’ part, but I have since learned that giving up on my own goodness liberates me to follow the Spirit. To focus on my own goodness is to try and do things in my own strength. I am not called to save the world, I am not called to be good. I’m called to be obedient to the promptings of love and truth in my heart.

This positive view of ourselves can also make us resist the difficult stuff. Seeing ourselves as a people of peace, we avoid conflict. We want to skip to the end, saying ‘Can’t everyone just get along?’ It is never that easy. Our Quaker tradition tells us that, although there is light at the end of the tunnel, we have to walk through the darkness first.

In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, there is a scroll closed up with seven wax seals. No one can be found with the strength to open it, and there is great sadness in heaven. Then, a Slaughtered Lamb appears – an image of extreme weakness – and yet this Lamb is the only one with the strength to break the wax seals. George Fox saw these seals as a description of his inward spiritual experience. At the opening of the seventh and final seal, there is silence in heaven. Fox saw this as representing the true, unmediated communion with God that early Friends experienced.

Although we may want to skip to the end, to this final seal with its pure harmonious worship, we cannot get there without the sixth seal:

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” [Rev 6:12-17]

Before the silence of true worship comes the inward earthquake. Fox saw this as the experience of inward judgment, the shaking out of all our false illusions, our self-deceptions, everything that is not of God and God’s Kingdom. This is partly why we’re called Quakers! We cannot examine our privilege and avoid the difficult emotional, inward work. We cannot have God’s Kingdom without God’s judgement. Although painful, the purpose of God’s judgement is our liberation. We must allow the Light to illuminate our chains if we are to be released from them.

Only the Lamb can break the seals. Only the Spirit can break our chains. Our own goodness, our ‘Quakerly’ reputation, cannot save us. Eden Grace, in her Swarthmore Lecture, spoke of the need to be ‘brought low’. As we continue to work together on these issues of privilege and climate justice, can we let go of our collective Quaker pride, be shaken free of all the ways we participate in the domination of others and the non-human creation, and become a community of weakness and humility, a community of the Lamb?


Jesus the key to my experience

As a Christian Quaker living in a post-Christian Quaker culture, I’m occasionally called upon to explain my Christianity to my fellow Quakers. I recently did this by saying ‘Jesus is the key that unlocks my experience of the world’. I was then asked ‘could you say more about that?’, and I didn’t really have an answer prepared! I’ve been reflecting on what my answer could have been over the Easter weekend, and thought I could share these rough reflections here.

Why Jesus the key?

There are two things at the back of my mind when I describe Jesus as ‘the key’. Firstly this is a traditional title for Jesus. In Rev 3:7 Christ is described as ‘the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens’, which is in turn a reference to Isa 22:22. You may be familiar with this title for Christ in the advent hymn ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’:

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Secondly, in his book ‘Orthodoxy’, G. K Chesterton (1874-1936) describes how when a key fits a complicated lock, you known it’s the right key. For Chesterton, the complexity of Christian doctrine matches and makes sense of the complexity of the world. For me, the Jesus story makes sense of my experience both emotionally and intellectually. It gives me answers to my questions. It has a depth and breadth that seems to contain everything, whilst never feeling restrictive.

Some rough reflections

The expansive nature of the Jesus story is part of the reason I fumbled my reply. There is so much to say about it! On the morning of Good Friday, I spent time in silence working my way through the various aspects of Jesus’ life, making the following jottings (presented here unedited):

