Re-Membering Scripture: a footnote to the 2017 George Gorman Lecture

The George Gorman Lecture is given at the Yearly Meeting Gatherings of Quakers in Britain by a younger Friend. Tim Gee delivered the 2017 Gorman Lecture – ‘Movement Building from Stillness’ – on Wednesday 2 August.

I would like to congratulate Tim on his excellent, engaging and thought provoking lecture. He presented hard truths in a loving and generous spirit. He covers the intimate connection between faith, our Quaker structures and activism; how we can work with others for change; the right marriage of power and love; making our meetings truly inclusive; the challenges of being privileged people in the 21st century and the dangers of relying too heavily on our past status as a marginalised group. I’m really grateful for his words. If you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend you check it out.

There is one point Tim made that I would like to work with, as a footnote to his lecture. I have been minded to write about this particular topic before, and now seems an excellent opportunity.

By their books shall ye know them…

Tim ends his lecture with a number of suggestions, one of which is that – in order to emphasise our openness to new Light, and to show that everyone is welcome at a Quaker meeting – every meeting would consider having a ‘World Religions Bible‘ on the table during worship. This book is a collection of religious writings from a variety of traditions rendered in modern english. I’d not come across it before, and at first glance it seems a very cool book. I thoroughly support the study of other faiths and their scriptures, and anything that encourages religious literacy and respect for other traditions gets my ‘hope so’. It also looks like a great resource for personal devotional practice.

Our lack of overt religious symbols can make it easy to see Quakerism as a blank canvas, a sort of religious ‘neutral-zone’. However, although we don’t have candle sticks or stained glass, our way of worship still communicates important aspects of the Quaker story, of Quaker theology. The plainness of our worship space reflects the inward simplicity we seek in order to hear the ‘still small voice’. Our seating arrangement communicates the equal worth of all present. The books we choose to put on the table communicate something about the corporate identity of Quakerism. Quaker Faith & Practice communicates the collected experience of British Quakerism, and the Bible speaks of our rootedness in (and continuing dialogue with) the Christian tradition.

Tim suggests that by adding ‘A World Religions Bible’ to the table this would emphasise our commitment to be open to ‘new light’ from whatever source it comes and show that everyone is welcome. I agree with the sentiment, but disagree with the method. I suggest that:

  1. being religiously specific and welcoming to all are not mutually exclusive (e.g. you can be Jewish and welcome Christians into your worship without putting a copy of the Christian Bible next to the Torah), and
  2. to place non-Christian texts on our table is problematic for several reasons. (And just to be clear, none of those reasons is ‘non-Christians are wrong/not as good’ etc. – I stand by the Quaker understanding of the Spirit being poured out on all.)

I think the first point probably deserves a whole blog post to itself – and Friend Ben has written brilliantly about this already – so I’m going to focus on the second point.


Why might placing non-Christian religious texts on the meeting table be problematic?

Does it erase difference?: Having a variety of religious texts (either separately or as a compilation) together on a table may be making claims about the compatibility of these texts that is not true. Different religions may have things in common, but they also make different claims. Such an approach may fail to honour the distinctiveness of each tradition. The suggestion that ‘all religions are the same really’ may even work against an authentic religious literacy. Religious scripture is not just defined by the words on the page, but in how it is used. For some Muslims, the Quran must be kept physically separate from other books in the house. In Judaism, the Torah has a very special role within worship and is treated in many ways like a person. The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Hebrew Bible contain the same texts, but they are arranged differently and perform very different functions in each tradition. Perhaps a better approach would be for a meeting to engage in real, face-to-face inter-faith dialogue, rather than make a gesture that presents too simplistic a view of world faiths.

Is it cultural misappropriation?: Some Christian churches choose to practice a passover seder on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday). I’ve recently become persuaded that this is an example of cultural misappropriation. The passover meal doesn’t belong to Christians. We don’t have the right to perform it. Christians already have their own wonderful Maundy Thursday ritual – communal foot washing. This has led me to ask ‘what scriptures belong to Quakers?’ A Western, postmodern, consumerist (and usually white) approach is to say ‘if I can pay for it, it’s mine!’ With this attitude we can fill our homes with Native American dream catchers and Buddhist prayer bowls, wear bindis on our foreheads and build a sweat lodge in our back gardens. But do these things really belong to us? There are many individual Quakers in Britain who authentically draw on non-Christian sources in their religious lives, but for Quakers as a corporate body the only scriptures that belong to us are the Old and New Testaments. We cannot lay claim to any others. Before we place other religious texts on our table, we need to discern our right to do so.

