Thank you to my readers

Dear readers and followers of Jolly Quaker,

2017 has, in one way or another, been a challenging year for me, but blogging continues to be one of my chief joys.

I write this blog for myself. It helps me organise and articulate my thoughts. The act of writing a post and putting it out there is always cathartic. In many ways it’s a spiritual practice.

That said, I really appreciate others taking the time to read and comment on what I write. It’s incredibly affirming, and when people politely disagree with me I enjoy the challenge to articulate my thoughts better, or to reevaluate my own opinions.

I’m hoping that 2018 will yield a bumper crop of Jolly Quaker posts as I continue the Advices and Queries series, which are proving very popular, and are so enjoyable to write.

So thank you for following the blog, re-tweeting my tweets and for reading, liking and commenting on my posts.

As the days in the Northern Hemisphere begin to grow lighter, I wish you a happy Christmas (if marking Christmas is your thing) and a Light-led 2018.

O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright!
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,
And pierce the shadows of the tomb.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

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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.

Advice and Query 5: A God who is free

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.

Advice and Query 4: Wrestling with Jesus

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.

The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today? Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you?

In Britain Yearly Meeting today, you don’t have to be a Christian to be a Quaker. The religious self-expression of individual British Quakers takes many forms: Buddhist, pagan and Islamic for example.

In such a landscape of individual theological variety, what does it mean for the Religious Society of Friends to be rooted in Christianity? According to this A&Q, Christianity is not a chain to be cast off, but the root structure that feeds the Quaker tradition. To cut ourselves off from our roots might put the whole Quaker project in jeopardy. Whatever our own individual beliefs are, we cannot fully understand the Quaker tradition without understanding its Christian roots. So much of our common language – such as ‘Friends’ and ‘the Light’ – is drawn from Scripture (particularly the Gospel of John). If we are to fully own our faith, then we have a responsibility to learn of its origins.

This responsibility is spelled out in terms of reflecting on the life and teachings of Jesus. Whatever our opinions of him, he can’t be ignored. According to this A&Q, the significance of Jesus is located in three areas.

  1. His example of love in action. This is a man who fed the hungry, healed the sick, and emphasised how God is close to those on the margins.
  2. His obedience to God. In living the prayer ‘not my will but yours be done’ Jesus experienced estrangement from family and friends, made enemies of the religious authorities, and was executed by an occupying power.
  3. His relationship with God.  Jesus showed a startling intimacy with God, referring to God as ‘Abba’ (‘Daddy’), and repeatedly withdrew from public life for times of private prayer.

To obey God is to live a life of love in action. To live such a life is costly, and cannot be undertaken without a solid foundation in prayer.

It should be noted that in focusing on the ‘life and teachings of Jesus’, there are many fundamental mainstream Christian understandings of Jesus that are left aside. Here there is no Incarnation (the belief that Jesus is both wholly God and wholly human), no Resurrection (the belief that Jesus rose from the dead), no atonement (the belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection reconciles God and creation) and no Second Coming (the belief that Jesus will return). There is no virgin birth and no empty tomb, no Jesus Christ. What we have is the Jesus of 19th Century Protestant liberalism, shorn of miracles and metaphysical claims. The Jesus of the A&Qs is a teacher and moral example, not a Saviour or the Word Incarnate. This is a great shift from the first 250 years of Quaker belief in Britain, and a break from the majority of Quakers around the world.

This raises many questions, particularly regarding our relationship with the Bible. This modern Quaker understanding of Jesus is markedly different to how the authors of the New Testament saw Jesus, for whom the resurrection was of paramount importance. What are we to make of the New Testament authors? Do we distrust their motives? If we reject their account, upon what do we base our knowledge of Jesus? And how do we relate to our Quaker ancestors? When George Fox heard a voice say ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, how are we to interpret it? How do we relate to our fellow Quakers across the globe, the overwhelming majority of whom trust the Biblical account?

This is a well-crafted, diplomatic A&Q. It affirms the importance of Jesus (if not Jesus’ centrality) without making metaphysical claims that would prove divisive within the British Quaker community of the time. It does however raise questions that we are yet to fully wrestled with.

I’m glad that challenge and inspiration are paired together in this A&Q. Jesus is a figure of both mystery and hope. He is both frustrating and exciting. He refuses to be pinned down and summed up. His ‘otherness’ is part of what makes him Jesus. Whatever we individually make of Jesus, I hope that he will continue to provoke the British Quaker community to live ever more loving, riskier and prayerful lives of obedience to the ‘Love that moves the sun and the other stars’.