  • Jesus shows me what God is like.
  • In his birth I see that God favours the backwaters of society. God places the future in the hands of those trodden down by empire. God brings new life where humanity can do no more, for with God nothing is impossible. A brown, teenage asylum seeker births God into the world with the powerful cry of a prophet. When we say yes to God – when we cooperate with God – hope is born afresh.
  • In his ministry I see that God favours the outcast, the disabled and diseased, the unclean. I see that the religious and political elite are often blinded by their own fear. I see that those who think themselves wise can often miss the point. I see that there is no divide between the political and spiritual. The kingdom is so near we can taste it.
  • In his passion and death I see that God is with criminals, the guilty and innocent, the repentant and unrepentant. God is with the betrayed and abandoned. Even when we feel Godforsaken, God is with us. It doesn’t take much for a crowd to turn from singing someone’s praises to shouting for their execution. Those who expect salvation to come in the form of violent revolution will be disappointed. Being with Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean understanding him. The peace of empire is built on the crushing of innocent people. The world cannot bear the Kingdom of God. Saying ‘not my will, but yours be done’ is really hard, and costly.
  • In his resurrection I see that God brings something out of nothing. Empire is impotent. God is with those whose hopes have been dashed. God surprises and is never where we expect God to be. We carry our wounds with us into the Kingdom.
  • In his parousia, his arrival which began at Pentecost, I see the Spirit being poured out on all flesh. I see that the future is Christ-shaped. I see the possibility of a community gathered together in, and empowered by this Spirit, witnessing to this arriving future. There is hope for the whole of creation.

There’s so much more I could add, there’s probably stuff I’ve missed out, and ask me again in a year’s time and I might give a different response. Next time I’m asked to say more about my Christianity, perhaps I’ll begin with ‘this may take some time…’

A happy Easter season to all jollyquaker readers who celebrate it!

Does Jesus exclude?

In the last few months, I have become increasingly involved in diversity and inclusion work within the Quaker community. Although challenging and emotionally demanding, this work is bringing lots of really important questions to the fore. One cluster of questions that has emerged is: Is Christianity by its very nature exclusive? Is a universalist Quakerism (which emphasises the commonalities between all religious paths) inherently more inclusive than a distinctively Christian Quakerism? When Jesus says ‘I am the Way’, is that not an exclusive statement?

Over its long history, the Christian church (including the Quaker community) has certainly proved itself to be painfully and sinfully exclusive in many ways, but in response to whether the heart of the Christian message is exclusive, I think the answer is both ‘no’ and ‘yes’.

No, because Jesus’ good news is the way of radical inclusion, and the church does not have a monopoly on this way of life.

Jesus’ ministry is one of radical inclusion. Jesus spent a lot of time in intimate company with those on the margins – women, children, the disabled, the ritually unclean, foreigners, etc. His message was one of reversal – the first will be last and the last will be first (Mk 10:31). The people with the least power in society are those that God gives the most honoured place to at the table (Lk 14:12-13). Jesus includes all the people that the rich and powerful want to exclude.

‘Christianity is not a notion but a way’. These words from ‘Advices and Queries’ No.2 remind us that Christianity is not intellectually assenting to certain statements about Jesus. Christianity is about a way of life. When the writer of John’s gospel says that Jesus is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (Jn 14:6), he is not saying ‘and unless you believe x y and z you’ll burn forever’. He is saying that in Jesus we see what a truly human life looks like. A life obedient to the God who is Love, a life lived free of deception, even to the point of persecution and death, is a life fully lived. The Christian tradition says that we are empowered to live this Way now by the Spirit of Christ, and this Spirit is not confined by the boundaries of the church. Where ever people live in obedience to the promptings of Love and Truth, the Spirit of Christ is at work. The early Quaker Robert Barclay described these people as the ‘church invisible’. You can be a Christian without believing non-Christians are excluded from the Way that Jesus embodies.

Yes, because in order for there to be justice for the marginalised, certain behaviours and attitudes must be excluded.

The gospel is divisive. Creating an inclusive community isn’t easy. Jesus said ‘do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matt 10:34). In the book of Revelation, Jesus is represented as having a sharp two-edged sword coming from his mouth (Rev 1:16). The message that Jesus brings, the life he lived, is one of peace and justice, but this is an incredibly divisive message. It threatens the power and privilege of those at the top of the pile. In order for every valley to be lifted up, every mountain and hill must be made low (Isa 40:4). In order for the lowly to be lifted up, the powerful must be brought down from their thrones (Lk 1:52). Jesus was executed by the Imperial powers for the trouble his ministry caused. The early Quakers suffered imprisonment and death for their message of spiritual equality. The message of radical inclusion, whether spoken in words or actions, is incredibly divisive. The powerful must learn to let go of their power, and many won’t let go without a fight.

