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.
Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writings which reveal the ways of God. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.
How can we know anything about God? We can’t have knowledge of God in the same way we have knowledge of objects. God doesn’t have weight, height, colour or texture. God is not a thing. In the Bible, God is continually shown to be a hidden God with an unpronounceable name. So how can we have knowledge of such a Mystery?
According to this A&Q we have knowledge of God through experience of the Light. We can learn from the experiences of the living, but the dead should also have their say. The Bible, the writings of past Friends, all writings which reveal the ways of God, are the lived experiences of God’s Light. We cannot rely solely on our experience as an individual, which is fallible and limited. God is revealed to us through others, through a community that extends backwards through time. That said, neither should we discount our own experience and understanding, limited though it may be. Just as God is revealed to us through others, God is revealed to others through us. Knowing God is a collective project. Far from being a collection of individuals with private theologies, this A&Q exhorts us to be a community of robust theological debate.
We are asked to boldly speak about our discoveries, and welcome doubts and questions. This A&Q reminds us that being a finder doesn’t stop you from being a seeker. You can doubt and question without doubting and questioning everything. You’re allowed some firm footings. To seek without the desire to find leads to aimless wandering and theological flabbiness. To find and renounce further seeking leads to rigidity and self-righteousness. Seeking and finding go hand in hand.
I find this tension of seeking and finding, of knowing and not-knowing, in the early Quaker understanding of how God is revealed.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1:1-5]
According to the New Testament, the Word – that which paradoxically God both is, and through which God creates and orders the cosmos – is not revealed through printed words on a page, but is enfleshed in a living person – Jesus. God’s Word is not an object or a tool, but a Life to be in relationship with. We can never know a person in the way we know a table or a chair. Can we ever say we fully know our closest friend? A key insight of the first Quakers was that to speak about the Bible as the Word of God is misleading. They experienced the Word of God as the living Christ present in their midst. Scripture, though of great importance, is merely words about the Word. As soon as we treat God’s Word as printed words on a page, we are in danger of treating God as a thing that we can know fully, and therefore control.
Then the devil took [Jesus] to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” [Luke 4:9-12]
The God revealed in the person of Jesus is totally free from any constraints we may try to impose. I’m writing this in the aftermath of the announcement that the U.S. embassy will be relocated to Jerusalem. This is widely interpreted as a means to secure the votes of conservative evangelical Christians who believe that such a move will hasten the Second Coming of Jesus. This theology is based on an erroneous mid-19th Century interpretation of Scripture (treating it as the ‘Word of God’) and suggests that God’s hand can be forced. If God is free, nothing we can do could possibly force God to act in any particular way. To put God to the test in such a way is, according to Luke 4, the theology of the devil.
So we are left with more Queries. When we search for God as a community, and when we communally test our findings, is the freedom of God respected at every point? Can we hold the tension of seeking and finding, the tension of a God who is revealed in our inward beings and yet still remains hidden? Such a project will, as the opening words of the A&Q tell us, take time.