Advice and Query 3: Pray without ceasing

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 try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and in others a habit of dependence on God’s guidance for each day? Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God.

The previous two A&Qs spoke of God and the spirit of Christ. This third passage adds another word for the Divine mystery to our Quaker vocabulary – the Holy Spirit. It is to this Spirit that we are exhorted to be open to, to be guided by. How are we to do this? In this third A&Q we receive instruction on spiritual practice. We can be open to the Holy Spirit by setting aside times of quiet.

Silence is a central Quaker tool for opening ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance. Note how silence is not valued for its own sake. We do not worship the silence. This is not ‘Silence’ with a capital ‘S’. The purpose of silence is to deepen our awareness of the divine, and to find in that awareness strength that is not our own.

There is no prescribed way to use times of quiet. There’s no set time or posture, and no suggested frequency. There’s no prohibition against using song or movement or birdwatching to reach a place of stillness. All of us need to find a way into inward silence and openness, and we are free to find the way that works best for us. Remember that the aim is to deepen out awareness of the divine. This is the end of all our spiritual practice.

The path of spiritual discipline is one of progress and growth. Can we cultivate through our spiritual practice a continuing and continuous sense of inward stillness? Can we, with Paul of Tarsus, rejoice always and pray without ceasing (1 Thes. 5:16-17)? The Quaker experience tells us that ‘in time you will find, as did Brother Lawrence, that “those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep”‘ (Qf&p 2.22). What begins as a simple suggestion to set aside times of quiet, becomes an exciting and terrifying challenge to live a life of ever-flowing prayer, of continuous connection to God. It suggests that the life of the cloistered contemplative is available to us even in the hubbub of our daily lives.

Such a prayer-filled life is counter-cultural, and can only come through practise and perseverance. Such a life is so challenging, that we can’t do it by ourselves. We need encouragement from our fellow Friends, and they in turn need our encouragement. We must support each other in this Quaker-style monasticism. Our spiritual lives are not private – we have a responsibility to each other for our collective spiritual health.

Again we hear the message that we are not self-sufficient, we are not independent. We need each other, and we are dependent on God. The guidance and strength we receive from God doesn’t just come once a week. One hour on Sunday listening to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts isn’t enough. Like the Israelites in the desert, gathering manner from heaven daily (Exo. 16), and following the pillar of cloud and fire daily (Exo. 13:17-22), the Holy Spirit is present to feed us and lead us every day.

Not only are we to encourage each other outwardly in our spiritual discipleship, we are to hold ourselves and one another before God, in God’s Light, inwardly in prayer. To hold another in the Light strengthens both the one who prays, and the one who is prayed for. I firmly believe in the power of prayer. I also believe it is a great mystery. I don’t understand it, but I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse for not doing it! If we live in a God-centred cosmos, as I believe we do, attending to God and lifting up our fellow creatures before God does not seem a ridiculous way to behave.

With all this talk of spiritual discipline, we could fall into the trap of thinking that our worthiness as Quakers depends on how spiritually disciplined we are. The final line protects against this. We don’t undertake spiritual practices in order to earn the favour of God or our fellow Quakers. We do them because the Holy Spirit cherishes us, and wants to bring us to new life. All are cherished by God, whether we set aside times of quiet or not.

Advice and Query 2: Our experience of God is not God

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

Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.

A&Q 1 addressed the community of ‘dear Friends’. Now we move to a focus on the individual. There is much to unpack in this beautiful and seemingly simply paragraph.

First we must ask, what is this ‘spirit of Christ’. In scripture, spirit is synonymous with breath and wind. Spirit invisibly animates and enlivens. The spirit of Christ is the Life we see in Jesus of Nazareth. In John 20:22 the resurrected Jesus breathes on his disciples, saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. This spirit of Christ is mysteriously available to us all, and is one of order. We are invited to allow this spirit, which is also the love of God, to bring healing and order to our broken and chaotic lives. God won’t do this without our permission. Christ stands at the door and knocks (Rev. 3.20). We have to open the door before this work can being.

What is ‘that of God within’? God can’t be broken into pieces. We don’t have a fragment of God inside us. Neither do we have one of many ‘gods’ within us. Is it a natural capacity to respond to God? I don’t think so. As we saw in A&Q 1 our capacity to hear and obey God has been impaired. ‘That of God’, in the traditional Quaker understanding, is a seed that God plants in our hearts. It lies dormant in the earth, waiting for the Light to awaken it. We must cherish it, treasure it, and care for it, allowing the seed to grow within us. The process of our healing requires work. The garden of our inner life needs careful tending.