There is no justice without judgment. The way of inclusivity is the way of humility, and to be truly humble we need to see ourselves as God sees us, as both a deeply loved part of God’s good creation, and as people infected by and colluding with a fractured and sinful world. To see rightly means to submit ourselves to God’s judgement, to the sword of Jesus’ mouth. In order for their to be justice for all, all must face the wrongs they’ve been party to and attempt to make things right. The ‘Day of Judgement’ is often thought of as something that happens after death, but there is a tradition within Christianity (which Quakers share) of the ‘Day of Judgement’ being an inward experience available to us now. When we are faced with the fire of God’s Love, illuminating our darkness and burning away our impurities, it is a painful experience: ‘But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…’ (Mal 3:2). This is not about separating sheep from goats, arbitrarily consigning some to eternal conscious torment in Hell. This is about a process we all need to go through in order to shed our delusions and enter the Kingdom of God.

True inclusion requires repentance. When we are shown our darkness, we have the opportunity to be brought to new life. We have the chance to turn around, to change direction, to repent. Change, even change for the better, always involves loss, the letting go of something. A truly inclusive community, paradoxically, cannot include everyone just as they are. Everyone needs to be open to change. Separation and division comes from rigidity, and unwillingness to leave things behind. A community cannot be truly inclusive of LGBT+ people, if those who dismiss and denigrate LGBT+ people are not required to let go of their prejudice. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man still expects Lazarus to serve him after death. The rich man cannot let got of his own power, and so is excluded from community with Lazarus. His refusal to change is the great chasm between them.[1]

Lazarus and the rich man, taken by Nick Thompson.

In C. S. Lewis’s ‘The Great Divorce’, where he imagines the inhabitants of Hell taking a bus trip to Heaven, he writes that ‘You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you have to leave behind… A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.’[2] In this story, the travellers on the bus are free to stay in Heaven, but there are things they must first let go of, particularly their pride and their need to control others. The book of Revelation closes with a vision of the renewed community, the ‘New Jerusalem’, stating that: ‘Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood’ (Rev 22:14-15). This is a community from which some are excluded, but it is because they will not let go of evil. They self-exclude. The gates of the city are never shut (Rev. 21:25), so they are free to enter at anytime, but first they must lay down that which endangers the safety and wellbeing of the cities inhabitants.

A Christian approach to inclusion is one that does not separate mercy and judgement. A truly inclusive community is both compassionate and just. The Way of Jesus is one of radical inclusion – it is open to everyone – but no-one can follow that Way and remain the same, especially the people with the most to lose.

[1] I first came across this interpretation in William R. Herzog, Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), viii.

Thank you to my readers in 2018

Dear readers and followers of Jolly Quaker,

2018 has been a quieter year on the blog than I’d anticipated, and I haven’t produced the bumper crop of posts I’d hoped for, but in many ways this has been a good year for the blog behind the scenes. I’m still operating on the principle that when a blog post needs to be written, it’ll get written, rather than tying myself to monthly deadlines, and I’m very happy with my output. I’ve continued with my series on Advices and Queries, now having got up to number 12. I’ll definitely continue with this in 2019 – I find it a really enjoyable project.

My post ‘Words and Wounds: Reflections from Britain Yearly Meeting‘ has been the most widely read, and it felt like an important piece to write for myself personally. BYM in 2018 was a significant moment for me in understanding how to be a Quaker who works in a Quaker institution, and writing about it was part of that reconciling process. I’m at my best as a theologian and a teacher when I’m my most authentic self.