Is it a form of escapism?: I believe that cultural misappropriation in the West springs in part from shame at our own cultural roots. For all its achievements, we can’t ignore the fact that Britain is built on foundation stones of colonialism, racism, slavery, oppression and empire. The temptation to shake off this heritage is strong – to reject Christianity and the Bible as a Western instrument of oppression and ally ourselves with the innocent ‘other’. If we fill our table with a multitude of religious texts, are we trying to escape our own history? Having privilege allows us to benefit from being European/white etc., but distance ourselves from these roots when it suits us. This desire to escape can be heard in John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, which naively suggests that if we could just cast off the trappings of religion and culture, we’d all be able to get along. As much as we may wish to, we cannot escape into a non-existent ‘universal religion’, into an illusory postmodern freedom from history. We have to face and reconcile ourselves with our own inheritance.

Re-Membering Scripture

In Frances E. Kendall’s book on white privilege, she writes of the need to ‘re-member’. As a white woman there are parts of herself she tried forget. In ignoring her own white privilege, by distancing herself from her white Southern family, she had cut off a part of herself. The only way to heal her own racism was to re-attach the amputated limb – to re-member. This re-membering is painful, but necessary if we are to authentically work towards right relationship between all peoples.

As Quakers, we cannot examine our own privilege whilst we think of ourselves as somehow the vanguard of a ‘universal religion’ that encompasses all faiths. To seek new Light does not mean a continues journey away from Christianity. Whether we see it as a glorious heritage or as unsavoury baggage, we can’t escape our Christian roots. We have to re-member our own scriptures, as painful as that might be.

In this years George Gorman Lecture, we have an excellent example in Friend Tim. He speaks of his excitement at reading the Gospels with fresh eyes. He speaks of Jesus’ turning of the tables, and the sermon on the mount in ways that communicate the Spirit’s calling to British Quakers in 2017. He is re-membering scripture for us!

The stories are old and difficult, but they are our stories, and if we take the time to get to know them they will have startlingly new messages for us. The river of the Spirit continues to flow strongly through them. As Dorothy discovered on returning from Oz, our heart’s desire can still be found in our own back yard. New light can be found in old stories.

Quakers and White privilege: the seed of the serpent?

Finding doctrines that work

Doctrine is one of those words that you might not associate with liberal Quakerism. We might look at doctrinal debates of the past – such as whether the Son is of the same substance as the Father, or of a similar substance (the 4th Century Arian controversy), or whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, or from the Father and the Son (the 11th Century filioque controversy) – and conclude that doctrine (from a Quaker point of view) is about obscure, abstract and divisive word games that have no real bearing on our day-to-day lives. This is part of the long tradition of Quaker-suspicion of theology.

I don’t believe we can write off doctrine altogether. In its broadest sense, doctrine is about what is taught and transmitted within a religious community, a crystallisation of a group’s religious understanding. In this sense, Quaker Faith and Practice could be considered a doctrinal text. In the first Advice and Query we find a doctrinal statement that the ‘promptings of love and truth in [our] hearts… [are] the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.’

One thing that makes for a good doctrine is that it proves a useful tool for making sense of the world we live in and experience. Good doctrine works.

An early and highly influential formal statement of Quaker doctrine can be found in Robert Barclay’s An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678). These are not dry, abstract theories, but a vivid web of images and concepts that made sense of the first Quakers’ experience. These were doctrines that worked. Barclay pays a lot of attention to discrediting predestination (the belief that only some are saved) and imputed original sin (the belief that we inherit the guilt of Adam and Eve from birth). These beliefs were jettisoned because they didn’t work. They resulted in a state of religious anxiety and despair. The doctrines that replaced them – that we were not born guilty, salvation was possible for all, and a perfect relationship with God was possible before death – worked because they corresponded to the early Quaker experience of hope, liberation and intimate communion with the Spirit of Christ.

I recently wrote about a theology of evil that Quakers might find useful, and this has got me thinking about how we might find a useful way to talk about sin. I wrote last year how churches less versed in the language of sin might find it harder to address their own faults, particularly in relation to issues around privilege. Do we have a doctrine of sin available to us that could prove a helpful tool? I decided to start with Barclay and see what he had to say. I’ll give an outline of Barclay’s view of sin and salvation (soteriology in theological jargon) and then show how it might be useful in examining issues of privilege, using white privilege as an example.


Barclay on sin, justification and perfection

Barclay presents us with the image of two seeds, which we all have within us:

  • First there is the seed of God which God has placed within all people, the law that God has written on our hearts. [It is not a ‘piece of God’, for God cannot be divided, nor is it a natural capacity we have. It is that through which God works upon us inwardly. It is not our reason, nor is it our conscience, for these cannot by themselves lead us into Truth. Only when they are purified and illuminated by the Light can they be reliable guides.]
  • Then there is the seed of the serpent, which we have inherited from Adam. This is our weakness of will, and our inability to do good by our own strength. We inherit Adam’s weakness but not his guilt. We become bound to this seed when we make the choice Adam made. [Barclay writes of this seed being ‘natural’, but if we consider that only what God has created is ‘natural’, then the seed of the serpent must be ‘unnatural’ as it is not an intended part of the creation.]

