Advice and Query 7: Expect the unexpected

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.

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

The birds are busy at this time of year, exploring the hedgerows for whatever berries remain. There have been rumours of increasingly rare hawfinches nearby. How might I catch a glimpse of them? The bird watcher can acquire tools and knowledge, and can become better with practice. Someone who follows the right Twitter feeds, and has a good pair of binoculars, is in a better position to spot a hawfinch than I am. But however prepared, equipped and disciplined we are, the birds remain entirely free. The bird watcher doesn’t control the birds.

So it is with the spirit of God at work in the world. We are called to be aware of it. This does not mean we can control it, posses it, or predict how it acts, but we can equip ourselves with practices and knowledge that will heighten our awareness. We may seek God, but we never truly find God, as if God is hiding, waiting to be found. When we apparently find God, it is because God has chosen to reveal God’s-self. God finds us.

God is so free, even freer than the birds, that when we put boundaries on the spirit of God, God breaks through them. When it was thought that God could only be encountered in special holy places, God surprised Moses by meeting him in the shrubbery on a ordinary hillside (Ex. 3). When God was thought to dwell in the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem, the thick curtain veiling the inner sanctum was torn apart (Mk. 15:38) and God was revealed executed outside the city walls. God is not only to be found in special places. God can be found in ordinary activities and daily experiences. God may meet us in the washing up, or waiting for a bus, as well as in the meeting house.

The God of the Christian story is unpredictable. “See, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:15, c.f Isa. 43:18). This is a God who will always act in ways we don’t expect, for God’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). Therefore spiritual learning must continue throughout life. As soon as we think we have God pinned down, we must start all over again. God works not only within the Temple, but beyond it. The curtain is torn in two, the banks of the river are burst! Every aspect of our lives is a potential burning bush. All human endeavour can be illuminated with God’s Light. There is not one moment where God may not meet us, surprise us and make all things news.

The words most often quoted from this passage is the advice to be ‘open to new light’. What does this phrase mean? I have heard the expression that Quakerism is ‘rooted in Christianity, open to new light.’ This gives the impression that Quakerism is on an inevitable trajectory away from it’s Christian roots, that Christianity is part of Quakerism’s past and not its future. It also suggests that by ‘new light’ we mean ‘other religious traditions’. I believe that the advice to be open to new light is not solely an invitation to seek beyond Christianity. Neither is it an instruction to endlessly seek without ever finding. Rather, at the heart of being open to new light is asking ‘In what unexpected way is God going to act next?’ To be open to new light is to expect the unexpected. God can meet us ‘in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys.’ What other sources might God choose to act through?

But when the unexpected happens, how can you tell what is of God and what is not? When new ideas arise, what commends them? Novelty alone is not enough. A new idea does not automatically mean new light. A new idea could be a deception, a distraction, a notion and an idol. Does this new idea arise from the workings of the spirit of God? This A&Q ends with words of fundamental importance. Our capacity to apprehend the will of God directly and accurately is impaired. We need to approach new ideas with discernment, which requires humbly bringing them before the community of faith.

Discernment requires us paying attention to what has gone before. Although God is free to act in new ways, we have stories of how God has acted in the past, we have clues to God’s character. The writers of the New Testament understood the Christ-event, a totally unexpected occurrence, by looking to the Hebrew Scriptures and showing how it retrospectively made sense. Likewise, the first Quakers believed that the leadings of the Holy Spirit would never contradict Scripture. Our stories, tradition and history are important tools for discerning whether a new idea is indeed new light.

To be open to new light is not an individualistic, theological free-for-all. It is a recognition both of the freedom of God to act in unexpected ways, and our own inability to know the will of God directly. Being open to new light is a weighty yet delightful corporate responsibility. Where is the spirit at work? What will it do next? How do we meet it together?

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10 thoughts on “Advice and Query 7: Expect the unexpected

  1. We spent years as programmed American Friends in Oregon. Since moving to New England we actually now attend a Catholic Church run by Franciscan Friars, so I enjoyed your quote from Kelly. The Spirit is the same in both places. Talk about unexpected places to meet God. From the stripped down meeting to the stained glass 1850 church with physical communion. Go,figure!

  2. I think wisdom and discernment can be sought & found in community. At the same time, like the birds, I don’t want to be controlled, and therefore will always value my own discernment and sense of leading too. Perhaps they don’t have to be polarities, but a harmony of the personal and communal.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I agree that coercion should never be part of the relationship between individual and community. I suppose I’d frame it in terms of individual and community freely submitting to a creative tension of mutual accountability.

  3. I don’t think it’s quite right to say that God is free to act in unexpected ways; what this means to me is that God sometimes acts in ways that are unexpected to us (but not to God). And I don’t think it is right that we are unable to know the will of God directly. On the contrary, Quakers have always said that God is available to us immediately i.e. without the intermediation of priests and formal liturgies. On the other hand, I agree that Quakerism is not a theological free-for-all; discernment through the community is part of the deal. I confess to liking the humanistic strain in Quakerism, which goes back to William Penn (see his Primitive Christianity Revived). Talk of God being free to act in unexpected ways to me smacks of neo-orthodoxy; by contrast, the Christian/Quaker humanist believes that God is knowable, at least to an extent.

    1. Thanks for commenting Mark. I would disagree that Quakers have always said that God is available to us immediately. I would say the original theology (and continuing theology in other parts of the Quaker world) was/is that we need no human intermediary because we have Christ as High Priest. So in that sense God still needs to be mediated in some way. I would also say I don’t believe that we have unmediated access to anything. Our experience is always filtered through our senses, our culture etc. I believe that God does communicate God’s will to us – inwardly as the Quaker insight goes – but that our ability to comprehend this accurately is impaired. We’ve got a better chance at it when we wait on God collectively, but even then we might get it wrong. That’s what I hear when we say ‘hope so’ – it’s an acknowledgment of our fallibility. If my words have a neo-orthodox flavour, it’s because I’m reading a lot of Karl Barth at the moment! I think it’s possible to say that God is free to act in unexpected ways (in that we cannot ever claim to know God fully) and that we are able to have knowledge of God (through God’s revelation). I read a passage in Barth’s ‘Dogmatics in Outline’ that captured it: ‘Holy Scripture never speaks of God’s power… in separation from the concept of law… God’s omnipotence as the power of law is thus the power of God who is in Himself *love*… God’s power is the power of order, the power of the ordering of His love; which operates along lines of order and leads to goals of order… God’s power is not a characterless power.’ It’s the idea that God can act in ways which surprise us, but are consistent with God’s character that I want to get across.

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