I attempted to start a new series of posts called ‘Threshings‘, which so far hasn’t gone any further than one post, but I still have plans for it. I want to ask questions about gnostic tendencies in contemporary Quakerism, and whether ‘A Course in Miracles’ is truly compatible with Quaker theology. I’ve already written a lot on these questions, but these feel like more challenging posts, and the right moment to publish them hasn’t arisen.

This year has also seen me reading more theology blogs, and a particular favourite of mine is The PostBarthian. It was this blog that introduced me to German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, inspiring me to begin reading Moltmann’s series of ‘systematic contributions’. It was this in turn that led me to my dissertation topic for my MA in systematic and philosophical theology, which I will complete in 2019. It’s this dissertation that’s the main reason for the scarcity of blog posts. All my reading, writing and thinking has been happening elsewhere. For my dissertation I’m asking: ‘What, according to George Fox, is the Quaker hope? Is that hope good enough in a time of disastrous climate change?’ Moltmann is known as a theologian of hope, and I’ll be bringing Moltmann into dialogue with Fox. I’m finding it all very exciting!

So I hope that throughout 2019 I can share the fruits of my studies with you through the blog, and continue to offer reflections that are relevant and useful for the contemporary Quaker community. Even if I had no readers I’d still write, but having readers makes it so much more enjoyable. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my posts. Thank you for following and engaging with me on Twitter. I really appreciate it! I wish you all a new year fortified with faith, hope and love.

Advice and Query 12: Building a living temple together

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

When you are preoccupied and distracted in meeting let wayward and disturbing thoughts give way quietly to your awareness of God’s presence among us and in the world. Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep within it, recognising that even if it is not God’s word for you, it may be so for others. Remember that we all share responsibility for the meeting for worship whether our ministry is in silence or through the spoken word.

What we seek in meeting is presence, not absence. Fullness not emptiness. In entering worship we don’t seek a negation of the self. Or if we do seek an emptiness, it’s only in order to be filled – filled with the awareness of God’s presence. We seek to be full-filled, to have our horizon expanded beyond all that which preoccupies and distracts. God is both imminent – closer to us than our own breathing – and transcendent – above and beyond the individual and the human. God is among us and God is in the world. God does not want to blot us out, but for us to be fully ourselves – dwelling in God and God dwelling in us. We seek fulness, wholeness and the healing of our fragmented lives.

With this talk of healing and wholeness, some may ask what the difference is between Quaker worship and group therapy. Perhaps there is some overlap, but there are some important differences.

A meeting for worship is a public event. Anyone can come. So anything that is spoken in a meeting for worship is public testimony, not private confession. There is no sense in which things shared in meeting for worship can be treated as automatically confidential. There should be no taboo on discussing the content of vocal ministry after worship has finished. What we share in meeting for worship does not belong solely to us. It does not even belong solely to the group present. If what we speak is truly ministry, then it is God’s word – it is a revelation of God. And God is not a private thing.

Being frail and broken people, we may not always minister as we should. We may speak when we should be silent, and we may be silent when we should speak. We might use the opportunity to speak in meeting in many selfish ways. But God’s word uttered through us in worship is never just for us alone, never just for our own healing. So we need each other to test the spirits. Did what we say come from the Holy Spirit, or from a spirit of pride? The worshipping community must wrestle with and digest the vocal ministry of its members, and not see it as untouchable expressions of individual truth.

Of course, this wrestling should be done in a tender and creative spirit. We must lift each other up, not push each other down. In our our meetings for worship for business, we are exhorted to conduct our decision making in the spirit of worship. Conversely, we should also conduct our worship in the spirit of communal truth seeking. Spoken ministry is part of our collective search for Truth. We are not casting our own individual pebbles into a pond. The stones sink and remain untouched at the bottom, a collection of fragments. This image is too static and individualistic. We need an image that has some sort of direction or goal, an image where there is a guiding Truth to be sought.