We need to be liberated from the seed of the serpent, and united with the seed of God. We cannot do this ourselves. Indeed, we may be blind to our own bondage.

This process of liberation begins when the seed of God calls us to submit to it, to allow it to grow in us. This call is to share in the spiritual, inward crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, so that Christ may live and bear fruit in us. This inward call is the true preaching of the Gospel.

We do not choose the moment when this occurs – we must wait for the ‘day of the Lord’ or ‘day of visitation’, but once we are presented with that choice we can submit to the Light, or reject it.

If we reject it, then our hearts may be hardened to the extent that we can no longer submit to the Light:

…So every man, during the day of his visitation, is shined upon by the sun of righteousness, and capable of being influenced by it, so as to send forth good fruit, and a good savour, and to be melted by it; but when he hath sinned out his day, then the same sun hardeneth him, as it doth the clay, and makes his wickedness more to appear and putrefy, and send forth an evil savour.

Our liberation from the seed of the serpent is made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in history. However, knowledge of this outward history, of the historical crucifixion and resurrection, is not required in order to experience the inward, spiritual crucifixion and resurrection necessary in order to become united to the seed of God. You can know the mystery without knowing the history.

When we submit to the Light, to the seed of God, we experience a spiritual birth and Christ is formed in us.

This work of liberation is twofold– it involves what Christ did for us in the historical crucifixion (redemption), and what Christ does in us through our spiritual crucifixion (sanctification). The first makes the second possible. Christ’s work ‘roots out the evil seed’, releasing us from slavery and clearing the way for the fruit of Christ to grow in us. And importantly, you can’t partake of the first without partaking of the second. Redemption is evidenced in a transformed life. This is no ‘cheap grace’ where you claim salvation but do not change. Redemption (being in right relationship with God) and sanctification (a holy, transformed way of living) are inseparable. Being justified means living a just life.

Once justified, we become a conduit for the good works of the Spirit. We cannot claim these good works as our own.

We enter into a state of perfection. Here perfection is not static, but refers to a perfection of relationship. It is a restored relationship of obedience to God as in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Importantly there is always room to grow in goodness: ‘a child hath a perfect body as well as a man, though it daily grow more and more.’

It’s possible to turn away from this perfect relationship if we choose. Therefore living in perfection requires hard work and perseverance.

White privilege – the seed of the serpent?

From my reading on the subject, it feels like the process of a white person coming to terms with their white privilege maps on quite well to the process of salvation Barclay describes. It could possibly be applied to other types of privilege as well. Maybe this is one way in which Barclay’s soteriological doctrine can work for 21st Century Friends. [For a quick intro to white privilege, see this buzzfeed article and the above video of ‘the doll test‘.]

Inheriting the seed of the serpent: We inherit white privilege through being born into a society that privileges people with white skin, which some call a system of white supremacy. Importantly, we shouldn’t feel guilty about this. We don’t inherit the guilt of our predecessors. However, we do inherit the privileges that come with our whiteness, and the many unconscious behaviours we have which maintain that privilege. We are blind to our own privilege until we encounter what it is like to walk in less privileged shoes. This is not something we can do by ourselves, we need to truly listen and open ourselves up to the experience of others.

The ‘Day of the Lord’: The moment when ‘the lights are turned on’ may be a traumatic experience, and may fill us with distressing, complex emotions. Realising our part in an oppressive system can be incredibly painful. It is something we may never be ‘ready’ for. If we refuse to listen to the experiences of the other, if we refuse to examine our own privileges, the opportunity to see things from another point of view may pass. As with Pharaoh, the more privilege we have, and the tighter our hold is on our privilege, the harder our hearts may become.

The history and the mystery: We can know about white privilege in a factual way, but this is also tough emotional work. It is heart-work as well as head-work. The history of Jesus is of a man seemingly crushed by a system of oppressive violence, but we may remain unchanged by it unless we know that mystery inwardly. Having said that, knowing the history of white supremacy is of vital importance if we are to truly see how deep this goes. Maybe this is were we diverge from Barclay and the map falters – we need to know the history even if we don’t know the mystery!

A process of perfection: Once this work of examining our privilege begins, it is an ongoing process of liberation and transformation. Once you start to see systemic oppression, you can’t un-see it. We don’t do this work to ‘help others’ or in order to see ourselves as ‘good people’. This is first and foremost about our own transformation. This is about entering into a continuing relationship of open, honest listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through the voices of the oppressed ‘other’, a relationship that requires continuous tenderness, pain and humility. Then we can use our privilege to dismantle the very system that gave it to us in the first place, casting our unearned crowns at the feet of Jesus in all humility.

This is just one attempt at finding the doctrinal resources within our Quaker tradition to help us talk about privilege. I’m sure there are many other ways of approaching the issue. For a fuller account of white privilege, read Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race by Frances E. Kendall (Routledge, 2013).

Is Quakerism like Marmite?

