Advice and Query 6: Learning to disagree well

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.

Do you work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals? While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship.

What happens when we meet with difference? We might experience the excitement of learning something new. We might feel uncomfortable and alienated, especially if we find ourselves in a minority. We might be deeply disconcerted at having our values and beliefs, perhaps our entire worldview, challenged. To encounter difference is to have our sense of ‘normal’ questioned.

How do we respond to the challenge of difference? The encounter with difference may be so challenging that we seek to erase it. Difference might be experienced as a threat to the peace and stability of the group. ‘If we’re not all the same, how can we possibly get along?’ We might try and erase difference through coercion and violence, suppressing or destroying that which is different.

A more subtle and perhaps unconscious way of erasing difference is to attempt to ignore it. I hear this in John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ – if we could only forget about our religious and cultural differences, if we could forget our history, then we’d all be able to get along. Like the words of ‘Imagine’, are we, in the name of peace, guilty of treating difference as an illusion?

In A&Q no.5, we read about living in the tension of knowing and non-knowing. In this A&Q, I hear another tension between similarity and difference, acknowledging that we have things in common with other religious traditions, but also recognising that there are Quaker distinctives. There are insights particular to Quakerism. The silence of Quaker worship is not a blank canvas waiting to be filled with other theologies. It is not a void to be filled with the melodies of other traditions – the Quaker practice of silent worship is its own kind of music. It is our Quaker particularities that unite the Quaker community – the way we worship, the way we make decisions, the language we use and the history we inherit. These are the materials we are given to treasure, celebrate and work critically with.

Quakers should engage in dialogue with other traditions, and we should do so gladly. In such encounters we have the opportunity to grow in humility, practise and receive hospitality, and learn how limited our experience of the world is. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8) – God is wholly ‘other’ and in meeting with difference we may hear the disrupting and renewing voice of God.

We are also asked to remain faithful to Quaker insights. This acknowledges the possibility that, in encountering difference, we will find our Quaker understandings challenged. It’s a reminder that the purpose of inter-religious dialogue is not to reach a point where we are all in agreement. Disagreement and impasse must be expected. We may even have to state that certain beliefs or practices are incompatible with Quakerism.

Because dialogue is difficult, and involves disagreement, we need to enter imaginatively into the ‘other’. Where are the differences as well as the similarities? Are there differences we’re tempted to ignore, because we find them too challenging? Such work takes patience and humility. Simplistic ideas that ‘all religions are the same’ will not do. Other religious traditions are different. They have different ways of worship, different objects of worship, different understandings of ‘salvation’, different histories etc.

The bonds of friendship we seek are not based solely on how we are alike. Just as we must learn to love our enemies as well as our neighbours, we must learn to love in the midst of difference as well as similarity. The strongest bonds of friendship are forged in learning how to disagree well. The question, both within and without the Quaker community, is ‘how can we live in peace without erasing difference?’

You may be interested in two of my previous posts on this subject: one on Quaker use of the World Religions Bible, and the liberal-Protestant belief in universal religious experience.

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