All ministry, vocal or otherwise, is service for others. Whatever gifts we possess are to be used for the building up of our neighbour and the community of faith. Perhaps the paradoxical image of the living temple might work – in offering vocal ministry we hope to contribute to the shared project of building a living temple where God dwells. Quakerism is a shared religious project – a project that we’re all responsible for – and our vocal ministry should help others to feel the presence of the immanent and transcendent God among us and in the world.


Do Quakers have souls? (Threshings #1)

This is the first in a short series of theological ‘threshings’. In the Quaker tradition, threshing is a lively process of getting to the heart of an issue, separating the wheat from the chaff. When a theological problem bugs me, I want to thresh it out! I may not come up with an answer, but hopefully I’ll bring out some important points. If the word ‘theology’ puts you off, think of theology as a tool that should improve the way we talk about our religious and spiritual experience. It’s not about giving definitive answers, it’s about speaking with integrity in an informed and inspiring way.

Do Quakers have souls? You may think the answer is ‘obviously yes’, or you may think this question is akin to ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’. I hope to show that this question isn’t merely abstract speculation, but actually impacts on how we live our lives.

The problem with being two things (dualism)

I have become increasingly interested in what it means to ‘have a soul’. I think many people take it as read that the religious understanding of what it means to be a human is that we are a body inhabited with a soul or spirit – an invisible thing that is the real ‘self’. However, two things have gotten me thinking that this could be quite a problematic belief.

The first involves my experience as a gay person. Attending an evangelical church, I once asked for prayer concerning my sexuality. I had the opportunity to travel to a country where homosexuality was prohibited, requiring me to go back in the closet. I wasn’t sure I was able to do this. One of the people praying over me said words to the effect that my true identity in Christ wasn’t located in my sexuality. There was a sense that somehow the ‘real’ me could be separated from the ‘gay’ me. Afterwards, I thought ‘that was a really ‘straight man’ thing to pray!’ In my experience, I can’t make that separation. My original coming-out at 17 was accompanied by an intense spiritual coming-out. I was only able to embrace a relationship with God once I was honest about who I was. So for me, I can’t separate ‘gay’ me from ‘real’ me; and what would it mean to be gay without a body?

The second involves my on-going exploration of what it means to be white. I have increasingly come to realise that being a white body has impacted on my experience of the world. Like being gay, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be something other than a white body. However, in conversations with some white Quakers, one of the barriers to recognising the impact of whiteness on our experience is the belief that our true self is located in an invisible soul, that our most real self is purely spiritual: ‘I am not my body, therefore I am not effected by colour, and I don’t see colour. We are all truly colourless.’ For a white person, one of the effects of white privilege is never having to realise you’re white. Might a belief in the true self being an invisible, disembodied soul be tied up with this?

Original source: Budge, E. A. Wallace. “The Nile: Notes for Travellers in Egypt.” (Harrison and Sons, London: 1902). p. 161.

A Christian argument for being one thing (physicalism)

In my reading on the subject, I came across a book by Nancy Murphy[1] that provides an excellent overview of the topic from a Christian point of view.

Murphy presents four possible views of what it is to be a human (and I reckon you’d find Quakers in all four camps):

  1. physicalism – we have only one ‘part’, the body.
  2. dualism – we are made up of two parts: body-soul, or body-mind.
  3. trichotomism – we are made up of three parts: body, soul and spirit
  4. monism (or idealism) – that we are only truly mind or spirit.

Which view does the Bible take? Interestingly, Murphy says that ‘the Bible has no clear teaching’ concerning the composition of a human person.[2] This has allowed for a variety of opinions throughout Christian history. However, it’s now widely agreed that in the Hebrew Bible there is no body-soul dualism. The New Testament is not so clear, but certainly Paul’s distinction between spirit and flesh should not be interpreted as a distinction between body and soul: ‘Paul is concerned with two ways of living: one in conformity with the Spirit of God, and the other in conformity to the old aeon before Christ.’[3]