1. Is Quakerism like Marmite?

I believe that Quakerism is for everyone. Apparently this is a controversial thing to say amongst British Quakers, so I’d like to have a go at explaining what I mean by this, and why I believe it’s important.

I suspect that what most people mean when they say that ‘Quakerism isn’t for everyone’ is that not everyone likes sitting in silence. But I don’t believe that Quakerism is about sitting in silence. When I hear ‘Quakerism isn’t for everybody’ I hear the following:

  • ‘non-violent living – well you can take it or leave it..’
  • ‘living a life of obedience to the promptings of love and truth? I’d say it’s pretty optional…’
  • ‘growing into my most authentic self within a loving, supportive community just isn’t to everyone’s taste…’
  • ‘working towards a world overflowing with peace and justice? That’s not everyone’s cup of tea…’

To put it another way, I think that to say ‘Quakerism isn’t for everybody’ is to treat Quakerism like Marmite. It’s to say that Quakerism not only has a particular flavour, but it is completely defined by that flavour. I don’t think Quakerism is about the surface level of taste, but the deeper level of nutrition. The important thing about Marmite in terms of our health as human beings is that it contains B12, a really important vitamin. Within this food analogy, to say that Quakerism isn’t for everyone is like saying ‘not everyone needs a healthy diet’.

Earlier generations of Quakers distinguished between the ‘shadow’ and the ‘substance’. The shadow was an outward symbol, the substance was the inner spiritual reality. They saw the bread and wine of communion as shadows of the more real substance: inward communion with God. I believe that by treating Quakerism like Marmite, we are concerning ourselves more with the surface detail of how we do things, rather than the deeper invisible dimension of what Quakerism is about.

When we focus on the substance, the deeper, nutritional value of Quakerism, we can say that ‘Quakerism is for everyone’ as well as saying ‘not everyone has to be a Quaker’. B12 is for everyone, but if you can get it without eating Marmite then that’s great too!

2. Marmite missiology

All of this impacts on Quaker missiology – or what British Quakers call ‘outreach’. Why would we want to spread the Quaker message if Quakerism isn’t for everyone? (Here the Marmite analogy falls into difficulty – why wouldn’t you want to spread Marmite everywhere, oh I remember, because it’s disgusting!)

If Quakerism isn’t for everyone, then how do we know who it’s for? What are the characteristics of those people suited to Quakerism? As I’ve written about before, what if these ‘Quaker characteristics’ have arisen, not from our spiritual experience, but from a culture dominated and shaped by the values of the white, middle class, intellectual and retired?

So we could just say that, although Quakerism isn’t for everyone, who Quakerism is for remains a mystery. Then we have the problem of knowing whether we’re doing too much or too little outreach. If our numbers are declining, perhaps that’s just because there are no longer that many people that Quakerism appeals to. If Quakerism isn’t for everyone, and we don’t know who it’s for, then saying ‘we don’t need to do outreach, they’ll find us when they’re ready’ makes a lot more sense. Why waste time and effort telling people about something that is probably not for them?

As long as we’re committed to Marmite Quakerism, doing outreach remains confused and directionless, and the cultural homogeny of British Quakerism will remain unchallenged.

3. Marmite teleology

So what is the direction of Quakerism? Where is it going? Nutrition isn’t an end in itself; we need it in order to grow towards maturity. Theologians suggest that liberal Quakers are now more concerned with processes (ways of doing things – such as discernment) than with a sense of a final destination. I don’t have a problem with Quaker processes, I think they’re one of the great Quaker gifts to the world, but Quaker processes don’t count for anything if we cannot conceive of the possibility that the Spirit might ask us to change or do things differently. A feature of Marmite Quakerism is that its identity, its brand, is highly vulnerable. Change the flavour too much and you no longer have Marmite, just brown goo. To tamper with what happens on a Sunday morning is a huge threat to Marmite Quaker identify, and so Marmite Quakerism is more concerned with acting out the steps of a process, than with where the process will lead us.

All of this relates to Quaker teleology. Teleology comes from the Greek word telos, which means end-point or goal. Teleology asks ‘where are we going? What’s the destination?’

One of the assumptions made about me by other Quakers is that, because I talk about my religious life with confidence, I must have no room for mystery. Just because I believe that Jesus rose from the dead doesn’t mean I know how it happened. Just because I believe in God doesn’t mean I can describe God as I can describe what I had for lunch. It’s not a choice between ‘knowing everything’ and ‘knowing nothing’. There are lots of levels of ‘not knowing’.

So it is with teleology. The teleology of a murder mystery story is to find out ‘whodunit?’ The narrative of the story is driven by this quest to discover the murderer. We don’t know how Hercule Poirot will work it out, but we know that he will because he’s solved every other case before. My hope is in God, even though I don’t know what might happen to me in the next year, day or minute. I have confidence that Divine Love will accomplish all its purposes, even though I don’t know how it will come about. I base this hope on my own experience, the experience of my Quaker ancestors and the experiences recorded in Scripture. Hope is knowing the ending without knowing the rest of the book. ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ [Heb 11:1].