The message is a holistic one. We are asked to bring the whole of our lives to God. We cannot have a ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ life separate to our ‘work’ or ‘love’ life. Our worship and our daily life are intimately linked. If we attempt to keep them separate then we stifle the seed of God. The God-seed needs to flourish and bloom in every aspect of our being and life. Like the mustard seed, it is an invasive weed that will grow to tremendous proportions if we allow it.

We are asked to treasure our experience of God. An important point must be made here. Our experience of God is not God. Our experiences of God will vary, but the variation is in our experience, not in God’s-self. God remains the same, ever mysterious and ‘other’, inwardly knowable (yet still paradoxically hidden) through the spirit of Christ. It is misleading to speak as if Quakerism is based on ‘pure experience’ with an accompanying rejection of ‘talk about experience’. There is no such thing as pure, unmediated experience. I repeat, our experience of God is not God. Our experience of God is vital (in all senses of the word), and so are the ways we communicate with each other about these experiences. This brings me to the continually misused word ‘notion’.

What is a notion? I have heard this word used to dismiss any idea, or even theology and language altogether. I have heard similar mistreatments of Paul’s words that ‘the letter kills’ (2 Cor. 3:6). This is not helpful. Ideas, concepts and theories are vital if we are to communicate with one another. If all ideas are notions, then so are phrases like ‘Christianity is not a notion but a way.’ Rather, a notion is an idea that is empty of divine Truth, and is treated as an end in itself. Our ideas and theories are important, indispensable tools that are useful only when we use them as such. As soon as we mistake them for what they point towards, they loose their usefulness and become notions. God is always bigger than our ideas of God.

So Christianity is not a notion but a way. Christianity (originally referred to as ‘the Way’ e.g. Acts 9:2)  is not an intellectual curiosity, but a story and vision that promises the transformation and purification of the entire cosmos in the fires of Divine Love. It is a community to be joined, not an idea to be entertained. It is not a marker of social respectability or a security blanket, but a glorious adventure bearing the marks of crucifixion. Commitment to Quakerism is not a commitment to a purely abstract theology, or a practice without a theory. It is a commitment both to an embodied theology and a storied practice. Quakerism is a lived tradition.

In many ways this A&Q is a reiteration of the themes of A&Q 1 for the individual – we are called to open ourselves to God’s guidance and healing. A simple idea that I must continually return to and relearn.

Advice and Query 1: Is this the Quaker Gospel?

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

(1) Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

‘What do Quakers believe?’ When asked that question, we might hesitate, fearing we’ll come across as pushy. We might unhelpfully answer with what Quakers don’t believe, or talk about sitting in silence, which to the enquirer might be construed as another negative – sitting doing nothing. Might we instead answer with this A&Q? Is this the ‘good news’ of the Quakers? Here there is no hesitancy. This is not a suggestion, it’s an exhortation! ‘Take heed – listen!’

Reading between the lines of these two sentences, an expansive story can be read. The language of listening and leading speaks of a relationship. This is not a relationship of equals, but between one who leads and one who listens. This is a relationship between God and humanity.

Why are we being asked to trust these leadings? Because this relationship has broken down. Both hearing and trusting the leadings of God must be difficult if we need such a reminder. Why has this relationship broken down? Why is it difficult? Because we are in a place of darkness, a darkness that is in opposition to newness of life. It seems that we cannot emerge from this darkness by our own efforts. We cannot even see the darkness without help. We need Light with a capital ‘L’, and this Light belongs to God.

What else does this say about God? This is a God that communicates with us, and this communication occurs inwardly. These promptings, God’s leadings, occur in our hearts, in our inner, emotional life. These promptings are of love and truth, corresponding to the traditional twin characteristics of the Christian God: mercy and justice. God both comforts and discomforts, soothes and reproaches, embraces and unveils.

This is a God who calls us, and if we respond will reveal the darkness we inhabit, the darkness that inhabits us, and will lead us out of it to new life. For all that ‘being saved’ is absent from liberal Quaker vocabulary, here we have a story of salvation. This relationship of revelation with God is a saving one.

So we have in this A&Q a description of a fractured human condition – we are blind to our own blindness – and the promise of a restored relationship with a saving God who both reveals and casts out darkness.

Importantly, this is not an individualistic statement. It is communal. ‘Take heed, dear Friends.’  It speaks of our hearts, and our darkness. This is a relationship with God that takes place in community. We are called to listen together, to trust and be led together, to be judged together, and healed together.

For two sentences, this is explosive stuff!