Murphy argues that ‘dualist anthropology all too easily leads to disparagement of the body and all that goes along with being embodied.’[4] When we separate soul from body the material world (including the body) becomes less important. Murphy also suggests that ‘the change from a dualist to a physicalist anthropology… calls for serious reconsideration of traditional understandings of Christian spirituality. From Augustine to the present we have had a conception of the self that distinguishes the inner life from the outer, and spirituality has been associated largely with the inner.’[5] I find this fascinating from a Quaker perspective. British liberal Quakers are very comfortable with speaking of the ‘inward’ and the ‘outward’. Our rejection of ‘outward forms’ could be seen as a rejection of the material world, saying that the spiritual is somehow more real than the physical. Yet we’re also a community who say we want climate and racial justice, things very much concerned with the physical and the embodied. With our idolising of theological diversity combined with our reluctance to actually discuss this diversity, such a confusion is not surprising!

Murphy concludes by suggesting that ‘one could be a body-soul dualist while avoiding an excessively inward-looking spirituality. In fact, some of the greatest writers on inwardness did so… So the strongest point I can make here is to claim… that physicalism – along with an eschatological hope for resurrection of the body – leads more naturally to a concern for the physical world and its transformation than does dualism.’[6] Murphy believes that physicalism – the view we are one thing, a spirited body – is much less problematic than dualism. She also offers something that is probably alien to most British Quakers – the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. This is the belief that at the end of time, all will be raised from the dead to face judgement. This teaching says that when we die, our disembodied souls don’t go to heaven to live on a cloud. Rather, we await God’s justice and a new life as a resurrected body. I don’t think British Quakers will be quick to revisit and take up this doctrine, which makes me wonder what a contemporary and well thought out Quaker understanding of the human person would look like.

from William Blake’s illustrations to Robert Blair’s The Grave , object 9 The Soul Hovering over the Body

Some thoughts from Thomas Aquinas

On the subject of the soul, I’ve been quite taken with the thinking of Thomas Aquinas,[7] the medieval theologian. He has two things to say that British Quakers might find attractive.

First, he said that the soul is not something we have, it’s something we are. If you have something, you can give it away and still be you. If you are something, then you can’t be separated from it. Well, he said that the soul could be separated from the body after death, but it wouldn’t be up to much. How would it see without eyes? How would it think without a brain? For Aquinas, the soul without a body is a rather useless thing.

Secondly, he said that everything that lives is a soul. Everything that is animate has a soul (‘soul’ in Latin is anima). He said that there are three aspects to the human soul. There’s the vegetative aspect (that respires, takes in nutrients, grows etc.) that we share with tomatoes, oaks, lichen and dahlias. There’s the animal aspect that we share with badgers, bees and whales, and there’s the rational aspect that belongs to humans. This view of the soul brings us into relationship with all living things – it’s not just the preserve of humans!

Keep on threshing…

So I agree with Murphy that body-soul dualism is problematic. It limits our ability to understand the way being a body shapes our experience of the world, and can create a disdain for the physical that is at odds with a pursuit of material wellbeing for all things. I think that physicalism – the understanding that we are one, indivisible thing – helps to address this problem. I’m also increasingly into the resurrection of the body, but I know I’m out on a limb with that one as far as British Quakers are concerned! There are lots of questions still to think about – how is physicalism compatible with Quaker spirituality and the inward/outward distinction we often make? What about the experience of those who live with chronic pain whose relationship with the body is a tremendously difficult one? What about the experience of the elderly who sense a growing disconnect from the body? Constructing a modern Quaker anthropology is too big a job for this blog post, and I look forward to reading a future book about it! Hopefully this post has raised some interesting questions. I’m very interested to know what you think about it – what do you think you’re made up of? How do your beliefs about the body/soul/spirit effect how you live? so please comment below!

[1] Nancey C. Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[2] Murphy, 4.

[3] Murphy, 22.

[4] Murphy, 27.

[5] Murphy, 30.

[6] Murphy, 35.

[7] Denys Turner, ‘The Human Person’, in The Cambridge Companion to The               Summa Theologiae, ed. Philip McCosker and Denys Turner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 168–80.