So teleology is about hope, knowing the destination without knowing the nature of the journey. If we are to journey to the New Jerusalem together, then we should expect travel to broaden our minds, we should expect to be changed. But a Marmite Quakerism that’s concerned with preserving its own distinctive flavour cannot change without becoming something completely different. It therefore also finds it difficult to account for previous developments in the Quaker tradition. So without history or future, without a teleology, and with a focus solely on preserving current shadows, this is a Quakerism that doesn’t corporately know why others should want it, or what sort of hope to offer a hope-starved world.

I doubt that there is a meeting in Britain where Marmite Quakerism is embraced fully, but I come across the signs of it too often for comfort. It’s a sentiment that needs challenging at every turn. When I hear ‘Quakerism isn’t for everyone’ it’s the sound of British Quakerism digging its own grave.

Finding a good way to talk about evil

A shorter version of this article first appeared in ‘The Friend‘ on 20 April 2017.

In general I find British Quakers reluctant to talk about evil. Can we use the words ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ in a way that is helpful and life affirming? The writers of Twelve Quakers and Evil (2006) show a strong desire to understand evil and see the good in the perpetrator, but I also detect an unwillingness to condemn evil, and a reluctance to see God as one who judges and rejects evil. One contributor writes that ‘answering that of God in everyone means first of all finding it in, say, Fred West or Adolf Hitler’. I find this difficult to accept. Surely when faced with evil on such a scale as the Holocaust, our first action should be to name it and work to prevent or mitigate it. To say our priority is to understand the humanity of the tyrant is a slap in the face to those they are crushing underfoot. We need to be able to name the evil we witness and experience in the world (whether that’s the evil of the suicide bomber or the evil of selling bombs to Saudi Arabia). If we consider ourselves to be a community concerned with truth and peace, then we have to be equipped to call out lies and injustice.

We also need to be able to articulate the darkness within our own community.  Churches that are comfortable with talking about sin appear to be better at addressing their own racism. Churches less fluent in the language of sin and evil may find it harder to take the planks out of their own eyes. Micah Bales, a fellow Quaker blogger from the States, recently asked ‘If humans are basically good, how did we end up with Trump?’ This is an important question for Quakers who believe in the goodness of humanity, and the inevitability of moral progress. Micah sees the election of Donald Trump as a vindication of our inherent wickedness and depravity:

But just because Trump and his supporters are wicked does not mean that you and I are righteous. The will to power is strong, and we’re all seeking our own ways to be on top. Even under the guise of being meek, caring, pious, and Christ-like – we’re wolves in sheep’s clothing. All of us.

I understand that this is strong language, perhaps too strong for British liberal Friends to take. How can we affirm our experience of human goodness as well as the reality of evil and our responsibility for it? How can we hold these things in tension?

The problem of theodicy

The ‘problem of evil’, simply put, is how to square the belief in a good, powerful God with the existence of evil. Since the 18th century, attempts to solve the ‘problem of evil’ have been known as ‘theodicies’, a term coined by the German philosopher Leibniz in 1710. Since then, evil has been explained variously as necessary for free will, or the existence of good – how can we choose good if we can’t also choose evil? – or as a way of making us better people, but any attempt at an explanation is problematic. If evil is explicable, if it has a reason to exist, if evil is a necessary part of our world, then God as creator must be implicated in evil’s existence. How can we worship a God who requires the possibility of Auschwitz?

Privation theory

I’d like to offer a perspective on evil that I think would be helpful for Friends. It is known as ‘evil as privatio boni’, or as privation theory. It affirms both the goodness of creation and our experience of evil, without needing to explain evil as a necessary phenomenon.

Privation theory was developed in a Christian context by Augustine of Hippo, a fifth century African bishop and highly influential theologian. In his youth he became a member of the Manichees, a gnostic sect who believed that the spiritual world was made by a good god, and the material world by an evil god. Augustine later rejected their teachings, arguing that, from a Christian point of view, there was only one good God who had created everything. Therefore everything, both material and spiritual, was good. So how did Augustine account for evil? Augustine developed an idea previously expressed by classical philosophers that evil does not exist as a thing in itself. Evil is a corruption or lessening of good. It is an uncreated thing. Evil could be thought of as a hole in a sock. The hole is nothing in itself; it exists purely in relation to the sock. Take away the sock and the hole cease to exist.

As evil doesn’t exist, it cannot be pursued for its own sake. When someone does something evil, at the heart of their action is the desire for something good. When the good that we desire is not the highest good (that is, when we turn away from God, from ‘that of God’ within us) we commit evil. In 1961, Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. In Eichmann she saw, not a monster, but a very ordinary, unthinking man who ‘never realized what he was doing.’ Eichmann pursued the goods of efficiency and hard work, and in doing so enabled one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century. Arendt coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, capturing this sense that evil is committed not by especially evil people, but by those who are ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.

Evil and Freedom

Privation theory also requires us to rethink our understanding of freedom. If freedom means freedom of choice, then only willing one thing (the highest good) sounds like imprisonment. But what if being free meant freely being our most true self? According to this understanding, our freedom increases the more we are what we were created to be. When learning to play the piano, I had the choice to practice or not. I often chose not to! But having that freedom of choice did not make me more free to be a pianist. The more I practiced, the more fluent I became, the more free a piano player I was. Similarly, a virtuous person is not virtuous because they continuously choose not to do evil. To be freely virtuous is not to choose at all, but to be so practiced in virtue that good deeds flow naturally. The most freely virtuous person is the person who cannot help but be virtuous. From a privation theory perspective, freedom of choice was the ‘original sin’. When Adam and Eve chose to trust the serpent, it wasn’t that they made a wrong choice, it was that they thought there was a choice to make in the first place. The act of choosing was a turning away from a reliance on God, the highest good, to a reliance on their own will.

Privation theory for Quakers

So to put privation theory into Quaker-speak:

  • We are good in that we share in the goodness of God with all created things.
  • When we turn from the Light, from ‘that of God’ within ourselves, our vision is darkened and our will weakened.
  • When we follow our corrupted desires, although they be for good things, we allow evil to flourish. We become less freely our true selves.
  • Only when we give over our own willing and desiring and ‘sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart’ will we find the evil weakening in us and the good raised up.
  • When faced with evil, we do not have to rationalise it as part of a Divine plan. Although good may come out evil, evil is not required to bring about good.

To view evil in this way is both sobering and hopeful. All of us are capable of the most terrible evils, and we may be extending evil’s reach in all manner of unseen and innocuous ways. Responsibility for the Holocaust does not lie solely at the door of one dictator. Yet we can be confident that evil has no legitimate foothold in creation. God does not will it, require it or excuse it. We are free to hate and reject it. Does this mean that we should destroy evil doers? No, for every person is part of creation and therefore good. Evil is not a thing in itself, and so cannot be destroyed. It is a hole in a garment that needs stitching, a corruption that can only be healed, and we are all in need of restoration.

Spiritual practice for uncertain times

2016 has given me much to be thankful for: the birth of my nephew, a year of continuing job satisfaction and being part of a vibrant faith community are at the top of my list. 2016 has also been a disturbing and troubling year. The continuing escalation of the refugee crisis, climate disruption and global terrorism; the rise of figures like Farage and Trump and their fear-mongering rhetoric; continuing cuts to public services and divisions revealed by the EU referendum… Of course all times are uncertain, but for someone like me, who has only known comfort and security, who once believed that humanity was progressing towards ever higher moral standards, 2016 is a wake-up call.


There are two obvious responses to this sobering list of events. One is to escape into despair. The other is to escape into denial. Though apparently polar opposites, both seek a kind of numbness. If everything is terrible and nothing can be fixed, then why bother? If everything is fine (or will work out alright in the end), then what fixing is there to do? Both responses result in ‘business as usual’.

How can we walk the tightrope between them, neither giving into despair (which is nothing less than functional atheism) nor escaping into denial (which is nothing more than cheap religion)?

I find a useful starting place in the words of those who also knew they were living in uncertain times. This post is basically about finding hope, and although we think of hope as being about the future, our grounds for hope are rooted in the past. Reading the words of people like C S Lewis and Thomas Kelly, who wrote in the shadow of World War II, shows me how my spiritual ancestors remained hopeful in the face of troubles far greater than mine. In 1939, in a lecture entitled ‘Holy Obedience’, Kelly said that:

An awful solemnity is upon the earth, for the last vestige of earthly security is gone. It has always been gone, and religion has always said so, but we haven’t believed it. And some of us Quakers are not yet undeceived, and childishly expect our little cushions for our little bodies, in a world inflamed with untold ulcers. Be not fooled by the pleasantness of the Main Line life, and the niceness of Germantown existence, and the quiet coolness of your well-furnished homes. For the plagues of Egypt are upon the world, entering hovel and palace, and there is no escape for you or for me…

…In my deepest heart I know that some of us have to face our comfortable, self-oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God’s sorrow is too great, man’s night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of holy obedience. It may or it may not mean change in geography, in profession, in wealth, in earthly security. It does mean this: Some of us will have to enter upon a vow of renunciation and of dedication to the “Eternal Internal” which is as complete and as irrevocable as was the vow of the monk of the Middle Ages.[1]

At the end of the year, I am asking myself: How do I respond to the challenges of 2016 as a person of faith? How can I equip myself to live a hopeful response to ‘a world inflamed with untold ulcers’?

Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos

What do I mean by spiritual practice?

I think another way of interpreting Thomas Kelly’s call to ‘holy obedience’ is as a call to spiritual practice. But what does that mean?

In a previous post I wrote how everything is spiritual:

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word translated as spirit is ר֫וּחַ (ruarc), meaning spirit, wind or breath… In the New Testament, the Koine Greek word for the same concept is πνεῦμα (pneuma)…

Just being alive makes you a spiritual being! You can’t have a distinct ‘spiritual life’, your whole life is spiritual, whether you like it or not. Everything we do impacts on our spirituality, for good or ill. Just as we all have ethnicity or mental health, we are all spiritual.

I’d like to add an important detail. The word ‘spiritual’ does not refer solely to something good. Although we may associate it with scented candles and ‘inner peace’, the ‘spiritual’ encompasses much more. Scripture speaks of all manner of spiritual forces at work in the world, some incredibly malevolent and harmful:

Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. [Eph 6:11-12]

In his book ‘The Powers That Be’[2], theologian Walter Wink has done good work in making the language of the angelic and demonic palatable to modern ears. He writes of every group of people having a corporate spirituality, an ‘angel’ [Rev 2:1], that as well as being good can also be fallen. The spiritual is not confined to the interior life of an individual. If everything is spiritual, then we can speak of the spirituality of private prayer, a sexual relationship, a yoga class, a political rally or an armed insurgence.

A vigil after the Orlando Pulse shooting in June 2016

Apocalyptic spirituality

So within this wide definition of the spiritual, how do we engage in spiritual practice that navigates between despair and denial? How do we make sure that we aren’t using spiritual practice to blind us to our own oppression, or our own complicity with ‘the cosmic powers of this present darkness’? What are we to make of the use of mindfulness by the armed forces, or by schools?

I believe we need spiritual practices that are apocalyptic. I use apocalyptic not as its commonly misconstrued – as the cataclysmic destruction of the world, four horsemen and all – but in its original meaning of ‘revealing’. It means to draw back the curtain, to unveil. An apocalyptic spirituality is about dispelling illusions and deception. We need spiritual practices that reveal the truth – about God, about ourselves, about the world we live in. Truth telling is often an uncomfortable experience, so only engaging in practices that make us feel warm and fuzzy is an act of denial and self-deception.

We need to see things clearly in order to be Kingdom-seeking, which according to Jesus should be our first concern [Matt 6:33]. The Kingdom of God should be the goal of all our spiritual practice. This means we must abandon all other ultimate ends: our individual ‘salvation’, gaining secret spiritual/esoteric knowledge etc. I really like feeling happy and feeling good in myself, but my own happiness can never be the ultimate goal. Happiness can only be an aim of spiritual practice in as much as it helps us in our Kingdom-seeking.

Of course, all of this must be undergirded by love, for without love we are nothing [1 Cor. 13:1-3].

Are we living in apocalyptic times? Sort of…

Good, fallen and redeemable

Borrowing from Wink again, I believe we need personal and corporate spiritual practices that do the following three things:

  • Affirm the goodness of creation

As a ‘this-worldly’ tradition, Quakers are very good at this. We strongly affirm ‘that of God in everyone’, and acknowledge not just the goodness of the natural world and of ourselves, but of our enemies and the ‘other’. This comes through strongly in our peace work and work with sex-offenders. The Quaker practice of non-violence is often posited on the inherent goodness of all.

Quakers are right to do these things. However, to focus only on the goodness is to indulge in cheap, false hope. Saying ‘everything will be alright’ without taking sin and evil seriously is an empty statement. It is an escape into denial.

  • Affirm the fallen-ness of creation

As a community with a very positive view of the human condition, Quakers are less good at this. With our vocabulary of Light, we can talk about darkness, but I don’t hear ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ spoken of often. Neither are we comfortable talking about boundaries, about what is and is not good or evil.

We need to acknowledge that everything is broken, not intrinsically evil but perverted, fallen. Sin is to ‘fall short’, and we’re all caught up in it.

To focus solely on the world’s fallen-ness is to escape into despair. We can only say that creation is fallen because it is also good. The goodness and the fallen-ness must be held in tension in order for us to walk the tightrope between despair and denial.

  • Affirm the redemption of creation

Because creation is both good and fallen, it is also redeemable. When we hold all of these together, we can say with Julian of Norwich ‘all will be well’. Terrible things may happen, sacrifices will have to be made, there will be suffering and loss and hard work, but ‘all manner of things will be well’. This is real, costly hope.

What can we learn from those who, through their hard work and risk taking, reveal the Light that the darkness cannot extinguish? Where do we see people working for reconciliation between divided peoples? Where do we see people risking arrest to testify against the use of weapons of mass destruction? Where do we see God making all things new?

St Michael’s Church in the recently dismantled refugee camp (the ‘Jungle)’ in Calais

The time that is called Christmas…

If everything is spiritual, then Christmas is a spiritual practice. Is our Christmas apocalyptic, or an act of self-deception? Are we making the connection between the refugee family at the heart of the Christmas story, and the refugees and displaced people of today? Are we seeking the Kingdom in our celebrations? Are we able to hear and live out the whole Christmas story – the good, the fallen and the reconciled? In a world full of jealous, murderous Herods, God is tearing back the sky – heaven and earth colliding in an intimate embrace of shalom. Let’s train ourselves to see it.

[1] Thomas Raymond Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Reprint edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1941).

[2] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, New edition edition (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2000).

Quakers and the theological dinner party

2016 has seen my blogging rate slow considerably. Apologies dear reader! When I started the blog I worked a 3-day week (those were the days!) and now I have a full time job. Since October, the blogging time I had left over after domestic duties has now been taken up with a rather intense three year project – I’ve started a part-time, distance masters degree in Systematic and Philosophical Theology. My life is now well and truly full.

Quakers and theology

This feels like quite an admission to make as a Quaker. In my experience, theology is not the most welcome of words amongst Friends. Quaker responses to theology appear to range from ‘what is it?’ to ‘we don’t need it’ to ‘theology is a Bad Thing’. To be fair, theology has always had a bad press amongst Friends. Margaret Benefiel offers five reasons why Early Quakers where suspicious of theology:[1]

  1. It was a distraction from real spiritual experience
  2. ‘The available theologies were the production of corrupt, faction-ridden, politically-influenced church councils’
  3. Theology is used as a tool of oppression and to enforce conformity
  4. Academic theology is obscure and obfuscates the truth
  5. Theological speculation creates sceptics

I agree with all of these points – I think… I’ve definitely seen bad theology used harmfully, and read some very wordy and confusing academic articles. So why would I get involved in this theology thing? I can put it best by saying my 15 years with Friends have left me theologically underfed, or have made me hungry for something more than Friends seem to be able to give me. I’m so excited to be getting my teeth into it. I recently wrote on Facebook:

‘…I’ve read several pages of Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ and I’m entranced! He talks about a creation infused with God like a sponge infused with seawater; he interprets his spiritual journey through scripture; he talks about looking within and seeing a transcendent Light greater than all natural lights, and he has a very positive view of the goodness of creation. What, Augustine, a Quaker?! Favourite bit so far is when God says to Augustine – ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.’ Is that a hint of theosis I detect Gus?’

As well as the joy of discovering the inspiring thoughts of past thinkers, questions are being thrown up here and there. I’m discovering that liberal Quakers’ emphasis on spiritual experience has its roots in Rufus Jones, William James and 19th century German Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. Over the last century, Schleiermacher has been roundly challenged by theologians like Karl Barth. I want to ask how we make sense of our religious understanding in the light of this conversation? And Barth seems to have some quite Quakery things to say about revelation… I feel like a ‘seeker’ again.

Augustine’s hummus is gross but he makes a mean trifle

The theological dinner party

I find it very helpful to think of the tradition of theology as a conversation between the living and the dead. Quaker theologian Rachel Muers writes of Quaker theology as a Meeting for Worship across time, listening for what truth needs to be heard in each voice from the past. I like this image very much. I’m also drawn to the picture of theology as a dinner party, as adding food always makes things better. I posited on Facebook that:

‘When Quakers say “we don’t need theology”, we think we’re throwing off oppressive chains, whereas actually we’re leaving a vibrant dinner party in favour of eating our sandwiches in the car and talking to ourselves.’

Friend Rhiannon countered:

‘To be fair to the Quakers hanging out in the car, some people at the dinner party say things like “Everyone should eat meat because humans were made to eat meat!” and “Gluten intolerance is just a fashion, we shouldn’t provide gluten-free products because it’s just giving in to liberal society!” and eating your own sandwiches is much safer if less vibrant.’

Talking this analogy through with Rhiannon, we thought that if the dinner party is an intimidating place to be, we need to develop some theological resilience. We need to formulate a plan to get back in to the dinner party. This may initially involve some volunteers sneaking back in and bringing back Tupperware full of carrot sticks. Really tasty carrot sticks with some sort of tempting dip.

Theological resilience will help us to articulate why some things need to be rejected and rethought – ‘Oh, so it was Calvin’s potato salad that gave us all food poisoning!’ – and calls us to listen again to voices we may have previously dismissed – ‘Augustine’s hummus may be gross, but he makes a mean trifle.’ Real listening means being open to challenge – ‘Are the sandwiches we thought were made by George Fox actually made by Schleiermacher? And have they gone stale?’ – as well as realising that Quakers have an important voice to add to the exciting hubbub of theological debate – ‘Seriously guys, you *have* to try James Nayler’s incarnational theology… er, I mean his broccoli quiche’. The dinner party will carry on with or without us, and I want to join in.

[Friend Ben has written a great blog post on similar themes.]

[1] Charles Eugene Fager, ed., New Voices, New Light : Papers from the Quaker Theology Roundtable (Wallingford, Pennsylvania: The Issues Program of Pendle Hill, 1995).